The war between Iran and Iraq has entered its most gruesome phase. Iran has stepped up its “human wave” attacks, sending tens of thousands of new recruits, including many young boys, to face entrenched Iraqi gun positions or to serve as human mine detonators. Tehran, with some evidence, accuses the Iraqi high command of using chemical weapons, including mustard gas, to turn back the Iranian attacks. Iraq’s deputy foreign minister, in Washington in mid-March, weakly responded to these charges by pointing to US use of chemical weapons, such as napalm and Agent Orange, in Indochina, and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as if to say that Iraq was entitled to some quota of war crimes.

This three-and-a-half year old war is growing more dangerous as well. In December, following a high-level but unpublicized Pentagon and State Department tour of the Gulf states, the Reagan administration put out the word that an Iraqi defeat would be “contrary to US interests.” Recent Iraqi bluff attacks against Iranian oil export facilities, and the reports of chemical warfare, suggest that Baghdad now sees its survival at stake. The US has poised its forces to intervene directly in the event of an Iraqi military collapse. By the end of February, a 28-ship carrier battle group was in the Arabian Sea, just outside the Hormuz straits, and a “high-ranking administration official” told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the administration was “prepared to send American ground troops to the Persian Gulf.” Five US warships are operating inside the Gulf, from an “administrative support unit” — a base — in Bahrain. On February 26, one of these ships, the guided-missile frigate Lawrence, fired on an Iranian plane.

Washington appears eager to reassert US military might against the “Iranian-Syrian-Libyan axis” which it holds responsible for the defeat in Lebanon, and may be tempted to launch a Grenada-style takeover of several Iranian-held islands in the Gulf, lt is not likely that fighting would be confined to these islands. Would US commanders then feel compelled to “take out” the Iranian naval base at the port city of Bandar Abbas, and could fighting be contained to these points? The presence of some 20 officers from the US Central Command (as the 300,000-man rapid deployment force is now called) on board the Bahrain-based warship LaSalle highlights the danger of a much larger war. In such circumstances, there is also a great risk that Israel would attack Syria within the division of labor mapped out in the “strategic accord” signed last November in Washington. Elements within the Israeli high command have been arguing for months that war with Syria is inevitable, and should best be fought sooner while Israel’s advantage is still absolute. Thus, in the spring of 1984, we find all the ingredients of a “worse-case” scenario for general war in the region, a war that could easily escalate into a direct clash between US and Soviet forces.

Neve Tirtza is a women’s prison in Israel, near Ramie. Most prisoners are Jewish, but Palestinian women convicted of threatening the “security of the state” are also incarcerated there. In late 1982, prison authorities insisted that Palestinian women working in the prison kitchen also cook for and serve their guards. Thirty-two women went on strike in May 1983 with one demand: not to cook for nor serve their jailers. Collective punishments by the authorities failed to provoke resentment against the strikers among the other prisoners, so sanctions against the strikers were increased. The strikers have been kept locked up for 23 hours a day, not allowed reading or writing materials, radio or TV, or contact with one another. Personal clothing and embroidery work were taken away; coffee, tea and one meal were cut. Although many of the prisoners are mothers, letters are forbidden and Visits restricted to one every two months.

After prisoners’ relatives joined with the Israeli Jewish group Women Against Occupation and the Palestinian Women’s Working Committee to demonstrate solidarity with the strikers on August 5 and October 10, the authorities escalated their harassment. On October 31, when the women protested the guards’ removal of their library, police gassed them in their closed cells. They were struck by canisters; the gas burned their faces and in some cases set their hair afire. When they broke windows to get air, guards beat them with clubs. The attack lasted between two and three hours. The women were denied medical care until the third day, when they were given Vaseline and Tylenol. They were fed in their cells by gas-masked guards.

Word of the attack only leaked out on November 4, after lawyers Lea Tsemel and Felicia Langer visited the prison and came out suffering themselves from the residue of the gas used. This led to a Knesset committee of inquiry and a Red Cross visit, but overall conditions have not improved. The women have been without hot water since November. Prison clothing was not warm enough for winter, yet they were forbidden to receive clothing from their families. Five of the women were released in the Israel-PLO prisoner exchange in December, but 27 are still on strike for their one demand. Jewish and Palestinian women are continuing their protests against the treatment of the prisoners, and against the house and town arrest orders used to harass and constrain the Palestinian women activists. They are asking people to demand that Israeli authorities accord the Palestinian women political prisoner status and their rights under the Geneva Conventions.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "From the Editors (March/April 1984)," Middle East Report 122 (March/April 1984).

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