“This will not be a short problem and will not be easy, but we will win. President George Bush is acting against terrorism. We will act the same way.”
— Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, quoted in “U.S. walks careful line in Mideast; No ‘green light’ for terror war by Israelis,” by Bob Deans, The Atlanta Constitution, 4 December 2001
“Two weeks ago four [Israeli] reservists circulated an open letter to the Israeli command objecting to service in the Palestinian territories. […] More than 200 reservists and regular soldiers, including many officers, have now signed the petition—the largest act of protest in the Israeli military since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. [Chief of Staff Gen. Shaul] Mofaz insists ‘we are working to ease the lives of the Palestinians’ and calls the open letter both unwise and illegal. ‘At a time when Israel is at war against terror, there is no place for such actions,’ he says.”
— Point Man in a War Of Bloody Attrition, by Joshua Hammer, Newsweek International, 19 February 2002.
Israel’s most recent justification: the December 2001 bomb attacks
Following three bomb attacks against Israeli civilians by members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas on 1-2 December 2001, which left 26 Israelis dead and injured over one hundred, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon cut short the remainder of a visit to the U.S. and returned to Israel. Following an emergency cabinet meeting on the night of December 2nd, Israel launched air and sea attacks against Palestinian areas the next day.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza was the first location to be attacked on December 3rd. Israeli helicopter and gunboats fired around ten missiles and strafed part of the compund with explosive ammunition, destroying two of the Palestinian Authority’s helicopters, a helipad, and a hanger.Israeli attacks continued through the next day, broadening out to several other Palestinian Authority institutions in towns across the West Bank. U.S. officials did not urge Israel to show restraint but actively expressed understanding for what they termed Israel’s “retaliation” and “self-defence”.
The New York Times reported that:
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell described Israel’s two days of military strikes in Palestinian territory as justified. “Israel, at this moment, is recovering from a terrible blow inflicted on her last Saturday night by acts of terror,” he said. “Prime Minister Sharon, as the elected prime minister, freely elected prime minister of a democratic nation, is responding in a way that he believes is appropriate to defend his people and to defend his country.”
Source: Mideast Flare-up: Policy Shift; U.S. Questions if Arafat Can Lead the Palestinians, by Elaine Sciolino, The New York Times, 5 December 2001.
White House spokesman Ari Fleicher went one step further:
“Obviously Israel has a right to defend itself and the president understands that,” Ari Fleischer, President Bush’s White House spokesman, said when asked how the US viewed the Israeli missile strikes in Gaza and the West Bank.
…the tenor of the White House’s remarks, putting all the onus on Mr Arafat, and the absence of any form of caution or rebuke to Mr Sharon, strengthened the impression that Mr Bush had given the green light for Israel’s retaliatory actions when he held private talks in Washington on Sunday with Mr Sharon.
Source: “Bush’s backing for Israeli retaliation puts role as broker into question: No rebuke for Sharon after missile attacks,” by Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, 4 December 2001.
Points to note
1. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians, like people everywhere, condemn terrorism. They understand that there is no justification for the targeting of civilians and that the brutal Israeli military occupation does not justify attacks against Israeli civilians.
The condemnation of terrorism should not be reserved for the terrorism of one side in any conflict. Israel’s actions following the suicide bombings of 1st and 2nd December demonstrate this perfectly. Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza, targeted by combat helicopters and naval gunboats, are located adjacent to residential areas, as are many Palestinian security installations in this tiny country.
As a result, two people were killed during the Israeli missile attack on the complex — a Palestinian policeman and a 15-year-old Palestinian child. Over 100 and perhaps as many as 150 Palestinians were injured, 20 seriously, according to Palestinian medical sources. During the attacks hundreds of Palestinian schoolchildren in nearby schools fled in terror (see images in right column). Many of the injured were children.
This is the reality of what Israel calls “retaliation” and is a story of internationally prohibited collective punishment that has repeatedly characterised the 34-year-long Israeli occupation. The pattern is clear — in the name of confronting Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians, Israel has no problem killing or terrorising Palestinian civilians.
The American media unfortunately continues to perpetuate a false equation that shelling Palestinian areas or Palestinian Authority buildings is a legitimate response to terrorism carried out by Palestinian militants. One example from many would be the 4 December 2001 New York Daily News front-page headline: “PAYBACK.”
In the conspiracy-rich Middle East, a wide range of theories about suicide bombings exist. One asserts — from the basis that suicide attacks are fundamentally self-defeating to the Palestinian people as a whole — that Israel has been the perpetrator of suicide bombings for the purpose of generating international tolerance of the further decemation of Palestinian infrastructure.
The Electronic Intifada finds this to be somewhat of a stretch given the existence of video statements made by suicide bombers, the unchallenged claims of responsibility following bomb attacks, and the publicly-declared policy of the Palestinian militant groups credited with the attacks. However, the large scale of subsequent Israeli attacks against Palestinians and the spin that accompanies these military operations leave little doubt that Israel capitalises on international sympathy to the fullest limits.
It is also clear that Israel does not need to perpetrate suicide attacks when has no difficulty provoking them. Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the December 2001 suicide bombings, stated that they were carried out in retaliation for the November 23 assassination of the group’s senior West Bank leader, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, in the week preceding the attacks. Violent responses to Israel’s other assassinations of senior Hamas leaders have been typical.
With this pattern established, Israel certainly can not plead “surprise” at Hamas’ response to its assassination policy. It should be additionally noted that even with foreknowledge, Israel remains unable to prevent terrorist attacks from being carried out in areas it controls. This point is crucial, as the standard spin that Israel has convincingly sold to the international community is that Arafat can prevent terrorist attacks and their continuence is evidence that he “does not want peace”.
Israel displays poor judgement in pursuing its assassination policy against Palestinian militants. Hamas is not going anywhere. Creating martyrs of its leaders will give rise to a second generation in their wake. Assassination can only perpetuate the cycle of violence.
2. Shelling Palestinian Authority installations will not stop Palestinian militants. There is no credible justification for targeting Palestinian Authority installations. It is not credible to assert that Yasser Arafat or the Palestinian Authority are “behind” terrorist attacks in Israeli-controlled areas, as Israel asserts. If there was genuine evidence of this, would it not have been played time and time again on the television screens of the world?
The reality is that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have a limited capacity to enjoin militant groups to refrain from attacks against Israel. This will only work as long as Israel’s actions against the Palestinians during these voluntary cessation of violence do not exacerbate tensions.
It is not reasonable to expect the Palestinian Authority to be able to completely stop terrorist attacks from taking place in Israeli-controlled areas. Even when Israel directly controlled every part of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and despite its massive intellegence capabilities, and despite it being unencumbered by any concern for Palestinian human rights, it could not prevent terror attacks against its own civilians. The Palestinian Authority is being set up to fail.
3. The December 2001 attacks were preceded by an extraordinarily bloody week of unreported violence against Palestinians. During the week preceding the attacks, over 20 Palestinians were killed by Israel, including 5 children from one family, who were blown up by a bomb planted on the path to their school by Israeli special forces.
Reports from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights covering 22-28 November 2001 and 29 November-5 December 2001 notes that this period before the bomb attacks saw:
the killing of a Palestinian civilian by a Jewish settler;
continued arrest campaigns of Palestinians;
Although few of these events were reported as context by most media, this is not due to any lack of knowledge of them. Only a small minority of the many wire service reports (which are the raw information materials from which the majority of all print and electronic media coverage stems) reach your average regional newspaper or television screen. If you read these source reports, sped around the world at the speed of light and widely available to diplomats and governments via databases such as Lexis-Nexis, you realise that it is hard to argue in this information age that “we didn’t know”.
As most of these events were not widely reported and consequently did not receive the widespread condemnation from around the world that they deserved to. The clear message from the international media, based exclusively in Israeli-controlled areas, and the political leaders who use this geographical media silence as an excuse not to address these events, is that the lives of Palestinians are simply not as valuable as Israeli life.
Once again, the American administration underlined this when U.S. envoy to the Middle East, Anthony Zinni, laid a wreath at the site of the December 2nd bomb attacks in Jerusalem.
If you approach any Palestinian on the street, from age 8 to 80, all are aware of this well-documented and long standing racist dynamic. The message is clear: There is ‘bad terrorism’ and there is ‘good terrorism’. The terrorism of Palestinian militant groups is ‘bad terrorism’ which permits Israel to “retaliate” against the entire ethnic group which the terrorists came from, killing and injuring children with impunity and no fear of condemnation. The clear message from the lack of international condemnation is that terrorism, if practiced by the Israeli state, is ‘acceptable terrorism’.
4. Arafat is not the point. As Israelis and Palestinians use ever more lethal means against each other’s civilians, the question being asked in Israel and the U.S. is not how to end the occupation, but whether or not to end the career, or even the life, of Arafat. At the time of writing this coverage trend in early February 2002, in a further escallation Israeli tanks have confined Arafat in an area of 200m2 in Ramallah, and have destroyed the remainder of his helicopter fleet that it began to destroy on the attack of his compound on 3 December 2001.
If Israel killed Arafat or sent him into exile, nothing would change. It seems almost absurd to have to point out that forcing millions of people to live for decades under hostile military rule with no end in sight inevitably produces violent resistance. Only a mind-set that steadfastly refuses to recognize this can become captivated by a lone figure whose real and imagined failings become a smoke screen that obscures the machinery that actually drives the conflict.
If Israel truly seeks the moral highground it invokes in the international arena, it should stop seeking a relative highground whose only elevation stems from the weakness and failings of its historical enemies. Rather Israel should address the most obvious things it does to perpetuate the conflict.
The bottom line is that the single most identifiable factor that perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all its forms, both legitimate and illegitimate, is the Israeli military occupation that exists to protect the continuing Israeli colonisation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including Jerusalem.
Comparisons of Arafat with Bin Laden serve to legitimise Israel’s continuing repression of the Palestinians and bear no reality to the dynamics that fuel this particular conflict, dynamics that Israel has played no small part in creating.
5. Israel’s killing of civilians is a form of terrorism. The United States’ tacit support of Israel’s so-called “retaliation” is U.S. support for terrorism. Although Israeli officials are occasionally noted on record “apologising” for the latest “accidental” death of a child, there comes a point — after a year in which one quarter of the 800 Palestinians killed were children and 50 percent of these children were killed far away from clashes — that it becomes imperative to note that Israel could always simply stopping killing children, instead of merely apologising for it.
Israel’s nightly shelling of Palestinian neighbourhoods has accounted for one quarter of the 800 Palestinians killed during the first year of the Second Intifada. Israel’s regular killing of innocent civilians including children as a “by-product” of its ironically titled “targeted killings” of Palestinian activists — most commonly with rockets fired from combat helicopters at these leader’s vehicles while in city streets — offer more examples of the indiscriminate violence that characterises ‘terrorism’ as most people understand the word.
Following a series of suicide bomb attacks in February/March 1996, then Israeli President Weizmann bluntly described Israel’s practice of using closure to turn Palestinian towns into prisons for the entire population: “Sometimes, when you are searching for a needle in a haystack, you have to burn the haystack.”
Israel has been tacitly encouraged to carry out similar “retaliation”, as in the case of the December 2001 bombings, by the knowledge that the United States would not condemn it. America must refrain from “understanding” Israel’s violence. This can only have the effect of encouraging the continued Israeli killing of innocent Palestinian civilians.