Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 December 2001

Israel’s extraordinarily violent and indiscriminate response to last weekend’s appalling suicide bombings, attacking Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza and Ramallah and sending in F-16s against the Palestinian police headquarters in Jenin, has forced the vexed question of what to do about Israel and Palestine back to the top of the international agenda.

Not that it should ever have been shoved to one side in the first place. It is fatuous to claim that the atrocities of September 11 or the fanaticism of Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts-cum-protégés were caused by the festering wound of Israel-Palestine — let alone justified by it. But there should never have been any doubt in anyone’s mind that finding a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is urgently necessary if the post-September 11 rhetoric of a global campaign against terrorism is to prove anything other than empty sloganising. And while the eyes of the world have been fixed on Afghanistan, a massive Israel-Palestine crisis has been unfolding.

It is in no sense to defend the Hamas suicide bombers’ vile actions to say that they are hardly surprising. The great hopes of September 1993, when Yitzak Rabin and Arafat met in Washington to sign the Oslo accords, holding out the prospect of a process leading to the establishment within a decade of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza coexisting peacefully with Israel, have long since melted away. And the fault lies largely with the Israelis.

It was Israeli intransigence over settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees that led the Palestinians to break off talks and then launch a second intifada against Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza.

And particularly since February, when Ariel Sharon became Israeli Prime Minister, the Israelis have taken an ever more uncompromisingly hard line on Palestinian unrest, isolating the West Bank and Gaza economically, assassinating Palestinian radicals and making repeated armed incursions into Palestinian areas, killing hundreds of civilians in the process.

In response, Palestinian public opinion has swung sharply behind the leftists and Islamists. In recent months, it has become increasingly clear that Sharon’s intention is to topple Arafat’s Palestinian Authority — and thereby to destroy any chance of a resumption of the peace process.

Until this week, however, it has been just about possible to hope that the United States and Europe would act as a restraint on Sharon. In October, when Sharon sent the tanks into six Palestinian towns after the assassination of the Right-wing minister Rehavam Zeevi by the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the US State Department and President George Bush told the Israelis in no uncertain terms to get out.

Both the US and Europe rejected Sharon’s attempts to get them to bracket the Palestinian Authority with the Taliban as a safe haven for terrorists. (They balanced this by putting pressure on Arafat to clamp down on the PFLP, Hamas and other Islamist militants — a course of action that he took, even though it undermined his already faltering political position.)

Yet this week the US effectively gave the green light to Sharon’s hard-line response to the suicide attacks. “The President’s point of view is Israel is a sovereign power. Israel has the right to defend itself,” declared the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, on Monday. “The president thinks it is very important the Palestinian jails not only have bars on the front, but no longer have revolving doors on the back.”

This apparent change of position is extremely worrying. Coupled with Sharon’s unprecedentedly extreme denunciation of Arafat on Monday and the harshness of the Israeli strikes on Monday and Tuesday, it raises the spectre of Israel mounting an all-out attack on the Palestinian Authority — a course of action that would lead inexorably to a bloody Israel-Palestine war, triggering a massive international crisis that would convulse the whole Middle East. Even if this does not come to pass, there is a real danger that the security clampdown now being implemented by Arafat at American insistence will spark a Palestinian revolt so severe that the Palestinian Authority collapses. It is unlikely that it would be replaced by an entity more friendly to Israel.

In these dangerous circumstances, it is imperative that the US and Europe make it clear publicly that they are not prepared to give Sharon a free hand. While empathising with Israeli grief over last weekend’s victims, they must insist that he ends his punitive policies in Gaza and the West Bank at once — and demand that he sits down to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority about a complete and permanent Israeli withdrawal from those territories and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

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