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Reluctant steps

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST



The Israeli response to the ceasefire declared by the Palestinian militant groups has been less than conciliatory - the Jewish state ordered a partial withdrawal of troops from the occupied territories and imposed conditions on the release of Palestinian prisoners.

THE West Bank and Gaza have been relatively quiet since the two major Palestinian factions engaged in the struggle against Israeli occupation declared a temporary cessation of hostilities in the last week of June. The militant groups, the Hamas and the Islamic Jehad, announced that they were suspending military operations for three months. These groups were persuaded to halt their attacks after intense behind-the-scenes negotiations. It was the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti who finally managed to persuade them to come on board despite their misgivings about the United States-sponsored "road map" for peace. Hamas leaders such as Sheikh Yassin had vowed to carry on the fight against the Zionist state to the bitter end.

However, breaking its pledge to stop targeted killings of individuals in the occupied territories, Israel continued targeting Hamas and Islamic Jehad leaders and activists just days before the latter declared a ceasefire. Earlier, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is aligned with the Al Fatah to which both Palestinian Authority (P.A.) President Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas belong, was killed in the first week of June. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has since said that it would continue fighting against the Israeli occupation forces.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, apparently under pressure from the White House, responded to the Palestinian gesture by partially withdrawing his troops from some Palestinian towns. Israel has also agreed to allow greater freedom of movement for Palestinians; the steps taken in this regard include the lifting of the ban on travel by Palestinians under the age of 35. When the second intifada started in September 2000, the Israelis retaliated by closing their borders, preventing more than 15,000 Palestinians from reaching their workplaces in Israel.

Israeli troops have pulled out of northern Gaza and the West Bank city of Bethlehem, which witnessed heroic scenes of resistance two years ago. The Mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, is of the view that the Israeli withdrawal is more ceremonial than real. The Israeli troops are in the periphery of the city ready for redeployment at short notice. Since the second intifada began, 2,414 Palestinians and 806 Israelis have been killed and Israel has reoccupied most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Washington complicated matters when President George Bush said in early July that his goal was not just a ceasefire but the complete elimination of the Hamas. Bush and the Israeli government want the P.A. to do the job for them. However, the P.A. has indicated that it would in no way encourage or instigate fratricidal wars among Palestinians. In fact, Prime Minister Abbas called on Sheikh Yassin in the first week of June to apprise him of the latest developments.

THE Palestinian Prime Minister said that he expected Israel to withdraw its troops from all the occupied territories within a month and a half and return to the pre-September 2000 borders. Abbas met Sharon in the first week of July. Both leaders exuded optimism about the prospects for peace. Not surprisingly, the Palestinian Prime Minister's tone was more conciliatory. He told the media after meeting Sharon: "Our struggle is a political struggle, which we will end through political means. We have no hostility against the Israeli people, and we have no interest in continuing the struggle with you."

On the other hand, Sharon, who is reviled on the Palestinian street as "the butcher", was not that conciliatory. He refused to consider favourably the request from Abbas that Yasser Arafat be released from the virtual house arrest he has been under for the last two years and be allowed to travel freely. The Israeli side has also rejected the Palestinian Prime Minister's plea for the release of Marwan Barghouti, who many expect to step into Arafat's shoes in the near future.

Apparently, the only concession that Abbas managed to secure from Sharon was on the issue of Palestinian prisoners. After the meeting, Sharon indicated that he would release around 5,000 Palestinian prisoners expeditiously. However, the Israeli Cabinet later set tough conditions for the release of prisoners. Sharon announced on July 6 that "prisoners with blood on their hands" will not be released. Under the new yardstick adopted by Sharon, any Palestinian belonging to a militant group or those who encouraged attacks on Israelis will not be eligible for release.

Sharon demanded that the P.A. start disarming the militant groups before Israeli troops started withdrawing from the key West Bank towns of Ramallah and Hebron. Release of prisoners by the Israelis would have helped Abbas extract some more concessions from the Hamas and the Islamic Jehad. Israel's refusal to release Palestinians who participated in the intifada, has strengthened the hands of the militants. The leaders of the Hamas are also sure that Sharon will sabotage the nascent peace process at the opportune movement. The Hamas leadership is confident that they will be vindicated sooner rather than later. The Hamas had asked for the resignation of Abbas from the Prime Minister's post when he had first called for an end to the armed uprising against the Israeli occupation during the Aqaba summit in June.

The long-term plan of Abbas and his security chief Mohammed Dahalan is to convert the Hamas and the Islamic Jehad into toothless political parties. A quick Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories coupled with the release of political prisoners would have boosted the popularity of Abbas and helped the P.A. to start the process of reigning in the militant groupings.

Israeli officials have already started complaining that the P.A. has not been able to keep to its commitments under the "road map". The Israeli interpretation of the "road map" requires the Palestinians first to dismantle what the former describe as the infrastructure of terrorism. An Israeli government spokesman said in the second week of July that until the P.A. took action against militant Palestinian groups, Israel reserved "the right to take defensive measures on behalf of its citizens". Defensive measures could mean the resumption of fullscale deployment of Israeli troops in the occupied territories and targeted assassinations of Palestinians.

Meanwhile, some hawkish sections of the Israeli establishment have started proclaiming that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular are a defeated people. In the second week of July, Israeli Army Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon grandiosely claimed victory against the Palestinians. He said that the Israeli Army had "fought terror with heroism, we now need to announce that we have won and carry on". Senior Israeli military officials have been quoted as saying that "senior Palestinian officials" have come to the conclusion that violence will not help them achieve their goals.

However, Israeli officials are reluctant to admit the damage the intifada has caused to their national interests. The country's economy has been affected, causing recession and high rates of unemployment. The inflow of tourists has come down substantially. Immigration, which is crucial to Israel's survival as a state, has also reduced drastically in the last three years. During the peak years of 1990 and 1991, more than 377,000 immigrants came to Israel. Last year the number of immigrants was 15,168. Minister for Immigration Tzipi Livni admitted that immigration has gone into a "tailspin". The Minister said that immigration would "define the strength of the state of Israel". More than 50 per cent of the current population of Israel was born abroad.

Israelis fear that the demographic factor may ultimately overwhelm their country. Israeli authorities have calculated that by 2015, there will be more Palestinians than Jewish persons between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. Concerned Israelis have realised that if Israel wanted to retain its Jewish identity, it would have no option but to vacate the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon seems to be aware of the ticking demographic bomb. He has belatedly admitted that Israel is in "occupation" of Palestinian land. Under the "road map" a Palestinian state that will come into existence by 2005 will comprise only around 22 per cent of Palestinian land. If Israel continues with its occupation and annexations, the Jewish people will soon be reduced to a minority.

The Israeli Parliament (Knesset) is on the verge of introducing a law that forbids the granting of Israeli citizenship to Palestinians from the occupied territories who marry Israelis. The law, which passed its first reading in the Knesset, bans the granting of citizenship even in cases of reunification between families split between Israel and the occupied territories. The law is mainly aimed at preventing the growth of the Palestinian population inside the Zionist state.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 01, 2003.)



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