On May 24, 2006, Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, appeared before the U.S. Congress to decry the lack of any “genuine Palestinian partner for peace,” with whom Israel could talk. Although declaring “our deepest desire to build a better future for our region, hand in hand with a Palestinian partner,” Olmert warned that Israel cannot “wait forever,” If such a partner fails to appear, Israel will move forward to set the borders of Israel vis á vis the Palestinians unilaterally. Olmert received the warmest ovations from the Congress and was promised support from the White House for the plan to unilaterally set Israel’s borders, should no Palestinian leaders who satisfy Israel’s conditions as “partners for peace” appear.
Olmert’s stance should be put in the context of Israel’s long standing policy of targeted assassination of Palestinian leaders. For more than thirty years it has been Israel’s policy to assassinate or otherwise eliminate popular Palestinian leaders who were independent and had wide trust of the people, while seeking to construct a subservient leadership with whom it could negotiate “peace” on Israel’s terms. In the 1970s, after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war, Israel tried to create the “village leagues,” a puppet leadership which Israel could pass off as Palestinian self-government. These pseudo-leaders were resoundingly rejected by the Palestinian people. In 1976 Palestinian municipalities were allowed to elect their own mayors. When pro-PLO candidates swept the elections, Israel sought to assassinate several of them. The mayor of Ramallah lost one leg and the mayor of Nablus both legs in car bombs. In 1982 Israel removed all the elected mayors and replaced them with Israeli military governors.
From the founding of the PLO in 1964 until 1992 Israel refused to talk to the PLO, claiming they were determined to “destroy the state of Israel,” even though the PLO had accepted a two state solution by mid-1970s. Prominent leaders of Palestinian organizations were killed in rocket attacks and car bombs. In 1973 a group of Israeli commandos, led by Ehud Barak, (later Prime Minister of Israel) arrived by speedboat in Beirut. Disguised in women’s clothes Barak and his men gunned down three top PLO officials in their downtown apartments. Arafat himself escaped assassination only by living constantly on the run, seldom sleeping in the same place on successive nights.
In 1993 Israel announced that it had been meeting secretly with the PLO in Norway and had reached an interim agreement for Palestinian self-government. After signing a Declaration of Principles for this plan in September, the PLO leaders were allowed to return from Tunis to head the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza as part of a “peace process” that would lead to the negotiated settlement of the conflict under the Oslo accords. But it soon became apparent that what Arafat and the PLO thought they were doing and what Israel thought they were doing were two very different things. Arafat thought he was an autonomous leader of the Palestinian people parallel to Israel’s leaders who could negotiate the details of a two-state solution leading to an independent Palestinian state.
What Israel wanted was to convert the PA into a subservient tool of a permanent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. These territories would be divided into small enclaves of Palestinian population largely cut off from agricultural resources, separated from each other and surrounded by the Israeli military, while the areas of Israeli settlement would be annexed into Israel. The PA leaders could administrate its enclaves under Israel’s permanent control. Israel and the U.S. played a continual cat and mouse game with Arafat, occasionally agreeing to negotiate with him and then rejecting him as someone with whom they could “talk,” when he failed to accede fully to this plan of permanent colonization.
In September of 2000 a second Intifada (Uprising) broke out after a provocative visit of Ariel Sharon with armed soldiers to the El-Haram el-Sharif in Jerusalem, in effect laying claim to this central Muslim shrine as belonging to Israel. The Intifada expressed the growing Palestinian frustration with a supposed “peace process” that was revealed as a continual betrayal of their basic demands for dignity and independence. Israel responded with extreme violence, returning to a policy of targeted killing of Palestinian militants and political leaders that had been suspended during the period of supposed peace negotiations. Israel shelled Palestinian police stations and government buildings, bulldozed Palestinian houses and crops to create barren swaths of land, tightening its control over Palestinian population enclaves and reoccupying areas that had been supposedly turned over to Palestinian control.
In 2002 Israel began the construction of a wall that would permanently separate the Palestinian population enclaves from Israel, including a significant number of Israeli settlements built in the West Bank land around east Jerusalem. Far from being built on the Green Line (the truce line of the 1948 war) the wall cut deeply into Palestinian land, to include these settlements and major aquifers in the West Bank. Although Israel denied it, the line of the wall likely represents its plan for final borders which it is ready to unilaterally impose, if no Palestinian “partner” can be “found” to agree to it.
During the Second Intifada Israel renewed a policy of indiscriminate shooting into Palestinian protest crowds, killing and wounding large numbers. From the beginning of the second Intifada (9/29/2000) until May 15, 2006 some 3394 Palestinians have been killed in the Occupied Territories by Israeli occupation forces. Among these 233 were targeted killings in which Israel either invaded a Palestinian area or targeted a house or car from the air to assassinate someone seen as a “militant.” These targeted assassinations generally result in deaths of by-standers. 353 bystanders have been killed in the course of targeted killings. The targeted persons include such religious and political leaders as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), and Abdul ‘Aziz al-Rantisi, a senior political leader of Hamas. Tanya Reinhart, in her article, “Sharon’s Legacy in Action,” shows that during Sharon’s four years in office he pursued an all-out war against Hamas, killing all its first rank military and political leaders.
In January, 2006 the Palestinians startled Israel and the world by overwhelmingly electing Hamas representatives to the Palestinian Legislative Council (76 seats to Fatah’s 43). Israel returned to its rhetoric of the 80s, declaring that it would never talk to a Palestinian government run by Hamas unless it renounced armed resistance and accepted Israel’s “right to exist.” But the Palestinians did not elect Hamas because it rejected a two state solution (which Hamas does reject outright), but because, among other things, they were tired of the corruption of Fatah’s leaders, who had made so many compromises with Israel that any genuine two-state solution had eroded to the vanishing point. Hamas leaders were seen as less corrupt, concerned with the daily welfare of increasingly impoverished Palestinians and possessing more spine to defend a real solution that would bring genuinely independent Palestinian state.
Israel and the U.S. seek to isolate Hamas worldwide, denying the Palestinian Authority any international aid and access to funds, thus undermining the fragile remnants of social, health and educational services in the territories. It has stepped up a virtual siege on all the Palestinian territories, turning both Gaza and the other Palestinian regions into open air prisons, which can be invaded at will. In the week of May 18-24 (while I have been visiting the region of Ramallah) there have been 50 incursions of Israeli Occupation Forces into the West Bank and two into the Gaza Strip. 78 Palestinian civilians have been arrested and nine have been killed.
For example, on May 20 the occupation forces assassinated a member of the al-Quds brigade in Gaza City, by launching a missile from a helicopter at the car in which he was traveling. Three other people were killed and four wounded, all from the same family, in a passing car. On May 24 at 2:30 in the afternoon undercover agents dressed as Palestinians came into the center of Ramallah and entered an internet café to arrest a leader of the Al-Aqsa brigade and four others. Young people in the street, discovering what was happening, began to throw stones at the soldiers and to burn the car in which they had come. Fifteen military jeeps quickly drove into the center of town and opened indiscriminate fire on the crowd, wounding 35 (eight under 18) and killing four. Meanwhile check points have been continually tightened around Gaza and between enclaves in the West Bank, making travel and cultural or commercial exchange difficult to impossible.
It is this system of separated Palestinian enclaves, turned into prisons surrounded by Israeli military who invade or bomb at will – enclaves cut off from each other, whose means of daily life have become increasingly restricted and impoverished – which Israel plans to institutionalize permanently. It will do so unilaterally if necessary, if no compliant Palestinians can be founded to give it a fig leaf of legitimacy. Is the rest of the world prepared to stand by and let this happen? Where is that respect for “democracy” which the U.S. claims to champion for the Middle East and the whole world? Where are the national leaders from around the world who reject this brutal and ultimately untenable scheme? Where are those who will demand that the leaders whom the Palestinians have elected be recognized as the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people with whom Israel and the rest of the world must deal?
Dr. ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER teaches at the Claremont Graduate University in California and is the co-author of The Wrath of Jonah: the Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.