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Israel's cruel reign of terror

April 5, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

"ONE MAN, Yasser Arafat, is behind the escalation of terror attacks, and the Palestinian Authority [PA] is taking not the smallest step to stop them." That's how Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened a Cabinet meeting last week, one day before more than 150 Israeli tanks and bulldozers stormed into Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Arafat was left besieged on one floor of the building, without electricity or running water. Yet George W. Bush had the arrogance to demand that Arafat condemn Palestinian suicide bombings. It didn't matter that Arafat did exactly this as recently as last week.

In reality, the U.S. mantra that Arafat "must make a 100 percent effort to fight terrorism" is a way of avoiding the main issue and the true source of violence--Israel's daily humiliation and intimidation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living under its military occupation. "Ariel Sharon has never wanted peace with the Palestinians and never will--he only wants their surrender and expulsion," wrote former British Secretary of State for Defense Ian Gilmour last weekend.

ERIC RUDER explains the background to this latest atrocity in Israel's war on the Palestinians.

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TO UNDERSTAND the bloodshed in the Middle East, it's necessary to go beyond mainstream media reports that portray it as an age-old religious conflict between two groups locked in an endless "cycle of violence."

The roots of this conflict are about land--land stolen from Palestinians to found the state of Israel in 1948, and territories occupied by Israel after its 1967 war against neighboring Arab countries.

Though some Israelis still cling to the Zionist myth that Palestine was "a land without people for a people without land," even high-ranking Israeli government officials admit the truth. "The Intifada is the Palestinian people's war of national liberation," wrote former Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair last month in Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper.

"We enthusiastically chose to become a colonialist society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the Occupied Territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities…We established an apartheid regime."

The 1993 Oslo peace accords were supposed to promote a just settlement for Israelis and Palestinians. But throughout the years that followed, Israel extended its apartheid regime--building more and more settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and carving up PA-controlled areas with Jewish-only roads and checkpoints.

Sharon's right-wing government has overseen the development of 34 more settlements since he was elected prime minister a year ago. But it was the "moderate" government of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak that expanded settlements most aggressively during the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Palestinian living standards have collapsed--and Arafat's PA became Israel's jailer, policing the Occupied Territories in the hope that the negotiations would someday lead to the establishment of a viable state.

Finally, in September 2000, Ariel Sharon--the war criminal responsible for the massacre of 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon--set out to wreck even the window dressing of the peace process.

He made a trip to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque--supposedly, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "to inspect and ascertain that freedom of worship and free access to the Temple Mount is granted to everyone." But Sharon neglected to mention the 1,000 armed guards that accompanied him.

The next day, then-Prime Minister Barak sent a massive police presence to the area--just as thousands of Muslims were leaving the mosque after a day of prayer. Shooting broke out, leaving several Palestinians dead and about 200 wounded. The new Intifada had begun.

In the following months, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), "operating behind fortifications with superior weaponry, endured not a single serious casualty as a result of Palestinian demonstrations," said a United Nations (UN) report. Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinians were killed and thousands injured and maimed.

The UN report also found that "the majority of Israeli casualties resulted…as a consequence of the settlements, and irritations resulting indirectly therefrom. In this regard, account must be taken of settler violence against Palestinian civilians in areas adjoining settlements, and of IDF complicity in such violence."

As the Israeli military tried to repress the Intifada, it literally sealed off towns and villages, imposing an economic stranglehold on Palestinians. Unemployment shot up, leaving more than 65 percent of Palestinian households in the West Bank and Gaza surviving on a median income that is more than 20 percent below the official poverty line.

Only after months of Israel's renewed terror and collapsing living conditions did a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings begin. They were a reaction to unbearable brutality.

As New York Times reporter Chris Hedges wrote in a diary about a trip to Gaza, published in the October 2001 issue of Harper's magazine: "Yesterday, at this spot [outside the town of Khan Younis], the Israelis shot eight young men, six of whom were under the age of eighteen. One was twelve. Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered…but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport."

This is the reality of Israel's brutal, colonial war.

While Sharon blusters about Israel's security, the siege of Arafat's compound has only stiffened the Palestinians' resolve to continue their resistance, whatever the odds. "This stepped-up siege of the Palestinian leader, his possible banishment or death--accidental or deliberate--is drastic enough, but it can only lead to the much more drastic still," wrote David Hirst in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"It will completely strip Sharon of his alibi for his failure so far, exposing the fallacy of the argument that only one man and his 'terrorist infrastructure' are behind the Palestinian resistance. This will be shown to be a movement that belongs to the whole people, which the assault on Arafat can only intensify, not end."

How the U.S. arms Israel's war machine

ISRAEL'S APARTHEID couldn't continue without the support of its main economic and military backer--the U.S. government. Each year for most of the last decade, the U.S. has given Israel about $3 billion in official aid--making it by far the largest recipient in the world.

Israel accounts for about one-third of the entire foreign aid budget--even though less than 0.1 percent of the world's population lives in Israel, and the country already has one of the world's higher per capita incomes. Put another way, Israel's 6 million people receive more U.S. aid than all of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean combined (excluding Egypt and Colombia).

But the $3 billion-a-year figure doesn't even show the full extent of U.S. support. The real figure is about $5.5 billion annually from the U.S.--mostly for beefing up Israel's already fierce military.

The Bush administration is preparing for a war against Iraq--supposedly because Saddam Hussein's regime is developing "weapons of mass destruction." Yet the U.S. lavishes billions on Israel in violation of a U.S. law banning military assistance to any government that refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allow inspection of its nuclear facilities, which Israel refuses to do.

The astronomical levels of U.S. aid explain why Israel today has one of the five most powerful military machines in the world. And it also shows why it's especially important to build a movement in the U.S. that can force the U.S. to end its support for Israel's apartheid.

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