On April 28, both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat accepted an American proposal whereby US and British security personnel will be dispatched to Jericho to supervise the imprisonment of six Palestinians besieged with Arafat in what remains of the Ramallah governorate. Barring last-minute surprises, the end of what is arguably Israel’s most extensive military campaign on Palestinian soil since the 1948 war is finally in sight. Resolution of Israel’s siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity is expected in the coming days. Nevertheless, the broader ramifications of Israel’s Operation Defensive Wall—coupled with the virtual certainty that it will continue in different guise in the weeks ahead—underline Israel’s determination to alter fundamentally the various Israeli-Palestinian arrangements produced by the Oslo agreements and eventually eliminate them altogether.
The March 27 Hamas suicide bombing at Netanya’s Park Hotel, which killed 28 Israelis celebrating Passover and injured many more, was cited by Israel as the casus belli for its military operation. But Operation Defensive Wall was neither a direct response nor a foregone conclusion: the intention to deliver a devastating blow to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the various Palestinian paramilitary organizations is at least as old as the current Israeli government. Moreover, Israel has during the past year consistently pursued a twin policy of military escalation and political immobilism vis-a-vis the Palestinians all but designed to create the appropriate conditions for such an offensive. As widely reported, detailed planning for Defensive Wall was completed well before the Netanya bombing—itself the culmination of an unprecedented level of Palestinian attacks in March which were the predictable harvest of Israel’s first major offensive earlier that month.
Was the offensive inevitable in the wake of the Netanya bloodbath? On March 28, US envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni informed Arafat that Israel would refrain from its anticipated action if the Palestinians accepted his proposals for the implementation of the June 2001 Tenet work plan. The Zinni proposals, which dealt almost exclusively with Israel’s security concerns, were viewed by the PA as a serious distortion of the CIA director’s plan, which had itself been formulated to accommodate Israeli objections to the May 2001 Mitchell report. At a hastily arranged press conference that night, Arafat reaffirmed Palestinian acceptance of both Tenet and Mitchell (neither of which have been formally ratified by the Israeli government), and called for their immediate implementation without further amendment or negotiation. Within hours, large columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers poured into Ramallah and al-Bireh from every direction. By April 4, Israel had reconquered all of the autonomous Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank with the exception of Jericho and Hebron.
Operation Defensive Wall was quantitatively as well as qualitatively different from anything which had preceded it. The army’s attempt to eliminate paramilitary organizations such as the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas and others which have spearheaded the armed uprising formed only part of a much broader campaign. Most visibly, Israeli troops physically occupied all but a small section of the PA compound in Ramallah to further “isolate” Arafat, and Sharon and others began to speak openly of Arafat’s expulsion and replacement. Palestinian security facilities were systematically destroyed in every Palestinian town and village occupied, and security personnel were disarmed and detained en masse.
PA ministries and civil agencies were ransacked, vandalized and sometimes looted as well. Private property, public facilities, commercial establishments, non-governmental organizations and offices maintained by the various Palestinian political factions sustained extensive damage, and were in many cases looted or destroyed altogether. Such actions typically occurred not in the course of armed conflict, but well after the military established control.
As confirmed by Israeli soldiers in newspaper reports, Palestinian non-combatants were pressed into service as human shields, forced to knock on doors, open suspicious packages and even deployed in combat operations. Residents of occupied towns and villages were placed under strict, round-the-clock curfew for the duration of the Israeli military presence, with virtually no exceptions made for urgent humanitarian cases—whether resulting from conflict-related injuries or otherwise. Those venturing outdoors (including women, children and the elderly) risked being shot without warning by snipers. In Ramallah, the curfew was lifted for several hours every fourth day—though many essential items and the money necessary to buy them were in increasingly short supply. In Nablus and Jenin, the curfew was maintained for almost the entire duration of the occupation, with water and electricity to most residents severed.
Israeli forces prevented both Palestinian and international medical and rescue services from operation through the threat and use of violence, leading to an unknown number of deaths from otherwise treatable wounds and regular medical conditions. Troops also invaded hospitals and clinics, in several cases arresting patients from their beds and ransacking the premises.
Thousands of males aged 15-45 were detained in tents without food, water, toilet facilities or blankets. Many reported toture and abuse in detention. Most were eventually released, but some 1,500 have been incarcerated without charge or trial for an initial six-month period or pending formal charges. In early April, Israel announced it was reopening the notorious Ansar 3 (Ketziot) military prison in the Negev Desert, which had been closed at the conclusion of the 1987-1993 uprising.
What Happened in Jenin
With the exception of Nablus, Jenin and to a lesser extent the area around the Ramallah governorate, Palestinian resistance was light and poorly organized. Although militants ensconced in the Nablus casbah fought fiercely, the Israeli military used air power and armored vehicles to conclude what it predicted would be its most difficult battle at relatively low cost. Palestinians paid a significantly higher price, with numerous civilians among the approximately 75 dead and some of the casbah’s most venerable sites, including a soap factory and Turkish bath house, reduced to rubble.
The Jenin refugee camp held out for nine days under increasingly desperate conditions, and inflicted more than twice as many Israeli casualties as were sustained in other Palestinian cities combined. This notwithstanding, the toll of at least dozens of Palestinian military and civilian dead—which Amnesty International forensic pathologist Derrick Pounder characterized as “mass killings”—cannot be ascribed to ferocious combat alone. Evidence collected by journalists and human rights organizations has demonstrated that in Jenin, Israel systematically violated the laws of war and international humanitarian law, and resorted to indiscriminate violence and wanton destruction on a wide scale—including summary executions and the razing of entire neighborhoods—in many cases for purely punitive purposes well after the cessation of hostilities.
The blunt instruments used, including helicopter gunships and bulldozers, exclude the possibility that a massacre in the sense of a slaughter of dozens of individually selected civilians was perpetrated. That war crimes of equivalent severity and legal consequence were committed is nevertheless clear to the Sharon-Peres government as well as human rights workers on the ground. A prime condition Israel has so far placed upon its cooperation with the UN Security Council fact-finding commission is that the commission agree in advance not to draw conclusions which could lead to the prosecution of Israeli soldiers and officials. The confusion and unfounded allegations that initially swirled around what happened in Jenin came largely from Israel’s refusal of access for the media and human rights monitors to the camp.
The unconditional US support for Israel’s offensive led many in the region to wonder if Israel had merely secured a green light from Washington or was in fact doing its bidding. With an escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly frustrating US plans to attack Iraq, and the Bush administration firmly opposed to exerting pressure upon Israel to end the occupation, a massive military blow could have been the preferred alternative of some in the White House to obtain quiet in one part of the region in order to stir things up in another.
Initially, at least, the prospects of eliminating Arafat, dismantling the PA, routing the paramilitary organizations and breaking the will of the Palestinian population seemed promising. In Israeli calculations (shared by Israel’s supporters in Washington), Arafat would either surrender to save his skin, or be quietly removed with the assistance of lieutenants who have been cultivated over the years by Washington and Tel Aviv. Yet Arafat’s very pronounced and public defiance during a moment of acute crisis not only prevented the collapse of the Palestinian leadership, but also served to rally the Palestinians to his side—overwhelmingly so.
With a Red Line
Confronted with the Israeli assault on the Palestinians and the abject humiliation of their leader, in a manner so obviously assisted by US and international complicity and official Arab silence, Arabs took to the streets throughout the region in the most widespread demonstrations seen in decades. They were joined eventually by demonstrators throughout the world.
Fearing for the region’s stability, Arab and European governments began pleading with the US to intervene, eventually producing the Powell mission. Designed to allow Israel to continue its offensive while placating Arab and international opinion, the Secretary of State’s visit achieved only the former. Nevertheless, the US did make clear to Sharon that it would not at this stage tolerate a permanent Israeli reoccupation of the Palestinian enclaves, and that Arafat remains a relevant political actor for the time being. The several dozen international solidarity activists who formed a human shield of a very different sort in the Ramallah governorate certainly complicated any plans to remove or harm its Palestinian occupants.
With Washington seemingly unperturbed by unrest in the Arab world, Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah travelled to Texas for what was a frank exchange by all accounts. While the Saudi effort induced the US to defuse the immediate crisis in Arafat’s compound, the prospects for a viable political resolution of the conflict remain minimal. Bush has all but adopted Sharon’s war on the Palestinians as an integral part of his own war against al-Qaeda. Leading elements of the administration share very hawkish views on the Middle East or are openly identified with Sharon’s Likud party, and the powerful alliance of evangelical Christians and pro-Israel lobbyists is exerting maximum pressure on both Congress and the White House during an election year. Few would consider the spectacle of CIA agents watching over jailed Palestinian militants in occupied territory a particularly auspicious beginning for sustained US engagement.
Ben Eliezer’s Mission Impossible
In the meantime, as demonstrated by repeated Israeli incursions into Qalqilya and Tulkarm since the occupation was replaced by a tight and armored siege in early April, Sharon has eliminated the concept of territory under full Palestinian security control (Area A). His government has also taken initial steps to revive the “civil administration,” an army-staffed apparatus established in 1981 to administer the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories. (The apparatus was abolished in 1995 with the establishment of the PA.) In Tulkarm, land located on the town’s outskirts was requisitioned by military order until 2006.
Palestinian paramilitary formations have doubtless been dealt serious blows by the assassinations, combat deaths, arrests and weapons finds which attended Operation Defensive Wall. But the paramilitaries’ losses are less severe than those of the PA security forces, as they require neither functioning facilities nor extensive arsenals to operate effectively. A high proportion of their most experienced cadres and specialists volunteered or were recruited after the beginning of the current uprising, and will be replaced without great difficulty. Senior Israeli politicians and military officers now warn that the offensive will have only a temporary effect unless accompanied by either a political resolution or even more drastic measures. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer underlined the point in a blunt statement on April 29: “It is impossible to eradicate the terrorist infrastructure.” The various militias are expected to resume their operations in one form or another sooner rather than later, and will before long achieve their previous capacity to disrupt the normal functioning of Israeli society.
Last Chance for Arafat
In the immediate term, it appears that Arafat is to be given one more opportunity—presumably his last—to demonstrate his willingness and ability to crush the Palestinian uprising. Absent a viable political settlement, he is bound to either refuse or fail. As a result of Defensive Wall, the PA’s capacity for policing is vastly diminished. The militants operate more clandestinely, with less accountability to political leaders—whether their own or those of the PA—than before. They are also more determined to fight.
In the militants’ view, renewed attacks against Israel will clearly reveal the conceptual flaws upon which Israel’s approach to the conflict is based: massive shows of military force cannot bring security and will in fact undermine it. But thus far their attacks have led Sharon to conclude that his only failure has been insufficient force, and provided him with renewed impetus and opportunity in his mission to resolve the unfinished business of 1982. In repeated statements excluding the possibility of a political settlement with the current Palestinian leadership, rejecting the removal of a single settlement outpost and advocating a “long-term interim agreement,” Sharon has proven that the political horizon of the current Israeli government does not extend beyond the status quo.
Arafat’s apparent willingness to cut deals which divide rather than strengthen the Palestinians will also spell trouble, if sustained. Criticism of his bargain to end his house arrest in Ramallah has so far been muted, due to the scant options available when he accepted it, but many Palestinians view the deal as a highly dangerous precedent. If the coming weeks prove this arrangement to be a way of introducing the Zinni proposals through the back door, the relationship between the PA and the factions will quickly revert to the pattern of increasing mutual suspicion and tension which obtained on the eve of Arafat’s “isolation” in December 2001. If reports that the US will reward Israel for the Ramallah deal by rendering useless the UN fact-finding commission for Jenin are confirmed, those tensions will deepen.
While Sharon’s infrastructure of terror is a complicated affair requiring runways, spare parts and the mobilization of reserves, those confronting him need little more than several volunteers, a few pipes, a number of commercially available products and willpower to keep theirs operational. Only the most extreme of counter-insurgency measures, such as mass deportations, can render suicide bombing ineffective. Israel could find itself facing bleak choices indeed as a result of its determination to perpetuate the occupation.