Ariel Sharon’s ascension to the zionist premiership late in February has had marked effects on the zionist strategy for countering the on-going Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation. Other things, however, have remained very much the same.
On March 24, the body of 44- year-old Jabri Ahmad Hamda, from Dora Al-Khalil, was found near the Halmesh settlement north of Ramallah. He had been beaten to death. He had been missing from his home for a week, and Palestinian medical officials confirmed that his death had occurred about a week before his body was discovered.
At about the same time that Hamda disappeared, a 10-year-old boy was killed in similar circumstances. Muhammad Nassar from Dahiat al-Barid in east Jerusalem disappeared on March 16 after leaving his home at 3.30pm to go to a nearby playground. When he did not return, his family reported him missing to the police. Two local Israeli police stations refused to help. At 1.30 the next day his body was found in woodland near the Neve Ya’kov settlement a short distance from Dahiat al-Barid. He had been beaten about the face and body and then his right wrist had been sliced by a sharp knife.
According to LAW, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights, Jabri Ahmad Hamda and Muhammad Nassar were among 5 Palestinians martyred during the third week of March. Among the others were Muhammad Abu Oun (21) from al-Shaih Radwan in Ghazzah, and Kamel Al-Jamal, 32, a Palestinian policeman officer from the al-Shate refugee camp. Four others were wounded in this incident, in which a Palestinian watch-tower was shelled by Israeli troops stationed 500 metres away.
The fifth was 12-year-old Lu’ay Al-Tamimi, who was declared dead on March 14 after being shot in the forehead during protests at the east entrance of Deir Nitham. Lu’ay was shot by a new kind of bullet, called a ‘winged rectangular bullet’, fired by Israeli soldiers in a vehicle parked about 200m away.
LAW also catalogued eight other incidents that week in which Palestinians were injured by firing by Israeli soldiers. A total of 29 Palestinians were reported to have been wounded, including a fisherman hurt when soldiers on shore fired on his boat, apparently in sport, and eight children injured by a grenade fired into a school-yard. Seven incidents of Israeli soldiers shelling buildings were recorded; in one, four children in a mosque in Rafah were injured. Numerous other forms of harrassment were also recorded, incluuding arbitrary detentions, beatings, assaults. Also reported were several cases of the demolition of houses and the destruction of olive, citrus and fruit orchards.
LAW also reported three incidents of settlers attacking Palestinians. Increasing belligerence of the part of settlers has been a feature of the intifada, particularly since Sharon was elected. On March 22, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem confirmed earlier Palestinian reports, saying that the Israeli military provided “a tacit but definite consent to the settlers to murder Palestinian civilians”.
On the face of it, this typical week in occupied Palestine would seem to confirm that Ariel Sharon is fulfilling his promise to be tougher on Palestinians than his ‘moderate’ predecessor. In fact, it represents a reduction of violence compared to Barak’s period, with fewer deaths than average but an apparent increase in targetted and indiscriminate harrassment. All the while, of course, the Israelis are maintaining their demand that Palestinians stop their violence against Israel.
However, the continuation of such tactics is no longer the main plank of Israeli strategy; rather they have become supportive tactics for a new Israeli policy. Sharon has evidently learnt from Barak’s experience, and shifted his policy to a new focus: economic warfare. The buzzword in Israel is ‘suffocation’; as usual with the zionists, this is a euphemism for something far cruder: starvation.
Under Barak, Israel had ceased payments of customs dues and other funds to the Palestinian Authority, and instituted routine closures of the West Bank and Ghazzah. Sharon brought this policy into the centre-stage of zionist tactics, when he sent troops to dig a series of moats around key Palestinian towns. The digging of a moat around Ramallah caught the attention of the world media, blocking access to the town from 33 villages north of it, effectively imprisoning 50,000 inhabitants and preventing access to 160,000 others. But in previous days, similar trenches had sprung up — so to speak — around Jericho, Bethlehem and most other West Bank towns. In Ghazzah, the equivalent is scorched earth surrounding and encroaching on Palestinian areas.
The economic impact of the closures have been noted before. An estimated 250,000 Palestinians have lost their jobs; a third of the population have lost their incomes. The knock on effect can be imagined. The International Red Cross said last month that some villages are effectively destitute, and people are facing starvation.
The US and Israeli elections earlier this year provided an artificial urgency to the early weeks of the intifada. It is now clear that the Israelis are prepared to try to starve the Palestinians into submission, and that US president George W. Bush, who has shifted the focus of his Middle East policy from Palestine to Iraq, is effectively indicating his acquiescence to this policy. Sharon visited Bush in the White House last month, in a meeting of the two new chiefs of the West’s Middle East policy. Both being newly-elected hawks determined to take a hard-line with their respective problems, it must have been a meeting of minds indeed.
Although the intifada is rightly seen as a Palestinian rejection of the peace process, the course it has taken reflects some of the process’s achievements, from the zionist point of view. The first Palestinian intifada of 1987-89, which effectively brought the Palestinian masses to the forefront of the struggle, in place of the moribund PLO, was a popular, urban uprising in what Israelis saw as their heartland. This uprising, by contrast, has a distinctly territorial element, with protests and clashes taking place on clearly defined front-lines between Israeli-controlled and Palestinian areas.
A key element of the Oslo process was separation of Palestinians and Israelis, as a basis for security. This has evidently been achieved, despite a brief flaring of Palestinian protest within the Green Line (separating ‘Israel proper’, ie. the territories occupied in 1948, from the West Bank and Ghazzah) early in the uprising.
The problem for the Islamic movement is that, for all their rejection of the principles of the peace process, they have to live with, and work within, its consequences. The intifada has seen growing support for Hamas as the leading Palestinian group in the occupied territories, but at the same time its ability to reflect this standing by actually providing leadership to the uprising has been hampered by the continued repression of its members and activities by Yasser Arafat’s security services.
Instead, Arafat’s Fatah movement has used its advantages as the established authority to seize the initiative in the uprising, and with it the potential to determine its future direction, or even to wind it down over time, in order to facilitate a resumption of the political process. A series of ‘civil protests’ against the Israeli digging of trenches by women’s and artists’ groups in Ramallah may have been a step in this direction.
The first intifada was subverted by Yasser Arafat acting on behalf of his new Zionist allies, against the Islamic groups that threatened his leadership. For all Sharon’s invective against Arafat, it may well be that he is expected to do the same again to draw the sting out of this second intifada too.