Rising resentment

Published : Jan 27, 2006 00:00 IST

Members of the Al-Yasser Brigade block the entrance to the Palestine Communication Company building in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip on December 14, protesting against the high phone bills for residents of Gaza. - ADEL HANA/AP

Members of the Al-Yasser Brigade block the entrance to the Palestine Communication Company building in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip on December 14, protesting against the high phone bills for residents of Gaza. - ADEL HANA/AP

With Palestinian anger against the international community for its failure to act against Israel's brazen acts of violence rising, the situation in the occupied territories is becoming increasingly volatile.

IT has been yet another dismal Christmas and New Year for the Palestinian people. This year, the worst-hit area was the Gaza Strip. The weapon of choice for the Israeli forces during the festive season was the "sonic boom". Low-flying F-16 fighter jets have been breaking the sound barrier above the densely populated area. The sonic boom shakes buildings, breaks windowpanes and is aimed at causing panic and hysteria among the people. The practice began only after the Israeli settlers vacated the Gaza Strip in September 2005. A Palestinian psychiatrist told the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera that although a sonic boom is not lethal "it can lead to death indirectly, of unborn children, it can lead to highly traumatising effects on children particularly".

After the Israeli "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip, intra-Palestinian feuds have surfaced, and, in some cases, taken a violent turn. There was optimism in some quarters that the peace process could be revived after the withdrawal of the Israeli military from the Gaza Strip. The militant Palestinian groupings had held their fire at the urging of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It was the longest spell of uninterrupted peace Palestinians had enjoyed since the second intifada (uprising) started five years ago.

However, the gesture was not reciprocated by the Israelis. In early November, Dan Hulitz, the Israeli Army Chief of Staff, reasserted that the government's policy of "targeted killings" of Palestinian leaders would continue. Many Palestinians have been killed during the festive season as a result of Israeli Air Force strikes. In retaliation, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in the last week of December inside Israel, killing a soldier and a couple of civilians. The cycle of violence seems to be escalating once again.

Palestinian militant groups, despite the pleas of the Palestinian Authority, have been keeping up a steady barrage of home-made "Qassam" rockets into nearby Israeli settlements since mid-December. In response, the Israeli government has announced the creation of a security zone around northern Gaza Strip unilaterally. Israeli officials have said that this is a security measure designed to prevent infiltration and the firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip. In the words of James Wolfensohn, the representative of the Quartet Group (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations), Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal is on its way to becoming a "giant prison".

In the past two months there have been a spate of abductions in the Gaza Strip, mainly involving rival Palestinian militias fighting for turf. Aid workers and foreigners have been kidnapped and released within days. In the last week of December, fighters belonging to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade temporarily took over government offices housing the Education Ministry, the Governor's Office and the Religious Ministry to protest against the dire economic conditions and the lack of employment opportunities. On New Year's Day, unidentified gunmen ransacked a club used by U.N. officials. There is resentment against the international community for its failure to act against Israel.

Israel seized much more Palestinian territory in 2005 than it surrendered in the Gaza Strip. In September 2005, Prime Minster Ariel Sharon stressed the need for Israel to be discreet while seizing Palestinian land. "There is no need to talk. We need to build, and we are building without talking," he told the Israeli media. In the last week of December, Israel announced the construction of 200 more homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. The U.S. sponsored "road map" for peace prohibits the building or expansion of new settlements.

However, Israel, after having succeeded in convincing a section of the international community that its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was aimed at giving a fillip to the peace process, is once again showing its true face. It is now more than evident that the withdrawal was necessitated by the Israeli military's inability to control the situation and by the logic of demography. Sharon's strategy since taking office has been to separate Israel from the main Palestinian population centres. After the so-called disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the work on the Israeli separation barrier has been going on relentlessly, despite censure by the world community. More and more slices of Palestinian territory are being grabbed in broad daylight. The Israeli wall, when completed, will effectively gobble up 10 per cent of the West Bank.

Sharon in a speech to his hard-line supporters described Israel's disengagement from Gaza as a "fatal blow" to Palestinians' dream of establishing their own state. By pock-marking the West Bank with Israeli settlement and effectively colonising the whole of Jerusalem, Sharon seems to be close to achieving his long-cherished dream. The Palestinian Authority in the last week of December accused Israel of using force to get Palestinians out of the Jordan Valley. "Israel has been systematically making life difficult in the Jordan Valley in order to reduce the number of Palestinians living there," said Ghassan Khateeb, the Palestinian Minister of Planning.

A report published in October by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the Jordan Valley "has become increasingly out of bounds for people living in other parts of the West Bank". The Israeli Army has set up checkpoints barring Palestinians from other parts from entering the Valley, on the pretext of security. Palestinian farmers in the Valley depend on labour from outside to help in cultivation. Since October 2005, agricultural produce from the West Bank has been effectively banned from the Israeli market. Traditionally, agricultural produce from the Valley went to Israeli markets. The Israeli government has set 2008 as the deadline for a workforce free of Palestinians from the occupied territories. Immigrants from non-Arab countries will be the preferred workforce in Israel after that.

"They only exploit the situation to make the lives of the inhabitants intolerable, in the hope that Palestinian society will disintegrate, so that when the time comes, it will be possible to get rid of it entirely," wrote the Israeli commentator Ze'ev Sternhell in the newspaper Haaretz. After the withdrawal, Israel has established "Palestinian-free" and "Palestinian-restricted" areas around Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Palestinians are prohibited from driving on the roads around the settlements officially. The U.N. Special Rapporteur in the region has described this particular Israeli policy as "road apartheid". All these are part of the "strategic measures" aimed at separating the ever-growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank from the sons of the soil totally.

Several armed Palestinian resistance groups, including the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, have announced that they will no longer be bound by the "period of calm" requested by Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is trying, against overwhelming odds, to preserve the ceasefire accord he signed with Sharon at Sharm-el-Sheikh in February 2005. Palestinian militant groups such as the Al Aqsa Brigade, the Islamic Jihad and Qassam (the armed wing of Hamas) have sufficient reasons to be disillusioned by recent events. The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has not changed the ground realities for them. Israeli security forces retain their military stranglehold on Gaza Strip. The Israeli government has not kept its promise to free Palestinian political prisoners. Thousands of their supporters still languish in Israeli jails.

Palestinian political groupings such as Hamas are of the view that forces that do not want fair and free elections are orchestrating much of the violence in the occupied territories. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the last week of January. They were scheduled originally for July 2005. There have been loud calls from Israel and the U.S. to stop Hamas from participating in them. Sharon's spokesman said in December that his government was concerned about the prospects of a "terrorist" organisation coming to power. Recent opinion polls have shown that the popularity of Hamas is rising. The party swept the municipal polls held in the West Bank in December 2005. This will be the first time Hamas will be participating in the parliamentary polls. It had agreed to the current truce on the understanding that it would be allowed to participate in the parliamentary elections.

Israel has been trying other ways to derail the parliamentary polls. Israeli authorities have announced that Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem will not be allowed to participate in the elections. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said that the January elections will be sabotaged if Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not allowed to vote. He has said that if there is no voting in Jerusalem, "there will be no voting at all. For us Jerusalem is more important than anything else".

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