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Threatening a "total bloodbath"
Israeli military on the rampage

October 26, 2001 | Page 12

ERIC RUDER reports on Israel's move to the brink of an all-out war.

"A TOTAL bloodbath." Those were the words that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres used to threaten Palestinians after gunmen assassinated Israeli Minister of Tourism Rehavam Ze'evi October 17. Ze'evi's murder marked the first time that an Israeli elected official has been killed by Palestinians since Israel was founded in 1948.

"Everything has changed," declared Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And it did.

Within 48 hours, Israeli forces launched their largest-ever land strike against the Palestinian Authority (PA), entering five of the seven major Palestinian urban areas of the West Bank, taking key positions and threatening to stay indefinitely.

Israeli forces killed some 20 Palestinians, about half of them civilians. "When you operate in a built-up area like the Palestinian cities that are so crowded, [it] is almost impossible to avoid this number of civilian casualties completely," said a top-ranking Israeli army officer.

Israel also demanded that PA leader Yasser Arafat hand over the gunmen who killed Ze'evi as well as leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which claimed responsibility for the assassination.

If these demands weren't met, Israel would "have no choice but to declare the PA an entity that supports terrorism and act accordingly," read a statement from the Israeli cabinet.

But by any standard, Israel has carried out the real campaign of terror. Its forces have assassinated more than 70 Palestinian leaders since the new Intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation began last September.

The PFLP's assassination of Ze'evi was in response to Israel's murder of PFLP leader Mustafa Zibri in an August 27 missile attack.

Ze'evi was a notorious ultra-nationalist politician who recently compared Palestinian laborers in Israel to "lice" and "cancer." His funeral was attended by a parade of racists and right-wingers from across Israel. "Your death was not for nothing--death to Arabs," shouted a woman as his coffin passed.

Sharon praised Ze'evi for how he "zealously fought for [Israel's] freedom with reckless courage." In fact, Ze'evi's "reckless courage" included favoring the forced transfer of Palestinians to Arab nations across the Middle East. When he was chief of the army's central command, he kept a caged lion as his mascot.

But though Sharon is threatening an all-out war, Arafat is unlikely to make concessions as he has in the past. Arafat's credibility has already been stretched to the breaking point, and the sentiment for fighting back against Israel's occupation grows more popular all the time.

In Beit Jala, 75 percent of the 15,000 residents are Palestinian Christians--and a year ago, few said they supported the Intifada. "But now, it is nearly impossible to find Christians in Beit Jala who do not embrace what the Palestinians call armed resistance to the Israeli occupation," wrote the Washington Post.

The Israelis "are just shooting at anything that moves--even dogs, cats or cars," said Maher Abu Amsha, a Palestinian whose cousin was killed in his home by a stray Israeli bullet.

Arafat tried to balance between growing anger among Palestinians and Israel's new threats by rounding up more than 70 activists in the West Bank and Gaza.

Meanwhile, Sharon faces a different set of pressures. Though committed to Israel, the U.S. is pressuring Sharon to pull back out of fear that Israeli attacks on Palestinians will alienate Arab regimes that it wants to keep a part of its "alliance against terrorism."

"Israeli entries into Palestinian-controlled areas are not helpful, complicate the situation and should be halted," said a statement from the U.S. State Department.

So desperate are George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to win Arab support that they recently declared their support for a Palestinian state.

But their blatant cynicism is hard to miss. "It is nice of Blair to declare that the Palestinians have a right to live on their land, to achieve justice and an opportunity to prosper as equal partners to Israel, but did we have to wait for the loss of 6,000 innocent American lives and $100 billion to hear such words?" asked the pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.

So Israel's main backers want to keep a lid on the situation. But the Israeli right is demanding that the PA be drowned in blood.

In fact, Ze'evi's hard-right National Union party was prepared to pull out of Sharon's coalition government, but reversed itself after sensing new opportunities to gain ground.

But an all-out war risks more than provoking U.S. anger. Already, huge protests against the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan are sweeping across the Middle East--especially in countries that are openly collaborating with the U.S.

A war against Palestinians would unleash anger at the U.S. and its Israeli ally on an even more massive scale.

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