Al aqsa intifada: stark choices for both sides
The fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, now approaching its ninth month, seems set to intensify as both sides show no sign of backing down in the face of escalating hostilities. Many in the region, and in the European Union, fear Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will raise the temperature further in the weeks ahead if the Palestinians do not buckle under and if the Americans do not hold him in check.
The prospect of the crisis leading to a wider regional war remains unlikely, mainly because no one wants or can afford such a conflict. But western intelligence agencies are becoming increasingly concerned that the intifada is strengthening the hand of extremists at the expense of the region’s moderates.
The recent two-day gathering in Teheran of Israel’s opponents, including hard-line organisations such as Hizbullah as well as representatives of 31 Islamic states, marked an Iranian effort to claim leadership of the Muslim world’s opposition to Israel, a strategy that could well lead to escalation in that Teheran appeared to be throwing its weight behind Hizbullah. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged war, not dialogue, in an apparent effort to upstage Saddam Hussein, who has sought to portray himself as the Palestinians’ champion. He was echoed by Hizbullah’s secretary-general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah who vowed continued attacks on Israel in the wake of the 16 April air strike on a Syrian radar installation in the Bekaa Valley, a taste of what could follow if Hizbullah attacks continue.
If Sharon continues with his strategy of seeking to bludgeon the Palestinians into unconditional surrender on Israel’s terms he risks a long-drawn-out low-intensity war with them that can only be destructive for both sides and deepen the hatreds that divide them. He also risks his carefully crafted coalition by alienating the left-wingers like Shimon Peres who give it the patina of a united Israeli front.
The Bekaa air strike was opposed by Peres and others. Given Sharon’s penchant for using force, and Israeli outrage at the recent suicide bombings only bolsters this, Peres, the dove who broke through decades of mistrust with the Palestinians in 1993, may soon have no diplomatic channels to pursue. Should he find himself out in the cold there will be no one to hold Sharon in check. ?Everyone knows it’s just a matter of time,? one Labor Party official commented last week.
Less than two months after his election, which resulted in large part from his assurance to Israelis that he had a blueprint for peace and security, Sharon has embarked on draconian measures that are likely to achieve the opposite objective driving the Palestinians into a corner from which they can only come out fighting. His statements leave little room for optimism.
It is Israel’s economic blockade that has become the most crippling of its multi-faceted countermeasures
On 13 April, Israel’s Maariv newspaper published an interview with Sharon in which he outlined his version of a Palestinian state, a concept that would give the Palestinians a homeland far smaller and weaker than the one they have in mind, and one totally dominated by Israel.
According to Maariv, Sharon said he favoured allowing them only 42 per cent of the West Bank ?plus or minus?, on a long-term interim deal rather than a definitive final agreement. That would be scarcely more than the territory over which the Palestinian Authority already has full or partial control under agreements reached over the last seven years.
Ehud Barak had been ready to cede up to 97 per cent of the West Bank in return for a peace agreement. The Palestinians themselves want all of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and all the Gaza Strip. In the meantime, Sharon says he plans to expand West Bank settlements. Meanwhile his troops repeatedly strike into Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza, breaching agreements under which they have been handed over to the PA since 1994. A large-scale incursion into the Gaza Strip on 17 April finally drew a sharp rebuke from the Bush administration that led to a hasty Israeli withdrawal the following day. But it remains to be seen whether Washington will continue to keep Sharon on a leash.
Despite the almost daily bloodshed, it is Israel’s economic blockade that has become the most crippling of its multi-faceted countermeasures. The United Nations says the Palestinians have lost more than $1.15 billion since the Intifada began and that their fragile economy is near collapse. Peter Hansen, head of the UN Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip, estimates that up to 80 per cent of the one million people there now depend on food from his agency and more than two million have been plunged into poverty, existing on around $2 a day. Unemployment in the West Bank is around 40 per cent, 60 per cent in Gaza, the highest level since the PA took over in 1994. Before then the jobless rate was around 11 per cent.
The Israeli blockade has kept some 250,000 Palestinians from jobs in Israel. But Hansen says a large part of the problem is the systematic destruction of thousands of hectares of Palestinian agricultural land, a scorched earth tactic designed to intensify the Palestinians’ misery to the point that they will abandon the Intifada.
Neither Jordan nor Egypt, the two Arab states abutting Palestinian territory, are providing any logistical support and under these circumstances the Intifada, if it continues at any meaningful level, will remain a low-intensity conflict involving hit-and-run raids by Palestinian cadres against the superior firepower of the Israelis.
It is questionable whether
Arafat is able to halt the uprising
Without substantial support from Arab states and beyond the ritual rhetoric that emanates from Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and the like, all are dependent on the US in one way or another the Intifada would seem to be doomed.
Like the ill-starred Kurds, whose struggle for independence became the pawn of regional powers, the Palestinian cause has been the plaything of Arab regimes which have used it as a pretext for repression at home and maintaining large armies. Do not forget that after the Israeli state was established on Palestinian land in 1948, Jordan absorbed the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip and both made peace with Israel at the Palestinians’ expense. Between these two states, historical Palestine was in effect obliterated as a territorial entity for four decades.
The denial of Palestinian rights by the Israelis could well eventually destabilise Jordan, where more than half the 3.5 million population is made up of Palestinians. And Sharon, in particular, has long argued that a Palestinian state already exists and its name is Jordan.
The level to which the Israelis will respond to greater Palestinian violence may well be dictated by international pressure. The election of Sharon, a former general notorious for his ultra-hawkish views and held responsible for the massacre of Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen in 1982 during an invasion he masterminded as defence minister, dismayed many foreign governments. His actions over the last few weeks have done little to dispel the distrust in which he is held abroad.
But there are those, even in Israel, who believe that if suicide bombings by Palestinian extremists and other attacks intensify, with heavy loss of civilian lives, foreign powers would be inclined to be less critical of Israeli retaliatory operations, allowing Sharon to concentrate even more on using Israel’s military power to crush the Palestinians into accepting Israeli terms for their future.
Nearly nine months into the Intifada, the Palestinians have made no visible political gains. Economic losses aside, they have suffered nearly 400 dead, with another 12,000 wounded, many of them maimed, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Thousands of homes have been destroyed.
Arafat’s administration, since its inception, has been corrupt, inefficient and repressive and the Intifada has only made things worse. Local government has virtually ceased to function as administration funds have dried up. For all the Arabs’ lip service to the Palestinian cause, only a trickle of the more than $1 billion promised in financial aid has reached the PA.
Arafat’s administrative infrastructure, along with his security apparatus and militant leaders, has been heavily targeted by the Israelis in an effort to force him to call off the intifada. Arafat periodically issues calls to rein in the militants, but the violence continues. Indeed, it is questionable whether Arafat is able to halt the uprising.
Just as the 1987-93 Intifada erupted spontaneously, as much because of the failure of the exiled Arafat to bring about any change as it was against Israeli occupation, the so-called Al-Aqsa Intifada was triggered as much by frustration at Arafat’s leadership as it was by Israeli intransigence.
According to Palestinian analyst Khalil Shiqaqi: ?By attacking the PA’s political and military nerve centres the Israelis are signalling that they don’t care if the PA collapses. And by doing nothing to prevent the collapse Arafat is signalling that he doesn’t care either. It’s brinkmanship.?
If that is the case, neither side is showing any sign of backing down. If the PA does fall apart, the question is who among the Palestinians will emerge as the new leadership and what course of action will they take? Just as the first Intifada produced a new generation of grassroots leaders, so the current one is doing so. Arafat’s fateful talent over the decades of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and his repeated miscalculations, do little to instil any expectation that he can turn things around on his own.
Sharon, no great strategist himself (although as a battlefield commander his tactical skills often verged on the brilliant), is unlikely to give any ground. He expands settlements and insists that he will not resume political negotiations ?under fire? and as one commentator noted: ?With Bill Clinton gone, the Palestinians no longer have a US president obsessed with Middle East peace: when they ring Washington now, they’ll be lucky to get their call answered.?
As the violence goes on, even Israelis who only a few months ago had been willing to make concessions to Arafat are now howling for blood as their casualties mount. Every suicide bombing, every mortar attack, every drive-by shooting of settlers hardens attitudes that make negotiations a non-option. The 1987-93 Intifada, which was confined to the Occupied Territories, was launched because the Palestinians felt they had nothing to lose and the same would seem to hold true now since they consider that what Israel is offering is so meagre as to be worthless to them.
Where a few weeks ago the Israelis were only too happy to admit their campaign of assassinating militant Palestinian figures. Now they remain silent while posses of helicopter gunships fire salvoes of missiles into cars owned by key Palestinians, or Palestinian buildings mysteriously blow up. They have become routine and thus deniable.
Sharon is unlikely to give any ground. He expands settlements and insists that he will not resume political negotiations ?under fire?
In April, Sharon declared in an interview that ?the war of independence in 1948 is not over 1948 was only the first chapter.? He waxes about his childhood in Mandate Palestine and the conflict with ?the Arabs? (he even refuses to call them Palestinians) and how for the Jews it was ever so. Jerusalem is not negotiable. No return for the Palestinian refugees the other side of the coin for all those European Jews who survived the Holocaust and clawed their way to Palestine. No abandoning the Jewish settlements. That being the case, what is there left for the Palestinians but eternal intifada. It may be that Sharon is doing no more than play to the right-wing gallery, indeed to the country at large which demands ever tougher action.
Defence Minister Benjamin ben Eliezer declared on 6 May that he had given military commanders the authority to invade Palestinian-ruled territory, enshrined in peace agreements, if they considered it ?necessary to guarantee our security? , without prior approval from the Cabinet. This, of courser, is not a new policy, simply an ?incremental escalation? of earlier policy with one eye on American reaction. Yediot Ahronot was prompted to comment: ?The fact that the borders of the autonomous area are becoming more and more blurry because of the operational needs of commanders in the field... is more proof that we are in for a prolonged war of attrition with more surprises on the way. And the most worrisome thing is that we’re getting used to it.?
Indeed all the signs are that the Israelis are preparing for the long haul. Yediot said in a 6 May headline: ?The army is preparing for three years of war.? Deputy Defence Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof declared the Israeli army was ?ready to face a long-term conflict,? whether against the Palestinians or on a wider scale in the region. Meanwhile, on 30 April Prime Minister Sharon declared the country should prepare for ?a long fight?. Perhaps the most pessimistic outlook of all came from Defence Minister Ben Eliezer who declared on 11 May that peace between Israel and the Palestinians may have to wait for yet another generation.
With no help in sight from the world at large, the Palestinians now have a stark choice to go on fighting with little hope of winning anything except more misery, or surrendering to an implacable foe and becoming a permanently subjugated people. They may decide that this is no choice at all, spurring a new surge of zealous nationalism that might well hold up peace for not one generation but several.
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