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Eyes for an eye - Graham Usher in Bethlehem

Graham Usher | 05.11.2001 02:28

Three days after the "withdrawal" from Bethlehem and Beit Jala Ariel Sharon's war continues, writes Graham Usher from Bethlehem

On Sunday Palestinian guerrillas killed five Israelis in two shooting attacks in the northern Israeli towns of Hadera and Baba Gharbiyya. That night Israel's "inner security" cabinet met to determine a "response".

Two decisions were made. One was to mass troops around the West Bank Palestinian towns of Jenin and Tulkarm, the provenance, claimed the Israelis, of the Islamic Jihad and Fatah cells responsible for the hits. The other was to pull Israel's tanks, soldiers and "Special Forces" out of Bethlehem and Beit Jala, largely under the weight of American and European opinion discomforted by TV images of bullet marks on the Church of the Nativity and Israeli soldiers munching stolen chicken legs in commandeered Palestinian hotels. "This is a five-star war," said one interviewee on Israel TV last Friday.

The next night a CIA mediated Israel-Palestinian security meeting was convened to discuss pullouts from the five other West Bank Palestinian towns the army "partially" reoccupies. Predictably, it got nowhere. "There was no point we agreed on," said the Palestinian Authority West Bank head of Preventive Security Jibril Rajoub. "Israel has no political solution. There is no point in having another meeting if the Israelis have nothing to say about the [other] withdrawals or ending the policy of assassinations."

Sharon agreed, though for different reasons. "The Palestinians so far haven't fulfilled their commitments, such as arresting terrorists and preventing terrorist attacks. Therefore, the withdrawal [from the other Palestinian cities] will be postponed until they comply," said sources in the prime minister's office quoted in Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper yesterday.

Withdrawals postponed mean reconquests consolidated. In the three days since Israel "withdrew" from Bethlehem and Beit Jala, the army has mounted two incursions into PA areas in the Gaza Strip, demolished six buildings (including two homes with 24 inhabitants) in East Jerusalem and sent tanks and bulldozers into Arraba village near Jenin. In this last invasion three Islamic Jihad and two Fatah men were arrested and two PA policemen wounded.

Less publicly -- but more significantly -- the Defence Ministry confirmed that a permanent fence would be built around three Jewish settlements in the northern Gaza Strip, effectively annexing this slice of Palestinian territory to Israel proper. Finally, yesterday morning Israeli helicopter missiles ploughed into a house in Hebron, assassinating the "wanted" militant Jamil Jadallah.

Taken together, these actions represent Sharon's game plan in his long war against all things Oslo, including the PA. Take over seven Palestinian towns, give back two under international pressure and tighten Israel's grip on the rest and other "strategic" areas in the occupied territories.

Yasser Arafat's game plan is to reverse this offensive and stay alive, aware there is now a majority in the Israeli government and army who not only believe his "historical role" is over but also that he and his authority should be buried along with it.

The Palestinian leader's main shields for both endeavours have been the US, UN, European Union and Russian envoys to the region, aided by such heavyweights as German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, set to arrive in Israel on Wednesday night. These "wise men" helped to broker the Bethlehem and Beit Jala withdrawals, and impressed on Israel the utter unfeasibility of the "precondition" that Arafat extradite into Israeli custody the assassins of cabinet minister Rahavam Zeevi, killed in an East Jerusalem hotel on 17 October.

They also conveyed the basic Palestinian contention that no cease-fire can be sustained unless Israel lifts the sieges on the occupied territories, ends the assassination policy and returns to some kind of political process. It would be heartening to think this international activism had something to do with the carnage Israel has inflicted on Palestinians over the last two weeks. In fact, it had more to do with the carnage now being inflicted on Afghanistan and the need to shore up Arab and Islamic "support" for it.

There is no aid without a price. And the tag is that Arafat arrest "terrorists" (especially the killers of Zeevi), resume security cooperation with Israel and sustain a cease-fire wherever and whenever one is established, "area by area". This is a tough call for the Palestinian leader to make.

On Friday he assured various diplomats that his police had arrested 73 Palestinians, mostly current or lapsed members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which took responsibility for the Zeevi operation. Following the Hadera attack, at least four Islamic Jihad men were picked up in Gaza, including its political leader Abdallah Shami.

But Arafat won't be able to do much more than this, one reason being he has no incentive to do so. But the deeper cause is a Palestinian consensus -- shared by all factions and all sectors of Palestinian society -- that Israel's ongoing assault against their lives, lands and properties must be met in kind.

The Jihad operation in Hadera was done in the name of Riham Ward, a 12-year old schoolgirl shot dead by Israeli tanks in a classroom near Jenin, and the 50 other Palestinians killed in the course of Israel's different invasions. In retaliation for the assassination of one its fighters in Tulkarm on Sunday, Fatah shot dead a soldier near Baba Gharbiyya on Monday. It is unlikely to stop.

On Sunday night Fatah militiamen kicked their heels in Manger Square while PA police replaced them on the frontlines in Bethlehem and Beit Jala to secure the "cease-fire".

One fighter, a well-known local leader who for entirely understandable reasons doesn't want to be attributed, was asked:

Will the resistance respect the cease-fire?

"We will respect President Arafat's cease-fire. I doubt if anyone could respect Sharon's."

Will the cease-fire hold?

"No" And then what? "The Israelis will visit us again," he says with smile. "And we will visit them."

Graham Usher
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