A R C H I V E S
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|Israel plans big assault if talks fail|
|03/25/02 at 10:10:42|
JERUSALEM, March 24 — As the United States tries to mediate a truce in the Middle East, Israeli military planners are preparing for a major assault on Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps that would be broader and deeper than the offensive undertaken earlier this month, according to Israeli officials.
THE OFFICIALS, speaking on condition they not be identified, emphasized that they intended to give every chance for the cease-fire negotiations under the U.S. envoy, Anthony C. Zinni, to succeed. But they expressed pessimism that the talks would lead to a durable end to violence and terrorist attacks against Israelis.
If the talks fail as Palestinian violence continues, there is widespread and growing support both in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government and in the army for what one official called a “comprehensive military confrontation” with the Palestinians.
“The next days might be crucial, because if we don’t succeed [in the cease-fire talks], we may come to the conclusion that there is no hope, and we have to choose the other way,” said one highly placed Israeli official.
The Israeli warnings seem designed both to prepare domestic and international public opinion for a new round of bloodshed, and to induce the Palestinians to crack down on militant groups and accede to Israel’s terms for a truce. However, previous warnings have been met with Palestinian threats and attacks. Western criticism of Israeli aggression has generated sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
Sharon’s dilemma is that as Israeli and Palestinian casualties have soared in recent months, his popularity has plummeted. Overwhelmingly, opinion polls show that Israelis do not believe the 74-year-old leader has a strategy to extricate the country from one of its deepest crises. When Sharon pleaded with Israelis last month to prepare for a drawn-out struggle, his ratings dipped further. When he also announced last month that his policy was to inflict heavy losses on the Palestinians so they would drop demands unacceptable to Israel, some moderates in his coalition rebeled. His foreign minister, Shimon Peres, has warned repeatedly that there is no military solution to the conflict.
Still, during the past 18 months of Israeli-Palestinian clashes, which have been characterized by a steady escalation of violence on both sides, Israeli officials have frequently telegraphed their punches, as they appear to be doing again.
For instance, early last year, top Israeli generals and officials began speaking openly about the possibility of thrusts into Palestinian-held territory-a scenario that was then considered drastic. When Israeli forces made their first incursion, there was an international outcry, including harsh criticism from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Over time, however, the incursions became routine.
Early this year, senior officials started talking about raids on Palestinian refugee camps, which until then had been regarded as dangerous and off-limits. On Jan. 21, for instance, Sharon said Israel would adopt “totally different tactics” if the Palestinians fired homemade rockets into Israeli territory, which they did five days later.
On Feb. 28, the army attacked the Balata refugee camp near the northern West Bank city of Nablus. In subsequent days, several other camps were attacked-including the largest, Jabalya, in the Gaza Strip-in the widest Israeli offensive in the Palestinian areas since 1967.
The army has acknowledged that the two-week offensive, in which more than 150 Palestinians were killed, achieved at best only part of the desired result. Although several thousand Palestinians were rounded up, virtually all of the most-wanted militants eluded capture. Some weapons were seized, and suspected rocket-making workshops were destroyed, but the Palestinians still have plenty of arms, and last week fired a rocket from Gaza into Israeli territory.
The Israeli assault also appeared to do little or nothing to dent the Palestinians’ will or ability to attack Israelis. In the week since Israel withdrew from the last major chunks of Palestinian territory it had retaken, there have been almost daily suicide bombings, shootings or attempted terrorist attacks.
Now, the talk is of more aggressive military action.
Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the army chief of staff, said Israel’s offensive was incomplete. Other officials have noted that the Israeli attacks had an effect in stopping the flow of would-be terrorists out of areas occupied by the army. There is a widely held view in the Israeli army and security circles that the only way to stop terrorist and other attacks on Israelis is to occupy the Palestinian areas where the attackers live and operate-though even that provides no guarantee, officials acknowledge.
“Let me remind you that during the week of our operation in Ramallah, there was no terrorist attack that came out of Ramallah,” said a senior official, referring to the Palestinians’ unofficial capital in the West Bank. “And in the days since our withdrawal there have been several attacks [from the city], some of which we succeeded in preventing and some of which we did not.”
FEW DETAILS OF PLANS
Officials are reluctant to reveal the details of the military plans, other than to say they could involve the army driving deeper into Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps than it did this month, staying considerably longer and hunting down more suspected militants.
But the officials are mindful that there are limits. No one in a position of power in Israel is seriously considering a complete and indefinite reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza, carpet-bombing Ramallah or destroying the Palestinian water and electricity systems, a senior official said. Officials also acknowledged that Israeli planners are sensitive to the political constraints on an all-out offensive, including the fear of igniting a regional war and the likelihood of criticism by the United States.
In Washington, a sharp escalation in Israeli attacks would likely be seen as undermining the Bush administration’s efforts to muster Arab support or acquiescence for a campaign against Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. In Israel, an escalation could destabilize Sharon’s coalition government, which includes moderates as well as hard-liners.
Moreover, even some proponents for a major new Israeli offensive say they doubt it would end Palestinian attacks, and could even play into the hands of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. “Our dilemma is that all the Palestinians have to do to win is to survive,” said one Israeli official. “That makes them a very hard enemy, but it doesn’t mean you don’t fight them anyway.”
Nonetheless, the officials made clear that Israel could not long maintain what they regard as its current posture of restraint, which has been in place for about a week. Under the informal rules of Israel’s restraint, the army has not stopped operating. But Israel has refrained from launching air attacks in retaliation for Palestinian suicide bombings.
Israeli newspapers have also reported in recent days that Sharon has told the Bush administration to expect an escalation if no cease-fire is achieved. For instance, Shimon Schiffer, arguably Israel’s best-connected political reporter, wrote in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth today that when Vice President Cheney visited Israel last week, Sharon “reached an agreement” with him that if Zinni’s mission fails, Washington would support Israeli strikes on the Palestinians. U.S. officials did not deny the report.
It is unclear when the Israelis would launch a fresh attack, but it probably would not occur while Zinni remains in the region.
Tonight, the fourth meeting in a week of Israeli and Palestinian security commanders under the former Marine Corps general ended without any agreement. Another meeting was scheduled for Monday.
DISAGREEMENTS IN TALKS
The two sides disagree over the timetable for a truce, and over Israel’s demand that Palestinian militants be arrested. The Palestinians are demanding that any truce be followed by a swift resumption of political negotiations that would include a freeze on all construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel refuses to tie the truce talks to the prospect of political concessions, which Sharon believes would constitute a reward for 18 months of renewed Palestinian violence over continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As Israel prepares for the next phase of fighting, many in Sharoj’s hard-line Likud Party have promoted the option of a devastating attack that would topple Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and root out what Israelis call the “infrastructure of terror.” Among the advocates is Sharon’s foremost rival within Likud, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a likely challenger for the leadership of the party and the government later this year or next year.
One of Sharon’s most important coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has added its support to a broad assault on the Palestinians. “They need to be the ones who cry uncle, not us,” the party leader, Interior Minister Eliahu Yishai, told the newspaper Maariv. “I am a moderate person, and if I say this is the solution, then the situation must really be dire.”
|03/25/02 at 10:32:42|
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