For all his destructiveness, Ariel Sharon has been losing his war but Yasser Arafat is not winning his either. The increasingly aggressive rhetoric of both men—notwithstanding Arafat’s intermittent condemnations of violence—suggests that they must be aware of this. From his first day in office, Sharon’s strategy has been to scuttle the Oslo agreement and confine Palestinian autonomy to a few isolated enclaves—surrounded by armed Israeli encampments—on about 50 (some say 30) percent of the occupied West Bank, or perhaps only in the Gaza Strip. Both sides have explicitly withdrawn the possible concessions they discussed at Taba in Egypt in January 2001 on borders, refugees, and Jerusalem; such concessions had in any case been strictly “informal” and subject to further approval, which became impossible after Sharon took office.
Arafat insists once again that Israel must withdraw to the 1967 lines and recognize the refugees’ right of return. In February and March his endgame seemed even more ambitious. He may have seriously believed that Israeli morale and national unity could be broken by a combination of terror and international pressure. Watching Israeli television in March, I heard Arafat calling in Arabic for “a thousand shahids, a thousand shahids [martyrs]”—the Arabic word for suicide bombers. He and Sharon continue to exclude each other as legitimate interlocutors. The past eighteen months have shown that despite Israel’s overwhelming military superiority, neither side has been able to dictate the terms of a final settlement or even a temporary arrangement during which further negotiations could take place.
For the first time since 1967, the suicide bombers have established something close to a balance of terror between the two sides. It is not a steady balance of terror maintained by two stable, responsible, and cautious powers. The growing number of shahids suggests that the Palestinian war of independence is being, so to speak, “privatized.” The result is a morbid derangement of power that promises only more bloodshed and horror. Israel is no longer facing two or three terroristic organizations which can be fought and perhaps subdued. This is a new, diffuse enemy, a widespread mood among Palestinians that is harder to combat, perhaps nearly an entire people aroused, enraged, and embittered as never before.
The shahids’ task is simpler than that of the classic guerrilla unit; their success, as a writer in Ha’aretz pointed out the other day, does not depend on securing safe routes of retreat. While it takes only one or two fanatics to find or train a shahid, it takes thousands of soldiers and policemen to locate him before he kills himself. It is simplistic, and in some cases patently false, to claim, as is often done, that the shahid is a demented Muslim fundamentalist eager to be received in paradise in the company of seventy snow-white virgins. In fact, credit for several of the shahid bombings has been taken by the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, an organization that is linked with Arafat’s Fatah and is not an Islamic movement. The wellsprings of religious fanaticism, as Ian Buruma recently pointed out in this magazine, “are political more than cultural.”1 The shahids are often young men in their teens and twenties, many of them born in one of the wretched refugee camps on the outskirts of Palestinian towns. Like most intifada fighters, they seem to be motivated mostly by offended pride and naked rage: a desperate sense of impotence born, in many cases, of personal experience and loss within the extended family—a cousin shot dead while stoning a passing car, a parent humiliated by a rude soldier at a checkpoint, an uncle whose land was expropriated for an Israeli settlement or who mysteriously died in an Israeli jail. Several field studies of the participants in the first and second intifada, conducted by Dr. Mohammad Hadj Yihia, a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University, clearly point in this direction.
In March there were days with two or three suicide bombing attempts—some were successfully thwarted with the help of informers or by the alertness of guards. There is reason to fear that the widespread rage that produces so many shahids may delay a political settlement for yet another generation. Palestinian society used to be, by and large, remarkably docile. Hardly a shot was fired in 1967 during the Israeli takeover of the West Bank; the only resistance encountered by the advancing Israeli forces came from Jordanian troops. Remembering that period, one begins to realize what thirty-five years of Israel’s mean, arrogant land-grabbing and, above all, a deeply humiliating occupation have wrought in this society. There was no rage in 1967. Israelis were greeted in most Palestinian towns with cries of “Welcome, Welcome” and “Have a cup of coffee.” Little boys ran after Israeli tanks crying, “Shalom, Shalom.” I knew a Palestinian who during the first weeks of the Israeli occupation was so impressed by the kindness of the soldiers that he said he was ready to join the Israeli army. It took Palestinian society almost twenty years to launch the first intifada in 1987; its main weapons consisted only of stones thrown by similar young boys.
The Palestinians certainly had bad leaders who, as Abba Eban said, “never lost a chance to miss an opportunity.” Ariel Sharon didn’t arrive from outer space. But Israel also missed opportunities to make peace with the Palestinian population of the West Bank when this was still possible in 1967–1968, before the spectacular rise of the PLO2; or, alternatively, to make peace with Jordan in the early 1970s, as it could have. There would not have been so many settlers to veto all concessions and the Palestinian issue might have reverted to what it had been prior to 1967—a Jordanian problem. One must try to see recent events from the perspective of ordinary Palestinians. In an age of worldwide decolonization they have been pushed around for thirty-five years by armed, violent colonizers in yarmulkas and they are finally yelling, “We’ve had enough.”
The suicide bombers seem to have the support of many in the neighboring Arab world. A recent fatwa issued by Sheik Mohammed Said Tantawi, head of al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading theological authority in Sunni Islam, declared the shahids saintly defenders of their people’s honor. Iraq and Saudi Arabia offer money to the families of shahids. Saddam Hussein pays each family $25,000. The Saudi government offers them a free trip to Mecca. What has become appallingly clear is that it is no longer possible to physically insulate Israeli communities by mining and patroling the frontier, as was done until 1967, or by building electric fences resembling those between the two Germanys during the cold war. Because of the intensive settlement policy pursued since 1978, Israelis and Palestinians are now too intermeshed on the West Bank, especially in the Greater Jerusalem area, for any neat separation to take place. Many of the Israeli settlements are deep in Palestinian territory.
Sharon has consistently rejected suggestions to build a “security wall” more or less along the old 1967 frontier, since this would leave out most settlers and preordain the future borders of a Palestinian state. A security fence to protect Israel proper, the main settlement areas in the West Bank, as well as “a security zone along the Jordan River,” as suggested by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, could run to more than 1,200 miles and take years to complete. In the meantime, a dozen fanatics might be able to veto any accommodation.
More than 400,000 Israelis (some 200,000 in several large enclaves in occupied East Jerusalem), nearly 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, now live on the other side of the old demarcation lines. For electoral reasons, in a land of narrow majorities, withdrawing large numbers of them would appear to be extremely risky politically, if not impossible. The most generous Israeli concessions offered last year at Taba would still have left 250,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and in remote settlements, a potentially dangerous irridentist population. The folly of successive Israeli governments—both Labor and Likud—who promoted the extensive settlement project in the West Bank and the Greater Jerusalem area has never been so obvious as it is now. The US, for its part, mildly objected to the settlements at first, and then stayed quiet about them, insisting that the final borders should be determined by negotiations. The settlements were originally intended to be “immovable,” faits accomplis, and to provide the country with more security. In reality, they have tied Israel’s hands in any negotiation to achieve lasting peace. The settlements have only made it less secure. Sharon has repeatedly announced that he is against the evacuation of a single settler.
The political power of the settlers has long been a major factor in the continuing crisis. The settlers now make up Israel’s most vociferous political lobby. Military deployments on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip are nowadays largely determined by their interests and personal wishes. For years they have vehemently opposed every peace initiative and blocked every possible compromise. When Yitzhak Rabin became the only prime minister to seriously stand up to them, they launched a vicious personal campaign against him and he was subsequently murdered by one of their ardent supporters. The militant groups that sympathized with the murder are now vociferously demanding the prosecution for treason of the “Oslo criminals”—i.e., the two academics who negotiated the Oslo agreements and former justice minister Yossi Beilin, who sponsored their mission.
In downtown Hebron, an entire armored infantry regiment is now needed to protect some three hundred settlers, mostly rabbinical students, who forced their way into the city over the past twenty-five years and after many difficulties were settled in government-financed houses. This seemingly mad act of defiance, in a deeply fundamentalist Muslim town, is still being justified by Genesis 23:4–183 and by the inane article of faith that Jews must not be prevented from living where they wish to live “only because they are Jews.” In Netzarim, an isolated settlement in the Gaza Strip (surrounded by huge Palestinian refugee camps), fifteen Israeli soldiers were recently killed and thirty-four wounded while defending forty families.
The large-scale, punitive “incursion” of Israeli tanks and armored troop carriers into Palestinian cities and refugee camps in April—ostensibly to crush the “infrastructure of terror”—is likely to intensify the prevailing rage and eventually to increase the attacks by shahids. The incursions have resulted in hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded and homeless Palestinian men, women, and children, mostly children—potential shahids of tomorrow. The Israeli attacks have spread havoc everywhere and caused huge material destruction from Ramallah to Bethlehem and Hebron, aimed, it would seem, at smashing not only the “infrastructure of terror,” as Sharon has claimed, but the emerging Palestinian state. The purely civilian ministries of agriculture and education and the central office of statistics were maliciously damaged. According to B’tzelem, the Israeli human rights group, the Israeli soldiers committed wanton vandalism in many places. Roads, water lines, and sewer pipes were damaged, trees uprooted, automobiles smashed, and houses razed. Military discipline seems to have sunk to an all-time low. In some places soldiers tried to break into cash drawers and automatic teller machines; they smashed with impunity clocks and artworks as well as furniture, television sets, washing machines, and computers. The pattern of vandalism was too widespread to excuse these cases as exceptions. In Ramallah soldiers broke into the Palestinian television station and started broadcasting pornographic films they claimed to have found in a drawer there. Combat helicopters hovered overhead indiscriminately firing machine guns and missiles into homes and offices.
“It is safe to say,” Serge Schmemann wrote in The New York Times of April 10, “that the infrastructure of life itself and of any future Palestinian state—roads, schools, electricity, pylons, water pipes, telephone lines—has been devastated.” The soldiers found arsenals filled with guns and ammunition and primitive workshops where hand grenades and mortars were made as well as leather belts ready to be filled with explosives. They were duly blown up. And yet the real “infrastructure of terror” is elsewhere: it lies not in these workshops but in the growing intensity of feeling on the part of young men and women, many of them jobless and without economic prospects, who have been enraged by what has gone on for so many years and is still going on.
In the past, prospective shahids underwent relatively long periods of indoctrination and training prior to blowing themselves up inside a crowded discothèque or restaurant; they now set out much sooner, after a day or two. According to a recent report in the Palestinian daily al-Quds, published in East Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinians, including many young women, are said to have volunteered to become shahids. The results of a recent poll, published in al-Quds, showed that 64 percent of Palestinians consider suicide bombing a useful and legitimate weapon.
The first intifada between 1987 and 1990 took everyone, including Rabin, completely by surprise and led eventually to the Oslo agreement of 1993. The second intifada began eighteen months ago. It was not a surprise even though nobody predicted what form it would actually take in the ensuing months as a result of the spiraling effect of terror and repression. The immediate event that set it off was Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount; the true reasons ran very much deeper. For months on end, Israeli intelligence agencies and independent observers in the universities and the press had been warning that the patience of rank-and-file Palestinians was running out. The number of settlers in the West Bank had doubled since the Oslo agreement. Sixty percent of the Palestinian workforce was said to be unemployed, largely because jobs in Israel were closed to them. Daily life on the occupied West Bank was becoming a nightmare. Collective punishments, curfews, closures of entire cities, and road blocks infuriated more and more people. Ambulances carrying pregnant women to hospitals were delayed for hours. Supplies rotted in trucks. Businesses closed. Land expropriations to enable the expansion of Israeli settlements continued. Ancient olive groves were uprooted.
Since Sharon came to power, thirty-four new settlements have been established. More land has been expropriated to build roads that bypassed Palestinian towns and villages and were closed to Palestinian traffic, thus enabling the settlers to commute back and forth to Israel without setting eyes on a single Palestinian.4 Before September 11, the new Republican administration in Washington preferred to let Israelis and Palestinians stew in their own juices. After September 11, President Bush is said to have given Sharon a “green light” to crush Palestinian terror as he saw fit, though without harming Arafat personally. Bush and Sharon had the same views even though, as it turned out later, different long-range interests, with Bush concerned, among other things, to obtain Arab support for an invasion of Iraq.
Arafat may not have ordered the launching of the new intifada; his Palestinian Authority, for example, had just invested $3 billion in tourism facilities alone. As soon as it broke out, however, he certainly jumped on the bandwagon. Ever since, Arafat has from time to time verbally criticized terrorist attacks, as in his recent statement that allowed him to meet with Colin Powell, while at other times he has openly approved of them, making it clear he saw them as advancing the Palestinian cause, whether or not he ordered them. His relationship with the several terrorist organizations, including the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, which he is accused of financing, and Hamas, may well be difficult, as was David Ben-Gurion’s relationship with Jewish terrorist organizations fighting the British between 1944 and 1948, and even with his own Haganah.
Sharon firmly believed he was capable of handling the new intifada with bullets and beatings, without negotiating about the conditions that caused it. His political horizon seems not to have changed since he masterminded the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982. His mantra has been that it will never be possible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians until they are “badly beaten.” If they aren’t badly beaten, he said in March, “it will be impossible to reach an agreement with them.” Like that of many former military men his thinking was purely quantitative. He once told an interviewer that he keeps Alistair Horne’s book on Algeria, A Savage War of Peace, on his night table; but he continues to believe that where force and coercion don’t work, more force and coercion in the end will.
His attitude to Arafat has been emotional and erratic. First he demanded that Arafat rein in the militants of Tansim, the armed organization run by Marwan Bargouti, a Fatah official and former Arafat aide with ambitions to succeed him, and that he suppress the fundamentalists of Hamas. Sharon then systematically bombed and destroyed Arafat’s jails and security agencies, the only instruments of the Palestine government that might have been able to do just that. (Bargouti was arrested by Sharon’s forces on April 15, but it is by no means clear that he is finished as a politician.) One day Sharon claimed that Arafat was “irrelevant”; on another, he insisted that Arafat was personally behind all the terror.
Shimon Peres, his foreign minister, urged him to allow Arafat to leave his headquarters in Ramallah. Sharon continued to confine Arafat to the two rooms he occupied inside his ruined headquarters, repeatedly cutting off the electric power in his compound and jamming some of his mobile phones. Outside the building, Israeli tanks revved their engines day and night. Against the advice of his own intelligence experts and of Foreign Minister Peres, he prevented Arafat from attending the Arab League conference in Beirut that endorsed the Saudi plan for peace with Israel in return for theevacuation of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. “We are needlessly humiliating him,” Peres told Sharon, according to a report in Ha’aretz. Peres said the same to Vice President Cheney, who toured the Middle East and refused to meet Arafat unless he first put an end to Palestinian violence. Peres unsuccessfully tried to change Cheney’s mind. “We must let Arafat operate,” Peres reportedly told Cheney. “We must start moving forward again.” According to the same report, clearly leaked by Sharon’s staff to embarrass Peres, Cheney’s answer was: “I respect the foreign minister for his efforts. But on this issue I disagree with him.”
Arafat has been Sharon’s nemesis since the 1982 siege of Beirut. He is sorry, Sharon said recently, that he did not kill Arafat then. Sharon’s obsession with Arafat has only enhanced Arafat’s declining reputation among Palestinians but it remains an open question whether it has increased his power to rein in Palestinian factions trying to outdo one another in extremism and militancy. Among other Arabs and Muslims from Morocco to the Philippines he has become a mythic hero. Arafat is perhaps the greatest survival artist in recent history: for half a century, no one has matched him in turning each defeat and each weakness into a strategic asset, and he still has no serious competition for the Palestinian leadership. His calls for “a thousand shahids, a thousand shahids” have now been followed by some of the most destructive attacks on Palestinians in their history.
In Jerusalem this March and April, one had the feeling of being under siege. I was here in 1948 during the long siege of the city by troops of the Arab Legion. The university was cut off on Mount Scopus, a military outpost, and could be reached only by armored car. It had been closed for months. Furious house-to-house battles raged along the border between Jewish and Arab quarters. There was no water in the taps, no electricity, and little food except beans, rice, and wild herbs. Artillery shells fell on apartment houses. People were killed by incoming mortar shells as they walked along the street. But there was no sense of fear or doom of the kind that now is palpable on Jerusalem’s streets. On the contrary, shortly after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, there was enthusiasm, pride, and hope for good things to come. There were responsible, eloquent, credible leaders giving a beleaguered people a sense of direction and hope.
In early April, there was mostly gloom. The downtown district where some of the shahids have blown themselves up in crowded public places was largely deserted. Shops were closed. One saw mostly heavily armed army and police patrols. Traffic was sparse. Auxiliary policemen were stopping pedestrians wearing bulky clothes or cars driven by anyone who looked slightly suspicious. IDs were checked again and again. Elsewhere in the city, armed guards stood outside cafés that remained half-empty. Some restaurants would only serve take-out food. In a supermarket, I was asked at the door to stand with my face to the wall with hands lifted while a guard fingered my trousers and passed a metal detector across my sweater. Buses, rightly considered dangerous, were half-empty. Shops closed before dark—at this time of year, around five.
The graffiti on the wall of the National Library read “Death to the Arabs” and “No Arabs No Casualties—No Leftists No Casualties.” Underneath this someone had added “No God No Casualties.” For more than a week, I was one of only two or three readers waiting for the books we ordered in the main reading room of the Hebrew University library—an institution normally serving more than 20,000 students. Waiting at a busy medical clinic, I overheard a nurse threatening someone over the telephone that the entire staff would strike within an hour if there were still no policemen at the door checking all who wanted to come in. “We don’t want to be cannon fodder,” she yelled. The waiting patients looked at each other, pale and confused. I opened that morning’s Ha’aretz and read a dispatch on the dismal mood in Jerusalem. “In the streets of Jerusalem people walk fast and look over their shoulders,” the reporter wrote. He finished his piece with a quote from the British General Bernard Montgomery, who was stationed in Palestine during a spell of communal violence in 1939 and wrote, “The Jew kills the Arab and the Arab kills the Jew. This is what happens now in Palestine and this will probably happen for the next fifty years.”
People don’t seem as ready for long wars of attrition now as they were thirty or forty years ago. Funerals of terror victims are shown daily on television. Live coverage on every TV and radio channel, often within minutes, of every murderous incident continues for hours with breathless reports of what happened; estimates of casualties change every few minutes. A hushed silence falls in living rooms as word of a terror attack is circulated; the television is switched on and films and entertainment programs are interrupted with the latest news. The screen fills with torn bodies and interviews with eyewitnesses, police chiefs, politicians, majors, doctors, and first-aid crews. Again and again you see the same bloodstain on the carpet, the same blown-up bus, the same shattered dinner tables and chairs, and you hear the same breathless, desperate-sounding speculations about what is happening or is likely to happen.
Before the incursions into the West Bank, Sharon was rarely on the air. He is hardly an articulate speaker. After the terror attacks he usually said only, “I am disappointed, but not surprised.” He sounds, as Uzi Benziman, a columnist for Ha’aretz, wrote, like a man preparing his alibi in front of another national inquiry commission. There is no public figure here like Rudy Giuliani after the Twin Towers disaster to reassure Israelis and try to raise their morale. After the worst massacre in Jerusalem last month, the mayor was, as usual, on the scene soon after the disaster addressing a battery of microphones and TV cameras. I watched him, with his frozen face, saying, literally: “I told you so!” To leave no doubt, he added, “It is not the last time. There will be more.”
Assorted loonies are also given time on TV to voice their views: a right-wing politician demands that all Israeli Arabs be disenfranchised and all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories be expelled. Sharon himself never condemns such proposals but simply describes them as “impractical.” A right-wing Knesset member, Benny Elon (he has since joined Sharon’s coalition), demands that all “leftists” be put in jail. A fanatic settler, the former general Effi Eitam, a born-again Jew, announces that Israeli Arabs must be disenfranchised—it is Israel’s “religious” destiny to be sole ruler of the land. His own great ambition, he says, is to be a worthy successor of Moses and King David. A few days later, the retired general gets a little closer to his aim: he is made a government minister, a member of Sharon’s narrow security cabinet.
The quality of leadership on both sides is now at an all-time low. Eighteen months ago, prominent Palestinians were still critical of Arafat for his handling of the peace process, for his incompetent civil administration, and for the corruption among his ministers. All such criticism has disappeared as a result of his apotheosis as Sharon’s prisoner. Nor is there in Israel any serious political opposition to Sharon. The astonishing mediocrity of Israeli politicians, the absence of impressive leaders among them during the last decade, may be a consequence, on a superficial level, of television politics; more deeply, of the political system itself. Attempts to improve the flawed electoral process by, for example, having a separate vote for prime minister have only made it worse.
The public is understandably confused. Four fifths of the Jewish public, according to a recent poll, approve of Sharon’s punitive incursions into the West Bank with all their horror; but three fifths support the Saudi proposal to make peace if Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 lines. There is little criticism of Sharon, except from Netanyahu and the far right for not being tough enough, and from the far left and half a dozen liberal columnists for being too tough. The well-known satirist B. Michael in Yediot Aharanot of April 12 wrote:
(Readers living by the sea are requested to cut out this note, translate it into English, fold it nicely, put it inside a sealed bottle, throw it into the sea—and hope for the best.)
TO ALL GOOD PEOPLE WHO FIND THIS NOTE:
This message reaches you from men, women, and children stranded on an isolated piece of land in the Middle East.
We are decent people, but as a result of a severe voting accident, we are now at the mercy of a particularly stupid group of leaders: mostly generals, colonels, clergy and other thugs.
These bad people insist that God himself directed them to fight endlessly for a few useless pieces of real estate and sacred totem poles. They are forcing us to participate in their war games, finance and sometimes take active part in them.
If you find this note, please take it to your leaders. This is our last means of communication. TV and radio channels we could have used until recently are now controlled by the government and its agents…. We still have food and water but only a few drops are left in the supplies of sanity.
—P.F.L.N.P. (The Popular Front for the Liberation of Normal People)
Arafat and Sharon continue to pursue lines likely to encounter the least domestic resistance. Sharon’s widened “national coalition” includes the lunatic fringe on the right and Shimon Peres and others of the Labor Party on the moderate left. Peres is on record as saying that had he known where Sharon would lead the country he would not have joined his coalition; he now says that he stays in “to prevent the worst.” Sharon has been eager to keep him in the cabinet, mostly in order to reassure the Americans. He has appeased him on a few occasions, as when he gave up a plan to arrest Arafat, a concession for which he was severely criticized on the right. The recent widening of the cabinet to include General Eitam and David Levy, another hard-liner, curtails whatever remaining power Labor and Shimon Peres may have had inside the cabinet.
Against this dismal background the sudden appearance of a protest movement of combat officers and soldiers in the military reserve, called SERUV—“REFUSAL”—attracted, for a while, considerable attention. (Their slogan is “Have the courage to refuse.”) Then the press lost interest in them. The refusenik reservists issued a statement declaring that they would not serve “beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.” Because only two or three members of parliament and hardly anyone in the press were ready to take up their cause, they had no immediate political impact. After much soul-searching even the aging leaders of Peace Now and the leftist opposition party Meretz would not endorse the movement.
Peace Now had originally been a movement of similarly dovish reserve officers; after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, it very effectively protested the Lebanon war, and was credited with pushing Begin to resign. “We understand and sympathize with their feelings,” the Peace Now leaders said of SERUV, “but we don’t call for conscientious objection.” The rationale for this policy is concern that support for Peace Now in the army would be reduced if it backed SERUV—an odd position for an extraparliamentary protest group that has been thought to act not on the basis of opinion polls but on moral principles. Peace Now does call for “evacuation of territories,” if need be unilaterally. Twenty years ago, it was able to stage mass demonstrations attended by up to 400,000 Israelis. Its largest demonstration this year attracted only 20,000. The left-wing Meretz party announced that refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories is “undemocratic.”
A spokesman for SERUV told me he was shocked by the narrow-minded formalism of this criticism and by what he considered the opportunism of Peace Now. “They refuse to see that if things continue as they are there will soon be no democracy here. Public and commercial television are already gagged. And the press is increasingly conformist.” SERUV began in February when two hundred reservists, mostly officers and sergeants, put their names on the Internet. By mid-April their number had risen to 411. To avoid scandal, the army refrained at first from calling them up. Early in April, Sharon ordered the army to start calling in the refuseniks for friendly chats. At this writing, thirty-six refuseniks are in jail, serving sentences of up to twenty-eight days. The sentences were imposed through disciplinary action by their commanding officers. If they continue to refuse service across the Green Line, the next step might be court-martial or even criminal charges. It is still unclear if the army will risk trying them in an open court covered by local and foreign press and having lawyers defend them. Moreover, as the level of violence rose, for each refusenik who went to jail, an estimated hundred reservists who had not as yet been called up were said to have volunteered for active duty.
In the wake of Colin Powell’s peace mission in April, it is difficult to see what, if anything, he has achieved. He was sabotaged by all sides, including his own. Arafat, apart from his written statement condemning violence, sounded furious and defiant. He had expected strong United States pressure on Sharon; after this did not happen, he is said to have lost his temper during his last meeting with Powell. One of Arafat’s aides said afterward that the meeting had been “a catastrophe.” Sharon, for his part, kept on deploying troops and extending his timetable for withdrawal. President Bush, who at first had sounded impatient in demanding Israeli withdrawal “without delay,” then astoundingly called Sharon what probably no one ever had before, a “man of peace.”
Palestinian and Israeli commentators were unanimous in claiming that Powell’s mandate had been so vague it was not surprising that, after his mission was over, the situation was worse than it had been when he arrived. The Palestinians refused to declare a cease-fire as long as the Israelis refused to withdraw, and the Israelis refused to withdraw unless there was first a reliable cease-fire, and only after the killers of the minister of tourism, Rehavam Zeevi, were extradited to be tried in an Israeli court. They were said to be hiding in Arafat’s besieged headquarters in Ramallah. So also, allegedly, was Fuad Shubaki, the man accused of having masterminded the transport of arms on the Karen A, the ship loaded with weapons from Iran captured by Israeli marines in the Red Sea in January. Israel insisted that Shubaki must also be extradited. Labor ministers objected to these demands but Sharon let it be known he was ready to resign and go to elections—which he would certainly win—rather than soften them.
Sharon’s proposal to hold another Middle Eastern peace conference as in Madrid after the Gulf War is likely to come to nothing if Arafat is not allowed to attend it; so was Arafat’s demand for an international force to be placed between Palestinians and Israelis. Israeli tanks remain in position around the main Palestinian cities, threatening to reoccupy them if necessary, and Palestinian militants were said to be regrouping for an underground struggle. The bitter controversy over what did or did not happen at the Jenin refugee camp has further poisoned the atmosphere. In view of the frozen attitudes of practically everyone involved, it is hard to see any other prospect but more bloodshed.
—April 24, 2002
May 23, 2002
“The Blood Lust of Identity,” The New York Review, April 11, 2002. ↩
In the summer of 1967, following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, two Israeli intelligence officers, Dan Bavly and David Kimche, later deputy head of the Mossad and director of the Israeli foreign ministry, respectively, discussed this possibility with prominent Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. They wrote a report saying that a separate peace between Israel and West Bank Palestinians was a distinct possibility; but this report, so far as we know, was never submitted to the Israeli cabinet. If it had reached the cabinet it is likely that in the hubris of the first months of victory, even tentative efforts to explore the possibility would have been rejected. ↩
Describing Abraham’s purchase of a burial cave there from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred pieces of silver. ↩
“The Six-Day War was forced on us; however, the war’s seventh day, which began on June 12, 1967, and has continued to this day, is the product of our choice,” Michael Ben-Yair, Israeli attorney general under Rabin from 1993 to 1997, wrote earlier this year in Ha’aretz. “We enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities.” It is a pity Ben-Yair did not publicly voice such views in a legal brief while he was still attorney general. ↩