In the two weeks following Sharon's victory over Barak in prime ministerial elections, Tel Aviv's military siege of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been met by a flareup of Palestinian protests. The unrest within the occupied territories and Israel has an impact throughout the Middle East. The instability in the region was augmented by the bombing raids on Iraqi targets carried out February 16 by Washington and London.
Sharon and Barak commenced negotiations several days after the February 6 election, in which the Likud leader won with close to 60 percent of the vote and a 25-point margin over Barak.
Barak owed his defeat in large part to his failure to deliver on the promise of a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinian leadership--a promise that had helped take him to a landslide victory over Likud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu less than two years earlier. Since late September, his government has cracked down on unrest in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip while continuing talks with Palestinian officials.
Failure of negotiations
In the most recent negotiations sponsored by Washington, Barak and then-U.S. president William Clinton tried to pressure Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat into signing a long-term deal. This would have increased the territory administered by the Palestinian National Authority, while not challenging Tel Aviv's military domination of the area or its sovereignty over Jerusalem.
In the wake of the failure of these talks, and against a backdrop of continuing unrest, Barak's electoral base fell apart. While he received a narrow majority of the votes cast in Tel Aviv, the capital, he was trounced in Jerusalem and in the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Sharon is regarded as a hero among right-wing Israelis, who are disproportionately strong in the settlements, both for his military past and his record in government. Sharon earned the nickname "Bulldozer" when, as a cabinet minister in the 1977 government of Menachem Begin, he supervised the rapid and far-flung construction of new settlements.
The election turnout was the lowest in the history of Israel, underscoring the polarization that marks politics today. Less than 60 percent of the electorate voted, compared with the usual turnout of around 80 percent. Among Palestinians living inside Israel, who traditionally form a large part of Labor's electoral base, the decline was even more dramatic, with a turnout of no more than 25 percent, compared with 75 percent in 1998.
Sharon's insistence that new talks with Palestinian leaders focus on "interim arrangements" rather than a longer-term settlement met with Barak's agreement but proved controversial among other Labor leaders. "If we give up on a final status arrangement...we will also be lending a hand to a situation of diplomatic and violent deterioration in our region," said the departing justice minister, Yossi Beilin.
Entering the negotiations, Sharon had noted the schisms that weakened both parties. "It's not only that the parties are splintered between each other," he said, "but now they are splintered from inside."
The real source of the violence was illustrated on February 13 in the northern Gaza Strip, when two helicopter gunships of the Israeli Defense Force fired missiles at a car driven by Massoud Ayyad, a 53-year-old Palestinian security officer. Ayyad was killed instantly. Barak sent congratulations to the army and security services, boasting that "the long arm of the Israeli Defense Forces will reach [those who would attack Israel.]" Israeli officials claimed that Ayyad had collaborated with the Lebanese organization Hezbollah in planning attacks on Israeli targets. Clashes frequently occur on Israel's border with southern Lebanon.
Six days later Israeli snipers gunned down Mahmoud Madani, a member of the Hamas nationalist Muslim movement, as he left a mosque in the West Bank town of Nablus. He was 25. Palestinian sources say at least 12 prominent figures in the occupied territories have been assassinated under Tel Aviv's orders.
The deaths have sparked outrage among Palestinians. Ayyad's assassination was followed by protests and by exchanges of fire, including a major gun battle near Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, which ended with dozens of Palestinians wounded.
Other confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinian working people have received less publicity but show just as vividly the deep roots of the resistance. One incident that came to light thanks to the Israeli peace organization, Gush Shalom, occurred in the Mawasi enclave of houses and farms in southwestern Gaza. The area is home to about 500 people and is completely surrounded by Israeli settlements.
Gush Shalom's February 12 newsletter reported that three days earlier, "four Israeli military jeeps arrived at the Mawasi." The officer in charge announced that for "security reasons," the Palestinian homes would be demolished on the coming Sunday. "Destruction of the Mawasi houses is a longstanding demand of the settlers towards the military authorities," explained the newsletter.
The inhabitants, however, decided to defy the order, and won support in the surrounding area and from as far away as Bethlehem and Israeli West Jerusalem. "On Sunday morning," reported Gush Shalom, the "area was sealed by the army, and bulldozers arrived accompanied by a large military force; but the bulldozers were withdrawn after several hours of a tense stand-off with no demolitions carried out."
While some 330 Palestinians have died since late September, fatalities among Israelis are also climbing, now standing at more than 60. Seven Israeli soldiers and one civilian died February 14 when a Palestinian bus driver drove his vehicle, used for taking Palestinian laborers in and out of Israel each day, into a crowd at a bus stop south of Tel Aviv.
In the Israeli media much was made of the fact that the driver, 35-year-old Khalili Abu Elba from Gaza, had received a security clearance for his work. "If we can't trust people like him every Palestinian can be a threat," said a government official.
Siege is strengthened
Following the incident, Tel Aviv canceled all work and entry permits recently issued to Palestinians during a partial lifting of the restrictions on workers traveling to their jobs in Israel, and set up roadblocks around the major cities in the West Bank and Gaza. The Dehaniyeh Airport in Gaza was closed, and border crossings from the occupied territories into Egypt and Jordan were shut down for most travelers.
Israeli forces also closed Gaza's only port for an "unlimited" period. Incoming ships are barred from docking there, and fishing boats cannot leave their berths.
The clampdown coincided with a ruling by the Israeli High Court making it legal for Shin Bet interrogators to deprive a suspect of sleep as long "as the intention is to advance an investigation and not to exhaust the suspect or break his or her spirit," according to Ha'aretz. "Shin Bet [has been] complaining its interrogator toolbox is empty," wrote Amir Oren in the February 15 issue of the Israeli newspaper.
In a February 14 telephone call to Barak, U.S. president George Bush mixed his condemnation of the bus driver's action with an appeal to "all parties to do their utmost to end the violence." He spoke of the "cycle of violent action and reaction between Israel and the Palestinians." The statement stood in contrast to the record of the Clinton administration, which consistently sided with Tel Aviv and placed the onus for ending the unrest on the Palestinians.
"Israel's responses...cannot be compared to Palestinian terror," protested Barak in reply.
The Bush administration has an eye on the investments and interests of U.S. imperialism in the wider region, in addition to its longstanding alliance with Tel Aviv against the Palestinian national struggle. Its stance has met with praise from Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian parliament, who said she was encouraged that Bush was "reassessing the last eight years, which have been absolutely tragic for the Palestinians."
United Nations Middle East envoy Terje Rod-Larsen expressed the depth of the imperialist powers' concern about the situation in the occupied territories in a February 14 interview. "There is a series of interlinked crises leading to a disaster here," he said. "And that is the fiscal crisis, the living condition crisis and the cultural crisis. People have lost faith...in any dialogue with Israel."
Rod-Larsen called for immediate aid to the Palestinian Authority to prevent its collapse. According to a United Nations report, 32 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza live in poverty, a 50 percent increase since the crisis accelerated from late September. The UN says that some 250,000 Palestinians, or 38 percent, are unemployed, compared with 11 percent for the first nine months of last year.
"Much of the authority's problems are brought about because in the recent months of violence, Israel has begun to withhold value-added tax and customs revenues that it agreed to give the Palestinians," reported the New York Times.
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