Dec 03 2001

Israel’s ground zero

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

The mission of retired general Anthony Zinni, the new U.S. peace envoy to the Middle East, became more difficult after the weekend’s bloody suicide bombings and retaliatory shootings between Israelis and Palestinians. But if someone is looking for reasons for this upsurge of violence — and for the way out of it — one needs to take one step forward, not two steps back.

Let’s start with a look at the mistaken Israeli attempt to end the violence in the occupied territories without simultaneously working on a political solution. All foreign envoys to the region, as well as Israel’s own Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, have been encouraging Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to begin negotiations with Palestinians aimed at finding a political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Instead, Israel’s right-wing leader has set his own conditions on Palestinians before he is willing to begin political talks. Mr. Sharon wants Palestinians who have been waging a war of resistance against the Israeli military occupation to cease all violence for seven days before he will agree to talks.

The condition of seven days of quiet is not matched by a similar demand on Israel to stop its own acts of oppression against Palestinians. Mr. Sharon has refused U.S. requests to lift the siege – the heightened security regime — that has trapped three million Palestinians and turned their territory into a large prison. Israel has not even accepted the request made by former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright — and repeated by a respected international committee headed by former U.S. senator George Mitchell — asking Israel to take a “time out” and freeze illegal Jewish settlement activities in Palestinian areas.

Mr. Sharon’s most harmful position, though, has been his refusal to stop the policies of assassination and brutal attempts aimed at crushing the Palestinian intifada or uprising. Just before Mr. Zinni arrived in the region, Israeli forces, using American-made Apache helicopters, assassinated a senior Palestinian guerrilla leader, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, and two of his aides. The Israelis had previously used F-16 fighters to bomb a Palestinian prison where Mr. Hanoud was held. Eleven Palestinian jailers were killed during the prison raid.

Last week, five Palestinian children were killed by a booby-trap placed by Israeli soldiers on the road to their school in the Gaza Strip. And unlike the suicide bombings carried out by militant Palestinian organizations, the above killings were carried out, and responsibility was admitted, by the Israeli army.

Of course the killing of innocent civilians, all civilians, must be condemned and cannot be justified. An immediate ceasefire is certainly necessary. And although no ceasefire of record has ever been agreed upon without a political component of some sort, Mr. Sharon basically wants the Palestinian leadership to violently crack down on their own militants, offering in return only the hope that Mr. Sharon would make a peace proposal in future talks.

In other words, Mr. Sharon, whose hands have been soaked in Palestinian blood since the killings of Palestinians in Qibbya in 1955, in Gaza in the 1970s, and implicated in the Lebanese Christian massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, wants Palestinians to trust him.

Mr. Sharon has not revealed a viable political plan that would encourage even the most dovish Palestinians to trust him. In published statements he has proposed to return, salami-style, less than 50 per cent of Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967 — despite UN Security Council Resolution 242, which has called on Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian lands.

While trust has long been lost between Palestinians and Israelis, both parties have put their faith in the government of the United States. The U.S. has the mandate from both parties as well as the international community to use every effort at its disposal to encourage, cajole, pressure and, if need be, twist the arms of both parties until they agree to a solution to this century-long conflict. Even hardline Israelis and Palestinians will accept a fair solution that can end the bloodshed.

The guidelines for such a solution already exist in binding international agreements, in bilateral and multilateral agreements as well as in points of convergence agreed to as late as last year in the Egyptian resort city of Taba. What is needed now is the political will to put these agreements down in a process that has a time limit.

Palestinians need the hope of a future of freedom and independence; Israelis need a feeling of personal and collective security. Former U.S. president George Bush Sr. put it simply in Madrid 10 years ago: Land for Peace.

Too much time has elapsed since those important words. The time has come to stop the killings, to stop the bloodshed, and to bring about a peace process that can provide for an independent state of Palestine alongside a safe state of Israel within recognized borders.

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