Rekindling hope

Print edition : June 09, 2001

The report of the George Mitchell Committee provides some hope for the restoration of calm on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

A PHASE in which both Israelis and Palestinians resorted to the most formidable instruments of terror in their respective armouries has coincided with the conclusion of an enquiry by an international committee. If the use of the instruments of terror revealed to people on both sides how close they were to the abyss, the report submitted by the committee provided them with the means to pull themselves back from a dangerous situation. By the end of May the two sides were reaching out for the report's promise of deliverance while still gripped by the instinct to hack at each other.

Palestinian policemen search through a naval post in Gaza City that was destroyed by Israeli F-16 war planes on May 18. The month of May witnessed the use of F-16s against Palestinians for the first time since 1967.-SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS

May was the month of the suicide bomber. It was also a month that saw Israel use F-16 fighter-bombers against the Palestinians for the first time since 1967, killing 12 Palestinian policemen in the attack. The spate of suicide bomb attacks by Palestinians - perhaps the deadliest of which was the blast that killed six people and injured scores in the central Israeli town of Netanya in the middle of the month - underscored how the eight-month-long conflict had deteriorated to the most atavistic levels. But the use of F-16s to hit targets located deep within civilian areas raised the prospect that the situation could soon deteriorate into a regional war.

It is a sign of how long and how intense the fighting has been that hardly anyone bothers to keep track of the death count anymore. The death roll went over 400 weeks ago (by far the larger portion of them Palestinians) and people are still being killed on an almost daily basis. Although the Palestinians had begun to use mortars to shell Israel and Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, these shells do not appear to have caused any deaths and few injuries if at all. From the Palestinian side most of the killing was done by suicide bombers or snipers shooting into Israeli residential areas or at Israelis using the roads. Israel has of course a far wider array of weapons. Although Israel points out, oftentimes with infuriating smugness, that these weapons have not been used to the full extent of their power, the very resort to them has caused far more disproportionate damage to the Palestinian side. Tanks have fired shells into buildings that in most cases were occupied by civilians, on the grounds that these buildings were used as fire-bases by Palestinian gunmen. Other buildings have been razed by bulldozers and orchards and farmlands have been levelled. Israel has also resorted to selective political assassinations. In the most dangerous form of escalation, bar the F-16s of course, Israel began to implement a pro-active policy. Under this policy its troops would without provocation enter territory handed over to the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and set bases from which Palestinians could be ambushed.

WHILE all this was taking place, the only power capable of pulling both sides back from the brink satisfied itself with vacuous comments made from a distance. Officials of the U.S. administration, from President George W. Bush downwards, repeatedly called on both sides to exercise restraint but their statements deploring the use of force seemed to be loaded more against the Palestinians than against the Israelis. On the first occasion when Israel re-entered territory controlled by the P.A. they were rebuked by the U.S. administration. This might or might not have caused Israel to pull back almost immediately. But Washington did not seem unduly bothered when Israel subsequently made it a key element of its pro-active policy to re-enter Palestinian territory.

With the U.S. administration refusing to commit itself to the task of restoring calm in West Asia, the others who were interested in doing something gave up hope. Egypt and Jordan had together drawn up a plan, the key elements of which were an immediate ceasefire and a quick resumption of negotiations on substantive issues, and this was endorsed by the European Union (E.U.). While the Palestinians swiftly declared their acceptance of the Egyptian-Jordanian plan, Israel declined to do so and the U.S. did not seem particularly interested. This plan was put on the shelf though its key components were soon to be replicated in the report of the international committee. Instead, the U.S. provoked Palestinian and Arab ire by blocking the movement of a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would have approved the despatch of a international force to protect Palestinians. (It is another matter that the force could never have actually been sent into the territory since the Israelis would never have permitted them to enter.)

In this context, the report of the international committee, headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, came as the last hope for the restoration of calm in the area. The Mitchell Committee report contained the key elements of the Egyptian-Jordanian plan. It was immediately endorsed by the Palestinians, the rest of the Arab world and the E.U. (The Muslim world was represented on the committee by Suleyman Demirel, former President of Turkey, and the E.U. by Javier Solana, but the main feature of the committee, as Mitchell pointed out, was that it comprised heavyweight and experienced neutrals who had looked at all aspects of the situation objectively.) For the U.S. as well, the fact that it was headed by one of their own must have counted as a point in the committee's favour.

The most crucial finding of the committee, as put down in its report formally presented on May 21, was that there was a direct causative link between the Israeli policy of building and expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Palestinian violence. While the committee did take note of Ariel Sharon's provocative amble through the Temple Mount/Haram al Sahrif complex in late September 2000 as a major link in the chain of violence, it did not strictly apportion blame on any specific act or individual. Quite rightly the committee addressed the more generic cause for Palestinian rage. Not only had the Palestinians repeatedly stated that their uprising would continue till the settlement-building activity, the very manifestation of Israel's colonial occupation of their territories, ended. By now almost every country in the world is convinced that the Palestinians have a just cause in resisting the occupation of their territories.

While the committee's report was unequivocal in drawing a linkage between a ceasefire and a cessation of settlement-building activity, Israel at first refused to promise that it would stop such activity. Since the Israeli Cabinet is a coalition one, containing both pro- and anti-peace elements, Sharon the super-hawk and father of the settlements could not be quite so categorically defiant and state that the activity would not be stopped. What he did say, under pressure from his dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and allies, was that he would not appropriate more land for settlements but would continue to build on land that had already been acquired to cater for "natural growth". This supposed compromise was meaningless since most of the land not under Palestinian control is already demarcated as "state (that is, Israeli) land" and does not therefore need to be acquired; Sharon also simultaneously declared that he would take more land to construct bypass roads if necessary.

Sharon, however, earned points with the U.S. administration by being first off the mark with the order for a ceasefire, albeit a limited one. He ordered his troops to stop shooting at Palestinians unless their lives or the lives of Israeli civilians under threat and he ordered a halt to the pro-active policy. This did not stop the shootings, raids and killings, and within five days of Sharon's order the Palestinian security services were claiming that there had been over 90 cases of incursions, shootings, house demolition and so on inside the Gaza Strip alone. But although the violence abated marginally, the focus of all the leaders had shifted to the Mitchell Committee's recommendations and ways to implement them.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who endorsed the report, demanded that a summit be called to discuss ways to implement the recommendations. No one seemed prepared to countenance that demand. Arafat's hopes for an immediate settlement freeze received a blow when U.S. Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell stated that he did not see the need for a temporal linkage between a ceasefire (which he said Arafat must order immediately) and a settlement freeze. Powell did admit that there were differences between the U.S. administration and Israel over the settlement issue but hinted that the freeze could occur as part of confidence building measures that must follow a ceasefire and a cooling off period.

AS the last week of May unfolded, the prospects for the Mitchell plan improved a bit when Defence Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, the man with the authority to sanction building activity in the settlements, declared that he would freeze such activity on the ground. The Palestinians appeared to have obtained some satisfaction, either from Eliezer's words or from secret messages from the U.S. administration. They too declared that an order to freeze building activity in the settlements need not accompany a ceasefire from their side so long as it was certain that a freeze-order would be issued at a definite and near-enough point in time.

Powell also for the first time put together a team that would address the Israel-Palestinian issue. Headed by William Burns, current U.S. Ambassador to Jordan and designated as the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, it includes the U.S. Ambassador to Israel and the Consul-General in Jerusalem (who has generally been the liaison man with the Palestinians). Although the U.S. has yet to say so from their acceptance of the Mitchell Report and surrounding circumstances it would appear that the three-member panel's mandate is to discuss with both sides the best way in which to go about implementing the recommendations of the report.

If everyone concerned tries to implement the Mitchell report conscientiously it should be a four-way process. After a cessation of hostilities there will be a cooling off period followed by confidence building measures. If all these stages are implemented successfully, negotiations on the substantive issues could be taken up. The Palestinians have gained from the Intifada to the extent that the world has come to recognise the centrality of the settlement issue and to view the Israel-Palestinian equation as one between the coloniser and the colonised. If the ceasefire is effective Israel will able to remember that it did enjoy a greater measure of security when it was dealing with the Palestinians than when it was trying to crush them.

While the signs of hope must be recorded as and when they come, it is important to remember that the events of the past eight months have embittered people on both sides. For the extremists on both sides this period has been one when they were under relatively light restraint, or under virtually no restraint, from the moderates. Getting the extremists under control will be the big challenge for Sharon and Arafat, but neither will be very interested in performing this task unless they see what the days after the ceasefire will bring.

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