|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
19 - 25 April 2001
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Sharon ups the anteIt did not take long for the "old Sharon" to emerge, authorising airstrikes on Syrian bases in Lebanon and military incursions into Gaza, writes Graham Usher from Jerusalem
There were some in the Arab world who counselled that a "chance" should be given to an Israeli government headed by Ariel Sharon. And, in the last four days, the Israeli leader has seized the grace afforded him through two actions that, in the opinion of UN special envoy to the Middle East Terje Larsen, brought the Middle East closer to war than at any time in the last decade.
The first was the authorisation he gave on 16 April for Israeli fighter aircraft to deliberately target Syrian army positions in Lebanon for the first time since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The action was a delayed reprisal for the killing of an Israeli soldier by Hizbullah guerrillas in the Israeli occupied Shebaa region on the Lebanese border on 14 April. The strike on a Syrian radar station 35 kilometres east of Beirut left at least two Syrian soldiers dead and five wounded.
The next came 24 hours later. Following Palestinian mortar attacks on the Israeli town of Sderot five kilometres north of the Gaza Strip, Sharon ordered Israeli tanks and bulldozers to plough one kilometre into Palestinian Authority controlled territory at the Beit Hanoun village in northern Gaza.
This was accompanied by Israeli air and sea rocket attacks on PA security and civilian installations in Gaza City and Deir Al-Balah and heavy tank shelling of Rafah. The toll was three Palestinians killed, including a PA police officer, 30 Palestinians wounded and acres of land "shaved" of trees and "razed" of their homes.
Nor, initially, was there any sign that Israel's "partial reoccupation" of PA controlled territory was anything other than permanent. Asked about the duration of the incursion, Israeli army spokesman Ron Kitry said on Tuesday that "our operation will continue as long as there is Palestinian mortar fire against Israeli towns. And that, he added, "could be months".
The combination of the two raids and the potential combustion they might cause provoked outrage and fear in the Arab world. Syria denounced the attack on its installation in Lebanon as a "dangerous escalation" while Lebanese President Emile Lahoud warned Israel that policies "like these will only lead to a comprehensive confrontation" in the region.
Yasser Arafat, too, denounced the Israeli strikes on Syria and Lebanon. As for the army's invasion of northern Gaza, this was an "unforgiveable crime aimed at making our people kneel and we won't kneel," he said on Tuesday.
It was the action in Gaza that finally drew from the wings the US State Department, in the form of a statement issued by Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday evening.
Warning that the "situation" in the Middle East "is threatening to escalate further and posing the risk of a broader conflict," he called the Palestinian mortar attacks on Israeli towns "provocative".
His denunciation of the Israeli response of reoccupation, though, was stronger: it was "excessive and disproportionate", he said, before calling on the Israeli government to respect its "commitment to withdraw from Gaza according to terms of agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinians".
The message finally reached home. Within hours of Powell's statement the army was pulling out its 20 bulldozers and tanks from the outskirts of Beit Hanoun. By Wednesday morning the withdrawal was complete, confirmed PA security officials. And the Palestinians generally bathed in a rare glow of satisfaction.
"The American government now understands it has to take an active role [in the peace process] because if a firm government doesn't stand up to the Sharon government, it will make more and more war," said PA Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel-Rahman on Tuesday night, after the withdrawal had commenced.
Arafat was pleased, especially by Powell's reference to the "terms of agreements signed by Israel" and his edict to Sharon that "there can be no military solution to this conflict". These are essentially the principles behind the Egyptian-Jordanian proposal aimed at ending the violence in the occupied territories and resuming political as well as security negotiations.
Arafat has endorsed the proposal. Sharon has dismissed it as a "non-starter". And, on Wednesday morning, as the last Israeli tanks were leaving Beit Hanoun, Palestinian guerrillas once more fired mortars on Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
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