[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]
March 18, 2006
This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin
The biggest story of the week was without a doubt the Israeli invasion of Jericho and the prisoner snatch on live TV. A week before the Israeli invasion, the US and UK Consul General’s in Jerusalem warned President Mahmoud Abbas that the British and American prison guards stationed at the Jericho prison would leave unless the PA took steps to protect them and to guarantee that the prisoners inside would not be released. Since 2002, the British and American prison guards have been stationed in Jericho. The agreement was reached between Israel and the PA after the murder of former Israeli Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2002. The suspected murderers at that time were under the protection of Yasser Arafat in the Mukata’a in Ramallah. Israel placed a siege on the Mukata’a and threatened that it would attack unless the suspected killers of Ze’evi were turned over the Israeli forces. The international community feared that Arafat would be killed in the raid and worked out the deal whereby Ahmed Saadat, the PFLP's secretary general; Ihad Alma, the head of its military wing; Majdi Rimawi, who recruited the cell that killed Ze'evi; Hamdi Kura'an, who pulled the trigger; and Basel Al-Asmar, who assisted Kura'an would be imprisoned in the Jericho prison under the watchful eye of British and American prison guards. Once the suspects were imprisoned in Jericho, Israel withdrew its troops from the Mukataa and the siege on Arafat ended.
The prison in Jericho was supposed to function like a real prison, but from the beginning of the deal, the five suspects (who were not formally tried for murder by the PA) and Fuad Shubeiki, former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat's chief financier, who was wanted for his role in smuggling arms into the territories, and particularly his role in financing the Karine A arms ship were subjected to the kind of treatment they would have in a real prison. They had free reign of the prison, not confined to their cells. They had unlimited visitors, free use of telephones, frequent interviews with the local and international press and Ahmed Saadat even ran the campaign headquarters of the PLFP in the Palestinian elections from the prison. Although the Brits and the Americans complained formally throughout the past years on this ridiculous situation, the thing that really brought about the US and UK threat to leave was the fear that the Hamas government, once sworn in would release the prisoners and that it was more than likely that Israel would immediately move in to either capture them or to kill them.
While Mahmoud Abass is clearly at fault for not taking the US-UK letter seriously, it did not seem apparent to him that a new situation had really developed that would lead to the Israeli raid. The Hamas government hadn’t yet been presented and the prisoners were not being released at any time in the coming days. Abbas even left for a European tour thinking that there was no pressing reason not to.
When the British guards left Jericho on Tuesday morning, Israel immediately moved in and placed a siege on the prison and implemented its operation which was appropriately called “pressure cooker”. Three prison guards were killed in the operation. All of the prisoners inside surrendered and those wanted by Israel will now face the rest of their terms in Israeli prisons. The Israelis forced the prisoners to strip to their underwear in front of all of the media. Those humiliating pictures were broadcasted around the world. This was really unnecessary and simply added oil to the fire of hatred of Palestinians towards Israel. It was an embarrassing scene to see those grown men in the briefs and there was no reason why the commander of the operation had to humiliate the Palestinians in that way.
More importantly, the whole unfolding of the events was a great blow to hopes for future international involvement in assisting Israel and Palestine find ways of both managing and resolving the conflict. The foreign prison guards deserted their posts at the first sign of real trouble and Israelis who usually say that we can’t trust foreigners to do these kinds of sensitive security related jobs were proven right in this case. When the jobs in question are so limited in their scope it makes it even more difficult to imagine foreign troops stationed in Palestine to take on more serious peacekeeping missions.
Both Israel and Palestine would like to make revisions in the agreement on the Rafah crossing. The agreements are supposed to stand for review in mid November, but it is already clear that both sides are not satisfied. The Karni crossing is continually closed by Israel because of security warnings. Defense Minister Mofaz has full authority to close the crossing at any time. The agreement stipulated that Israel would make other crossing available if Karni had to be closed. Israel has continually offered Kerem Shalom and the Palestinians have consistently rejected the offer. The reason for the Israeli offer and the Palestinian rejection has to do with the fact that Kerem Shalom is a crossing at the Israeli-Palestinian-Egyptian triangle and as such, with an Israeli-Egyptian agreement could lead to the closing of the Rafah crossing, which is the Palestinians only international crossing not under full Israeli authority.
The Rafah crossing was supposed to have a closed-circuit video system that would enable Israel to act in real-time to prevent any persona non grata from entering Gaza, but the system has never worked. Israel would be very happy to have the Egyptians close Rafah and then the Palestinians would have to come through their watchful eyes once again in Kerem Shalom. So far, the Palestinian Authority has rejected the use of Kerem Shalom even when Israel has said that it would not be used to replace Rafah – there are no real good reasons why the Palestinians should trust Israel, just as there are no real good reasons why Israel should trust the Palestinians. With the Hamas government probably taking power next week, the situation on the ground will most like worsen. The full closure on the Palestinian territories imposed before Purim is now extended at least until after the Israeli elections on March 28. It is very likely that some form of total closure will now become the norm and the impact on average Palestinians will really turn the West Bank and Gaza into a pressure cooker. My advice is: watch out for the next explosion.
Lieberman – Why?
The big surprise in the coming Israeli elections is likely to be Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Betanu party. I don’t think many people know the name of the number two person on the list, yet despite this, it seems that Lieberman will get about 14 seats, making him the fourth largest party in the Knesset. Lieberman is gaining most of his seats from the Russian speaking Israelis because of his tough talk and his platform of ethnic cleansing proposed by a series of unilateral border adjustments. Lieberman, who once supported the greater land of Israel policies, has come to realize that in his view Israel’s main problem is demographic and that Jews and Arabs should not live together in the same state. Lieberman does not go as far as the late Rabbi Meir Kahane who would have forced the Arabs out of Israel. Instead, Lieberman proposes a series of major border adjustments that would put whole communities, such as more than 100,000 Palestinian-Israelis from Wadi Ara within the Palestinian state. Lieberman would make such adjustments even in Jerusalem. This platform has great appeal amongst many Israelis who have become frustrated with the failure of peace processes and have concluded that total separation is preferable to attempts of coexistence.
I believe that there will be other surprises in the final count of the votes. The final results seem to me to be more in question than what the polls have continued to predict for months now. There are still some 20 seats of undecided voters. I can testify that this has been the first time in my life when I have been an undecided voter. We have never had an election with so many undecided voters. As we move closer to Election Day the polls don’t yet show real changes – this is where we stand right now:
Kadima – 39 setas, Labour – 19-20, Likud – 15 seats. Shas 9-11, Yisrael Beitanu – 9 seats, Meretz – 4-6, Yahadut Hatorah – 5-6, United right – 8-9, the Arab parties – 8-9. It also seems that the pot smokers of Aleh Yarok will get in with 2 seats. Some polls put Kadima at 42 seats after the Jericho raid. Some polls also show a decline in support for the Likud. Labour seems frozen and hasn’t moved in weeks. I believe that the polls will begin to indicate some shifts in the coming days as the undecided voters begin to make their decisions. I believe that Likud will continue to decline and Labour will rise slightly. I will make my own predictions a couple of days before March 28.