Officially, suspension of armed operations by both the Israeli occupation forces and popular resistance forces in Palestine is holding and there is progress, albeit slow and halting, in the general direction of a future political settlement.
The situation on the ground, however, is very different. After the heady period following the election of Mahmood Abbas, when it appeared there might be a genuine move towards some sort of normality in Palestine, encouraged by promises by the Israeli authorities to scale down their military pressure on Palestinian communities, reality has reasserted itself. On the one hand, it has become clear that the Israelis are attempting to exploit the new political atmosphere to continue redefining the political map of Palestine by building the apartheid wall in Palestinian areas, and by expanding settlements around Jerusalem; on the other, it is also clear that Israel is continuing its military provocations against Palestinians, in the hope that Palestinians will respond and can be blamed for breaking the supposed ceasefire.
In one particularly callous Israeli crime, three Palestinian teenagers were shot dead by Israeli troops while playing football outside their homes in the Rafah refugee camp, close to the border with Egypt. Israeli troops initially reported that they had intercepted a group of Palestinians attempting to smuggle arms across the border; a very different truth soon emerged. Ashraf Moussa (14), Khalid Ghanem (15), and Hassan Abu Zeid (16), were apparently playing football close to their homes with a fourth friend, Ahmed al-Jazar, when the ball accidentally went towards the border security fence. As they went to get it, an Israeli soldier manning a nearby watchtower opened fire.
Dr Ali Mousa, of the Rafah hospital, who examined the bodies, reported that “each boy died from the single high-calibre bullet, one in the back, one in the head, and one in the neck. Whoever shot them meant to kill.” According to some reports, the soldiers may have been watching the boys playing for some time, noting that they were near the fence and hoping for the opportunity to shoot them if they came too close to it.
The Israeli authorities quickly realised that the story that the boys were smuggling weapons was untenable, and prime minister Ariel Sharon reportedly contacted Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to request that he should not allow the incident to spoil the improved political atmosphere in Palestine. Islamic Jihad and Hamas said they would reconsider their truce, and responded to the killings by firing mortar shells at Israeli settlements and military positions in Ghazzah, in accordance with their commitment to respond to Israeli operations.
Although this was a particularly brutal incident, it is by no means the only example of the Israelis’ escalation of pressure on the Palestinians. Palestinian groups have also reported a stepping up of repression and harassment of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank after an initial lull following the Palestinian elections. These Israeli actions have included daily incursions into Palestinian population centres, mass arrests of Palestinian activists, and in some cases the assassination of Palestinians associated with militant groups. The Israeli army has also again set up many of the roadblocks and checkpoints that had been removed in previous weeks.
These moves prompted Mahmood Abbas and PA officials to warn that their actions put the ceasefire and attempts to co-opt Palestinian militant groups into the formal structures of the PA at risk. In fact, that may well be the object of the exercise. Israel was very disappointed with the outcome of the Palestinian National Accord talks in Cairo at the end of March, at which Hamas’s continuing influence over Palestinian politics became clear (see Crescent International, April 2004), and may be trying to precipitate a return to violence from the Palestinian side before the Hamas position is further consolidated by successes in the Palestinian elections due to be held this summer in preference to having to deal in future with a Palestinian Authority in which Hamas plays a major role.
If that is the Israeli plan, it will not be a new departure. Deliberately undermining the political process, and then creating a situation in which the Palestinians are blamed for its failure, is precisely what the Israelis did in the 1990s. Then, it was the Israelis’ constant expansion of settlements and their repeated re-defining of the terms of the various political agreements that were reached, that finally drove the Palestinians to reject the process. Yasser Arafat made concession after concession in the hope of keeping it alive, and maintaining his position as the internationally recognised Palestinian president, but the Palestinian people could only be pushed so far, and Arafat could not offer the Israelis more than the Palestinians were prepared to concede.
Once the process was virtually moribund, Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak could arrange a last-chance summit, which took place at Camp David in July 2000. There they tried to impose a settlement on Arafat that he could not possibly accept; he was blamed for what the western media was fooled into thinking was a very good offer from the Israelis, and the peace process broke down with Arafat appearing to be responsible for it. Two months later, in response to one provocation too far – Ariel Sharon’s invasion of the Haram al-Sharif – the Palestinians launched the al-Aqsa Intifada.
The fact that Israel is in infinitely the stronger position in Palestine, both militarily and politically, with US support, is irrelevant if they cannot persuade the Palestinians to stop resisting their plans. The current political process, like the peace process of the 1990s, is designed to end the conflict on Israel’s terms. In April 2004, George W. Bush gave the Israelis a massive public boost when he said that Palestinians would have to accept the new realities on the ground created by Israel’s expansion of settlements around Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank, and that Israel could not be required to vacate them as part of any final settlement. The US position, which contradicts international law on the issue, rewarded Israel for its abuses over the last 15 years (in the 1990s, Sharon famously told settlers to seize every hilltop in the West Bank, promising they could never be forced off them).
Last month, Sharon was in the US again, meeting Bush at the presidential ranch in Texas and other senior US officials in Washington. This time, the media emphasised that Bush had criticised Sharon for recent land-grabs and warned him against further expansion in the future that might jeopardise the fragile political situation.
The reality is that these protests are for public consumption only, designed to try to fool Muslims that the US is trying to be balanced. In fact, the real business of the meeting was a USpromise to increase aid to Israel. The US already provides Israel with more than $2 billion each year in military aid and $500 million in economic support, and has guaranteed IMF and other international loans worth $10 billion.
If the US really wanted to force Israel to change its policies in Palestine, to stop abusing the political process and risk jeopardising the fragile ceasefire, all it need do is threaten to withhold some or most of this aid. Instead, the US record is overwhelmingly one of supporting Israeli crimes, given which fact it is only to be expected that the Palestinians will face ever-increasing problems in the near future.