A campaign of violence

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaking at a session of the Knesset, on January 12 seeking approval for a possible troop pullback from the West Bank and Gaza. - BRENNAN LINSLEY/AP

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaking at a session of the Knesset, on January 12 seeking approval for a possible troop pullback from the West Bank and Gaza. - BRENNAN LINSLEY/AP

Israel steps up violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories even as the Ariel Sharon government says that it plans to remove all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip.

THE confirmation by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the first week of February that his government planned to remove all the Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip has come as a surprise, coming as it did just a few days after the suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Although the hawkish Sharon did not specify any time-frame for the dismantling of the illegal settlements from one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the decision has already caused a schism in his Cabinet. Sharon has said that if the extreme right-wing parties, representing the interests of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, walk out of the ruling coalition, he would form another coalition with parties now sitting in the Opposition.

The suicide bombing inside a bus in Jerusalem on January 29, which claimed 11 lives and wounded more than 50 people, was the first inside Israel for more than a month. The bus blew up near the official residence of the Israeli Prime Minister. The last suicide attack was on December 25, outside a bus stop in Tel Aviv, and that killed four people. A few hours earlier, on the same day, an Israeli assassination squad had killed five Palestinians in Gaza and injured another 15. Two days before that, Israeli forces raided a camp in Gaza, killing nine Palestinians and injuring 37, including eight children.

The Sharon government claims that the comparatively low frequency of the acts of violence inside Israeli territory in the last four months was a result of the security measures put in place. The government implied that the security fence it was constructing had also contributed to the overall security of the Jewish population. However, there were reports in the American media that Israeli officials had concluded that the decrease in the violence was because the Islamic movement Hamas had suspended its suicide bombing campaign in deference to the wishes of the majority of the Palestinian people. The explosion in Jerusalem on January 29 shattered some of the illusions harboured by the Likud-led government.

Palestinians point out that although there was a comparative lull in the violence inside Israel, the Israeli killing machine was in top gear in the occupied territories. There have been documented cases of Israeli state violence against the Palestinian people in the past four months. Since the first week of October, more than 117 Palestinians, including 23 children have been killed. In the same period, more than 500 Palestinian homes were destroyed by Israeli forces. On October 10, a large contingent of Israeli troops, accompanied by tanks, bulldozers and helicopters, entered the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. In the two-day siege, eight Palestinians, including three children were killed, 170 homes destroyed and more than 2,000 Palestinians rendered homeless.

After this incident, Amnesty International said in a statement: "The repeated practice by the Israeli Army of deliberate and wanton destruction of homes and civilian property is a grave violation of international human rights and international law, notably Articles 33 and 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and constitutes a war crime." On October 20, 11 Palestinians were killed in two separate attacks carried out by Israeli forces. The first attack killed the two occupants of the targeted car along with the driver of another car. The second attack missed the intended target and killed seven civilians and injured 50, among them 11 children.

"So we must fight terrorism, but at the same time we must fight not to become more and more like the terrorists. The fact that buses explode here does not justify Sharon, Mofaz (Israeli Defence Minster) and Air Force chief Dan Halutz's decision to `unintentionally' kill nine children in their sleep and to sow terror in a population of millions who live under a reign of closures, curfews and checkpoints," wrote Yonathan Shapira. one of the courageous group of Israeli Air Force pilots who refused to target civilians in the occupied territories. These are only a few of the incidents that occurred during the last four months - a period described by Israeli authorities as one of relative calm.

It was not surprising that Sharon ordered his security forces to wreak revenge on the hapless Palestinian population in the towns of Bethlehem and Jericho and in many refugee camps, in response to the bus-bombing in January. Senior Israeli government officials announced yet again that the leaders of Islamist groupings such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad were the targets of the attacks. Interestingly, it was the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Al Fatah, that first claimed responsibility for the Jerusalem suicide attack. The bombing took place at a time when senior United States State Department officials were talking to Israeli Cabinet Ministers to kick-start the U.S. peace plan, which has remained stalled for some months. At the same time, Egyptian officials were talking to the Palestinian Authority, trying to convince it about the need to start talking once again to the Israeli government.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei had refused to meet Sharon, citing as reasons the Israeli Prime Minster's inflexible stance on key issues such as the "security wall", targeted killings and the building of settlements. There were indications that even the Bush administration was beginning to lose patience with Sharon's intransigence. The U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights is said to be very critical of Israel's human rights abuses in the occupied territories and the building of the wall. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague will soon be hearing the case against the construction of the so-called security wall, which has gobbled up more Palestinian territory on the West Bank. With Palestinian backing, the United Nations General Assembly has sent the case to the world court for an advisory opinion. The case will be considered by a 15-member Bench and the hearing will begin on February 23. Israel wants the State Department to submit its annual report only after the ICJ finishes its hearings. Israel fears that the U.S. report may influence the ICJ, though the Bush administration itself was against the matter being referred to the world court. Palestinian leaders have made their displeasure about Washington's position on the issue clear.

Sharon's talk about giving up on the Jewish settlements in Gaza may be an attempt to buy time as the work on the wall is going on at a hectic pace. The "apartheid wall", if allowed to be completed, will be 700 km-long and will make a mockery of Palestinian statehood. One-quarter of the work on the wall is over and it has already encroached deep into Palestinian territory. Settlement activity is continuing unhindered on the West Bank. While Sharon was talking about giving up on the settlements, Israeli forces raided the refugee camp at Rafah, killing four Palestinian civilians. Following the Jerusalem bombing, Israeli forces, after a long time, entered the Palestinian town of Jericho when the residents were celebrating Id. They left after a heavy gun battle in which a Palestinian civilian dead.

The Israeli government did not allow the Jerusalem bombing to disrupt the prisoner swap between it and the Hezbollah - the first such deal between the sworn enemies. The deal, mediated by Germany, involved the release of 400 Palestinians, 23 Lebanese and 12 Arab detainees in exchange for four Israelis detained by the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The prisoner exchange involving the Lebanese and the Israelis took place in Cologne, Germany, on the day of the bus bombing in Jerusalem. The Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasr Allah, said that his group would have no option but to capture more Israelis if Tel Aviv refused to release the remaining Lebanese prisoners it currently held.

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