The cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence and killing goes on. There is no end in sight. Yesterday’s Israeli raid into Gaza ending with the death of 14 Palestinians is but another chapter in futility. Israel, of course claims that all of the 14 were combatants, and perhaps they were. Palestinians report that at least several of them were civilians. For their families, friends and for their society –” it doesn’t really matter. This is true for Palestinians as much as it is for Israelis. The mother of an Israeli soldier who is killed feels no less pain than the mother of an Israeli civilian. Both societies relate to all of the casualties as heroes who have died for the nation. Unfortunately, since September 2000, they should also feel that they have died in vain. And despite the senselessness of it all, both societies are filled with individuals and so-called leaders who demand retribution.
On January 28, 2004 Israel launched another raid into Gaza killing 10 Palestinians. On January 29, 2004 a Palestinian terrorist suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus in Jerusalem killing 22 people. The bomber, a resident of Al-Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem (where one of IPCRI’s staff members also resides) and a former member of the Palestinian police decided to take revenge –” as he claimed in a video made prior to his setting off to Jerusalem –” for the killings the day before in Gaza. The bomber, like most of the other suicide killers was also taking revenge, apparently, for other Palestinians killed by Israel who were close friends or relatives. Most of the suicide murderers have had people close to them killed before deciding to take their own lives and those of many innocent Israelis. This case demonstrates the cycle of violence and its futility, but I am writing about it for another reason.
Several months before Christmas 2003, Israel decided to withdraw its troops from Bethlehem and its surroundings. This was done out of a sense that Israel had “cleaned up” the area of most of the wanted terrorists, significant progress on the construction of the separation fence surrounding the area, and the appointment of a new Palestinian Authority governor, Zuhair al Manasra –” a former Commander of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force. Manasra decided that he was going to make Bethlehem safe for Christmas –” meaning that the city would be free from provocations by Palestinian radicals and terrorists and as a result, free from Israeli soldiers.
Israeli security forces gradually reported improvements in the security situation in and around Bethlehem. Israeli incursions into Bethlehem virtually came to a halt. As the security situation improved, Israeli security officials gave a “green light” to Manasra to redeploy Palestinian police in uniform throughout the city. Israeli security officials reported increased security cooperation including the turning over to Israel of some illegal arms and explosives captured and confiscated by the Palestinian security forces in Bethlehem. Israel then gave the “green light” to the Palestinians that their security forces could carry arms. Later, with the approval of Israel, the Spanish government provided the Palestinian security forces in Bethlehem a new fleet of vehicles. Security cooperation between the Palestinian security forces in Bethlehem and Israel increased. Israel responded by providing more and more Palestinian workers and merchants with permits to enter Israel.
The Christmas-New Year holiday season came and went without incidents. The area was quiet. Some tourists came. Parades were held in Bethlehem. Manger square regained its centrality in the life of the city with Christmas decorations and festivities that have not been seen in the city in years.
And then on January 28, 2004 the balloon burst and the festivities were over. Israeli forces reentered the city. Al Aida refugee camp, in particular was attacked. Many people were arrested and many others killed.
It seems to me that a different scenario could have developed. Building on the re-establishment of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and coordination that had taken place in this specific area, albeit limited, there could have been an attempt by Israel to immediately convene a security meeting with Manasra and his key people. Israel had gathered intelligence information about the terrorist and about the cell that he belonged to. This information could have been given to the Palestinian security forces in Bethlehem and Israel could have waited another 24-48 hours to see what they would do. Israel, itself waited more than 24 hours to respond because of the prisoner exchange taking place at the same time. But it seems to me, that the “Day of Tears” as Yediot Ahronot described the prisoner exchange and the bus bombing in Jerusalem caused the Israelis to a “knee-jerk” reaction –” hit first –” think later.
There was a moment, a brief moment, when the events of history could have been changed and human lives saved. If there had been a real American presence on the ground working on rebuilding Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and coordination, we can assume that the CIA personnel would have taken the initiative to convene this important meeting –” pre-empting the additional spilling of blood. But the Americans are preoccupied in Iraq and in elections and they have taken a temporary leave of absence.
In this vacuum the British could play a significant role. The UK, which is widely applauded in Israel for joining the US led campaign and victory against Sadaam Hussein, has gained the credibility of the Israeli public, government and security forces to step in as a substitute while the Americans are absent. There is probably no other power in the world today with that ability (it could also be mentioned that Israel is probably the only place in the world outside of the US where Britain is applauded for its Iraqi involvement). The British need to be bold now. A British intelligence officer with MI6 background, working for the EU, Alistare Crooke, had been on the ground for a long period and played a very significant and positive role in security cooperation and coordination as well as playing a key role in bringing about the first Hudna. Under pressure from various governments, the EU withdrew Crooke from the region and there is a large void where senior British Intelligence people, experienced in the region, could play a very crucial role –” in agreement with Israel and the PA.
IPCRI has long held onto the assessment that bi-lateral Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and coordination as was in the Oslo agreements is no longer possible today. We have long been advocating a tri-lateral formula to rebuild security cooperation and coordination. The third party would fulfill the role of facilitator, convener, agenda setter, mediator, coordinator, messenger, and conflict resolver, when necessary.
It is still not too late to test this idea in the Bethlehem area in particular. If it works there, it could work in other places as well. Yesterday’s killings in Gaza will most likely bring about additional Palestinian attacks against Israelis. The cycle of death and destruction goes on. With the current lack of leaders with vision and courage in Israel and in Palestine, without third party involvement, it seems evident that there will be no way out for quite some time.