TREMORS GROW AS EVACUATION NEARS
It was the usual theatre of the absurd during July in the turbulent Middle East. At the very moment when most nations on earth were busy rebuking Israeli leaders for trying to protect their citizens from sudden death by building a security barrier around Samaria and Judea, chaos and lawlessness were spreading like wildfire in Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority zones. The worst crisis in the PA’s ten year history prompted Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei to tender his resignation in protest over Arafat’s stubborn refusal to allow significant security and political reforms in his intensely corrupt administration.
Meanwhile Israel’s minority government was enduring its own internal shakings. Over the protests of many Likud party politicians, negotiations began to broaden Ariel Sharon’s wobbly coalition as the battle over his Gaza withdrawal plan intensified. In the north, the Israel-Lebanon border became a battle zone once again as Iranian-backed Hizbullah militiamen shot dead two Israeli soldiers after a leading Hizbullah official was ambushed in Beirut. This came amid media reports that Israel is preparing to destroy Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons production facilities—which some analysts warned might ignite a regional conflict of untold proportions.
The unprecedented crisis in Arafat’s PA zones, featuring inter-Palestinian armed clashes and attacks on PA buildings in several places, has been brewing for many years. Indeed, Qurei’s resignation—which the PLO chief refused to accept—was an almost identical replay of his predecessor’s sudden departure from the same office only last September. It is worth recalling that the first Palestinian Premier, Mahmoud Abbas, was supposed to be the PA “savior” who would either go around Arafat to implement true reforms or persuade his boss to stop stonewalling and finally work with him and the international community to overhaul the corrupt and crumbling PA regime. Instead, Abbas lasted a mere four months in office before Arafat’s obstructionism forced his early departure, along with several fellow reformers. Today, the two PLO veterans refuse to even talk to one another.
One of Abbas’ former reformist partners presented the latest example of just how evil the PA has become under Arafat’s dictatorial rule. While 150 nations were voting at United Nations headquarters in New York on July 21st to rebuke Israel for constructing its obviously necessary security barrier, gunmen in Ramallah fired seven bullets into the home of former PA Information Minister Nabil Amar, who resigned with Abbas last September. The bullets shattered the bones in Amar’s left leg.
Even pro-Arafat Palestinian media outlets admitted that the shooting was undoubtedly carried out by Arafat’s henchmen, probably under direct orders from the PA “president.” But soon after noting that, the same media outlets—obviously cowed by the assassination attempt—began to sharply curtail their coverage of the spreading Palestinian revolt after several Arab journalists received death threats from Arafat’s minions. The intended message to all who would dare challenge the Great Leader was clear: Don’t mess with Arafat, or you will be messed with.
During a television program only hours before the attack, Amar had strongly criticized the Palestinian leader for his repeated failures to heed Egyptian and international calls to carry out security and other reforms stipulated in the Road Map peace plan. The wounded reformer was also physically attacked two years ago after publishing a letter that accused Arafat of missing a real opportunity for peace by rejecting the Clinton-backed Camp David Israeli peace proposal in July 2000.
Israeli officials were pleasantly surprised when a senior United Nations official blasted Arafat’s autonomy government for making “no progress on its core obligation to take immediate action on the ground to end violence and combat terror, and to reform and reorganize the PA.” The uncharacteristically blunt statement, uttered at UN headquarters by Norway’s Terje Larsen, was all the more shocking in that the UN Mideast envoy has been known in the past for his frequent and harsh criticism of Israel (especially during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002), and for his personal friendship with Arafat.
Despite the fact that he also issued his usual denunciation of Israel for “failing to move towards a complete freeze on settlement activities, and failing to dismantle illegal outposts” (as if building a few more homes in established communities, or moving mobile caravans to empty hillsides, is somehow as offensive or irreversible as slaughtering young students on a bus or Jews eating in a restaurant), Larsen was told by outraged PA leaders that he would not be allowed into Arafat’s zones ever again. Fatah’s terrorist wing, the Al Aksa Martyr’s Brigades, and the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group warned that they would assassinate the UN official if he tried to enter Palestinian areas.
The unprecedented internal upheaval in Arafat’s zones began with the audacious daylight kidnapping of widely despised PA Gaza Strip police commander Ghazi Jabali, abducted by Palestinian gunmen as he was driving his private car on July 16th. This was rapidly followed by the seizure of a senior PA security official in the area, Military Coordinator Khaled Abu Ula. At the same time, Palestinian gunmen stormed into a Khan Yunis restaurant and took captive four French aid workers, apparently intending to hold them ransom until their demands were met. However, the four were set free later that day following French government intervention. Arafat was able to secure the release of the two Palestinian security officials the next day. Yet this did not stop him from immediately firing Jabali from his position—adding to speculation that Arafat himself may have ordered his abduction.
The aging Palestinian leader then astonished many of his subordinates by appointing his widely feared and hated nephew, Musa, as overall security commander of the Gaza Strip. The junior Arafat, who was told to restore order as quickly as possible using “all means at his disposal,” is infamous for his flagrant corruption, murky financial dealings and sexual assaults on female associates. Israeli officials say he has also overseen the constructions of dozens of illegal smuggling tunnels in the southern Gaza Strip. His appointment sparked off fierce armed clashes between his uncle’s supporters and opponents, forcing the PA leader to publicly “demote” his nephew to “deputy security commander.” However, this cosmetic action did not fool many people, including the increasingly despondent Ahmed Qurei.
DAHLAN TO THE RESCUE?
Yasser Arafat’s cronies charged that the anti-corruption drive was in reality a power play by former Gaza security chief Muhammad Dahlan, who has clashed with the PLO chief over many issues in the past. They hinted that Egyptian, Israeli and American agents were behind the revolt, using Dahlan as their front man. Some Israeli analysts said this was not an entirely far fetched accusation, given that Dahlan worked closely with CIA agents and Israeli security officials as part of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, and was highly respected by most of them. Still, they noted that Dahlan’s public demands for substantial PA reforms were not initiated by Israel or America, but reflected his own desire—and that of many weary Palestinians—for an end to corrosive corruption and unchecked violence, and a return to safety and sanity in the Arafat-dominated Palestinian administration.
Dahlan was careful to stay in the shadows as the internal Palestinian crisis escalated in July. Despite this, it was clear that he enjoyed widespread popular support in his apparent struggle to dethrone, or at least defang, Yasser Arafat. Dahlan’s supporters swept elections inside Arafat’s PLO Fatah movement in the northern Gaza Strip in late July, and were expected to do the same when elections are held in other PA-run areas. The former security chief promised voting Fatah members that he will prevail over Hamas and other radical groups in the Gaza Strip after the planned Israeli withdrawal from the area, strongly hinting that Arafat would not, or could not, do the same. But many Israeli analysts questioned whether the former security chief could best Musa Arafat and his despotic uncle, who they warned were preparing a serious counteroffensive to crush Dahlan’s supporters in the coming weeks.
Ironically, the Palestinian internal upheaval came just days after Israeli newspapers published reports detailing a Foreign Ministry document warning of massive unrest when Yasser Arafat dies. It said attempts can be expected to force his burial on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—a great honour for any Muslim—which it predicted would lead to major clashes with Israeli forces. The report urged the government to prepare now for Arafat’s possible passing at virtually any time. The world famous PLO leader, thought to suffer from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, possibly including dementia, is 75 years old.
Israeli officials were not surprised when the UN-founded World Court ruled against Israel’s security barrier on July 9th. Still, they were shocked that the 64 page ruling only mentioned one time the main reason Israel is building the barrier—a vicious wave of Palestinian terror attacks originating in the disputed territories that have taken over 800 Israeli lives since November 2000 (another 200 plus people have been killed inside the territories or by other methods). Instead, the justices dwelt on the “hardships” that the “illegal wall” is causing people in the “occupied Palestinian territories”—as if having a loved one suddenly and horribly slaughtered is not a greater hardship to endure, and as if the barrier was not a direct response to horrific and sustained Arab aggression coming from those same “occupied” territories. (Officials said an astonishing 86 suicide attacks had been attempted so far this year by Palestinian terrorists, with “only” three of them resulting in actual blasts).
Israeli leaders pointed out that the erection of the barrier has actually already eased the lives of many Palestinians by enabling the IDF to remove disruptive roadblocks in areas where the fence has been completed. They also noted that the non-binding ruling contained at least one major contradiction: It claimed that Israel was not fulfilling its right, spelled out in Article 51 of the UN Charter, to engage in “collective self defense if an armed attack occurs,” since the repeated terror assaults were not coming from an enemy state, but from territory under Israeli control. At the same time, the judges said Israel could not build a barrier on land that is not inside its national boundaries—in other words, on “foreign” territory. Thus, the judges indirectly stated that in their opinion, Israel is indeed defending itself from “foreign’ attack. Of course, they included all of eastern Jerusalem, including the walled Old City and nearby Jewish Quarter, as part of the “occupied Arab territories”—signaling more international pressure ahead upon isolated Israel to re-divide its sacred capital city.
The well-documented fact that the deadly terrorist assaults are often planned and paid for by governments and groups abroad, especially by Iran, Syria, and their puppet Hizbullah militia in Lebanon—not to mention by Saddam Hussein before his regime was toppled—was totally ignored by the World Court. Still, Israeli officials were heartened that American Justice Thomas Buergenthal issued a minority opinion which upbraided his judicial colleagues for ignoring the "repeated deadly terrorist attacks in and upon Israel proper" and their “bearing upon Israel's legitimate right of self-defense, military necessity and security needs."
Apart from a few Arab Knesset members, Israeli politicians were united in rejecting the World Court ruling. Most also denounced the subsequent UN General Assembly 150 to 6 vote in support of a Palestinian-sponsored resolution demanding that Israel immediately obey the court’s insistence that it dismantle the barrier (which is actually only one-third complete at present) and pay compensation to Palestinians adversely affected by its construction. No mention was made of compensation for the thousands of Israeli families who have been devastated by irreversible Palestinian terrorism.
Israeli leaders were pleased that Australia joined the US and three small Pacific island countries in voting against the resolution, and that Canada was among 10 countries that abstained. But they were extremely upset that all 25 European Union countries voted to support it, including many who earlier agreed with Israel that the World Court (presided over by a judge from Communist China, and including several others from autocratic countries) should not even hear the case. Officials later told visiting EU “foreign minister” Javier Solana from Spain that the block’s uniform vote against Israel (at the urging of France) will preclude the EU from assuming a leading role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Solana smugly replied that the EU was an emerging superpower which Israel could not afford to ignore, like it or not.
PUSHUPS AND PULLOUTS
Ariel Sharon’s minority coalition government suffered a further blow in July when the Israeli leader was forced to fire a senior cabinet minister over his involvement in alleged criminal activities. This prompted the PM to begin formal coalition negotiations with the main opposition party, Labour, and with two religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). However his current junior government partner, the anti-religious Shinui party, warned that it will leave the government if any Orthodox party joins it. Political analysts said the most likely outcome of the talks is a Likud-Labour-UTJ coalition of 64 seats in the 120 member Knesset, with Shinui moving to the opposition.
Many pundits predicted that the negotiations will fail to strengthen the coalition. The biggest obstacle is the fact that up to half of all Likud legislators—led by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom—remain strongly opposed to Labour’s inclusion in the government, fearing it will only speed up Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal. Indeed, Labour negotiators demanded that the evacuation be completed by the end of this year, long before the September 2005 date currently on the table.
Media reports said Sharon’s Gaza pullout could be both swift and imminent, possibly beginning by late August and ending before December. Meanwhile Israeli security leaders publicly warned in July that political assassinations and/or intense civil strife might accompany the projected withdrawal, along with a settler attack upon Muslim mosques on the Temple Mount. Settlement leaders denounced such statements as exaggerated and irresponsible, although all warned that opposition to the pending evacuation is both intense and widespread.
The embattled PM vowed to continue with his controversial pullout plan even after more Palestinian rockets struck Israel from inside the Gaza Strip. For the first time, Jewish civilians were killed when Kassam rockets struck the town of Sderot in early July. Among the victims was a 4 year old boy playing with other children near a kindergarten, and a 49 year old man. The boy’s mother, seriously wounded in the strike, only learned of her son’s fate after emerging from a coma a few weeks later. A second attack came as over 100,000 Israelis were forming a “human chain” from Gaza to Jerusalem in late July to protest the scheduled evacuation, injuring six children, one of them critically.
Sharon was forced to look northwards during the month when Hizbullah militiamen shot dead two Israel soldiers along the international border with Lebanon, prompting a strong military response from IDF forces. The deaths came one day after Ghaleb Awali, a senior Hizbullah leader thought to be the group’s main liaison with Palestinian terror groups, was killed in bomb blast in Beirut. Hizbullah—which publicly admitted for the first time that it is indeed directly aiding Palestinian terrorist groups in their jihad war against Israel—blamed Israeli agents for the explosion. Although Israel might have been behind Awali’s death, military analysts said Sharon is hoping to keep the tense border quiet while his Gaza pullout gets underway. Still, he realizes that Hizbullah, backed by its Syrian and Iranian masters, may attempt to derail his evacuation plan by stepping up attacks along the border, forcing a major Israeli response.
Israeli security officials pointed to evidence in July that Syria is helping its Hizbullah ally place chemical warheads on dozens of rockets, some that can strike Tel Aviv. At the same time, an unnamed senior official told journalists that Israeli air force pilots are training to destroy several Iranian nuclear facilities in the coming years. Analysts said the unusual revelation was probably an attempt by the government to get Western leaders to do more to prevent the radical Islamic regime from going nuclear. Israeli experts predict that the mullahs will possess nuclear weapons that could strike the small Jewish state by 2007 if the international community does not quickly intervene.
Amid growing Palestinian and Israeli civil strife and horrendous external threats, it is good to recall the Lord’s Mount of Olives prophesy that the last days of history would be filled with wars and rumours of wars, along with many other disasters. Although Yeshua noted that the centre of the end-time struggle would be the city of Jerusalem, there is still great hope for this most troubled portion of the globe: It is also the very place where the precious feet of Israel’s Messiah will touch the earth once again! “Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with Him! (Zechariah 14:5)