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When I visited Ramallah last, it wore a shining white frock. Even after days of sunshine, many areas where still covered with snow that hid the ravages of the occupation, destruction and neglect.
I was driving slowly and enjoying the landscape, when I tensed instinctively. Through the corner of my eye I saw a group of children. Something was hurled forcefully against my windshield and landed with a bang. In the split of a second I relaxed: it wasn’t a rock but a snowball. I waved and they waved cheerfully back, in spite of my yellow Israeli license plates.
But that was the only light moment during this visit. I had come to ask Palestinian civic leaders about the dangers threatening the Palestinian population in case of an American attack on Iraq.
They had no illusions. The present Israeli political-military leadership includes groups that have been planning for a long time to exploit a war situation in order to do things which cannot be done in ordinary times. The moral brakes that still exist in parts of the Israeli public, as well as the expected international reaction, prevent the implementation of these plans for the time being.
All this can change in a war situation. The attention of the world will be riveted to the battle in Iraq. In the Arab countries, chaos may prevail, diverting attention from the Palestinian territories. The Israeli public, fearful of Saddam’s capabilities, will be (even) less sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians.
What can happen?
The list is long, and every item is worse than the preceding one.
The first–and almost certain–act will be a prolonged closure and curfew in all the occupied territories. The Palestinians have a long and painful experience with these. It means that for days and weeks on end it will be impossible to get food and medicines into towns and villages, especially to remote and isolated ones. This time, electricity may be completely cut off, cutting all connections with the outside world. Patients will not reach hospitals for ordinary treatment (dialysis and chemotherapy, for example) or emergency procedures (wounds, operations, births etc.). In many cases, this can literally be a matter of life and death.
Only some of these eventualities can be forestalled. For example, Villages can be helped to stock essential supplies in advance. It is clear to the Palestinians that the war will give the occupation forces the opportunity to intensify even more the things which happen now every day: the execution of militants and others, wholesale demolition of homes, uprooting of plantations. It is difficult to know what new dimensions these can attain.
But there is one word that hovers over all the discussions: “transfer”.
In simple terms, “transfer” means the mass expulsion of the Palestinian people from Palestine, as happened in 1948 and 1967. In the situation of 2003, that will be difficult. The question will be: where to? Jordan will close its border and the mass expulsion of Palestinians there would constitute an act of war against the Hashemite kingdom. It is hard to imagine the Americans allowing Sharon to do this while Jordan is serving as one of their bases in the war against neighboring Iraq. Expulsion to Lebanon is almost impossible without creating a war-like situation on the northern border.
But there is another form of transfer: deportation from one part of the occupied territories to another. For example: deportation of the population from towns and villages adjacent to the planned “separation wall” (Kalkilya, Tulkarm) to the central areas (Nablus).
That has already happened before. During the June 1967 war, Moshe Dayan emptied whole neighborhoods of Kalkilya and drove their inhabitants on foot to Nablus. The demolition of the neighborhoods had already begun, when we succeeded in stopping it. (I exploited the fact that I was a member of the Knesset at the time and alerted several senior personalities.) The refugees were allowed back and the neighborhoods rebuilt. (At the same time, many inhabitants of Tulkarm were put on buses and brought to the Jordan bridges.)
Another example: many settlements on the West Bank are planning to grab adjacent areas. If the armed settlers’ militias will terrorize near-by villages under the cover of the closure, they may cause a Deir Yassin-style mass flight.
It is common knowledge that many people in the military leadership are waiting impatiently for the opportunity to remove Yasser Arafar. Removing means killing, as nobody believes that Arafat will surrender without resistance. If the Americans want “regime change” in Iraq and are not hiding their intention of killing Saddam, why should Sharon be prevented from doing the same?
The question is: will the Americans allow Sharon and his accomplices to do all this, or part of it?
There can be no clear answer to that. Logic says no. The Americans will not want Israel to disturb their war. Even after the war, Washington will not want the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to flare up. The American military occupation of Iraq might last for many years, and any inflammation of the Arab world will be detrimental.
But America and logic are two different things. The group that is now in control in Washington–a mixed bag of Evangelical fundamentalists and Jews connected with the extreme right in Israel–has a logic of its own. They may direct and even push Sharon to extremes.
It is, of course, clear that all the acts mentioned constitute war crimes under the Geneva Convention and other international laws. Some of them are crimes under Israeli law, too, being “manifestly illegal orders, over which a black flag is waving”, to quote an Israeli legal precedent. Participants in such actions may find themselves, some day in the future, before an international or national court. There is no statute of limitations.
But that is not the only reason for sounding a warning. Every one of these actions will be a disaster for Israel. If one believes that the long-term security and well-being of Israel depend on Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation between the two peoples of this country, one has to do everything to prevent acts that will deepen the abyss of hatred between us. Things may happen that will destroy for generations any possibility of building a bridge over the abyss, and turn the whole Arab and Muslim worlds against us forever.
Therefore, we should not rely on the Americans to stop Sharon. We, the Israelis, must do everything–but everything!–to prevent such acts from taking place. I believe that this is a patriotic duty of the highest order.
URI AVNERY has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation. Avnery is featured in the new book, The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent.