This May’s escalations in the long-since militarized confrontation in the Occupied Territories prompted the obligatory calls upon the US to intensify its diplomatic efforts. Secretary of State Colin Powell responded with the lackluster Mitchell Commission report and another attempt to broker a ceasefire. But as usual, the much-ballyhooed US initiative did not depart from basic support for Israel’s positions. “The complete cessation of violence,” which Israel can interpret to mean stone-throwing as well as suicide bombings, must precede all “confidence-building measures” on Israel’s part. The Mitchell report endorsed Israel’s characterization of the second intifada as a security crisis, rather than a political one.
Pundits have often contrasted the inaction of George W. Bush’s administration with the engagement of Bill Clinton, but Bush’s inaction has actively made things worse. When Israeli tanks first moved into Beit Hanoun in mid-April, Powell abruptly castigated Ariel Sharon for attempting to reoccupy land long since transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Sharon ordered the tanks to leave, to the consternation of the Israeli right. But the US did not seem to mind if or how often Israeli tanks returned. Even the Washington Post noted the deafening US silence about Israel’s regular incursions into PA-controlled territory. Meanwhile, the US veto on March 28 of the UN Security Council resolution calling for international monitors in the Palestinian territories showed that the Bush administration will act decisively in Israel’s favor when needed. Millions of US taxpayer dollars, of course, continued to bankroll the occupation, throughout Sharon’s upward ratcheting of Israel’s already excessive force.
On May 18, Israel sent US-made F-16 fighters into the Occupied Territories for the first time since 1967, rocketing PA security force installations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and killing 13. This attack and subsequent helicopter attacks were at once a military escalation and confirmation of an existing pattern. When Islamic militants whom the PA does not control kill Israelis — as they did in the May 18 suicide bombing that killed five — Israel targets the PA.
Since October, Israel’s military spokesmen have vociferously claimed that PA security men are behind the “violence.” It has been a clever public relations strategy, playing on the complicated reality on the ground. The memberships of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza and the tanzim of Fatah do indeed overlap with Force 17 and other security forces. Some militant members of Force 17 — the anonymous “Palestinian gunmen” of news reports — have indeed participated in shootings of soldiers and settlers. But the memberships of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the PA’s security services do not overlap. Though Israeli intelligence has been known to make egregious mistakes, they obviously know that the PA does not order Hamas operations. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attacks like the May rocketing serve a two-fold political purpose, not a purely military one
As Rema Hammami and Jamil Hilal argue in this issue, one purpose is to squeeze the PA into “ending” the intifada, and renouncing the uprising’s aim of ending the occupation. Israeli attacks on the PA remind Arafat just how weak he is, and how it was only the skewed Oslo process that made him a “head of state.” The other purpose of attacks on the PA is to project an image to the world of two countries at war. Constant use of the word “war” by pro-Israeli commentators — however appropriate it may otherwise be — is another way to hide the reality of colonial occupation. The war image implies parity between the two parties, and that Arafat is some kind of commander-in-chief. It also allows the media to describe Sharon’s pledge to stop preemptive strikes on the PA as a “unilateral ceasefire.”
Leaks in the Israeli press after the F-16 attack confirm that many Israeli ministers believe that the PA has outlived its usefulness. Sharon, with US prodding, may be reconsidering the wisdom of attacking the most pliant negotiating partner he is likely to find. But while the US murmurs its objections to the use of F-16s, the IDF continues to demolish homes and uproot olive groves. These ostensibly military operations also have a political objective. There will be many new Israeli “facts on the ground” in the West Bank and Gaza if and when negotiations begin again.