It is difficult to imagine that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with his much vaunted military and strategic acumen, did not understand the consequences of his policies over the past month.
Since the last suicide bombing on November 21, escalating Israeli military assaults have killed over sixty Palestinian civilians, culminating in the December 26 wave of killing and abductions, in which Israeli occupying forces killed at least nine Palestinians, injured more than 30 and abducted several others.
On that day alone, Israeli execution squads assassinated three prominent members from three different militant Palestinian groups: Hamza Abu el-Rab of Islamic Jihad, Ibrahim Hawash, of Hamas and Gamal Abu el-Nader of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades. All three groups vowed revenge.
As if on que, the horrific double suicide bombing near the old Tel Aviv bus station took place within two weeks of these assassinations and reports have now confirmed that the bombers were members of the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades. Twenty two Israeli’s and foreign workers were killed and a hundred more injured.
Any observer with elementary skills in discerning cause and effect could see this latest suicide bombing atrocity coming. In fact, the vast majority of the nearly 100 Palestinian suicide bombings since they began in 1994 have followed an almost predictable sequence: Israeli attacks that cause major Palestinian civilian casualties or Israeli assassinations of important militant leaders are the most common trigger leading to suicide bombing cycles.
This escalating cycle of violence can be traced to the first Hamas suicide bus bombing inside an Israeli city on April 4, 1994 following the February 1994 Hebron Massacre, when the American-Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 praying Palestinians in a mosque. Since then, the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have made it a routine policy of responding to civilian massacres and assassinations with suicide bombings.
And Israel’s assassination of the leading Fatah militant Raed Karmi on January 14 2002 led a militant group associated with Arafat’s Fatah party, calling itself the “Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade,” to deliver its first suicide bombing on January 27. This group has conducted nearly a dozen new attacks since that time.
Yet this striking pattern has become even more frequent and predictable since Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister in February 2001 and escalated military assaults on Palestinian civilian areas and adopted a systematic assassination campaign of Palestinian militant leaders. The startling fact is that four times as many suicide bombings–around 80–have occurred since Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister than in the seven previous years combined–around 20.
None of this has deterred Sharon from escalating assassinations of militants or violent military actions against civilians.
But what is even more incriminating is the extent to which Sharon has systematically ordered violent Israeli military incursions and assassinations during major cease-fires by militant Palestinian groups as well as diplomatic efforts to ease the hostilities, resulting in new suicide attacks.
Ariel Sharon ordered the assassination of the two leading Hamas leaders in Nablus on July 31 2001, which put an end to a nearly two-month cease-fire on Israeli civilians observed by Hamas. Haim Shalev, an editorialist in a leading Hebrew daily Ma’ariv, gravely warned on August 1 that because “Israel has violated the cease-fire” it should expect a new wave of suicide bombings, which indeed came on August 9 in a brutal attack on a Jerusalem Sbarro pizzeria.
More notorious was Sharon’s decision to assassinate leading Hamas militant Mahmud Abu Hanoud on November 23, 2001 just when the Hamas was upholding an agreement with Arafat not to attack targets inside of Israel and a few days before US envoy General Zinni was to arrive in Israel.
In a widely cited article from November 25 2001, the conservative military commentator for one of Israel’s leading newspapers Yediot Aharanot, Alex Fishman, noted that this assassination had the effect of “shattering in one blow the gentleman’s agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.” He continued that “Whoever decided upon the liquidation of Abu Hanoud knew in advance that [a terrorist attack inside of Israel] would be the price. The subject was extensively discussed both by Israel’s military echelon and its political one, before it was decided to carry out the liquidation.”
The brutal bombings that followed Abu-Hanoud’s assassination gave Sharon the ideal pretext for his subsequent declaration of war upon Arafat. Moreover, it effectively scuttled the Zinni mission and Sharon obtained an unprecedented open backing from President Bush for more aggressive policies during his scheduled visit to Washington the next week.
More recently, it was widely reported that the July 22, 2002 assassination of leading Hamas militant Salah Shehada in Gaza, which also killed 15 civilians, 11 of them children, came within hours of a unilateral cease-fire declaration by both the Palestinian nationalist militia Tanzim and Hamas. Sharon had been briefed by EU go-betweens, yet he went ahead anyway.
And now, the December 26 executions of members from all three militant Palestinian groups took place while representatives from Fatah, Hamas and other factions were meeting in Cairo to formulate a cease-fire to last through the Israeli election on January 28 later this month.
The only conclusion one can draw from these actions is that either Sharon thought it so important to kill these militant leaders despite the bloody consequences for Israeli civilians or that he took these actions precisely because he expected these consequences and cynically sought to reap the political gains. Either way, Sharon is complicit.
And any observer can easily discern the obvious political windfall for Ariel Sharon generated by this attack.
First, Sharon is now able to resist any pressure to agree to the latest draft of the Middle East peace “road map” drawn up by the so-called quartet, made up of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia. Sharon strongly opposed its recommendations that in the first stage, from January to June 2003, Israeli commitments would include a total freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and a pullback to positions held before the uprising began in September 2000.
Second, the talks in Cairo between members of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction and representatives from Hamas and Islamic Jihad about a temporary cease-fire are now irrelevant.
And finally, Ariel Sharon is now almost assured re-election as Palestinian attacks inevitably give a strong boost to the hard line parties in Israel that he leads.
Palestinian officials were quick to point out the obvious following December 26 assassinations.
“The escalation of violence by (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon is aimed at creating a volatile atmosphere which he believes will serve him in his election campaign,” Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told Reuters on December 27. “Sharon is inviting retaliation because he wants … to prevent any possibility of an agreement (between Palestinian factions) on a cease fire,” he continued.
By the same token, it appears that militant Palestinian groups are more than willing to seize upon Sharon’s provocations through their myopic preoccupation with revenge.
Palestinian militants have not only soured the Israeli public on peace, they have also severely damaged the Palestinian cause in the court of world opinion. In effect, they have aligned themselves with Israel’s expansionist right wing, led by Ariel Sharon, by escalating the conflict into open military conflagration, which could be disastrous for Palestinians.
A Palestinian opponent of suicide bombings, the Bir Zeit University professor Salah Abdel Jawad, has recently argued that “The failure of Palestinians, both in the leadership and among the population at large, to grasp the danger of suicide bomb attacks results from their failure to understand Ariel Sharon’s aims following the end of the Oslo process and the destruction of the Palestinian authority. He wants to destroy Palestinian civil society and thus move closer to a second expulsion of Palestinians.”
Nevertheless, based on the evidence from the past decade of suicide bomb attacks, and Sharon’s clear record of inciting these attacks, Israel’s actions are of incomparably greater significance for stopping suicide attacks than those of Yasser Arafat and what little remains of his authority and security services.
Israel could easily refrain from actions that kill Palestinian civilians and could suspend the assassination campaign of militants. It could also lift the deadly curfews that have created a major humanitarian crisis in many parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But if Israeli leaders were truly committed to Israel’s long-term security, they would have to offer a political vision attractive enough to enable Palestinians to mobilize around returning to peace negotiations with Israel, thereby marginalizing militant organizations and depriving them of the crucial support they depend upon to gain recruits and conduct their operations. This vision must include the prospect of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
However, none of this will happen for the simple reason that Ariel Sharon’s entire political career has been based on his long-standing opposition to a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and his relentless support for colonizing these lands with Israeli settlements. Suicide bombings have become a crucial pretext for enabling the brute force and violence needed to achieve this objective.
In a scathing August 2, 2002 editorial in Israel’s prestigious Ha’aretz newspaper, Doron Rosenblum declared that “In short, any four-year-old child who examined this pattern of events would conclude that this government, whether consciously or not, is simply not interested in the cessation of the terrorist attacks, for they constitute its raison d’etre”.
STEVE NIVA teaches International Politics and Middle East Studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He writes regularly for Middle East Report and his articles have appeared in Open Democracy, The Middle East Times, and The Jordan Times. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org