A win-or-die battle

Published : Apr 13, 2002 00:00 IST

Besieged Palestinians put up a spirited resistance against the United States-supported Zionist aggression. An analysis that reflects the perception of the Palestinian Ambassador to India, Khalid el-Sheikh.

THE war unleashed by Israel on the Palestinian people with the tacit support of the Bush administration is aimed at destroying the credibility and infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. Almost every administrative building of the Palestinians has been destroyed by the Israeli Army, using American supplied tanks, helicopters and fighter planes. President Yasser Arafat's headquarters has been destroyed and he has been confined to a room without power and running water. His life is under threat.

Khalid el-Sheikh, the Palestinian Ambassador to India, who has worked closely with Arafat for many years, says that the Palestinian leader will not compromise at gun-point. He says that crisis situations only bring out the fighter in him. Arafat has said that he would rather die fighting than surrender to Israeli forces at his doorstep. A section of the Israeli leadership headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who would have preferred Arafat dead, now want him to go into exile. Arafat has scoffed at the suggestion.

The United States virtually held him incommunicado for around a month during the Camp David II negotiations two years ago, cutting him off even from his closest aides. President Bill Clinton and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet threatened the worst if Arafat did not sign the U.S.-sponsored deal with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. According el-Sheikh, the key to peace in the region is granting sovereignty for the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. That was not on offer at Camp David. Many people had feared that Arafat would succumb to U.S. pressure at that time and sign on the dotted line for a Palestine without full sovereignty over East Jerusalem and control over its land and sea borders.

Sharon came to power with a single-point agenda - to deprive Palestinians of all vestiges of statehood. He was a pioneer of the West Bank settlements and an avowed critic of the Oslo peace process. He has been associated with some of the most horrific episodes of Palestine's tragic history of the past 50 years. In 1953, Sharon as a young officer led the notorious Unit 101 in an attack on the Palestinian village of Qibya: 69 civilians were massacred, most of them by having their homes blown over their heads. Eighteen years later, Sharon was in charge of putting down an uprising in Gaza; he killed scores of Palestinians in the process. He was in charge of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which resulted in the death of thousands of Arabs, mostly Palestinians, and the massacre of refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla camps. (Sharon is under trial in a Belgian court for war crimes committed in 1982.) The massacre took place after the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had vacated Lebanon, leaving the safety of the refugees in American hands. It was yet another obligation to Palestinians that the U.S. left unfulfilled.

Sharon has devoted much of his public life to promoting settlements in the West Bank. He prefers to call the settlements by their biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

Sharon's real goal in the so-called war against terror is to establish a Greater Israel, extending from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea - the unfulfilled agenda of the Likud Party. Sharon chose to send in his tanks and planes into Palestine just as the Saudi peace plan for the region was endorsed by 22 Arab nations. The plan called for Israel's withdrawal from lands it had occupied after 1967 in exchange for peace and normal relations with Arab countries.

El-Sheikh is of the opinion that the latest crisis has transformed the politics of the region. "It is no longer an Israeli-Palestinian issue," he says, citing the demonstration held by more than a million Egyptians in Cairo in the first week of April. There have been huge demonstrations in virtually every Arab capital. The only notable exception is Saudi Arabia, where the authorities have not permitted demonstrations. In a survey conducted last year, nearly 60 per cent of the respondents in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf emirates said that they regarded Palestine as "the single most important issue for them personally". In Egypt, the figure was 79 per cent.

The countries in the region could face security problems and destabilisation because of the war raging in Palestine. The Arab people think that the commitment of many of their leaders to the Palestinian struggle is only skin-deep. They have also observed that U.S. President George W. Bush is scared to utter even one word against Sharon and has rejected the requests of Palestine and other countries for the deployment of an observer force to be deployed in the West Bank and Gaza. The Hezbollah in Lebanon has started firing rockets into Israel again, which could drag neighbouring countries such as Syria into the war. Iraq, Iran and Syria have demanded that Arab and Muslim countries use the "oil weapon" against the U.S. and Israel.

The U.S. administration may have gauged the depth of the Arab anger and the danger it poses to some of their client states in West Asia. According to diplomatic sources, the administration had given the Israeli government a free hand for eight days to achieve its military goals in the West Bank. It was only after this period that Bush decided to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to Israel. His administration took four days to dispatch Powell to the region, giving Israeli forces more time to eliminate Palestinians who were active in the struggle. In the second week of April there were reports of a massacre of civilians in a refugee camp in Nablus. "If there were hundred suicide bombers before the full-scale Israeli invasion, now there are 1,000," said an Arab diplomat.

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had told the media that U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney was for even tougher action against the Palestinians than was contemplated by the Israeli government. He reportedly agreed with Sharon that talking with Arafat was a waste of time. Cheney had visited the region in March. Anthony Zinni, the U.S. envoy in the region, has been trying to dictate terms to Arafat. According to el-Sheikh, the Palestinian Authority had agreed to the Tenet Plan with a heavy heart. But Zinni has been coming up with "new modifications from the Israeli side without any corresponding obligations". Every time Zinni met Arafat, it was to convey a threat. "We will not bend," says el-Sheikh. What Israel has been doing of late "is a sign of weakness, not of strength", he says.

According to the Palestinian envoy, the war crimes being committed by the Israeli army are worse than those by the Nazis. In cities such as Bethlehem, women and children are left bleeding to death on the streets. Mosques and churches have been targeted. The Church of Nativity, situated at the spot where Jesus was believed to have been born, is under siege. A Catholic priest was killed and six nuns were injured in Bethlehem when Israeli tanks rolled in. "Israeli policy is to destroy and kill anything that moves," says Khaled el-Sheikh. The bodies of Palestinians rot on the streets for days. Peace activists and journalists have been detained and fired on. Palestinian civilian structures such as power plants, schools and sewerage facilities, have been selectively targeted. Many young Palestinians have been arrested and, in a practice reminiscent of Nazi Germany, numbers are written on their arms to keep track of them.

BUT the much-vaunted Israeli army has not achieved any of its major goals. "We have taken a decision to win or die," says el-Sheikh. With rifles and home-made bombs Palestinians have been able to destroy tanks and inflict casualties on the Israeli army. According to el-Sheikh, there have been many instances of Israeli soldiers surrounded by Palestinian fighters being rescued by Israeli helicopters.

The myth of Israel's military invincibility has been conclusively broken. In the old days, Israel had destroyed large sections of the armies of Arab states such as Egypt within days. The Palestinians, with their zeal and stamina, have now brought Israel to a critical juncture. It is not able to provide security to its own citizens while waging war against the Palestinians. In the first round of Intifada 15 years ago, the death ratio was 25 Palestinians to one Israeli. In the current uprising, it is one Israeli for every three Palestinians. It is a foregone conclusion that Sharon's attempts to cow down the civilian population of Palestine are doomed to fail. In March alone, 125 Israelis lost their lives, which is more than the number of Israeli casualties during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. According to a diplomat, a "balance of fear" has been established between the warring parties.

It is obvious that the Israeli state, despite its claim to have the most sophisticated intelligence network, has not been able to defend even its capital, Tel Aviv, from attack. Israelis' confidence in their army has been shaken after its failure to subdue the Palestinian resistance. Around a million Israelis with dual citizenship have gone back to the U.S. In the past one year, the Israeli currency, the shekel, has gone down by 25 per cent in value. Revenue from tourism has also drastically declined in this period. For the Zionist state, these statistics are more devastating than the body count.

AMBASSADOR EL-SHEIKH says that the Israeli establishment was never serious about peace and points out that the Tenet and Mitchell plans call for the dismantlement of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Peace would also bring to the surface the inherent contradictions of Israeli society. According to el-Sheikh, about 90 nationalities from different parts of the world constitute the Jewish nation. "It is only the fight against the Arabs that unites them."

Another reason why peace with Arabs is not a big incentive for Israel is that its economy has been built on exports of high- tech weaponry, agricultural produce and diamonds to non-Arab countries. After the Madrid peace conference of 1991, Israel found big markets in Asian countries such as India, China, Japan and South Korea. Its combined annual trade with them rose from $3 billion in 1990 to $9 billion in 1999. Trade with Turkey and India grew more than sixfold. After Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat, the European Union and Turkey rewarded Israel with lavish contracts in the high-tech sector. By pretending to reach out to Palestinians, Israel had shed its status as an untouchable and become an active player in the globalised economy. At the same time, a far less isolated Israel felt little pressure in living up to the commitment it had made to the Palestinians. It enjoyed economic benefits without having to fulfil the promise it made in Oslo to grant sovereignty to the Palestinians. Yitzhak Rabin's successors faithfully adhered to his famous statement that there "are no sacred deadlines" for Israel.

Sharon's intransigence and brutality threaten to undermine the diplomatic and economic gains Israel made in the past decade. The opposition parties and the media in Turkey want their government to scrap the lucrative defence deals it struck with Israel recently. (Turkey signed a $660-million deal with Israel for modernising its army's fleet of tanks.) The Turkish media, reflecting all ideological shades, have called for a reappraisal of the country's relations with Israel.

Israel has emerged as India's second largest defence partner. It sells high-tech weapons and technology to India. Arab countries are not happy with the growing strategic friendship between Tel Aviv and New Delhi. They point out that most of the weaponry and technology Israel offers to India are available from countries such as Russia, South Africa and France. And after the recent events, Israel's expertise in counter-insurgency is seen to be of dubious value.

INITIALLY, just after the full-scale Israeli invasion of Palestine started, the Indian response was muted. It was only after the arrival of Arafat's personal envoy Hani Al Hassan in New Delhi in the first week of April that the Indian government took a stronger position on the issue. New Delhi has told the Israeli government that it opposes the virtual imprisonment of Yasser Arafat. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh spoke to Arafat on the phone in the first week of April and expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause. He reiterated that India saw Arafat as a symbol of the Palestinian Authority and expressed India's concern about his safety and well-being. Jaswant Singh also spoke to Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres; he told Peres that the incarceration of Arafat was "compounding difficulties" for the peace process. In a statement, the External Affairs Ministry said that the government's views on the subject were "a reflection of the nationwide concern in India".

Many Arab diplomats would like India to take a more proactive stand against the kind of state terrorism that is being practised by the Sharon government. They warn that the predilection of many Bharatiya Janata Party leaders to compare India's struggle against terrorism to Israel's attack on the Palestinian people is fraught with danger. Israel, they point out, is an occupying power while the situation is totally different in the case of Kashmir.

Arafat's personal envoy met top political leaders and government officials, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. They have joined the international criticism against Israel. The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has urged the government to ask the Israeli Ambassador to leave India and recall its Ambassador from Tel Aviv.

Governments around the world have demanded that Israel immediately comply with the latest United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Ramallah and other Palestinian cities. European governments have told Israel that it would be a grave mistake even to think of eliminating Arafat. Moscow and Beijing have also strongly criticised Israel. Only the U.S. remains steadfast in its refusal to criticise Israel although it voted for the Security Council resolution.

The international community has an obligation to help the Palestinians, especially after the latest Israeli invasion. Before the invasion, the unemployment rate in Palestine was between 35 per cent and 50 per cent. The number of Palestinians living in poverty has increased dramatically in the past two years. About 64 per cent of them lived in poverty when the second Intifada started two years ago.

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