Ariel Sharon's wild dreams

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

The Israeli Prime Minister shrugs off U.S. pleas to end his brutal offensive against the Palestinians to pursue his vision of occupying more than half of the West Bank.

A DAY or so after his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, had returned from his less than successful peace mission to West Asia U.S. President George W. Bush was to describe Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a man of peace. Even as Bush was uttering these words, personnel of international aid agencies were reeling from the stench of bodies rotting under the rubble of the devastated West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus. After being granted such generous indulgence by the U.S. President - the only person with the power to restrain him - it hardly seemed likely that Sharon would be more amenable to Powell's suggestions when the Secretary of State returns in a month - as he has promised to do.

Powell came to the region in the beginning of April with powerful backing. His President had just issued a call to Israel to withdraw its troops "without delay" from the West Bank towns they had invaded. The U.N. Secretary-General, the Russian Foreign Minister and the European Union's foreign policy chief had met up with Powell in Madrid and reinforced the message.

Anger was rising in the Arab streets with demonstrators in country after country taunting their leaders for their failure to act. Powell himself was to recognise publicly that U.S. interests, and therefore ultimately the welfare of Israel itself, were being jeopardised. The U.S. administration seemed to have been made to face up to the reality that its plans in respect of West Asia, vis-a-vis Iraq or otherwise, would make no headway unless the Israel-Palestine dispute was resolved in a just manner.

Although it was well known that this particular U.S. administration had little interest in getting involved in West Asian peace-making, it would have been presumed that Washington would act decisively once it realised that its own interests would be affected. But from the manner in which he set off on his peace mission it appeared that Powell was not seized by any measure of urgency. He first landed in Morocco (as far as it is possible to be from Israel-Palestine while technically being in West Asia) only to be asked by King Mohammed why he was taking such an indirect route to where he needed to be. Undaunted, Powell went off to Madrid and then sauntered around Egypt and Jordan before finally landing in Israel. Subsequently the U.S. trotted out the lame excuse that Powell needed to line up the moderate Arab states before he spoke to the Israelis and Palestinians.

In the course of his journeys around the Mediterranean rim, Powell at last did something useful. He punctured Sharon's delusion that the U.S. would agree with his assessment that Palestinian Authority (P.A.) President Yasser Arafat had become "irrelevant" and that it would join him in looking for another interlocutor from the Palestinian side. Powell and Bush perforce had to recognise Arafat as the elected leader of the Palestinian people, and Powell dispelled doubts that he would not personally meet with Arafat. But soon after Powell's first meeting with Sharon on April 12, a suicide bomber struck in Jerusalem and the U.S. reverted to its position that a Powell-Arafat meeting would be contingent on the Palestinian leader issuing a categorical condemnation of terror attacks.

Arafat duly issued the statement and Powell went to Ramallah to meet the Palestinian leader in the office building where he has been kept under siege by Israeli tanks. Israel put in that extra effort to show that the meeting was taking place, solely because it had to show courtesy to the U.S. official. Powell's convoy to Ramallah was escorted by Israeli military vehicles and the tanks stationed outside Arafat's office were pulled back just as the convoy approached and moved back into position as soon as it left. Powell did not seem in the least bothered about that. Nor did he find it odd that he should be flying to northern Israel to inquire about the safety of Israelis living there without stopping over in Jenin or Nablus to inquire about the welfare of Palestinians there, though reports were coming out about the horrendous situation there.

Between another round of meetings with Sharon and Arafat, Powell went off to Lebanon and Syria. His mission was to persuade the leadership in both countries that they must restrain the Hizbollah which had already attacked Israeli military posts in the Shebaa farms area and was threatening to launch rocket attacks across Israel's northern border in support of the Palestinian struggle. In both Beirut and Damascus, Powell was given the identical message that peace would be restored in West Asia only in conjunction with Israel's withdrawal from Arab lands.

Prior to Powell's visit, there were few expectations that the U.S. official would aim at anything more than minimalist objectives in this round. But it was also clear that efforts aimed at minimalist objectives would simply not do. Most rational and neutral analysts, including Israeli ones, recognise the fact that the graduated approach envisaged in the Oslo peace processes is no longer workable. The basic premise of the Oslo processes - that the two sides would build the mutual trust necessary to tackle the harder issues as they progressively reached a compromise on lesser matters - has completely collapsed. Deep mutual distrust and animosity reign. Yet at the same time the Oslo processes, especially the talks at Taba (Egypt) in January 2001 which marked their zenith, had produced almost the entire basis for a final settlement.

There was little hope that Powell would decide that the U.S. had to go for broke and compel the Israelis and Palestinians to put the Taba minutes back on the table, iron out the remaining details with the help of outside mediators, settle the outstanding issues and make a final peace. If there was little hope that Powell would go for such an approach, it was at least possible to argue that the U.S. should opt for such a course.

Having endorsed the Saudi initiative, the Arabs were ready to offer Israel full normalisation in return for a full withdrawal and it was also abundantly clear that neither Arabs nor Israelis would move forward towards closure unless someone prodded them to do so.

AS expected, Powell aimed at the minimum and had to settle for less. Sharon was able to shrug off repeated U.S. pleas for an end to his military operations in the West Bank. All that he would offer was the promise of a withdrawal by the end of the third week of April. But even this would not be to the positions the Israeli military forces were stationed prior to the start of the Intifada but to "security zones", a euphemism for rings around Palestinian towns. Such withdrawals are also largely meaningless since Israel has warned that its army would re-enter anytime it wanted. With Sharon being so intransigent there was little chance that the P.A. would issue the ceasefire declaration that Powell sought, so long as Israeli tanks and troops were entrenched so deep within the territories.

Under the circumstances, Powell could do little more than declare victory and withdraw. A ceasefire call would be meaningless when one side was continuing with its operations and the other was unable to enforce it, Powell declared. He thought he had obtained a "time-line" for withdrawal from Sharon and hoped that the Palestinian Authority would ask its people to stop fighting once that withdrawal was complete. Powell also recognised the reality that the P.A. had been so pulverised that it had almost ceased to exist. U.S. officials are to work with the Palestinians to assess how much power the P.A. can actually exert, and financial help has been promised to get it back on its feet.

MEANWHILE the international media and humanitarian aid agencies were slowly coming face to face with the havoc that had been wrought by the Israeli military. They spoke about the stench of death, and earthquake-like scenes in Nablus and the Jenin refugee camp. Bodies were being picked up from under the rubble, but with streets choked with the debris from collapsed buildings neither the Palestinians nor the international agencies could get earthmoving equipment in to search through the rubble swiftly. Human rights groups were of the opinion that the fact of so many bodies, including those of women and children, being buried under the rubble showed that the Israeli Army had either not issued calls for evacuation of civilians or not allowed them the wherewithal to do so. From town after town there were reports of people either bleeding to death from wounds caused in the fighting or dying for lack of medication for major illnesses. In either case a major factor behind the fatalities was that Palestinian ambulances and medical teams were not allowed to move freely.

Towards the end of the third week of April, Israel had begun troop withdrawals of the sort it had promised. But they refused to move from two sites till the Palestinians trapped inside surrendered. Nearly 200 Palestinians were trapped in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with even Israel agreeing that most of them were not on its "wanted" list. But there were some wanted men inside, Israel said, and the rest would be allowed to go only when these surrendered. Arafat and his close aides were jam-packed into a few rooms in his headquarters complex in Ramallah with little food, stinking toilets and without running water. Five "wanted" men were inside with Arafat, who refused to give them up. After his last meeting with Powell on April 17, Arafat lost his temper before the international media and asked, "Is this acceptable? That I cannot go out of the door?"

With bodies still being pulled from the rubble, no final accounting of casualties was possible and there was of course a wide discrepancy between the numbers put out by Israelis and Palestinians. But from all accounts, more civilians than Palestinian fighters had died. Israel has been spinning stories that Palestinian gunmen used their civilians as human shields or that the deaths occurred when the Palestinians walked into their own booby traps. Fighting in some spots was indeed vicious and 14 Israeli soldiers got killed in a single suicide-attack-cum-ambush in the Jenin camp. But indiscriminate fire from tanks and helicopter gunships too took their toll.

Marwan Barghouti, the secretary-general of Fatah in the West Bank and claimed by Israel to be the head of the Al Aqsa Brigades, was captured, as was his deputy. One or two prominent Hamas men and a couple of prominent Islamic Jehad activists were among the dead. Israel claimed that dozens of men in their "wanted" list were among the 2,000 people taken into custody.

But the announcement of major captures was hardly commensurate with the scale of the operation. Reports suggest that many of the most battle-hardened of militants might have already scattered into the caves and gullies which abound in the hills of the West Bank.

A curious fact was that Israel seemed to have largely left out Hamas and the Islamic Jehad from its anti-terror drive. The top echelons of Hamas were free to roam about in Gaza, making proud pronouncements about their certainty that suicide attacks would continue, and of how Israel's actions had increased the pool of potential bombers. The Israeli actions were not extended to the Gaza Strip but Hamas was left untouched in the West Bank town of Hebron as well.

Even before the start of the operation, Sharon had taken to describing Yasser Arafat as the source of all terror. As the operations developed, there appeared to be a design to establish this theory that terrorism was being directed by and through the offices of the P.A.

Palestinian security service personnel fought back when they saw their towns and villages under attack. These people were not shooting at Israeli civilians and not operating in Israeli territory. But Israel began to dub all of them, even those acting in legitimate self-defence, as terrorists. Oddly enough, the Western press did not seem to notice this anomaly. Among those presumably included in this wide and loose definition of terrorism was Jibril Rajoub, head of the Preventive Security Services in the West Bank. Till the other day Israel's intelligence services had repeatedly spoken of Rajoub as a reasonable man, one they could do business with and as a person genuinely working to prevent terror attacks on Israel.

There was other evidence to suggest that the main objective of Sharon's operation was not the dismantling of the infrastructure of terror but the destabilising of the P.A. Departments and offices of the P.A. that had nothing to do with security (even if the security services are presumed to be a terror network) were ransacked. Included in Sharon's description of the "infrastructure of terror" were the education and local government offices and the archives.

Sharon has made no secret of his vision of a West Asian settlement. In his vision, Israel would continue to occupy more than half of the West Bank with all its settlements and control its air and water. All that the Palestinians would be granted would be some form of autonomy (even if it was called state-hood, sovereignty would be truncated) and this should not be exercised by and through Arafat and his P.A. Sharon wants to smash the P.A. and expel Arafat so that he can, or so he wildly hopes, deal with a more pliant Palestinian leadership. If the U.S. gives him time, as it is now doing, Sharon will continue to pursue his wild dreams of continual war.

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