There is little doubt that the recent intense developments have placed our region at a turning point. The previous fragile status quo has collapsed. A succession of events and changes have mixed the political cards, and pushed the region and its peoples towards the unknown.
The practical collapse of the Oslo process has encouraged some parties, especially some Arab and European governments, to advocate a return to the UN framework and international legitimacy. But the new facts on the ground, and especially the sharp turn towards the extreme right in Israeli society, preclude any serious movement towards any kind of acceptable political settlement.
Israel has introduced new practices and methods of action which constantly place the Palestinian population at great risk, without any real deterrence or any protection mechanism available on the ground. In fact, the destruction of any and all components of Palestinian security represents the central development of these times.
And though many local civil society institutions struggled to address the urgent needs and requirements of the Palestinian population, and tried to highlight their real plight in different ways, there is little doubt that they have not come even close to recognizing or embracing the situation in its totality, or acting in accordance with its real implications. The standard practice was sending more and more appeals to the international community, appeals which usually receive little response. The absence of real strategy or planning should ring alarm bells. The lack of preparedness also displays a worrying lack of ability to assess the implications of political developments, even though it was possible for an alert observer to read Israeli plans like reading an open book. Palestinian, Israeli and other writers and thinkers have written in detail about what was about to happen, and even revealed some military secrets and plans. It was possible to foretell Israeli plans during the intifada almost from the start.
Israeli troops ended their siege of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in an agreement that is certain to create trouble within Palestinian ranks. Placing the detained leader of the PFLP under US and British custody was immediately condemned by the FPLP and others. There was also a smell of a deal, as reported by The Minneapolis Star Tribune (April 30) which stated that “both American and Israeli officials said Monday that in return for freeing Arafat, the United States agreed to stand by Israel in its high-stakes confrontation with the U.N. Security Council and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.”
Annan abandoned efforts to send a fact-finding mission to Jenin refugee camp following Israel’s refusal to cooperate. Israel’s chief of staff threatened to resign if the mission was endorsed. “The Israelis feared that the probe would be biased from the outset against their military” according to Los Angeles Times (May 1). “Annan asserted Tuesday that the U.N. has already ‘done everything’ it can to ease Israel’s concerns about the personnel, focus and legal consequences of the fact-finding mission. ‘I think we’ve been very forthcoming,’ he said” according to the paper. “Annan assured the Israelis that their soldiers and others interviewed by the fact-finding team would be guaranteed anonymity, and that there would be no transcripts that might be used in war crimes prosecutions –two key Israeli demands.” But apparently all this was not enough.
And last night “gunfire crackled and Israeli flares lit up the Church of the Nativity” according to Reuters (May 2.) “The fire in the Church of the Nativity died down not long after it started but at its height smoke billowed from the compound as flames licked out from buildings near the church.” People close to the scene describe a bad fire, but as usual Israel tries to impose its own version of events while not allowing anyone to have a closer look.
Martin van Creveld, the Israeli historian, was right about Sharon’s intention to transfer the Palestinians whenever he gets an opportunity to do so. It seems that America’s plans to attack Iraq are specifically meant to give Sharon the opportunity to achieve his aim. I disagree with van Creveld that a “spectacular act of terrorism inside Israel that killed hundreds” would present such an opportunity (Sunday Telegraph, April 28.) Palestinian suicide bombings can never achieve such a result. In fact most suicide bombings were ineffective or harmed very few Israelis, sometimes killing only the bombers alone. The possibility to kill hundreds using the primitive bombs used, even when filled with nails as happened sometimes, is simply not there. The only opportunity is a major upheaval in the region, such as an American attack on Iraq (which, as many fail to appreciate, impacts the lives of millions of people in the region, not only Iraqis, as happened in the last Gulf War.)
I also disagree with van Creveld that Saddam would fire missiles on Israel during such a war. This time it is not at all in his interest. In the last war he fired on Israel in order to try to split the alliance of Americans, Europeans and Arabs fighting against him. This time there will be no such alliance. America will be practically alone, possibly joined by the UK (and Turkey, but even this is uncertain.)
However, it is not at all impossible that some missiles will be fired on Israel (from somewhere, possibly from Iraq but not necessarily so) during such a war. Since there will be a total media blackout, who will be able to verify who fired what or from where? If the Americans want to claim that Saddam has fired on Israel, it will be easy to stage such a firing, especially if American ground troops occupy parts of Iraq. And frankly Americans are not above acting in such ways.
America’s initial long silence about what happened in Jenin does not have two or three meanings, but only one: Within the larger American plan, what happened in Jenin was only a tiny part of what is to happen later on. After everybody went to Jenin and saw the horrifying scenes, the Americans finally sent William Burns to have a look and also say a few impressive words, while as the prime sponsor of the (now defunct) ‘peace process’ America must have been there fist.
Notice that after Jenin, the American media started to talk about plans to attack Iraq “next year.” It is surely impossible to attack Iraq soon, given the anger felt worldwide about Jenin and the results of Israeli military action in the West Bank. People need some months to ‘forget.’
I have heard time and again that George Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state was significant, since he is the fist sitting US president to speak in such terms. I tend to agree.
But let me tell you this: Bush did not present one vision, but two visions. He spoke about what can make a Palestinian state, and also what can unmake it. He did not recognize the Palestinian people’s natural right to establish their state on their land. And he conditioned it on an agreement with israel. By giving Israel a veto on the Palestinians’ future, Bush has abandoned the UN terms of reference, and thrown the Palestinians to the sharks.
Surely, not all plans work. Not all schemes are fulfilled. Many things can change over time. I hope George W will change his mind.
Issa Sarras is a teacher in Ramallah, as well as a respected activist on Palestinian human rights.