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Iraq and Palestine: two theatres of war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 April 2002

Colin Powell returned to Washington last week having made virtually no progress during his convoluted travels across North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. President Bush’s call for an Israeli withdrawal three weeks ago was ignored. But even this unsuccessful attempt to influence Ariel Sharon was enough to increase pressure on him from the Israeli lobby in Washington. This included a remarkably warm reception given to Sharon’s representative, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, by a cross-party group on Capitol Hill.

One of the reasons for the current influence of the lobby is the manner in which it has become possible to connect the attacks on New York and Washington with the bombings that have had such an effect in Israel. To a wide swathe of domestic US opinion, the Israeli action is perfectly consistent with America’s war on terror, and this makes it so much easier for Israel to maintain support in the United States.

There may still be a certain diversity of opinion within Washington, with some experienced officials in the State Department much more conscious of the strength of Arab opinion and the risk of instability across the region. Even so, the administration remains firmly committed to Israel and even to the Sharon government’s current hard-line policies. Israel remains the largest recipient of US aid, the 2002 programme including $2.04 billion in military aid and $730 million in other support, close to one-fifth of the entire US aid budget.

Iraq: still the eventual target

Although attention is currently concentrated on Israel, the longer-term aim of terminating the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq remains very much on the agenda. Military action may not happen for many months yet, not least because of the need to produce sufficient quantities of specialised munitions, but forces are already being gathered in the region. It has now been confirmed that a substantial expansion of base facilities in Qatar and Oman is under way, one reason being that there remains a question mark over Saudi willingness to allow their bases to be used in any attacks on Iraq.

Another indication of the US policy towards Iraq is the success of the US action in forcing the head of the Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) out of power. Jose Bustani of Brazil was regarded by the US as too supportive of the idea that Iraq might take up membership of the OPCW. If Iraq became subject to OPCW inspections, this would make it more difficult for the US to take military action later in the year.

Most analysts believe that, in the face of a likely US attack, the Saddam Hussein regime will appear to concede the need for UN inspections of its weapons of mass destruction facilities, playing out the process for as long as it possibly can. This would only delay, not prevent, a US attack. But the aim would be to enhance support across the region, making it more difficult for the United States to rely on assistance from neighbouring states.

There is, though, an alternative Iraqi strategy which would make war much more likely in the short term – even before the autumn. For the Saddam Hussein regime, the most important thing by far is regime survival, transcending all other political aims. If the regime is convinced that the Bush administration intends to destroy it, then it could well provoke a crisis that forces the United States to take military action long before it has the necessary forces to enable it to threaten the regime itself.

It is just possible that the current efforts by the Iraqis to upgrade their air defences might develop into a sustained process of infringements of the no-fly zone. This could happen within the next month, but might be more likely during the hottest time of the year in July. It would present Washington with a dilemma – either attack Iraq without the forces necessary to destroy the regime, or appear weak in the face of Iraqi provocation.

Iraq, in turn, could present its actions as legitimate defence, a tactic that would be readily accepted in much of the Arab world. It would come at a time when Iraq is gaining favour by its support for Palestinians, both through its embargo on oil exports and the monetary aid that it is feeding through to bereaved families and the newly homeless in the West Bank.

Sharon’s fourth aim

At the start of Israeli military action in the West Bank last month, the official line of the Israeli government was that there were three aims. One was the isolation of Arafat involving the reduction of his status to the point where he became irrelevant. This was most noticeable in Sharon’s talk of a “one-way ticket” for the Palestinian leader. The second was to take into custody or kill those responsible for the suicide bombings that were having such an appalling effect on Israeli society. The third was to uncover and destroy the arsenals of weapons and explosives that supported Palestinian militancy.

While these were the stated aims, it quickly became clear that there was a further aim – the systematic dismantling of the security and administrative infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. As Israeli troops have withdrawn from some areas, the extent of this last aim has become apparent, with frequent and independent reports of extraordinary damage done to administrative centres. Furthermore, this has extended to support infrastructure including water and electricity supplies, roads and even sewers, as well as to radio and television stations.

One of the features of Palestinian life in recent years has been the growth in the number of such media outlets, part of a network of around fifty radio and TV stations throughout the occupied territories. Most of these are private, there has been relatively little in the way of censorship and they have helped to enhance a Palestinian sense of identity. During the recent occupation, many of these were occupied and then destroyed, including the majority of the six radio and six TV stations in Ramallah alone.

The destruction was specific and well-organised, with soldiers using sledgehammers to work their way through the studios and control rooms, systematically destroying the cameras, recording suites, control systems, computers and transmitters. Much of the equipment had been provided by government and private agencies from overseas, and its destruction will further damage Israel in the eyes of many organisations.

There has been a similar problem of the effects of behaviour in relation to the international media. Many individual reporters, sound recordists and camera operators attempting to report on recent developments on the West Bank have experienced considerable difficulties and, on occasions, violence, from Israeli soldiers, behaviour that will further lose them sympathy for their predicament from the international media.

The behaviour of the Israeli troops should not come as a surprise and stems from two main factors. One is the manner in which Israel has traditionally used very tough military force, including heavy weapons, in any circumstances where there is armed opposition, not least because it places a premium on the safety of its own troops. Sharon, with his particularly hawkish approach, has no problem with this tactic, indeed he encourages it openly to the extent that middle-ranking army officers know that they will not be limited by the attitudes of their superiors.

The second concerns the situation is which the young soldiers find themselves, especially conscripts and reservists. Although the Israeli army is extraordinarily powerful and well-equipped, it has faced determined and sometimes effective opposition from Palestinian militia defending their own homes and communities. Considerable fear and apprehension is present among the soldiers, few of whom have experience of urban conflict and guerrilla actions. There is, furthermore, no direct military answer to suicide bombings, just a constant concern that any Palestinian might be a threat.

The effects of Sharon’s war

One long-term question here is what effect Sharon’s actions will have on Israeli society. He currently retains strong support, not least because of the traumatic effects of the suicide bombings. But prior to the recent military action there was a growing movement of “refuseniks”. They may be greatly strengthened by soldiers, especially reservists, who have first-hand experience of the behaviour of the army in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus and especially Jenin.

Overall, the less obvious aim of the military action, destroying infrastructure, will greatly limit the ability of the Palestine Authority to function for many months to come, but it does not appear to be in any sense limiting Palestinian determination to respond to occupation. This becomes more clear when one considers the results of the stated aims of the military action.

According to Israeli army sources, two hundred and fifty Palestinians have been killed, one thousand five hundred have been arrested, and a further three thousand were detained for interrogation. According to an army intelligence source, seventy per cent of top, wanted Palestinians have been detained or killed. By one measure, only eight of a list of thirty-three wanted Palestinians are still at large.

Other Israeli sources suggest a very different picture, with many of those targeted slipping away. Nor is it clear that Israeli intelligence was particularly good at identifying the most significant people. There has been little military action in Hebron, a centre of Palestinian resistance, partly because the presence of controversial Jewish settlements in the heart of the city makes military operations difficult.

Independent assessments are difficult to make, but it has to be remembered that the Israeli action was cumulative – spreading across the West Bank over more than two weeks. The earlier actions made it clear that one of the purposes was to detain or kill militia leaders, so it follows that in the later incursions there was plenty of time for key leaders to get away.

More significantly, almost all of the Hamas leadership is concentrated in Gaza, which has so far been left out of the military action. There have also been surprisingly few reports of Israeli soldiers identifying and destroying arms dumps or explosives factories, and little effort has been made to demonstrate such success. Furthermore, suicide bombings continued even during the military occupation, with devastating incidents in Haifa, Jerusalem and in the Jenin refugee camp itself.

Palestinian sources are adamant that any disruption of their paramilitary actions will be temporary at most. The Washington Post quoted one analyst, Samir Rantisi: “The Israelis can capture ten activists, but the end result is there are a hundred who crop up. And those have learned the lessons of the previous ten.” As one of Sharon’s advisors, Danny Ayalon, acknowledged: “We have a few hundred that are captured members. However, we didn’t touch at all the other tens of thousands, with their weapons, who are still in place”.

Finally, and most significant of all, has been the change in the status of Yassir Arafat. Far from being sidelined, his position appears to have been substantially strengthened. When one analyses this, it is quite remarkable, and almost certainly unexpected as far as Sharon’s advisers are concerned.

For close to four weeks, Arafat has been restricted to a few rooms in his bombed-out headquarters, lacking electricity and sanitation facilities for most of that time. By rights, he should now be an irrelevance, yet he has become more symbolically powerful than ever before.

One key reason for this has actually been the Israeli insistence that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority declare a cease-fire before a full withdrawal. But the very fact that this is required of him implies that he has such a power, and draws international attention to his position.

What next?

After four weeks of military action, any independent analysis is forced to conclude that Sharon has not increased Israel’s safety or security. The evidence is actually to the contrary. Arafat is, at least for the time being, in a stronger international position than a month ago and Israel’s international standing has been substantially damaged, made worse by the current opposition to the UN investigation in Jenin. Palestinian resolve appears to have been strengthened, in spite of the casualties and destruction, suicide bombings have continued, and very many young Palestinians have been further radicalised.

The Israelis have refrained, so far, from military action in Hebron, and action in Gaza has been limited. There is an international assumption that Israeli action is now more or less complete, and that a slow withdrawal will take place – the end of Sharon’s “Phase One”. There is a further assumption that “Phase Two” will be some kind of enforced physical separation of the West Bank Palestinian communities.

In practice, though, the geography of Israeli settlements in the West Bank makes this formidably difficult and, in any case, Israel is so dependent on the water resources of the region that enforced separation would be against its own interests. It would, furthermore, be a tacit admission of defeat for Sharon.

More generally, one substantial effect of the recent Israeli actions has been to increase support for radical Palestinian factions, not least in Hebron but especially in Gaza. Phase Two may therefore actually be a renewed military campaign in both places. There is still little realisation outside of Israel that Sharon is single-minded in his pursuit of control, and heads a government that includes even more hard-line factions and is almost entirely impervious to international opinion.

War in Hebron and Gaza may come anyway, but it will be even more likely if there are further bombs in Israeli cities.

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