Israeli hard line fuels fires of hatred

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The Independent Online
"If Arafat returns from Washington with nothing, you won't see an immediate outbreak of fighting," said Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian political activist. "But within a few months, you will see 100 or 1,000 dead."

Nobody on the West Bank, Israeli or Palestinian, doubts that war is very close. At a meeting on the new military situation attended by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, just before he left for Washington, his chief of staff, senior generals and intelligence officers it was decided to use more firepower. Any Palestinian, according to an officer who took part in the discussion, who "draws near IDF [Israeli Army] posts or near soldiers, will be killed - they will shoot him without any hesitation".

The government thinks that its military superiority in the West Bank and Gaza, established by victory in the 1967 war, has been challenged by the loss of 15 soldiers and border police killed last week, even though there were four times as many deaths among the Palestinians.

In future, if demonstrators move towards the fence around an Israeli position, the local commander will be able to use tanks and armoured vehicles against them.

"This time, if there is an eruption in the [occupied] territories, we will cream them," another officer at the meeting was quoted as saying by the Haaretz newspaper. The army feels humiliated by the losses suffered last Thursday and Friday and by the fate of a unit effectively taken prisoner at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. But the new rules of engagement ensure that casualties in any future outbreak will be higher than the 1,600 Palestinians injured last week.

Massive use of Israeli firepower - two Merkava tanks were drawn up at the entrance to Bethlehem yesterday - would lead to the 40,000 Palestinian police being drawn into the fighting. A Palestinian source said yesterday: "Even the Israelis are only saying that 200 police fired at them last week. At Ramallah, where intense fighting took place, the figure was only about 30. Imagine if they had all joined in."

Explaining the severity of many of the injuries, Dr Mustafa Barghouthi, of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, said: "The high- velocity bullets used by Israel rupture the body in the same way as dum- dum bullets."

The West Bank was calm yesterday but almost all travel and economic life has come to a stop because the Israeli army has put up checkpoints preventing Palestinians moving between the towns and villages. About 100,000 people in the Hebron area have been confined to their homes by a five-day curfew.

Where there are no checkpoints, roads in Palestinian areas have been closed with concrete blocks. Israeli journalists yesterday successfully fought off an attempt by the army to stop them entering Palestinian autonomous enclaves. Ostensibly this was for their own safety, but the effect, possibly intentional, was to make it difficult for US television which relies on Israeli crews for pictures of Palestinian areas during the Washington summit.

The Oslo Accords created a jigsaw of conflicting Palestinian and Israeli authority on the West Bank. This rickety system of dual power could only be maintained by goodwill and co-operation - qualities which are both in short supply in Mr Netanyahu's government.

Several Jewish religious sites, notably Joseph's Well and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem have become deeply resented symbols of Israeli rule. Rachel's Tomb, on the Jerusalem-Hebron road, once a small shrine with a sarcophagus, now looks like a fortified military outpost, with massive walls of reinforced concrete rising around it.

All local shops are shut, but even if they were open they would have no customers because nobody is being allowed in or out of Bethlehem.

Given that the Palestinian police have stopped all demonstrations, the prevention of travel within the West Bank by Israel is a form of collective punishment for all Palestinians. Justified by Israel as a response to violence, the closure is self-fulfilling in that the resentment it creates will certainly lead to more bloodshed.