Jüdisches Leben in EuropaMit der Hilfe des Himmels

Promises - endlich auf Video!


[The following editorial overview is extracted
from the January 2004 issue of The Other Israel.]

An Editorial Overview

It happened in much the same way as the demise of previous (and as we now know, following) cease-fires: the Israeli army continued its search for Palestinian militants; the "wanted terrorists" resisted arrest and were shot "while trying to escape." Hamas retaliated by blowing up an Israeli bus in Jerusalem, to which the Israeli Air Force retaliated by a bombing in Gaza...

The collapse of the Hudna had been the last straw for the tottering Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen — a man who had had no chance, being so often praised by Sharon and Bush that he came to be perceived by Palestinians as a "tool of the occupier" (and of the occupier's overseas patron), while at the same time given no concrete achievements which alone would have restored his credibility among his constituency.

Israelis had looked forward to at least three months of security — the period over which the Hudna was supposed to last — and to the possibility of it being extended for much longer. Many were bitterly disappointed when already before the end of August it collapsed — just when people started to believe in it and to make new plans.

But although some questions were asked — more than before — the general mood was of helpless depression rather then the kind of anger that may eventually gain a political expression. Prime Minister Sharon must have felt confident that this discontent could be channeled into ever more hatred against the Palestinians.

With the Hudna and Abu Mazen out of the way, the army reacted as a suddenly released coiled spring. Encouraged by the political echelon, the generals went berserk, cramming into a few hours or days all that they had been debarred from doing during the preceding month and half of cease-fire.

The Air Force undertook a massive series of assassinations from the air of Hamas leaders, killing and wounding also a lot of innocent bystanders. At the peak of the campaign, a bomb narrowly missed the Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin — the venerated leader of hundreds of thousands. The generals claimed that their campaign would force the Hamas leadership to devote most of its time to finding new hiding places — not much of a consolation to the victims of the revenge bombings that Hamas did manage to carry out...

Once more, all over the West Bank the siege of the Palestinian towns and villages was tightened. The few roadblocks that had been removed as a sop to Abu-Mazen were restored, and the ban on Palestinians traveling on the main highways enforced more strictly than ever before.

At the town of Nazlat Issa, military bulldozers went into the bustling marketplace and totally razed it within a few hours, depriving hundreds of Palestinian families of their livelihood — in order to make place for a new section of Sharon's "Separation Wall." (In the late 1990's, the army had actively encouraged the creation of that same marketplace, under the then-prevailing theory that a prosperous population is more likely to behave peacefully...)

Shortly afterwards, at Rafah on the Gaza Strip¹s border with Egypt, some 150 Palestinian homes were destroyed in a single day, during the army's futile campaign to destroy the gun-runners' tunnels supposedly hidden under some of the houses and which are always dug anew. All of that seemed but the prelude. Well informed commentators published ominous reports of the army preparing for "Operation Defensive Shield II", in which the Palestinian Authority would be completely broken up and the Gaza Strip occupied as the West Bank had been in the original Defensive Shield of April 2002 (Alex Fishman in Yediot Aharonot, October 24).

Sharon's aggressive stance was only possible with the support — tacit in some cases, explicit and outspoken in others — of the United States.

Up until August, the Bush Administration had based its policy on Abu Mazen. The US had apparently made no fallback plans for the case of Abu Mazen's fall — though that contingency had been anything but unlikely.

The demise of this prime "good guy" and the re-emergence of "bad guy" Arafat as the prime mover in Palestinian politics left a vacuum in Washington's policy, which was initially filled by giving Sharon a virtually free hand. This was apparent from the routine vetoing of any initiative to censure the PM's policy that came up at the UN Security Council. And President Bush embarrassed even his own advisors with blunt statements such as "In Sharon's place I would have done exactly the same."

Editorials and commentaries widely assumed that the Bush Administration had virtually lost interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, being concerned with the Iraqi quagmire and the approaching presidential elections, and that this would only become more true the closer the elections come, with Bush in need of Sharon's Jewish and Christian Evangelist supporters; that any change would have to wait for after November 4, 2004. Peace seekers were left to wonder gloomily just how much damage could Sharon cause in more than a year of unsupervised rampaging. But as it turned out, Sharon did not have as complete a freedom of action as he might have wished for.

Changing scapegoats

Ariel Sharon's decades-long hatred towards Yasser Arafat has long transcended any rational consideration of political expediency. During the months in which Abu Mazen acted as the Palestinian Prime Minister, Sharon had to restrain himself and play along with the American concept of getting Arafat to transfer effective power to his PM and becoming "a figurehead like the Queen of England." Any Israeli attempt upon Arafat's person would have foiled that scheme and brought Abu Mazen crashing down.

But once Abu Mazen had fallen anyway, the way seemed to be free. A massive propaganda machine started churning out a daily flow of press articles, speeches and commentaries designed to demonize Arafat as a terrorist, corrupt tyrant and "the main obstacle for peace"; Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), who replaced Abu Mazen as Palestinian Prime Minister, was dismissed as "Arafat's creature."

After weeks of more and more naked threats by Likud Knesset Members and ministers, a terrible suicide bombing at a Jerusalem cafe seemed to provide Sharon with a suitable pretext (though no connection between Arafat and the perpetrators was ever seriously claimed, much less proven).

On the memorable date of September 11, while America was holding its commemorations, a widely publicized emergency meeting of Sharon's inner cabinet resolved to "remove the obstacle to peace, Yasser Arafat" though no date was set for implementation. The precise method of "removal" was not specified, but several ministers stated explicitly that Arafat was to be removed from the world of the living, rather than merely from the country. "The safety is off, just one more suicide bombing will spell Arafat's end. Sharon will not even need to convene the cabinet again," wrote a commentator in Ma'ariv.

The cabinet decision caused a storm of international protests, and an enormous up swell in popular support for Arafat among his own people, with thousands of Palestinians flocking to the beleaguered compound at Ramallah for massive manifestations of support for their president.

The US, too, made declarations of opposition to the expulsion or "elimination" of Arafat. However, the American ambassador to the UN cast a veto when a draft resolution condemning the threats upon Arafat came up in the UN Security Council, casting grave doubts upon Bush's seriousness.

Things came to a head two weeks later, in the wake of yet another suicide bombing — which came without even the questionable justification of being a direct revenge and which may very well have been a deliberate gambit by Arafat's Palestinian opponents.

Within hours of the deadly blast at Maxim's Restaurant at Haifa, the level of demagogic threats upon Arafat by Israeli politicians and commentators rose to a deafening crescendo. A small band of Gush Shalom activists hurried to Ramallah to act as human shields (see separate article) amid a feeling of gathering doom.

Until the opening of presently-classified archives, it would probably not be known what urgent messages passed that night between Jerusalem and Washington and what debates raged in the meetings of Sharon and his advisors. Still, the presence of Israelis was a factor mentioned in some reports and in any case, there had been no attack upon Arafat's compound.

Instead, Israeli jet fighters made the first attack upon Syrian territory in more than two decades, bombing an alleged terrorist base and breaking the sound barrier directly above the residence of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Overnight, the various demagogues shifted their target from Arafat to the Syrians. The same unnamed "intelligence sources" which hitherto explained how Arafat supervises terrorist cells out of his besieged and half-ruined headquarters now shifted to expounding the story of Damascus-based malevolent groups controlling sinister networks in the West Bank...

The limitations of power

The night when an attack on Syria was substituted for the assault on Arafat turned out to be the high-water mark of Sharon's upsurge of unrestrained military aggression. On the day following the Damascus air-raid, a Hizbullah squad retaliated by shooting across the Lebanese border and killing an Israeli soldier — but there was no escalation into general conflict: the Syrians and their allies had not provided any significant pretext, the Israeli armed forces were overextended in keeping down the Palestinians, and for the Bush Administration a certain degree of Israeli pressure on recalcitrant Syria may have been welcome, but a full-scale Middle East war was definitely not.

Rather, the following weeks and months saw a mixture of verbal sparring between Jerusalem and Damascus, occasional border incidents, some hesitant peace feelers and also a complicated series of negotiations on prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah, carried out under German mediation.

The normal rule is for such negotiations to be carried out under a shroud of secrecy, which only comes off once a deal is achieved. Not so this time: there was an enormous lot of publicity, and the public as well as cabinet ministers were faced with highly emotional, conflicting claims by different families of prisoners held — or supposed to be held — in Lebanon.

Combat pilot Ron Arad, whose plane crashed in Lebanon back in 1986, had become an Israeli national hero during his many years of captivity — but it is more than a decade since anything was heard of him, and many experts doubt that he is still alive. Elhanan Tennenbaum, former colonel turned businessman, had been lured to Lebanon while seeking a (possibly illicit) deal, and captured by Hizbullah — and is known to be alive and available to be exchanged for all the Lebanese (and some Palestinian) prisoners held by Israel.

Would or would not the government be justified in expending for the sake of Tennenbaum the hostages who had been kidnapped ten years ago, for the specific purpose of getting Arad? The question was endlessly debated in the op-ed pages and on TV talk shows, and polls showed it to be dividing the public and the cabinet down the middle. Few stopped to ask whether it was proper in the first place for a state defining itself as democratic to engage in the hostage-taking game...

PM Sharon plunged in on Tennenbaum side, despite bitter recriminations by the Arad family, and got a narrow government majority for the exchange deal. But he added the proviso that release of all Lebanese prisoners would not include Samir Kuntar, a man who in 1979 took part in a raid on and the killing of children at the northern Israeli town of Nahariya. "Those with blood on their hands will never be released," declared the PM.

Thus, the exchange deal for which the public keyed itself up fell through, leaving a feeling of anti-climax. Retroactively, it seems that then it was that the first signs of a subterranean change surfaced.

The weariness of three years' continuous conflict became louder, loud enough to be heard also by the opinion-makers. The short-lived Hudna had aroused hopes that were not quite quenched by its demise; the generals could only offer the repetition of military remedies that had already proven a failure, and articles started to appear in growing numbers expressing the feeling that Sharon was leading the country into a dead end.

This was added to frustration at the ongoing economic recession and the aggressively free-market policies of Finance Minister Netanyahu.

Earlier Likud governments had espoused a kind of paternalistic welfare policy towards the poor — sensible, since the poor had always been Likud's main source of electoral support.

Netanyahu, however, entered upon a wild spree of slashing welfare benefits, sharply cutting the education and health budgets, and engaging in head-on confrontations with the unions leading to prolonged public sector strikes.

All this was justified by arguments drawn from the vocabulary of the US Republican Party, familiar in America but never before voiced with such vehemence in Israel. The traditional Likud voters in the poverty-stricken towns did not like it, and in the October municipal elections the party was soundly trounced.

There were also several corruption scandals implicating PM Sharon and his two sons in highly questionable land deals in both Israel and Greece and in a multi-million Dollar "loan" or gift made to them by the mysterious Cyril Kern of South Africa.

Despite backstage manoeuvres aimed at discrediting the main police officer involved in the investigation of these scandals and securing a "safe" candidate to take up the soon-to-be-vacated key position of Attorney General, the corruption affairs continued to gather momentum — contributing to the fall of Sharon's rating in the polls and making Likud Party stalwarts start considering the possibility of Sharon turning into a liability.

It was against this background that The Letter of the Combat Pilots shook the Israeli public, heralding the comeback of an Israeli peace camp that had been discredited and cast into eclipse by the Barak fiasco of 2000. Where the society had so long played deaf, it was exactly inside the army that certain questions could no longer be avoided.

It had started with the courageous court-martialed conscript refusers and the constant stream of reservists serving terms in prison — but from there it was now spreading to the heart of the armed forces.

Appeal to morality

Back in the 1960's and 1970's, Israeli school kids learned as a matter of course to sing the Air Force song (On the Wings of Silver/The Knights of the Wind take off into the clouds/The Brave and the Good/The Sons of the Thunderbolt fly high!...). The Air Force pilots were the best of the best, the elite of the elite, who keep the country's sky safe and who more or less by themselves won the great victory of 1967.

Like many other things held sacred until then, the Air Force's reputation emerged tarnished from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the months-long daily bombardments of Beirut taking their terrible toll upon the civilian population (it was then that President Reagan placed upon his desk the photo of a five-year old Lebanese girl mutilated by an Israeli bomb).

Only later was it realized that the feeling of disgust at the bombings, shared by anti-war activists, had penetrated to quite a few of the pilots themselves. Rumors that were confirmed only two decades later told of pilots refusing to bomb a school at Saida and throwing their bombs into the sea instead.

A very long time has passed since Israeli pilots had been required to fight enemy pilots in the sky or brave a serious system of anti-aircraft defences. Since the 1980's their missions almost invariably consist of bombing ground targets which have little or no way of fighting back — which went against the pilots' image of themselves as aerial knights following a kind of chivalric code, and led to occasional manifestations of dissent.

There was the case of Colonel Yigal Shohat — a former squadron leader who was shot down over Egypt in 1970, lost a leg, spent three years as a POW and upon his release became a surgeon. In January 2002 he mounted the podium at Gush Shalom's Conference on War Crimes and made a public call upon pilots to refuse to bomb Palestinian cities (see TOI-101, p.26).

This call by a highly respected past officer reverberated within the Air Force, creating a turmoil of which only little became manifest at the time.

During the great invasion and reconquest of the West Bank cities in April 2002, a helicopter pilot flatly refused to bomb a house in the town of Dura described to him as "a terrorist stronghold" but inside which a Palestinian family was cowering in fear — a case which got little attention at the time, though the saved Palestinians wrote a public letter of heartfelt thanks and invited their savior to visit the town as their guest.

For many pilots, the watershed was crossed with the Gaza bombing of September 2002, in which — together with Hamas leader Shehadeh who had been targeted for assassination — fifteen civilians were killed in the middle of night, most of them children in their beds.

Asked about it, Air Force commander Dan Chalutz reacted with a remarkably callous remark: "I sleep well at night (...) when the bomb drops, I feel a slight bump on the plane's fuselage — nothing else."

It was at this time that several young helicopter pilots started thinking seriously of collecting signatures on a "Refusal Letter." They eventually got support from those of earlier generations, some still serving as flying instructors and others already retired from active service but highly respected for their record — such as the legendary Brigadier Yiftach Spector, who had led the raid on the Iraqi nuclear reaction in 1981 and took part in many other daring exploits.

The final impetus for 27 active service & reservist pilots to come forward was the increasing number of Palestinian civilian casualties from aerial bombardments after the breaking of the Hudna. On September 25, the eve of the Jewish New Year, it burst like a bombshell filling the papers' front pages in Israel and all over the world:

The Pilots' Letter

Dear Commander of the Air Force, General Halutz

We, Air Force pilots who were raised on the values of Zionism, sacrifice, and contributing to the state of Israel, have always served on the front lines, willing to carry out any mission, whether small or large, to defend and strengthen the state of Israel.

We, veteran and active pilots alike, who served and still serve the state of Israel for long weeks every year, are opposed to carrying out attack orders that are illegal and immoral, of the type the state of Israel has been conducting in the territories.

We, who were raised to love the state of Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centers. We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians.

These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation, which is corrupting all of Israeli society. Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength.

We who serve as active pilots — fighters, leaders, and instructors of the next generation of pilots — hereby declare that we shall continue to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force for every mission in defense of the state of Israel.

[List of signatories available from info@tayasim.org.il]

The storm that burst out was unprecedented, far beyond the impact of any earlier group of refusers. For more than a week, there was hardly any other issue on the public agenda. Being who and what they were, the pilots' act of collective public refusal posed an unprecedented potent challenge, arousing an enormous controversy.

It must have been rather a shock for people who were used for years to the adoration of being the nation's favorite sons — and who now found themselves, literally overnight, the target of a vicious hate campaign, branded as "cowards", "traitors" and "terrorist accomplices." Their very elite status was turned against them ("spoiled blue-bloods who fly above and don't share in the privations of infantrymen on the ground"). And more difficult than the attacks of ambitious politicians and demagogic columnists was the alienation from the Air Force itself.

"Signing the letter means that you will not fly any more. For any pilot worth his salt, that is a terrible blow and wrench — but you always knew that this day would come upon you once upon a time, by aging if not for any other reason. What is worse is to be torn out of a close-knit community, to be suddenly alienated and plunged into conflict with past and present colleagues and comrades-in-arms whom you have known for years. It is even worse for some who are the sons of pilots or the fathers of pilots and who find themselves at odds with their own family members. Still, there is no choice."
[description by Lieutenant Colonel Yoel Piterberg]

In fact, three of the original twenty-seven signatories could not stand the pressures applied upon them, and eventually signed humiliating letters of retraction. But six other pilots joined the ranks of the dissidents at the very peak of the controversy, right after General Halutz announced that all who persist in their refusal would be permanently grounded.

Among peace activists there started an exchange of email messages on how best to organize support for the pilots. Gush Shalom had held immediately (Sept. 29) a solidarity vigil ("The 27 are the real patriots!"); KM Yossi Sarid of Meretz, who had expressed grave reservations about earlier refuser groups, strongly spoke on the pilots' behalf.

For the pilots themselves, however, it was more important to hear of the turmoil in the ranks of Air Force and of fierce debates going on among junior and senior officers alike, in spite of General Halutz clamping down upon any manifestation of open dissent. And there were statements of support from such people as General (ret.) Amos Lapidot, who commanded the Israeli Air Force from 1982 to 1987 and who hitherto rarely spoke out on controversial issues:

Leibovitz & the Air Force

'I understand the protest of the refusers.

Their protest is not against the Air Force but against those who give the orders and define the policy that leads us nowhere.

I share the view of the refusers that the occupation is increasingly corrupting our people. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz said it already 36 years ago, and now everybody who has eyes can see it. Just look at the violent behavior of drivers at the Israeli roads.

I think that the refusers took an unwise step, since a pilot in the Air Force is a volunteer anyway and nobody could force him to fly. What they should have done is collectively resign from the Air Force.

About the liquidations: I think that when there is a ticking bomb, somebody who is about to commit a suicide bombing or participate in it, it is justified to kill him — but the policy makers should look further ahead. We are not sensitive enough, not aware of what we are doing to the other side.

We have to recognize that the Oslo agreement failed not only because of them but also because of us.

We should create a horizon of hope and start forthwith the dismantling of settlements.'

Yediot Aharonot, September 30

With the increasing public support for the pilots, right-wingers went into a frenzy of calling anathemas in all directions. Some Knesset Members demanded that El-Al, Israel's national airline, dismiss several of the pilots who are on its payroll — and when the airline rebuffed them, they contemplated a comprehensive boycott on all its flights.

And when several hundred university lecturers signed a support petition for the pilots, the Likud-dominated National Union of Students called upon students to boycott all these lecturers — which precipitated a breakaway by the more dovish Tel-Aviv University Student Union.

Then the Yesh Gvul movement, veteran refusenik support group dating back to the 1980's, lodged an appeal to the Supreme Court to have General Halutz prosecuted for the mass killing of civilians during the Shehadeh assassination. A whole group of prominent Israeli writers, such as Amos Oz and David Grossman, had associated themselves with the appeal.

Immediately Tzvi Handel, Deputy Minister of Education and a prominent settler leader, declared that the works of all these authors should be forthwith deleted from the curriculum in Israeli schools.

When the dust cleared after this week and half of a free-for-all, one result was immediately obvious: the aerial assassinations in the Gaza Strip, a daily occurrence before the pilots wrote their letter, became a rare matter — and a measure whose legitimacy was much more contested.

A month later, a helicopter gunship did carry out a "liquidation" at Nusseirat Refugee Camp near Gaza — and like in previous cases, it resulted in numerous civilian casualties. There was a sharp public debate in Israel, the refusenik pilots were asked for numerous media interviews, and their withering criticism was echoed by quite a few mainstream politicians.

The Air Force published photos which were supposed to prove that the Palestinians had lied about the number of civilians killed — but KM Yossi Sarid proved that it was the Air Force which had lied about the type of armament which had used been used. ("We had to give out inaccurate information in order to protect a new, highly-classified weapons system" claimed the embarrassed General Halutz.)

The impact of the pilots' letter was, however, far from limited to the specific issue of the aerial assassinations. They had set a new trend in the Israeli public opinion, so long dominated by the nationalists. And the opening that they made was soon to be enlarged and extended.

Filling the vacuum

Like the Pilots' Letter, what eventually came to be known as "The Geneva Initiative" has germinated for a long time before coming to the attention of the general public.

The starting point was the last round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, held at the Egyptian resort of Taba in January 2001 — the last weeks of the Barak Government's tenure.

As was later recounted in memoirs from both sides, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators alike felt that the negotiations were making some significant headway, and that they were steadily narrowing the gaps on the issues over which Camp David had collapsed half a year earlier. But it came abruptly to an end by Barak recalling his negotiators, for reasons which were never made entirely clear; and soon afterwards Sharon was elected, who had no intention whatsoever of restarting these negotiations.

It was then that Yossi Beilin, a minister in the Barak cabinet and a senior negotiator at Taba, decided to continue the negotiations with his Palestinian interlocutors and try to reach a mutually satisfactory solution of all the outstanding issues — even though he was now a private citizen without official standing whatsoever, so that the resulting document would be no more than a draft, an instrument for political campaigning which would not be binding upon the state of Israel.

In the decade since he had master-minded the Oslo "back-channel" Beilin had acquired enough of a reputation as a serious peacemaker to make the exercise worthwhile for Yasser Abd-Rabo and the other Palestinian interlocutors — predominantly members of the Palestinian Authority mainstream, though in their dealings with Beilin and his friends they acted in private capacity, with a tacit rather then official authorization from Arafat.

On the international diplomatic arena, too, the initiative was taken seriously despite Beilin's lack of official status. Professor Alexis Keller of Berne University (no relative of the TOI-editor) convinced his country's foreign minister to facilitate the initiative and provide logistical support, much as Norway had done in 1992-93 at the crucial stages of the negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords. The European Union, too, was constantly apprised of developments.

It was never kept in secret. Beilin announced it to the press right at the start in February 2001, and over the following years occasional snippets of information about Beilin's ongoing initiative appeared in the papers — but failed to elicit any great deal of attention.

At the time, the Israeli public opinion and political system tended to take for granted that "Israel has no Palestinian partner." Even in his own Labor Party, from which Beilin was becoming increasingly alienated, he was often regarded as a has-been, clinging to the shards of a failed dream.

In December 2002, when Labor was preparing to contest the elections, Beilin announced his intention of soon concluding his talks with the Palestinians and presenting the resultant document to the electorate. This was taken, however, as an attempt to drag the party too far to the left and to steal the thunder of Amram Mitzna, then at the peak of his brief moment of glory as party leader.

The affair hastened Beilin's final departure from the ranks of Labor — and in any case, he had underestimated the gaps that still needed to be bridged; by the elections day the draft peace agreement was far from complete.

There were indeed many objective obstacles to be overcome. Particularly following the April 2002 wave of Israeli invasion and reconquest, there were months in which the Palestinian partners could not so much as leave their homes in curfew-bound cities without the Israelis interceding for them with the military authorities.

Still, the work of tackling the most difficult issues separating the two peoples proceeded — at Geneva which came to give the whole initiative its name, at other European venues such as London, as well as at the Palestinian town of A-Ram, halfway between Jerusalem and Ramallah and one of the few places which are still more or less accessible to Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Very real negotiations

As Paul Usiskin of the British Peace Now, who took part in several sessions remarked:

"If the talks that I witnessed were 'virtual' then I have to say that they mimicked reality remarkably well. There was no sign that this was an exercise and that the participants could call for a time-out and emerge into the real world whenever they chose."

Israeli and Palestinian participants alike had good reasons to argue and dicker, quite as fiercely as if they were truly representing their two peoples in binding negotiations. Even though they were all on the dovish side, they had their deeply ingrained positions and beliefs, which on more than one occasion clashed with each other. Moreover, all of them were deeply aware that they would eventually have to "sell" the finished agreement to their respective constituencies, in face of those who would accuse them of "selling out."

This was all the more so after Beilin succeeded in drawing in some people politically to his right — two Knesset Members of the Shinuy Party, which is a member of Sharon's ruling coalition, and even the maverick Likudnik Nehama Ronen.

Quite a few former generals and senior security service operatives were encouraged to join in and take an active part in formulating the details of the proposed agreement, on the assumption that their military prestige would help make the result more acceptable to the general Israeli public. For rather similar reasons, the Palestinian team included a considerable number of ex-prisoners who had undergone long terms in the Israeli prison system.

This precipitated a major crisis on the issue of the Palestinian prisoners and detainees held behind Israeli bars. The Israeli generals such as former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak considered "prisoners with blood on their hands" as murderers who should live out their lives in prison.

Hisham Abdel Razek, who had been Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs and who earlier spent two decades in an Israeli prison, was very determined that a final peace could not leave Palestinians incarcerated in Israel, whatever they had done. On this point the Israelis gave in, agreeing to a phased release of all Palestinian prisoners.

On the other hand, the Israelis were adamant about Palestinian recognition of Israel, not just as a state but as the state of the Jewish People — i.e., recognition of a basic tenet of the Zionist ideology that Palestinians always found highly unpalatable. Writer Amos Oz, in particular, threatened to walk out over this issue. When it was eventually conceded by the Palestinian partners, the Israelis reciprocated by accepting complete Palestinian sovereignty over the highly emotive Haram A-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, one of the main issues over which Camp David foundered.

The realism of the negotiations was especially expressed in the drawing up of a very precise borderline — which meant dealing with the settlement issue in detail. Here, the Palestinians accepted that some settlements would stay on and be annexed to Israel, provided that precisely equivalent amounts of land would be given to Palestine from the territory of pre-'67 Israel. For their part the Israelis agreed that this could only apply to settlements near to the old border, and that those more deep inside Palestinian territory — including the substantial settlement-cities of Ariel in the northern West Bank and Efrat to the south — would have to be evacuated.

On the most emotive and deeply contested issue — the Palestinian refugees — there was made a pragmatic compromise, which was in fact already foreshadowed at the Taba talks, and which may well be the only workable solution in reality. Still, this was to be the point on which all participants would be most often and most ferociously attacked: the Israelis for not having secured a formal renunciation of the Palestinian Right of Return, their Palestinian partners — for having given it up in practice.

Finally, all loose ends were wrapped up during several days (and nights) of last minute negotiating and wrestling at the Moevenpick Resort Hotel on the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea. Significantly, the Israeli delegation was joined by two prominent Laborites who had taken no part in earlier sessions. Amram Mitzna was there, no longer Labor Leader but still head of a significant faction, and who had long since mended his fences with Beilin. And also former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, whose dire warnings and prophesies of doom, contained in the article 'A Failed Israeli Society Collapses While Its Leaders Remain Silent', had been reprinted again and again and translated into numerous foreign languages.

The following is excerpted from KM Burg's article:

A state lacking justice cannot stand

(...) Traveling on the fast highway, it is hard to comprehend the humiliating experience of the despised Arab who must creep for hours along the pocked, blockaded roads assigned to him. One road for the occupier, one road for the occupied. This cannot work. Even if the Arabs lower their heads and swallow their shame and anger forever, it won't work. A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself. Note this moment well: Zionism's superstructure is already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall. Only madmen continue dancing on the top floor while the pillars below are collapsing.

We have grown accustomed to ignoring the suffering of the women at the roadblocks. No wonder that we also don't hear the cries of the abused woman living next door, or the single mother struggling to support her children in dignity. And we don't even bother to count the number of women murdered by their husbands.

Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come, swathed in hatred, and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism. They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation, because their own lives are torture. They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites, because at home they have brothers and parents who are hungry and humiliated.

We could kill a thousand ringleaders and bomb-makers every day, and it will solve nothing. These ringleaders come up from below — from the wells of hatred and anger, from the "infrastructures" of injustice (...)

It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive. More and more Israelis are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit, to their parents' shock, that they do not know. The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun (...).

The time for illusions is over. The time for decisions has arrived. We love the entire land of our forefathers, and in some other time we would have wanted to live here alone. But that will not happen. The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs.(...)

We must remove all the settlements — all of them — and draw an internationally recognized border between the Jewish national home and the Palestinian national home. The Jewish Law of Return will apply only within our national home, and their Right of Return will apply only within the borders of the Palestinian state.

When the initiators of Geneva were approaching the finish at their Dead Sea resort, it was none other than Prime Minister Sharon who gave the initiative an enormous publicity boost. In the Bat-Yam municipal election rally he fulminated against 'subversive leftists who undermine the government's authority.' First, it set the journalists wondering precisely what the PM was referring to; and when they found out — which didn't take long — they came to the unanimous conclusion that something over which Sharon was so worked up must be significant.

"We had in mind several alternatives for an initial gimmick. But none of them was half as good as the kick-off which Sharon handed us on a silver platter" said later Dror Strenschuss, the Geneva Initiative's public relations officer and a committed peace activist himself.

Sharon's send-off did the trick, all right. Within three days, there was scarcely a TV viewer or newspaper reader — not only in the region, but all over the world — who had not heard of the Geneva Initiative. In Israel, it came to dominate the public discourse to the exclusion of anything else.

The angry expostulations of the right-wing nationalists only served to further bolster its image. What most infuriated the right-wingers was the Geneva document's first sentence: "The Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization agree..." and the dotted line at the very end, left empty for Sharon's signature. " How do they dare! The presumption of these people!" was an oft-repeated phrase.

Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party declared: "This Geneva Agreement is treason, nothing but treason — and for treason, capital punishment still applies in Israeli law!" On the following day, a facetious cartoon in Ha'aretz depicted Yahalom in a hangman's cowl.

The angry Justice Minister Lapid, leader of the Shinuy Party, summarily forced his party's "black sheep" to withdraw their signatures from the Geneva Document. And the Labor Party's old-new Shimon Peres was sour-faced at the advent of Geneva, recounting on TV a whole list of defects he found in the document. Most commentators took it as manifesting a narrow-minded envy of Beilin — a man who had started political life as Peres' protegé and devoted disciple, but who now indisputably surpassed his mentor in the art of virtual diplomacy.

Two weeks later, Peres got the Labor Party to adopt a new program, supporting the two-state solution "with a border based on the 1967 lines" and the principle of two capitals in Jerusalem — which could have been sensational news just two or three years ago, but was now taken as no more than the Labor Party adopting a watered-down version of Geneva.

In opinion polls, the much-attacked Geneva Initiative repeatedly got the support of thirty to forty percent of the Israeli public.

Meanwhile, peace initiatives predating Geneva, such as that of the Israeli former security chief Ayalon and prominent Palestinian academic Nusseibeh, got renewed public attention. It became the bon ton to formulate and publish peace plans and initiatives, and dozens appeared and disappeared by the week. Many of them were crackpot or insincere (also the settler leaders published a "peace plan" of sorts, which even they themselves did not take very seriously). And there were some truly original ideas such as having four Israelis and four Palestinians make a joint expedition to Antarctica and climb a mountain which had never known human feet — the proceeds from the documentary made on the spot to go to disadvantaged Israeli and Palestinian children.

The overall effect was to underline the enormous shift that had taken place: for the first time in three years, the peace camp was defining the public agenda in Israel. No longer could the rejectionists hide behind the argument of there being "no partner" on the Palestinian side.

The new confidence and strength was manifested, both in the attendance and in the atmosphere at the annual Rabin Memorial Rally. Much more than the rallies of previous years, it was perceived to be — and thus was — an overtly political affair, a massive manifestation (estimated at 150,000 participants) of support for the cause of peace, and for the Geneva Initiative. And the prime minister was increasingly perceived as a man of the past, a leader with nothing to offer but a collection of old nostrums that had already proven futile. 'Sharon created a vacuum, and Beilin came to fill it.' was a phrase often occurring in commentaries and editorials as well as in Knesset speeches.

Wounded lion Sharon

Through October and November Sharon saw his rating steadily falling, and the police investigation of the corruption affairs against his sons and himself closing in. Then, Yediot Aharonot came with another sensation: the joint interview with four former chiefs of the Shabak Security Service. Having overcome their long-seated rivalries and power-struggles, they all sat together and each in his own words strongly condemned the government policies. The message was unmistakable: a warning about dire short- and long-term dangers to the country unless the occupation was terminated and peace achieved with the Palestinians. As a logical consequence they declared their support for the Geneva initiative.

The Shabak chiefs' declaration was widely published and reverberated around the world. It was soon followed by a startling open criticism of government policies by Army Chief-of-Staff Moshe Ya'alon, who called for reducing the number of checkpoints and roadblocks which effectively strangle the Palestinian towns and villages, and moreover accused the government of complicity in the downfall of Abu Mazen through its failure to make significant concessions which could have bolstered the former Palestinian PM's position.

Ya'alon's criticism was all the more startling since he had hitherto been known as an uncompromising hawk. In earlier dispatches he had called for "unrelenting and uncompromising armed struggle" aimed at "burning into the Palestinian consciousness the fact of defeat". Somehow, during the first half of 2003 the impossibility of that goal seems to have been burned into Ya'alon's own consciousness...

Meanwhile, without any cease-fire being officially proclaimed, the respite in Israeli "liquidations" of Palestinian leaders was reciprocated by a three-month long respite in suicide bombings at Israeli population centers, depriving Sharon of the classical escape valve — Israelis uniting in fear and anger at the Palestinians.

Palestinian fighters continued, however, to conduct guerrilla attacks on soldiers and settlers in the Territories themselves. A Palestinian raid on the settlement of Netzarim — an absurd enclave located right in the middle of the overcrowded Gaza Strip — left three soldiers dead, two of them girl soldiers who, so it turned out, had been sent to defend the settlers without having been being adequately armed or trained.

The newly bereaved parents hurled bitter accusations at the government. There was increasing public attention to the situation of isolated settlements garrisoned by reluctant soldiers, often many times outnumbering the settlers themselves. Six paratrooper reserve officers, fresh from a tour of duty at Netzarim, were interviewed in Ha'aretz and spoke of 'the futility and waste' of holding on to that enclave.

Meanwhile, all 15 members of the UN Security Council, including the United States, voted for the Russian proposal to formally adopt "The Roadmap for Peace" and enshrine it in a binding resolution. Of no avail was a hasty personal trip by Sharon to Moscow and his efforts to prevail upon President Putin — whom he considered 'a friend and colleague in the anti-terrorist struggle', i.e. the user of brutal means of oppression in Chechnya.

In theory, the new UN resolution should not have bothered Sharon, who claims to adhere to the Roadmap. But the Sharon cabinet had accepted the Roadmap only subject to 14 'reservations', which effectively nullify it — and these were, of course, not taken up in the UN text.

At the same time, the European Union became more assertive on the long-contested issue of settlement products. Already back in 1998, the EU ruled that — since the Occupied Territories are not part of Israel's internationally recognized territory — products originating in Israeli settlements located in these territories are not entitled to the exemption from customs duties granted to Israeli products.

During the intervening five years, the decree had little practical effect, since successive Israeli governments refused to mark which of the products sent from Israel to Europe actually originate at settlements.

But European officials in mid-2003 had started levying customs duties upon all Israeli products — since all were equally suspect. The Israeli exporters cried out to the government. Sharon made another hasty trip abroad — this time to meet the Italian PM Berlusconi (like himself, plagued by corruption investigations...) who happened to hold rotating presidency of EU — but it was to no avail.

Finally Ehud Olmart, Minister of Trade and Industry and one of the contenders in the unofficial race to succeed Sharon, went off to Brussels and agreed to clearly mark settlement products sent to Europe.

To angry reactions from the settlers and their supporters, Olmart responded: "The exports from Judea and Samaria are only a small fraction of our trade with Europe. I had to act to save the great majority from ruin." Olmart's act was widely taken as a vindication of the Gush Shalom movement, which had long been conducting a campaign for boycott of settlement products.

Honeymoon over?

All governments of Israel in the past decades have valued their alliance with the United States far above and beyond the relations with the rest of the world put together. Sharon, in particular, considered the forging of a firm personal relationship with President Bush as his greatest achievement. Yet in late 2003, this special relationship was visibly becoming tarnished and strained.

In spite of Sharon's calculations, the Bush Administration did after all accept the new Palestinian government headed by Abu Ala as a partner in a new effort to relaunch the derailed Roadmap. True, the Americans did not treat Abu-Ala with anything like the warmth which had been shown to his predecessor Abu Mazen; there was, for example, no question of inviting Abu-Ala for a state visit to the White House.

But then, Abu-Ala himself had no desire for such honours. His lesson from his predecessor's demise was to establish a strong position among his own people before starting upon any serious outside venture — and any exaggerated manifestation of American favor could only hurt a Palestinian Prime Minister.

For his part, Sharon had no real problem in accepting Abu-Ala — whom he had originally castigated as 'Arafat's puppet' — as long as such acceptance entailed no more than an occasional summit meeting that would provide photo opportunities and bolster Sharon's effort to present the image of a peacemaker. But the Palestinian PM would not fall into such a trap; he refused to meet with Sharon without being assured in advance that something concrete will come of it.

More serious from Sharon's point of view: even the most superficial and half-hearted attempt to restart the Roadmap immediately touched upon some concrete Israeli obligations enumerated in that document, i.e. the stipulation that Israel remove the settlement outposts which had multiplied all over the West Bank ever since Sharon's accession to power in March 2001.

Sharon and his Defence Minister Mofaz had been handing the Americans occasional reports on outpost removal, according to which the problem seemed well in hand. But, as an American official remarked amid growing annoyance, "the numbers just didn't add up."

On closer examination, most of the outposts reported as removed turned out to be uninhabited — in other words, they were no more than an empty container or two placed by settlers on a hilltop to stake a claim. In the rare cases where an inhabited outpost had been evacuated (typically with a fierce struggle between soldiers and settlers conducted in front of TV cameras) it almost invariably turned out that the settlers came back quietly a few days later — and that rather than stopping them, the army detailed military units to guard them.

It was not possible for Sharon and the settlers to cheat the Americans — once the Americans decided not to let themselves be cheated any longer. Not only are US satellites passing daily over the West Bank, perfectly capable of observing new buildings, but Washington also had available the Settlement Watch Reports periodically published by the Israeli Peace Now movement.

In October, Capitol Hill witnessed an unprecedented event: The Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee heard for several hours the testimony of Dror Etkes, Peace Now's main fieldworker. Etkes spends most of his time roaming around the West Bank — observing, recording and reporting the growth of the settlements. As the American-Jewish weekly Forward remarked, "Etkes is very good at his job. It can be said that he knows more about the settlements than anyone else, except a handful of settler leaders and government officials." And Etkes' visit left some visible traces in Washington. Senior people, including President Bush himself, became familiar with the name "Migron." Etkes several times told the story, which he himself witnessed and documented.

Soon after Sharon came to power, a cellphone company was authorized to place an amplifier antenna on top of a particular hill in the West Bank near Ramallah. A bit later, several settlers were "hired to guard the antenna"; then the number of 'guards' steadily grew, month after month; at a certain moment they brought their families to live with them on the hill...

Nowadays, there are 52 settler families living there, who were provided with a paved access road, water and electricity by a government that still officially claims that the place was created without its authorization. (The name "Migron" was pulled out of the Bible, where it refers to some place that existed in that general neighborhood around the year 1000 B.C.).

A related issue constantly cropping up between Sharon and his American allies was the Separation Wall/Fence which continued to "snake its way through the West Bank" (as President Bush put it in a famous admonitory speech in July) with devastating results to Palestinian villagers cut off from their land and livelihood.

Apart from repeatedly wagging fingers at Sharon and his Wall, the administration did deduct the cost of the Wall from the loan guarantees that it had provided to assist the ailing Israeli economy. But Sharon and his Finance Minister Netanyahu didn't blink: "Several hundred million dollars deducted from ten billion still leaves Israel very much ahead of the game."

Then, however, came the Palestinian initiative at the UN General Assembly, to refer the matter of the Wall to the International Court at the Hague. While in the past, the US moved with all its considerable might to scotch any such manoeuvre, this time Washington did not do much more than vote against. Meanwhile, the Geneva Initiative came back — to haunt Sharon yet again.

From Geneva to the Israeli street

The initiators did something never done by any political group in Israel (and which could have only been done by people with access to considerable resources). They got the entire 44-page Geneva Document published in millions of copies, accompanied by maps and with an introduction by writer David Grossman, and had them sent by post to each and every household in Israel — "so as to let the citizens judge for themselves."

Of course, not everybody read the neat brochure, bound in the Israeli national Blue-and-White. Many Israelis treated them as just one more piece of junk mail, and some rabbis called upon their followers to burn them in public. Still, a surprising number of people did read through the text — to judge from the radio call-in programs, where both supporters and opponents of the document quoted from it chapter and verse to prove their point.

The mass mailing in Israel was followed by the official launching ceremony at Geneva. The peak of Beilin's "Alternative Diplomacy", a carefully planned gala event attracting the presence of VIP's and the full glare of world wide publicity in a way which was hitherto reserved to agreements signed between the accredited representatives of governments.

Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were flown in, with expenses paid by the government of Switzerland. In composing their guest list, the Israeli organizers had quite a few surprise choices. Veteran activists who could have expected an invitation were omitted. On the other hand, there were all kind of people — from chefs to football and basketball players — who had no previous experience at this kind of thing and who were to represent the initiative in a variety of constituencies and milieus.

Also, in addition to the usual reporters and columnists, there were invited journalists from the gossip columns. At Geneva they created some embarrassing moments by asking gauche and insensitive questions; still, what they later wrote reached audiences that never read the serious columnists.

On the day before their departure, 250 Rabbis ceremoniously excommunicated 'The Geneva Traitors', and at Ben Gurion Airport there was a small group from the extreme-right, jeering and cursing. Still, that was very light compared with what their Palestinian partners faced: massive anti-Geneva rallies, quite a few threats and some direct physical assaults. Feeling insecure, the Palestinian delegates announced that they will not go to Geneva without an official go ahead from Arafat — which was duly granted after a few hours of tension.

While the Israeli partners in this initiative were often accused of usurpation, of presuming to act in Israel's name behind the government's back, the Palestinian participants were attacked exactly because they did to a considerable degree represent the Palestinian Authority and their concessions were seen as binding. More than a few Palestinians — especially refugees — could not stomach the assumption of Geneva: that a few refugees may gain entry into Israel, but the cherished dream of having all refugees go back to where they or their families lived in 1948 would remain forever unfulfilled. And other Palestinians — realizing that this concession would have to be made eventually — raged at its being made at an agreement with an Israeli opposition group having no power to bind Israel.

For their part, the Palestinian initiators replied that keeping the refugee issue in reserve pending real negotiations was a self-defeating step — since Sharon would use Palestinian adherence to the Right of Return in order to frighten the Israeli public and prevent negotiations from ever starting.

In the Geneva gathering itself, the most significant speech was probably that of former US President Jimmy Carter, stating something long obvious to many but never uttered in such circumstances: namely, that an expansionist, settlement-creating Israeli policy was a grave hindrance and liability for the United States policy in the Middle East.

The same idea apparently seems to be incubating also among members of the present administration, despite the political and ideological gulf separating it from Carter. Directly from Geneva, Beilin and Abed-Rabo flew to Washington, there to meet with Secretary of State Powell — who disdainfully rebuffed Sharon's attempts to dissuade him from holding the meeting.

However, on the Palestinian side the Geneva event had the unforeseen effect of complicating the negotiations held between the various Palestinian factions at Cairo, with the aim of reaching agreement on a new Hudna — and further, forging a united new Palestinian leadership. Hamas demanded, as the price for joining, that the Palestinian Authority denounce Geneva — which Prime Minister Abu Ala would by no means do.

That was one of the reasons — though by no means the only one — why the talks failed and no new Hudna achieved, though the Egyptian mediators got the factions to agree to continue talking.

Sharon strikes back

Less than a week after the grand event at Geneva, the headlines were swept by yet another sensation: in an extensive interview to Yediot Aharonot, Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmart set out a comprehensive new political plan. It was by far the most dovish-sounding statement ever made by a senior leader of the Likud Party.

This overture was both an answer to Geneva and the incorporation of some of its elements. Olmart totally abjured the Likud's traditional ideology, according to which the entire land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is exclusively Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish people's historical patrimony of which not an inch may be given up. (To be sure, this ideology was already greatly weakened and compromised in the past decades, but never before was it so explicitly and unequivocally discarded.)

Olmart spoke of the "demographic danger" of the Palestinians becoming a majority in the land and demanding to have the vote in Israel rather than a state of their own — and in order to avert that danger, he urged the making of considerable territorial concessions, the recognizing of an independent Palestine, the dismantling of many settlements, even the giving up of "the outlying Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem" — so that the remaining Israeli territory will contain "a solid Jewish majority, with no more than 20% of Arabs."

So far, Olmart's arguments ran quite close to those of the initiators of Geneva. Beilin himself and many of his fellows often used the demographic arguments in terms essentially similar to Olmart's. But the concrete concessions Olmart was willing to make fell far short of Geneva: no acceptance of the 1967 borders, but annexation of considerable tracts, making the future Palestine a collection of isolated, overcrowded enclaves; retention of exclusive Israeli rule in the Old City of Jerusalem and the highly sensitive Temple Mount/Haram A-Sharif compound; and since the Palestinians would obviously never agree to such terms, it would be not so much an agreement as a unilateral arrangement dictated and implemented by Israel, for which the accelerated building of the Separation Wall/Fence was already paving the way.

The Olmart interview succeeded in its immediate objective — to push the Geneva Initiative off the news. It was replaced by endless speculations as to Olmart's intentions and especially, in how far his statement should be seen as unofficially representing the views and intentions of Sharon himself.

Then, another master PR stroke: it was disclosed that the PM would clarify his intentions two weeks ahead, in a major policy speech to be delivered at the Herzliya Conference on National Security. This ensured that for the entire two weeks the public agenda was preoccupied with more and more speculations on precisely what Sharon was going to say, as well as with the scramble of other Likud leaders to take up positions in the developing power struggle.

The Sharon speech, when at long last it arrived, had little new except for introducing a new term into the public discourse — "The Disengagement Plan." This was, in essence, a watered-down and rather clumsily phrased version of the Olmart program: 'The redeployment of [Israeli] forces along new security lines and a change in the deployment of settlements' so as 'to reduce the number of Israelis living among Palestinians.'

Sharon presented a kind of ultimatum to the Palestinians: this 'disengagement' would be unilaterally implemented in mid-2004, unless the Palestinians agreed until then to 'implement the Roadmap'. By Sharon's definitions, 'implementing the Roadmap' means that the Palestinian Authority would 'dismantle the terrorist infrastructure' — i.e., engage in all-out civil war with Hamas and the other radical factions. Israel's reciprocal obligations would be limited to removal of 'unauthorized' outposts — a rather elastic term, since a single document signed by a Defence Ministry official can overnight transform an 'unauthorized' outpost into a fully authorized one.

Meanwhile, unofficial leaks from Sharon's bureau told of the PM considering the possibility of evacuating the Gaza Strip settlements, whose retention was becoming increasingly unpopular.

That week, for the first time in many months, the polls showed an upward swing in Sharon's popularity — from 33% in the previous week to 38% (Ma'ariv, December 26).

Three days after the Sharon speech, speculations about what he exactly meant were cut short when the headlines were once again captured by a refusenik initiative: a letter signed by 13 veteran fighters of Sayeret Matkal, the IDF's crack commando unit — an outfit sharing with the Air Force pilots the reputation of being the best of the best, the glory of such fabulous actions as the hostage-freeing raid at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.

The reactions followed the by now familiar pattern: the fury of the right-wing and the army command, the attempted ostracism of the dissidents, the expulsion from the ranks of the elite — but it was all rather weary, and no longer with a real expectation that the phenomenon could be crushed. 'Refusal is no longer a marginal phenomenon, it is here to stay whether we like it or not' wrote Yediot Aharonot's respected military correspondent Alex Fishman.

News abounded of refusers cropping up also in the equally elite commando units of the Navy and the Air Force, and a new refusal letter was rumored to be in the making by officers of Military Intelligence. The captain of a gunboat had been sacked for refusing to take part in the blockade of the Gaza Strip, in the course of which sailors are conducting humiliating searches of Palestinian boats and often tear up their fishing nets. And meanwhile at a Tel-Aviv high school, teachers were shocked to find no less than 20% of the pupils declaring their intention to refuse service in the army. "We give enhanced courses in art in addition to the normal curriculum, so we get a lot of sensitive children. It's a real problem" the school principal told the Tel-Aviv weekly (Dec. 26).

The papers that carried headlines on the Sayeret Matkal refusers also told of a five-year old Palestinian boy killed in an army raid on Nablus. Also killed in the same raid were two senior members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which vowed revenge. And so, the undeclared cease fire dissolved in yet another swirl of the sickeningly familiar cycle of blood: two Israeli officers shot to death at a Gaza Strip ambush; nine Palestinians, including five civilians, killed in a raid on Rafah. And then a strange coincidence (if coincidence it was): at nearly the same hour, the first assassination from the air in months claiming five Palestinian lives at Gaza, and the first suicide bombing in months killing four Israelis in the suburbs of Tel-Aviv.

And then — a quite unexpected, ghastly turn: Israeli soldiers opening fire on peace protesters in the West Bank; Gil Na'amati, a young protester who but a month before had been himself a soldier serving in the same West Bank, got severely wounded, barely escaping with his life. The Israeli public and media and political system were all deeply shaken now that it had happened to an Israeli, son of a Kibbutz leader, just after his three years in the army. Palestinians also seemed impressed. Could all this be more than a moment's pause in the plunge into the depths?

It is at this ambiguous point that this account ends. It is by no means easy to predict what the near future holds in store for this country and region. Some very dark scenarios can be easily envisaged, but also a few brighter ones.

One thing can be stated with a fair degree of certainty: no longer does Ariel Sharon bestride unrivaled the Israeli scene. The opposition is gathering, the peace movement has reemerged — but still, nothing can be taken for granted.

The Editors

The Other Israel, POB 2542, Holon 58125, Israel.

hagalil.com 25-01-2004



Refusenik Watch,
Gush Shalom
New Profile
Shalom achshav

[Hevenu Schalom

Radio Hebrew:
[Kesher israeli]

Copyright: hagalil.com / 1995...

haGalil onLine