Mission impossible?

A flare-up of Middle East violence, including the assassination of a master Hamas terrorist, may render the peacemaking efforts of new U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni futile.

Published November 27, 2001 8:27PM (EST)

Even before the United States' special envoys arrived here Monday to push Israelis and Palestinians toward a cease-fire, the warring sides were predicting the mission's failure. The mood was never very optimistic, but what faint hopes there were after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced last Monday a new American willingness to help sort out Israeli-Palestinian differences swiftly evaporated by the end of the week, when the country was drenched again in blood and fear.

As America's emissaries prepared to set foot here, Israel went on high alert, expecting a major terror attack in retaliation for the high-profile assassination of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, the leader of the military wing of the extremist Islamic organization Hamas in the West Bank, killed Friday by Israeli missiles. The Palestinian street, meanwhile, seethed with anger and calls for revenge.

"It's frustrating and depressing," said Ziad Abu Amr, a moderate member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a political scientist based in Gaza. "Every time there's an opening you start hoping, but immediately something happens and wastes the opportunity."

In the past five days alone, five Palestinian cousins, ages 6 to 14, were accidentally killed on their way to school by concealed Israeli explosives that were meant to blow up Palestinian fighters. An arch-terrorist and his two associates were obliterated by a rain of missiles fired at their car from an Israeli helicopter. A Palestinian teenager was shot and killed during a gunfight that erupted at the funeral for the five dead boys. A Palestinian woman was shot and killed near an Israeli checkpoint when her taxi failed to stop. Israeli helicopters hit targets from dusk to dawn Saturday night in Gaza. And a Palestinian suicide-bomber detonated his belt of explosives, killing himself at the border crossing between Gaza and Israel and injuring two Israeli soldiers.

An Israeli soldier was killed by a mortar shell fired by Palestinians at an army outpost in Gaza. Palestinian shooting and mortar attacks resumed with a vengeance in many flashpoints that had been smoldering or quiet for the past several weeks. And the Israeli army's chief of staff narrowly escaped death Sunday evening when two roadside bombs, planted by Palestinians, exploded near his convoy.

This macabre list of hits will come in handy this week, when Israelis and Palestinians begin campaigning for American sympathy by trading blame for the escalating violence. On his first two-week trip to the region, Powell's newly appointed point man, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East William Burns and Aaron Miller, a member of past American peace teams, will be subjected by both parties to intense "study sessions." On Tuesday, the emissaries' first working day, an Israeli team will take Zinni on a special "eye-opening" field trip and present him with evidence linking Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his men to terror attacks against Israelis, according to Maariv, an Israeli daily newspaper. On Wednesday, the emissaries will meet with a Palestinian team and be presented with a long list of parallel grievances.

Although the Middle East address Powell delivered in Louisville, Ky., last week was saluted for its balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, in face-to-face diplomacy the United States seems to have granted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon primacy over his old rival Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Sharon is due to meet President Bush at the White House early next week -- a privilege that was denied Arafat earlier this month, when Bush did not even shake his hand at a diplomatic lunch in New York.

Any hopes that America's new involvement might help break the bloody impasse between the two sides were dealt a severe blow by the assassination of the master terrorist Abu Hanoud, on the eve of Zinni's trip to the region. While the Israelis defended Friday's killing as an opportunity strike against a deadly foe, it was seen by many Palestinians and European diplomats as an Israeli provocation blatantly designed to torpedo new chances of reaching a cease-fire. The United States, busy hunting down its own enemies in Afghanistan, was silent on the subject. But the killing of Abu Hanoud, revered as a hero by the Palestinian street, has brought the conflict to a boil after two weeks of relative quiet.

"They don't want quiet," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst. "Whenever Arafat succeeds in reducing Palestinian violence, Israel provokes the Palestinians into a violent reaction. If there were a successful cease-fire, then the two sides would have to address political issues, like the end of settlements and resuming negotiations, that Israel cannot afford to deal with."

For Abu Amr, the political scientist from Gaza, the timing of the assassination followed its own logic; it was not a plot to undermine the success of the American delegation's visit. But intentional or not, the result may be just as disastrous, he said. "The assassinations started and will continue regardless of American visits. This is an independent policy. But it will have an impact. By continuing this policy, Israel expects a Palestinian reaction that will provide it with an excuse for resorting to military solutions to political problems. It helps Israel evade and avoid coming forward to address the political issues included in Powell's speech. The expected Palestinian reaction will play into Israel's hands by freeing Israel from its obligations: It will say, see, we can't talk while there is violence."

Israel defended the assassination as a crucial act of self-defense in light of evidence that showed Abu Hanoud was planning new terrorist attacks. The timing was coincidental: "The target presented itself," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst. "The General Security Services [Israel's security force, also known as Shin Bet] had been trying to get him for years."

Abu Hanoud, 34, was responsible for planning a long list of terror attacks, such as the bombing of a crowded Jerusalem open-air food market in July 1997 that killed 16 people, and the equally devastating explosions at a Tel Aviv disco and Jerusalem pizzeria this year. As a result, he topped Israel's most-wanted list and was hunted repeatedly. Abu Hanoud narrowly escaped capture by an undercover Israeli unit in August 2000 (before the current intifada) in a botched nighttime operation in which three Israeli soldiers were killed by friendly fire. He was arrested this spring by the Palestinian Authority and was detained in Nablus, but skirted death again when the jail in which he was held was pulverized by missiles fired by Israeli fighter jets in May, in retaliation for a suicide attack at the entrance of an Israeli shopping mall. Since then, the "man with seven lives" was on the run. On Friday, thanks to extremely precise information collected by the Israeli security services, a helicopter was able to follow the taxi in which he was traveling with two aides on a small side road in the northern West Bank. To make sure Abu Hanoud would die this time, the helicopter fired seven to 10 missiles at the car. Abu Hanoud's body was so pulverized that it took several hours before he was identified among the three dead.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians attended Abu Hanoud's funeral Saturday, vowing hell and damnation for Israeli civilians, soldiers and politicians. The mass funeral was a show of personal sympathy (Abu Hanoud's violent opposition to the Israelis earned him nicknames like "Robin Hood" and the "father of death") but also a sign of the widespread support Hamas enjoys after 14 months of violence in which Arafat's credibility has been damaged. Given Hamas' surging popularity, the Palestinian Authority has been reluctant to act on American and Israeli requests that they arrest known terrorists, a position that the Israelis say has left them with no choice but to intercept and kill the terrorists themselves.

The killing of Abu Hanoud just days before Zinni's visit does not mean Israel does not believe in diplomacy, said Alpher. "It may inspire Hamas to retaliate at the time of Zinni's mission. But given the lack of peace process, given the Palestinian Authority's refusal to rein in terrorists and Arafat's deception of the international community as to his real intentions, Israel feels it has no alternative. Remember, extremist groups like Hamas have no relationship with the peace process, have always rejected the peace process, so whether or not there's a diplomatic initiative doesn't matter." In fact, Alpher noted, some say that the extremist groups' rejection of any compromise with Israel makes "their need to attack even greater when there's a peace process."

As often in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the reverse argument can be made. According to Abu Amr, the past few weeks' relative calm were the product of an implicit gentleman's agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to keep things quiet. But provocations like Friday's assassination make the Palestinian Authority's insistence on a cease-fire untenable by stoking the anger and resentment of Palestinians and giving legitimacy to violent acts of revenge. "People wonder why the Palestinian Authority should arrest people when Israel is killing them," said Abu Amr.

Even before Abu Hanoud's assassination and the weekend of violence that ensued, there was "skepticism about the credibility of Powell's speech, on whether the United States can follow up on words and apply pressure on Israel to comply with the terms of peace," said Abu Amr. But with the escalation of Israeli violence, he said, the American intervention would be seen as pointless. "If Americans are about to force Israel to negotiate in good faith, how come the shooting is continuing? If this goes on, what's the point in discussing peace?"

After Sept. 11, the Palestinian political elite calculated that it would be in its best interest to be on the American side of the war against terror and made real efforts, according to Khatib, the Palestinian analyst, "to be as quiet as possible." Palestinians were "afraid that Israel would try to link Palestinians to terrorism and gain legitimacy for its attacks against us," said Khatib. They also speculated that the United States would be more open to the Palestinian issue, given America's need to rally Muslim support for its raid against the Taliban. According to Khatib, Palestinians decided to "abide by what Americans want [them] to do," namely cool down the intifada.

Israel, for its part, speculated that the international community would be more sympathetic to what it sees as legitimate acts of self-defense. In its war against local terrorism, Israel chose to step up its campaign of targeted killings, using booby-trapped cars, missiles and remote-controlled bombs like the one that accidentally killed five schoolboys on Thursday.

As a result perhaps of Israel's extra-aggressiveness and Palestinians' relative restraint in the wake of Sept. 11, the ratio of Palestinians-to-Israelis killed has shot up to 8-1. Since Sept. 11, more than 160 Palestinians have been killed in sweeping raids against Palestinian cities and pinpointed strikes. Over the same period of time, about 20 Israelis were killed by Palestinians. (The intifada's overall casualty ratio is about 5 Palestinians to 1 Israeli dead.)

But Israeli security forces claim the discrepancy is a result of their success in intercepting Palestinian terrorists on their way to planting bombs, rather than a sign of deliberate Palestinian restraint. The continuing terrorism and Arafat's failure to take decisive steps against those responsible has forced Israel to carry out assassinations to defend Israeli civilians and is a sign of the "hypocrisy" of the Palestinian Authority, said Alpher: Arafat talks a good game about its commitment to a cease-fire, but hasn't done anything tangible to prevent terror attacks and arrest their perpetrators.

There may be other fakers in the American-Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Both sides suspect that America's new-old involvement in the Middle East could be just a toothless public relations stunt designed to placate the United States' moderate Arab allies. "It's not at all clear what Zinni's mandate is," noted Alpher, the author of a skeptical piece titled "Still no strategy for peace" that was part of a Palestinian-Israeli exchange on the U.S.'s new role posted Monday on the Web site bitterlemons.org. "My question is: Does he represent an attempt by the United States to apply more pressure on Israelis and Palestinians, or an attempt to placate both sides, gain a few more points in the coalition against terrorism, buy a few more months? He's being sent to help parties reach a cease-fire, but it's unclear how much how much clout he will have."

Past American forays into the Israeli-Palestinian morass give little reason to hope for a breakthrough, as long as both sides continue to reject essential compromises and the U.S. is unwilling to do more than cajole from the sidelines. Referring to recent failed U.S.-led missions, Alpher said, "We have a Mitchell document, we have a Tenet document, we may come out with a Zinni document."

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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