Israel: "all-out war" against Hamas

With the resignation of Palestinian moderate Mahmoud Abbas and the U.S. caught in an Iraqi quagmire, hopes fade for Middle East peace.

By Aluf Benn

Published September 7, 2003 7:54PM (EDT)

When the Bush administration went to war in Iraq, one of its prime justifications was the positive influence a Baghdad regime change would have over the troubled Palestinian-Israeli conflict: With Saddam gone, the Middle East would be swept by a wave of political change, and new opportunities for peace would flourish under the sun of hope. For a short while, this rosy scenario even appeared to have been realized. The Iraqi regime had quickly collapsed, and its fall was promptly followed by a determined American effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian political process.

The trump card was a gray-haired, bespectacled Palestinian politician, Mahmoud Abbas, known to all as Abu Mazen. Installed into the newly created job of Palestinian prime minister, Abbas was depicted as the new, peace-seeking substitute to Yasser Arafat, the battered veteran leader who became Israel's and America's anathema. President George W. Bush traveled personally to the region to enthrone Abbas, and later brought him to Washington to further reinforce the endorsement. Ariel Sharon, the ever-suspicious Israeli prime minister, met Abbas several times and even praised his nonviolent intentions.

At that hopeful time, only three months ago, nobody had bothered to make the reverse linkage between Iraq and the Holy Land: namely, that an American entanglement in postwar instability and violence in Iraq may also derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. Since close American involvement is an essential ingredient in pushing the Palestinians and Israelis toward even the tiniest progress, any change in Washington's policy focus leads inevitably to turning attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Left to their own devices, both adversaries waste no time in returning to the battleground, even as everybody continues to pay lip service to the road map.

This weekend's events have indeed marked another sharp turn for the worse, as the violent conflict enters its third year. Abbas submitted his resignation on Saturday, after several weeks of hopeless power struggle with Arafat, and few, if any, political achievements vis-à-vis the Israelis. A few hours later, an Israeli F-16 jet bombed an unimpressive building in Gaza, where the senior leadership of Hamas, the Islamic terror organization, were gathered on the third floor. The human targets, led by Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, survived the attack and came out of it only slightly wounded.

The Abbas resignation left a leadership vacuum on the Palestinian side, as Israel and the United States made clear that they are not going to start talking to Arafat again. The Israelis even hinted that any attempt by Arafat to consolidate power might lead to his exile, a longtime pet idea of right-wing politicians and senior military brass in Jerusalem. The political impasse in Ramallah, the Palestinian provisional capital, may last several weeks until some new arrangement can be found; in the meantime, any diplomatic process will be suspended, leaving Israel with a relatively free hand to accelerate its military offensive in the West Bank and Gaza.

The attempt to assassinate Yassin and the other Hamas leaders is a clear signal that Israel has taken off its gloves, and launched an all-out war to destroy Hamas and its smaller sister organization, the Islamic Jihad. The decision to haunt the Hamas civilian leadership, which was off-limits until recently, was made during the Israeli Security Cabinet meeting on Aug. 20. The night before, a Hamas suicide bomber had blown himself up aboard bus No. 2 in Jerusalem, killing 22 Israelis -- many of them children. Sharon vowed to retaliate heavily, and no longer wait for the Abbas government to "dismantle the terrorist infrastructure" in Palestinian-controlled territories. A last-minute effort by Muhammad Dahlan, Abass' defense chief, to buy more time from Sharon was simply dismissed by the Israeli leader, who had lost any confidence in the Palestinians.

Israel wasted no time in implementing its new plan. A day after the cabinet decision, it launched an assassination campaign against Hamas leaders. "The Jerusalem attack had brought Israel to a new chapter in its relationship with the Palestinians," defense minister Shaul Mofaz told the cabinet members on Sept. 1. "It broke the path of giving a chance to the political process, at the backdrop of the Palestinian Authority's passivity regarding fighting terror and its infrastructure. In response, we changed our action policy and waged an all-out war against Hamas and other terrorist elements, including a continuous, prolonged hitting at the organization's leadership and operational levels." Mofaz, a key figure in Israel's political-military leadership, pledged to freeze the political process until the P.A. starts taking care of the terror infrastructures. He also said that Israel has not abandoned the Bush vision, but these were empty words. Israel's leaders have no trust in their Palestinian counterparts, and no real expectations that Palestinian leaders will do battle with Hamas and other militants.

The Jerusalem bombing was a mortal blow to the Abbas experiment, as it ended the "hudna," or temporary unilateral cease-fire, declared by the main Palestinian factions in late June. Abbas had advocated the hudna since last year, as he grew more and more aware of the heavy human and economic toll paid by the Palestinians for their struggle against Israel. Abbas rejected Israel's demand for a forceful Palestinian showdown against Hamas and its likes. Instead, he convinced the Americans to give him a chance to end violence by dialogue and understanding. Israel warned of a dangerous ploy, meant to rearm the militant groups under the cease-fire umbrella. But under American prodding, Israel tacitly agreed to abide by the hudna, which lasted for seven weeks -- the longest such timeout during an otherwise violent contest.

When the hudna collapsed, Abbas' key goal was gone and he was well aware of his untenable position. He showed considerable political courage in asking Arafat to bring all Palestinian security forces under the new cabinet's authority, and thereby fulfill one of the road map's key demands. But Arafat, who retained control over most security organs, balked at the idea, and used the opportunity to return to center stage. Sharon has declared him "irrelevant," and Bush pledged a "new Palestinian leadership," but the old revolutionary proved once again that his eulogies were premature. Soon enough, he celebrated his victory over another hapless challenger. When Abbas came to address the Palestinian parliament last Thursday, he was received by violently demonstrating Arafat supporters. Inside, he blamed Israel and the United States for destroying the cease-fire and preventing progress. "I will not make an effort to keep my seat," he told the legislators, who did not beg him to stay.

Several hours after Abbas' last-ditch appearance before the Palestinian legislative council in Ramallah, a more important meeting regarding his future took place in Washington. Dov Weisglass, Sharon's bureau chief and personal liaison to the White House, came to see his chief contact, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Rice had just returned to Washington from her month away with the president in Crawford, Texas. From there, she watched the road map disintegrating, but offered little help. Now, back at the office, the time had come to reassess the situation and determine what the Israelis are up to.

During the past month, both Bush and Sharon have suffered from a political downturn. Sharon and his sons face criminal investigations for alleged misuse of campaign funds and bribery allegations, which mars the prime minister's public image even as he remains unrivaled in his governing coalition. Bush increasingly seems caught in a quagmire in Iraq and the economy at home is troubled, as he struggles to start his reelection drive on an upbeat note. Both can only miss the invincible image they projected just a few weeks before.

The Israeli embassy in Washington has duly reported to Jerusalem on the changing American priorities. In the coming period, it told the Israeli decision makers, the United States will be absorbed in Iraq; little energy can be spared for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, beyond a general attempt to manage the conflict and avoid excessive escalation. And the Americans will need the Arab states' support for any new regime in Baghdad. Therefore, Washington will be less tough toward Syria, whose support appears crucial to saving the Iraqi economy and trade. The message was clear: A weakened Bush will need the Jewish and Christian right support at home, and Arab help in Iraq. Under these circumstances, he'd have far less leverage over the Israelis and Palestinians.

Given this climate, Israeli leaders started toying again with the idea of expelling Arafat. With the collapse of Abbas, it was clear that Arafat still leads the Palestinians, and can't simply be ignored or "sidelined." Mofaz, who advocated Arafat's exile in his previous position as the military chief of staff, brought the idea back to the public attention. This time, he was backed by security and intelligence chiefs, who had warned against such a move in the past, fearing its regional reverberations. Now they appeared to have changed their minds.

Weisglass came to Washington to exchange views on Abbas' survival chances and possible successors -- and to expand Israel's options against the Palestinians. During the previous two weeks, the Bush administration had backed Israel's assassination campaign against Hamas leaders. Furthermore, it assisted Israel in convincing the European Union to declare the political wing of Hamas a terrorist organization. Israel was asked only to avoid hitting civilians, and to ease some restrictions over the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza. Promptly, when Weisglass flew to America, Israel announced 18,000 entrance permits for Palestinian day workers and merchants (they were revoked on Sunday, due to the higher terror alert after the failed Yassin assassination).

In the Thursday meeting, Weisglass gave Rice a lecture on Arafat's negative influence. He portrayed the Palestinian leader as the main source of trouble, who blocks any attempt to fight terrorism and move the process forward. Then he described Israel's military actions, warned of a possible offensive in Gaza, and concluded: "If the Palestinians won't fight terrorism, we will."

The Americans understood the message as an Israeli request for a "green light" to do away with Arafat. Though she has no sympathy for the besieged Palestinian leader, Rice rejected any attempt to harm him. She reminded Weisglass of the old understanding that Israel will not act against Arafat without consulting Washington -- a diplomatic no. Don't surprise us, she warned her Israeli guest. Sharon understands that the Americans are focused on Iraq, and therefore wants to avoid any development that may cause regional unrest, like Arafat's forced exile. According to the Israeli account of the meeting, Rice was not explicitly criticizing Israel's military actions. She only asked that Israel avoid harming innocent civilians and carefully consider the broader regional consequences of any action.

When Weisglass returned to Israel on Friday, Sharon and Mofaz were already busy with their next endeavor, killing the Hamas leadership. Good intelligence indicated that Yassin and his lieutenants were about to convene at the Gaza building on Saturday afternoon. The Israeli leaders had no hesitations about the operation, but questioned the right means to attack the terrorist hideout. The place was surrounded with other buildings. Using a heavy bomb could definitely destroy it, but also risk civilian life. In July 2002, Israel used a one-ton aerial bomb to kill Saleh Shehade, a key Hamas operative, but the bombing also cost 15 innocent lives.

This time, Sharon got the updated message from Washington regarding his operational boundaries: The White House would tolerate anti-Hamas actions, as long as there is no collateral damage. According to senior Israeli sources, the fear of hitting civilians dictated the use of a smaller, 500-pound bomb, which hit the building but failed to accomplish the mission. Militarily, it was a big miss. Diplomatically, it kept the understanding with Washington, a pillar of Sharon's policy.

Sunday morning, Sharon played business as usual, convening budgetary meetings and preparing for his trip to India, the first ever by an Israeli prime minister. Israelis waited for the expected Hamas retaliation. Meanwhile, the struggle for the Palestinian leadership remained open.

Israeli officials say that the current crisis has positive implications, since it has torn down the masks of illusion over Abbas and the Palestinian intentions. Now it's clear that Arafat has been in power all along, and the Palestinians have never been willing or able to tackle terrorism. Any hopes that Hamas, or Arafat, would voluntarily give away its arms and its power have been shattered by the gloomy reality.

What happens next? Sharon will likely abide by Washington's guidelines, and will not expel Arafat yet. However, Israeli officials maintain their constant threat to oust Arafat if he attempts to regain overt control, or if his loyalists launch a massive terror attack. The prevailing opinion at Sharon's office is that Arafat will try to avoid the risk and opt to reappoint Abbas, or someone similar, but with stronger authority. "With Abbas gone, Arafat lost his insurance policy," said a senior Israeli official. "Now Arafat will have to buy a new, and costlier, insurance policy." Abbas said no on Sunday to the suggestion of returning to his evacuated seat.

Arafat then told allies he wants parliamentary speaker Ahmed Korei, a moderate respected by the United States, to be the new prime minister. Korei, also known as Abu Ala, helped develop the 1993 interim Oslo peace accords with Israel and could win support from the U.S. and other Western powers.

Nevertheless, the crisis appears to be in its early stages, and so is Israel's all-out campaign to "dismantle the terror infrastructure." In the meantime, the United States, waiting for Bush's face-saving address on Iraq Sunday night, has called off the planned trips of senior officials to the region, all but leaving its Mideast envoy, John Wolf, alone in the field, attempting to fulfill his mission impossible of monitoring the progress of the road map to peace.

Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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George W. Bush Iraq War Middle East