At approximately 1:00 am on March 15, 2002, Israeli military forces began withdrawing from the twin cities of Ramallah and al-Bireh in the West Bank, which they had occupied in a massive show of force three days previously. In the ensuing hours, Israel evacuated most of the other towns, villages and refugee camps located within West Bank and Gaza Strip enclaves devolved to Palestinian Authority (PA) jurisdiction by the Oslo accords, but which it had physically reoccupied in the course of the past month. The Israeli redeployment, coming almost exactly a year after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon assumed office, brought to a sudden halt the largest Israeli military campaign since the 1982 Lebanon war and the most violent and destructive onslaught the Occupied Territories have witnessed since the June 1967 war.
If the operational plan adopted by the Sharon-Peres government is taken at face value, Israel’s latest actions were a resounding failure. Its strategic objective of forcing the Palestinians to accept an unconditional ceasefire or otherwise causing the PA to implode as a result of overwhelming military-political pressure lies in shambles. Its tactical objective of incapacitating the various militant organizations’ ability for sustained action by eliminating their leaderships, disarming them and arresting their cadres en masse failed even at the public relations level.
Perhaps most importantly, the implicit goal of “restoring the deterrent power of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)” among the Palestinian population through the traditional method of sowing fear was a non-starter. The prized “barrier of fear” in fact collapsed in 1988 during the opening stages of the previous uprising, and has been only further eroded by the defeat of Israeli arms in Lebanon during the 1990s and the qualitative leap in Palestinian military capabilities during the current uprising. Overall, the primary effect of Israel’s campaign has been to make the Palestinians both more united and more determined to continue resistance to the occupation. Palestinian morale—in contrast to that of Israelis—is virtually unaffected. At this stage at least, the main concern is one of unwarranted Palestinian triumphalism in the face of what is essentially a tactical and temporary Israeli retreat.
“Journey of Colors”
The Israeli campaign, which its authors termed “Journey of Colors,” was put into effect in mid-February shortly after Sharon returned from his fourth visit to George W. Bush’s White House. Revenge and retaliation for specific Palestinian attacks, both suicide bombings inside Israel and assaults on soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza, have been an obvious ingredient of Israeli conduct. But explanations anchored in the latest Palestinian suicide bombing, or a more general “cycle of violence” escalating autonomously beyond control, entirely miss the point about the expanding scale and ferocity of Israeli operations, and the quantum leap in Palestinian casualties and destruction of infrastructure which have accompanied them.
As explained by Sharon at the Knesset on March 5, Israel has discarded the pretense that it is engaged in conflict management designed to reduce the level of Israeli-Palestinian violence through a process of security arrangements leading to a resumption of political negotiations. Rather, Sharon stated, Israel is “at war” with the PA in the conventional sense of the term and will therefore seek military victory. In his most explicit language yet, Sharon vowed to exercise “continuous military pressure” upon the PA, and stated that the Palestinians “must be dealt a heavy blow, which will come from every direction” and that Israel would “inflict heavy losses on their side.” “We must first hit them hard,” he concluded, to “make clear to them that they are overpowered” prior to any resumption of negotiations.
Within 72 hours, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were subjected to their single bloodiest day since June 1967. On March 8—described by Palestinians as Black Friday—Israeli land, air and naval forces shelled virtually every town in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while armored columns invaded several Palestinian towns and refugee camps.
The death toll, approximately 45 Palestinian and six Israeli dead, tells only part of the story. In Tulkarm, where fighting was concentrated in the town’s main refugee camp, at least 20 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. A good portion of the mix of military and civilian casualties simply bled to death from treatable wounds as Israeli forces shot up and crushed ambulances to prevent medical crews from reaching the injured. The International Committee of the Red Cross protested what it viewed as deliberate targeting and incapacitation of emergency services: a number of Palestinian medical professionals (including the director of Bait Jala’s al-Yamama Hospital, the director of the Jenin Hospital’s emergency ward and a UN employee) were killed and numerous ambulances were destroyed. Unsubstantiated Israeli claims that ambulances are used to transport bombs and militants were categorically dismissed by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. As if to underline the point, an ambulance in Jenin claimed by Israel to have been carrying a large bomb was upon closer inspection found to have exploded because Israeli bullets ripped through an oxygen balloon.
As in the Jenin and Balata refugee camps invaded by Israeli forces a week earlier, the wounded included parents and spouses seeking to assist injured or dying relatives strewn along the camp’s narrow alleyways. Under conditions of strict curfew, Israeli snipers with a commanding view of the entire camp simply shot at anything that moved. In a similar repeat of the previous week, Israeli military tactics blazed a trail of physical damage through refugees’ homes and public facilities, and virtually destroyed the camp’s water and electricity utilities. After offering some resistance, the majority of armed militants managed to withdraw from the camp. The IDF was reduced to mass roundups of the camp’s male civilians (spun as a “mass surrender”), who were handcuffed, blindfolded and numbered on their forearms to howls of outrage from Knesset member Tommy Lapid and other Nazi concentration camp survivors. (IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz ordered this last practice stopped on March 13.)
Earlier in the morning of March 8, a campaign by Israeli forces in the Gazan town of Khuza’a killed 16 Palestinian militants and civilians, including Gen. Ahmad Mifrij (Abu Humayd), commander of the Palestinian National Security Forces for the southern Gaza Strip. According to numerous eyewitness reports, Israeli special forces commandeered several ambulances during the attack and used these to lay ambushes for unsuspecting Palestinian fighters. Later that day, a gathering of the Palestinian political and military elite in the Khan Yunis district, including the senior Palestinian security official in the Gaza Strip, Gen. Abd al-Razaq al-Majayda, and four members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, narrowly escaped collective assassination while preparing funeral arrangements for those killed in Khuza’a. Al-Majayda’s Khan Yunis headquarters was blown to smithereens by several missiles fired from US-made Apache helicopters moments after the group had evacuated the building.
The Israeli operation reached its peak on March 12 when thousands of troops accompanied by approximately 150 Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers invaded Ramallah/al-Bireh and occupied them in their entirety save the governorate compound housing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the central Manara square and the short road connecting the two. Here again, medical services were deliberately paralyzed. Ambulances were physically prevented from leaving their stations, tanks were stationed at hospital entrances to prevent the arrival of casualties and the water and electricity supply to all but one of the towns’ hospitals was severed. (Al-Bireh’s Hilal hospital, like a maternity ward in a Bethlehem hospital, sustained direct hits.)
On the second day of the occupation, Israeli forces began to shoot at the media. An Italian photojournalist was shot six times in the chest, several others were wounded, many more confined indoors and a number of media offices took direct hits. Throughout the city, Israeli forces took control of homes and buildings for use as sniper nests, herding their inhabitants (often numbering into the dozens) into a single apartment or even a single room, one reason being to prevent the buildings from Palestinian counterattack. In numerous cases, troops ransacked apartments, making off with cash, jewelry and other items of value. Al-Am’ari and Qaddura, two refugee camps in the Ramallah district, bore the brunt of the Israeli onslaught.
Sharon Overplays His Hand
Senior Israeli policymakers explained during Operation Journey of Colors that there would be no discussion of an Israeli withdrawal prior to an unconditional Palestinian “ceasefire.” Unless the PA and the factions disabused themselves of the notion that the uprising could achieve political results and terminated it forthwith, Israel would eliminate them. Unable to surrender and unwilling to vanish, Arafat chose to do nothing and wait for Sharon to overplay his hand. The Israeli premier promptly did so in the form of the raids on the refugee camps, which earned him rebukes even from the editorial page of the New York Times. The factions, and Fatah in particular, decided to strike back as often and as hard as they could to drive home the message that Sharon’s agenda of security through force is doomed to failure and that only a political resolution of the conflict can offer Israelis genuine security. The immediate effect of the invasions was a resumption of indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets within Israel, at a time when these organizations had begun confining their increasingly effective operations to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians appear entirely correct in their appraisal that Operation Journey of Colors—whose opening phases in Jenin and Balata refugee camps were defended by the US as “self-defense”—could not have been implemented without the requisite support from the Bush administration. But the campaign’s failure to meet its objectives rapidly, on the eve of Vice President Dick Cheney’s mission to mobilize international support for a strike against Iraq, led the US to have second thoughts. In an about-face from his previous studied inactivity, Bush dispatched retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni to the region for the third time to douse the flames of conflict. Sharon has been retreating from one stated policy after another in response to various American “requests,” most notably his previous insistence that a seven-day ceasefire be achieved prior to any ceasefire negotiations and his demand that the PA declare an unconditional ceasefire prior to any Israeli withdrawal from Ramallah.
Arafat has come a long way from the recent US-Israeli mantra that he is solely and exclusively responsible for the conflict. But it remains unclear whether the US is serious about pursuing a political resolution of the conflict in parallel with its primary concern of terminating the Palestinian uprising. Judging from past Zinni visits, there are scant grounds for optimism. The next escalation may be only a matter of time.