A 'helping' hand
Israel's way of supporting its negotiating partner leaves something to be desired, observes Khaled Amayreh
Just ahead of George Bush's visit to the region, Israel was helping Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in its own peculiar way. Last week, thousands of Israeli occupation soldiers, backed by an armada of military vehicles and armoured personnel carriers, stormed Nablus, which the PA regime had just declared a "safe and secure city".
For three successive days, the invading army ransacked the city of 200,000 inhabitants, particularly its ancient quarter, raiding private homes, beating, humiliating and terrorising residents, rounding up youngsters and vandalising property. Dozens were injured, some seriously, by trigger-happy soldiers, allegedly for violating a military curfew the invading forces imposed on the town.
The PA has a few thousand security personnel in Nablus, in addition, to a back-up force of hundreds of Fatah militiamen, who had been active in persecuting and hounding Hamas supporters in the city.
However, according to an earlier understanding between the Israeli army and the Ramallah regime, all PA troops and security forces anywhere in the West Bank must remained confined to their headquarters and refrain from walking in the streets with their firearms during Israeli army incursions or presence in any given Palestinian locality.
Accordingly, PA troops just withdrew quietly to their buildings, closed their doors behind them, and waited until the end of the Israeli operation 5 January, when the invading forces left, leaving a trail of destruction that will require millions of dollars to fix.
The invading forces also arrested more than 20 Palestinians, including members of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, who had been pardoned by Israel in exchange for surrendering their weapons to the PA authorities, as well as several Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters.
The incursion embarrassed the PA, portraying it in the eyes of Palestinians, especially Nablus's inhabitants, as helpless and even irrelevant. "What kind of government is it whose soldiers and policemen hasten to enter their holes when the occupation army comes to rape the city," asked Maher Kanan, a Nablus businessman. "And they claim that they have authority and sovereignty here."
PA officials, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, protested against the Israeli incursion, complaining that Israel was "destroying everything we have been building for months." Some Fatah officials accused the Israeli army of "carrying out a coup" against the Abbas regime, while others charged that it was seeking to destroy any hope for a reasonable and dignified peace settlement with the Palestinians.
Responding to these complaints, the Israeli government and army said rather tersely that the operation in Nablus was fully coordinated with the Palestinian government. The PA denied the charges, saying that Palestinian security officials were only notified of the incursion at the very last moment.
One PA security official told Al-Ahram Weekly that the lightly-armed Palestinian security forces were only designed to keep law and order, but not confront the Israeli army. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the security officials said, "we are not supposed to confront Israel. Our mission and tasks are confined to internal security."
In addition to the daily military incursions in the West Bank, the Israeli army continued to demonstrate to the Palestinians that Abbas and his government have no shred of authority save what Israel and its occupation army are willing to accord him.
On 7 January, Israeli troops raided downtown Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government, and arrested two moderate Hamas leaders, Hussein Abu Kweik and Faraj Abu Rummana. Abu Kweik, a political activist, had his wife and three children murdered by the Israeli army in Ramallah in 2002 in a failed attempt on his life.
The two Islamic leaders were earlier detained by the Preventive Security Force (PSF) and subjected to a harsh interrogation for six hours in connection with remarks critical of PA policies they had made on Al-Jazeera television.
Hamas, in a statement issued on 8 January, accused the PSF of collusion with Israel in the abduction of the two leaders. "We stress that Fatah and its agencies in Ramallah are implicated from head to toe in the abduction by Israel of Abu Kweik and Rummana," said the statement.
Hamas pointed out that there was a tacit understanding between Israel and the PA whereby Israel would arrest any Palestinian activist detained by the PA security agencies and in return the PA would be allowed to operate against Hamas within areas classified as "C" where the Israeli army enjoys full security responsibility according to the Oslo Accords.
In addition to the daily incursions and rampages in the West Bank, as well as the ongoing carnage in Gaza, where the Israeli army has killed as many as 30 Palestinians (including an entire family) since the beginning of 2008, Israel has also been helping Abbas on another front.
On 8 January, the Israeli media reported that hundreds of settler units were slated to be built in Ras Al-Amud, the only remaining corridor between the West Bank and the Haram Al-Sharif of Jerusalem, which houses the Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.
This is in addition to thousands of settler units being planned and already under construction all over the West Bank, especially in the Jerusalem region where the Israeli government has embarked on an aggressive campaign to build as many settler units as possible prior to the conclusion of any possible agreement with the PA over the final status of the city.
Israel hopes that any such final-status agreement would allow the Jewish state to retain all Jewish neighbourhoods in the city. Hence, the frantic effort to seize as much as possible of East Jerusalem for Jewish settlement expansion.
The dogged and unrelenting land theft and settlement expansion in the West Bank is in contrast to the sweet talk and artificial goodwill by Israeli officials who continue to issue statements on a daily basis reasserting their commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state.
A prominent Palestinian intellectual described the current state of affair between Israel and the PA in the following words: "They meet, they exchange kisses and nice words, while Israeli bulldozers are busy pulverising what is left of Jerusalem," said Abdul-Sattar Qassem, professor of political science at An-Najah National University in Nablus.
The Weekly asked Qassem why he thought the PA was not protesting against Israel's settlement expansion more strongly. His answer was that, "the PA has already received the price for its silence [an allusion to the $7 billion pledged during last month's Paris Donor Conference]. So there is a kind of a tacit agreement between the two sides (Israel and the PA) according to which Israel would have carte blanche in terms of killing Palestinians and expanding settlements and the PA would protest against Israeli acts and behaviour for public consumption."
Meanwhile President Bush arrived in Israel 9 January on the first leg of a nine-day tour of the Middle East that also takes him to several Arab states in the region.
According to the Israeli media, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is going to assure Bush that Israel will finally "move against" dozens of settlement outposts in the West Bank which Israeli peace organisations contend were built illegally, but with a green light from the government itself and the Israeli army.
Interestingly, Israel has been promising to take steps in this direction for more than six years, but to no avail. It is very likely though that Olmert is sincere about his intentions to remove these outposts.
Earlier, the Israeli government refused to publish a database containing full details about Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, apparently for fear of besmirching Israel's image abroad and exposing official government mendacity.
Responding to a High Court of Justice petition on the matter, the Israeli Defence Ministry argued that publication of data on settlements at this time would harm state security and Israel's foreign relations.