NEW YORK — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to keep Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat under siege in the West Bank city of Ra- mallah shows an utter disrespect for the Palestinian leader and for the Palestinians. While Sharon insists that Arafat will not leave the city until the assassins of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi are apprehended, those in Israel responsible for assassinating scores of Palestinian leaders in state-sponsored terrorism go free, with no Israeli commitment to capture and punish them.
Coming on the heels of the destruction of the runway of the Palestinian-controlled international airport in the Gaza Strip and the destruction of the road between the towns of Rafah and Khan Younis, Sharon’s decision can only have ominous consequences for the chances of peace in the region.
The latest Israeli moves follow the Jan. 3 seizure of an arms-loaded boat that Israel alleges was Palestinian-owned and a serious threat to the Israeli population. Yet the United States sends Israel weapons worth about $2 billion a year, weapons that are used for attacking and killing Palestinian soldiers and civilians in unequal battles pitching high technology against stones.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell backed Israel’s demands that Arafat arrest and try those responsible for trying to smuggle weapons aboard the vessel in the Red Sea, adding that the arms shipment was a violation of the Oslo accords of 1993. But so is Israel’s continuing building of settlements, the assassination of Palestinian leaders and the attacks against the civilian population.
Why is it OK for Israel to continue to receive U.S. arms to assassinate Palestinians, but not OK for the Palestinians to defend themselves?
As Khalil Jahsan, vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee recently said, “Why is the Israeli side allowed under Oslo to continue to arm itself and continue to administer violence against the Palestinian people, when the Palestinian people are not allowed even to use stones? If Yasser Arafat was not bringing in weapons to defend the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation, he wouldn’t be fulfilling his responsibility.”
Israeli reprisals have been brutal and indiscriminate, involving civilian non-combatants, women and children. According to the Israeli military command, following the Jan. 9 attack by two Hamas guerrillas that killed four Israeli soldiers, the Israeli army demolished 20 uninhabited Palestinian homes. The International Committee for the Red Cross, however, said that 93 Palestinian homes had been demolished by the Israeli military, leaving more than 600 people without homes.
It is “a prime example of excessive and unreasonable force” and “a shameful chapter” in Israel’s history, said Zeev Schiff, an Israeli military affairs analyst, because there was no military need to do it.
The Palestinians are not blameless in this process. They have also attacked civilian populations and killed innocent women and children. Given the phenomenal difference in arms between the two sides, though, their actions can be interpreted as desperate measures by people whose basic rights have been systematically denied, including the right to have a country, the right to work and the right to basic standards of sanitation and health. Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza look like Gruyere cheese — where the holes are the settlements — rather than an independent country of which people can be proud.
Unrelenting Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas, the demolition of dozens of homes, the continuation of the siege against Arafat in Ramallah, more construction of settlements and state-sponsored assassinations of Palestinian leaders seem designed to crush any prospect of peace in the region.
Humiliating Arafat further and allowing more radical groups to take control is not in the service of peace. Until both sides in the conflict are treated under the same rules, the specter of violence will continue to dominate the political landscape in the Middle East.