Artificial Crisis, Artificial Response

If it were to be judged only by its text, Palestinians should be largely satisfied with UN Resolution 1435 passed early on September 24 by 14 votes to 0 with the US abstaining.

The resolution demanded that “Israel immediately cease measures in and around Ramallah, including the destruction of Palestinian civilian and security infrastructure,” and that the siege of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters be brought to an “immediate end.” It also demanded the “expeditious withdrawal of the Israeli occupying forces from Palestinian cities towards the return to the positions held prior to September 2000.”

While calling on the Palestinian Authority to “meet its expressed commitment to ensure that those responsible for terrorist acts are brought to justice,” it also condemned “all terrorist attacks against any civilians, including the terrorist bombings in a Palestinian school in Hebron on September 17, 2002, and in Israel on September 18 and 19, 2002.”

The resolution uses strong language and does not include many elements that had been demanded by the United States to make it more “balanced” (i.e. treating the occupier and the occupied as if their duties and responsibilities are identical). And in the light of its previous threats to veto any resolution that displeased Israel, Washington’s abstention is widely understood as a tacit vote of support.

But unfortunately, as all Palestinians know, what a UN Security Council Resolution says with regard to Israel’s violations of international law, and what the Security Council actually does are two completely unrelated matters. Whereas the passage of a resolution against, say, Iraq or Yugoslavia is only the beginning of the process, to be followed by sanctions and war, a resolution making demands of Israel is the end of the diplomatic road, allowing all parties to declare that their work is done and to wash their hands of the situation without any follow up or consequences for those who violate Security Council decisions and international law.

After all, it took the Security Council nearly a week to respond to the situation, and now it has called for the Israelis to stop their destruction of Arafat’s compound days after the bulldozers completed their work.

Israel has already demonstrated that its legendary contempt for the Security Council is undiminished. Even as the Security Council was still debating drafts, Israel sent a massive invasion force blasting into Gaza City, killing nine people, at least six of them civilians — one a child— injuring dozens and destroying houses and shops.

Before the ink was dry on the resolution, a senior Israeli official told Ha’aretz that Israel had no intention of complying with it and that the siege in Ramallah would continue until “either Arafat will leave his headquarters or the terrorists who took sanctuary there will turn themselves in.”(September 24)

It is hard to know whether the Americans for their part are deliberately trying to be comical. Consider this: when Israel declares openly that it plans to defy the Security Council and does so, there is no action from Washington. When Iraq, by contrast, announces its renewed desire to comply unconditionally with all Security Council decisions, the US becomes infuriated and increases its threats of war!

So anyone who expects a serious American response to these violent acts and words of open defiance from Israel should not hold her breath. Yet, Israel was disappointed that the United States did not veto the resolution which Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Sofer condemned as “one-sided.” To what do Palestinians owe this apparent fit of even-handedness from the US administration? It should be clear that once the White House finally broke its silence about the Israeli siege and the demolition of Arafat’s headquarters, it was not out of any concern, certainly not for Arafat, but nor even for the Palestinian civilians killed in Israel’s lethal response to popular demonstrations. The US was only concerned that Israel’s actions would complicate the drive for war against Iraq. This was certainly Israel’s interpretation. Israel’s ambassador at the UN Yehuda Lancry said, according to Haaretz, that while the US abstention was a disappointment, he understood that “with the complex American situation regarding the Iraqi issue and its desire not to further strain relations with its European partners, they preferred to take a position in the middle.” (September 24)

Hence there is no consolation in the fact this modest diplomatic victory for the Palestinians comes at the expense of the Iraqi people, and the entire region which is once again being threatened with an unprovoked and wholly unnecessary war.

It must be stated that the new resolution is the manufactured response to a manufactured crisis. The “crisis” of the siege of Arafat has once again been created by Israel to deflect the anger of the Israeli public and in order to absorb the energy and attention of so many well-intentioned European diplomats and the world media. Earlier this year the international community spent weeks negotiating an end to the last sieges in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Israel has shown that all of this effort can be trashed in a few minutes and that there is never a guarantee that Israel will not simply restore the siege and add new demands. That is what has happened. It is pointless to enter into lengthy negotiations about lists of “wanted” men and it would be a grave mistake for Arafat to go down the path he did last time of trading Palestinians with Israel in exchange for what amounts to nothing more than a short trot around the prison yard.

Instead of responding to these theatrics, the international community, especially the European Union, should respond to the actual crisis: that Israel despite an offer of peace, compromise and coexistence endorsed by the entire Arab League simply refuses to negotiate an end to its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, refuses to stop constructing colonies on occupied land, and is continuing to use severe repression to punish millions of people for the inevitable resistance and violence that this massive Israeli campaign of violence generates amongst the captive population.

A serious response would have to take account of the fact that Israel bears the principal responsibility for the lack of any movement towards a peaceful outcome. Can there be any clearer demonstration of Israel’s lack of interest in peace than its behavior during the past six weeks that the US media misleadingly termed one of “relative calm”? In fact it was a period of quiet for Israelis, with no suicide bombings within Israel and relatively few Israeli victims of violence. The lack of attacks had not been due to any greater success from Israel’s repression, as Sharon wanted the public to believe, but in effect to a unilateral Palestinian ceasefire. Ha’aretz reported on September 19 that Israeli police chief Shlomo Aharonisky said prior to the Tel Aviv bombing that killed six that:

“The relative quiet throughout Israel over the past few weeks and lack of terror attacks was just a coincidence and not a result of the different security forces’ operations.”

Undeterred by this outbreak of calm, however, Israeli occupation forces continued to rampage through Palestinian cities and villages, killing dozens of people, the vast majority of them unarmed civilians and children, and causing widespread destruction. Sharon had once requested just seven days of quiet. Instead he got six weeks. And just as in a similar period last winter, he did nothing to demonstrate any Israeli good faith or interest in a negotiated settlement. On the contrary, he continued to assassinate and attack until he provoked a resumption of suicide bombings. Now Israel has lured the world’s gaze to Ramallah in an attempt to shift attention back to the supposed culpability and fate of Arafat. This has worked well for Sharon in the past. But the Arafat excuse has lost its punch even within Israel, and Sharon is facing increasing criticism for the failure of his “security” policies. The danger is that without this convenient scapegoat, Sharon will seek another outlet in an attempt to save his own increasingly fragile political life. The likelihood is that Israel will launch ever more bloody adventures of which the latest deadly attack in Gaza is just a foretaste.

“All the world now faces a test, and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment,” declared President Bush to the UN on September 12, before asking, “Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?”

The record of failing to challenge Israel’s unparalleled defiance does not inspire optimism that these excellent questions can be answered positively. And, there is little reason to hope that the tests to come, especially in Gaza, will be passed any more successfully.