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Fatal Error?

August 3, 2001

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the unilateral cease fire, it looked as though, miraculously, the Israeli government had finally got it right. It soon became apparent, though, that the Middle East is still the Muddle East, and that there was no cease fire on either side. The cease fire was pretty shaky in its own right. Different Palestinian groups announced their intentions of ignoring it. The Israeli government, whether out of force of habit or because of its inability to resist the growing pressure to "do something" about Palestinian terrorist attacks, could not resist the the temptation to stir things up with periodic assassinations.

The latest assassination proved the folly of the policy. The helicopter attack in Nablus may have wiped out two key Hamas leaders, who were responsible, we are told, for the death of 37 Israelis. However, it certainly did not contribute to stopping the violence. On the contrary, the attack blasted the ever-shaky cease fire into oblivion. While the Hamas will find new leaders, it is doubtful if Israel can as quickly recoup its losses in the respect of Europeans and in standing with the US government.

The assassination had one more, certainly unintended "side effect." It re-united Palestinian society. The PNA, which had been harassing and even engaging in firefights with the Hamas and other extremist groups, has now reversed its policies. The 120,000 who attended to funerals of the Hamas terrorists in Nablus sent the PNA a message they could not ignore. Just as the Palestinian terror made heroes in Israel of the once despised settlers, so the assassinations made heroes of the Hamas in Palestine.

It may or may not be true that Israel is fighting a war, and that assassinations of this type are a legitimate response to guerilla activity.  It is certainly evident that the assassinations and retaliations do not serve any aims of Israeli policy.  After the assassination of Yihyeh Ayash, "The Engineer,"  the anti-terrorism "experts" assured us that Palestinian terror had been dealt a mortal blow, but just a few months later, busses were exploding all over Jerusalem. The more recent assassinations do not seem to have had any calming effect on terrorism either. They have brought Israel a lot of bad press, made it embarrassing and impossible for the PNA to even make believe there is a cease fire, gotten Israel into trouble with its number one ally - the U.S, and given a boost to the PNA's request for international observers.  In brief, the assassination and reprisals policy have been about as effective for Israel as the Intifadeh has been for the Palestinians. Like the Intifadeh, they are irrational violence of the kind that seems to be sadly characteristic of the Middle East.

The sharp U.S. reaction to the assassination should also be an indication of what to expect if the Israeli government takes up the "War plans" that have been rumored to exist repeatedly by UPI, AFP and Ha'aretz.  Anyone in Israel who recommends a full-scale assault on the Palestinians must take into account that whatever the military or moral considerations, from the point of view of international politics, a war of this nature is bound to be a failure and a tragic waste of lives.

In this conflict, the side that kills the smallest number of people will be the winner. It appeared, for a brief time, that both sides had finally understood that simple truth. However, fits of rationality are few and far between in this region. War and violence are popular options here. The Intifadeh has gotten the Palestinians absolutely nothing at all. It has wrecked their economy. Per capita income in Palestine in half what it was before the Intifadeh, with about 50% unemployed. According to one estimate, about two-thirds of the Palestinians now live beneath the poverty line - a very modest income of about $380 per month for a family of 6. The PNA lost its credibility in the US and Europe by beginning the violence in September. Yet different polls show that 76-92% of Palestinians support "military actions" (terrorist attacks and suicide bombings) against Israel. In Israel, 46% favor a war to wipe out the PNA, though the long term effects of such a war would probably be disastrous for Israel. Israel would be faced with the wrath of the US after such a "victory" and would gain nothing from having to be in the business of policing Gaza, Nablus, Hebron, Tulkarem and Jericho once again.

In this atmosphere, no leadership that supports peace is going to last long on either side. We cannot make war, and we cannot make peace. We are all condemned to a special kind of everlasting purgatory. Israelis go about their business in bullet-proof vests, and Palestinians have to overcome army roadblocks in order to get to the next village.

The fatal mistake of the Israeli government did not begin with the assassinations. The fatal mistake of the Palestinians did not begin in Black September 2000. Throughout the Oslo "process,"  both sides made the fatal mistake of clinging obsessively to outmoded and impossible dreams. The result is that both sides now live the theater of the absurd. Leaders talk about peace and plot terrorist attacks and assassinations, Palestinian refugees continue to keep the keys to their homes, hoping and believing that one day they will all return to "liberated Palestine."  Israelis continue to dream about Greater Israel. The settlers have become heros once again. Busloads of Israeli tourists flock to Gaza to see where the mortar shells fell, and to listen to tour guides prattling about the "quality of life" in the settlements, as children play with unexploded mortar shells.

Ami Isseroff,
Rechovot, Israel

August 2, 2001

This article was originally circulated on the PEACE/MidEastWeb Viewpoints e-mail list, a publication of MidEastWeb.


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