On Friday, Israeli security forces seized control of Orient House, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s main headquarters in East Jerusalem. The same day, F-16 warplanes fired two missiles, destroying a Palestinian police station in the West Bank town of Ramallah, while tanks and bulldozers flattened a police post in the Gaza Strip. In Abu Dis, just outside Jerusalem, a complex of Palestinian Authority (PA) buildings was also taken over by Israeli forces.
The offensive was described as being in retaliation for the previous day’s horrific suicide bombing inside a pizza restaurant in a busy shopping district in West Jerusalem by a member of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas that killed 15 people, including six children, and injured at least another 90. Three of those who survived the explosion later died in hospital. Among the dead were five members of one family.
However, the bombing, the first in Jerusalem for some years, was itself in retaliation for the killing of eight Palestinians in Nablus on July 31 by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). The bombing killed two of Hamas most senior political representatives in the West Bank town, in line with Israel’s declared policy of assassinating Palestinian activists that has left over 60 dead. Palestinian sources pointed out at the time that Israel was seeking to provoke a reaction by Hamas in order to justify ending the nominal ceasefire imposed by the US, and escalating its military offensive on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat’s condemnation of the bombing and his call for a mutual effort to renew the ceasefire. Eli Yishai, Interior Minister in the Likud-led coalition and chairman of the extreme right Shas party, said Sharon should now implement the far-reaching plan to attack the PA that was approved after the June 1 disco bombing in Tel Aviv, but which was then deferred following Arafat’s call for a cease-fire.
Coalition chairman and Likud member Ze’ev Boim said that with the Jerusalem attack, “the countdown to the end of the Palestinian Authority has begun.” Boim called on Sharon to apply his policy of “targeted killings” to the upper echelons of the PA. Herut party Knesset (parliament) member Michael Kleiner went even further, saying Israel should assassinate Arafat. “Sharon needs to forget about the response of the world and turn the Oslo clock backward by capturing the PA [territories] and freeing the Middle East of the presence of Arafat,” Kleiner said. Although employing less bloodthirsty rhetoric, Likud’s man coalition partner Labour gave its endorsement to retaliatory strikes against the PA.
Israel’s actions have symbolic as well as practical significance because they assert its control over the very area the PA has said should be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Ahemed Abdel, a senior aide to Arafat, said the Israeli occupation of Orient House and nine other Palestinian government bases “aims to destroy all agreements signed since 1993”, the date when Israel and the Palestinians agreed the Oslo Accords. He continued, “The Palestinian people are left without choice but to escalate resistance and Intifada to liberate holy Jerusalem and regain the Orient House and other Palestinian institutions occupied by Israel”.
There is little doubt that the extreme right within the Israeli ruling elite, including Shas, the Zionist settler parties and significant layers of Likud, are agitating for a military solution, which could include reoccupying the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip. National Infrastructure Chairman Avigdor Lieberman, who is close to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu, Sharon’s major rival in Likud, called for the PA to be designated as a terrorist organisation. Shlomo Benizri, Labour and Social Affairs Minister and Shas parliamentary deputy, denounced calls for negotiations and demanded the attacks against the PA be intensified: “We need to start hitting them in a language they understand,” he said.
Labour leader Shimon Peres, who is Foreign Minister in the coalition government, has been stressing the need to maintain discussions with Arafat, voicing fears that tensions within the PA are reaching flash point. He warned that three million Palestinians had “lived under restrictions for 10 months” and that “this is a key problem which could explode in our face”. However, Peres and others who have called for the door to be left open to negotiations have become increasingly marginalised. Peres complained that Sharon’s refusal to start negotiations with the Palestinians until all violence ends has left the most extreme elements with the power of veto. In response to Peres’ mild criticism of Likud, Lieberman denounced him as being “totally disconnected from reality”.