The renewed Israeli offensive against the Palestinian Authority is an overt attempt, with U.S. support, to oust Yasser Arafat and put in place a pliant leadership.
THE Bush administration is now even more firmly on the side of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon than before in the matter of his offensive against Palestine. It is obvious that the White House has given the Israeli government a free hand to deal with the Palestinians. On July 23, barely a day after Israeli and Palestinian authorities renewed high-level talks on Israel's troop withdrawal from the West Bank, an Israeli F-16 jet bombed a house in Gaza city. The target of the attack was the military chief of Hamas, Salah Shehadeh. Apart from Shehadeh, 20 persons, including children and women, were killed.
This was yet another illustration of the wanton terror being unleashed by Israel. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan was quick to condemn the attack. The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) denounced the air strike and called for international intervention to "stop the massacres". It described the attack as an attempt "to sabotage the international efforts to pressure the Israeli government to withdraw troops, and to get back to negotiations".
In late June, United States President George W. Bush had called for the removal of Yasser Arafat as the Palestinian President; now efforts are on to further undermine the authority of the P.A. With the rest of the world not willing to desert Arafat, Washington and Tel Aviv have redoubled their efforts to make him a lame-duck President. Palestinians, however, would never countenance an alternative candidate propped up by Tel Aviv and Washington. "I have been elected by the people. I am not a coward. I am not ready to betray the people who elected me," said Arafat in a recent interview.
The surge in public support for Arafat and the continuing international recognition of his leadership made the Bush administration change tack by mid-July. U.S. officials now say that they are willing to accept Arafat as a titular head so long as effective power is transferred to the office of a Prime Minister. Washington has shortlisted some candidates who, it hopes, will be more amenable and will accept a flawed statehood for the Palestinians - minus Jerusalem as the capital, minus the right of return, and with a territory pock-marked with Jewish settlements. Arafat had walked out of Camp David II two years ago, organised during the last months of the Clinton presidency, precisely on these issues.
There are also indications that the Arab allies of the U.S. in the region - notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - will extend tacit support to the U.S. game plan. The Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, in fact, met President Bush in Washington in the third week of July and expressed their satisfaction with the latter's position. They told the media that the U.S. President was committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In his June 24 speech, Bush had said that political progress was not possible unless the Palestinian government was reconstituted and Arafat sidelined. Arab diplomats who recently interacted with the Bush administration say privately that they expect Bush to continue with his pro-Sharon line until the Congressional elections in the U.S. are over by the end of the year.
According to a plan envisaged by the three Arab states, Israel will have to withdraw to positions it occupied on September 28, 2000, after a new Constitution is ratified by the Palestinian people. The U.S. has suggested a three-year time-frame for this to materialise. But the Arab friends of the U.S. want the timetable to be expedited. Israeli military intelligence has been busy spreading stories that a new and younger leadership will replace Arafat in six months' time. Israel expects that leadership to compromise with it. Arafat and the Palestinian people are aware of the machinations going on around them. The replacement of Jibril Rajoub as Palestinian West Bank security chief in early July was related to the recent events. Maj. Gen. Zuheir al-Manasra was appointed to the post.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian people are under a draconian curfew regime. Breaking the Israel-imposed curfew on the West Bank could mean death. In one instance, a Palestinian woman and her two children aged four and two, were killed by Israeli tank fire while picking grapes in their vineyard. Two boys, aged 13 and six, were killed in Jenin while riding their bicycles. A leading Israeli columnist recently wrote that Israeli tanks have "the run of the streets and fire tanks shell into population centres" in Palestinian cities.
The West Bank has been without most municipal services for several months, since Israeli forces had wrought tremendous damage on the infrastructure built up by the P.A. These included schools, hospitals and government buildings. The Palestinian economy, never in the best of health, is now in free fall. Palestinians are no longer allowed to cross into Israel for work. Many Palestinian families were dependent on the income from one or two of their members working in Israeli factories as day labourers. Unemployment in the refugee camps is now estimated at around 85 per cent.
The huge amounts of money that the Israeli government legally owes the Palestinians have not been reimbursed for more than a year now. Under the barrel of the gun, Jewish settlers are expanding their settlements in the occupied territories at an accelerated pace. In the past 10 years, the settler population in the occupied territories has more than doubled. The Israeli government provides the right-wing settlers with cheap land, discounted loans and tax breaks. One of the latest attacks on Israeli citizens in mid-July occurred near one such settlement on the West Bank.
New immigrants to Israel are encouraged by the government to settle in the occupied territories. The Oslo agreements specifically prohibit the Israeli government from changing "the status" of the occupied territories by means of tactics like resettlement. Sharon had proclaimed in the 1970s, while serving in the Israeli Cabinet as Agriculture Minister, that he wanted two million Jews to be settled in the occupied territories. As Prime Minister, he now has his job made easy.
In short, the Palestinian people are going through hell while the international community stands aside and lets the Israeli government, with the Bush administration in tandem, dictate terms to a beleaguered P.A. leadership. It was evident from the day Sharon became Prime Minister that his aim was the ouster of Arafat and his replacement with a more quiescent leadership. Sharon has also said that the Israeli troops will remain on the West Bank "for a long time".
Sharon now has the open and unstinted support of President Bush. In his June 24 speech, Bush said that he would support a Palestinian state only when the Palestinians elected new leaders who were not "compromised by terror". As one commentator observed, if this criterion had been adopted for Israel too, then Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir and many others should never have become Prime Ministers.
The Palestinians, for their part, have rejected the Bush formulation. They say that the Palestinian state is a reward for the unending suffering of the Palestinian people due to British colonialism and the foreign policies of successive U.S. governments. From all available indications, the Palestinian people are not about to give up on Yasser Arafat. Even Arafat's avowed rivals within the Palestinian political spectrum have criticised the U.S. proposals. The hardliners in the Bush administration, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have played influential roles in shaping this policy. The Christian Right, which is active in the Republican Party, is now in open alliance with the influential Jewish lobby in the U.S. Christian fundamentalists (Bush is an avowed born-again Christian) believe that the Armageddon predicted in the Bible will come to pass only if the whole of the Holy Land (Palestine) is under the rule of Jews. Religious fundamentalism and bigotry are entrenched in the top echelons of the Bush administration.
The West Asia "Quartet", comprising the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N., met in the third week of July to discuss the situation in the region. Washington's unilateralism was rejected by the other three, who opposed the political isolation of Arafat and the one-sided demands of the U.S. on the Palestinians. In the same week, a Palestinian suicide attack inside Israel in more than a month's time, took place in Tel Aviv. Israeli authorities had interpreted the brief lull in Palestinian attacks as an illustration of the efficacy of the Israeli military machine in subduing Palestinian resistance.
The Israeli Army has also shown any sign of withdrawing from the occupied territories. Late last year, Yasser Arafat had convinced all militant organisations operating in the region to stop attacking targets inside Israel. But Sharon responded by targeting selected Palestinian leaders for assassination. Israeli historians such as Illan Pappe have said that Sharon's ultimate goal is to begin the mass expulsion of Palestinians to Jordan. An opinion poll conducted a couple of months ago showed that 44 per cent of Israelis supported the policy of "transfer" of Palestinians. Very few Israelis dare to condemn the notion of "final transfer", a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. "When Israel took over almost 80 per cent of Palestine in 1948, it did so through settlement and ethnic cleansing. The country has a Prime Minister who enjoys wide public support and who wants to determine by force the future of the remaining 20 per cent," Pappe has said.