Published : Apr 13, 2002 00:00 IST

Ariel Sharon's Israel brings down with impunity every symbol of Palestinian authority in the name of destroying terrorist infrastructure, and Palestinian despair manifests itself in unconventional methods of retaliation. West Asia appears to be close to flashpoint.

GRIEF is an impenetrable wall. Neither tastes nor interests nor dreams or hopes make their way into the consciousness when one is in mourning. Thoughts bounce around in the head disconnected from one another and mental effort is directed solely at coping with the cause for the grief.

When someone close to you dies, the fundamentals of existence are shaken. Personal destinies become questionable, plans become uncertain and the fear of the fates having turned against you becomes tangible. A period of mourning is an extraordinarily self-centred phase but it is a selfishness focussed not on acquisition but the fear of further loss.

Perhaps it is because of the animal instinct for self-preservation but at a time when your are hurting, the one thing that makes sense is the urge to hurt back. When the hurt has been caused by something impersonal like an illness or an accident there is nothing that can be done. When it is caused by a visible, tangible human agency, the rage that stems from the hurt finds its focus almost naturally.

Accounts written by those who have interviewed the youth of Palestine as the fighting raged in the cusp between March and April have spoken of the universal despair, the complete absence of hope and the inability to dream. Those interviewed did not come from the slums and the refugee camps. They were students or young professionals. People who had a future and the youth to believe in it. Almost without exception they said that they felt they had nothing to live for and that martyrdom - their word for a suicide-bombing mission - was what they wanted to dedicate themselves to.

In trying to get a grasp of what has been going on in the Palestinian territories since Friday, March 29, what is usually taken as the starting point, is the wave of suicide-bombing attacks against Israeli targets. But behind the spate of bomb attacks is a long history of loss and hurting. From the outside it is easy to tell the Palestinians that the colonial occupation under which they have suffered over the past 35 years will end if they remain peaceful for a while and negotiate with the Israelis. But how can a people who have seen their hopes of being able to control their destinies thwarted time and again be expected to accept that?

It has been a long period when every journey had to begin with the suppression of the queasiness at the anticipated humiliation at an Israeli roadblock. Security at homes and offices could at any moment be disrupted by an Israeli hit-and-run team, or a missile fired from a helicopter or a shell from a tank. Cousins or brothers would walk out to feed their pigeons and be shot or blown apart. Trips to hospitals or schools might never be completed because hours would have to be spent at check-points. Babies would be delivered in cars and elderly parents might gasp to death unattended. There could be no certitude about jobs or incomes or for that matter about food, water and electricity. And all the while the Palestinians had to put up with the spectacle of hordes coming from all over the world to take over their land illegally and build lavish settlements from which their Third World existence could be sneered at.

Suicide bombings are no answer, says United States President George W. Bush, who probably has not a clue about the despair of the deprived, as well as by many others who do have a clue and are more sensitive. No right-thinking person will refute that the killing of innocents sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe or buying cakes in a Jerusalem bakery is wrong. But in the current catch-all atmosphere of the war against terror, the nuances should not be lost sight of. These are not people sitting in caves in Afghanistan, being brainwashed with all sorts of delusory messages and then setting off to kill people they neither know nor have reason to dislike. These Palestinians have come to regard the whole of Israel as an enemy they loathe, for a variety of reasons - many of which are understandable. This is not a justification for the killing of innocent civilians but an attempt to see the collective emotional state of Palestinians as a distinct phenomenon.

Palestinian despair at this particular juncture has a further edge. Israel is led by a man who has in the past commanded one mass murder of Palestinian civilians and who was judged by an Israeli inquiry committee of being ultimately responsible for the mass murders in Sabra and Shatilla. That Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been fighting the Arabs from childhood is one matter. Much worse is the fact that he has never completely refuted the notion that what he really desires is the complete elimination of Palestinians from all of the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of Sharon's boasts that he understands the Arab mind. While he has spoken about his admiration for the Arab sense of community and their fighting spirit, what he perhaps really meant, or so his actions would show, was that he knew perfectly well how the Palestinians would react to provocation.

Sharon sparked off the current intifada even before he became Prime Minister, through his utterly provocative triumphal march through the Al Aqsa complex on September 28, 2000 at a period when there was some hope that negotiations could produce a settlement of the Palestine-Israel dispute. Ever since he became Prime Minister, Sharon has followed a now predictable pattern. At every stage when there was a lull in the fighting, there has been some act of provocation on Sharon's part. Some municipal authority or the other would suddenly decide that Arab buildings, supposedly constructed illegally but tolerated until then, needed to be demolished, or one of Israel's security services would suddenly discover a Palestinian militant they wanted to liquidate and proceed to do so. The ensuing Palestinian retaliation has enabled Sharon to cover his tracks all along.

The current phase of fighting had similar origins. Israeli troops and tanks had penetrated deep into Palestinian territory and their re-occupation was symbolised by the fact of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat being confined to his Ramallah office for the past three months. For a brief phase in March, Sharon appeared to relent when he dropped his condition of seven days of complete calm before the commencement of negotiations and said that Arafat would be free to roam about the West Bank. It is difficult to fathom how much of a concession this was. With his authority having been severely impaired, it is doubtful whether Arafat could ever have ensured complete calm with the mere declaration of his intent to do so. Arafat could also not be expected to accept the humiliation of being allowed to travel at Israel's pleasure, especially when his people were prevented from being able to do so.

A real gleam of hope shone in March when Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, and in effect ruler, Abdullah bin Abdelaziz al Saud offered Israel complete normalisation in return for Israel's total withdrawal from Arab lands. In essence this was a reiteration of the land-for-peace proposal. But its significance lay in the fact that it was proffered by a kingdom that serves as an ideological or religious centre of the Arab world and a kingdom that almost never takes a major diplomatic initiative. More important, this was the first unequivocal declaration by a major Arab state that Israel would find full acceptance in the region - with not just diplomatic recognition but freedom to trade and travel - if it returned the Arab lands it occupied. Later statements by other Saudi officials and Arab leaders who travelled to the kingdom appeared to dilute this offer or at least mire it in confusion but the basic offer stood and even moderate Israelis expressed cautious approval of it.

A Bush administration that had washed its hands of the Arab-Israeli dispute thought that there was enough good in the Saudi proposal to give its nod of approval. Vice-President Dick Cheney, who toured North Africa and West Asia hoping to drum up support for the "regime change in Iraq" plan, discovered that the Arabs were not particularly interested in other U.S. schemes if Washington was not to take a serious look into the Israel-Palestine imbroglio. Bush despatched his special envoy, retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, and while the tensions persisted there was a glimmer of a chance that Zinni could talk both sides into accepting a ceasefire.

By the end of the third week of March, there was reason for a little cautious optimism. Zinni was shuttling back and forth between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Arab League was scheduled to meet to discuss the Saudi proposal, and Cheney had agreed to meet with Arafat (probably in Cairo) if there was a return to normalcy. With the U.S. administration obsessed with its war on terrorism, Cheney had declared that he would meet Arafat only if the Palestinian leader had taken a decisive step to combat terrorism, but in a departure from standard U.S. practice the administration specified that Cheney would make his decision on Zinni's assessment and not that of the Israelis. There were also repetitions of Bush's vision statement that he envisaged a future in which a Palestinian state would exist side by side with an Israeli one.

The picture was not wholly rosy. Suicide bombings, drive-by shootings and other attacks on Israeli targets continued, as did several cases of firing by Israeli soldiers which too resulted in the death of many innocent Palestinians. Arafat and his senior aides did call for an end to the killing of innocents "inside the Green Line" (that is, Israel proper) but just could not get themselves to utter the words that the U.S. wanted them to. Despite coming close to saying it, Arafat just could not tell his people in Arabic categorically that they had to stop the killing of Israeli civilians. His statement might not have immediately brought an end to the "martyrdom" missions since he seems barely in control of his own Fatah and its Al Aqsa Brigades and has no control over the Hamas or the Islamic Jehad.

In times to come, this reluctance on Arafat's part might appear to be a vindication of Bush's comment that the Palestinian leader continually missed opportunities and thereby betrayed his people. But Arafat seems to have considered that such a call would be equivalent to a unilateral declaration of a ceasefire. Or perhaps he believed that his own people would view it as such. From there on the logic probably was that a unilateral declaration of ceasefire when the Israeli tanks and troops were entrenched in Palestinian territory would be tantamount to surrender. From a purely analytical point of view, Arafat's judgment can be taken as flawed but they have to be considered against a backdrop where Sharon had several times declared that he intended to pound the Palestinians until they submitted.

Zinni's efforts at brokering a ceasefire were stuck on several points of procedure but, according to a Palestinian official, most of them had been successfully negotiated over several rounds of talks. The details of the agreement that was being worked out are not fully known, but since the discussions were centred on a few points it is possible to assume what an eventual deal would have looked like. Israel needed to withdraw its troops to the points at which they were posted prior to September 2000, while the Palestinian security forces moved in and took steps to ensure that their militants could not penetrate into Israel. Wanted Palestinian militants would have to be taken into custody and illegal arms confiscated, while Israel progressively eased its closure of the territories. But these negotiations were said to have been stuck on one single point.

The Palestinians wanted a sentence included in the agreement that the ceasefire would be followed by the commencement of negotiations on substantive issues. Zinni was said to have given a verbal assurance that substantive issues would be taken up but was unable to commit himself on paper. Without a written clause that the substantive negotiations would ensue, the Palestinian officials who signed the document could have been accused of having sold out.

MEANWHILE there was another drama unfolding. Sharon, resisting pressure from the U.S. and the rest of the international community to allow Arafat to attend the Arab League summit in Beirut on March 27-28, declared that he would let the Palestinian leader go but would not let him return if either he delivered a provocative speech at the summit or if there was an attack on Israelis during that period. Arafat finally decided that he would not attend the summit, and in a demonstration of solidarity Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah too decided to stay away from Beirut. Libya's President Muammar Qadhafi had earlier decided not to attend, and Iraq's President Saddam Hussein stayed away as he has since 1990.

In the absence of several key figures from the Arab world, the significance of the Beirut summit came into question. Several of the hardline Arab states also began to moot an alternative resolution to the Saudi proposal, which called for an intensification of the intifada and increased support for the Palestinians. The document finally and unanimously approved was a compromise between the two positions but with predominance for the Saudi initiative. The League held out the promise of full normalisation in return for complete withdrawal but in the sub-text warned that hostility would intensify if Israel did not stop its ongoing military operations.

Israel's response was tepid, but at least one Israeli legal expert discovered that the Arabs had actually offered the unthinkable. Some of the Arab states - including Syria, Lebanon and with some ambivalence the Palestinians - had insisted that in return for full peace Israel must permit the return of Palestinian refugees. Israel had balked at this, claiming that it would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. But, the legal expert noted, the Beirut resolution only called for a "just resolution" of the refugee problem in line with United Nations Resolution 194. Since Resolution 194 envisaged a number of ways of dealing with the refugee problem (including their absorption in the states where they were resident and payment of compensation) the Beirut resolution, the legal expert noted, contained a significant concession.

All of this was lost in yet another bomb blast on March 27. Or perhaps not. Ostensibly the ongoing invasion of the Palestinian territory was sparked by a bomb blast in the town of Netanya when diners celebrating Passover were attacked by a suicide bomber, resulting eventually in the death of 25 persons. But the Israeli and international papers had already been rife with reports in the days before that Sharon was planning a major military operation in the Palestinian territories. On Thursday, March 28, Arafat issued what was until then his strongest call for an end to operations inside the Green Line but it came too late.

Starting from the night of March 28, the Israeli army moved into Ramallah. The troops headed straight for Arafat's office complex and fired tank shells and bullets into most of the rooms in the complex. Arafat, a few aides, some peace activists and journalists were left untouched in a few rooms but the Palestinian leader, a machine pistol on the table before him, was able to present himself before television cameras and declare his willingness to become a martyr. Sharon was to express his displeasure that the U.S. had explicitly prevented him from killing Arafat or expelling him.

Residents in other parts of Ramallah had no such verbal assurances. As the tanks moved through the streets of the town they flattened cars, dug up roads, smashed sewer and water lines. Water tanks on the roofs of houses were shot up, shop shutters were ripped off, homes and offices were raided with impunity and many of the residents were allegedly harassed and, some claim, even robbed. Residents could not come out of their houses since the Israeli soldiers were not taking any chances and there were recorded cases where even ambulances and para-medics were shot at. In at least one case six Palestinian policemen were discovered shot dead in a room with the bloodstains behind them only a metre above the floor. Although the matter has not been fully investigated, the circumstances initially seemed to suggest that they had been killed in cold blood.

At almost the same time Israeli tanks and troops were rumbling into Tulkaram and Qalqilya with the same scenes of destruction being repeated. Certain parts of Hebron were hit by missiles fired from helicopter gun-ships. Then it was the turn of Bethlehem. Palestinian gunmen in Bethlehem put up some resistance at first but they then retreated to the Church of the Nativity where they remained holed up. At the time of going to press, Israel had surrounded the Church of the Nativity and said that they would either try and starve the gunmen into surrender or negotiate a surrender. The fighting had meanwhile spread to Jenin and Nablus. Here the Palestinians were better prepared and put up increasingly stiffer resistance in the narrow streets. The Israeli army, apparently relaxing the rules of engagement for its soldiers by the day, used its tanks and bulldozers to smash through houses.

There was no accounting for the deaths on the Palestinian side. There were numerous reports, given out over telephone lines, that bodies and the injured were lying about in streets and in homes because ambulances could not be sent around to collect them. Before the current phase started over a thousand Palestinians and over 300 Israelis had died in clashes since September 2000. The disproportion between the casualty figures on either side is bound to be much more when the number of Palestinian dead are finally counted.

Israel claimed that it had arrested hundreds of wanted militants, confiscated a large number of arms and smashed several arms workshops in the course of its invasion. Since all men between 15 and 40 years of age were rounded up at least temporarily, it is possible that there were several militants amongst them. But Israel has so far been able to name only very few of the men on their wanted lists as being among those captured in the operation. There were comments from Israeli spokesmen that they had no intention to destroy the Palestinian Authority but that was precisely what their actions were achieving. The Palestinian security services, including those which Israel itself says were not involved in acts of terrorism, have been smashed with their offices blasted and their men taken into custody. The basic services have been disrupted and their restoration is going to take a lot of money, which the Palestinians do not have, and time. Food supplies inside West Bank towns are believed to be running low since trucks cannot ply the roads freely.

The disruption of sewer and water lines is expected to increase the risk of illness. Israel's aim, so Sharon said, was to destroy the infrastructure of terrorism. It is possible that through military operations such as the one it is conducting, Israel would be able to grab arms and explosive caches and round up those who ideologically inspire and indoctrinate suicide bombers. But it can do nothing to read the minds of the Palestinian youth who have come to believe that martyrdom - the killing of Israeli civilians along with themselves - is all that they have to look forward to in life. For such people, even a truck or a car can become a deadly weapon.

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