Thursday, October 19, 2000

Dear friends,

For all of those who are interested to know how we have been facing the current situation, the following is a bit of an update and a bit of analysis on the present situation.  This analysis is my own and although, to a great extent it is shared by Zakaria, he is not here right and and I will not speak on his behalf – but from extensive discussions of the situation – I believe that we pretty much see eye-to-eye (which is quite different from most Israelis and Palestinians who are talking about “eye for eye”).

The IPCRI Office

Getting to the IPCRI office in Bethlehem can only be done now by taking considerable personal physical risk.  On Wednesday of last week, one day before the lynch of the Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, I was stopped at a Palestinian check point in Bethlehem and told to wait in front of the check point.  Within minutes about 6 young men in civilian dress holding weapons surrounded my car and began interrogating me. I explained to them who I was and that I had an office in Bethlehem.  I gave them my ID and asked to use my phone.  I called Zakaria, who was in the office and he spoke to the officer there.  The officer told Zakaria that they were taking me to the headquarters of the Preventative Security in Bethlehem – something that I didn’t want to happen.  Zakaria immediately began searching for some of the Palestinian security chiefs while I convinced the officer not to take me there but the call the head of Preventative security for Bethlehem – who was in our office just 2 days before.All of this conversation taking place in my less than perfect Arabic. During the next 15-20 minutes (that felt like hours) I was held there on the side of the road with 6 Palestinian armed soldiers telling me I shouldn’t be afraid – I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t be afraid as well (it only worked partially).  Finally a call came from the head of Preventative Security for the Bethlehem area.  The officer asked if I was from IPCRI – I said yes. He reported back and closed the phone.  He then gave me back my ID Card and told me that he had instructions to escort me wherever I needed to go.  I was leaving Bethlehem so I received a military escort out of the city – until the Israeli check point in Beit Jalla.

The next morning we decided that I would travel into the office with Zakaria in his car. There was a complete closure on the territories and the entrance of Israelis to the PA areas was forbidden.  Under normal circumstances when there is a closure there are about 200 ways in and out of Bethlehem – and we know all of them.  We had been using some of them since the beginning of the latest uprising to come and go to the office.  However, on Thursday morning, every entrance was blocked.  The Israeli army had dug ditches in the roads and placed huge boulders and dirt at every entrance. I remembered that a school in our Peace Education program has an entrance on a road that was open and also has a back door into Beit Jalla on a road that leads directly to our office.  We spoke with the headmaster of the school who said that we could leave Zakaria’s car in the school.  We then called our landlord in Bethlehem to pick us up at the school.  Our landlord’s uncle is the commander of PA Military Intelligence in the Bethlehem district and is very well known.  All of the roads in Beit Jalla and Bethlehem were filled with Palestinian soldiers awaiting an Israeli invasion.  We made it to the office without any problem.

At 11:00 we received a phone call from someone in Ramallah that 2 Israeli soldiers were captured and killed there just a few minutes ago.  At 11:45 there were the first reports on the incident on the internet.  At 12:30 the Israeli radio reported the incident without any great detail. It was still quite unclear what had happened there.  At about 1:15 we saw Palestinian soldiers leaving the Bethlehem military headquarters in full gear and carrying lots of equipment.  They entered the olive fields around our office that are across from their headquarters. Several minutes later we heard on Palestinian radio that the Israelis said that they would be attacking Palestinian military installations in Ramallah and in other places. Shortly afterwards, several friends of IPCRI from the area came to our office and told us that it was time to leave – they got no argument from us.  We called our landlord who swiftly returned us to the school.  Zakaria, Birgit (our office manager) and I went to my house in Jerusalem for a cup of coffee and to see the news on TV.  When the first attack by Israeli helicopters took place Zakaria was clearly nervous and felt that tempters were so high he better get home as soon as possible so that he wouldn’t get caught in a lynch by angry Israelis.  He got home in about 15 minutes and I called him to make sure that he was safe and that nothing happened to him on the way home.

So now the office is off limits until things calm down.  Fortunately we have an Israeli teachers training taking place that began yesterday and will go on until tomorrow. It is a great testimony of commitment and hope that this teacher training is even taking place.  Our Peace Education staff of Marwan Daweish, Anat Resiman-Levy, and Nedal Jayousi earn a great deal of credit for making this happen as do the 60 Israeli Jewish and Arab teachers who are participating.  Unfortunately, the Palestinian teachers could not participate due to the closure.  Nonetheless it is quite difficult to talk about peace education when the ground is burning.  A major part of the training is aimed to allow the teachers to talk about the situation and to try and understand what is actually happening and why. It is also aimed at allowing them to vent their anger and fears.

What else have we been doing?

We have been involved in organizing meetings between Israeli and Palestinian politicians aimed at keeping channels of communication open. The Most important of these attempts was a meeting we organized between Avshalom (Abu) Vilan and Musi Raz from Meretz and a senior Palestinian security personality on Sunday night October 1 – three days after the Sharon visit to Al Aqsa.  Abu Vilan is very close to Barak having served as an officer under him in the past. Abu brought a message from Barak to Arafat and requested to deliver it to the Palestinian security officer and we were requested to organize the meeting. At one point in the meeting we had Barak on one phone and Arafat on the other.  Abu Vilan asked the Palestinian security officer what Arafat wanted to put an end to the violence. The Palestinian security officer called Arafat and was dictated a list of seven conditions.  They mainly focused on returning to the situation that existed prior to the events as well as a demand to establish an international investigation to examine the events of the riots and deaths on the Haram el Sharif-Temple Mount after the Sharon visit and after the Friday prayers.  Six of the seven conditions were acceptable to Barak.  There was full objection to any international involvement in examining what happened.  Barak’s office also wanted to check the information from another channel that opened up ½ an hour before our call to Barak.  The Palestinian security officer proposed a Barak-Arafat meeting right there to reach an agreement and put an immediate end to the escalation.  Barak refused and instead sent his confidante – former deputy director of the Shin Bet and Arafat’s business partner – Yossi Ginosar (Known to the Palestinians as Joe) to meet Arafat.  The Ginosar-Arafat meeting turned out as a disaster with mutual screaming and recriminations. We pleaded with Barak’s office to accept the offer for the meeting we tried to arrange because he was all ready to make the preparations to bring Arafat to his office. Barak was in Cochav Yair in his private residence.  All that is now history.

What happened and why?

It seems very unlikely that the Sharm el Sheikh declaration will take hold and be implemented.  The declaration is extremely unpopular on the Palestinian streets where most people believe that they have paid a very high price for a very small return. It will be very difficult for Arafat to impose his will (if in fact his will is to bring about quiet) on the forces in the streets – both those from Fatah and those from the opposition Islamic groups. It seems to me that Arafat’s strategy is based on his conclusion that the Israeli offers from Camp David fell far short of what Arafat believes he could accept and sell to his people and to the Arab and Islamic world – particularly concerning the Haram al Sharif and the refugees’ right of return. The Palestinian position since November 1988 has been based on the claim that they have accepted international law and Security Council Resolutions and that the international community has to insure their implementation in the face of Israeli violations and disrespect of the international community.  In Oslo in 1993, the Palestinians said that they have made an historic compromise and that in the final status talks Israel would have to make its historic compromise. The Palestinians refer to their acceptance of the State of Israel within the June 4, 1967 borders – meaning that they have given up their claim to 78% of historic Palestine – but they would not make any compromises on the remaining 22%.  In Camp David, Barak proposed to withdraw from 90% of the West Bank. Arafat offered Barak 2% for free and another 2% in land exchanges.  This was a very unpopular move by Arafat amongst Fatah activists and Tanzim (the former leaders of the fatah during the years of the intifida who come from the West Bank and Gaza) leaders. In fact a fistfight broke out between members of the Palestinian delegation at Camp David over this issue.

Arafat has always wanted the international community to act in Palestine as they acted in Iraq (Kuwait) and in Kosovo.  Furthermore, he was inspired by the lessons of the Hizballah victory in bringing about an Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon through a guerilla war of attrition. In this few, some 2000 Hizballah fighters defeated the mighty Israeli army. Why can’t Palestinian resistance target key sensitive places such as Rachel’s Tomb, Joseph’s tomb, Netzarim, Kfar Darom, Psagot and other isolated places in the same way that Hizballah did? Recognizing the difference between every other place in the world and Israel, Arafat believes that without great Palestinian casualties the world will not take notice of the need to intervene and impose international law on Israel.  Arafat wants the international community to send troops to Palestine to protect the Palestinian people and to force Israel to accept Security Council Resolution 242.  Understanding this strategy is also the main reason for the strong Israeli objection to the international investigation panel which would have given an official entry into the region and could lead to further international intervention.

Al Aqsa and the Sharon Visit

At Camp David, one of the Israeli proposals for Jerusalem involved the establishment of a small synagogue on the Haram al Sharif in exchange for some form of dejure Islamic control (not Palestinian). At the same time Israeli newspapers reported that the chief Rabbinate in Israel was examining Jewish law with regard to the issue of holding Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.  When Sharon announced his intention to visit the Temple Mount, rumors began to spread throughout Palestine that the Israelis were planning to take over Al Aqsa and to divide it between Jews and Muslims as the Cave of the Patriarchs is in Hebron. Barak agreed to Sharon’s visit for internal Israeli political reasons and thereby led to the catalyst that set the region on fire.  There was clearly a lack of understanding of the intensity of Islamic sensitivities and fears regarding the Haram al Sharif.  There was also a lack of understanding of the frustration of the Palestinians on the ground and the fears of losing their rights through compromises in the peace negotiations.

Another very basic problem in my view emanates from the lack of democracy in Palestine and the tragic relationship that has developed between Israel and the Arafat regime serving the very narrow and short-sighted interests of a small group of people on both sides.  The dwindling support for Arafat amongst Palestinians is a reflection of the contempt that most Palestinians feel towards the Palestinian authority and Arafat and towards the Oslo Process. This also reflects limits that Arafat has had in getting the public into the streets to support him in the past as well as the limitations that he now faces on trying to control the streets.  Israel and the US hold a lot of responsibility for the nature of the PA regime – the subject of which I will devote another letter.

Where to from here? 

It seems to me that there will not be a complete reduction of violence and that the potential for terror is very high.  There will most likely be new elections in Israel and a very weakened Barak has little chance of winning. It seems that in recognition of the fact that Israelis and Palestinians will continue to live here, Israel is likely to take unilateral steps towards forced separation while the Palestinians will take unilateral steps towards sovereignty and statehood. The two sides will try to find a modus vivendi of regulating varying levels of violence between them.

IPCRI will continue to reevaluate the situation to examine ways to keep communication and dialogue open. We are now trying to get the US Ambassador to host a series of high level meetings in his home which we would facilitate.  If this will not work, we will approach several EU Ambassadors to do the same.

We appreciate your support and interest and will keep you informed of our activities.

Gershon