Summit deal but Palestinians are still dying
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat reached an agreement to end Israeli-Palestinian violence this week, but it initially looked increasingly irrelevant as the violence continued. The agreement for an end to violence, concrete steps to eliminate friction and a joint effort to prevent a recurrence of the last 20 days' bloodshed, was reached at the Sharm al-Shaykh Egyptian Summit.
On Wednesday, as we go to print, there are news reports that moves have at last begun toi implement that deal, with security officials from Israel and the palestinian Authority meeting to work out a timetable.
US President Bill Clinton had convened the summit on 16 October. American interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has normally been confined to support for the Israeli military and inspired by a predatory interest in Middle-Eastern oil reserves.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have said they will both take ``concrete measures'' to end the 20 days of violence that have claimed 105 lives, 98 of them Palestinian, in the Occupied Territories and Israel. Israel is said to have agreed to end its siege of Palestinian population centers, pulling back its forces to the positions they occupied on 27 September. But the popular uprising in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza showed no signs of abating.
Through direct action and with growing Arab and international support, a large section of the Palestinian people are demanding an immediate end to the occupation. Seven years after that famous handshake on the White House lawn, the Oslo process has brought no real progress toward a just and lasting peace, they say.
Palestinian opposition groupings, including Hamas and dissenters in the PLO, were already denouncing the agreement, some of them terming it a ``betrayal'' of the dead. And, most significantly, some of Arafat's supposed loyalists, including the Fatah in Gaza and Marwan Barghouti in the West Bank, were calling for continued protests against occupation. This will add to Ararfat's concerns as he prepares for an Arab summit this week, at which he is likely to receive criticism from hardline Arab representatives from Iraq and Syria, who oppose normalisation with Israel.
The 12 October killings and bombing had fanned the flames of the uprising, sparked by Ariel Sharon's entry into the Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem, with the full backing of the minority Labour government. At first, vocal, non-violent protests at Sharon's visit were led by a coalition of Palestinian leaders. The following day, seven Palestinians were shot dead within the Haramal-Sharif by Israeli troops. By 30 September, the flames of this act had spread to most cities within the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Palestinian communities within Israel experienced their most severe confrontations since the establishment of the Jewish state. Within an additional week, numerous villages became actively involved as well, a development which in both 1936 and 1988 signified the transition from popular uprising to sustained rebellion.
Most clashes have pitted civilian demonstrators armed with stones and petrol bombs against Israeli soldiers firing tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition, including high-velocity bullets which fragment upon impact. Where such confrontations escalate, and in those instances where armed Palestinians have become involved, Israel has deployed heavy machine guns, tanks and attack helicopters. Israeli soldiers most often fire from reinforced concrete bunkers where they are in no physical danger. The widespread use of snipers, in combination with the large and growing proportion of head and chest wounds sustained by unarmed demonstrators, has reinforced the Palestinian conclusion that Israel is applying a ``shoot to kill'' policy.
Israel claims that Arafat instructed the dominant Palestinian political faction, Fatah, to incite the Palestinian public to demonstrate and throw stones at soliders. The uprising is unquestionably being led by Fatah and its cadres have played a greater role in the armed clashes than the PA security forces. But Fatah's ability to mobilize the Palestinian street was reliant on a widespread disillusionment with Israeli behaviour. It is likely that there is nothing Yasser Arafat could have said or done to incite Palestinians more than Israel and its actions. Fatah's success in sustaining the uprising reflects, above all, the cumulative popular anger at continuing Israeli impunity in the Occupied Territories.
The Sharm summit agreement shows that the Oslo process has so far survived the uprising and Israel's unprecedentedly direct attacks on the PA, if barely. Whether by design or default, Israel and the PA are now vying for advantages at the negotiating table. While the Oslo framework for Israeli-Palestinian relations has undergone severe strain, it has remained intact because neither Israel nor the PA have a viable alternative. Even if, on the Israeli side, a Labour-Likud coalition government should emerge, it is highly unlikely to risk the international isolation which would result from ending the Oslo process.