Aug 31 2000

Dangerous distractions

Published by at 2:47 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

The botched military operation in the Palestinian village of Assira Shamali near Nablus should never have happened. Neither should the killing a week earlier of the mukhtar of the village of Surda, near Ramallah.

In both incidents Israel got a public relations blow, and in neither incident did it achieve its objectives. In Assira Israel lost three of its soldiers and the Palestinian they were searching for escaped leaving Islamic supporters to declare a major victory. In Surda, the elderly man killed, certainly not the one the Israelis intended to kill, is the uncle of the PLO’s Washington representative Hassan Abdel Rahman. US Secretary of State Madeline Albright called Abdel Rahman to express condolences. 

Both incidents were carried out by the Duvdevan undercover army unit. This unit was formed during the intifada, when its members would dress up as Arabs or as journalists to infiltrate the Palestinian community.

Both attacks also took place in Area B, under Palestinian administrative control and Israeli security control. These areas, which are close to the major Palestinian cities, should have been turned over to the Palestinian security forces some time ago. The Israelis have been holding on to these areas to strengthen their bargaining position during the final-status talks.

The main premise behind these attacks is that they are preventative Israeli security actions to frustrate attempts by the militant Islamic movements to carry out terror attacks. One doubts, though that these claims are genuine. For one thing, Hamas has apparently not been behind any attacks in recent years. The more moderate Hamas leaders seem to have won the internal power struggle, especially after the deportation by Jordan of some of the key Hamas leaders who had supported a more violent course of action.

Even in his praise of the events in Assira, Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin spoke in relatively moderate terms. He said the right to resist occupation includes the right to attack military targets.

This tone by Hamas is not new. The last few years have witnessed a marked change in Hamas attitudes. Their representatives attended recent meetings of the PLO’s central council, as observers, even though they are not officially members of the PLO. They are reportedly planning to attend the September 9 meeting on the issue of statehood.

The absence of anti-Israel attacks is no doubt also the result of high-level Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Israeli officials themselves noted that the one area in which Palestinians and Israelis saw eye to eye at Camp David was in the area of security cooperation.

No doubt that all the information regarding Hamas’s moderation is known to Israeli intelligence and to Israel’s top political echelons. So why did Israel sanction these attacks when the peace process was at such a sensitive stage?

Publicly we were told that the attacks were meant to frustrate attempts by a Hamas bombing or suicide mission. The operation in Assira was preceded a few days earlier with a high security alert in west Jerusalem. But considering the lack of Hamas attacks, their recent relative moderation and the Israeli claims of security cooperation with the PA, these last operations simply don’t add up.

The more probable explanation is that Prime Minister Ehud Barak, having suffered domestic setbacks and a serious drop in the polls, was looking for a high profile security coup. The most decorated soldier in Israel was simply trying to find a military solution for his political difficulties.

Not that this is new. Shimon Peres, during his short stint as prime minister in 1995-6, applied the same thinking, launching Operation Grapes of Wrath to improve his electoral chances.

If this is the case, we have yet to see the end of these military adventures. As long as the peace process is not producing a breakthrough the prime minister, who is also the defense minister, will try and use the mighty power of the Israeli army to distract from his political failings.

A much better solution is available, but it requires a lot more than military courage. The solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict begins with the painful recognition of the injustice done to the Palestinians, the willingness to accept UN resolutions, recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return and their right to establish their own independent state, which includes East Jerusalem.

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