Shaheed Samer Karameh was buried with full military honours on March 17, the day after he died in a Palestinian hospital. The 13-year-old boy had been hit in the head by a Israeli rubber bullet while watching a Palestinian demonstration in his home town of Al-Khalil on March 11, while on his way from school.
His burial, arranged by Hamas, was the tragic culmination of a week of serious troubles in Palestine which seemed briefly to threaten (or promise, depending on one’s point of view) the possibility of another intifadah, before international politicking subsumed the popular movement once again. However, Israel and its allies were left in no doubt that Palestinian anger and frustration are closer to the surface now than they have been at any time since the 1993 Oslo accords under which Yasser Arafat’s PLO took limited control of parts of the occupied West Bank on Israel’s behalf, under cover of autonomy.
The latest troubles started with the killing of three Palestinian workers on March 10, when Israeli soldiers opened fire on their van at the Tarkumiya military checkpoint eight miles outside Al-Khalil (called Hebron by Israel and the west), in an area supposedly under Palestinian self-rule. This was perhaps a relatively minor incident compared to previous Israeli atrocities, but the scale of the reaction reflected the months - indeed years - of growing Palestinian anger at Israeli arrogance and the impotence of Arafat’s PLO which claims to represent them.
Israeli realisation of the danger was reflected in the reaction of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who actually expressed regret and sympathised with the bereaved families in a television interview. His words - ‘we have had tough experiences, we and you, Israelis and Palestinians... I know the price you have paid and the pain you are feeling, and want you to know that from our point of view we will do everything possible to promote peace between us’ - impressed few Palestinians, who have seen the extent of Israeli sympathy in practice. But, along with other unusual Israeli acts, such as criticising Jewish settlers for attacking Palestinians during the troubles, they are indicative of Israel’s profound fear of the power of the Palestinian people, should they launch another uprising.
Just as afraid, however, were the people who claim to represent and lead the Palestinians. PLO leader Yasser Arafat has long been warning Israel and the west that he would not be able to suppress Palestinian anger much longer. The need to stay ahead of those he claims to lead has recently led Arafat to threaten another intifadah and to promise Palestinians that he will unilaterally declare Palestinian independence in 1999 if there is no ‘progress’ in the stalled ‘peace process.’
While Arafat was publicly demanding an Israeli apology and that the shooting be investigated, his police were co-operating with the Israeli army to ensure that the popular protests did not get out of control. Indeed, after the shooting of Samer Karameh, the Palestinian police actually took over much of the crowd control work, to minimise risk of a further Israeli-Palestinian clash which might lead to a deepening of the crisis. This role as a cushioning barrier between the Palestinian people and the Israeli forces was precisely what the Israelis had in mind by transferring security operations on the West Bank to the PLO, and the latest events showed the strategy working to perfection when the need arose. It is now clear, however, that Israel and its western friends have decided that they must permit Arafat some ‘success’ politically if he is to remain useful to them.
British foreign secretary Robin Cook’s visit to Jabal Abu Ghnaim (now called ‘Har Homa’ by the Israelis) on March 17 can be seen in this light. The European Union, which he was representing, is not a factor in Middle East politics; the US alone mediates between the two sides. However, Cook’s visit to Jabal Abu Ghnaim, even though he was forced to change his plans by the Israelis, was presented as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat, and criticism of Netanyahu’s plans to build a new settlement there. This, it was clearly hoped, would focus Palestinian attention on the ‘peace process’ once more, and suggest to Palestinians that Israel is under international pressure to make further concessions, thus raising their hopes of political progress and distracting attention from more effective strategies.
At Muslimedia press time, the announcement of an American initiative to re-start the ‘peace process’, is expected at any time. It is hoped that signs of progress on the political front will avert the risk of popular feelings getting out of Arafat’s control. Some likely elements of this initiative have already been unofficially revealed, following visits to the Middle East by Martin Indyk, the Australian-born Zionist Jew who is Clinton’s under-secretary of State for the Middle East, and Madeleine Albright, secretary of State. These include a proposed Israeli withdrawal from ‘13-15 percent’ of the West Bank and other similarly cosmetic measures. These are not a direct response to the latest troubles. The west has long been aware that the Palestinians anger and frustration was reaching dangerous levels and would soon need to be released. The new proposals, whenever they are announced and whatever they may be, will have been thoroughly planned and carefully designed to adjust and improve Israel’s grip on Palestine through subtly different means, and with the support and assistance of both the international order and Arafat’s ‘Palestinian National Authority’.
Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1998