Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Shifting borders

By Graham Usher

After three months as the head of a minority government -- and a month attempting to suppress the beginnings of an anti-colonial revolt in the occupied territories -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak opened on Monday the winter session of a parliament poised to remove him. The violence raging outside the chambers of the Knesset was echoed by the verbal violence within -- and here too it was between Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab.

Palestinian Members of Knesset (MKs) repeatedly interrupted Barak's speech, outraged by the killings of their compatriots by Israeli security forces both beyond and within Israel's borders. Barak ploughed through the vitriol like a sheep through bramble, mouthing the same platitudes that have become his forte during the uprising.

Thus "it was Yasser Arafat, not us, who had chosen the path of violence, encouraging Palestinian children in acts of violence" and so forcing the most powerful army in the region to kill them. Barak praised the "determination" of the settlers in the occupied territories, including, presumably, those who now routinely engage in vigilante attacks against Palestinian homes, lands and people.

He said "most of the nations of the world" were with Israel, ignoring the fact that three of them -- Oman, Tunisia and Morocco -- had terminated their diplomatic ties with Israel in the last three weeks. As for the violence in Israel, this was the work of "small minorities", neglecting the small matter that 11 of the 13 Palestinians killed in Israel had been shot by the Israeli police.

LIBERATION IN MOTION: Young Palestinians armed with only a flag and a slingshot face fire from Israeli occupation troops near the Karni crossing, east of the Gaza Strip, on 30 October. Israeli soldiers shot and wounded at least 14 Palestinians in that single attack. (photo: Reuters)
It was all fantasy stuff. Nor, conspicuously, did the speech contain any invitation to Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon to join a government of "national emergency", despite Barak's assiduous efforts to achieve just this the day before. While the Israeli leader was waging war and peace in the Knesset, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin was initialing a deal whereby the 17 Knesset member orthodox Shas movement would support Barak from outside the coalition for the "duration of the national emergency".

The price was Barak's pledge to scrap his much vaunted "secular" reforms for Israeli society and government monies to Shas's educational network. The prize is that Barak can now meet with President Clinton "to revive the peace process", sometime after the US elections, unencumbered by the conditions that would flow from any coalition agreement with Likud. Sharon, in other words, had been victim of an elaborate sting mounted by Beilin, Shas and Barak, and he was absolutely furious about it.

And alarmed, since Sharon needs an emergency government no less than Barak if he is to ward off the challenge for Likud's leadership from former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. On news of the pact with Shas, Sharon revised his terms for joining an emergency cabinet. He would no longer insist on a veto power over the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. He simply wanted "an Israeli response" should Arafat declare a Palestinian state at the upcoming PLO Central Council on 15 November.

"We must decide before any meeting in Washington what areas [in the West Bank and Gaza] we will hold onto either as part of a long-term interim agreement or as the permanent borders of Israel," he told Israeli Radio on Monday. The main purpose of Barak's meeting with Clinton will be to determine the terms of that agreement and those borders, which is why neither man wants Sharon anywhere near when they discuss them.

The same motivation explains two other decisions Barak took this week. One was to allow Regional Development Minister Shimon Peres to meet with Arafat in Bethlehem yesterday, the first official Israeli contact with the Palestinian leader since the Sharm Al-Sheikh summit on 16 October. The other was to authorise on Monday night rocket attacks on Fatah offices and PA security installations in Gaza, Ramallah and Nablus.

Ostensibly the strikes were in "retaliation" for the killing of two Israelis in or near occupied East Jerusalem on Monday. Actually they were the first shots in a new military policy aimed at decapitating the "head" of the Palestinian uprising rather than simply trying to crush by sheer might the "tail" embodied by the mass demonstrations and civilian protests that remain its main motor. And for Israel the "head" comprises fighters belonging to Arafat's Fatah movement and one or other of the PA security forces.

It proved spectacularly unproductive. The next day Fatah activists and PA security personnel fired on the Karni crossing point in Gaza and raked the main Hebron "by-pass" road out of Jerusalem. The aim of such assaults is to "move" the front-line from the Palestinian civilian areas to settler roads on the Green Line, says a Palestinian security source. And it is having some effect. Many settlers no longer dare use the Hebron road and, in Gaza, they can only move under fire and with an immense military escort.

Politically the strikes merely strengthened calls by the Palestinian leadership for international protection for their people within the occupied territories and its insistence that any future negotiations must be multinational rather than bilateral in format, a demand that is starting to have resonance among certain European Union countries, Russia and the Arab states.

One week before the US elections, the battle lines are thus being drawn. Barak will use his "window of a month" to mount an increasingly fierce diplomatic and military offensive to convince Europe, the US and Arafat that the only available deal is based on Israeli "ideas" raised at the Camp David summit last July. The immediate aim of the Palestinian uprising -- and of its authentic leaders -- is to prove to their people and demonstrate to the world that there is no longer a Camp David to go back to.

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