Fanatics turn back the clock of peace

Hamas bombings and the Israeli response could bring hardliners to power, reports Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem

"WE ARE a quarter of an hour from peace, and this is the most dangerous quarter of an hour," Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, said last week. But many Israelis believe the clock has stopped and indeed is now going backwards towards a time of tension and war.

Four suicide bombs, killing more than 50 people, have reignited the hatred between Israelis and Palestinians and come close to capsizing the peace agreements. "Somewhere in the depths of the military bases," writes Meir Shalev, author of historical and satirical novels, "the rubber bullets are being put in their clips, the clubs are being stuck in belts and tear gas is available once again."

As it became clear last week that the right-wing Likud bloc might be the next leaders of Israel, Mr Shalev wrote in the daily Yedioth Aharanoth that he felt as if he was having a recurring nightmare. Professional counter- terror experts were suddenly back in business, claiming they would "rip out terror by the root" and "crush the head of the viper". He foresees Israelis returning to familiar occupations like army reserve duty in Gaza, guarding prisons, searching houses and chasing after children.

Already it is like a return to the days of the Palestinian intifada. Only three months ago Israeli troops were moving out of their barracks and bases in the West Bank, and Palestinians believed the military occupation they have endured since 1967 was ending. But since the bombs started two weeks ago, all this has gone into reverse. On the West Bank the army has imposed a state of siege on seven Palestinian towns and 465 villages more rigorous than anything seen since the Gulf war in 1991.

In Gaza there is already a shortage of flour and sugar, and yesterday the Israeli navy imposed a blockade to prevent fishermen going to sea. "No one goes in and no one goes out," says Major-General Ilan Biran, a senior army commander.

The aim of the Labour government is to pressurise Yasser Arafat into arresting all leaders and activists in Hamas, the Islamic organisation from which the bombers come. Yesterday he fired Jibril Rajoub, his security chief and most important lieutenant on the West Bank, presumably for his failure to prevent the bombings.

The government also wants to reassure Israelis by very visible security measures. In Jerusalem last night there were soldiers at every bus stop as Israelis waited to see if, for the third Sunday running, a suicide bomber would blow himself up during the early morning rush hour. "I feel frightened every time I go near a bus," said one driver. "I don't believe there is any way of stopping somebody who intends to kill themselves."

And as the fear and rage of the population grows - and its impact on government policy increases - the situation threatens to get a great deal worse.

Mr Peres has so far resisted calls to send the army into Gaza and the newly autonomous Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank, knowing that this would torpedo the agreements reached with Mr Arafat and the PLO in the last three years. He is prepared to blow up the houses of the families of suicide bombers, but not to bulldoze whole villages, as suggested by one minister. In this he is supported by the army commanders, who do not want to fight their way into Gaza and Palestinian cities. As one retired officer told a newspaper: "In times of crisis our role is to restrain the politicians. When the blood boils they get all kinds of contemptible ideas."

The main plank of government thinking at the moment is an economic siege of the 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. If they're squeezed hard enough, the reasoning goes, they will want to get rid of Hamas themselves. The problem is that Israelis, who will vote for a new government in May, want more spectacular revenge for the people who died in the Dizengoff Centre in Tel Aviv and the buses in Jerusalem.

Mr Peres has promised that there will be deportations of Hamas leaders and sympathisers, possibly to Sudan, though this did not work too well when tried four years ago. Palestinians expect arrests and deportations, while a poll yesterday showed that 94 per cent of them opposed military action against Israel.

But the real danger is if Israel goes beyond this - for example, with a campaign of retaliatory assassinations. "We will hit Hamas leaders," said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the Housing Minister. Taken literally, that means Israeli hit squads will start killing Hamas members, as they did Yahya Ayyash, the master bombmaker, with a booby-trapped mobile phone in Gaza on 5 January.

That would almost certainly result in another spate of suicide bombs. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two organisations behind the attacks, have adopted the motto: "They shall not die alone." The message is that, in contrast to the intifada, they will retaliate for any of their members killed - and the lesson of the last two weeks is that suicide attacks are almost unstoppable.

Although the majority of Palestinians disapprove of suicide bombs, many young men from the refugee camps do not. Ibrahim, a 17-year-old from Bethlehem, said just after the Tel Aviv bomb: "As a human being I am very sorry to see the young people killed, but the Israelis used to do the same thing to us."

Even if there are no more attacks, the prospects for peace look bleak. In a few days the picture has changed entirely from January, when the government took two gambles. Mr Peres decided to call the election six months early, after finding that the polls showed that the Oslo accords were popular. The army withdrawal from the West Bank towns had gone smoothly; so had the Palestinian elections.

At first he appeared to have made the right move. He was 16 per cent ahead of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, But the second gamble - about how limited the retaliation for the death of Ayyash would be - clearly failed. It went beyond what anyone in the government had expected.

Today Mr Netanyahu is 3 per cent ahead. He has put together a right-wing coalition which is favoured to have a majority in the Knesset. Victory would effectively mean the end of the Oslo accords, which are opposed by Likud. He says he would not "send Israeli tanks back into the towns"; instead he would insist on strict implementation of Oslo. This sounds better than straight rejection in the ears of Israeli voters and at the American embassy in Tel Aviv, where, say other diplomats, the betting is on a Likud victory in May. But Mr Netanyahu reveals his true attitude by saying he will refuse to meet Mr Arafat, elected Palestinian president in January, if he becomes prime minister.

"As soon as they get into power they will start a series of quasi-legal actions in theory aimed at implementing Oslo but in fact aimed at destroying it," argues one Israeli political observer. He says the difference between now and three weeks ago is that today "enough Israelis are prepared to fight a mini-war to take back the occupied territories. You could get 200,000 reservists in the army to fight. You could not have done that before the suicide bombings."

Mr Netanyahu, who became leader of Likud in 1993 primarily because of his skills on television, does not want to frighten his potential supporters by visions of more suicide bombs. His slogan is "Peace with Security". But his chief lieutenants are more forthright. General Ariel Sharon, the former defence minister who ordered the disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon, said last week that in fighting Hamas "the campaign must be conducted without any regard for any Oslo pact restrictions. The agreement, which places severe restraints on us, prevents effective struggle against terrorism."

Gen Sharon might not be defence minister in a Likud government. This post is believed to be promised to Gen Rafael Eitan, chief of staff during the invasion of Lebanon, who once compared the Palestinians on the West Bank to "drugged cockroaches in a bottle". The Israeli government's own commission on the massacre of 800 Palestinians at Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut in 1982 said it would have recommended that Gen Eitan be forced to resign if he had not been retiring from the army.

Under Likud, Israel repeatedly failed to resolve any of its problems with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours by military means. And the intifada, starting in 1987, showed that the two million-plus Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank could not stay indefinitely under military occupation.

None of Likud's recipes are new. Most have been tried and failed before, but few of the leadership appear to have learned anything in the years they were in power from 1977 to 1992.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

Life and Style
fashion

News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops
films
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'
TVGrace Dent thinks we should learn to 'hug a Hooray Henry', because poshness is an accident of birth
News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - Expo

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our Client has been the leader ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Aesthetic Medical Devices - £80,000 OTE

£45000 - £80000 per annum + car + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A market leader in...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Field Sales Engineer - Welding Supplies - £45,000 OTE

£25000 - £45000 per annum + car: h2 Recruit Ltd: A fantastic and unique Field ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - Medical Lasers - £80,000 OTE

£45000 - £80000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A global market leader i...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game