Israel, Palestinians - at the abyss

March 17, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Probably the smartest thing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his militants have done in the past 17 months of the uprising against Israel was not to put up the strongest resistance possible to Israel's invasion of Ramallah and other Palestinian centers last week.

If they had done so, it would have looked more like a war than what it actually was: one of the most powerful armed forces in the world invading a comparatively unarmed population, rounding up men between the ages of 15 and 45 into public squares and, in a momentary excess reminiscent of what the Nazis did to the Jews, marking numbers on the Palestinians.

The Palestinians are totally outgunned by Israeli tanks, U.S.-made fighter-bombers and attack helicopters. But if they had tried to throw everything they had into a fight against the Israelis, the battle could have meant the end of them. Arafat may have noticed some signs of how bad it could be.

"If there were real battles, then an image of `war' could be nurtured, making it appear that the State of Israel is at war," Meron Benvenisti wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz last week. "But when the Palestinians refuse to play the role they were assigned, and instead lay down their arms and go quietly to arrest, the folly of convoys of tanks and 20,000 soldiers in the operation is exposed."

Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has conducted in depth and provocative research into the impact on Israel of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967.

His essential conclusion is that the occupation has not been good for Israel. Israeli soldiers writing numbers on arrested Palestinians would certainly support that view - no matter how quickly Israeli army commanders ordered a stop to it.

Consider this: A poll conducted last month by Israel's prestigious Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies found that 46 percent of Israelis support the "transfer" of Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza. "Transfer" is an unfortunate word, because it was used to describe the movement of Jews from Germany and the rest of German-occupied Europe during the Holocaust.

The same poll, whose results were reported by Ha'aretz, found that 31 percent of Israelis supported "transferring" Arab citizens of Israel out of the country.

That 46 percent figure is within a percentage point of the number of Ariel Sharon's favorable supporters in another poll.

According to a poll conducted by Israel's Dahaf Institute, Sharon's popularity this month dropped to 45 percent. It seems reasonable to assume that they are all pretty much the same people - the transfer supporters and the Sharon supporters.

It's also reasonable to assume that they are the same Israelis who passionately support the existence of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (Biblical Judea and Samaria), the very settlements which Sharon, in one political incarnation or another during his roller-coaster career in politics, has advanced.

Avraham Burg, the dovish speaker of Israel's parliament, raised the fear in an article in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv that any Israeli who wants to keep the settlements is bound to push for the "transfer" of Palestinians.

"He must wipe out the Palestinian Authority so that it doesn't become a Palestinian state; he must exile and humiliate Arafat so that he doesn't become a partner," Burg wrote. "Whoever wants the settlements and still wants democracy here in Israel with a clear Jewish majority, must take a step further, to the one, sole and total solution, to expel them from here. First by force and when they get the hint it will happen voluntarily."

It is not surprising that many Israelis support the idea of getting rid of the Palestinians altogether after Palestinian suicide attacks have killed Israeli civilians in restaurants, hotel lobbies, discos, malls and main streets.

A poll of Americans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks might have found a substantial number supporting the expulsion of all Muslims and Arabs from this country.

A sustained terror campaign, hitting American civilians where they eat, shop and play would increase the number of supporters of expulsion, and worse - as random acts of violence against people believed to be Arabs or Muslims demonstrated after Sept. 11.

Until last week, complaints against Israel's harsh retaliation against Palestinians have been fairly tepid.

Now, President Bush has complained that the Israeli moves into Ramallah and the other Palestinians centers and refugee camps were "not helpful."

That's fairly mild-sounding, but in the language of diplomacy, it was a strong rebuke to Israel. Then the United States pushed a U.N. Security Council resolution supporting a Palestinian state and called on both sides to stop the violence. Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, called on Israel to end the "illegal occupation" of Palestinian territory.

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