The 20 civilian deaths last week at Beit Hanoun constituted a tragic closing accord to an otherwise successful IDF operation against Palestinian terrorists. And not for the first time: sophisticated military operations inevitably involve costly mistakes; sometimes we kill our own soldiers with "friendly fire", sometimes enemy civilians with errant bombs, shells and bullets. The resulting deaths are shocking, and decent people everywhere must deplore them and extend condolences to the bereaved, along with whatever aid the bereaved agree to accept.
Yet precisely at this sad juncture, it behooves us to recall a simple but very important truth in Israel's conflict with the Palestinians--for that matter, with Hizballah as well. Israel does not deliberately target enemy civilians; Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists do. I realize that in the view of many Palestinians, Israeli civilians are "soldiers", past and future, and the settlers in the territories colonialist thieves, hence fair game. Undoubtedly, too, many Palestinians and others are convinced that the IDF devalues Palestinian lives and takes little care to avoid civilian casualties.
These views are typical of the third world liberation struggles of the past 50 years. The Palestinians' insistence on presenting their struggle in this guise is politically and historically unacceptable to most Israelis and to many in the developed world, for whom there is an important difference here: there is no moral equivalency between the civilians killed deliberately by Palestinian terrorist groups and Hizballah and those killed unintentionally by Israel.
Will the Beit Hanoun tragedy have any significant strategic consequences? At the time of writing, last week's tragic events seemed rather surprisingly (since they strengthened Hamas' militant position) to have helped move Hamas toward a genuine compromise with President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). This is projected to produce, in a few weeks time, a new Palestinian unity government headed by a non-Hamas figure, one conceivably capable of persuading Israel and the Quartet that it has accepted their conditions for financial aid and political interaction. But we have been at this optimistic juncture more than once in recent months, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that the unity government initiative will once again be scuttled by the internal Hamas leadership, or the external leadership, or Syria.
The shocking global photo coverage from Beit Hanoun came at a bad time for Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, whose approval ratings are scraping bottom and who had hoped to arrive in better shape for his meeting in Washington with US President George W. Bush. He compensated in recent days by generating spin about his readiness to make concessions to Abu Mazen: more troops and arms for loyal Fateh forces, reopening the Karni crossing, etc. Bush presumably will ask Olmert to find additional ways to strengthen Abbas and Olmert will agree. If and when a new "Hamas lite" Palestinian government is formed and prisoners are released, Olmert will meet with Abu Mazen and perhaps explore new ways of negotiating limited progress in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
But Beit Hanoun will not generate any real breakthrough. Nor, as long as Palestinian terrorism continues and Israel responds, will it be the last tragedy. Neither Olmert nor Abbas nor Bush has the mandate, the authority or the leadership capacity to significantly reverse the present negative course of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Moreover, and perhaps most important, both Olmert and Bush have weightier issues to deal with in the Middle East than Beit Hanoun and the Palestinian question. Both are concerned about Iran and its sphere of influence: Syria and Hizballah. And Bush has two years to work with a Democratic Congress and find a way out of Iraq. The Palestinian issue is no longer the central focus of attention in the region that it was a few years ago.
Palestinians would be well advised to internalize this development. It means that in the foreseeable future only a major reduction in their demands upon Israel can possibly affect the course of the conflict and prevent more tragedies like Beit Hanoun.- Published 13/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org
The killing of 20 Palestinian civilians in Beit Hanoun last week was not just a human tragedy and a reflection of Israeli indifference toward the lives of innocent Palestinians. It also exposed the limits of the unremitting Israeli use of force to advance Israeli aims.
The travesty can also be seen in a wider political context. Israel is repeating in Gaza the strategy it deployed in Lebanon. That strategy is simple: if military operations alone are not enough to secure military objectives they will at least inflict serious suffering on the population at large. In Lebanon and in Gaza, Israel is neither able to retrieve its captured soldiers nor prevent the activities of the other side, so Israel makes the other public pay a heavy price.
The stalemate at the political level is thus now complemented by a complete failure on the ground. Israel is neither able to pursue a political strategy such as the one Ariel Sharon was pursuing--which maintained internal stability and international, or at least American, understanding and support--nor is it able to deal with the situation on the ground in a way consistent with its interests, especially regarding security.
In other words, the Israeli government, having had to shed its sole political policy on the Palestinian front, the "convergence" strategy, and, as evidenced by Beit Hanoun, pursuing a failed military strategy, is struggling for survival.
Two options are available to Ehud Olmert's government. One is to pursue a political process with the traditional Palestinian peace camp, led by Mahmoud Abbas. This can be done either through the roadmap approach of a phased interim/final process, or on a lower level of confidence-building measures of a kind that might ease tensions between the two sides and within the internal Palestinian political scene. It would also empower this camp at the expense of Hamas. That might, among other effects, provoke Hamas into escalation.
The second possible approach is to explore the possibilities of opening negotiations with Hamas and likeminded forces within Palestinian politics on the basis of the long-term ceasefire (hudna) that Hamas seems to be seriously promoting. While that will marginalize the traditional peace camp and empower Hamas internally, it should nevertheless cool Hamas and may reduce tensions with Israel.
This approach appears to be under serious American and Israeli examination at the moment. It fits well into the second phase of the roadmap, which calls for a Palestinian state with temporary borders. The original concept of the peace process was the exchange of land for peace, and the interim phase of that approach was to give the Palestinian side limited autonomy in order to create the confidence necessary for final negotiations. This new approach seems also to be composed of two phases, but the first phase is a state minus in return for peace minus.
The killing of innocent civilians in Beit Hanoun also came on the eve of an important visit by Olmert to Washington. Both the Israeli prime minister and the American president are facing hugely adverse internal political conditions. In both cases, the two have in the past relied absolutely on the use of force to deal with their respective problems.
But continuing the Beit Hanoun strategy will, in addition to the human cost, exact a heavy political price. Such unrestrained use of force will only take away any political horizon and any remaining hope of a political settlement. That in turn only feeds hostility, hatred and extremism, both in Israel and Palestine.
It is about time that the Israeli public and leadership realized that the change in Palestinian public opinion and the resulting change in the make-up of parliament and government are a direct outcome of Sharon's strategy to ignore the other side except as a target for the army.
And while such a strategy might be expected from rightwing Israeli leaders, it is difficult to understand how their best friend and a supposedly mature superpower, the United States, allows such an approach to continue with all its devastating consequences.- Published 13/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
A disaster but not a massacre
by Yisrael Harel
Last Wednesday I was on my way to the Qassam-battered town of Sderot. A college located there was holding a two-day conference on socio-economic issues, and I was invited to participate in a panel on "the day after", meaning what Israel's agenda should be after the war in Lebanon. En route, I was shaken by the bitter news that IDF artillery shells had hit a dwelling in Beit Hanoun and there were dead and wounded, including women and children.
Despite years of witnessing death in the Arab wars against the Jews, my heart has not hardened to the sight of the dead and the sound of the wailing of bereaved mothers, orphans and fathers and the suffering of the wounded, even if they are the enemy. On the other hand, I knew that now Beit Hanoun would play the role of Kafr Qana in Lebanon three months ago--when Israel mistakenly bombed a civilian target and thus altered the way the world and to some extent Israelis saw the war. From herein, Israel could no longer continue as before with its military operation to clean out the launching sites of rockets fired daily at its civilian population in the western Negev, and particularly in Sderot.
I planned to share my feelings about the Beit Hanoun incident with the audience, which was made up of moshav and kibbutz residents from the Negev, most of them left-wingers, alongside guests from the north and people from the college. But another participant, who lectured before me, preempted me. He told the audience that they could feel sadness but must not feel guilt. When an Israeli shell hits civilians, it is always the result of an error. But the thousands of Qassam rockets the Palestinians have fired in recent years, particularly since Israel left the entire Gaza Strip in last year's disengagement, are aimed mainly at Israel's civilian population. So, too, of course, are the suicide bombings. And so were the katyusha rocket attacks from Lebanon against civilian population concentrations in northern Israel.
Let's not constantly internalize the accusation hurled at us by a hypocritical world, the speaker told the audience, and not always carry a burden of guilt. When entire villages are slaughtered in Algeria it's not even news, and when Sudanese Arabs carry out genocide in Darfur the world is not shaken and the UN Security Council certainly doesn't convene to condemn someone. But when an errant Israeli artillery shell kills Palestinians, this is the opening news item in most of the media; for editors, the news is more important even than the outcome of the American elections.
It is against the backdrop of the disaster in Beit Hanoun and in the shadow of President Bush's and the Republicans' crushing election defeat that the prime minister of Israel just arrived in Washington. The White House and the State Department expect him, according to media leaks, to present "creative ideas", meaning additional Israeli concessions that might hasten the establishment of a Palestinian state and strengthen the moderate Palestinian forces associated with President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).
I suggest that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert respond more or less as follows: Abu Mazen cannot be strengthened, because he is weak. He is not a leader and never will be. Furthermore, the Israeli bank of concessions is suffering from an impossible overdraft. Gaza disengagement, in which Israel leveled 27 flourishing settlements and exiled their residents against their will left Israeli society in a state of shock that could last for generations. And what was the Palestinian response to this far-reaching unilateral Israeli act designed to "strengthen moderate forces"? Escalated terror attacks against Israeli civilians, particularly by launching hundreds of Qassam rockets into the Negev.
Previous concessions as well, after Oslo for example, did not lead the Palestinians to concentrate on building the foundations of their state-in-the-making. Rather, they ushered in a wave of extended and vicious terrorism that has thus far taken the lives of some 2,000 Israelis through suicide bombings, rocket attacks on civilian Jewish population and roadside ambushes. Concessions to terrorism, as President George W. Bush always declares, only increase the appetite of the terrorists.
Olmert should also mention that the Palestinians are not currently interested in the solution proposed by the American president: two states for two peoples. They would rather continue the bloodshed because as they understand matters, the superior demographic growth rate of the Arabs--those inside Israel, and not beyond the green line--will in the long run, together with the unending terrorism that Israel has difficulty dealing with, overwhelm the Jewish state.
Under these circumstances, the prime minister of Israel should state in concluding his remarks to the president, American pressure on Israel to make even bigger concessions will only strengthen the Palestinian extremists--along with the rest of the fanatics in the Arab and Muslim world--and encourage them to step up their acts of terror. And this, the president of the United States certainly does not want.- Published 13/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He is former head of the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and former editor of its monthly Nekuda.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
The campaign that should never stop
by Eyad Sarraj
I lay in a quiet hospital bed in a Tel Aviv hospital receiving treatment for a blood problem when the news from Beit Hanoun pierced the silence with its images and sounds of extraordinary pain on the faces of the dead and the living alike.
My own concerns paled into insignificance. Why was the mother who lost her child screaming so? It struck me that this mother was not yet in mourning but in the grip of an overwhelming state of fear. She knew too well how vulnerable and exposed they were and that there was no escape. She knew well that when "they" decide, they kill. The frightening ghost of death and destruction was and is still looming in our skies, threatening more loss of life and loss of hope.
The political scene in Palestine and Israel offers no solace. In Palestine, the usual old populist rhetoric was wheeled out with people calling for earthquake-like revenge, while mediocre politicians got busy trying to score public relations points over other mediocrities. They reminded me of student speakers at London's Hyde Park Corner. The exception was President Mahmoud Abbas who seemed in genuine pain and was genuinely angry. He was always committed to peace.
The Israeli scene is even worse. The signs are ominous when people like Avigdor Lieberman are welcomed into the cabinet while the once promising Amir Peretz appears to have been thoroughly chewed and digested by the military establishment.
This should not be the time for mediocrity, politicking or revenge. We have wasted too much time and too many lives. This is a time to think only of how to make peace. Peace is freedom. Peace is life. Peace is dignity.
It is now more urgent than ever for all those who still truly believe in peace--Palestinians, Israelis and friends and allies all over the world--to unite their efforts in order to give reconciliation and peace a chance.
Now that warmongers like Donald Rumsfield are out, the rest should be pursued wherever they are and particularly in Palestine and Israel. I don't need to contemplate their paranoid question: do they want to make peace? The answer, on behalf of all people, is an unequivocal "yes".
But we have to expose the foes of peace and freedom. We know how powerful the Pentagon and the Israeli war machine is. This war machine, with its hegemony over Israeli politics, is bigger than Israel itself and must be stopped. It is a tool of death and destruction.
The Israeli political community, public and leadership alike, must know it is captive to this powerful establishment. Israelis should know that their security will only be found through strategic peace with Palestinians, and not through the power to kill, subservience to the powerful military machine or dependence on the American administration.
Responsible Palestinian leaders must make every effort to restore the Israeli public's confidence in Palestinians, lost after six years of horror and lies. They should make the effort to convince their own constituencies of the merits of peace and help shape a new culture. This should be done systematically and on all fronts. Imagine if Hamas comes out today, after all this pain, and declares a complete ban on all forms of violence.
Israel must be told, by Hamas and others, that it is a country in the Middle East. And so is Palestine. These two countries must live together or die together. Between them they have all the ingredients for prosperity and together they can help the region and the world.
The world must be offered the chance to see the good Palestinian, the good Arab and the good Muslim. We must be offered the chance to see the good Jew and the well-intentioned West. It is all in our grasp but we need to take that important leap by acting now with courage and wisdom.
A unified vision and strategy on the Palestinian side must lead us toward peace. Hamas is an essential part of the political map and should declare its readiness to rise to the responsibility of not only making internal reforms but, more importantly, making peace with Israel.
Hamas' rise to power was well deserved and democratic. It is tragic that Hamas was not ready for this dramatic chance, and it is tragic Hamas was never given a fair chance to govern. After months of pressure and conspiracy, Hamas is yielding to the calls of the community. Hamas should be encouraged and be engaged on all levels and all conspiracies must stop. A truly democratic culture based on the rule of law is one of the keys to peace.
Fateh and Hamas need to stand behind the leadership of Abbas who can help the nation and the region because of his unique stature, position and the worldwide respect for his leadership that is based on his strategic vision of peacemaking.
It is time for action. Therefore I call upon all peace activists to grasp whatever is left of the scattered hopes for peace. Human life is precious and it is our divine duty to protect it. Returning to Gaza and "normal" life, I am determined to devote the rest of my life to the cause of peace. Peace is freedom. Peace is dignity. Peace is life.- Published 13/11/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Eyad Sarraj is the head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.
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