A Palestinian family reacts after Israeli bulldozers demolished their home in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, Feb. 5, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset member Yair Lapid (l), leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to Naftali Bennett, head of the hard-line national religious party the Jewish Home, during a Feb. 5 reception in Jerusalem marking the opening of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/GETTY IMAGES)
Richard Curtiss at work in his Washington Report office. (STAFF PHOTO D. HANLEY)
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney (l) and Likud chairman Benyamin Netanyahu, out of office at the time and serving as the official Israeli opposition leader, at a March 23, 2008 breakfast meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III (r) shares candies with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim during a Feb. 11 visit to the rebels’ stronghold in Sultan Kudarat on the island of Mindanao. (KARLOS MANLUPIG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Emad Burnat views his five broken cameras in his documentary of the same name. (PHOTO COURTESY KINO LORBER)
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2002, page 11
Israel Responds to Arab Offer of Peace With a Reign of Terror
By Rachelle Marshall
“I would say to the Israeli people that if their government abandons the policy of force and oppression and embraces true peace, we will not hesitate to accept the right of the Israeli people to live in security with the people of the region.”
—Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, in Beirut, March 27.
“What is happening is a savage act, an inhuman and cruel act...Every Palestinian is a Yasser Arafat.”—Crown Prince Abdullah, March 29.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was given a clear choice on March 27: to make peace with the Arab nations or continue to make war. With the backing of the Bush administration Sharon chose war—a decision that once again exposed the danger and futility of a U.S. Middle East policy that refuses to acknowledge Israel’s illegal occupation as the prime cause of the Middle East conflict.
Ever since the first intifada broke out in 1987 the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has followed a familiar cycle: The oppressiveness of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza triggers Palestinian violence, the savagery of Israel’s response provokes increased Palestinian resistance, and the spiraling violence finally forces the United States to intervene. The result is a whirlwind of U.S. diplomatic activity that in the end is undermined by Washington’s unyielding support for Israel and leaves the Middle East conflict no closer to a solution.
The most recent peace effort, involving Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. mediator Gen. Anthony Zinni, again left Israel free to wreak havoc on the Palestinians. Prime Minister Sharon made his intentions clear on March 5 when he said, “The aim is to increase the number of losses on the other side. Only after they’ve been battered will we be able to conduct talks.”
Despite such statements, President George W. Bush repeatedly blamed Palestinian President Yasser Arafat for the violence and declared Palestinian liberation forces to be targets of America’s open-ended “war on terrorism.”
Israel launched its sudden invasion of Palestinian refugee camps and cities on Feb. 28 just as there seemed renewed hopes for peace. As the massive attacks began, Palestinian officials and Arab leaders were expressing support for a peace proposal by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that offered normalization of Arab relations with Israel in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. CIA chief George Tenet was in Saudi Arabia to discuss the proposal with Prince Abdullah, and President Bush had announced he was sending General Zinni to the area to arrange peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The reason for the invasion became clear when Israeli television reported that Prime Minister Sharon’s strategy was to intensify Israel’s attacks on Palestinian areas so that he could withdraw his troops once Zinni arrived and gain credit for making a concession to U.S. peace efforts. Meanwhile, however, Israeli forces were to do as much damage as possible in order to bring the Palestinians to their knees. The three-week military operation eventually involved 20,000 Israeli troops and hundreds of tanks, along with helicopter gunships, F-16 bombers, and naval vessels, and turned major portions of Palestinian cities and refugee camps into rubble.
The timing of the attacks on Gaza and the West Bank was reminiscent of Israel’s June 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which Sharon orchestrated as defense minister. Arafat at the time was actively seeking international support for a peace settlement that would provide for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinians in Lebanon were honoring the truce brokered a year before by U.S. envoy Philip Habib, during which time they had refrained from cross-border attacks on Israel. Sharon’s clear aim in invading Lebanon was to undercut Arafat’s diplomatic efforts and, by destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization, silence the political voice of the Palestinians.
The elimination of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority has remained one of Sharon’s chief goals. It was with this objective that Sharon again sent tanks, bulldozers, and troops storming into Ramallah and other West Bank cities on March 29 to carry out a wave of killing and destruction that seemingly had no purpose other than to crush Arafat once and for all. The action was announced as a response to a series of suicide attacks, but far from ending Palestinian violence, the assault provoked more suicide bombings, and ordinary Israelis found themselves less secure than ever before. Bush justified Israel’s action by saying “their country is under attack,” and demanding that Arafat “stop terrorism.” His words were ludicrously out of sync with an image that is certain to become engraved in the Palestinians’ collective memory, of Arafat using a battery phone to give interviews over Arab radio, his electricity cut off, in a room lit by a single candle, as the Israelis bombarded his compound with shells and stun grenades and soldiers were smashing their way closer, strafing rooms with high-caliber machine guns as they came. Meanwhile, the citizens of Ramallah and several other Palestinian cities were at the mercy of Israeli soldiers, who again broke water mains and power lines, ransacked homes, and seized all men over 14.
At least 20 of Arafat’s guards were killed, several of them when they tried to surrender, and five police officers were later found to have been executed when they sought refuge in the nearby British Council building. There was even speculation that Israeli gunfire would kill Arafat “by accident.” Andrew Shapiro, an American peace activist who was on the scene, said soldiers sent hails of bullets into Arafat’s offices even though no Palestinians were shooting back. When ambulances tried to take away the wounded the Israelis stopped them and arrested the victims and the crew.
Vice President Cheney’s two-week trip to the Middle East in early March was intended to secure the cooperation of Arab leaders in ousting the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussain. But in every Arab capital Cheney received the same message: that military action against Iraq would be dangerously destabilizing to the area, and the United States should focus instead on what Sheikh Zayad bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates called “the grave and continued Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.”
At this point Bush decided to send Zinni back to the Middle East to try to arrange a cease-fire. But it was a hopeless mission, since Zinni’s instructions were to limit the talks to addressing Israel’s security concerns rather than the occupation itself. From the Palestinians’ point of view, agreeing to a cease-fire while the Israeli army remained in control of their territory, their towns and cities were blockaded, and the government continued to seize land for new settlements, meant acceptance of unconditional surrender. This Arafat obviously could not do even if he wished to. Leaders of Hamas and other militant groups that had observed a cease-fire last December, only to have Israeli violate it, vowed they would continue fighting.
When Cheney arrived in Israel March 18 he refused to meet with Arafat until the Palestinian leader “renounced once and for all the use of violence.” To Palestinians whose homes had been wrecked and relatives killed, and who remained surrounded by Israeli tanks and roadblocks, Cheney’s demand that Arafat rather than Sharon stop the violence must have seemed a cruel distortion of reality. The vice president did not pressure Sharon to freeze settlement construction or withdraw his army to the positions it held on Sept. 28, 2000. Nor did he urge the Israelis to resume peace negotiations based on the progress made in January 200l, something for which Palestinian leaders have repeatedly asked. Sharon said afterward that he and Cheney had mainly discussed how Israel and the United States would coordinate their actions if a strike on Iraq was carried out.
Faced with the urgency of persuading Arab leaders that the Bush administration was serious about making peace, Cheney did agree to meet with Arafat during the Arab summit meeting scheduled for March 27—only to have Sharon make it impossible for Arafat to attend. Although it was an obvious slap at Bush, who had personally appealed to Sharon to let Arafat go to Beirut, the White House did not protest.
Despite Arafat’s absence from the summit, Prince Abdullah presented his plan in an eloquent speech that was directed to the Israeli people as well as to Arabs. He expressed support and sympathy for the intifada, but stressed that once Israel accepted a peace based on equality and justice rather than oppression and humiliation, “we will not hesitate to accept the right of the Israeli people to live in security with the people of the region.” All 22 Arab leaders present, including representatives from Iraq and Libya, accepted the proposal. The gathering also sent a pointed message to Bush by declaring they would consider any attack on Iraq an attack against all Arab states.
The suicide bombing by Hamas on March 27 that killed 22 Israelis in Netanya dimmed hopes raised by the Arabs’ unanimous acceptance of Prince Abdullah’s peace proposal, and caused Arafat to declare an unconditional cease-fire. But it was a hopeless move, since Sharon now had the excuse to do what he had long planned to do: throw the full weight of the Israeli army against Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. The cabinet immediately declared the Palestinian leader an “enemy,” and a few hours later the Israeli army moved in force back into Ramallah, shut down the entire city, and laid siege to Arafat’s compound.
Although Arab leaders had stressed to Cheney the urgency of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the vice president’s words and actions during his visit to Israel in March exposed the vast gap between a U.S. Middle East policy that lopsidedly favors Israel and the reality on the ground. Cheney seemed oblivious to the devastation caused by Israel’s invasion of Palestinian areas in the three weeks before his arrival. Neither he nor any other top U.S. official visited a refugee camp such as Jabalya or Dheisheh, where soldiers had smashed through walls and rampaged through dwellings, tearing apart the inhabitants’ belongings, while Apache helicopters hovered overhead firing at anything that moved. The center of once elegant Ramallah “looked like Beirut in 1982,” one observer said after the Israelis left, “with gutted cars, wrecked apartments, shops with windows gouged out, and swirling, choking dust everywhere.”
After visiting Balata refugee camp, Peter Hansen, general commissioner of UNRWA, said, “I cannot imagine how frightened the innocent Palestinians and their children must have been when the Israeli army broke into their homes through holes they had drilled. I saw four buildings completely destroyed.” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned Palestinian suicide attacks as “morally repugnant,” but charged the Israelis with violating the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and called on them to “stop the bombing of civilian areas, the assassinations, the unnecessary use of lethal force, the demolitions and the daily humiliations of ordinary Palestinians.”
Many of those who have died and are dying as this is written could have been saved but for the Israeli army’s policy of denying medical aid to the wounded. For several days in March Israeli troops surrounded hospitals in the cities under siege and fired on clearly marked Red Cross and Red Crescent ambulances. Among the several medical workers killed were the directors of hospitals in Jenin and Dheisheh. Secretary-General Annan wrote to Sharon asking for an investigation of the attacks on medical workers, but received no reply. A State Department spokesman told the Washington Report on March 14 that the department had repeatedly urged the Israelis to allow ambulances to reach the wounded but had had no response. “The Israelis are still stopping them,” the official said.
The Israelis further punished the Palestinian population as they invaded each city by rounding up all males between 14 and 40, and taking them away for interrogation shackled and blindfolded. While in detention they were forced to sleep on the ground without blankets, given no food or water and not allowed to go to the bathroom. Many of those later released were taken on trucks to checkpoints in the middle of the night, and dumped off miles from their villages.
Such acts of pointless cruelty may not reach the consciousness of U.S. policymakers, but for too many Palestinians they are part of daily experience. As a result, a deep sense of popular grievance and an equally deep determination to be rid of the occupation are now part of the baggage Palestinian negotiators will take with them to any future peace talks and that American mediators must take into account. Henry Siegman, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has urged the Bush administration “to face up to the simple truth that stopping the violence and establishing the security of Israel is not something that serves any Palestinian goal. The only way is to promise a clear political future...and in the foreseeable future.”
The March 27 suicide bombing in Netanya and Israel’s reoccupation of Palestinian territory means there will be more waste of innocent lives unless Sharon and his supporters who cry for blood can be controlled. There is danger, too, of a wider Mideast war, if the conflict continues—especially if Bush’s “war on terrorism” comes to be seen as a U.S.-Israeli war against Arabs.
Yet, paradoxically, the possibility of peace has never been closer. Prince Abdullah’s offer of normal relations with Israel in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the occupied territories was backed by every Arab leader and given at least verbal support by Bush. It provides a basis for the”political future” that Siegman referred to. Israel’s acceptance would not only hasten an end to the conflict but open the way for what Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti sees as “a new era and a historical reconciliation between two peoples.”
All that is needed is an American leader who recognizes that this is a conflict between an oppressor and the oppressed, and an Israeli government willing to make peace.
Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Stanford, CA. A member of the International Jewish Peace Union, she writes frequently on the Middle East.