Thursday, November 14, 1996
On the issues of war and peace in Israel
On the 1st anniversary of the assasination of Yithsac Rabin, an Israeli visitor, a mid-level government official, offers the following explanation of the struggles that raise the fears of war in Israel:
Since the election victory of the conservative Likud Party and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Labor Party, the coalition government (empowered by 67 members of the 120-member Knesset, made up of 32 Likud, 28 religious and Russian immigrant, and 7 Ariel Sharon party members), has slowed down the expansion of the limited Palestinian rule in the West Bank. This is Galilea and Judea, the Jordanian territory conquered by Israel in the 6-day war in 1967, that was the subject of the 1993 Oslo treaty agreed to by the PLO and the Labor government. The palpable causes are concerns over the security of Israeli settlers and the fate of Jerusalem.
Phase A of the implementation of the treaty involved passing the control in Gaza (the world's most populated non-urban 5x30 mile strip, with 800,000 inhabitants) and Jericho to the new Palestinian Authority and its President Yassior Arafat. The action is now in Phase B, involving the successful transfer of control to the Palestinian Authority in key Arab towns. The last town on the schedule is Hebron in Judea, a holy place for both Jews and Moslems. Its Cave of Machpelah (the Arab name is Ibrahimye Mosque) is the burial site of the three Patriarchs Abraham (Ibrahim), Isaac and Jacob, who are also Prophets in the Muslim religion, and their spouses, the Matriarchs. Hebron is also the place where in 1929, 67 Jews were slaughtered by Arabs, and the sanctuary over the Cave is where the Brooklyn immigrant Dr. Baruch Goldstein shot and killed over 20 Arabs while they were at prayer during the Ramadan, in February of 1994, in the mad notion that he could renew the war between Jews and Arabs, stop the peace movement and keep the West Bank - ancient kingdoms of Samaria and Judea - as part of Israel.
About 100,000 Arabs and 450 Israeli settlers live inside Hebron town proper. The settlers' rights were guaranteed by the Oslo pact and accepted by Arafat as well as by the then Prime Minister Yithzak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The crux of the present negotiations is the control of traffic in the Hebron area. The discussions are bogged down in minutia that are extremely significant to the parties. One issue is patrolling of two roads (less than 10 miles) by joint Israeli and Palestinian Authority police patrols in separate cars - this is accepted, but currently Israel wants the patrols extended about 200 feet into adjoining side roads, the distance at which rock throwers can operate, to enable "hot pursuit." Next, the armament of the PA police; the number and percent of rifles vs. handguns is at stake, as is the availability of tractor gear vs. tires for the Palesinian Authority police patrol cars. The road under discussion leads from the militant Israeli Kiryat Arba settlement of 20,000 inhabitants ouside of Hebron, through a passage between mountains to the in-town enclave of the 450, then on to the Cave on the outskirts of Hebron, located on the main Jerusalem highway. Army patrols on the road are extremely vulnerable to snipers from the hills; the soldiers are unnecessarily exposed; the 450 settlers, half of them American (as are the Kiryat Arba inhabitants) endanger their children to uphold the principle of their right to live there, amid an Arab population still chafing from the Goldstein murders. The Arabs see the "hot pursuit" as an unwarranted addition to the Oslo agreements, and the Jews view the arms issues in like fashion.
The issues are significant. In both Israeli and PA eyes, rifles transform the police into an army, as do tank-like tracks on the cars. Members of the uncompromising far-right faction of the Likud coalition want to bog down the disputes, in the expectation that they would stall forever. This could lead to resumption of war, and withdrawal of the aspects of independence granted to the Palestinian Authority in Oslo phases A and B. That was the objective of the terrorists Goldstein and Yigal Amir (who killed Rabin). Now the atmosphere has grown more tense because early in November the right-wing Infrastructure Minister Gen. Ariel Sharon announced a plan to move 100,000 new Israeli settlers into the West Bank, which Netanyahu claims to be only a proposal, to be studied by the government. Arafat has demanded that new settlements be frozen (that also impacts the sale of some Israeli residences already built on the West Bank), before the Hebron issues can be further worked on.
It may well be that the threat of new settlements is to create a strong playing card for Israel in the impending Phase C negotiations, particularly in retaining Israeli control over Jerusalem. The Laborites fear that it will provoke a bloody large-scale war.
Arafat, who is an opportunist with a long-term objective of a Palestinian State, is eager to continue talks which will give him West Bank territories targeted in the Oslo agreements, and is holding down the Arab militants. He sees that it is easier to acquire territory through negotiations than war: Phase C of the talks, to come after Phase B (Hebron) is concluded, determines the disposition of the land of the West Bank ("occupied territories"); decides on the degree of Palestinian rule of the West Bank; establishes the final relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Most importantly, looming in the background of the continuation of the talks, Phase C also involves the fate of Jerusalem, to be decided by the year 2000. It is the spiritual home of Judaism and the 3rd most holy city of Islam. For Jews, both Peres and Netanyahu, the thought of dividing Jerusalem is blasphemy.
Even those who mistrust and hate Arafat recognize that today he is a definite advocate of peace, not because the former terrorist has changed his stripes, but for palpably evident selfish reasons. Even when he talks "struggle, fight, jihad" in the camps and implores refugees to have 12 children, it is recognized as rhetoric by Israelis and shrugged off. He has to show anger among his adherents, to overcome the stigma of being seen as an Israeli and American puppet, as he is depicted by certain Arab militants.
While seeking a compromise, both Jews and Arabs must beware of the destroyers of peace on both sides. Another Goldstein or Amir might next attack the obvious high-profile target, Yassir Arafat, and cause another breakup, bringing Hamas and Hebzollah back on war status. Arafat is the most likely target for the enemies of peace on the Arab side too. There is some serious concern among Israelis about providing all-around protection for him against potential provocateurs from both sides. The same concerns apply particularly when he visits America and Europe. His selfish objectives are transparent need for Western support, in view of his loss of Soviet and Saudi contributions, is palpable. He has no alternative but to be the emissary for peace - and, as such, be exposed. Terrorists/provocateurs can assume many identities.
Israel is a country of 4.5 million Jews, half a million Arab citizens, flanked by 1 and 3/4 million Palestinians under Israeli control, and surrounded by over 100 million inimical Moslems, including millions of Palestinian refugees. It has not been at peace since its establishment in 1947. In response to attacks in 1948, 1956 and 1967 it occupied Egypt's Sinai Strip, Lebanon's Golan Heights and Jordan's West Bank (Samaria and Judea); and over the 19 years, 150,000 Israeli settlers built some 50 settlements in the West Bank territories, rightly or wrongly. That is where the trouble lies. A peaceful settlement with co-existence may be on its way, if the enemies of peace can be held back, on the Right Bank and in the Golan Heights, an arid and economically useless but strategically significant hotly disputed area triple the size of Gaza, barring no disturbances. President Clinton, who backed the Oslo agreements, may be the most important player, since he is trusted by both Labor and Likud voters. Let us hope that he will do the right thing. We may not be able to stop the trouble in Zaire, Burundi and Rwanda, or Cambodia, Somalia and former Yugoslavia, but in the Middle East we have a better chance, and we will not have to send in the troops.