Violence for vote

Print edition : April 07, 2006

As parliamentary elections approach in Israel, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gets tough in Palestine.

ATUL ANEJA in Bahrain

A demonstration outside the British Cultural Centre in the West Bank city of Ramallah.-ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

THE atmosphere of intimidation, revenge and frustration that has descended upon the Palestinian territories is not a good augury for dialogue and peace. Israel, since its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, is looking at imposing a unilateral "vision" for resolving the Palestinian issue. It intends to retain large segments of the West Bank. No signals are emanating that indicate a willingness to negotiate the status of Jerusalem. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent state. Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Israel's electoral politics also reinforces its hard-line stance. With security always high on the agenda, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying to project himself as a tough leader, especially since he has inherited the legacy of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is in a comatose condition in a Jerusalem hospital.

Sharon has been the architect of the unilateralist approach, which envisages that Israel should enclose Palestinians in portions of Palestinian territory that are of little significance to it. Consequently, the Gaza Strip, which is of little strategic importance, was given up. It has also been fenced off and presents little physical risk to Israelis from the restive Palestinian population on the other side. Sharon was also responsible for constructing a concrete wall in the West Bank, which he said would protect and separate the huge Israeli settlements from the Palestinian communities.

Olmert is now the de facto leader of the Kadima party, which Sharon formed months before he fell ill. It is, therefore, up to him to lead the party to victory in the March 28 polls. Benjamin Netanyahu, a hardliner who is leading the Likud party, from which Sharon broke away, is not giving Olmert many options. Netanyahu is running in the third position in opinion poll ratings. Not surprisingly, Olmert gave a series of interviews to the Israeli media recently, in which he spelt out his unilateral approach towards the Palestinians in detail. He said Israel's controversial West Bank fence would become the baseline for determining the country's final border. No Israeli settler would remain on the eastern side of the fence by 2010. Olmert, thus, became the first Israeli leader to state categorically what was suspected for long - that the wall that was in the past described as a security measure to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers would also serve as the basis of a cartographic exercise that would define new territorial boundaries. In concrete terms, it meant that Israeli settlers would not vacate the West Bank's main settlement blocks, thereby making the 1967 occupation of large parts of the West Bank a permanent feature.

Olmert warned that he would enforce the plan if party won the elections unless the Hamas (which won the Palestinian parliamentary polls in January) recognised Israel, disarmed, and renounced violence within a `reasonable' timeframe.

The Acting Prime Minister added that construction would begin in the controversial E1 area east of Jerusalem, which would cut off virtually the Palestinians in the West Bank from Gaza. Besides, he said Jerusalem would remain `united'. This meant a formal rejection of Palestinian aspirations to make East Jerusalem the capital of the future Palestinian state. Under Olmert's plan the historic Old City, including its Arab Quarter, and other areas in central East Jerusalem such as the Mount of Olives, will remain under Israeli control.

Recent opinion polls have shown that the majority of Israelis support the Kadima's unilateral approach. According to Peace Index, a monthly survey conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Centre for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, 70.8 per cent of Israelis questioned towards the end of January agreed that Israel must fix its own borders by completing the construction of the fence quickly. Only 21.3 per cent opposed the idea.

Sensing that the Kadima's formulation on security was working, Olmert's government gave yet another demonstration of its "bold" approach towards the Palestinians. Arguing that the government that the Hamas would form would release a few wanted prisoners, they attacked the Jericho prison using tanks and helicopters. By nightfall on March 14, the Israelis had captured the wanted man, Ahmed Saadat, and five others, who, along with nearly 200 other activists, had refused to surrender.

Ehud Olmert at a ceremony at the police headquarters in Jerusalem.-ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

Saadat was the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He succeeded Abu Ali Mustafa in 2002 after the latter's assassination by Israel in his West Bank office in Ramallah in 2001. Israel accused Saadat of masterminding the retaliatory assassination of former Israeli Minister of Tourism Rehavam Zeevi. Saadat took refuge in the Muqataa compound of Yasser Arafat, who refused to hand him over to the Israeli authorities.

Negotiations involving the United States and Britain resulted in an agreement, under which the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) tried Saadat in a military court and put him in the Jericho jail under joint British and American guard.

The Palestinian Supreme Court declared that Saadat's incarceration was illegal and ordered his release. The PNA, however, refused to comply with the order. Amnesty International also declared that Saadat's trial was unfair and his detention illegal. Consequently, he should have either been charged and tried or released. It also urged Israel to declare that it would not assassinate Saadat in case he was released.

Minutes before the Israeli raid, the three British monitors who are part of a team that usually includes Americans, withdrew in violation of a formal agreement.

The raid triggered a wave of fury that engulfed the Palestinian territories, resulting in British and American interests being targeted. Hundreds of Palestinian fighters stormed the British cultural centre in the Gaza Strip and set it ablaze. Angry crowds also stormed into the American Centre in Gaza City. In Ramallah, the HSBC Bank was attacked, apart from the British Cultural Centre.

There was also a wave of kidnappings. In Gaza, armed men kidnapped the director of the International Red Cross and two Australians, who were later released. In the northern West Bank city of Jenin, an American teacher at the Arab American University was abducted for a few hours.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades warned American and British nationals to leave the Palestinian territories immediately. Amid the violence, hundreds of Palestinians demonstrated against the Israeli raid throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian security forces said all foreigners had left the Gaza Strip and that before leaving they had been provided protection in the police headquarters in Gaza City. As the unrest flared, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas abandoned a European tour and flew back from Strasbourg.

The withdrawal of the monitors has undermined the credibility of the British and the Americans as "honest brokers" in enforcing international agreements. Summing up the mood in the Arab world, the Arabic daily Al Khalij, published from the United Arab Emirates, said: "What happened yesterday [March 14] in Jericho is a scandal. There was a conspiracy between the Zionist entity and its patrons Washington and London which preceded the Jericho prison crime." Expressing similar views, Libya's Al Jamahiriyah said: "Israeli soldiers did not only open fire on the prisoners, they set fire to the last page of the American-British guarantees plan."

Israeli authorities said that the storming of the prison was not linked to electoral politics. Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said: "We have not been operating in Jericho for electoral reasons.... We had no choice but to intervene as no responsible state could allow the murderers of one of its Ministers to be at liberty." Nevertheless, the raid improved Kadima's chances at the polls. In a survey by Israeli Army Radio, the Kadima could now get 43 seats in the 120-member Parliament, a six-seat jump which the poll said was on account of public support for the Jericho operation.

Apart from the perceived backing from the U.S. and Britain, divisions among the Palestinians are also encouraging Israel. The Hamas, which won handsomely and unseated the Fatah party in the elections, is finding itself increasingly isolated. Its attempts to form a national unity government with Fatah have failed. On March 18, Hamas decided to appoint Omar Abdel-Razeq, a prominent West Bank economist and Hamas election official, Finance Minister. Abdel-Razeq, a Professor at An-Najah University, was arrested by Israeli forces early in January and released a few days ago. His appointment could deepen Hamas' isolation as the U.S. and Israel have said they would not give any money to a Hamas-led Finance Ministry directly.

The Fatah party demanded that the Hamas should recognise unconditionally the state of Israel, disarm and honour the commitments which the Palestinians had made in the aftermath of the Oslo peace accords. The Hamas is refusing to do so. The Hamas leadership has been saying that it would talk to Israel if the latter agreed to vacate all the occupied territories.

Faced with mounting pressure, Hamas has become even more defiant. Hamas' leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal has already warned that running the Palestinian Authority was not the group's ultimate objective. "We and the Zionists have a date with destiny. If they want a fight, we are ready for it. If they want a war, we are the sons of war. If they want a struggle, we are for it to the end," he said in Damascus.

Wary of Western countries, Hamas is looking for partners in Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, which, after decades of being under the shadow of the U.S., has begun to demonstrate a refreshingly independent foreign policy approach. With the polarisation complete, the prospects of dialogue with Israel nearly nil and the multilateral "peace process" already overtaken by unilateral moves, the standoff between Israel and the Palestinians is about to peak. In such a situation, extreme violence may only be round the corner. Some analysts are of the view that the "Iraqiisation" of the Palestinian movement may not be far away, and the restive Palestinian territories may be about to explode, this time under the banner of radical Islam.

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