Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
Issue No.562
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A war without rules

Three US envoys arrived in Israel and the occupied territories this week seeking a cease-fire. But it is an "open war" for Hamas. Graham Usher reports from Gaza

One week after they were anointed by Colin Powell, America's latest mission of envoys -- "special aide" to Powell and retired US General Anthony Zinni, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns and "peace process" envoy Aaron Miller -- arrived in Israel. They came seeking peace, via a cease-fire and the steps to negotiations laid down by the Mitchell and Tenet plans. They spied only desolation.

In the four days before, Israel had killed 13 Palestinians. The worst carnage was on 22 November, when an army land-mine tore apart five Palestinian schoolchildren near Gaza's minuscule Jewish settlement Ganei Tal.

The army eventually admitted it had laid the mine to ensnare Palestinian guerrillas. Few Palestinians denied the area had been used to launch mortars. Fewer could believe the army was unaware the place where the mine was primed was a path routinely used by children on their way to school.

The army expressed "regret." The settlers shrugged their shoulders. Fifteen thousand Palestinians vented their rage at the children's funeral in Khan Yunis the next day. And the army killed one more Palestinian child -- 15-year-old Wael Radwan -- in the clashes that followed.

Later that night two more Palestinians -- Ahmed Al-Hanawi and Hadya Abu Shammala -- were killed when their taxi drove too close to Rafah's border with Egypt: an "infringement" these days every bit as lethal as throwing stones at a funeral or walking a sand path to school.

But the most mortal event for the prospects of Zinni's mission was Israel's assassination on 23 November of three Hamas militants, including Izzeddin Al- Qassam commander Mahmoud Abu Hannud. Their car was rocketed by helicopters on a road near Nablus. Hannud apparently escaped the first salvo. He was taken out by a second while fleeing up a hill.

Hannud's was a prized scalp on Israel's death-list. He had survived at least two Israeli attempts on his life and was wanted for planning a string of suicide operations inside Israel, including the bombings at the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium discotheque and Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant this summer.

For all these reasons he was a folk- hero to many Palestinians, and not only the Islamists. Tens of thousands attended his funeral in Nablus. Thousands took to the streets in protest, including 13-year old Kifah Obeid, killed by the army during clashes at Bethlehem's Rachel Tomb. Hamas political leader Aziz Rantisi warned there would be a price for Hannud's head.

"Experience shows Hamas' military wing always responds to Israel's crimes and always strikes back. There will be a painful retaliation against the enemy," he vowed before a 5,000- strong rally in Gaza on 24 November.

The response was not tardy in coming. That night mortars rained on settlements and army bases throughout Gaza, leaving one soldier dead. Israel unleashed 20 missiles on Palestinian Authority and Fatah positions, leaving three Palestinians wounded and two homes demolished. The next day a Palestinian wired with explosives detonated himself on Gaza's Erez border with Israel. Two Israeli police were slightly hurt.

Hamas claimed both the bomber and the mortars.

On Tuesday, two Palestinian gunmen went on a rampage in Israel's northern city Afula, killing two Israelis and wounding 14 before being shot dead by Israeli security forces. Later in the day a Palestinian fired at a convy of Israeli troops and settlers in the Gaza Strip, killing an Israeli woman and wounding three other people, including a baby, before being gunned down by Israeli troops.

The Palestinian leadership said that all the escalation in the occupied territories was part of "a well-planned scheme by the Israeli government" to sink Zinni's mission before it had set sail. It also prevailed on Hamas and other Palestinian factions not to be drawn into "Sharon's trap" by executing a violent response, particularly against civilians inside Israel.

"We call on our people in all their sectors to contemplate the depth of the Israeli scheme and transform their anger, condemnation and pain into the energy required for solid national steadfastness (sumud)," ran an official leadership statement on 24 November.

Until the Hannud execution there had been some in Hamas' leadership amenable to this message. The restraint has been bound by their "strategic unity" with elements of Fatah in this uprising and proved by the fact that Hamas has not engaged in any military operations inside Israel since Yasser Arafat's cease- fire declaration on 17 September.

But Hamas -- like Ariel Sharon -- has a constituency. And all are aware that the price of Hannud's death will require more than mortars in Gaza and a botched suicide operation at Erez. The bigger question is whether it will mean renewed carnage in Israel's cities or -- taking a leaf from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- the head of an Israeli politician or general.

Whatever the means, few Palestinians doubt it will come and be "harsh" -- despite Arafat's weakness, the Arabs' passivity, Sharon's strength and Zinni's mission.

"It's a war now, without rules or ethics," said one Hamas leader in Gaza. "You kill, I kill, you assassinate and I will try to assassinate. You throw missiles into Gaza. I will make suicide bombings in Tel Aviv. It's a kind of open war".

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