Dozens of Israeli tanks, backed by helicopter-gunships and hundreds of armoured vehicles, launched a pre-dawn incursion into the Palestinian city of al-Khalil (Hebron) on April 29. At least nine Palestinians (six civilians and three Palestinian Authority security men) were killed as Israeli troops conducted house-to-house searches and arrested some 100 people in the divided city, where some 400 militant Jewish settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves among 120,000 Palestinians. The detainees were handcuffed and blindfolded.
Israel’s army described the incursion as a “limited operation” in response to a daring attack by a lone Palestinian fighter on April 27 in the nearby Jewish settlement of Adora, in which four Israelis were killed and seven wounded. But Palestinian information minister Yasser ‘Abd Rabbo described the assault as a provocation. “Their aim is in fact to widen the attacks and reoccupation of Palestinian cities,” he said in a press interview.
The invasion of al-Khalil showed once more the insincerity and ineffectiveness of US calls for Israel to leave all Palestinian-ruled areas reoccupied since Ariel Sharon (prime minister of Israel) unleashed Israel’s brutal juggernaut on Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps in the West Bank on March 29. Israeli troops surged into al-Khalil a few hours after Israel accepted a proposal by US president George W Bush to end the month-long siege of Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. Saeb Erekat, Palestinian local governance minister, called Israel’s incursion into al-Khalil “an act that reeks of bad faith”. As he said: “The moment we accepted the American proposal, we have an incursion into Hebron...every time we show good will...Israel slaps us in the face.”
Bush’s proposal was to send American and British security personnel to act as ‘wardens’ to guard six Palestinians jailed inside Arafat’s compound whose extradition Israel has demanded. The prisoners are four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who were recently convicted and sentenced by a makeshift PA court in Arafat’s compound for their role in the assassination on October 17 last year of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi, and PFLP secretary-general Ahmad Sa’adat and Fouad al-Shawbaki, a senior Arafat aide accused by Israel of trying to smuggle in arms by sea for the PA, allegedly from Iran, which were intercepted by Israel on January 3. According to the deal the six men were to serve their sentences in a special Palestinian prison in the West Bank town of Jericho. The deal also involved the withdrawal of Israeli troops surrounding Arafat’s headquarters and would enable Arafat, trapped in a few rooms in his shattered office building, to travel freely in Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip, and perhaps even abroad. Bush said that the deal marked “a hopeful day for the region.” However, Bush also said that Arafat must move “in word and in deed against terror directed at Israeli citizens,” adding that the Palestinian leader “must earn my respect by leading.” Other Palestinian resistance groups and the PFLP, which had claimed responsibility for the killing of Ze’evi in retaliation for Israel’s murder last August of Abu Ali Mustafa, its leader, urged Arafat to reject the US plan, but their calls were ignored.
By agreeing to the US proposal and ending Arafat’s confinement, Israel’s intent appears to be to ease the growing pressure resulting from its tense showdown with the UN over a fact-finding mission to Jenin refugee-camp. According to Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz (April 29, 2002), Bush told Sharon in a telephone conversation on April 28 that if Israel accepted the US proposal regarding Arafat, Washington would support Israel in its increasingly heated confrontation with the UN over the Jenin mission. Bush also invited Sharon to Washington for talks. Israeli officials made little effort to keep the Bush-Sharon deal secret. For instance, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, Israel’s deputy defence minister, told journalists: “I assume that ..some sort of agreement was reached, some sort of deal, according to which Ariel Sharon gave up on his insistence that Arafat be isolated in his headquarters...and at this stage, we win US backing concerning our reservations on the issue of the UN committee.”
Meanwhile, at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, an Israeli sniper shot dead Nidal Abayat, 28, one of some 30 Palestinian fighters who had taken refuge in the compound on April 2, as he walked into a courtyard in the church, built over the traditional birthplace of Prophet Jesus (as). Three monks later carried his body out of the compound. But there are signs that the fighters might agree to go into exile to end the stand-off at the sanctuary and allow about 40 Christian clerics and some 200 other civilians trapped with them to leave the basilica. Israel has said that it will continue its siege of the compound until ten of the fighters on an Israeli wanted list surrender to face trial in Israel, or to be exiled. The PA has proposed sending the wanted men to Ghazzah for trial by Palestinian courts. Yet the remaining sticking-point concerns how Israel would deal with the Palestinians in the church who are not on the wanted list. Israel insists on interrogating all the Palestinians taking refuge in the sanctuary, and Palestinian negotiators are worried that Israel could use these interrogations to impose additional expulsions or prison terms on others beside the ten wanted men.
The US proposal came amid a flurry of diplomatic developments. Saudi crown prince Abdullah bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz presented an eight-point plan during talks with Bush at the US president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, on April 26. A senior White House official described the meeting as “very warm” and “quite personal.” Abdullah assured Bush that Saudi Arabia has no intention of using its vast oil wealth as a weapon against the US, which depends on Saudi Arabia for 17 percent of its oil imports. But no joint statement was issued, and Abdullah left without any public comment, leaving a number of his aides behind to continue talks.
The eight-point plan differed in a number of respects from the crown prince’s initiative that was adopted in late March by the summit of the Arab League in Beirut. The initiative had proposed that Arab states offer Israel peace and normal relations in return for Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders and recognition of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But the new plan includes proposals for an end of the Israeli military siege of Ramallah, the deployment of a multinational force, the reconstruction of destroyed Palestinian areas, the renunciation of violence, the immediate initiation of political talks (though Arafat would not necessarily attend the sessions), an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Ghazzah, and the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the Israel-Arab War (1967).
Bush told reporters afterward that he “made it clear to him [Abdullah] that I expected Israel to withdraw, just like I’ve made it clear to Israel.” But, like his previous calls on Israel to end its military offensive in the West Bank, Bush’s message to Israel was laced with ambivalence towards its brutality, which ambivalence Sharon continues to exploit ruthlessly. Bush said that he also emphasised to his Saudi guest that “the Palestinian Authority must do more to stop terror” and that Arab states must condemn it and accept Israel “as a nation and a neighbour.” Bush also reminded Abdullah that “we’ve got a unique relationship with Israel, and that one thing that the world can count on is that we will not allow Israel to be crushed. It’s part of our foreign policy. It will continue to be part [of it].”
Whatever the fate of Arafat and the flurry of diplomatic manoeuvring around the deal to end his confinement, Sharon is not likely to allow Arafat simply to enjoy the authority he had in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip after his return in 1994 following the signing of the Oslo ‘peace accords.’ In fact, the latest offensive, codenamed “Operation Defensive Shield,” was aimed at undercutting Arafat’s leadership and crippling the PA in order to pave the way for a more obedient and cooperative Palestinian leadership. The most likely candidate to replace Arafat seems to be Jibril al-Rajjoub, head of Arafat’s Preventive Security apparatus. Unlike Marwan Barghouti, the popular leader of the Tanzim militia linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement (whom the Israelis arrested on April 17 and who is in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound Jail, where he is being ‘interrogated’), Rajjoub continues to walk the streets of Ramallah freely.
Since he started his career as head of Preventive Security in Jericho after the Oslo accords, Rajjoub has cultivated a reputation for ruthlessness in dealing with resistance activists. He was at ease dealing with Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency, and was on good terms with the CIA. His close relationship with the Americans earned him a trip to the US in 1998. He returned loaded with “gifts,” including sophisticated electronic surveillance devices. Rajjoub is also one of the most notable figures in the edifice Arafat has built in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip since Oslo. He is believed to have used the Preventive Security budget to build a business empire composed of a chain of companies trading in petrol products and gas stations. He also gets a portion of the proceeds of the PA-run casino in Jericho, partly as profits for the shares he owns in the casino and partly as protection money.
Rajjoub has displayed an unbridled passion for repressing dissent. In September 1998, for instance, he ordered his officers to beat up members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) who took part in a sit-in in front of the house of Hamas resistance fighters ‘Imad and ‘Adel ‘Awadallah, two brothers who were murdered in a Shin Bet operation that is widely believed to have been carried out in collusion with Rajjoub. Obviously Sharon could not have hoped for a better Palestinian “partner.” But the long-suffering Palestinian people deserve better. They are also extremely unlikely to accept Rajjoub and follow his lead.