Israel kills five, kills peace
Extrajudicial assassinations by Israel set the Palestinian-Israeli arena again aflame, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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Palestinian mourners carry the body of one of the three Islamic Jihad activists killed in Israeli airstrikes even as German Chancellor Angela Merkel lays a wreath in Jerusalem in memory of the six million Jews killed in the Nazi genocide during World War II
Mohamed Shehada, head of Islamic Jihad's military wing in the West Bank and one of the most prominent men wanted by Israel, returned last Wednesday to the rubble of his family's home in Bethlehem. Bulldozers had destroyed it three days earlier. He went, in the company of four other resistance fighters wanted by Israel, only after feeling reassured by an unannounced truce reached between Israel and Palestinian resistance factions via Egyptian mediation. As the five were preparing to leave the site, they were hit by a hail of bullets shot by 12 members of a special undercover unit that is one of the elite death squads of the Israeli army in the West Bank. All five were killed.
The scene as viewed on television shook the Palestinian public and put an end to seven days of calm in the Palestinian-Israeli arena. During that period, resistance movements had halted operations, particularly in the Gaza Strip where they committed to not firing rockets on Israeli settlements near the Strip. Yet Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak spoke proudly of the assassinations, saying, "Israel is committed to pursuing Palestinian resistance fighters who have been involved in operations that have struck Jews." Official Israeli spokespersons stressed that the truce could not imply halting assassinations of members of the resistance in the West Bank.
There is no dispute among Palestinian and Israeli commentators over one fact: that through the assassinations in Bethlehem, Israel wanted to impose new rules in the game with Palestinian resistance factions. Avi Sekerov and Amos Harel, commentators in Haaretz newspaper, stressed that the person who ordered the operation realised that it would lead to an explosion of the security situation in the Gaza Strip and would take matters back to square one.
Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai announced: "We will not allow the Palestinians to determine for us the timing, location, or conditions of security operations we see as serving Israeli interests." Vilnai added that the most that Israel could commit to was halting its operations in Gaza in return for an absolute end to the firing of rockets.
Observers in Israel also point to the role of political and personal considerations in motivating Israeli leaders to escalate the situation. Akifa Elder, an Israeli political commentator, holds that Barak, who heads the Labour Party, intends to compete in the upcoming legislative elections for the post of prime minister against right-wing opposition leader Benyamin Netanyahu. "Barak wants to exploit his position as the minister of defence to display himself to Israeli public opinion as a decisive political and security leader by issuing instructions to execute more military operations that catch attention," he said.
Barak's role in destroying efforts at a truce has been discussion material for the Israeli media. Israeli writer and intellectual Gideon Levy says that Barak works with all his might to destroy efforts at a truce. "Barak hasn't talked about peace for a long time, and he surely doesn't believe in the peaceful efforts made by Olmert. In fact, he does all he can to destroy what little remains of them," he wrote in Haaretz. He added: "Whenever a ray of hope is seen for reaching a truce agreement, Barak has rushed to issue orders for stupid and dangerous assassinations, as happened in calm Bethlehem, just to set the situation aflame again. When the Palestinians stop firing missiles, Barak does all he can to resume the firing so that he has an excuse to wage a major invasion in the Gaza Strip."
Levy noted that the security establishment led by Barak was insulting the authority of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, "as though there were no negotiations or Israeli commitments... on peace".
In the Palestinian arena, the assassinations were embarrassing for the leaders of Palestinian factions that had promised Egypt to halt attacks on settlements in southern Israel so as to allow Cairo to reach a comprehensive deal. Islamic Jihad, the most compromised before their popular base, had little alternative but to respond by firing tens of rockets on settlements near the Gaza Strip. Observers in the Palestinian arena hold that Israel's violation of the truce is a slap in the face for Egyptian efforts to reach a mutual truce. Nafidh Azzam, a prominent leader in Islamic Jihad, considers the assassinations in Bethlehem an Israeli response to Egyptian efforts. "Until Israel is convinced about reaching a mutual, concurrent and comprehensive peace, and lifts the siege on the Palestinian people, we are free in responding to any aggressive act from Israel with all our might," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Ayman Youssef, professor of international relations at the American University in Jenin, says that decision- makers in Israel hold that it is not in their interest to reach a truce at this time. "Israel is distributing the cards of the game over a large area, and then will collect them in a manner that serves its interests and benefits from the internal struggle between Fatah and Hamas and the separation of the West Bank from the Gaza Strip," he told the Weekly.
Youssef holds that Israel is worried about Egyptian efforts to secure a comprehensive deal because such a deal would threaten Israel's most important accomplishments -- internal Palestinian conflict and the separation of the West Bank from the Gaza Strip. Youssef suggests that the Israelis realise that any comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinian factions will not succeed unless a settlement is reached on the conflict between Fatah and Hamas.
Reopening the Rafah Crossing, for example, will not be possible if there is no domestic Palestinian accord that allows administration of the crossing. Youssef also rejects the view that the United States has changed its position on a truce between Israel and Hamas. He believes, alternatively, that the position of the US on a truce between Hamas and Israel is tied to Washington's intentions towards Iran. "If expectations that President Bush will attack Iran during the final three months of his term spell true, the American administration will at that time be interested in a truce on all fronts in the region, including Palestine; but it will be a temporary truce aiming only to enhance Washington's ability to execute its plans," he said.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians participated in the funeral of Mohamed Shehada and his companions, and called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to halt negotiations with Israel and return to dialogue with Hamas. Fatah's military wing, Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, also called on Abbas to dismiss his prime minister, Salam Fayyad. In a statement passed to the Weekly, Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades stated that continued Israeli aggression leaves one option open: "working faithfully to regain the unity of the Palestinian people since that is the most important source of strength it has."
Saeb Erekat, director of the Negotiations Department in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, holds that Israel is persistently working to weaken Abbas and shame him before the Palestinian people. "Through escalating the aggression, Israel aims to extricate itself from its commitments in the roadmap, make negotiations fail before they begin, and cut off the path for Egyptian efforts to reach a comprehensive truce," he told the Weekly.
Erekat does not hide his bitterness towards the American position, saying, "at the time when American security coordinator Keith Dayton announced that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was upholding its security commitments as best as possible, and frankly accused Israel of impeding the PA's security efforts, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted on holding the PA and Israel equally responsible for the exploding security situation causing negotiations to stumble. This is injustice and bias."
Despite recent tension, Palestinian factions remain committed to reaching a truce based on clear principles -- that Israel commit to halting its operations in the West Bank and lift the siege on Gaza. All indications are that Israel has no intention of doing so, raising serious doubts about Egypt's ability to mediate an accord.