This weekend saw a culmination of violence that began with the assassination of high-ranking Hamas member Mahmoud Abu Hanoud when an Israeli helicopter gunship fired a missile at his car near the West Bank town of Nablus. Two other Hamas members were also killed. Naturally, as has been the rule of thumb in the Middle East, Hamas vowed revenge.
“Our response will come without a doubt, and God willing it will be painful,” said Hamas political leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi.
Ironically, the timing for the assassination could not have been worse. A day earlier, Palestinians were still reeling from the tragic killing of five Arabs, aged seven to 14, who died in a mysterious explosion in the Khan Younis refugee camp. The IDF at first accused the Palestinians of firing on their own people, but would later admit that it was an Israeli booby trap that killed the children. At their funeral, more than 30,000 Palestinians called for revenge.
They got it.
The past 72 hours saw the highest death toll in Israeli civilians in years. Twenty-seven Israelis were killed and 200 hundred wounded when a series of suicide bombings, car bombings, and shootings racked Jerusalem and Haifa. At press time, the death toll is expected to double; Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed “commensurate retaliation” as he cut his trip to Washington short and headed home.
(Two Palestinian children were also shot dead by Israeli soldiers in Jenin on Saturday)
How ‘commensurate’ the retaliation will be is not in question. That Israel has a right to retaliate is also not in question. What is in question, however, is when the aggravated downard spiral into a militant abyss will end. Israelis must consider the death toll since Sharon took office on the campaign platform that he will bring security to his people: the number of Israelis killed since January 2001 has jumped by 800 percent, with the combined death toll for Palestinians and Israelis surpassing 1000 casualties. Sharon’s policies of encircling Palestinian towns with tanks and heavy fire, assassinating some 70 Palestinian militants, and refusing to negotiate with Arafat have failed.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is on record for saying he does not believe peace can be achieved while Sharon is prime minister.
In the aftermath, Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner was quick to blame Arafat for the upsurge in violence. Pazner accused Arafat of purposely torpedoing retired U.S. Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni’s mission to broker a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians. To put it bluntly, Pazner is blindingly naive: Hanoud was assassinated on the eve of Zinni’s arrival to the Occupied Territories. You couldn’t ask for a better indication to Zinni that Israel will not step down from its aggressive policies.
On the other hand, Arab populations must also consider the actions of Islamic Jihad and Hamas as they invite more brutal retaliation and tarnish the image of Palestinians fighting for their inalienable rights to a national homeland.
When the U.S. State Department listed Hamas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations, Arabs protested citing the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands by Israeli soldiers and settlers. That the occupation is illegal is undeniable. That the settlements are unlawful under U.N. and Geneva convetions is also undeniable. That these organizations were fighting for the liberation of their lands is also true.
However, Sunday’s series of suicide attacks have very little to do with legitimate freedom fighting and more to do with revenge. The Hamas attacks came in direct response to the assassination of one of their own. These attacks will come back to haunt the Palestinian people over the next few months. Arafat, in issuing strongly-worded condemnation of the attacks, also claimed that the Israeli death toll will not serve Palestinian interests in any way.
How true and yet, how sad. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have now proven that they do not act in the best interest of the Palestinian people. Instead, they operate on a platform of personal agenda and bewildering Islamic interpretations. The boldest and most deadly suicide attacks came in response to the assassination of a high-ranking Hamas member. It is more to say “you kill one of our leaders, we will kill you,” and less than to say “we will fight you till you end illegal occupation.”
The Palestinians are in for it. It is ridiculously naive to permit ourselves the delusion that Israel will not retaliate with the utmost brutality and viciousness. To throw a monkey wrench into the workings, CNN’s Jerrold Kessel reported that anti-Arafat chants were heard at various funerals of Hamas members last week. This is surely to aggravate the situation as Arafat declared a state of emergency in the Palestinian territories Sunday, and moved to arrest various members of Islamic Jihad and Hamas. With most Palestinians armed to the teeth, the spectre of civil war in Palestine is raised a notch.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Muslim Canadian journalist living on the Pacific Coast.