Back from the brink

Print edition : April 28, 2001

After a major escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, there is a lull in violence. Is the West Asian crisis about to abate?

JUST when the West Asian situation appeared set to spin out of control, some sobriety seems to have set in. Yasser Arafat bestirred himself and ordered his security forces to stop the firing of mortar shells into Israel and the Jewish settlements embedded in the Palestinian territories. And inside Israel, the pro-peace camp woke up to its responsibility to tell their people that their occupation of Palestinian territory was itself an act of aggression of no lesser kind. There is a long way to go before the situation returns to normalcy, but a beginning appeared to have been made.

The Palestinian resort to the use of mortars was the special feature of the last few weeks. Not much damage has been caused by the 82 mm shells fired from these mortars into Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip or across the border between the Strip and Israel. For instance, the shells lobbed near the town of Sederot in Israel are reported to have only created some pot-holes in fields. Still, Israel said the Palestinian resort to such weaponry marked a dangerous escalation and, as has been the case since the start of the Oslo processes, the fine text of the various agreements appears to support its contention. These agreements specify the type and calibre of weapons that the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) can issue to its troops.

A Palestinian demonstration in Beit Hanoun, after the town was destroyed by Israeli troops.-DAMIQ SAGOLJ/REUTERS

Legalistic arguments do not have much weight in the current situation, except insofar as it can be used to manipulate that nebulous factor called international support. What this basically means in the West Asian context is that the parties try and stay on the right side of the U.S. administration. The Israelis have always been several steps ahead of the Palestinians in this respect for various reasons. (Aside from Israel's greater success in cultivating the U.S. over a period of decades, the Palestinians also lose out in this particular race because they have not been able to blend the image they project to the Arab and Muslim world with the image they would like to present before the U.S.) After the shells landed near Sederot the Israeli government thought it had the leeway to indulge in an escalation of its own.

On the night of Monday, April 16, Israel sent in its troops to occupy a slice of territory in the Gaza Strip. This piece of territory had been ceded to the P.A. almost at the beginning of the Oslo processes and had been in Palestinian control ever since. The bulldozers Israel sent in with its armour and troops were used to clear orchards and level farmlands. From the scope and apparent purpose of the operation - to prevent that slice of land adjoining the Israel-Gaza border from being used as a base for operations by Palestinian mortarmen - it was clearly not conceived as a short-term operation. Israeli journalists reported that the disposition and equipment of the troops indicated that they were set for a long stay.

For all appearances this particular operation, whereby Israel captured territory in the area called Beit Hanoun, was a fulfilment of the threat that Israel would re-capture territory if the violence continued. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has threatened as much after he got elected earlier this year. Any doubts in the matter were dispelled when the Israeli Brigadier who led the operation told the press that his mandate was to hold on to the territory as long as it was necessary - they could be there, he said, for days or weeks or months. It turned out to be a major miscalculation on Israel's part.

Instead of the unequivocal support that Israel has come to expect from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, Washington issued a stridently critical statement. For the sake of the "balance" that the U.S. administration claims it maintains, Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that the operation had been precipitated by Palestinian provocation. He, however, went on to describe the operation as "excessive" and "disproportionate". These phrases have become terms of art in the current context since language to this effect has been sought to be inserted into the various resolutions condemnatory of Israeli action that have been unsuccessfully mooted at the U.N. Security Council.

With the U.S. using such language, Israel got the message. It withdrew the troops by the next night, April 17, and claimed that its intentions were misunderstood. The troops had only been ordered to carry out a swift sanitising operation and there was no intention to reoccupy Beit Hanoun, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told CNN. The Brigadier who conducted the operation, his colleagues on the General Staff of the Israel Defence Forces and Israeli parliamentarians were all infuriated by the political blunder and this effort to put the blame on the uniformed soldiers instead of on the political leadership. Israel has had to pay a heavy price for this piece of miscalculation.

The significance of the U.S. administration's condemnatory statement is that it has foreclosed one of Israel's strategic options. Tel Aviv has been clearly told that its main ally and supporter will not tolerate a reversal of the clock. Israel will not be allowed to reoccupy territory handed over to the Palestinians and this threat has now been made redundant. P.A. President Yasser Arafat was handed a diplomatic victory on a platter. It gave him an opportunity to make a dignified exit from the dead-end he was in danger of being trapped in.

Over the six months of the intifada, the Palestinians have been gradually able to crystallise what the struggle was really about. Their resort to violence had been a response to Israeli aggression of a different type but of an equal or greater degree. Israel's occupation of their territory, economic blockades, assassinations of militant activists, demolition of houses, incursions into villages and towns, use of excessive force to quell demonstrations, and humiliating treatment at checkpoints made for the sort of aggression that the Palestinians had every right to resist. Such an assessment of their situation is valid. But when it is formulated in such terms it is difficult, even for a person of Arafat's stature, to ask his people to change the nature of their resistance.

Nascent attempts had been made by the Palestinian middle class intelligentsia to promote a non-violent struggle which they hoped would supersede and subsume the violent activities of their youthful militants. These effort were not making much headway and they could not have unless Arafat and the P.A. backed it. Arafat would have stood accused of making an abject surrender if he had asked his people to lay aside their arms before they had achieved anything tangible from their struggle. At the same time, Arafat could see that he would not be able to get Israel back to the negotiating table, or regain the rapport he had with the U.S. before the uprising, unless the violence was curbed. The U.S. intervention in the Beit Hanoun episode appears to have provided Arafat with a way out. He can now tell his people that they have won unanimous international backing for the non-reversal of whatever they have been able to achieve. Dressed up, it might even be possible for Arafat and the P.A. to say that the U.S. intervention is a sign that they can hope for unanimous backing for what they hope to achieve as well.

Such an interpretation of Arafat's assessment of the situation appears implicit in his order to his troops, issued on April 18, to stop the firing of mortar shells into Israel and the Jewish settlements. This order has not been publicised and it is therefore clear whether this is a general order to the Palestinian security forces to desist from all such attacks and also to prevent other militant groups, notably Hamas and the Islamic Jehad, from carrying out such attacks. It is also not clear whether the order covers the use of all types of arms. From the fact that the following couple of days were relatively quiet it is possible to assume that Arafat's order was of the more general kind.

Both the U.S. and Israel want Arafat to go further and issue a public call for the end of violence. Arafat has mooted a proposal that he and Sharon issue a joint appeal for calm. While Israel had initially rejected the proposal, the U.S. has said that it is interested in the idea. Again, while Israel wants a complete halt to violence before it will contemplate a return to negotiations on substantive issues, the U.S. administration is of the view that a de-escalation would create an atmosphere conducive to a resumption of the negotiations. By the end of the third of week of April, all the sides involved appeared to be thinking of picking up the pieces left after six months of open violent conflict. But those pieces are red hot and no one familiar with West Asia would venture to bet that they can be put together again.

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