Arafat as target

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

Israel's renewed aggression against Palestinians takes the extreme form of a decision to "remove" Yasser Arafat and attracts international condemnation.

THE Israeli government's decision to "remove" Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, immediately after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reached Tel Aviv from New Delhi, has met with international condemnation. Since September 12, after the decision was announced, Palestinians in their thousands have flocked around Arafat's compound in Ramallah, to protect him. Arafat, as expected, remains defiant. He declared that no power on earth can remove him from his people. Speaking to the media from his battle-scarred headquarters, Arafat said that he was not afraid to die. "I am a Palestinian soldier... I will use my gun to defend not only myself but also every Palestinian child, woman and man and to defend the Palestinian existence," Arafat said, adding: "Is there anyone in Palestine who does not dream of martyrdom?"

Israeli forces have stepped up the violence against the Palestinian people since the return from India of an apparently reinvigorated Sharon. Helicopter gunships have been regularly targeting Palestinian leaders. The Palestinian Ambassador to India Osama Musa, himself a trained pilot, said that the sophisticated Apache helicopter gunships, supplied by the United States to Israel, carry 16 laser-guided missiles that have a 12-km range. "These anti-tank missiles are used to assassinate our leaders," said Musa.

Targeted assassination of Palestinians by Israeli security forces was a major reason for the American-backed "road map" for peace, ushered in four months ago, ending up as a non-starter.

Immediately after the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas on September 6, Israeli helicopter gunships targeted the houses of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and leaders of other radical groupings. The Hamas retaliated in the form of two suicide bombings on September 9, killing 15 Israelis. Israel immediately responded by targeting the house of Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas spokesman, with another of its one-ton bombs. He too escaped death, but his son and some innocent civilians were killed. Another Hamas leader, Abu Swerah, was killed on September 18, when Israeli troops raided a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

The move to "remove" Arafat has the blessings of the Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. National Security Adviser, told the U.S. media recently that the international community would have to confront the question of how to deal with Arafat, who she said "stands as an obstacle to peace". However, Rice still insists that the Bush administration is opposed to any move by Israel to send Arafat into exile or to kill him. The U.S. was the only country to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution denouncing Israel's decision to "remove" Arafat. A few days later President George W. Bush once again reiterated his administration's stance by suggesting that Arafat was a hindrance to the peace process and only a new Palestinian leadership would be capable of bringing about a negotiated settlement.

The Bush administration's views on the issue are not shared by the rest of the international community. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that any move to remove Arafat would be "unwise". The European Union (E.U.) said in a statement that expelling Arafat would "escalate" Israeli-Arab tensions. The Arab League warned that expelling Arafat would have "disastrous consequences across the region and further afield". The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed the view that expelling Arafat would "remove the possibility of peacefully resolving the Israel-Palestinian crisis and would lead to uncontrollable chain of events in the worst case scenario".

The international community was shocked by the lone veto exercised by the U.S. The resolution demanded that Israel "desist from any act of deportation and cease any threat to the safety of the elected President of the Palestinian Authority". The resolution, sponsored by Sudan, Pakistan and South Africa, was prompted by the statement by Israel's Security Cabinet denouncing Arafat as "an obstacle to peace" and saying that he should be "removed".

The Israeli government has not specified the way in which Arafat would be "removed". Several diplomats at the U.N. feared that through its "veto" the Bush administration may have sent a message to the Israeli government that its threat to the Palestinian leader would not be opposed. The spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erekat, described the American veto as marking "a black day" for the U.N. and expressed the hope that Israel would not interpret it as a "licence to kill". In the debate in the Security Council, more than 40 governments, including India, condemned the Israeli threat.

Many Israelis themselves think that the Sharon government's game plan is to assassinate Arafat. Deputy Prime Minster Ehud Olmert has stated that killing Arafat was "definitely one of the options open" for his government. The noted Israeli political commentator, Uri Avnery, wrote recently that it was no longer a question of just "expelling or killing" Arafat. According to Avnery, the Sharon government has decided to "liquidate" him. According to Arab diplomats based in Delhi, there is absolutely no way in which Arafat will allow himself to be physically removed from his compound. Besides, they point out that Israel is aware that an Arafat in exile could be a bigger problem for it. Arafat is on first name terms with most of the world leaders, barring a few like George W. Bush. "If Arafat is forced out of Palestine, Israel will no longer have a convenient scapegoat," said another Arab diplomat.

Avnery feels that the Likud government may not carry out the threat immediately as it would embarrass Israel's benefactor - the Bush administration. According to Avnery, Sharon will look for an opportune moment to target Arafat physically. With Arafat out of the way, Likud hawks like Sharon can start dismantling the Palestinian Authority and implement their plan of establishing an Eretz Israel (Greater Israel) encompassing all Palestinian territories. "Sharon wants to conclude the historic clash between Zionism and the Palestinian people with a clear-cut decision: solid Israeli control over the entire country and a situation that will compel Palestinians to get out," writes Avnery. According to him, Arafat is the only "total obstacle", as defined in the recent Israeli government resolution, to the implementation of this design. Many historians believe that the Israeli invasion of the West Bank in 1967 was a strategic move specifically to secure its water resources.

The events of the last few weeks have once again shown that only Arafat can claim to speak for the entire Palestinian people. The new man chosen by the Palestinian Parliament for the Prime Minster's post is the Speaker Ahmad Qurei. Qurei has said that he would formally assume the Prime Minster's post only after getting assurances from the U.S. and the E.U., that they remain committed to the "road map" for peace. Qurei is known to enjoy the confidence of Arafat. He has also been a critic of the "armed intifada", which started three years ago. Qurei, popularly known among Palestinians as Abu Ala, has also urged the international community to prevail on Israel to lift the siege on Arafat.

The Prime Minster-designate was also quick to propose a ceasefire that would be binding on all Palestinian factions, including the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. This was quickly rejected by Sharon. The Hamas and the Islamic Jihad had scrupulously observed the last truce until it was broken by the Sharon government after it reverted to its notorious policy of targeted killing.

The Palestinian Authority has called for a truce with Israel again. Arafat said that the Hamas and Islamic Jihad were ready for another ceasefire provided the Israelis acted in good faith. The Sharon government, however, wants the Palestinian Authority to first disarm the Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Palestinian officials point out that this is out of the question as it would be a sure recipe for a civil war among Palestinians. Besides, they point out that the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus has been destroyed by more than three years of Israeli military attacks on the Palestinian police and incursions into Palestinian-controlled territories. The Hamas is today the most popular organisation among Palestinians. Many of them are dependent on Hamas' charitable and social work for survival.

An Amnesty International report released on September 8, noted that the Israeli Army in the last three years has killed more than 2,100 civilian, including 380 children, "in mostly excessive and indiscriminate use of force, unlawful killings and assassinations". The report also underlined Israel's "consistent violations of international human rights and humanitarian law", which include arbitrary expropriation of natural resources and the establishment of Israeli settlements on occupied territories.

The report said that, apart from arbitrary killings, Israel was increasingly resorting to punishing the Palestinian people with closures, blockades, checkpoints, curfews and a barrage of other restrictions on movement imposed by the Israeli Army. "Unemployment has soared over 50 per cent, more than half the population is living under the poverty line and malnutrition and other illnesses have increased," said the report.

Avraham Burg, a senior Labour Party Member of Parliament who was until recently the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, wrote recently that Israel could not claim to be the only democracy in the region while at the same time keeping Palestinians under its boots. "The Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption and on foundations of oppression and injustice. As such, the end of the Zionist enterprise is already on our doorstep," he wrote.

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