World

On the Edge of the Abyss

World leaders call for calm as the flames of war threaten to engulf the Middle East

Eric Silver October 23 2000
World

On the Edge of the Abyss

World leaders call for calm as the flames of war threaten to engulf the Middle East

Eric Silver October 23 2000

On the Edge of the Abyss

World

World leaders call for calm as the flames of war threaten to engulf the Middle East

Eric Silver

The dream of bringing peace to the Middle East faded when two Israeli soldiers made a wrong turn and ended up in the centre of the Palestinian town of Ramallah. The pair were arrested, but as rumours of their seizure spread, a mob of Palestinians surged towards the police station where they were being held. About 10 men broke in and stabbed the two soldiers to death before throwing their bodies into the streets, where they were battered with iron bars while other Palestinians joyously shook their fists in the air. The Israelis responded with fury. Helicopter gunships fired rockets into Ramallah and at Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in nearby Gaza City. “The peace process is dead,” said Israeli Communications Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer as plumes of black smoke rose over Ramallah. “Arafat’s clear desire is for war.”

The deaths of the soldiers in Ramallah on Oct. 12 and Israel’s strong response added urgency to U.S. attempts to arrange an emergency summit meeting in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik that would bring an end to the violence. After two weeks of bloodshed, nearly 100 people were dead and 3,000 wounded, the vast majority of them Palestinians. As the body count mounted under the Israeli barrage, the rush to war seemed to accelerate again when an explosives-laden rubber raft piloted by suicide bombers rammed a U.S. guided-missile destroyer and exploded in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors and injuring 38. Authorities believe two obscure terrorist groups may have launched the attack in retaliation over U.S. support for Israel. The killing of the Israeli soldiers and the attack on the American ship also

created new complications for international efforts led by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to end the growing violence. And the insecurity only increased with the weekend hijacking of a London-bound Saudi airliner over Egypt. “The peace process in its present form doesn’t appear to have a chance,” said Israel’s acting foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

The current round of clashes erupted on Sept.

28, following a visit by Israel’s right-wing opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, to a holy site in Jerusalem that is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Sharon, who was surrounded by security guards, made the trip to demonstrate that Israel has no intention of ever relinquishing control of any pan of the city in a peace deal with the Palestinians. The Jews revere it as the Temple Mount, where Solomon built his House of the Lord. To the Muslims, it is the Haram al Sharif, the setting of their third-holiest mosque after those of Mecca and Medina. Most Israelis admit that Sharon’s visit was the spark that ignited the violence. Increasingly, however, Israelis of the left as well as the right accuse Arafat of seizing on the incident as a pretext for reviving the Intifada uprising. The main difference between the 1987-1993 clashes and the current violence is that the Palestinian side now has guns as well as rocks and petrol bombs to fight with.

With the violence spreading from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel’s own Arab towns and villages, many people across the region seemed to be giving up all hope that the Oslo accord, which launched the Mideast peace process seven years ago, would ever bear fruit. Maurice Singer, the 55-year-old manager of a job recruitment agency in the town of Raianana, north of Tel Aviv, once supported the peace process. But he spoke for thousands of Israelis when he said he now has grave doubts. “The Arab policy is to let us take an inch, then grab a mile,” said Singer, a father of three grown children. “Every time the Arabs have a minor victory, it becomes a major victory for them. It just spurs them on.”

The view from the Palestinian side has also hardened. Jihad al Wazir, a Palestinian in his mid-30s who runs an international trade centre in Gaza, said the world, and Israel, underestimated the anger, frustration and helplessness of ordinary Palestinians as Jewish settlements kept expanding in the occupied territories and the Arabs saw no real gains from the peace process. Al Wazir’s father, known as Abu Jihad, was one of Arafat’s deputies, in charge of the armed struggle in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. He was assassinated by Israeli commandos in Tunis in 1988. His widow, Umm Jihad, is now a minister in Arafat’s administration. “They saw the silence of the Palestinian people as acquiescence and not the eye of the storm,” Jihad al Wazir said. “Today, we are seeing the beginning of the storm. It ushers in the end of the Oslo cycle.”

The Israelis continue to believe that they made important concessions that should have led down the road to peace—not war. Among them: sharing control of the administration of Jerusalem. “This government,” said Ben-Ami, the acting foreign minister, “has gone to the outer limits of the capacity of any Israeli government to reach a reasonable compromise with the

World

The hardening on both sides undermined Annans efforts to broker a truce. Arafat wanted a broad international inquiry into the cause of the strife. Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton, however, favoured a smaller summit, chaired by the United States. After meeting with Arafat on Friday, Annan said he expected a U.S.-led summit to be convened within 48 hours at Sharm el-Sheik. On Saturday, Arafat dropped his demand for an international inquiry into the fighting and agreed to attend the summit, scheduled to be held on Monday.

‘The peace process in its present form doesn’t appear to have a chance’

Palestinians. And then we get this outburst of violence.” He accused Arafat of orchestrating the violence to win over the sympathy of the international community, adding: “This cynical attempt to lubricate the improvement of an international image with the blood of Palestinians is tragic.”

According to Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, the impasse might be impossible to bridge. “The situation is critical,” she said. “I think Israel should withdraw from our towns and villages, then say, ‘Let’s talk and come to arrangements.’ Then it might be possible to scale things down. So long as they are there, it’s impossible.” But Prime Minister Ehud Barak shows no sign of pulling Israeli troops out of the occupied territories—even as Arafat vowed to continue the fight. He emerged belligerent and unhurt after the Israeli attack near his headquarters and visited the wounded in a Gaza hospital. The Palestinian people, he said, will “continue their march to Jerusalem, the capital of the Palestinian independent state.”

While Israel stepped up its military campaign, there were calls for Barak to form an emergency national-unity government. The advocates of a unity government include Communications Minister Ben-Eliezer, a retired general and former West Bank commander, along with rightwingers like Sharon, whose Likud party says it will serve under Barak only if he abandons the Oslo peace accords. Sharon, who was the mastermind of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, is widely hated by Palestinians, and many analysts believe his presence in the government would hurt future peace talks.

The ramming of the USS Cole, one of the world’s most advanced warships, in Aden appeared designed to test U.S.

resolve to bring peace to the area. The Cole, with a crew of 300, was in port for refuelling when the explosion ripped a hole 12 by 12 metres in the side of the 8,600-tonne ship.Two previously unknown terrorists groups, the Islamic Deterrence Forces and Mohammed’s Army later took credit for the blast, while Clinton vowed to find and punish those responsible. And he said the deaths would not deter U.S. peace efforts. “If their intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East,” said Clinton, “they will fail utterly.”

Powerful players in the Arab community, however, including Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the Hamas Islamic Resistance, vowed to fight on regardless of whether a ceasefire is reached. “You are living on occupied land that you stole,” the wheelchairbound Muslim cleric said, addressing the people of Israel. “You are living on land whose homes you destroyed and whose sons were killed. You have no future in this region.”

To further complicate matters, Annan is trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange between I Israel and the Lebanese Hezbol\ lah guerrillas, who abducted three Israeli soldiers from a border post last weekend. If the soldiers are killed, analysts predict, Israel could widen the conflict by once again invading south Lebanon, a region Israel invaded in 1982, and finally retreated from in May.

The escalating violence has, meanwhile, undermined the peace movement in Israel. “Even people like me, who have worked for peace at the grassroots, have doubts now about the trustworthiness of their Palestinian friends,” said Janet Aviad, a veteran leader of the Peace Now movement. “Everyone has been shocked by the expressions of hatred on both sides.” She

World

Even moderates on both sides are now deeply pessimistic

remains convinced, though, that Israelis and Palestinians will have to resume the peace negotiations eventually. But even peace campaigners acknowledge that their dream of a new Middle East is slipping away. Aviad, an Americanborn sociologist, suggests that politicians would have to “separate these two peoples as much as possible, to place them on an equal footing and hope that we will transcend the hostility.” But transcending hostility seems almost impossible in a settlement like Shilo, in the Palestinian-controlled area between Ramallah and Nablus. It is also home to Israeli settlers like Shner Katz, a black-bearded teacher in his 40s who has lived in Shilo with his wife and children for 10 years. “It’s very hard,” he said following a funeral for Rabbi Hillel

Lieberman, a 37-year-old, New York City-born rabbi whose bullet-riddled body was found last week in a cave near Nablus. “We’ve been stoned. We’re being shot at all the time. We don’t know how much longer we can stand such a situation.” Did that mean he was preparing to pull out? “Never,” he vowed. “Only our dead bodies will leave this place. This is our country, this is our home.” E3