A test of resilience

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

The Israeli military machine has seemingly slowed down after wreaking much havoc, but the valiant Palestinians are determined to keep on fighting for their cause.

ISRAELI troops have completed their withdrawal from Ramallah, Jenin and other towns but still remain in force on the West Bank. After the last major suicide attack against Israel in Tel Aviv in the first week of May, there was talk of Israeli forces sweeping into Gaza and replicating what they did in the West Bank. But with international opinion ranged against Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seems to be having second thoughts about staging yet another military attack. The mood in Israel is also undergoing a change as reflected by the huge peace rally held in Tel Aviv in the second week of May. The month-and-a-half-long siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem also ended after protracted negotiations.

But the heroic resistance out up by the Palestinians has been a morale booster. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has described Jenin as "Jeningrad", drawing parallels with the epic battle of Stalingrad during the Second World War. Said a leading Jordanian media personality: "The Palestinian martyrs in Jenin humiliated the Israeli army. They stood up to one of the world's most powerful armies. Fighting Israel is like fighting the United States. It has done wonders to the Palestinian psyche. This could be a turning point in the region. Recent Arab history has been one of defeat. Now they have somebody to look up to".

He underlined the fact that the Israeli Army had deployed more than 200 tanks - the size of an armoured brigade - to subdue the valiant people of Jenin. During the course of the siege, the Israelis had to change five commanders and resort to a "scorched earth" military policy. The senior media professional said that many Jordanians had seen Israelis burying Palestinians in the stealth of the night in the Jordan valley area after the horrible massacres in Jenin. Israel was also forced to let the Palestinian fighters holed up in the Church of the Nativity walk out. While some of those who figure on Israel's wanted list will be transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction, others have been flown into exile in Europe, despite Israel's pledge to capture them either dead or alive.

At the same time, there is tangible despair and anger on the Arab streets at the seeming impotence of the Arab governments to make a decisive political move against Israel and the U.S. The huge demonstrations that were staged all over the Arab world following the Israeli invasion of Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin illustrated the deep anger on the Arab street. The biggest of these demonstrations took place in Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In Jordan, the state had to step in to stop demonstrations, after leaders of some of the Opposition parties insisted on marching to the Israeli embassy to raise the Palestinian flag. Although the Jordanian government wants to continue its "pragmatic relations" with Israel, recently the Jordanian Foreign Minister was constrained enough to state that it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify Jordan's continuing diplomatic relations with the Zionist state.

Several Arab governments have begun to discourage actively anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations fearing that the street might go out of control. Several analysts in the region feel that the scale and spread of the demonstrations had an important role to play in forcing Israel to put its military machine under check. "Had the Israeli military operations continued, there would have been a serious possibility of coups d'etat in some Arab countries," said an analyst. He said that the ordinary Arabs were angry that their governments were not even able to use the "oil weapon" effectively. They had not forgotten that the American government had acted almost immediately to stop Israeli aggression after the Arab states imposed a unilateral oil embargo against the West during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, he said.

As the editor of a leading Arabic language daily told this correspondent, the situation on the ground has changed radically. "Today almost all the Arab countries are either militarily or economically occupied by the U.S. Being the second largest recipient of American aid after Israel, Egypt depends on American goodwill. Every three weeks a shipload of American wheat arrives in Egypt. Without this aid there will be food riots," said the editor, known for his moderate views. He said that King Faisal of Saudi Arabia had taken the bold decision to halt oil supplies within 24 hours. "Only if America thinks that its strategic interests are facing an imminent threat, will it act."

The Arab street, however, has taken matters into its own hands. American goods and restaurants are being boycotted with fervour. A Jordanian engineer said that his young school-going son was the one who convinced him to boycott U.S. products such as Coke and services such as McDonalds. Those seen frequenting American restaurants face the threat of social ostracism. In Amman, one of the most westernised cities in the region, this correspondent saw American fast food chains remain almost empty. Smokers have given up American brands. Ironically, the beneficiaries of the street boycott seem to be countries such as France. In the Arab world, the French are not considered as being a part of the Israeli-American nexus - at least at the popular level.

In late April, an owner of a restaurant called "Oxygen" in Damascus made it to the front pages of newspapers in the region. When the U.S. Consul in Damascus visited the restaurant located in the old Christian quarter of the city for a snack, Majd Tabah refused to serve him. This single act made her the most popular woman in West Asia at least for a couple of days. She said that she had not done "anything heroic" and was quoted as saying that she had no hatred for the American people. "I fired out the symbol of (President George) Bush who is supporting Ariel Sharon. We hear all the time Bush calling Sharon his friend."

NEWBORN children in the region are being named after Palestinian martyrs. In Beirut, a franchisee of McDonalds brought out a full-page advertisement in the newspapers saying that his business was fully owned and financed by Lebanese people. A move is on from the grassroots level to boycott everything American, from Pepsi to Boeing. People are even selling their U.S.-made cars. The present boycott will not do anything substantial for the Palestinian cause as the total annual U.S. exports to West Asia amount to only around $20 billion, which is just 2.5 per cent of America's exports worldwide. But the widespread boycott is an indication to Washington that its alienation from the Arab masses is near total.

The decision of the United Nations Secretary-General to cancel the visit of the international fact-finding mission to Jenin, despite being mandated to do so by the U.N. Security Council, has further enraged public opinion. "I believe that Israel and America manipulated the issue through a favourable deal to release Arafat from his besieged headquarters in Ramallah in return for abandoning the fact-finding mission in Jenin," said Labib Qamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst. Several international humanitarian agencies have supported the Palestinian Authority's (P.A.) charge that what happened in Jenin was a "massacre". More than 500 Palestinians were killed in Jenin - many of them were buried under rubble after being flattened by Israeli bulldozers. After the bloody events of the last two months, there have been reports that a new deal is in the making between Israel and the P.A., once again under American auspices. The chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), George Tenet, has summoned Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian security chiefs for a meeting in Washington.

Top diplomats and analysts in Amman told this correspondent that after the recent military offensive, the security infrastructure of the P.A. had been virtually dismantled. Some diplomats from Arab countries that have a direct stake in the conflict say that it is clear that Sharon will never accept a "final solution" leading to full statehood for Palestine. A resolution passed by Sharon's Likud Party in the second week of May rejecting Palestinian statehood will give him yet another excuse to keep Palestinians subjugated militarily.

A leading political analyst in Amman is of the view that the Bush administration will keep on supporting the Sharon game plan. "George W. Bush has inherited his legacy from Ronald Reagan, not from his father," the analyst said. He points out that the Bush administration had not bothered to consult its European partners while backing Israel's decision to block the fact-finding mission to Jenin. The welcome given to Arafat by his people when he visited Bethlehem, Nablus and Jenin in the middle of May has been described in the Arab media as lukewarm. There seems to be a growing body of opinion that Arafat and the P.A. are preparing to make too many concessions to the Americans and the Israelis. On May 15, in a speech delivered to mark the anniversary of "Al Naqba" (the Catastrophe) - as the Palestinians describe the events in 1948 which led to the creation of the state of Israel and the uprooting of Palestinians from their homes - Arafat spoke of bringing about reforms within the P.A.

Arafat admitted that he was responsible for the controversial deals that helped end the Israeli siege of his headquarters in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity. "I bear all the responsibility. There are always mistakes in every movement, all over the world," he said. Arafat also said that he planned to hold elections in the near future and restructure the P.A. to make it more accountable. The spokesman for the U.S. President described Arafat's speech as "positive" but added that Bush was waiting for some follow-up action. Ordinary Palestinians marked "Al Naqba" by taking out mass demonstrations and protests against the Israeli occupation.

A senior diplomat belonging to one of the states in the region told this correspondent that "any agreement signed under the gun will not be legal". He said: "The Palestinian Authority is a government under siege. They have no police, no bureaucracy and no authority." According to the diplomat, Palestinian security will now be virtually in the hands of Israelis, with all the Palestinian fighters either detained or killed. He said that many Arab leaders had warned Arafat that he was walking into a trap when he signed the Oslo agreement. The diplomat said that all that Israel envisaged for the Palestinians was a statelet comprising only of the Gaza strip.

According to the diplomat, any agreement that Arafat had reached with the Israelis in the last couple of months did not have international legal sanctity as he was a leader under siege. "Arafat was not a President. He was a prisoner." The envoy pointed out that other Palestinian groups had opposed some of the decisions that Arafat had taken in recent weeks. According to them, a situation that could pit "Palestinians against Palestinians, forcing Arafat to turn to the Americans and the British for help to supress his own people," may develop. In the last days of the siege of Ramallah, the P.A. allowed the Israeli occupation force to arrest Palestinian militants belonging to the Hamas and the Al Aqsa brigade. The exile of Palestinian fighters who had resisted Israeli occupation in Bethlehem without trial and due process of law have also angered many Palestinians.

"Arafat is acting under pressure - not with the confidence of the people," the diplomat said. It is under these circumstances that Sharon now wants to hold another international conference," he said. The diplomat pointed out that during the Madrid conference there were clear terms of reference, but now that Sharon has created a "fait accompli" with the new occupation, the situation was different. The Arab summit in Beirut had made a genuine peace offer but "Sharon wants to implement his own blueprint for the region," he pointed out. Sharon has also indicated that he does not want Arafat and countries like Syria and Iraq to be present at the proposed summit. Some Arab diplomats have suggested that Jordan and Egypt will eventually end up supporting Sharon's new game plan for the region.

However, the diplomat is confident that the Palestinians will persevere and succeed. "If the Americans have the right to go to Afghanistan, why should the Palestinians not have the right to resist occupation? Only a just peace will provide security for the Israelis and security can never be imposed by force," he said.

Omar S. Al-Khatib, the Palestinian Ambassador in Amman, told this correspondent in the first week of May that at least 1,500 of his people were killed and 50,000 injured in the month-and-a-half-long military offensive by the Israelis on the West Bank. During this period, more than 9,000 Palestinians were detained in Israeli jails. Many of those killed had to be buried in the courtyards of their own houses as the occupation forces prevented burial in cemeteries. The veteran diplomat, who also represents the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian National Authority in the Hashemite Kingdom, said that every Palestinian town was under Israeli siege.

The P.A.'s infrastructure has been totally wrecked. "Hospitals, holy sites, mayoral offices and most of the offices housing Ministries have been destroyed. Even trees and roads have been uprooted by the Israeli occupation army," the diplomat said. "There is hatred in their hearts for our people. They shot at everything that moved - they did not distinguish between children, women or the aged. They destroyed every computer hard disk containing the records of the various Ministries."

He described Jenin as nothing more than a Palestinian refugee encampment consisting of small and simple houses. "They destroyed the entire camp. They killed women, children and old men, who had no connection with the resistance," said Al-Khatib. He said that what happened in Jenin was worse than the incidents in Shabra and Shatilla. "In Shabra and Shatilla, the Israelis did not use artillery and sophisticated weaponry," said Al-Khatib. Bulldozers were used to flatten all the houses. Even a historical city like Nablus was not spared. The bulldozers were used on the mere suspicion that the houses were used by militants. Nablus houses several antiquities dating back to biblical times.

According to the envoy, Israel used more weaponry against the Palestinians than it did during the six-day war against certain of the Arab states. "They used tanks, planes and artillery against civilians. It was a real war against unarmed civilians." The veteran diplomat said that Israel had always tried to impose its will by military means but "this time our people decided to face them - even unarmed men with bare chests. Children threw stones at Israeli tanks. Our priority is peace - on the other hand, our enemy's choice is destruction". Al-Khatib emphasised that the Palestinian side had accepted the Oslo peace process in its totality while from the outset the Israelis had started quibbling about the various clauses and conventions in the agreement.

The Palestinian envoy said that Arafat was put under siege "without water, medicines and power. But he still held fast and worked". The Church of the Nativity was put under siege despite its sanctity. Most of the people who had taken refuge there were civilians escaping the fury of the all-out Israeli military attack on Bethlehem. Traditionally the church, where Jesus is supposed to have been born, has been a place where people took sanctuary. But the Israelis used snipers to hunt people inside the Church. The envoy said that Israeli forces indulged "in premeditated massacres in the West Bank, even bombarding and occupying hospitals". The envoy was sad that there was little condemnation by organisations such as the U.N., the International Committee of the Red Cross and the European Union, of the inhuman acts, which went against the Geneva Conventions. "Why did not Christians show solidarity when the Israelis besieged the Church of the Nativity?" he asked.

On the other hand, the Americans and the Israelis want the world to condemn those protecting their own homes "as terrorists". "If Gandhi were alive today, even he would be called a terrorist," said Al-Khatib. He said that Palestine was the last colony in the world. "Do we have the right to fight for freedom or not?", he asked. The Palestinians, he said, would keep on fighting until "we get freedom in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. We want the right to live with freedom and security. If we don't get this, the other side will also not get security and peace".

Israel, he said, had been rejecting U.N. resolutions since 1948. It can only afford to do so because it is "the beloved child of America". He pointed out that during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Israel withdrew from the occupied territory within 48 hours after President Dwight Eisenhower asked it to do so.

Despite the havoc wrought by the Israeli military invasion, the Palestinians are determined to keep on fighting. They are a resilient and innovative people. "The Palestinian people have unbelievable energy. We can achieve our goals by ourselves," said Al-Khatib. All the Ministries have been working uninterruptedly. Ministers and their staff work from their homes. Al-Khatib said that he had been engaged in day-to-day consultations with President Arafat, when he was under siege. "Arafat actually became tougher when he was surrounded in Ramallah. The quivering of the lips and the slight tremors which had begun to afflict him a couple of years ago actually disappeared when he was under siege," said Al-Khatib. According to the envoy, Arafat continues to be the most popular leader among Palestinians. "There is an opposition but the majority are with Arafat," Al-Khatib said.

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