Israel Update for June 2005

David Dolan
David Dolan

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians rose substantially during June as the government-approved deadline for Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip drew near. One senior Palestinian official warned that a new wave of full-scale Arab terrorist violence was imminent. With opinion polls showing a significant drop in Israeli public support for the pending Gaza withdrawal, fresh cracks appeared in the shaky Sharon government coalition. This came as Israeli leaders ordered air strikes in the Gaza Strip in response to renewed terror attacks which left four Israelis dead and several others wounded. Meanwhile lawlessness escalated in Palestinian Authority zones, indicating that total chaos could engulf the Gaza Strip after Israeli soldiers evacuate the coastal area in mid-August.

The lack of trust between Israeli and Palestinian leaders was amply demonstrated during a formal meeting between them on June 21. Led by Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas-who terms himself a "president" even though he has no state to govern, just semi-autonomous zones operating under overall Israeli control-Palestinian officials called the meeting a failure due to "Israeli intransigence."

The Palestinians were especially unhappy that senior Israeli government leaders refused to discuss their demands for a release of some 10,000 prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails, including several prominent terrorists who ordered mass murders, such as jailed Fatah official Marwan Barghouti. They also wanted a commitment that Israel would allow the closed Gaza international airport to be reopened, immediately stop all construction in disputed Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, and give a written pledge that more evacuations of such settlements would be quickly forthcoming.

Instead of these things, Palestinian leaders complained they had mainly been "subjected to a humiliating lecture" by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as one PA cabinet minister put it. PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei called it "a difficult meeting that did not live up to our expectations." He added that "in all the basic issues for which we were expecting positive responses, there were none." Abbas was said to be so upset that he refused to answer reporter's questions after the meeting adjourned. However some press reports said this was actually due to his failing health following heart surgery earlier in the month.


Ariel Sharon attempted to put a more positive spin on the tense meeting, which took place in his official residence in central Jerusalem. He maintained that some important agreements had been reached, especially over the planned Gaza evacuation. "We agreed on full coordination of our departure from the Gaza Strip which will assure a quiet withdrawal, a move that is best for both sides," he said in speech following the talks.

Sharon also noted that he had offered to quickly withdraw Israeli military forces from two large Palestinian towns, Bethlehem and Kalkilya, despite the high risk that terror attacks would resume from both locations. He said he had also told Abbas that he was ready to allow the return of around 20 Palestinian gunmen who were sent abroad or to Gaza after they took control of Bethlehem's historic Nativity Church in 2002 and held hostages in it for several weeks. He would also sanction resumption of halted construction of a Palestinian seaport in Gaza City; permit some 26,000 unemployed Palestinian workers to return to their jobs inside of Israel's pre-1967 borders; and relax border crossing requirements for other Palestinians wishing to enter Israel.

However, Sharon added that he had indeed nixed the PA proposal to reopen the international Palestinian airport. He said it must remain closed since it had been used to smuggle in heavy weaponry, including rocket launchers, when it was operating before September 2000, despite Yasser Arafat's pledge to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres that this would not take place. He also pointed out that Israeli leaders have made clear for many years that "Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands" (i.e. those directly involved in slaughtering Israeli citizens) would not be set free as part of any final status peace accord.

The Israeli Premier admitted that he had used blunt language to point out to Abbas the dire consequences of not curbing terrorist violence forthwith. Noting that this was the PA's first and most important commitment under the international Road Map peace plan, Sharon pointed to several terrorist murders in May and June and continuing rocket attacks upon Israeli communities as evidence that Palestinian leaders are doing precious little to halt violent attacks, and nothing at all to disarm and dismantle terror groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad (if fact, Hamas announced it is building a small "people's army" in Gaza of over 2,000 men).

Sharon warned that if PA inaction continues, Israeli security forces will be ordered to take up the slack. "There will be more military strikes against terrorists operating in PA zones," he said. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz later warned that the IDF will take "any action deemed necessary," including conducting air force strikes against rocket launchers operating from civilian areas, if Palestinian violence accompanies the planned Gaza Strip pullout.


The starkest illustration of continuing Palestinian violence and PA inaction actually occurred early in the morning the very day that Abbas and Sharon met in Jerusalem. Alert Israeli security forces intercepted a Palestinian woman on her way to carry out a major suicide attack inside an Israeli hospital. The woman, Wafa al-Biss, was discovered wearing a powerful explosive belt under her clothes at the Erez crossing point in the northern Gaza Strip. She had medical permission to enter Israel for treatment at Soroka hospital in Beersheva, where she had previously received care. Al-Biss admitted she intended to massacre as many medical personnel and hospital patients as possible, especially children. She told interrogators that Fatah members had supplied her with the deadly suicide belt despite the "ceasefire" that is supposedly still in effect. Adding to the gravity of the incident, Israeli intelligence officials revealed that they had warned their PA counterparts the woman was planning an attack and had asked for her to be arrested, which the Palestinians obviously did not do.

On the very same day, and also just hours before the leadership meeting in Jerusalem, a 28 year old Israeli immigrant from Russia was murdered in northern Samaria, not far from where four Jewish communities are slated to be evacuated in late August. Palestinian gunmen belonging to the Syrian and Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad terror group shot at Yevegeny Reider's car as he was driving near the Arab village of Baka As-Sharkiya, striking him in the face and exploding the car's fuel tank in the process. Despite the blast, his 15 year old stepson managed to grab the steering wheel from the dead driver and guide the car safely off of the road. The Russian Orthodox victim was buried at a Christian cemetery located on a kibbutz near his home.

Only one day before, Islamic Jihad snipers shot and killed a 26 year old Israeli soldier from Beersheva as he was carrying out repair work near the southern Gaza border with Egypt. Two other soldiers were wounded in the unprovoked attack. The terror group claimed the assault was in revenge for an incident the day before when clashes broke out between Israel and Palestinian civilians at a Gaza Strip beach, leaving several Arabs wounded. Some 40 Palestinians maintained that a group of 10 Jews attacked them while they were sunbathing at the beach. The Israelis said they were peacefully walking in the sand when dozens of Palestinians suddenly confronted them with sticks and rocks, demanding that they immediately leave the "Arab beach." Israeli police later attempted to interrogate the Jews involved in the incident, but they barricaded themselves in a Gaza Strip Israeli hotel and refused to leave it.

Several days later, Palestinian gunmen callously sprayed bullets at a group of Israeli teenagers standing at a bus stop near Hebron. The attack left 17 year old Avihai Levy instantly dead and two other boys seriously wounded. One of them, 15 year old Aviad Mansour-who was on his way home to surprise his parent's with a wedding anniversary cake-had both legs amputated due to his severe wounds. He died two days later in a Jerusalem hospital. A PLO Fatah group claimed responsibility for the brazen attack.

The escalating Palestinian terrorism came as lawlessness increased substantially inside all PA zones. Among more than a dozen violent incidents, one stood out. Scores of disgruntled Palestinians carrying guns gathered outside a building in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus where PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei was meeting with camp residents to discuss their economic plight. Several shots were fired at the building, forcing the visibly shaken PA official to quickly flee the camp along with his bodyguards. Only one week before, Palestinian gunmen broke into his empty summer residence in Jericho and went on a rampage, shooting everything in site. They complained that corrupt PA leaders had done nothing to provide them with jobs. Israeli analysts said the escalating violence was another dire indication that utter chaos will probably sweep through the Gaza Strip after Israel evacuates the area in August.


Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Muhammad Dahlan warned on June 9 that a "third intifada" was brewing because of "Israel's settlement construction policies and the continuing isolation of Arab Jerusalem from the West Bank." The latter was an apparent reference to Israel's controversial security barrier, which is nearing completion around most of the capital city. PM Sharon's office issued a terse rebuttal to the threatened renewal of the Palestinian attrition war, stating it was "the failure of the Palestinian Authority to live up to its obligations that is opening the door" for a full-scale resumption of violence. The Israeli Haaretz newspaper later reported that the Palestinians are actively preparing to unleash a new wave of violence before the end of the year.

Probably signaling a PA intention to launch a new war offensive, PA leaders and Palestinian media have once again begun spreading ridiculous conspiracy allegations against Israel. Several senior PA officials charged in June that the Israeli government has been flooding the Palestinian market with "cancer-causing" fruit juices, and selling "suspicious computers" to Arab businessmen. The PA also maintained that Israel is deliberately dumping toxic waste near Palestinian cities in an attempt to ruin the health of nearby residents. PA-controlled newspapers charged that Israeli soldiers and civilians have been spotted "releasing wild pigs" onto Palestinian farms in an attempt to destroy crops and starve consumers. Noting that such absurd allegations were part and parcel of the late Yasser Arafat's rule, Sharon's office termed them a "worrisome warning sign" that the Abbas administration was now pandering to radical Palestinian elements in possible preparation for a resumption of major violence.


Ariel Sharon's patchwork coalition government came under renewed pressure during June as various opinion polls revealed that public support for his emotive Gaza/northern Samaria evacuation plan continues to evaporate. When the unilateral withdrawal proposal was first announced by the Likud leader in late 2003, most polls showed around two-thirds of Israeli citizens endorsed it, including a slight majority of Likud voters. Now, that support is hovering around 50%, with some polls showing a majority against the plan. Analysts say the public has become increasingly alarmed over the likely prospect that the pullout will lead to wide-scale civil unrest throughout Israel, followed by an upsurge of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip upon nearby Israeli communities, especially the growing city of Ashkelon. "The proposition that we can just leave Gaza and look the other way as it becomes an ever more heavily armed terror depot is totally unrealistic, to say the least," said one analyst on Israel television.

Erosion of public support for his pullout plan has left the Israeli Premier in a vulnerable political position. That was amply demonstrated in mid-June when his government lost three Knesset no-confidence votes in one afternoon. Although the results were not enough to topple Sharon from power-since it takes at least 61 out of the 120 member parliament members to do that, not just a majority of those legislators actually participating in a no-confidence vote-analysts said they were still a significant indication of just how weak his "unity" coalition has become. In fact, most of coalition Labour party legislators did not even bother to vote, indicating their ambivalence toward Sharon's rule. Knesset speaker and Likud party member Reuven Rivlan, who has heavily criticized the government's withdrawal plan, said the negative votes signaled the end of Sharon's right-left coalition and early national elections.

With opposition Israeli groups vowing to step up their efforts to disrupt the planned Gaza/Samaria retreat, police commanders announced that they may declare a general state of emergency to cope with the fact that over half of Israel's police force is scheduled to be drafted into the Gaza Strip to carry out the projected evacuation. If so, Israeli citizens may be ordered to stay at home during the pullback, closing all stores and businesses apart from emergency services.

This startling possibility, which some disengagement opponents termed another indication that Sharon is turning Israel into an undemocratic police state, came after the government decided to destroy all evacuated homes in the Gaza Strip instead of turning them over to the Palestinians who would be expected to use them for propaganda purposes. The move was endorsed by visiting American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called on both sides to work together to insure a smooth withdrawal. Meanwhile the government continued to devise alternative housing solutions for Jews slated to be uprooted from their homes, with a large number expected to be moved en masse to an empty parcel of prime real estate north of Ashkelon.


Although most Orthodox Jewish groups oppose the pending pullbacks, they have basically remained on the sidelines until now. However many threatened to take to the streets if the government attempts to move the remains of 48 Israelis buried in the Gaza Strip, which they deem a forbidden desecration of the dead. Dozens of observant relatives of the interred have vowed to block any attempts to move their graves, despite the probability that Palestinian militants would attempt to destroy them after the IDF leaves the area.

Amid all the strife surrounding the scheduled evacuations, Israeli leaders kept a wary eye on unsettling developments in Lebanon and Iran. The June assassinations of two more anti-Syrian public figures in Lebanon increased concerns that the Assad regime is determined to resist UN-mandated Lebanese government attempts to disarm and dismantle the radical Hizbullah militia stationed along Israel's northern border. Such concerns were only amplified by the surprise June 24 election of the extremist Shiite mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Iran's new president. He is expected to step up Iranian financial and political support for the anti-Zionist Lebanese militia and for the Baathist regime in Damascus, and resist Western attempts to curb Iran's nuclear weapons program.

With dark summer storm clouds gathering over Israel and the entire pulsating Middle East, it is surely a propitious time to join the ancient Hebrew psalmist in proclaiming that, "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold!" (Psalm 46:7 and 11).  CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.