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Bulldozers of Death

By Adam Keller

The Other Israel, Tel-Aviv, 03/26/1997

 

 

These words are being written in a country in the midst of a deep crisis, a country mourning innocent victims and waiting anxiously for a bloody confrontation on which its government seems bent. I sit behind the computer in a few calm hours, snatched from the daily effort to organise protests and avert at the last moment the danger into which the Netanyahu Government's criminal folly has brought us. It is now just two months since the Hebron Agreement was signed, amidst a renewed outburst of hope which touched even the more cynical and jaded of us.

Looking back on the past years, one realizes that it is not the first time we have passed through a rapid transition from despair to hope -- and back again. In fact, such transitions seem to be a basic characteristic of a peace process in which so many contradictory and antagonistic forces are held together in an extremely unstable balance, and which nevertheless endured through seemingly hopeless situations. On the other hand, with every passing day it is becoming obvious that this might be the deepest crisis and most dangerous moment since Oslo was signed.

While waiting for the last-ditch mediation effort, I will take the time to recount the main events of the past two months, and try to reconstruct how we got to this point. By the time this issue reaches print, things are likely to have resolved themselve -- for better or for worse.

Looking back

In the middle of January, the long-delayed Hebron Agreement was achieved at the end of five months' arduous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Though the predicted settler revolt against the redeployment did not take place, one serious incident did accompany it: a shooting spree in the Hebron marketplace by Israeli soldier Noam Friedman who was later said to be mentally deranged. On this occasion, the Israeli and Palestinian officers on the ground were able to take quick and coordinated action: to apprehend and disarm Friedman before he could succeed in the random killing of Palestinians; to calm down the angry reactions of the Palestinian population and prevent a serious conflagration. And meanwhile, the Hebron Agreement was ratified by a large majority in the Knesset -- 87 out of 120, far more than was given to any previous Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

The redeployment itself was carried out quickly and smoothly. Israeli forces evacuated some 85% of Hebron, and tens of thousands gave Arafat a tumultous welcome at the former military government headquarters. At the same time, riots broke out in the other part of Hebron, the 15% left under Israeli control -- where 20,000 Palestinians had been condemned to remain under occupation, in order to "safeguard" the armed enclaves housing some 450 religious- nationalist settlers. Thus was exhibited from the very outset the basic instability of the Hebron deal, but at the time it was re- garded as no more than an incident.

The media version of the event followed quite simple lines: that Netanyahu had now formally bound himself to carry on the Oslo peace process; that in token of his intentions he had brought about a military withdrawal from a Palestinian city (or at least from the major part of it); that he further obliged himself to a timetable for three further redeployments of military forces in the West Bank; and that he had done all this with far greater public and parliamentary support than Rabin or Peres ever enjoyed, against only a feeble resistance from the right.

Few people actually read the full text of the Hebron Agreement, with its closely-typed clauses couched in a language comprehensible only to specialists. Still, some of the pitfalls were clearly visible, the most obvious being that the agreement set out the dates of the three stages of military redeployment -- but did not specify the territory to be evacuated. Moreover, Netanyahu claimed for Israel the right to define unilaterally the extent of territory to be evacuated, and though the Americans declared their support for this curious interpretation, the Palestinians most emphatically did not.

Even more problematic, at the end of the third redeployment, due in August 1998, Israel is supposed to withdraw from all parts of the West Bank except for "settlements and specified military locations." But there is absolutely no agreement about the definition of the terms "settlement" and "military location". According to the Israeli interpretation ("settlements: that is also all land earmarked for future expansion", and "military locations includes all present training areas") at least half of the West Bank(!) would fall into one of these categories.

The new peacemaker?

For some weeks, Prime Minister Netanyahu basked in the unaccustomed praise of the international media, which welcomed him without reservations to the Middle East Peacemakers' Club. The Hebron redeployment was a conspicuous TV event, as was the release of the thirty Palestinian women prisoners who had been waiting for this moment since September 1995. (There was hardly any media mention of the still-incarcerated 3,000 male prisoners, including more than 200 Administrative Detainees held without trial, nor was there much attention for the brutal eviction of the Jahalin Bedouins to make place for the extension of the Ma'ale Adumim settlement...)

In yet another media event Netanyahu and Arafat were shown cordially shaking hands in the prestigious International Economic Conference at Davos, Switzerland -- the annual forum where Shimon Peres used to deliver speeches on "The New Middle East."

The Israeli business community started to consider "the new Netanyahu" a fitting successor to Shimon Peres -- whose candidature had been endorsed, less than a year earlier, by such organizations as the Federation of Industrialists and the Chambers of Commerce.

Like Peres, Netanyahu now seemed to combine neo-Liberal economic policies with a drive to open the markets of the Arab World to Israeli goods; the business community enthusiastically supported Netanyahu, both in the Hebron Agreement and in his confrontation with the unions during their one-day general strike.

On January 31, the economic section of Yediot Aharonot bore the headline: "The stagnation is over. Hebron Agreement revived stock market, renews prospects for booming tourist season and warms up trading links with the Arab World". This was accompanied by two photographs: a jubilant Hebron boy, carrying an enormous Palestinian flag -- and a no less jubilant stockbroker in Tel-Aviv, watching on a computer screen the rocketing share prices.

Netanyahu's reputation as a peacemaker was further enhanced by the emergence of an increasingly vocal intransigent nationalist faction within the ruling coalition, led by such figures as Binyamin Begin who resigned his cabinet position in protest against the Hebron Agreement.

With Netanyahu subjected to scathing abuse from the right -- often using the very same terms of vilification which Netanyahu himself had used against the Rabin and Peres governments -- it was quite natural for many peace seekers to start giving credit to this Prime Minister, as they did to Rabin after Oslo. The formerly popular Gush Shalom sticker bearing the slogan 'What have you done today to help bring down the government?' suddenly seemed no so appropriate in demonstrations and events of the Israeli peace movement...

***

In the aftermath of the Hebron redeployment, the Israeli peace movement at large went through demobilization, with participation in its activities gradually reduced to the activist hardcore. The wider circle of supporters -- those tens of thousands who especially after the Rabin murder used to thong the squares of Tel-Aviv -- went back home. At first, the situation seemed hopeful so why protest about "minor things"; then, within scant weeks, everything had suddenly turned so dark as to seem hopeless.

Was it nothing but a charade? Was the big Netanyahu-Begin struggle, which filled the papers for weeks on end, nothing but a cynical "good cop, bad cop" show put up by con man Netanyahu for our benefit? There were a few peace activists who said so, also at that quiet time a month ago which now seems so distant.

Yet even in the bitter present one can recognise that the Hebron Agreement was indeed a significant change, at least in Netanyahu's own terms and those of his political milieu -- a change from total unwillingness to concede anything at all to the Palestinians into a willingness to give them a little bit (though far too little).

A party which traditionally revered each and every square inch of Biblical "Eretz Yisrael" had come to the conclusion that at least some of these lands must be given up. Moreover, the great majority of Likud members and voters accepted this abandonment of once-sancrosanct principles with surprising ease, to the chagrin of Begin and the other diehards. The "not an inch" principle had been quietly dying during the years of the Intifada and of Oslo, and Netanyahu merely delivered the coup de grace.

Netanyahu's new line took him quite close to the traditional positions of the Labor party, whose leaders ever since 1967 produced various schemes for cutting up the West Bank, annexing considerable parts to Israel while giving over the remainder to some kind of Arab rule. The mood of ambiguity and uncertainty presently prevalent among most of the Israeli population certainly owes much to this blurring of political differences.

Netanyhu's plan, announced semi-officially in an interview to Ma'ariv on March 21, is to divide the West Bank more or less in half between Israel and the Palestinians; the fifty percent given to the Palestinians would lack continuity and consist of several enclaves cut off from each other and from the outside world by settlements and military zones.

For his part Ehud Barak, the man most likely to suceed Shimon Peres as Labor Party leader, outlined several months ago an extensive program of annexations, according to which some thirty to forty percent of the West Bank would be annexed to Israel and the remainder given to the Palestinians. 'The great ideological debate of our generation has been reduced to a question of ten percent of the West Bank' concluded commentator Ben Kaspit of Ma'ariv. This summation, however, leaves outside calculation the standpoint of the Palestinians -- for whom the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories which in their entirety constitute but 18% of historical Palestine, are but a bare minimum.

The convergence between Likud and Labor positions on the Palestinian issue has made increasingly feasible the option of a "national unity" government embracing both parties -- all the more since their socio-economic policies have been practically identical for over a decade (neo-liberalism somewhat tempered by the presence of "populist" factions in both parties). For Shimon Peres, due to end his tenure as Labor Party leader in June, a portfolio in a national unity government would offer one last chance of entering the corridors of power. He leads the Labor faction which supports the idea of entering the government, in order "to free Netanyhu of pressures from the extreme right"; but the idea is also embraced by many of these same rightwingers -- who understand that such a cabinet, with a broader political base, would have a stronger position against the Palestinians in the remaining stages of negotiations.

Ironically, it is the hawkish Barak -- whose basic positions are not too different from those of Netanyahu -- is steadfastly opposed to "saving a rotten incompetent government which must be brought down."

For his part Yossi Beilin, long considered the most dovish of Labor leaders, now watered down his views in order to produce a joint document with Likud KM Michael Eitan, clearly intended to serve as the unofficial draft program for a Likud-Labor government -- and at considerable variance with the promises which Beilin reportedly made to the Palestinians during the Rabin Government's tenure, of a state comprising some 90% of the West Bank.

***

From corruption to extremism

For some time, Peres' constant courting of Netanyahu served the Prime Minister well. Rather than actually taking Labor into his cabinet, Netanyahu used the threat of doing so in order to neutralise the pressures of the extreme right; and at the same time, he could rely on a rather mild parliamentary opposition. But this delicate balance was disrupted by a sudden bombshell dropped on the political scene by Ayalah Hasson, star reporter of the Israeli First Channell TV: a corruption scandal involving some of Netanyahu's senior ministers and advisers, and possibly Netanyahu himself.

The report concerned Netanyahu's recent abortive attempt to have one of his loyal supporters -- a lawyer named Roni Bar'on -- appointed to the key position of Attorney-General. The Bar'on candidature had foundered under scathing public criticism -- not only is Bar'on far from a brilliant lawyer, but he was revealed to be involved in large-scale gambling. At the time there was, however, no suspicion that anything beyond a breach of good taste was involved in the affair.

Only several weeks later did the TV reporter come across evidence that Bar'on may have promised -- in return for being appointed -- to help Aryeh Der'i, a prominent religious politician who is undergoing a prolonged corruption trial and still retains a key position as the unquestioned kingmaker of Israeli politics. As head of the country's criminal prosecution, Bar'on would have been in a position to suborn the Der'i trial in various ways. In return, Der'i supposedly promised to have his Shas Party support the Hebron deal. If proven true the affair would constitute, under Israeli law, a criminal conspiracy carrying heavy penalties for all involved.

The reporter, refusing to disclose her source, could not provide evidence which would stand in court. Nevertheless, Netanyahu had no choice but to approve the appointment of a Special Police Investigating Team with wide powers. The affair quickly snowballed, with Justice Minister Hanegbi being subjected to prolonged police interrogation -- followed by none other than Netanyahu himself, the first Israeli Prime Minister to undergo such humiliation. In the press, comparisons were frequently made with Watergate and the ignominious end of the Nixon Presidency.

With the downfall of the Netanyahu Govenment suddenly seeming a very concrete possibility, the idea of Labor joining the cabinet was momentarily shelved, as the party leaders fell into sweet dreams of ousting Netanyahu altogether. And with the government under constant attack from that direction, an enormously strong bargaining position was handed to the parliamentary ultra- nationalists, now officially organised in the "Eretz Yisrael Front" which included no less than seventeen out of the sixty-six Knesset Members on whose support Netanyahu relies.

By joining with the opposition in a vote of no confidence, this group could bring down the government -- and to show the seriousness of their threat, they failed to appear at several major legislative votes, handing Labor a string of easy victories on the Knesset floor.

In exchange for restoring their support to the government, the nationalists presented Netanyahu with a long list of demands for the creation of "facts on the ground" throughout the West Bank: construction of houses and roads for settlers, and demolition of Palestinian homes declared "illegal"; creation of "territorial continuity" between various Israeli settlements, and breaking up the continuity between neighboring Palestinian villages or towns. The main strategic aim of the group was to preserve and consolidate Israeli rule in the "C" areas, the 70% of the West Bank still under complete Israeli rule, and prevent any more of it being handed over to the Palestinians.

In fact, the government has already been taking some steps in this direction: new construction was authorised in some settlements; Palestinian land was confiscated; in other cases, confiscations made on paper in the 1970's and 1980's were now implemented and the land, hitherto still held by Palestinian villagers, was taken over by settlers; the demolition of Palestinian houses, suspended after "The Tunnel Riots" of September 1996, was resumed; Beduins, the weakest and most marginalised group within Palestinian society, were altogether evicted from several points -- the case of the Jahalin being the biggest but not the only one.

These cases of dispossesion, most of them getting no mention in the Israeli or international media, spelled disaster for the families and communities involved, and spread feelings of anger and frustration throughout the Palestinian society -- even while, to outside observers, the peace process seemed to prosper. But it all fell far short of the designs of the settlers and their parliamentary allies, who before the elections expected a Likud governemnt to embark on an extensive, concerted settlement expansion project.

The nationalist pressure campaign on Netanyahu reached its peak in February, drawing in larger and larger parts of the fragile ruling coalition. For several weeks, The PM used delaying tactics, again and again making solemn promises for settlement extention without doing anything to implement them. Netanyahu blamed "bureacratic red tape" for the delays -- but the sceptical hardliners and settlers guessed that the real reason was Netanyahu's apprehension of the Israeli opposition and of international pressure.

It was the so-called "Third Way Party", a split-off group of Labor hawks and one of Netanyahu's coalition partners, which came up with the idea of focusing on projects falling within "Greater Jerusalem". It was correctly assumed that the Labor Party opposition would find it difficult to oppose such projects, which were initiated by Labor governments in the first place, and in defence of which the government could cite the magic word "Jerusalem". The move was enthusiastically endorsed by Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmart, a key Netahyahu supporter and a man facing a corruption trial of his own (in connection with his handling of funds during his previous job as Likud treasurer) from which he would like to distract public attention.

Thus was introduced into the center stage of Israeli political life a name which would all too soon gain worldwide notoriety: Har Homa, the Bastion Mountain.

One hill too far

Activists of the Israeli peace movement have known for many years the name Har Homa, as a distant threat hanging on the horizon. It came up occasionally in meetings with Palestinians, during international conferences, and especially at the annual proccessions of Israelis and Palestinians held each December in the town of Beit Sahour. We have always known that this struggle, if and when it came, would be a major one. But most members of the general public were not at all aware of the issue. (Indeed, even now -- with the name conspicuous in every news broadcast -- many inhabitants of the city of Jerusalem itself hardly know where the place is).

Until 1967, nobody considered Jebl Abu Ghneim -- the name of this Arab hill -- to be part of Jerusalem. It was just a hill located between the town of Beit Sahour and the villages of Umm Tuba and Sur Baher, on top of which the Jordanian army established a (not particularly important) outpost. Then came the war of 1967, and the victorious state of Israel extended the boundaries of Jerusalem enormously in all directions, and declared all of the territory taken in to be part of the sancrosanct "United Jerusalem, Indivisable Capital of Israel". Jebl Abu Ghneim was engulfed, together with the villages of Umm Tuba and Sur Baher; the new Jerusalem municipal boundary -- which serves also as the dividing line between 'annexed territory under Israeli law' and 'occupied territory under military law and administration' -- was drawn just south of Abu Ghneim, seperating the landowners in Beit Sahour to the south from their property on the slopes of the hill.

The 1970's and early 1980's saw a concerted move to establish a solid Jewish presence in the new "parts of Jerusalem". Great blocks of land were confiscated "for public purposes". Under Israeli law, "public purposes" are whatever the government defines them to be; in this case, "public purposes" meant constructing tens of thousands of houses for Israeli Jews, and not a single one for the original Palestinian inhabitants. Thus, a wide ring of Jewish "new neighborhoods" was established, seperating the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from the adjacant Palestinian towns of the West Bank.

But to the south, a single link was missing from this chain: at Jebl Abu Ghneim. Even in the 1970's, the government planners had not overlooked this site; the Palestinian landowners were forbidden to construct anything on their lands, under the pretext of keeping the wooded hill "green". At that time, then Defence Minister Moshe Dayan vetoed any further moves; construction on the site might have hindered plans which Dayan had -- to cultivate the Christian population of Beit Sahour and its neighbor Bethlehem, and play them off against the Muslims.

But Dayan fell from power, and the gambit of sowing divisions between Christians and Muslims with him and, in the 1980s, the planners started giving serious attention to this overlooked hill.

Land ownership on the hill was found to be divided into three categories. A big part consisted of several dozen plots owned by Palestinian families from Beit Sahour and Umm Tuba; a second part had been purchased in 1970 by the Israeli building contractor David Myr, in a rather shady deal (the Palestinians who supposedly sold him the land went immediately afterwards to the United states and disappeared); still a third part of Jebl Abu Ghneim was recorded as having been owned by the Jewish National Fund before the Jordanian army conquered the area in 1948, and the courts ruled this ownership to be still valid (Palestinian ownership of lands which were conquered by the Israeli army in 1948 is invariably denied).

Both the Palestinian plots and the one in possession of David Myr were confiscated "for public purposes", thus giving the government legal possession of the entire hill (JNF lands are automatically administered by the government). Plans were drawn up to establish on the spot a large Jewish neighborhood; from the big number of synagogues and other religious institutions provided for in these plans, the new neighborhood seems to be mainly intended for ultra-Orthodox inhabitants, though this was never openly stated.

Much of this took place under the aegis of Labor governments and in the municipal administration presided over by the affable Teddy Kollek, who continued to enjoy the international reputation of being a liberal and a moderate.

By the time the Har Homa plans were drawn up, the Intifada was already in full swing. The inhabitants of Beit Sahour, who had impressed the world with their persistent refusal to pay Israeli taxes, alerted their contacts in the Israeli peace movement to the impending settlement plans for Jebl Abu Ghneim. First to be involved was the Rapprochement group, which is in constant contact with the Beit Sahurians, then Gush Shalom and Peace Now.

It was the Ir Shalem association, linked to Peace Now, which took up the struggle on the judicial level. For years its lawyer Danny Seidmann, representing the Palestinian landowners, managed to postpone the project, skilfully opposing each step of the building plans' approval through the zoning committees' apparatus. He managed to get several injunctions from the Supreme Court on procedural grounds (the planners, in their haste to get the plans approved, cut quite a few corners). A parallel judicial struggle was waged by the dispossesed Israeli contractor David Myr, who asked for all the confiscations to be cancelled and for both himself and the Palestinian landowners to be allowed to build on their respective plots. Ir Shalem and the Palestinian land owners cautiously accepted him as "a tactical partner".

All the appeals were ultimately rejected, but they and the public campaign associated with them succeeded in halting the project for several years, and in making it politically controversial as no similar project in "Greater Jerusalem" had been before.

In all the appeals, the Supreme Court refused to deal directly with the principal issue raised by Adv. Seidman: Is it acceptable, by basic democratic norms, to confiscate lands "for public purposes" from persons belonging to one ethnic group and then use the land to construct housing intended exclusively for members of another ethnicity?

Going seriously into this could have led the court to conclusions with fundamental consequences, not only with regard to Har Homa but concerning the land policies enacted throughout Israel by all governments since 1948. Instead, the judges dropped the hot potato by proclaiming the issue of the future Har Homa inhabitants to be "still hypothetical" and offering to the appellants an option of "appealing again, after the plan gained ministerial approval" -- an option which was, in the event, to prove illusory.

By mid-1996 all legal hurdles were removed, and work on the project could have started -- but the public campaign, though not very intensive, was enough to make both Rabin and Peres cautious, particularly after having experienced the Jerusalem land confiscations fiasco in 1995. Thus, they prefered to let the Har Homa project hang in limbo, without the Interior Minister's signature which is legally required before work on the ground could begin.

***

Netanyahu, during his first months in power, did not seem eager to change the status quo regarding the Har Homa Project. At the end of 1996, a senior official at the Housing Ministry told to Kol Ha'Ir weekly: "We have made all the technical preparations, but it is in vain. The Har Homa Plan is dead. Netanyahu does not want to touch it, he is even more apprehensive than the Laborites".

Was it all a charade, just designed to lull us into letting down our guard? Looking back on the past weeks, as this crisis was inexorably building up, it still does not seem so. In the early weeks, Netanyahu seemed ill at ease: trying to buy time, delaying the crucial cabinet meetings, talking about a symbolic Har Homa decision without a timetable, offering the hardliners other concessions such as the "settlement linkage" between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim to the east -- potentially much bigger and far more devastating to Palestinians then Har Homa, but with an implementation date far in the future. Also, it seemed quite obvious that Netanyahu would have liked the Supreme Court to get him off the hook and issue an injunction which would prevent work on Har Homa from actually starting -- but the judges seemed to have no desire to pull the Prime Minister's chestnuts out of the fire.

On the other hand, several press items published in January, based on semi-official leaks to well-connected newspaper commentators, mentioned Netanyahu as having told his aides that a major confrontation with the Palestinian Authority was likely to erupt sooner or later. But it seems that he did not expect it so soon; in those newspaper articles it was expectated that 1997 would pass more or less smoothly in Israel's relations with the Palestinians, that the momentum of the Hebron Agreement would last at least that much.

The next crisis was not expected before mid-1998, the scheduled time for the third and last West Bank redeployment which -- as all commentators agreed -- could not pass without trouble, given the great gap between what Netanyahu intended to offer and what the Palestinians expected to get. Meanwhile, 1997 was expected to be, in the first place, a year of negotiations on the Syrian track.

The logical conclusion seems to be that the timing of the crisis was not chosen by Netanyahu but by his hardcore rebels, who wanted to derail the process before any more territory gets into Palestinian hands. And at some moment in the past weeks Netanyahu had apparently come to the decision to brazen it out, right here and now, and resolve his domestic crisis by creating an external one.

Possibly it happened on his visit to Russia, at which he by chance witnessed Yeltsin flexing his muscles and firing his entire cabinet. When Netanyahu went to Moscow, there was still much talk of delaying the start of work on Har Homa by some technical or legalistic pretext; when he came back he stated right in the airport "If we give in on this we have lost the Battle of Jerusalem" -- burning the bridges behind him.

Certainly, the right wing was correct in its estimate that the Labor Party opposition would fare badly in this crisis, being torn right down the middle and taking agonising weeks before they came to the conclusion of voting against the government in the Knesset debate on Har Homa. The zigzagging Labor position was finally worked out into an unconvincing formula: "It is Israel's right to build anywhere in United Jerusalem, but this is the wrong timing". It was easy for Netanyahu to comment that "if 'right timing' means a time when the Arabs would consent, then it will never be."

Adding insult to injury

President Clinton of the United States has much to answer for. Certainly, he did not want this crisis -- but he also did not exert all his power to prevent it. On the contrary, the U.S. mobilised its U.N. veto power on behalf of Netanyahu, and the President could only repeat again and again the impotent words: "I wish Netanyahu had not taken that decision" -- as if the whims of the Prime Minister of a small Middle East country and those of a hardliner nationalist faction in that country were a law of nature which the world's single remaining superpower was powerless to change. Was it the lukewarm attitude of the Labor Party which paralysed the President of the United States? At that time, Ha'aretz reported Netanyahu as telling Clinton of his sincere wish to continue the peace process, but asking for his "understanding" that "some concessions have to be made in order to appease the hardliners."

Instead of blocking Har Homa, the U.S. bent its ingenuity in attempts to devise some "fitting compensation" which Arafat might be expected to accept. At his Washington visit in the first week of March, the Palestinian leader was received with great warmth and an outward show of cordiality, getting the reception of a de-facto head of state and having the Palestinian Authority's relations with Washington conspicuously upgraded -- but denied any concrete help with regard to Netanyahu's settlement plans.

The first stage of redeployment, on the scheduled day of March 7, was supposed to do the trick. Netanyahu promised the Americans to be "generous"; he trumpeted the fact that he was going to give the Palestinians ten percent of the West Bank; the supposed enormity of the act was underlined by the outcry of the hardliners, and by Netanyahu's highly publicised struggle to get the redeployment approved in the cabinet (by ten votes to seven). It did seem to impress the general Israeli public, including many supporters of the peace movement. Surely, after such magnanimity the Palestinians would not make too much trouble over that little hill in Jerusalem, right? Wrong. Very wrong. The Palestinians were not even tempted. In fact, they were very angry and insulted by the offer.

The Palestinians noticed what the Israeli press overlooked -- that most of the territory Netanyahu offered them was already in their hands: they were parts of the "B" area, which is under Palestinian Authority control. True, in such areas the Israeli Army reserves the privilege of making occasional raids, a privilege greatly resented by the Palestinians, and which Netanyahu was now ready to give up. Neverhtheless, this could in no way compensate for the fact that Netanyahu offered a mere 2% of the "C" area which is still under total Israeli occupation. At present, "C" includes some 70% of the entire West Bank; simple arithmetic clearly indicates that a government which gives up only 2% of this territory in the first of three scheduled redeployments probably has no intention of ever disgorging the bulk of it.

The decision to go ahead with the Har Homa project, the meagre size of the proposed redeployment and the fact that both decisions were taken unilaterally by Israel all added up to one forceful conclusion: Netanyahu had no intention of giving the Palestinians something coming even close to their most minimal demands.

The arrogant manner of the Israeli negotiators, coming not to negotiate but to "inform" the Palestinians of the decisions taken unilaterally and unalterably by the Israeli cabinet, was infuriating -- leading the chief Palestinian negotiator Abu-Mazen, known for his moderation, to resign and refuse to participate in any further meeting. And for good measure, Netanyhu had his Police Minister, Kahalani, issue orders for the closing of four Palestinian offices in East Jerusalem. (These orders were later suspended and not implemented; Netanyahu might, indeed, have issued them just so as to be able to make a small concession.)

With the Palestinians rejecting scornfully Netanyahu's meager offer for redeployment, the idea of offering the Palestinians concessions in return for aquiescence in Har Homa was nearly killed; nevertheless, the Americans tried to put together a "package of confidence-building measures" which they still hoped might do the trick. These included opening the Palestinian International Airport and Sea Port in Gaza and allowing "safe passage" for Palestinians between The West Bank and Gaza Strip -- all of them matters of great importance which were already promised to the Palestinians in Oslo, but which Arafat could not possibly accept in return for what amounted to endorsement of Israeli settlement activities.

The Palestinians were even less impressed by Netanyahu's offer to "counterbalance" Har Homa by permitting 3,000 Palestinian families in East Jerusalem to build houses on their own land, a permission which was hitherto denied and which even now Netanyahu promised to grant "within the coming years".

Countdown to B-Day

Israeli administrative law mandates that two weeks must pass between the Interior Minister's signature on a construction project and the moment when work on the ground may actually begin. The circumstances of the Har Homa affair transformed this administrative waiting period of two weeks into something very similar to an ultimatum preceding war.

As "Bulldozer Day" drew nearer, Palestinian leaders -- including many of the most well-known moderates -- sharpened their tone, as did Netanyahu and his ministers. Justice Minister Hanegbi openly threatened that "Arafat and his wife might soon be refugees again". (Hanegbi made the threat in a period when he was undergoing repeated police interrogation. He might just have sought public attention for something else than the ongoing corruption scandal.)

At the same time, a fast reconciliation was taking place between Arafat and the Palestinian opposition, both Islamic and Nationalistic, forming joint plans for mass protests against Har Homa. Some 150 Hamas prisoners were freed from the PA jails -- including some members of the organization's military wing -- with Arafat waving aside the Israeli objections.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians were scoring successes on the international diplomatic and media fronts. As far as public relations were conserned, Arafat's visit to the U.S. seemed "a victory procession", as alarmed Israeli diplomats wrote to the Foreign Ministry, also complaining that the American media was more than ever receptive to the Palestinian case. Articles and news items showing sympathy to Netanyahu were so rare that the Foreign Ministry's monitoring service made special notice of each.

At the U.N. Security Council, the United States cast its veto vote, alone against all other fourteen members -- lamely explaining that, though it too was against Har Homa, Washington did not regard the U.N. as being "the proper forum". Thereupon, the issue went into the General Assembly where there are no vetos, and the resolution was passed by an overwhelming vote of 130 nations against two (Israel and the U.S) -- and with members of the European Union conspicuous in their denounciation.

The United Nations Organization has never been very popular in Israel, and Israeli governments have a long record of ignoring its resolutions and engaging in a bit of UN bashing to gain domestic popularity. Nevertheless, Israel has not experienced such international isolation for many years, and since the peace process started many Israelis had begun to hope it will never occur again. Moreover, a country so universally condemned does not become more attractive to foreign investment; the Wall Street brokers and entrepreneurs, who were very favorably impressed by Netanyahu during his first visit to the U.S., expressed growing misgivings about the idea of investing in Israel (Yediot Aharonot, March 21).

To give the Palestinians some compensation for its U.N. veto, Washington sent a representative to the "Last Minute International Conference" convened by Arafat in Gaza. The step was taken in spite of sharp protests by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which attempted to mobilise AIPAC, the Israeli Lobby on Capitol Hill -- with, to say the least, mixed results: AIPAC managed to obtain no more than twenty senatorial signatures on a letter supporting Netanyahu, a record low for a lobby which for many years used to have sixty to seventy U.S. Senators practically at its beck and call.

And what have we, the Israeli peace movement, done during these critical weeks of growing tensions? Certainly many of us made enormous efforts, spent sleepless nights in organising protest actions -- but the result was wholly inadequate to the need of such a crucial time.

It began well enough, with dozens of activists arriving to various preperatory actions by Gush Shalom and Meretz, at the very beginning of the crisis; this should have been the spark which would start much bigger actions -- only this time, the spark did not catch.

Gush Shalom did succeed to let hundreds of well-known Israelis sign a last minute appeal to stop the bulldozers, published as paid ad. But when Peace Now tried to mobilise a wider circle, they did not succeed to bring to the streets the thousands or tens of thousands who should have been there in such a situation, as the Palestinians had a right to expect of us at such a time.

Why did so many people who on other occasions turned up stay home this time? It seems that the Jerusalem taboo, though considerably weakened, still has the power te prevent people from being actively involved. 'This Har Homa is stupid but what does it matter, a bare hill on which nobody lives. The Palestinians are going to have their state anyhow.' All in all, the Israeli peace movement remained largely demobilised at a very critical turning point -- a failure on which we will long have to ponder.

The Storm

A few days before the bulldozer deadline expired, the center of diplomatic activity shifted to Jordan -- whose King Hussein has maintained semi-official relations with Israel many years before peace was officially signed, and is the only Arab leader who is popular among the general Israeli population. The unprecedented sharp letter sent by the King to Netanyahu, and the PM's equally sharp rebuttal quickly found their way to the newspaper headlines -- bringing Israeli-Jordanian relations to one of their lowest points ever.

On the following day, a Jordanian soldier who was later said to be mentally deranged went on a shooting spree and shot to death seven Israeli school girls -- the first blood shed over Har Homa. By a cruel irony, the tragedy occurred on a small island in the Jordan River which in more optimistic days had been named "The Island of Peace."

And on the day following that, the Israeli cabinet met and adopted unanimously a resolution to start work on Har Homa within a week, disregarding the dire predictions presented to them by the security services.

The Jordanian assailant had been apprehended and imprisoned by fellow soldiers. This was far from enough for King Hussein; determined to wipe what he regarded as a stain on his kingdom's honor, he personally arrived in Israel and visited in person the homes of all the seven mourning families.

Casting aside his royal dignity, he knelt down to speak with the grieving familiy members, who were sitting on the floor in accordance with traditional Jewish mourning customs. The king's dramatic gesture, broadcast on Israeli as well as Jordanian TV, was highly appreciated by Israelis -- but critised by many of his own subjects and even more by the Palestinians, who pointed out that no Israeli leader ever did something remotely similar, on any of the occasions when Palestinian civilians were killed by members of the Israeli armed forces.

The king's visit certainly had more purposes than just condolences. With his magnanimous gesture, which certainly no other Arab leader could or would have made, he hoped to be able to gain from Netanyahu a counter gesture -- one large enough to appease the Palestinian anger and bring the peace process back on track.

Watching the king's smiling, confident face on TV that Sunday night, many of us thought he had gotten something substantial from Netanyahu. As it turned out, he thought he did -- in their private conversation, the prime Minister seemed to promise that Har Homa would be the very last settlement project undertaken by Israel.

That idea did interest Arafat, to whom it was conveyed on the following morning. But Netanyahu's bureau quickly denied that any such promise was ever made, and instead offered to the Palestinians the same pathetic "package of confidence-building measures" as before. As a kind of special favor, the right of landing in the already-completed Gaza International Airport was granted to Arafat's personal airplane, but to nobody else. Such a ludicrous small bribe amounted to an additional insult; on that night, contacts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were officially severed by the Palestinians.

On the following day -- Tuesday, March 18 -- Netanyahu seemed to have some final doubts. He called several meetings with advisers and security experts, and the radio teemed with contradicting rumors about whether or not the bulldozers would indeed start. Sometime by mid-day he had finally made up his mind; around 2.30 P.M., the bulldozers started work on Har Homa -- the only building project in the world to have live coverage by several dozen TV camers.

We have visualised this moment years ago, with Har Homa always a looming threat in the uncertain future; always, with fine dramatic flourish, we imagined Israelis and Palestinians lying down together to block the bulldozers' way. Nothing of the kind was remotely possible; the whole area, kilometres around the working site in all directions, was guarded by a thick cordon of police and army; there must have at least 2,000 of them massed around this little hill.

A bit off this cordoned area was the tent camp established by the Palestinians; there was a protest march of Palestinians and some Israelis, among them Uri and Rachel Avnery, in the direction of the bulldozers, a scuffle when it encountered the cordon, some people thrown into the mud -- and the Palestinian leaders firmly forbade any closer confrontation, forbade the youngsters to pick up stones and returned to the tent to register a frustrated protest to the waiting journalists.

For those who were there, or those who watched it on TV, or those who participated in the small Hadash vigil outside the Defence Ministry and endured unusually hostile reactions from by-passers, it was a bleak and bitter day -- like the day after the last elections, or the deportations in December 1992, or the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982.

There was no immediate repetition of the armed confrontations which followed The Tunnel in September 1996. On the next morning, the newspapers reported only a few scattered Palestinian protests, and Israeli newspaper commentators claimed, with typical arrogance, that "the Palestinians had tacitly accepted Har Homa".

Peace Now supporters showed even less inclination than before to join the protests still planned for the coming days. The right wing was exultant, with the settlers choosing this day to fulfill a long-planned design -- to occupy five more houses in the heart of East Jerusalem's Silwan Village.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, in high spirits, asked his helicopter pilot to hover for several minutes over Har Homa so that he could watch the bulldozers at work. And he was not quite joking when later on the same day he told CNN: "Israel is the only real superpower, you know, we are the only ones who can defy te whole world and win". Netanyau's euphoria lasted about forty-eight hours; it ended when the suicide bomber exploded himself in Tel-Aviv's Apropos Cafe, taking three young Israeli women with him.

***

The Apropos building is part of my childhood scene, very near to the apartment where my parents still live. As a child I played in the boulevard in front of it, and passed it countless times on my way to school. I know many people who go on Friday afternoon to Apropos to meet friends, most of them a kind of intellectuals, yuppies with atleast a general inclination towards the peace movement. I could have been there myself, had I not been demonstrating at that time in Har Homa. It was a terrible murder of three totally innocent women in the prime of life. And still, I cannot really blame the Palestinians who had condemned past terrorist attacks and failed to condemn this one. I cannot even blame the Palestinian Legislative Council for adopting by acclamation a resolution offering condolences to the suicide bomber's family, while ignoring the families of his victims.

The Tel-Aviv bombing did not leave the government with many options for action. They of course imposed a closure on the territories, again depriving Palestinian workers of their livelihood -- the automatic, knee-jerk response. They declared the talks with the Palestinians suspended -- forgetting that the Palestinians already suspended them on the day the bulldozers went in; they suspended the act of handing the Palestinians the lands promised in the "further redeployment" -- forgetting that the Palestinians already refused to accept that small pittance. They started a systematic campaign to accuse Arafat of having "given a green light to terrorism" and an acrimonious debate with the Americans, who were far more cautious about accusing the Palestinian leader. And for all the accusations of Arafat, they made shrill demands that he help out against the same terrorists to whom he supposedly gave that infamous "green light".

Meanwhile, the popular Palestinian protests against Har Homa mounted, giving the final lie to that "tacit consent" and amounting to a new Intifada. A new kind of Intifada, at the all too numerous confrontation lines strewn throughout the West Bank: the dividing line bisecting the long-suffering city of Hebron, Rachel's Tomb left as a fortified Israeli enclave in the middle of Bethlehem, the military roadblock at the southern approaches of Ramallah (where the bloody confrontations of last September started). At these, and many other spots, daily confrontations became the rule -- confrontations between stone-throwing Pales- tinian youths and Israeli soldiers, which on TV looked nearly indistinguishable from the visions of 1987-1991.

Yet there were significant differences. For one, this time, unlike in the original Intifada, the Israeli soldiers made a considerable -- and mostly succesful -- effort not to kill anybody; they were strickly enjoined to use tear gas and rubber bullets, and reserve live ammunition for "real emergencies". This was clearly the army's lesson from last September; it is far too dangerous to shoot and kill unarmed demonstrators, when just behind them are Palestinian police who might, under pressure, start shooting back...

As long as the soldiers did not shoot to kill but merely to wound, the Palestinian Police were willing to play their part, and from time to time stop the enthusiastic youths -- stop them, but always partially, always letting some new confrontation break through and provide fresh "Intifada footage" for CNN. Already for more than a week, Palestinian Security Chief Jibril Rajub plays a fine game of brinkmanship, keeping tensions alive and yet preventing a total explosion. And meanwhile Arafat went on a long world tour, mobilising Islamic and Arab diplomacy on behalf of the Palestinian cause and letting Israelis and Americans implore him to come back and take things in hand...

Meanwhile, the daily cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security services, on which the former had become increasingly dependant as a shield against Hamas terrorism, has been suspended as long as bulldozers work on Har Homa -- possibly the sharpest sanction against Israel which the Palestinians could find in their arsenal.

So far have we come. This is being written in the night of March 29 -- the day on which a Palestinian demonstrator was, for the first time in "The New Intifada", killed by Israeli soldiers; the day on which U.S. mediator Dennis Ross arrived and reportedly tried to reconcile the Netanyahu's demand for "an end to terrorism and violence" with the Palestinian definition which includes bulldozers among the most agressive forms of violence; one day before "Land Day", when widespread demonstrations are expected by both Palestinians in the Territories and their compatriots who are Israeli citizens...

 

Adam Keller
Tel Aviv, 29.3.1997

 

Postscript, 7.4.1997

To Netanyahu's chagrin, the linkage between terrorism and bulldozers has become well established -- in the international public opinion as well as in a significnt part of the Israeli one. (Just yesterday, the writer S. Yizhar, 'The Conscience of Israel', published in Yediot Ahronot an article entitled: Har Homa is Terrorism, too!.) Netanyahu seems likely to meet the same linkage between settlements and terrorism in his encounter with President Clinton later today. Will the Americans this time put real pressure on our Prime Minister? So many times since 1967 did we ask ourselves this question, with so many presidents and so many prime ministers, and the answer turned out to be 'no' far more often than 'yes'. Will Clinton break the pattern, this time? And if not him, will the Europeans dare, for once, to use their economic leverage?

In a confrontation with the White House, if any, Netanyahu can no longer rely with certainty on the support of the organised American Jewish Community. In the middle of the Har Homa crisis, the PM yielded to his Orthodox coalition partners and rammed through the Knesset a bill giving their rabbis a monopoly on conversions to Judaism. The Reformed and Conservative communities, which form the majority of U.S. Jewry, came up in arms -- which might make them less than eager to engage in lobbying on behalf of an Israeli government with whose policies they already for a long time can hardly identify.

In the meantime, the situation on the ground seems to settle into the routine of a war of attrition.

The army had been prepared for a resumption of direct armed confrontations between its troops and the Palestinian Police, and made detailed plans to use its full force and avenge the humiliations of last Septmber.

The Palestinians have so far given no pretext -- opting instead for the far more diffuse and elusive struggle of stone- throwers, which they could maintain for years on end. After all, they already did it once, and a new generation of Palestinians -- little kids during the first Intifada -- seem eager to pick up the torch, or rather: the stone.

Israeli tanks were placed in the entrances to Palestinian cities -- but the Palestinians, expert at making Molotov Cocktails and reputed to possess secret stockpiles of anti-tank missiles, refuse to be intimidated. And on international TV screens, the Israeli tanks and bulldozers, with their equally heavy threads cutting the earth, once more display the ugly image of the Israeli Goliath...

A war of attrition it is, with many fronts -- on the hills of the West Bank; in the halls of diplomatic conferences (the Arab foreign ministers threatening to end all normalisation with Israel); even in the board rooms of major companies (two directors of Israel's biggest concerns, Benny Ga'on of 'Koor' and Aharon Dovrat of 'Klal', made dire predictions on the economy and the peace process, linking the two...).

In the short term, it is Israel which wields the most effective economic whip -- the closure. The Palestinian population faces the specter of hunger, or of life at a bare subsistance level -- which can but increase the militancy of desperate youths. But meanwhile, among Israelis there is an atmosphere of confusion and fear, as long as the Palestinian Security Services remain 'on strike'. 'Our security cooperation with Israel was buried under the bulldozers', was how Palestinian Security Chief Jibril Rajoub put it in one of his many interviews on Israeli TV

It is not the best of times for mass peace activity. Yet at last we had a peace rally in Tel-Aviv's Rabin Square -- initiated by Dor Shalom, the organization which we had more or or less given up after it started to put all its energy only in 'dialogue' with the most extreme settlers and in organising such activities as 'a salute to the army' (after the February helicopter crash in which 73 soldiers got killed).

The April 5 rally was badly organised, and far smaller than the rallies at the same square in the past -- and still, it was heart-warming to come home and see it on TV screens and newspaper front pages, rank behind rank of youths with the green signs A whole Generation demands Peace!.

There is no way of knowing how long this war of attrition will last. And in such a war, the Palestinians -- a people united in a struggle for bare survival -- have a better chance than Netanyahu, a Prime Minister who led his divided country into a struggle which it does not really believe in. (The Labor Party chose this moment to come out dramatically in favor of a Palestinian state -- albeit 'with a limited sovreignty'; polls indicate a majority of the Israeli Jewish population concurring.)

Weighing all of these factors together, one finds still reasons for hope in the long run. But the whole setup does not bode well for the immediate future. And then we come up with a jerk, remembering that not so long ago we hoped to be within handreach of an end to the times of confrontation and conflict, that we expected the rest of the road to peace between Israel and Palestine to be traversed under somewhat more civilized conditions. That was not to be.

We can only grit our teeth and do our best, in the days ahead.



[THE OTHER ISRAEL is the newsletter of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, P.O.Box 2542, 58125 Holon, Israel.
Phone/Fax: (03) 5565804
Editor: Adam Keller
Coeditor: Beate Zilversmidt


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