Living dangerously

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It had been expected that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would exploit Muslim and Christian preoccupation with religious festivities to step up his war of attrition. That this has not happened suggests that Sharon may have adopted a wait-and-see approach.

While Europe has realised that the international community cannot afford to lose the opportunity provided by Arafat’s crackdown, Washington has not. Taking advantage of this, Sharon has used this period to harden Israeli checkpoints blockading Palestinian towns and villages and tighten the siege of Jerusalem.

Arafat has evolved a successful strategy for marginalising Hamas and Islamic Jihad without causing major unrest in the Palestinian self-rule areas.

Following the shooting death of one young Hamas supporter trying to shield Hamas spokesman Dr Abdel-Aziz Al-Rantisi from arrest, Arafat’s security men in Gaza negotiated an arrangement with the movement which involves an end to attacks as well as the shutting- down of political offices and cultural centres and the take-over of Hamas clinics, schools and welfare activities. It is not clear, however, what will happen in the long run because the Authority has neither personnel nor funds to operate Hamas institutions essential to the day-to-day running of the organisation.

Islamic Jihad initially rejected Arafat’s 16 December call for an end to attacks against Israeli civilians. After six of its militants were arrested while preparing a mortar, Jihad demonstrators attacked the police station where they were being detained and other Authority installations, provoking the police into returning fire. One Jihad youth was killed and the next day five others died in violent disturbances during the funeral. According to Dr Ghassan Al-Khatib, a leading Jerusalem analyst and publisher, “People in Gaza are blaming Jihad, not the Authority.” By giving Arafat a chance, Hamas maintained its high level of popularity while Jihad suffered a clear reverse.

Dr Al-Khatib believes the situation “is going to calm down” for the time being and outlined to Al-Ahram Weekly two possible scenarios for the first weeks of the new year.

The first is that the situation could stabilise, compelling the US to send its envoy Anthony Zinni back to Jerusalem to “deliver Sharon” as he, with Europe’s help, “delivered Arafat.” This could lead to a shift in political advantage away from Sharon and result, to a limited extent, in his isolation.

Alternatively, Sharon could seek to maintain a certain level of instability by sustaining his war of attrition against the Authority. This would be sure to provoke a Palestinian response in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. However, after Arafat’s crackdown he could expect a certain amount of “understanding” if the Palestinians are seen to be reacting to Israeli provocations. In Dr Al-Khatib’s view, Arafat’s Fateh movement would take the lead in such retaliations, strengthening Arafat’s hand vis-é-vis Israel as well as with his own people.

Since a large majority of Palestinians oppose Arafat’s decision to clamp down on unauthorised resistance activity, Arafat gambled on the efficiency and loyalty of his security services to do the job. He used these to best advantage, deploying preventive security in the West Bank and intelligence in Gaza.

Arafat also gambled on the Arabs — who at the ministerial meeting at Cairo on 21 December gave him their support — and the international community. If the US does not “deliver” Sharon, Arafat will no longer be bound to clamp down on Hamas and Jihad.

Europe, in particular, seems determined to push for long overdue

implementation of the Tenet cease-fire work plan and the recommendations of the Mitchell Commission. The result of this effort would be the resumption of negotiations at the point they were halted last January. But if the Bush administration remains recalcitrant and refuses to use its muscle with Sharon, he can be expected to go no further than half-heartedly carrying out some of the steps outlined in the Tenet plan. With Sharon’s constituency demanding greater security, the Israeli prime minister is incapable, and apparently unwilling, to implement the Mitchell guidelines in their entirety. He has flatly refused to freeze settlement expansion and construction and rejects the call to carry out the pending provisions of the accords (Oslo and after) reached with the Palestinians. Finally, it is clear that he has no intention of negotiating on the basis of progress made after the July 2000 Camp David talks. However, Sharon risks alienating Labour members of his coalition by adopting such an approach.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who has been repeatedly humiliated by Sharon, could soon decide whether to pull out of the coalition, reducing it to its extreme right-wing core, undermining its legitimacy and, ultimately, bringing it down. Peres replied to a diplomat who asked how long he planned to remain in the coalition by saying, “I have one gun, I have one bullet, I can’t use it too early, or too late.”

As the major donor to the Palestine Authority, the European Union

understands much more than the US that the Palestinians’ current socio-economic plight must be urgently addressed. An expert who conducted major studies in the West Bank and Gaza told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Palestinians are now suffering a “catastrophic” collapse comparable to the “Naqba” of 1948-49 when Israel captured 80 per cent of geographic Palestine and expelled more than half the Palestinian population from the occupied areas.

Terje Larsen, the UN special coordinator (UNSCO), stated last week that the situation has “reached critical levels. Unemployment and poverty rates are now higher than in 1967,” when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Larsen, a former Norwegian diplomat involved in the peace process since 1993, stated, “We are witnessing peace building in reverse.” He made it clear that Israel defines the Palestinian reality through its policies and continued, “There are over 100 [Israeli] check-points in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — these and other roadblocks divide the Palestinian territories into 200 separate areas. Whether these restrictions enhance security or undermine it remains an open question. What is certain …is that they have had devastating effects on the Palestinian economic and social fabric.”

Larsen revealed that during the first year of the Intifada Israel

imposed closures on Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank for 240 days (66 per cent of the year) and in Gaza for 342 days (94 per cent). Movement between the West Bank and Gaza “was severely restricted throughout the year” and “completely halted” between the Palestinian areas and Israel for 263 days (72 per cent). As a result, the number of Palestinian labourers working in Israel fell by more than 50 per cent, from 146,000 to 63,000 by September 2001.

Total income losses range between $2.4 and $3.2 billion for the first year of the crisis, with the loss for Palestinians working in Israel alone being $594.5 million.

Larsen said, “The government of Israel has repeatedly stated that the present policy is not collective punishment …however, there can be no doubt about it — the effect is collective pain.” He observed: “It has become axiomatic that economic desperation is the surest path for political radicalisation,” and opined that this explains why a decisive majority of the population approve of terrorist acts.

In Larsen’s view, there cannot be “improvements in the security situation unless there is political and economic progress” on the ground.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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