Hopeless in Hebron

As Israeli troops destroy the symbol of Palestinian authority in this biblical city, moderates on both sides say Bush's speech has only made matters worse.

Published July 3, 2002 7:20PM (EDT)

A pile of rubble is all that's left of the symbol of the Palestinian Authority's presence in this divided biblical city. The "Muqata," as the massive British Mandate-era police fort was known, towered over large parts of the city for almost three-quarters of a century. The Israeli army says it blew up the hilltop complex over the weekend because it had information that 15 wanted militants were holed up inside. But after several days of searching through the debris no bodies have turned up, and Palestinians say it was just an excuse to demolish yet another symbol of P.A. control.

"The Muqata to us was what the Pentagon is to Washington, the World Trade Center towers to New York," proclaims Abbas Zaki, in an unabashed bid for Western sympathy. Zaki is a local leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and a member of the Legislative Council, the Palestinian parliament. Under curfew in his house on the edge of the city, he believes, like most Palestinians, that the Israeli demolition of the security and administrative headquarters is part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's longstanding plan to dismantle the P.A. and depose Yasser Arafat -- a plan he charges is now backed by the U.S. "We know that Sharon has wanted this for a long time; now Bush has also said it."

Outside the Bush and Sharon administrations and pro-Likud commentators in the U.S. media like William Safire, it is almost impossible to find anyone who can detect in last week's major Middle East address by President Bush an effort to actually come to grips with the conflict. Instead, both moderate Israelis and Palestinians regard it as yet another attempt by the Bush team to avoid having to deal with the situation. In fact, by setting out the preconditions for a peace process the way he did, Bush has assured that they will never be met. What was needed was not yet another plan, but immediate steps that would have led to a breaking of the deadlock. Bush called for a change in the Palestinian leadership, but the reality is that in the Middle East right now neither side has leaders that are regarded as ideal peacemakers. Yet they are the ones who have to be dealt with.

The successful regime change in Afghanistan, it would seem, has gone to the administration's head. But Palestinians make it clear that no Karzai can be imposed on them.

The only measurable effect of President Bush's speech has so far been to strike dread in the hearts of moderates on both sides of the conflict and to make them despair even more of the chance of effective outside intervention. The Israeli left commented that the speech "could have been written by Sharon." Palestinians just saw it as the confirmation of what they had suspected all along: The United States was, is and always will be on Israel's side in the conflict. What's worse, the perception is widespread that the president totally missed the point when he said: "Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders not compromised by terror."

Arafat has always been regarded as the only Palestinian leader with the clout to make peace in the name of his people, and there is no reason to assume that this has changed, explains Ali Jarbawi, professor of political science at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah. "Anybody who comes after him will be even less likely to be able to make the concessions that Israel and the U.S. are demanding," says Jarbawi, who is also under curfew in Israeli-occupied Ramallah. He is suspicious of the sudden U.S. emphasis on democracy. "For years the Israelis, the U.S. and even the Europeans only paid lip service to the idea of Palestinian democracy because they thought it would be easier to deal with Arafat and the P.A. as they were." He points out that in Jordan and Egypt too, the governments made peace with Israel despite serious domestic opposition.

The main criticism of Arafat by the Palestinians, apart from internal issues such as corruption and governance, is that he is too forthcoming toward the Israelis and Americans, according to Jarbawi. Any successor, he explains, would need to prove himself tougher than Arafat: "They will compete with each other to be seen as more unwavering in their demand for what the people see as the minimum Palestinian demands of full Israeli withdrawal and a state." Jarbawi doubts anybody who comes after Arafat will be able to make peace for a long time.

The speech by President Bush has made it even less likely, though, that Arafat will leave the stage any time soon. In Hebron, Abbas Zaki pours scorn over both the Israeli and the U.S. attempts to undermine the P.A. and its leader. He is very critical of Arafat but explains that the population will back him up now that the U.S. and Israel are demanding his departure. "Arafat was almost finished after the last Israeli offensive," says Zaki, "but now that Bush has put him in the spotlight people are naturally rallying to him."

Many Palestinians were critical of their leader's handling of the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in April and May. The standoff ended with the expulsion of 13 wanted militants to Europe, an unpopular outcome among Palestinians who saw the move as a surrender. When a mediator was needed last week to approach the militants who were presumably holed up in the Muqata in Hebron, the local authorities purposely avoided involving the P.A. and Arafat because of this, tells Zaki. "But we don't have a choice but to back him now that outsiders are demanding his departure."

His views are echoed by Mohammed Dahlan, former head of the Palestinian Preventive Security in Gaza. In the British daily the Guardian, Dahlan wrote:

"As long as the Israelis are against Arafat, I'm with him -- whatever reservations I have about some of the decisions that have been made." Dahlan has long been regarded as a possible successor to Arafat but has never declared any intention of contesting the elections for chairman of the P.A. He is considered one of the candidates who may be acceptable to the Americans and the Israelis, something that automatically taints any aspiring leader, says Ali Jarbawi.

Dahlan obviously concurs, writing, "Bush is now effectively demanding a coup d'itat against Arafat, because the American administration says that even if he is reelected in new elections, it will not deal with him. The result of Bush's speech is that the latest polls show nine out of 10 Palestinians say they would vote for Arafat." Dahlan accuses the U.S. of actually having given up on the peace process, and many Palestinians agree with him.

Even when Arafat was at his lowest point, after the Israeli operation Defensive Shield in May, he was still so popular that he would probably have won an election, says Jarbawi. Now, as Dahlan's letter shows, nobody of any consequence is even likely to stand against him if elections take place. Jarbawi has serious doubts on that score too. "As long as the Israelis occupy the cities, how can elections take place?" He thinks it possible that the soldiers will stay for four to six months and instead of allowing elections, the Israelis will try to reform the P.A. according to their security-oriented demands. Jarbawi even thinks that may have more chance of succeeding than Bush's vision, which is "not even a plan."

Hebron, like most West Bank towns, was reoccupied by the army over a week ago and put under curfew. Since the Muqata was blown up over the weekend, the curfew has been relaxed slightly. Groups of children dart out into the streets the moment an Israeli patrol has passed. Waving their arms, they warn the few cars that venture onto the roads of nearby tanks or jeeps.

Hebron's mayor, Mustafa Natsheh, warns of severe problems in his city if the occupation continues much longer. "It is very difficult even to coordinate humanitarian issues with the army." He is particularly concerned that the garbage has not been collected for more than a week, which in the hot summer weather can cause serious health problems. "The longer the occupation goes on the more problems we will face." The municipality has organized the distribution of some milk and bread. "The dairies provide it for free, otherwise they would have to throw it away anyway. They cannot distribute it, people cannot come to the shops and if they do, they don't have money because nobody can go to work."

Natsheh thinks that the occupation of his city is part of a plan by Sharon to dismantle the P.A., with a green light from the U.S. "That man can only destroy. The Muqata, the Oslo accords, everything."

The idea that Bush's recent speech gave Sharon a free hand is widely accepted among both Palestinians and Israelis. In bitterlemons.org, a Palestinian-Israeli exchange of ideas on peace, the new Palestinian minister of labor and former political commentator Ghassan Khatib wrote, "The conditions Bush placed upon the fulfillment of a peaceful resolution can only result in encouraging Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue his current strategy of reoccupying the Palestinian territories and using force to suppress the Palestinian population with curfews, encirclement, demolition of houses and extra-judicial assassinations."

In the same issue, the Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher took this idea even further: "Indeed, if Bush's message is that a Palestinian state can only be reconciled with Israeli security by deposing Arafat, then it is more likely that it will be interpreted by Prime Minister Sharon -- whose six visits to Washington in 15 months paid off with this speech -- as a green light for Israel to remove the Palestinian leader by force, with potentially violent and escalatory consequences," wrote Alpher.

Fatah leader Abbas Zaki claims that the reoccupation of Hebron was totally superfluous from a military point of view. He says that the city was quiet because for decades the Israelis have retained control of its center, where a couple of hundred Jewish settlers live in an army-protected enclave in the heart of the Arab town. Others, however, acknowledge that the city is a major center for Hamas. The Hamas commander Munahed Taher, who was killed earlier this week by the Israelis in Nablus, was in fact from Hebron.

Mayor Natsheh says that Hebron is about as militant as any other city on the West Bank. "Anybody can become a militant under these circumstances. Violence only breeds more violence, and this occupation may make people more militant."

Natsheh emphasizes, though, that the recent total reoccupation of Hebron is only marginally worse than the siege the residents had been facing for months. "For three months they cut off the city -- nobody could go to work in Israel or somewhere else in the West Bank. Now people cannot even go to work inside the city. The siege was, as far as we are concerned, also an occupation."

The whole exercise is useless, he says. Natsheh believes that once the Israelis leave, even the destruction of the Muqata will not make much of a difference in the role of the P.A. "What do you expect? The city still has to be run, the police will just start patrolling the streets again and nothing much will have changed."

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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