On December 4 Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered a series of punishing airstrikes against facilities of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and sent armored columns to occupy several Palestinian-controlled areas. The government declared the PA a "terror-supporting entity" and promised to use "all its might" to prosecute a war against the nominal Palestinian government. Hundreds were wounded and dozens killed in the attacks that have not let up.
The Israeli government used a series of suicide bombings that left 25 Israelis dead as the excuse to launch the offensive. The Bush administration, which had just sent a high-level delegation to Palestine to conduct talks with both sides, found itself in the position of being unable to openly oppose Sharon's response. The Israeli prime minister insisted that PA president Yasir Arafat round up members of the Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Arafat's security forces complied to the degree they were able, arresting around 200 people and closing the offices of the two organizations. They were unable to stop attacks on Israelis, however.
Within days, Israel suspended its airstrikes as U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni pressed for a resumption of talks. A senior Bush administration official told the Washington Post that the White House is "not going after Arafat and we haven't taken decisions or positions about Arafat as a leader. The last thing we need to see is the collapse of the whole Palestinian Authority." Asked if the United States has a "Plan B," in the event that Arafat doesn't measure up to the expectations of the U.S. and Israeli governments, the administration official reiterated his point. Arafat is "Plan A, B, C, D, and Z," he said. "We want him to do his stuff. Among the quickest ways to let him off the hook is to put out some other plan."
Edward Abington, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, added, "I'm not sure there is a Plan B. That's the problem. I think we're kind of drifting toward a terrible catastrophe out there."
The Post interviewed Jordan's ambassador to the United States, Marwan Muasher, who said, "The end of the Palestinian Authority will bring chaos to the streets. And any regime that comes after that will be seen as a puppet regime."
European Union officials chimed in, stating Arafat must "convincingly and relentlessly" pursue those deemed by the Israeli government to be responsible for the attacks. They also warned Israel not to go too far in destabilizing the PA.
Alarmed by prospect of overthrow
The Egyptian foreign minister arrived in Jerusalem December 7 for talks with Israeli leaders, following a visit to Cairo by the head of Mossad, Israel's secret police. While the foreign minister did not condemn the Israeli bombing, the Financial Times noted that he "was alarmed by the prospect that the Israeli offensive could lead to the overthrow of Mr. Arafat, a development that might further destabilize the region."
In an editorial printed the same day, the New York Times encouraged the Israeli government to "exercise restraint in its military operations" and to let Arafat "follow through on his promises to break up Hamas's terror network." Recognizing that the Palestinian Liberation Organization that Arafat chairs is not the only voice of the Palestinian people, the Times acknowledged that "Hamas has emerged as a powerful force in Palestinian-administered areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip," and expressed concern that it is "more popular than Mr. Arafat's secular nationalist Fatah party."
"More than eight years after the signing of the first Oslo peace agreements with Israel," the paper added, "Palestinians have lost faith in Mr. Arafat's negotiating strategies. They despair of ever seeing an end to the daily humiliations of Israeli occupation."
The arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists ran into opposition among Palestinian people, even from within Arafat's own Fatah organization. At a march to show support for Arafat, many expressed reservations about the PA's action. "We're against the arrests," Ghassan Jabala, a Fatah Youth member and vice-president of the student council at Gaza University, told the press. "I believe it is just a temporary measure by Arafat, who is accused on all sides." A professor at the march said it was better for the people to be arrested, since "they will be safe from the Israelis."
Bourgeois columnist Charles Kraut-hammer addressed the results of the Israeli government's course in "Sharon Flinches," a column in the December 7 Washington Post. Flush with anticipation of a massive Israeli assault on the Palestinians, Krauthammer expressed the hopes he had held that suicide bombing would give the government in Jerusalem "the opportunity to do as America is doing to the Taliban: destroy the Arafat regime that harbors and protects Hamas terrorists... Here is the opportunity to detain and deport the Palestinian Authority leadership that brought Israel more terrorism in the eight years of the 'peace process' than in all of its previous history.
"What does Prime Minister Sharon do?" lamented Krauthammer. "He flinches. He temporizes. He attacks symbolic targets--destroys two of Arafat's helicopters, tears up his Gaza airport runway, flattens a few police stations, blasts the office next door to Arafat's... The message is clear. Israel does not (yet) have the will--or the government--to fight its own war."
Rarely addressed in the discourse among capitalist politicians is the fact that like its recent predecessors the Sharon government is less and less able to stir up a war fever among the Israeli population. Rather, the apparent absence of any resolution to the endless conflict feeds war-weariness.
Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian and the vice president of the Arab American Action Network, addressed some of the same questions from a different point of view in an opinion column from Chicago that was picked up in some large U.S. dailies.
"What other punishments will be imposed on the Palestinians?" he wrote. "More shelling of refugee camps? More houses destroyed? More kidnappings? More torture? An even tighter blockade?
"None of these strategies are likely to end the violence; after all, all have been used relentlessly and without mercy."
If the Israeli regime exiles or executes Arafat, wrote Abunimah, "the occupation will still be there. The Israelis will be the losers because they no longer have the decrepit old man, their bin Laden, to blame for all their problems. They will come face to face with the fact that it is the occupation that is the fuel of the conflict."
The Palestinian added that "no serious person believes that Mr. Arafat and his lieutenants, nominally controlling a few divided scraps of land in the West Bank and Gaza, can through coercion, arrests and torture do what Israel with all its might has failed to do: bring about an unconditional end to all resistance against the occupation or attacks on Israeli civilians...
"Mr. Zinni said he will stay in the region until he succeeds in getting a cease-fire. But if American policy avoids dealing directly with the root causes, he should plan to be in the Mideast war zone for a long time," he concluded.
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