Provocation and retaliation

Print edition : August 18, 2001

It is a tense stalemate on the Israel-Palestine front as the contending sides continue to swing at each other and slug it out.

AFTER ten months of intense confrontation, Israel and Palestine today resemble punch-drunk prize-fighters. They are still prepared to step up to the line, even though their energies and applicable fighting skills are being fast depleted. Neither side is ready to throw in the towel, and while one of the sides would like the referee to step in and stop the bout, it will not stop fighting till the referee does so of his own accord.

Bodies of eight Palestinians killed in an Israeli helicopter raid on the Hamas office in Nablus on July 31.-NASSER ISHTAYEH/AP

Here, the operative phrase in respect of Israel is "applicable fighting skills". Israel has the huge military power, in terms of organisation and expertise as much as in numbers, to take on the entire Arab world and not just the puny Palestinian forces. But these forces were organised mainly for large-scale conflict and not the kind of mass movement-cum-guerilla war that the Palestinians are currently waging. Only in recent weeks has Israel begun to adapt more effectively to the situation confronting it by trying to use their formidable forces with precision. But even the change in tactics carries problems of its own - the inability to erase the notion of an overkill being one of them - because the course of this contest is determined so much by the world's perception of what is permissible and what is not.

If one were to apply the traditional concepts of warfare, Israel should be able to win this war within three or four days. Independent military analysts are not about to argue with the Israeli military's apparent assessment that they could finish off all organised resistance from the Palestinian side within this sort of a time-frame. So if war is to be considered only a matter of routing the enemy's forces and conquering its territory, there is no question about who will emerge the winner. There are brazen hardliners in Israel who believe that their government and military should wage an all-out war in the traditional sense. Some of them also think that they have an answer to the question of what should be done after a victory on the traditional lines.

These hard right Israelis believe that ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian territories should follow on as a natural consequence to the re-conquest of these territories. Fortunately, although they might have a wider circle of sympathisers, the majority even within the right wing in Israel recognises that this is not a realistic option in the modern world. The acquisition of territory and the expulsion of the original inhabitants were considered as the legitimate, or at least the real, objectives of wars till the middle of the last century. Nowadays the world is not very comfortable with the notion that one people should be allowed to conquer another.

If ethnic cleansing is not a realisable option, could Israel at least resume the role of the overlord that it enjoyed till the Oslo Accords? Israel for all its other faults is a democratic society and the democratic urges are strong enough to restrain the country from such a policy. As the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would say after his epiphany, "apartheid is not a Jewish virtue". Even if these democratic restraints are overcome, it would not be long before Israel's overlord status was challenged by yet another Intifada. Israel just cannot take up the other option of absorbing the Palestinians into a greater Israel as equal citizens since their country would soon cease to have a Jewish majority.

What Israel can do short of a re-conquest, some people have suggested, is that it can destroy the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and ensure that its President Yasser Arafat and his cohorts are sent into exile. Israel can probably do so physically, but then which are the forces best organised to replace Arafat's authority as the leaders of the Palestinian society - the Islamic movement? This is surely not an objective that Israel would like to achieve. Since none of these objectives are desirable from Israel's point of view, it has no reason to wage a full-scale war on traditional lines. But there are limited objectives that can be gained in the current situation, and Israel is fighting to attain them.

According to many commentators in the region, including within Israel, nothing would suit Prime Minister Ariel Sharon more than the continuation of the stalemate. He has made his long military and political career on his reputation as a conqueror and usurper of land for the Jewish people. In insisting that he will resume negotiations only when there is a total end to violence, Sharon has set a practically impossible norm for the Palestinians to meet. Since the Palestinians are not likely to meet them, even if they were so inclined, Sharon will not talk and he will keep the land. In practical terms, Sharon is already implementing the policy of "unilateral separation" that Israeli leaders, from the Left as well as the Right, have spoken of for some time.

Unilateral separation is a policy whereby the Palestinians would be forced to live in a space apart from the Israelis so that the spheres of their separate existence touch upon each other to the minimum extent possible. While the Israeli Left is inclined to achieve such a unilateral separation with a redeployment of troops so as to increase the space with the Palestinians, the right wing thinks that the separation that is already in effect is sufficient. Israel proper is separated, though not insulated, from the Palestinian territories by the Green line (the border as it stood prior to June 4, 1967). Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, though embedded within Palestinian territory, are separated from it by the network of roads that bypass Palestinian populated areas.

Under such conditions of separation all that Israel has to do in the current situation of unrest is to ensure that the Palestinians cannot cross the spatial divide to attack Israelis in the space they have carved out for themselves. The task given to their security services is to prevent Palestinian incursions into this space either by a suicide bomber or the setting up of ambushes or road-side bombs on the roads between Israel and the settlements or between settlements. Any Palestinian militants who cross the spatial divide are to be killed, and if they are not interdicted the Palestinians living in territories earmarked for them can be subjected to punitive action. At present Israel is trying to fine-tune its ability both to interdict Palestinians trying to cross the spatial divide and to strike back with the least diplomatic damage.

A point at which the tracks of interdiction and punishment converge is marked by the policy of assassinations. About 40 Palestinian militants, whom Israel would describe as the lynchpins of the attacks against it, are believed to have been killed since the current round of Intifada was triggered in September 2000. Usually the allegations that Israel levelled against those targeted and killed was that they were either bomb-makers or people who had recruited, trained and transported suicide bombers to the site of their attacks or people who had organised and carried out ambushes. On July 31, however, Israel seemed to have upped the ante when it fired missiles into a building in Nablus and killed six Hamas activists including two rising stars of the political wing of the Islamic movement (two children were also killed).

Israel claimed that the two politicians killed in the attack were the active heads of a terrorist cell operating from Nablus. This claim was met with some scepticism because Hamas has traditionally kept its political wing separate from its military arm and the two men were known for their political and social work. When Israel killed these two men it gave rise to the presumption that Israel was broadening the interpretation of the phrase "involvement in terrorist activity" to include not just those who actually planned and carried out such attacks but also those whose political line encompassed all forms of militancy. This presumption was strengthened when missiles were fired on a convoy of cars near the office of Marwan Barghouti, secretary-general of the Fatah in the West Bank.

Since Israel has charged a slew of figures in the hierarchies of different Palestinian factions of "promoting terrorism", up to and including Arafat, there was reason to fear that this assassination policy had now transformed into an all-out policy of liquidating the Palestinian leadership. As it was, the assassination policy stood condemned by the international community including Israel's staunch ally, the U.S. Israel defied international opinion and said it would continue with a policy that it preferred to describe as one of legitimate self-defence through "interception operations" against would-be suicide bombers and the like. However, Israel seemed to have silently recognised the fact that the international community was alarmed and would not tolerate a widening of the scope of this policy.

In the first week of August, Israel published a list of seven men whom they wanted the P.A. to arrest. In a context where the assassination policy was being implemented, the message behind the publication of the list was unmistakable. If the P.A. did not take these men into custody they would be targeted for killing. On the obverse side, there was reason to think that in the future Israel would restrict its policy of assassinations to the men on the list or others like them who were directly involved in terrorist operations. Yet, as the death of the two boys in Nablus showed, these operations cannot be precise and if the toll of innocents killed in such attacks mounts - as it surely will - Israel will be under pressure to desist from this form of action as well.

The tactical problem for Israel (as distinguished from the ethical and diplomatic problems involved in the international condemnation of these extra-judicial killings) was that its policy of punishment was not achieving its objective. By punishing the Palestinians Israel was not preventing them from trying to launch fresh attacks. On the contrary, such punishments were either creating more martyrs whom young Palestinians would be encouraged to imitate or more angst within the Palestinian community, and therefore a killing rage against Israel. There is a debate going on within Israel as to whether it is Arafat's inability or unwillingness that is preventing him from stopping incitements (that is, the exhortations from various sources to attack Israel) or militant activity. The import of this debate is lost when it is viewed from the Palestinian perspective.

Why should Arafat or anyone else prevent their youth from striking back at Israel when the latter's forces have entered their territories to kill and harass them, the Palestinians ask. To an extent the suicide bombings and drive-by shootings might have been instigated by Palestinian rage at some attacks launched by Israel against their people. But there are also some Palestinians who apparently believe that terror tactics will produce results. They can see that it is hurting Israel as investors and tourists keep away and as the constant state of mobilisation exhausts financial and psychological reserves. Their own economy is hurting even more, but the Palestinians believe that they have more collective resilience than the Israelis. The Islamists are the staunchest proponents of this view.

While some in the Palestinian leadership do seem to recognise that the resort to terror tactics is counter-productive since it creates a moral equivalence between their methods and the Israeli occupation, they are unable to convince their people. To an extent this inability appears to stem from the fact that the Palestinians are so conscious of their victim-hood that they are unable to acknowledge the fact that the international community (or the West, which is really what matters) is unable to perceive their plight in the same manner. They are unable to argue their case for outside intervention - through the deployment of international observers, for instance - with conviction because in the Western perception their resort to terror tactics eclipses Israel's excesses.

Of late the Palestinian official media have begun to float the idea of a change in tactics. A resort to non-violent forms of protest is likely to provide more dividends than the continual resort to the gun and the bomb, it has been argued. But no leading political figure has yet come forward to press for a definitive change in tactical approach, probably because they fear they will be accused of softness or even cowardice by the Palestinian street. A swift change in tactical approach would appear necessary because Israel believes its policy of attritting hardcore militants is beginning to work. If the Palestinians change their tactics only after a large number of militants have been killed, Israel could say that the change in tactics did not proceed from a change of heart but out of necessity.

Such an Israeli argument will have potency when a basic objective of the Palestinians is to get the West on its side, bereft of any suspicion of their intentions. The West, especially the U.S., will not give the Palestinians full support so long as it is not convinced that the Palestinians are not willing to live peacefully with Israel and so long as it suspects that the switch to non-violence is only a temporary tactical measure. Even if the P.A. were somehow able to make the Palestinian people conform to the path of non-violence, there are enough fanatics amongst the Israelis, especially amongst the settlers, who would provoke the Palestinians into retaliation. But before Arafat can ask his people to opt for the path of non-violent struggle, he will need to show them that it will produce some kind of benefit, such as the posting of neutral observers in the territories.

Israel under Sharon's leadership believes that any concession to the Palestinians at the current juncture, even the posting of neutral observers, would be tantamount to rewarding violence. The Palestinians are so fed up of promises being broken by Israel, and have invested so much into the current uprising, that they are unwilling to stop their violent campaign unless they can see that their future will be different. Both sides are therefore still willing to slug it out, and the referee - the international community and the U.S. in particular - does not appear inclined to step into the middle so long as the fighters are swinging at each other.

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