Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

The 'war on terror' led by the United States is perhaps on the verge of unveiling new horrors that the world could take long to recover from.

TEN days into an odyssey through the region that has been designated as the central theatre in the second phase of the "war on terror", U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney conferred his benediction on the Palestinian Authority chairman, Yasser Arafat. After two days of intimate discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Cheney announced that he would be willing to meet with Arafat at an early date, if violence against Israel were to cease. Clearly suggesting prior agreement and close coordination between the two countries, Israel announced concurrently that it would be willing to allow Arafat to travel to the end-March Arab League summit in Beirut, if he were to fulfil the minimum conditions imposed on him.

Just as Cheney was emerging from his prolonged seclusion in "undisclosed locations" to embark upon his proselytising mission in the Arab world, President George Bush was mobilising the faithful for the new phase of his crusades. Addressing a gathering of Ambassadors and other officials at the White House to mark the passage of six months since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Bush thought it appropriate to tone down the bellicosity he has otherwise been prone to displaying. But the central message was clear enough: regimes that support terrorism could not be allowed to gain access to weapons of mass destruction. "Inaction," said the U.S. President, "was not an option" when it came to drawing the fangs of these regimes and perhaps even deposing them. The U.S. remains focussed as never before on the task it considers the incomplete legacy of the 1991 Gulf War - the toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his replacement by a leadership that would be more amenable to western geopolitical interests in the region.

Cheney's departure from U.S. shores was accompanied by a ferocious offensive by Israeli armed forces in the Palestinian territories. No fewer than two Army divisions, complete with tanks and supplemented with helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter jets, were launched into the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the most significant military operation undertaken by Israel since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Over the period of a week, the Israeli armed forces killed over 150 Palestinians. As they entered Palestinian towns and refugee camps, they made announcements demanding that every male resident between the ages of 16 and 40 turn himself in to the occupying forces. Those who surrendered or were rounded up were blindfolded before being taken in for interrogation, often with a humiliating serial number tattooed on to their arm.

The military rationale for the massive incursions into Palestinian territory was chillingly spelt out by Sharon: "They must be beaten. We have to cause them heavy casualties, and then they will know that they cannot keep using terror and win political achievements." Ironically, he also announced in virtually the same breath that he would drop his insistence on a week of absolute calm from the Palestinian side before beginning talks on a truce. "Negotiations to stop the shooting will be held under fire," he said on Israel TV, just as his armed forces went into their most brutal campaign of suppression in the 18-month-long Palestinian uprising.

As Cheney set foot in Israel, Sharon began pulling his forces back from Palestinian towns. The Israeli forces left in their wake a trail of destroyed homes, wrecked roads, disabled power transmission systems and burnt automobiles. The pull-out remained tentative till the time Cheney left, since Israel had not been assured yet of Palestinian good faith in implementing a truce. But clearly, when he spoke of negotiating "under fire", Sharon only meant Israel's absolute right to employ maximum force against Palestinian civilians when it thinks appropriate. On the other side, the slightest suggestion of resistance would be met with crushing force.

The Palestinian Authority has insisted that a complete Israeli military pullout from areas under its control is an essential requirement for negotiations leading to a truce. This is a rather weak bargain that it is seeking to drive, in a situation of tremendous adversity. Previous efforts by the Authority to enforce a truce have not been reciprocated and have only caused it enormous loss of credibility. Following Arafat's last appeal for calm to his people on December 16 last year, there was purportedly a period of relative calm in the territories. Early in January the Western media awoke to this miraculous occurrence and lauded the opportunity it presented to resume meaningful political negotiations. What they failed to appreciate, consistent with the pattern of evasion that they have set since the Palestinian uprising began, is that Israel never had any use for a truce or for restoring the political dialogue.

The day following Arafat's speech, Israeli forces invaded the Palestinian town of Nablus, pulling down homes and killing two civilians and a police officer. Provocative military actions continued for the next four weeks, taking a steady toll of lives. These climaxed with a massive raid into the Gaza Strip between January 12 and 13, and the demolition of 54 homes in the town of Rafah. By the standards of the Israeli forces, it was a routine operation. Over the preceding year it is estimated that they have pulled down no fewer than 200 homes in Rafah, apart from twice over destroying the airport that the Palestinian Authority had constructed in Gaza city, tearing up its tarmac in a deliberate affront to the symbolism associated with the project in the Palestinian state in the making.

Israel's current public mood is riddled with serious uncertainties and reservations. A group of army reservists have recently gone public with their objection to serving in the occupied territories and enforcing the repressive regime devised to deal with the Palestinian uprising. They have been assured of stern disciplinary action and possible imprisonment for their pains. Israel is clearly in no mood to allow any stirrings of conscience at this stage, when it is seemingly intent on imposing a solution according to its own terms.

OMINOUSLY, there is now a growing tide of public support for the ethnic cleansing solution that has always been dear to Sharon. A recent public opinion poll carried out by a unit of Tel Aviv University, found that no fewer than 46 per cent of the Jewish citizens of Israel favour a transfer of the Arabs from the occupied territories. Of the sample polled, 31 per cent also expressed broad endorsement for the transfer of Israeli Arabs, while 60 per cent favoured measures that would encourage Arabs to emigrate out of Israel. On the need to exclude Arab citizens from major policy decisions on issues that could affect the future boundaries of the state, there was almost unanimous agreement within the sample surveyed.

The Moledet Party, a constituent of Sharon's ruling coalition, recently quit his Ministry in protest at the recent decision to release Arafat from his prolonged confinement and allow him to move around within the West Bank town of Ramallah. Shortly after submitting his resignation, Benny Elon of the Moledet Party declared on television that "only transfer will bring peace". Writing in his party newspaper, he went on to elaborate on the necessity of ethnic cleansing to ensure the security of the Israeli state: "If (the Palestinians) cannot live with us peacefully, they will not live here with us at all. Israel's deterrent power will not return if we do not make it clear to our neighbours that terror is liable to make them lose their land, just as happened in 1948 - Naqba (catastrophe) for them and independence for us."

In its specifics, Elon's plan mirrors a long-running motif in Israeli politics, which has been closely associated with Sharon. The Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza, he has said, "could be transferred, even without uprooting them (sic), and transformed into citizens of the Palestinian state whose capital is Amman". But this should be accomplished only on the condition that the residents of the refugee camps in these territories, who in Elon's estimate are "the main fomenters of hostilities, should be resettled in (other) Arab countries".

Parties that unabashedly advocate transfer won just 4 per cent of the vote in the last Israeli general elections. And spokesmen of Sharon's own Likud Party have purported to be "saddened" by the findings of the recent opinion poll. But as the meticulous research of a prominent Palestinian scholar based in the United Kingdom has shown, various luminaries of the Likud Party have argued in favour of the ethnic cleansing solution in the past. Apart from Sharon, whose utterances have been infamous, his rival for leadership in the Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, is credited with observing in 1989 that Israel had just missed an important opportunity to settle its demographic problem once and for all. The international uproar over the Tiananmen Square incidents in China in June 1989 had afforded precisely this opportunity, he said. When world attention was focussed almost entirely on China, Israel could have carried out "large-scale expulsions", while minimising the damage to its international image. But in partial mitigation for this missed opportunity, Netanyahu did conclude that there still remained "opportunities to expel many people'. (Nur Masalha, A Land Without a People, Faber and Faber, London, 1997).

The current mood in Israel is not being taken lightly in the Arab world. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt warned in an interview broadcast on March 15 on Israeli television that transfer was no solution at all: "Don't start thinking that you can expel the Palestinians out to Jordan or anywhere else. It will be the biggest danger for Israel if you did it. I'm drawing your attention to this and advising you for the sake of peace and stability, don't let this be your thinking at all."

The U.S. is the only quarter of the world where the current Israeli belligerence is being viewed with equanimity and indulgence. It should hence have occasioned little surprise that Cheney's tour of the Arab world won him no support for the proposed second phase of the war on terrorism. Most media observers in the U.S., while purporting to be disappointed at the Arab response, argue that there is nothing unexpected about it. This does not in any manner dilute their insistence that the U.S. campaign against Saddam Hussein must be carried out irrespective of the support it receives in the region or the world at large.

Jordan, after Egypt the first Arab state to conclude a peace treaty with Israel, was Cheney's first port of call in the Arab world and that is where he received his first public admonition. Action against Iraq, warned King Abdullah of Jordan, would destabilise the entire region and undermine the gains of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. He also called for ending the economic sanctions against the "fraternal" Arab country of Iraq and emphasised that the United Nations was the only forum through which political ends in the region could be pursued.

It is not clear what results Cheney could have expected from his tour of the Arab world, or what possible secret commitments he may have tied up. For the public record, though, the attitude of the U.S.' staunchest allies in the region is unequivocal. Even in the tiny kingdom of Bahrain, Crown Prince Salman felt emboldened to lecture the U.S. Vice-President on the fundamentals of the situation in West Asia: "The people who are dying on the streets today are not the result of Iraqi action, the people who are dying today are the result of Israeli action."

Saudi Arabia delivered a very similar message, though Cheney sought to put a positive gloss on his discussions with Crown Prince Abdullah by hinting at certain tacit agreements that allowed the U.S. greater leeway than the Saudi rulers would like to concede in public. The Saudi Crown Prince, who is in effective control of his kingdom because of the prolonged incapacitation of the king, also earned an invitation to visit the President at his Texas ranch. This is considered the ultimate signal of political bonding in the Bush administration, though it is not clear that U.S. action against Iraq will necessarily be delayed.

At stake now is the future of a Saudi proposal for peace in West Asia, which would exchange Arab diplomatic recognition for Israel and iron-clad security guarantees for the withdrawal of the Jewish state to its pre-1967 borders. Curiously, this plan was first mooted by Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times and a known Zionist sympathiser, after a meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah in February. It has later come to enjoy wide currency as a Saudi proposal which has elicited the interest of both the U.S. and Israel.

The P.A. has eagerly embraced the proposal, as have the U.S.' allies in the Arab world. President Mubarak has revealed that he received overtures from Israel shortly after the plan was mooted, suggesting that a meeting be set up between Abdullah and Sharon. Sensing a stratagem to divide them from the Arab world, much like Egypt's President Anwar Sadat was after his visit to Jerusalem in 1979, the Saudis brusquely turned down the offer. But they have since said that they will present the peace plan at the Beirut summit of the Arab League, regardless of Arafat's participation. But the scepticism that has informally been voiced by Syria, another vital front line state, seems hard to dispel. With some acuity the Syrian regime has pointed out that the Saudi proposal embodies principles that have long since been accepted by the Arab states. Israel has been singularly responsible for resisting any negotiations on the basis of these principles, most infamously after the Oslo accord with the Palestinians. To expect a sudden dawning of reason, especially when the intractable Ariel Sharon remains in power, would be folly.

Increasingly, it is now evident that the U.S. will have to wage the next phase of its war on terror with only Israel by its side. The Labour government in the U.K. has recently been riven with open dissension over the unquestioning support that has been extended so far to the U.S. Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, hinted that she would consider resigning if the U.K. were to join in a campaign against Iraq. Home Secretary David Blunkett has warned of the possibility of large-scale civil disturbances if the U.K. were to go along with the U.S. And former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who is currently the leader of the House of Commons, has also added his voice to the chorus of dissent. Six months on from September 11, even as the Afghan frontier remains unpacified, the U.S. is perhaps facing its moment of most acute isolation. Few, however, seem to imagine that the country that today imagines that it can function as a matchlessly powerful imperial arbiter accountable to none, will derive the appropriate lessons from its isolation. The war on terrorism is perhaps on the verge of unveiling new horrors that the world could take long to recover from.

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