Jenin: The Palestinian masada

Brutalization. The situation is not getting better. Reservists say that they do not understand the goals of this operation. The diminished quality of the army, and the improved military capacity of the Palestinian fighters in the Jenin refugee camp, are having a direct impact on the Palestinian population. The army’s inability to take over the camp - and the growing number of casualties (6 IDF soldiers killed as of last night) - have led to an upsurge in brutalization tactics by the IDF. This should come as no surprise: As the Palestinians are closing the gap in quality of fighting, the Israeli army, which has sent elite, crack units into the camp, can only rely on its technological advantage.

The Nablus Casbah is next in line. It is difficult to know what exactly is happening in Jenin, as no reporters are allowed in. (Shimon Peres said yesterday that “TV cameras are as powerful as artillery.”) Yet some key information can be gleaned: The local commander, Brig. Gen. Eyal Shlain, said in an Israel Radio interview yesterday that the difficulty of overtaking the camp stems from the high motivation and improved capability of the Palestinian fighters, who have “learned from experience.” He also admitted that there were many civilian casualties, and upon being asked whether the army called them to surrender, he said “Let’s leave that for later.” The results can be seen from these reports:

From Tamar Peleg, a leading attorney at the Israeli Civil Rights Association:

‘I spoke to a friend…He lives in Jenin city at the foot of the hill where the refugee camp is situated. He has been watching for hours on end Apache helicopters firing missiles, fire in the camp, smoke over the camp, tanks surrounding it, more tanks, dozens of them, arriving by Haifa road. He can hear blasts and heavy machine gun fire. The camp has been completely cut off the outside world. The phones don’t function…I spoke to doctor G. in the Jenin hospital…This is the only hospital that can receive the wounded and the dead from the camp. They have not received any since yesterday morning. The ambulances have not been allowed to move. A huge tank is standing in front of the hospital…The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are negotiating with the IDF the conditions under which they will be permitted to collect the wounded and the dead. I understand that IDF’s condition is to identify everyone in order to be able to arrest any wounded person it chooses. In other words, the medical staff is requested to surrender the wounded.’

What is more telling, though, is the apparent shift towards mysticism in the Israeli political establishment. Here we see the most important developments. As the situation worsens, the right wing government is trying to widen its radical support base, in case the Labor Party decides to bolt the coalition. The National Religious Party has swiftly replaced its leader with Effi Eytam, a retired general with truly messianic views. His sudden arrival to the top position of the NRP is in line with his ideology. A friend who specializes in Jewish mysticism (and knows Eytam personally, I believe), has conveyed to me the following observations:

‘Effi Eytam is not just a more extreme right-winger. He is one of those who live in a virtual reality superimposed on the reality most sane people inhabit. In a truthful moment he will tell you that the “greatness of soul” exhibited by the suicide bombers emanates from the Holy of Holies [Haram ash-Sharif], which they control. For him, destroying the Dome of the Rock and building a Jewish temple is not merely a religious, but also a strategic, necessity.’

Some of you may have seen Bob Simon interview him on 60 Minutes. He is likely to join the “Security Cabinet” tonight. This is a most significant development, as it places a mystic in a leading position in Sharon’s government, albeit a mystic with combat experience, ambition, charisma and determination.

Meanwhile, back on earth, Deputy Minister of Internal Security Gideon Ezra, an ex vice-chief of the General Secret Services, has just called for increased monitoring of the Left, on the grounds that there are growing fears of the existence of “traitors” among them. In this atmosphere, left wing organizations continue to operate. I know of several demonstrations of different sizes that have taken place, with Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel participating (the Tel Aviv rally last night drew some 10-15,000).

April 9th: Holocaust memorial day

Today, Israel is marking its “Day of Memorial of the Holocaust and the Heroism”. Only the radical Left here (and those who call themselves “the New Historians”) points out a connection between the Jewish Holocaust and the 1948 Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe).

In a ceremony at Yad va-Shem in Jerusalem last night, PM Sharon spoke of our commitment to being strong in the face of anti-Semitic acts. He specifically mentioned the attacks on European synagogues over the past week or so, but he did not link them to Israel’s invasion of the Occupied Territories. Indeed, hardly anyone here notes the irony of the current situation: “A haven for all Jews,” Israel was established in order to make the world safer for Jews; but the actions of its current government put world Jewry in grave danger instead.

The big, but hesitant, question of the day, though, is: Are the suicide bombers really gone? Army reports boast that the hunt for bombs and their carriers has been very successful. They say they have uncovered and destroyed countless shops engaged in the production of deadly suicide-bomb gear. Indeed, the last suicide bomber exploded 8 days ago (after a series of daily attacks). To some, this indicates that the invasion has been justified. Yet there are reasons to doubt this conclusion. First, a crackdown on terrorism, a dramatically increased military presence, and a curfew make movement difficult. Obviously, these measures cannot last forever. Second, the increased presence of security guards in Israeli commercial centers prevents “ticking bombs”—if they are still around—from carrying out their deadly mission. And last but not least, the warming weather works in our favor: the bombing “gear” is worn on the body and must be concealed by an overcoat (consider that these bombs may contain 25 lbs. of explosive material). It has been warming up here, and so since last week, wearing a coat would make a bomber most conspicuous.

On the other hand, the feelings of hate, humiliation and despair that the current operation is engendering will no doubt launch hundreds, if not thousands, of youth on the path to martyrdom, and unless something radical happens, we should expect new, perhaps larger waves of suicide bombings. Unless Israel plans a prolonged stay in the Occupied Territories (i.e., years, not weeks or days), said veteran journalist Danny Rubinstein in Ha’aretz yesterday, it is not clear how it plans to deal with this inevitable future problem.

War crimes, or “The Palestinian Masada”: In preparation for Secretary of State Powell’s visit, the army has withdrawn from the center of two towns (Tulkarem and Qalqilya). This is a move of minor importance. The big story, as I have already noted, is the fighting in the Jenin refugee camp, which is turning out to be much more difficult than expected. Although elite IDF units were dispatched, after 6 days the fighting is not yet over (2 more Israeli soldiers were killed there yesterday. At least 100 Palestinian fighters are reported dead. No numbers regarding civilian casualties are available, although I imagine that these are significant). Fighting capacity is based on motivation as well as ability of the soldiers, troop size, and technology. The Israeli military advantage traditionally rested on the first 2 elements, but it has been diminishing constantly over the past 2 decades.

The reliance on sheer force and technology, rather than ingenuity, remains the primary IDF path to victory. The dangers in this development can be seen in the Jenin refugee camp (which is, remember, a densely populated shantytown). The army has resorted to a “scorched earth” solution: Ha’aretz reports today that senior officers have been “shocked” by the “terrible destruction” the IDF has caused in the camp. The newspaper quotes them as saying that “Danger prevents the soldiers from making progress on foot. Bulldozers simply raze houses, bringing about terrible destruction. When the world will see the pictures of what we have done, it will be extremely damaging to us. This is the Palestinian Masada….Adequate preparation for the battle would have prevented this from happening.”

In a related development, the Israeli Supreme Court, that “bastion of Israeli democracy,” yesterday turned down an appeal by several human rights organizations requesting to investigate cases of the army prohibiting the free movement of ambulances, thus rendering the evacuation of the wounded to hospitals impossible. The army “committed itself to humanitarian conduct in the future.” The likelihood that any of these violations of international law will ever be brought to book before a tribunal seems exceedingly slim.

Opposition to the invasion is growing slowly. The number of soldiers jailed for refusing to serve is up to 30; more demonstrations and protest activities are taking place. In the 1982 war in Lebanon, it took a long time (and the news of the Sabra and Shatila massacre) for the left to mobilize. These things do not happen overnight.