No more palliatives

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Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is doing his utmost to stop violence by Palestinian factions against Israel. Yet Arafat’s efforts to respond to international, and specifically US, demands in this regard have met with only continued incursions into Palestinian territory by Israeli occupation forces, and blockades against the Palestinian people.

The West and the US must be looking at the region through some very distorted lenses. All their demands for calm are directed at the PA and the Palestinian people. It is as if the events of the past few weeks were a purely Palestinian responsibility, as if the terrorism of the occupying power, Sharon’s campaign of all out belligerency and his assassination policy of Palestinian leaders, were a reaction to Palestinian actions and not the reverse.

Sharon, in cahoots with Zionist propagandists, may put about such lies, but that does not mean that Washington should swallow them unquestioningly and act accordingly. To continue to operate on the basis of the perspective of the Sharon government, moreover, will not only fail to produce progress, but ensure a severe setback for current peacemaking efforts. Certainly, the violence being unleashed by the occupying power against a people struggling to liberate their land and found an independent state will not succeed in suppressing their will. Indeed, Israeli aggression is the direct cause for the suicide bombings, which have overstepped the boundaries of legitimate resistance inside the occupied territories to target Israeli civilians inside Israel. The comprehensive assault by the Israeli war machine against the Palestinian people, the systematic hunting and killing of Palestinian leaders and policies of economic strangulation have driven broad segments of the Palestinian populace to such despair that some of these decide to respond in the only language the Israeli government can understand.

The PA has unequivocally condemned such actions whenever they have occurred. All Arab political and religious leaders have denounced the murder of innocent civilians. However, this appalling form of terrorism will not be stopped by turning a blind eye to the processes of cause and effect. It will not be stopped without first compelling Israel to halt its violence and to seriously explore ways of reaching a political settlement.

The US should bear it clearly in mind that ending the armed violence and suicide operations is not a goal in itself, but rather a first step in the process of preparing a climate conducive to entering into negotiations that will lead to the resumption of peace talks from the point at which they broke off. The Israeli government, which possesses no vision for political action once calm is restored, will attempt to freeze this process at “the halt to armed activities” and forestall all progress towards the subsequent phases. Washington must be fully aware of the dangers inherent in such a strategy and ensure the implementation of a framework that will lead the parties from the cease- fire to talks.

Unfortunately, the US at present is only exerting pressure in one direction. In spite of President Arafat’s painstaking efforts, Washington still holds that the PA is not doing enough to stop what it refers to as “acts of violence.” Such claims are relished by the Israeli government and the Zionist circles that capitalise on them, and that have put about the fallacy that the Palestinians are not taking part in the international fight against terrorism. That Washington gives credence to such myths explains why it has so far done nothing to restrain Sharon and why the US vice-president has turned a deaf ear to Arafat’s plea to keep Israel from using US-made weapons in its attacks on the Palestinians.

Dick Cheney’s response to Arafat’s plea — “Israel has the right to defend itself with whatever means it deems appropriate” — epitomises the fundamental warp in the US perspective on the situation in the region. Responsibility is a two way street. Arafat’s efforts to stop all acts of armed violence should be met with Washington’s encouragement and understanding, which, in turn, must be demonstrated practically by compelling Israel to lift its siege in order to realise a true, comprehensive end to all armed violence, preliminary to the resumption of negotiations.

What is more alarming, however, is that the EU now appears to have swallowed the Israeli line. On 10 December the EU issued a statement calling on Arafat to issue a clear announcement, in Arabic, telling his people to stop the Intifada and to prohibit the activities of Hamas and the Palestinian Jihad. The EU statement, too, emanates from the erroneous impression that Arafat has not done enough to halt the violence, again ignoring the dynamic of cause and effect. True, the EU also called upon Israel to withdraw its forces, stop extra-judicial assassination operations, lift the blockades and freeze settlement construction: the effect of the statement, though, is to morally equate the victim with his assailant. Furthermore, to demand of Arafat that he halt the Intifada is inconsistent with established principles of international law, which sanction resistance to foreign invasion and occupation. There is no denying the fact that the Palestinian people are currently engaged in a legitimate struggle to liberate the land occupied by Israel since 1967 and to establish an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The EU statement may have been worded to appear impartial, but, in fact, it failed to stress that Palestinian efforts to restore calm should be met with commensurate Israeli measures. It would have been more consistent with the realities of cause and effect, moreover, for the EU statement to call upon Israel to end its occupation and halt the reign of terror perpetrated by its occupation forces and then to ask the PA to call for an end to acts of resistance preparatory to a return to the negotiating table.

The actual substance of the EU statement is all the more surprising in view of the recent visit of a high level EU delegation to the region. That delegation experienced first hand the arrogant bullying of a government headed by a notorious war criminal and constitutionally inimical to civilised diplomacy and statesmanship. I fear that the recent EU statement sets a dangerous precedent in its attempt to encroach upon inalienable national rights established under international conventions, including the UN Charter, which was drawn up by the parties that emerged victorious from World War II, among which are the present day EU members France and the UK.

Nevertheless, I hasten to add that this does not mean that the efforts of the EU are not appreciated in the Arab world. In Egypt we have always held that the countries of the EU, and its Mediterranean members in particular, are more in tune with the complexities of the Middle East crisis and more aware of what it will take to reach a solution. This is why we had hoped for a two-tiered statement, calling for an end to all acts of armed violence and also reaffirming the principles of a political settlement. Instead, however, it called for a ban of those organisations engaged in the legitimate, if armed, resistance against occupying forces on their land and called upon a defenceless people to stop their acts of protest against a war machine bristling with the latest advanced military technology.

Although Egypt has expressed its gravest reservations about the stances taken by the EU and the US, it nevertheless persists in seeking all means to restore calm in Palestine. Egypt is keen to forestall further aggravation of the situation and to explore all possible avenues for realising the resumption of the negotiating process. Cairo also recognises the need to respond to US-EU peacemaking efforts, but in a manner that draws attention to the demands of the phase following the restoration of calm.

It was clear from US President George Bush’s letter to President Mubarak on the eve of Eid Al-Fitr that Washington still holds the Palestinians responsible for the continuing violence. Bush told Mubarak that he expected Arafat to do more to put a full stop to all acts of violence and that he intended to send Anthony Zinni back to the region to resume his efforts. Although the message made it clear that Bush wanted Arafat to take all possible steps to facilitate Zinni’s mission, it furnished no details about the actions the US envoy would take once he got here. Nor did the US president make any specific commitments that would raise expectations of a more active US involvement in bringing the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table.

In short, Bush’s message failed to offer the Palestinians even a glimmer of hope upon which they could seize to continue to exert self- restraint in response to relentless Israeli provocation. What could have given the PA a glimmer of hope would have been a clear statement from Washington to the effect that Israel must halt its acts of aggression and outlining a practical agenda that the US would push to effect within a set time frame once calm is restored.

Although such a statement was not forthcoming from Washington, President Arafat did not hesitate to comply with the general thrust of Bush’s message. On 16 December he appealed to his people for “a complete halt to all special or suicide operations and to the firing of mortar bombs,” and warned that “all who conspire to perpetrate such operations will be brought to account.” Following this, PA security forces mounted a full-scale clampdown on the offices of Hamas and Jihad and escalated the campaign to arrest suspects from the various dissident organisations.

Sadly, Washington did not demonstrate its appreciation of Arafat’s efforts. One would have at least expected the US administration to call upon Israel to exercise restraint so that Arafat could make further inroads towards restoring calm. President Mubarak underscored this belief, immediately after Arafat’s speech, when he instructed Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher to alert US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the US ambassador to Egypt to the need to give scope to a courageous and resolute initiative to stop all armed activities and pursue their perpetrators, in order to prepare the climate for a resumption of negotiations with Israel.

At the same time, the Israeli government has so far failed to demonstrate the slightest interest in restoring calm. Israel’s belligerency against the Palestinian people is as ferocious as ever. Israeli tanks continue to invade PA controlled areas and the clamour of Israeli threats and intimidations is as loud as ever. If the various parties were truly sincere in their wish to restore calm and resume negotiations, we would have seen a responsible US recognition of Arafat’s display of courage, a more impartial statement from the EU and some positive tangible action on the part of the Sharon government. That no such developments occurred will most likely work to undermine Arafat’s efforts.

Nevertheless, we continue to hold out hope for a more active and constructive US role in building upon the strong foundations Arafat has established in the interests of restoring calm. For example, before Zinni’s forthcoming visit, the US should begin to pressure Israel into lifting its siege and withdrawing its forces from PA controlled areas and it should make public a clear agenda for action to be taken once the guns fall silent. Such an agenda is particularly crucial in view of the fact that the Sharon government has no concept of a settlement process of its own and sees a cessation of Palestinian resistance as an ultimate goal rather than a step on the road to peace.

Fortunately, we know that the US administration does not share this aspect of Sharon’s thinking, and that it is keen to revive negotiations on the basis of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. This gives us hope that Zinni’s return to the area will be part of a comprehensive US plan to ensure that the restoration of calm leads to the resumption of negotiations and culminates in a just and lasting peace.

What the region does not need is a palliative beneath which tensions seethe and threaten to erupt into more all-encompassing violence. It would be extremely dangerous to take Arafat’s initiative as an end rather than the beginning of the long and complex process of hammering out a viable peace settlement. To fail to build on Arafat’s efforts at this juncture will only strengthen the hand of those organisations that espouse armed struggle. We therefore hope that when Zinni comes to the region he will bring a plan to push towards peace, rather than merely allowing a cessation of violence to degenerate into a perpetuation of a status quo.

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