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Muqata Madness

September 28, 2002

Together with my son, who has just finished six years of army service,  I watched the news of the Israeli decision to besiege Yasser Arafat in the Muqata compound in Ramallah. A great feeling of despair overcame us. It is like understanding that your beloved parents, on whom you depend for guidance, have lost their mental competence. Nobody could explain the reason why an attack by the Hamas, intended to weaken the rule of Yasser Arafat and enhance the cause of the extremists, should be countered by an attack on Arafat. None of the commentators or politicians could give any rational explanation for this attack. It was obviously bound to end in failure, humiliation and complications for Israel. The previous siege of the Muqata had ended in total victory for Arafat, boosting his prestige last April and giving his rule new life. This one was sure to do the same.

The goal of the "operation" shifted as time went on. Different government spokesmen and ministers explained that the goal was to oust Arafat from the Muqata, to force him to leave the West Bank and Gaza entirely or just to isolate him. Then the goal shifted and Israeli government activity began focusing on the 200 or 50 or however many wanted men are certainly in the Muqata with Arafat. Then Israel asked for a list of persons in the Muqata from the Palestinians. This defied all logic: if Israel did not have such a list, how did the government know there are any wanted men at all? Furthermore, since all the Israeli spokesmen have insisted that Arafat and the PNA are liars, what reason would the Israeli government have to trust the list that the Palestinians would give them? In any case, the Palestinians, of course, refused to give Israel a list of those inside.

Illustration: Avi Katz

Ariel Sharon belatedly explained that Israeli intelligence had warned that Palestinians were about to step up terror activities as the US invasion of Iraq drew closer. Israel had to strike now to eliminate the terror infrastructure, as the pressure for restraint would increase in coming weeks. This explanation makes no sense either, since the Muqata siege did not do anything at all to the terror infrastructure, since the organizations and arms are mostly in Gaza and scattered throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

The failure of this adventure was predictable in advance, and in fact, Israeli military advisors had warned against it, as did Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Arafat's popularity grew from day 1. the Palestinians ingeniously spread a false rumor that Israel was about to blow up the Muqata, obligingly published by the Associated Press. Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in mass hysteria, resulting in the expected Israeli overreaction and four more Intifada deaths. Yasser Arafat, who had been on the brink of political extinction, became a Palestinian national hero once again, winning support even from Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of the Hamas.

Inevitably, the siege has brought Israel into conflict with the United States, resulting in the usual UN Security Council Resolution, which was followed by a warning aimed at eliciting compliance. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also noted that the US supports Israeli withdrawal to the lines of October 2000. If the US decides to pursue this policy actively, it could force Sharon and his government into an embarrassing retreat. The US must demonstrate that it is insisting on Israeli compliance with UN resolutions in order to back its own demands for Iraqi compliance.

Why did they really do it? The routine answer would be "because we had to do something." When there are terror attacks, Israel has to react, both for internal purposes and as a deterrent. Arafat is also a convenient target that would not arouse opposition in Israel. Tawfiq Tirawi, the only "wanted man" whom Israelis have publicly named in the Muqata, is a legitimate target. No Israeli politician from any Zionist party is anxious to be identified as a defender of Arafat. Shimon Peres noted again that the siege was raising Arafat's popularity. However, he also defended the operation, saying that Israel should comply with the UN resolution only provided that Arafat fights terror. Since it is unlikely that Arafat is going to arrest any terrorists or fight terror, this is the same as saying Israel may besiege the Muqata indefinitely. Aside from Peres and the usual chorus of dissent from the extreme left, there is a notable and ominous silence among Israeli politicians about the Muqata fiasco. One of the silliest moves in Israeli history is being largely ignored. Nobody wants to appear to defend Arafat.

However, the rational explanations are probably incorrect. The real reason is that there is no reason, just as there is no good reason for building for settlements. The Palestinians have not succeeded in driving Israel into the sea, but they have succeeded in driving Israel crazy. Crazy societies, like crazy people, will do things for reasons that make no sense to anyone else, "I heard a voice" or "They were trying to kill me" seem like good explanations to a crazy person. "God wills it" "Arafat is the source of all evil," "Germany is completely surrounded," "Al Aqsa is in danger" "it is the fault of the Jews" seem like good explanation to crazy societies. 

The danger to a society that is driven crazy cannot be overstated. A crazy society, like a crazy person, no longer realizes what they are doing, and loses judgment. Government assessments no longer have much to do with reality. Israelis are familiar with the confident predictions and victory announcements of Radio Cairo in 1967 and similar aberrations.

The signs are there. We have lost touch with reality. Just before the two Hamas suicide bombings, "security sources" had confidently asserted that the danger from the Hamas was minimal, since "98%" of their military capabilities had been eliminated. When the siege on the Muqata began, Israeli government spokesmen were confident, apparently for no reason, that it would successfully oust Arafat and would not meet American opposition. Then the Israelis struck at Mohamed Deif, head of the Izzedin-al-Qassam military brigades of the Hamas, and announced repeatedly that they had killed him, while Palestinians claimed he had been moderately wounded. The Palestinians were telling the truth. When a person or a society goes crazy, they lose their judgment. They say things because they sound pleasing, rather than admit to unpleasant truths such as, "they will come to get me out of the asylum soon and save me."

The Israeli government has developed an obsession about Arafat, in keeping with the syndrome. Ariel Sharon, Raphael Eitam and others have been saying for months that Arafat is the reason for all our problems. Remove Arafat and suddenly the PLO would, presumably, become pro-Zionist, and corruption and deception would vanish. For a long time we Israelis could comfort ourselves that this childish idea was just political propaganda. The siege of the Muqata serves notice that "Arafat is the key"  is considered a serious policy assessment. This is the logic of madmen.   

Ami Isseroff

Rehovot, Israel

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