Israel shows its true colours while the world looks elsewhere

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Our Special Correspondent

Sha'ban 15, 1422 2001-11-01

Occupied Arab World

by Our Special Correspondent (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 17, Sha'ban, 1422)

As international attention remains focused on the US-British attacks on Afghanistan and the escalating humanitarian crisis inflicted on the Afghani people, Israel has gone on the rampage in Palestine. On October 18 Israeli troops unleashed massive raids on nearly all the main towns and cities of the West Bank. This is their largest incursion to date into areas handed over to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in accordance with the Oslo accords.

Israeli tanks have roared into the towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Ramallah, Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Nablus and Jenin. The advancing troops were met by Palestinian fire and ferocious gun-battles have been raging in the streets. Combat helicopters have fired missiles into the hearts of these towns. The invading troops have also arrested dozens of Palestinian activists. In Qalqilya, where Israeli soldiers took over the two-storey building housing the Palestinian police headquarters, Israeli troops arrested a number of people, including four brothers of a Hamas man who had carried out a martyrdom seeking bombing in Israel in 1994. In Ramallah, the administrative centre of the PNA in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers took over the Palestinian local government ministry offices. During the night of October 22-23 Israeli troops invaded Palestinian refugee camps at Rafah in the southern Ghazzah Strip, destroying several homes.

Israel’s military assault on these heavily populated areas, with an estimated total population of 1 million people, involved a level of savagery and disregard of international law that has long typified zionist military operations. Israeli snipers on the rooftops of high-rise buildings have deliberately targeted civilians of all ages in streets, schools, homes, grocery stores, mosques and churches. Dozens of civilians have been killed by Israeli fire, and hundreds wounded.

On October 21, Israeli troops fired at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem when the church was packed with worshippers attending Sunday mass. An Israeli shell landed only 50 yards from the fourth-century church, wounding two people. A Palestinian altar boy was killed by Israeli machine-gun fire in Manger Square. Holy Family Hospital, a maternity hospital and orphanage run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent, also came under Israeli tank fire. Three shells were reported to have hit the laundry room and an empty guesthouse. The attack on the Church of the Nativity prompted Pope John Paul II to lament the arrival of “war and death” at a sacred place, and warn of “a path of death and destruction.”

Medical crews and other hospitals were not spared either. On October 20 Israeli troops attacked a United Nations ambulance, injuring the driver, Yasser Mesha’al, and a doctor, Maher Abu Loah. On October 22 Israeli troops killed a Palestinian outside a hospital in Beit Jala. According to the Palestine Media Centre, 69 percent of the Palestine Red Crescent Society’s (PRCS) ambulance fleet have been targeted by Israeli fire since the start of the intifada in September of last year. In addition, at least four doctors and ambulance crews have been killed, and more than 200 first-aid volunteers and PRCS technicians have been injured in the line of duty during the same period.

Initially, Israeli officials said that the raids were triggered by the killing of Rehavam Ze’evi, the ultra-rightist tourism minister, by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) on October 17. The Marxist-Leninist PFLP claimed responsibility for Ze’evi’s killing as an act of retaliation for the assassination of Abu Ali Mustafa, its secretary-general, who was murdered in an Israeli helicopter attack against his Ramallah office on August 27. The Israelis indicated that the objective of the raids is to put pressure on PNA president Yasser Arafat to arrest and hand over PFLP officials, and generally crack down on militant Palestinian groups. In an interview with Israel radio, cabinet minister Tsipi Livni said: “Everything depends on – how the Palestinian Authority will react.” The Israelis have already presented the PNA with a list of suspects for the Ze’evi slaying, demanding that they be hunted down and handed over for prosecution.

Much as Arafat would probably like to abide by these demands, he seems to be painted into a corner. The task he is called upon to perform is becoming increasingly difficult, as the approach of the so-called “militants” is now clearly shared by the majority of Palestinians. Arafat has outlawed the PFLP’s military wing, Martyr Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades. His police have already arrested more than 30 PFLP members since Ze’evi’s assassination; sixty others are believed to be on the run. But he cannot risk being seen to have been intimidated into turning them over to the Israelis. The steps taken by the PNA against the PFLP have met with strong opposition from the National and Islamic Forces, the umbrella forum of all Palestinian organizations coordinating the intifada, which includes Arafat’s own faction, Fatah. The forum held a rally in Ramallah on October 21 to call on the PNA to release all PFLP activists and supporters and not to give in to Israeli pressure, highlighting also the widening gap between the field operatives and activists who are actually conducting the intifada, and Arafat’s flunkies and yes-men who man the Palestinian establishment.

Anxious to shore up Arab and Muslim support for its war effort in Afghanistan, the US has strongly protested Israel’s latest incursions into Palestinian areas. The US state department on October 22 urged Israel to withdraw its forces “immediately” from all Palestinian areas and to desist from making any further incursions. Reading from a prepared statement, state department spokesman Philip Reeker expressed “regret” and “deplore[d] Israel Defence Forces actions that have killed numerous Palestinian civilians,” while calling on Arafat’s PNA to do more to stamp out violence. Reeker also described the death of innocent civilians as “unacceptable,” adding that the Israeli incursions into Palestinian self-rule areas “have contributed to a significant escalation in tension and violence.” US president George W. Bush repeated the call for Israeli withdrawal from self-rule areas when he met Israel’s foreign minister on October 23.

The Israelis have turned a deaf ear to pleas of restraint and flatly rejected the US demand for a pullout. Government sources close to Sharon were quoted by Israel’s radio on October 23 as reaffirming that the army “will stay in its new positions so long as the threat of attacks exists from terrorist organisations, against which the Palestinian Authority is doing nothing.” A statement by the prime minister’s office in reaction to the US demand said: “Israel like any other democratic country must exercise its right to self-defence for all its inhabitants.” It added: “Israel does not intend to conquer the territories of zone A [areas under full Palestinian security and administrative control under autonomy accords], but demands that Yasser Arafat extradite the killers of Rehavam Ze’evi and those who sent them.”

Some Israeli officials have gone as far as calling for the destruction of Arafat’s PNA. Israel’s cabinet secretary, Gideon Saar, has recently been quoted as saying: “We will act against them in the way currently accepted by the international community,” in a candid reference to the US-led “war on terrorism.” The Israeli Yediot Aharonot daily, which is close to Sharon’s right-wing Likud party, reported that the prime minister told his cabinet on October 18: “As far as I’m concerned, the era of Arafat is over.” On the same day, Sharon also told the Knesset: “The full responsibility [for Ze’evi’s assassination] falls squarely on Arafat, as someone who has controlled, and continues to control, terrorism, and as one who has not, to this day, taken even one serious step to prevent terrorism.”

The fact that Arafat seems to have outlived his usefulness to the Israelis leads to questions about who might succeed him. There are indications that Colonel Jibril Rajjoub, the 55-year-old head of the PNA Preventive Security Apparatus, who maintains close ties with Israel’s Mossad and America’s Central Intelligence Agency, has been trying to present himself as the best choice to succeed 72-year-old Arafat. He has recently been busy meeting American and European diplomats to impress upon them the idea that he is the only Palestinian leader who can restore stability to the region and resume talks with Israel. He has publicly warned the PFLP to turn in its members involved in the killing of Ze’evi, including its secretary-general, Ahmed Sa’adat. Rajjoub’s agency is believed to have more than 2,500 agents in the West Bank. It is regarded as one of the best-trained and equipped among the myriad security apparatuses working under the auspices of the PNA, and also enjoys close ties with intelligence communities in Israel, the US and Europe.

In the meantime, Israel has continued to pursue its policy of “targeted killings.” Ayman Halawi, 26, a senior member of the Hamas military wing, ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was murdered on October 22 when Israeli agents blew up his car in the West Bank town of Nablus. This was the fourth Israeli assassination in nine days. Earlier,’Atef Abayat, the leader of the Tanzim militia in Bethlehem, and two of his associates had been killed by a car bomb. Israel has carried out more than 40 extrajudicial executions since adopting the policy of “targeted killings” in November last year. The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment has so far tallied a total of 41 Palestinians (39 civilians and 2 policemen) murdered in this wave of state-sanctioned assassinations.

But “targeted assassinations” do not seem to have dented the resolve of the Palestinians to continue the armed struggle. On October 22, Youssef Mahmud Muhammad ‘Ayesh, 33, a member of Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, Al-Quds Brigades, opened fire in a busy commercial district in west Jerusalem, injuring five Israelis, three of them seriously, before being gunned down by a passing soldier. A statement by Islamic Jihad said that ‘Ayesh carried out the attack to avenge Israel’s killings in Bethlehem and other West Bank towns.

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