Palestinian military successes highlight futility of international talks

This Israeli incursion into the Abu Sneineh quarter is the largest of its kind into Palestinian-controlled territories so far. But the Palestinians’ response demonstrated, for the second time in less than two weeks, a growing determination on their part to confront the Israeli army directly. On August 14, Palestinians engaged an Israeli force that entered the West Bank city of Jenin, forcing the invading troops to retreat within hours.

These developments are significant: they indicate that, despite their recognition of the imbalance of force between them and the Israelis, the Palestinians are not militarily or psychologically demoralized. Such daring confrontations seem to be making Ariel Sharon’s government increasingly apprehensive. This is a heavy blow to the Israeli logic of brute force, reducing the slogan, “Let the Israeli Defence Forces Win,” to hollow rhetoric.

Dore Gold, Israeli government spokesman, expressed this apprehension obliquely in an interview on Israel army radio: “Israel did not want to retake Abu Sneineh, but wished to direct its fire and its activity against those locations which were being used against the Israeli children living below.” The Settlers’ Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip, sent a letter to Sharon reiterating its demand that the Israeli army crush the intifada by reoccupying Palestinian-controlled areas. The letter asked Sharon specifically to order the army to retake Abu Sneineh permanently.

The Israeli incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas are part of an escalation of violence that is meant to smother the intifada. Since the uprising began Israel has declared an open season on Palestinians, assassinating dozens of activists and civilians in assaults that range from booby-trapping public phone booths to laser-guided missiles and helicopter-gunship attacks. Israel refers to the attacks by euphemisms such as “active self-defence” and “targeted killings,” and accuses its victims of planning or carrying out attacks on Israelis.

Yet Israel’s state-sanctioned gangland-style assassination policy has failed to suppress the intifada or “pacify” the Palestinians, as shown by the repeated assertions of leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad after each assassination that they have marshalled dozens of martyrdom-seeking young men to conduct further operations. The continued stream of such operations reveals that the Palestinians have imbibed some of the principles underlying the successful Lebanese resistance movement led by Hizbullah, which succeeded in deterring Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians by firing Katyusha rockets on Israeli settlements. The repeated Palestinian calls for “revenge” indicate they are claiming the right to respond at Israel’s violence and terror.

Israel’s failure to provide any evidence that the people whom it has assassinated were plotting attacks against Israelis has contributed to a wave of condemnation by much of the international community and many human-rights organizations. The staunchly pro-Israel British government has described the assassinations as “wrong and illegal”; even the US state department finds them “reprehensible” and unjustifiable.

Assassination is a zionist practice predates the establishment of Israel and has targeted even international figures. On November 6, 1944, zionist assassins murdered British secretary of state Lord Moyne in Cairo. On September 17, 1948, the Stern gang assassinated UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem only one day after he submitted his recommendations for a solution to the Palestinian question. The assassination policy was used heavily against leaders of Palestinian resistance groups in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; then it went into overdrive during the first intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1987, Israeli troops assassinated Khalil al-Wazir, the PLO’s number two and military leader known widely by his nom de guerre, Abu Jihad, at his home in Tunisia. And in 1997, two Mossad agents using Canadian passports were arrested in Amman after an attempt to assassinate Khalid Mishaal, chief of the political bureau of Hamas.

But for most of that time the assassination policy was shrouded in secrecy, affording the Israeli government a degree of “plausible deniability.” However, since last November Israel’s assassination campaign has become official policy, with Israeli officials announcing a plan of “initiated attacks” whose declared purpose is to eliminate Palestinian activists.

The recent escalation of violence has been accompanied by increasing diplomatic efforts to get the two sides to talk. German foreign minister Joschka Fischer held three days of talks as part of a European diplomatic initiative that aims to re-establish some sort of direct political contact between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Egyptian presidential advisor Usama al-Baz paid a high-level visit to Washington to explain the Arab case. And King Abdullah II of Jordan repeatedly expressed concern that violence in Palestine could spread across the region, urging the international community to send observers. Lacking any potential to restrain the Israelis or to give the Palestinians any hope of ending the occupation, these diplomatic manoeuvres seem to have little chance of success.

Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, went on an Asian tour, hobnobbing with leaders of India, Pakistan and China to garner support for the Palestinian cause. Yet all the leaders’ assurances were outweighed by Washington’s move to block a UN Security Council resolution that, among other things, would have established an international “monitoring mechanism” in the occupied territories. The resolution was aborted after an hour-long closed-door session of the Security Council on August 23 because of opposition from the US.

US president George W Bush pinned the blame for the continued escalation in violence in the Palestinian territories squarely on Arafat. “If Mr Arafat is interested in having a dialogue, then I strongly urge him to urge the Palestinian terrorists to stop the suicide bombings, stop the incursions, stop the threats,” Bush told a news conference in Crawford, Texas. “The Israelis will not negotiate under terrorist threat; it’s as simple as that.” Bush only called on Sharon to “show restraint on all fronts.”

The pro-Israel posturing from the Bush administration are not surprising. They show yet again how little power leaders of Arab states and the emerging American Muslim lobby have to influence US foreign policy. For the past few months a bevy of pro-American Arab leaders, including Saudi crown prince ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and king Abdullah II of Jordan, have called on Washington to take a more neutral position in the Middle East.

Relations between Arab rulers and Washington have been strained because of mounting public pressure on the rulers for them to show more support for and solidarity with the Palestinians. So it is easy to understand such gestures as crown prince Abdullah’s turning down an invitation to Washington. The fact is that these unpopular rulers and their governments are sharply aware of their dependence on Washington. On August 22, after ten hours of talks, Arab foreign ministers ended an emergency meeting in Cairo without agreeing any concrete measures to pressure Israel or the US. Instead they issued their usual tepid calls for support for the Palestinians, condemned Israel’s aggression and called on the US to stop arming Israel.

Shaykh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, told reporters after the meeting: “I can’t say the resolutions are excellent or firm, but what I can say is that if they are applied, they will be a step forward.” That “if”, at the fifth Arab foreign ministers’ gathering since the start of the intifada, must have caused smiles in Washington and Tel Aviv.