"What they are doing is transforming every Palestinian into a potential fighter," said Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi of the impact of the Israeli onslaught, registering the depth of the fight for self-determination on the part of her people.
In the first 12 days of March, 159 Palestinians and 52 Israelis have been killed, making this the bloodiest period yet in 17 months of heightened conflict. Fifteen years ago one Israeli died for every 25 Palestinians killed by Tel Aviv's forces. The rising Israeli death toll includes 31 soldiers killed since last month.
Borrowing words from the U.S. government's justification for Washington's military aggression abroad, Israeli army officials said the virtual occupation of the two Palestinian areas was aimed at dismantling an "infrastructure of terror" in the areas. Dismissing criticism of the assault by United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, a senior Israeli official retorted that Annan had supported the U.S. government's attack on Afghanistan. "We use milder measures than the United States used in Afghanistan," the official told a reporter for the New York Times, "facing a similar threat, if not a bigger one."
The Israeli army did stop writing identification numbers on the forearms and foreheads of Palestinians it rounded up after sharp criticism from some members of Parliament. "It is totally unbearable for me," said one survivor of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany during World War II. "This is something that was done to us in Auschwitz."
The nightly invasions of tanks and infantry have involved house-to-house sweeps and the detention of thousands of young Palestinian men.
On March 12, the Israeli government sent tanks and troops backed by Apache attack helicopters into the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza strip. Up to 150 tanks rolled in to occupy the West Bank town of Ramallah and the adjacent Amari refugee camp, and other targets. Some 28 Palestinians were killed in the first hours of the raids.
Israeli tanks cut off the road to the Amari camp and demanded all men between the ages of 16 and 45 come to the courtyard of a school. The order from the army was blared through loudspeakers on the tanks.
Four days earlier, Israeli tanks, armored vehicles, and infantry, backed by warplanes, Apache helicopters, and naval gunboats, killed 44 Palestinians in a series of raids. At funerals in the Gaza Strip and in solidarity demonstrations in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, thousands of Palestinians rallied to express defiance at the Israeli assaults.
In spite of the ferocity of the attacks, however, Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, including public protests, suicide bombings, and surprise guerrilla attacks, has continued unabated.
'We must cause them losses'
The Israeli escalation came after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised "an aggressive and continuous campaign without letup" in a speech March 6 to troops and officials at a military checkpoint south of Jerusalem.
"We are in a hard war against a cruel and bloodthirsty enemy," he said two days earlier. "We must cause them losses, casualties...so that they understand they will gain nothing by terrorism. We must hit them, and hit them again and again, until they understand." Sharon's cabinet announced that it had ordered an "incessant and relentless intensification of the military pressure."
The prime minister reiterated that approach over the following days, even as he scored headlines for his "concessions." Among the latter was a declaration that he would drop his previous insistence that no talks would occur without a seven-day halt to the Palestinian resistance. "There was nothing new here," said Saab Erekaat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, of Sharon's so-called compromises. "He's trying to confuse people."
"We will continue our heightened activities against the terror infrastructure," Sharon said on March 10, as the Israeli armed forces pursued --in the words of a New York Times reporter--their "major military campaign to scour Palestinian refugee camps."
The failure of the widening Israeli offensive to curtail the Palestinian resistance, however, was brought home the day after the March 8 Israeli assaults, when a suicide bomber struck in a popular Jerusalem cafe, killing 11 people. Over the weekend, armed Palestinians attacked crowds at Netanya, in northern Israel, and the industrial port city of Ashdod, less than 20 miles from Tel Aviv.
Unabated Palestinian resistance
In January and February, two Palestinian women joined those who have carried out suicide attacks on Israeli targets. Wafa Idris, 28, became the first female suicide bomber in the present conflict in late January, when she blew herself up in Jaffa Road, Jerusalem, killing one person and wounding others.
Darin Abu Eisheh, 22, who wounded several Israeli policemen on February 27 at a checkpoint near the Israeli-West Bank border, said in a farewell videotape that she was "following in the footsteps of Wafa Idris."
"She was sure that we would be killed for nothing, maybe at a roadblock or when our houses are bombed, and she used to say that it is better to die for a reason," said Abu Eisheh's brother, 31-year-old Tawfik Abu Eisheh. "Her opinion was that women should participate with men in the uprising, and that there is no reason from a religious point of view that women should not participate."
Registering the tenacity of the Palestinian struggle, a March 6 Times editorial, arguing for "active American diplomatic intervention," stated that "force alone...has not battered the Palestinians into submission.... To the contrary, Yasir Arafat's secular militias have openly engaged in combat against Israel. Suicide missions have become far more frequent and attacks on Israeli soldiers more effective."
The Wall Street Journal, a backer of Sharon's military policy, reported on March 7 that "the most recent round of suicide bombings and brutal Israeli reprisals has made one thing clear to many Israelis: Palestinian militants aren't giving up, regardless of the military might Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brings to bear on Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and the roughly three million Palestinian residents of the quasi-independent West Bank and Gaza.... The Palestinians are forcing themselves back to the center of the international stage after being shoved into the wings by President Bush's war on terrorism."
In another indication of the depth and spread of the resistance, and the solidarity it arouses among Palestinians inside Israel, the Israeli Ministry of Justice claimed on March 11 that over the past months hundreds of "Israeli Arabs" have joined the Palestinian security services--established under the Palestinian-Israeli Oslo negotations process--and other armed groups operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The ministry is proposing to make such a step punishable by up to five years in jail.
The failure of Sharon's widening military action to stem the resistance is forcing to the surface long-standing fault lines in his cabinet. Although Labor MPs like Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, have advised Sharon "not to escalate the situation," they have presented no alternative course.
The divisions reflect the repudiation of Sharon's military actions among layers of the Israeli population. One political scientist observed in a March 7 Jerusalem Post column that "as more peace rallies are planned and more people attend them, as more violence takes place and casualties, particularly civilians, mount on both sides, and as the polls begin to shift, Labor is finally starting to wake up."
That growing war-weariness is juxtaposed to intensified polarization, expressed in a Tel Aviv demonstration of tens of thousands of people calling for stiffer action against the Palestinian struggle. "Defeat Arafat, destroy terror" read one banner.
At a March 9–10 Cairo meeting, foreign ministers from Arab League nations declared their support for a proposal floated by the government of Saudi Arabia, offering recognition to Israel in return for its withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and all other territories seized since the 1967 war. Expressing the views of the governments and ruling classes of nations throughout the Middle East, who fear both Israeli military power and the impact of the Palestinian struggle, the Jordanian foreign minister described the proposal as "a serious initiative. It is a near consensus by the Arab world that the time has come to end the conflict."
U.S. sends envoy
On March 7 the White House announced that special envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni would travel to the Middle East at the same time Vice President Richard Cheney is in the region to drum up support for further assaults on Iraq by Washington.
The big-business press openly describes Zinni's mission as one of tamping down the violence so the Israeli aggression against the Palestinians doesn't cut across support Washington is trying to garner in the region for its own military attacks on Iraq.
"If they're going to keep the focus on Iraq, [U.S. officials] are going to have to do something about trying to calm" down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Reflecting the U.S. rulers' concern at the irrepressible Palestinian struggle and the escalating conflict, Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of state, said on March 6 that "Prime Minister Sharon has to take a hard look at his policies to see whether they will work. If you declare war against the Palestinians thinking that you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed, I don't know that that leads us anywhere." The Secretary of State's comments apparently had little impact on Tel Aviv.
Washington has devoted special efforts to trying to ensure the Israeli rulers' cooperation with any offensive against Iraq. Writing in the March 11 New Yorker magazine, Seymour Hersh reported that U.S. officials briefed Sharon about their plans during his February visit to the White House, and tried to persuade him to delay a response to any attacks on Israel by the Iraqi military.
During the 1990–91 Gulf War the U.S. armed forces withheld "friend or foe" codes from the Israeli air force, rendering impossible any action by its planes against Baghdad, which was peppering Israel with inaccurate Scud missiles.
"But the Israeli leaders refused to give the White House an assurance that it would not retaliate," wrote Hersh. A senior Israeli official told the reporter that "the United States should assume, in its considerations, that if Israel is to be hit, Israel will hit back. We took a hit in 1991 and did not hit back because we could have ruined the United States-Arab coalition. Our lack of retaliation was seen in the West as very smart, but in the Arab world it had a serious negative effect on Israel's deterrence posture," the official said. The "deterrence posture" referred to is long-standing Israeli policy that any attack on Israel will be met with an immediate and massive counterstrike. The policy is the only way the garrison state has survived in the region as a outpost for imperialism.
The official continued, Hersh writes: "If someone thinks it can hit Israel and not be hit ten times as strongly back, it is a serious issue. It won't happen again."