Eleven Palestinians, almost all non-combatants, were killed in the northern Ghazzah town of Jabalya on March 6, during the Israeli military’s third major incursion into Ghazzah in less than a week. Eight of the victims were killed by a single tank-shell fired into a crowd of people trying to put out a fire in a house. More than fifty people were injured by the same shell. The deaths took the total number of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops in Ghazzah since the beginning of February to 53, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).
The PCHR reported that a total of eight houses were destroyed during the Jabalya operation, and three others seriously damaged. Three other "civilian facilities" (ie. shops, factories, schools, etc.) were destroyed and seven damaged. The object of the operation was apparently to destroy the house of Abdul Karim Ziada, whose son, Suhail Ziada, was martyred while carrying out an armed attack against Israeli forces in May last year. The operation was carried out by tanks and armoured vehicles operating under cover provided by helicopter-gunships. It was one of several operations against the Palestinians carried out by Israeli troops in Ghazzah that night.
The Jabalya operations occurred within days of two major Israeli incursions into Ghazzah. On March 2 Israeli tanks and troops attacked Khan Yunis, a town now closely hemmed in by Jewish settlements, which is home to 100,000 Palestinians, known as a Hamas stronghold. An eight-storey apartment-block and five other buildings were destroyed, and a school and hospital seriously damaged. Three Palestinians were killed, the third of them a nine-year-old boy shot dead at the funeral of the other two, and 54 made homeless. There were no Israeli casualties.
The next day Israeli undercover squads, backed by tanks, invaded Bureij refugee-camp in central Ghazzah to capture Mohamed Taha, a veteran Hamas political leader, and three of his sons. Eight Palestinians were killed, including a 13-year-old boy shot in the stomach and a pregnant woman, 33, buried alive under a dynamited house. Two other shelters were demolished and a mosque raked by machine-gun fire. Before leaving, army bulldozers ripped up the camp’s electricity and sewage systems. The PCHR later published evidence showing that Mohamed Taha, his sons and others arrested during the attack had been beaten and tortured in Israeli custody.
These attacks are part of an on-going Israeli campaign that intensified after the destruction of an Israeli tank by a roadside mine on Ghazzah on February 15. The Hamas operation was the first time that Palestinian mujahideen had succeeded in destroying an Israeli tank, which the Israeli army routinely uses as cover for troops in attacks on Palestinian areas.
However, they are also part of a deliberate strategy to target Hamas in Ghazzah, which the Israelis recognise as the mainstay of the Palestinians’ armed resistance to Israel’s plans for the region. The Palestinian Authority and Fatah last month accepted a one-year moratorium on armed attacks against Israeli targets, under pressure from the Egyptians during talks in Cairo.
Hamas recognises, however, that such a moratorium is pointless without any reciprocal commitment from the Israelis — who have killed more than 250 Palestinians in the first 10 weeks of this year — and is only part of Israel’s strategy to disarm the Palestinians and so make their subjugation easier. This Hamas refuses to accept, hence the Israelis’ stated determination to "uproot the military infrastructure of Hamas, with or without a cease-fire."
The Palestinian Authority’s strategy, meanwhile, is to do everything possible to show the Middle East quartet (the US, UN, European Union and Russia, the four powers now coordinating international attempts to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian situation) that they are committed to peace and will welcome international intervention. To this end, they have accepted Egypt’s cease-fire proposal in order to "serve the higher interests of the Palestinian people," in the words of a leadership statement issued on March 3. The second is total compliance with the reform agenda set down by the quartet as a condition for any progress on the diplomatic "roadmap" to peace, now "the sole means to achieve security and stability in the Middle East".
The problem is — as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have recognised, hence their refusal to accept the Egyptian cease-fire — that the international body is putting absolutely no pressure on Israel to accept the roadmap. Instead, the quartet, while rigorous in the pursuit of Palestinian reforms, has done absolutely nothing to prevent either Israel’s continuing military operations, or its deliberate targeting of Palestinian civilians, infrastructure and institutions.
In his desperation to remain relevant to the peace process, despite the Israelis’ oft-repeated statements that he will have to go, Yasser Arafat has been accepting anything and everything put to him by the quartet. On March 3 he announced that he had gained Fatah’s approval for the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister, and that meetings of the PLO Central Council and PA parliament would effect the necessary constitutional changes. On March 9, his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas (better known as Abu Mazen), was named as Palestine’s first prime minister. Abbas had said that he would accept the job only if it had real powers; that remains to be seen.
All this is irrelevant, however, because of a simple truth that only Hamas and Islamic Jihad have had the courage to accept and confront: that Israel does not want any sort of peace settlement, now or in the foreseeable future, on any terms. This has been made amply clear by the statements and strategies of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. His new government consists of parties that have never accepted the peace process, and his new cabinet, announced on March 3, has been described by one liberal Israeli commentator, Uri Avnery, as "the most right-wing, most nationalistic, most extreme and most war-like government Israel has ever had."
Instead, Sharon’s strategy is to impose a military solution on the Palestinians as bloodily as necessary. In order to ensure that he is free to do this, he is placing impossible and ever-increasing conditions on the peace process: thus the Palestinians must end "terrorism and incitement", make "far-reaching reforms" and replace their "current leadership", renounce in advance "the groundless demand for the right of return", and concede that Jerusalem is "the united and undivided capital of Israel".
If the Palestinians carry on refusing to cooperate, he is determined to pursue a military strategy of suppressing all resistance, forcing the Palestinians into ever-shrinking pockets of land, and making conditions so unbearable that increasing numbers will leave Palestine altogether. He is confident in the success of this plan for the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestine because he has realised that the US is willing to accept and back whatever Israel chooses to do. The only apparent obstacle to this plan at the moment is the resistance of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.