Palestinian ‘president’ Yasser Arafat and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres shook hands —briefly and sullenly — on a new agreement for a ceasefire and confidence-building measures towards a restoration of the ‘peace process’ at Ghazzah Airport on September 26, two days before Palestinians were planning massive protests to mark the first anniversary of the intifada. The agreement followed a two-hour meeting effectively ordered by Washington, in order to consolidate a nine-day truce agreed a week after the attacks on the Pentagon and WTC on September 11 and the subsequent Israeli onslaught on Palestinian towns, in which more than 20 Palestinians were killed. A follow-up meeting is expected after a week.
Under the terms of the agreement, Arafat agreed to a resumption of security co-operation with zionist authorities under the auspices of the CIA, while Israel agreed to lift the economic embargo on the West Bank and Ghazzah, and to withdraw its armour from Palestinian towns; it is unlikely to fulfill these promises. The agreement is supposed to lead to a lasting ceasefire, as proposed by CIA chief George Tenet in June, and then the implementation of the recommendations of the Mitchell Report, designed to create a phased return to the peace process.
Initial meetings between the security agencies will take place on September 27 (after Crescent goes to press), to be followed up a week later. The meetings are likely to result in demands by Israel that the Palestinian Authority arrest Islamic movement activists who have played a leading role in the intifada. This is a part of the Mitchell Report, but Israel is likely to demand it immediately, as a precondition to any movement on its part. Israel’s main obligation under the Mitchell Report is the freezing of all settlements, which Israel is unlikely to fulfill.
Even as the new agreement was being signed, however, realities on the ground in Palestine were very different. A 16-year-old Palestinian boy was killed and nine others wounded later the same day, when Israeli troops opened fired on them in Rafah in southern Ghazzah, near the Palestine-Egypt border. Israel said they had been throwing stones, while Palestinian witnesses said that they were playing, and that the firing was unprovoked. Earlier in the day three Israeli soldiers were injured in an explosion at an army outpost in Rafah; even an Israeli army spokesman suggested that the boys had been shot in retaliation.
After a decline in Palestinian deaths in recent months, as the result of a deliberate Israeli policy to maim rather than kill, there has been an sharp increase in such deaths last month, with more than 30 people martyred. At the same time, there has been pressure for progress in talks from the US, seeking to minimise friction as it builds its ‘anti-terrorist’ coalition in preparation for a response to the attack and a probable occupation of Pakistan or Afghanistan, or both. The result has been the traditional Israeli strategy of demanding peace talks while stepping up its violence, and Arafat’s traditional response of entering into agreements even as Palestinians are dying every day.
While Israeli politicians seemed to share in the West’s shock at the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, they also welcomed them as demonstrating to the world the threat of ‘Islamic terrorism’ which they claim to have been facing alone, and which they believe justifies every action they take. Even while they condemned the attacks, therefore, Israeli politicians such as Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres were seeking to make political capital from them.
Their first response was a sustained military assault on Palestinian towns and villages, in the Jenin area in particular, on September 11-12. Twelve Palestinians were killed in the first day’s attacks, which involved tanks and helicopter gunships, and in which homes, schools and a hospital were shelled. The death toll rose to more than twenty over the rest of the week, before a cease-fire was agreed a week after the US attack. This did not prevent the continued economic embargo and military occupation of Palestinian areas, however, and the resumption of routine, lower-level harassment of Palestinians.
It remains to be seen whether the US’s determination to impose some sort of order in Palestine in order to prevent distractions from its operations elsewhere will win out over the zionists’ instinct to make the most of the world’s attention being distracted from its crimes. The first test will come on September 28 (after Crescent press time), when Palestinians celebrate the anniversary of the intifada.
Whatever happens later, the reality is that the first year of the intifada, which began as a protest against Israeli aggression against al-Haram al-Sharif (hence its early name, the al-Aqsa Intifada), before developing into an all-out rejection of the peace process, has totally transformed the situation in Palestine. The Israelis’ assumption, that they could impose peace on any terms and Arafat would eventually agree, has been destroyed; few now believe that the peace process can be rescued, however much Israel and the US may want it.
The price that the Palestinians have paid for this resistance has been enormous. More than 700 have been martyred and countless thousands more wounded, maimed, bereaved or imprisoned and subjected to appalling treatment in custody. The greatest burden has been borne by Palestine’s youth; many of the victims of zionist repression have been children.
The life of all Palestinians has also been blighted by Israel’s economic warfare. The West Bank and Ghazzah have been under an economic blockade for almost a year. The result of the blockade is that every crossing point and every road is manned by Israeli troops who inflict appalling humiliations on all Palestinians seeking to cross them. Even Israel’s own humanrights agencies have catalogued numerous cases of Palestinians being killed “without provocation” at these roadblocks.
Shortly before the meeting on September 27, Israel announced the creation of a ‘buffer zone’ sealing the territories off from the rest of occupied Palestine. Israel’s plan may be to reverse this decision as its fulfilment of the agreement on September 27, leaving the rest of the blockade in place.
Meanwhile the Palestinian economy has virtually ground to a halt. The total loss so far during the intifada is estimated by the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction at $4.25bn. More than 4,000 homes have been destroyed, and more than 150,000 fruit trees uprooted. Unemployment has increased from 11 percent to more than 50 percent.
Despite these hardships, however, the Israelis have failed completely to dent the Palestinians’ determination. Support for the peace process has fallen from 38 percent before the intifada to 21 percent now, according to one survey. Another indicates that Arafat’s popularity has fallen to barely 21 percent, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad are supported by more than 30 percent of Palestinians.
The intifada began as a popular uprising but has now become a guerrilla war with massive popular support. Palestinians themselves compare their situation directly to that of the Hizbullah in southern Lebanon, which resulted in Israel’s ‘withdrawal’ from Lebanon in May last year. This is what the Palestinians now expect the Islamic movement to achieve.