| Internally displaced
What must cause even greater concern than the murder of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin — the paralysed, half-blind, wheelchair-bound leader of the Hamas movement committed to Israel’s destruction — is what the act says about Israel’s intentions, not just in the Gaza Strip, peopled by the wretched of the earth, but in the abundant West Bank, seized from Jordan in 1967.
A respected independent Islamic theologian, Yassin was west Asia’s Bhindranwale, encouraged by Israeli hardliners to challenge Yasser Arafat’s secular leadership. He became dangerous only when, disillusioned by Ariel Sharon’s betrayal of the peace process, he turned against his mentors. The global outcry at his assassination, even from Western protégés like the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, raises the spectre of Samuel Huntington’s cultural clash just when the outcome of the Malaysian elections had kindled the hope that some parts of the ummah might be eschewing fundamentalism. Given the unanimity of this condemnation, and George W. Bush’s deafening silence, Pervez Musharraf must surely squirm under the accolade that Colin Powell has bestowed on him. The white elephant with which legendary Siamese kings ruined favourite courtiers was nothing in comparison.
Israel’s security concerns, which deserve understanding, would be solved if it vacated conquered territory and retreated to its 1967 borders. Instead, Yassin’s killing draws attention to its regional intentions. The murder did not sound the death-knell of the so-called Middle East road map, the two-state solution deriving from the 1993 Oslo process endorsed by the United States of America, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
Yassin would still have been alive if the process had not already been dead, and if Sharon had not been busy putting the finishing touches to an alternative that will add fuel to fire for Bush’s war on terrorism. That alternative firmly precludes any possibility of a viable sovereign Palestine ever emerging.
The killing takes us back to February 2 when Sharon dropped the bombshell that Israel would unilaterally evacuate the Gaza Strip which it conquered from Egypt, also in the 1967 war, and which Egypt gladly abandoned when it got back the Sinai peninsula. Sharon told his ministers that the 7,500 inmates of the 17 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip were “a security burden and a source of continuous friction”. Israelis were as astounded as Arafat, incarcerated in the shelled ruin of his Ramallah headquarters in the West Bank.
But, first, Sharon has to disabuse jubilant Hamas activists, who foolishly rejoiced over the announcement as a victory. He must demonstrate that Israel is withdrawing voluntarily, at its own pace and on its own terms. The plan to liquidate the entire Hamas leadership — now confirmed by several Israeli leaders including the defence minister, Shaul Mofaz — is a primary condition to make life safer for Gaza’s Jewish settlers. Israel is not abandoning them; it is making their position invincible, with Egypt reportedly agreeing to police the Strip and prevent the Hamas from launching more suicide attacks.
That makes sense in the hard currency in which Sharon, his hands still bloody from the slaughter of Palestine refugees in Lebanese camps, deals. But even so, it leaves unanswered the central question: why should Israel, which pays not the slightest heed to the world’s urgings or to moral and legal considerations, suddenly choose to give up any land at all'
The answer is that while Gaza is not worth the candle, Israel has set its sights on the far richer prize of the West Bank. It is the Jews’ Judea and Samaria, their Promised Land of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. That explains the high-powered mission led by Israel’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, and national security adviser, Giora Eiland, that Sharon sent to Washington last week. They had no need to explain the murder, for campaign compulsions would have ruled out any condemnation of Zionist actions that might offend America’s rich and powerful Jewish lobby even if Bush disapproved.
He doesn’t. Undoubtedly, he looks on the killing as another worthy blow against terrorism. As Israelis have reminded the world, both Bush and Donald Rumsfeld applauded when an American Central Intelligence Agency drone similarly eliminated another Arab militant, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, in the Yemen in 2002. While Bush urged the hunting down of his enemies, Rumsfeld gloated that the killing was “a very good thing”.
But the US alone can underwrite Israel’s surreptitious and continuing land grab in the West Bank. Invoking a 1858 Ottoman land law, it has already seized 59 per cent of the territory while its security apparatus controls the 22 per cent under the Palestinian Authority. The 106 Israeli settlements with a population of 400,000 are administered by 23 local authorities. The 2.2 million Palestinians, who are being increasingly marginalized, are not allowed to use the network of security roads that links Jewish settlements.
The 700-kilometre fence (walls, rolls of razor wire and deep ditches) that Israel is now building at a cost of $ 2 million per km will encroach on another eight per cent of the West Bank. The UN has denounced it as “an unlawful act of annexation”. The UN human rights commission warns that by cutting off 210,000 Palestinians from employment, schools and social services, the fence will breed a “new generation of refugees or internally displaced people”.
Unemployment is a high 60 per cent; Palestinian houses are regularly demolished on planning grounds and their villages are starved of water. Palestinian fields and orchards are lopped off by Jewish settlements, Israeli fortifications, roads and fences. The Hague regulations expressly forbid such permanent changes in occupied territory, and Israel’s supreme court as well as the International Court of Justice at The Hague are hearing petitions against the fence.
Did Israel ever intend to honour the peace-plan commitment to a Palestine homeland' Did the US, the principal broker and supervisor of the process, believe in its protégé’s good faith' It is difficult to say. But it is undeniable that every Israeli prime minister — even Yitzhak Rabin, whom a Zionist fanatic gunned down in 1996 for shaking Arafat’s hand over the Oslo accord — has encouraged waves of settlers in the West Bank. Some pleaded security, some a mystic Biblical ideology, some a mix of the two. They were in flagrant violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids an occupying power to transfer its citizens to the occupied territory.
Even Shimon Peres, the proclaimed dove, rules out Palestinian independence and reiterates that the region has room for only two sovereign nations, Israel and Jordan. He refers to a “Palestinian entity” and never to a Palestinian state. “Jordan is Palestine” is Israel’s political slogan. Peres even denies the existence of a Palestinian people, arguing that they are Arabs who have in recent years and for ulterior motives assumed another identity. The most Israel will concede — that too in some remote future — is limited village autonomy in small, encircled pockets of the West Bank, in a confederation with Jordan and heavily policed by Israel. Its main purpose will be to provide Israel with cheap labour.
What price then the road map' Since its demise matters more than Yassin’s death, it should cause no surprise if fanatics like Osama bin Laden, the taliban’s Mullah Mohammad Omar or the new Hamas chief, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, reap the ugly harvest of anger when the scales drop from Arab Islamic eyes.
The clash of civilizations of which Huntington warned may still be a distant rumble, but the context of Sheikh Yassin’s assassination reinforces the polarization of cultures. Trite gestures like rewarding the ummah’s Uncle Toms with honorifics like “Major Non-NATO Ally” do not camouflage the conflict. On the contrary, remembering Hashemite Iraq and Pahlevi Iran, Musharraf must know that no kiss of death could be more fatal than such signs of US approbation.