Sharon’s deadly plan

Most of the violence this week took place in the northern West Bank town of Nablus where Israeli troops, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, have been operating for 21 consecutive days.

On 1 January, Israeli troops shot and killed 16- year-old Mohamed Jaber Said at the El-Ein refugee camp outside Nablus. Another boy, aged 13, was also badly wounded in the incident. The Israeli army claimed the two boys were shot "in clashes". Eyewitnesses say the confrontation took place between heavily armed Israeli soldiers and a few stone-throwing Palestinian children.

The killing continued on 3 January when the IDF killed five Palestinians, including two children. Eyewitnesses said Israeli soldiers in armoured personnel carriers opened fire on school children, killing three. The victims included Amjad Bilal Al- Masri, 14, who was shot in the chest. Shortly afterwards, Israeli snipers situated on a nearby rooftop killed 17-year-old Amir Arafat and 25-year-old Rawhi Shuman.

A few hours later, during the funeral for the three victims, Israeli troops fired at mourners, killing Mohamed Al-Masri, a relative of one of the victims. Eyewitnesses said IDF troops opened fire without any provocation from a distance of 200 metres. "They were shooting randomly. Its seems they didn’t care if people were killed or injured," said Raied Alul, a local citizen. "They are acting like thugs and common criminals."

On 5 January, IDF soldiers killed 16-year-old Tajuddin Seif and seriously wounded 14-year-old Imad Fadda. The killings and maimings in Nablus coincided with a series of fresh draconian measures carried out by the Israeli army. Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouthi described the bloody campaign in Nablus as a "a real war on this city". He said the IDF onslaught in Nablus was aimed at breaking the collective will of the Palestinian people and coercing them to surrender to Sharon’s designs. He lashed out at the international — particularly Western — media for neglecting the "virtual holocaust" against Palestinian civilians. Barghouthi also castigated the Palestinian Authority for failing to protect the civilian population from unmitigated Israeli atrocities. "The PA is wasting time and energy in useless meetings with the Israeli occupation government that is intent on destroying our people’s will for freedom," he said.

The killings in Nablus and other parts of the occupied territories, which continue despite a virtual halt of Palestinian attacks inside Israel, may also be intended to sabotage Egyptian-mediated efforts to negotiate a cease-fire between Palestinian militants and Israel.

This week, Egyptian official Osama El-Baz, chief political advisor to President Hosny Mubarak, held talks with Palestinian leaders, including PA Chairman Yasser Arafat. Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman was expected to arrive in the West Bank later this week to resume earlier efforts aimed at reaching a truce with Israel. However, it is expected that Palestinian leaders, including those of the Islamist opposition, will tell Suleiman that the main obstacle impeding a cease-fire stems from continued Israeli aggression.

In the meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reaffirmed his intent to carry out "unilateral steps" in the West Bank, despite international objections. Speaking during a Likud convention in Tel Aviv on 5 January, Sharon said he was still committed to the plan he had announced during his Herzliya speech in December. "This is my plan, and I will pass it," said Sharon amid boos and jeers from Likud members who were demanding a still tougher line towards the Palestinians.

Influential Likud Knesset member and deputy mayor of the town of Ra’anana Uzi Cohen demanded a "radical approach" toward the conflict with the Palestinians. Cohen said during an interview with the Israeli state-run radio that "transferring" the Palestinians to Jordan was the only solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Cohen said that "many support the idea but few are willing to speak about it publicly."

Predictably, Cohen’s ideas drew angry reactions from Palestinian leaders. Israeli Arab leader Ahmed Teibi called Cohen "Israel’s ugly face".

"This man espouses Jewish fascism and he is trying to foster his venomous ideas, and I must say he is achieving remarkable success," Teibi told Al-Ahram Weekly. "These fascist and racist ideas of ethnic cleansing are no longer confined to the far-right parties in Israel." He went on to describe the idea as "Nazi-like", arguing that the result is not as important as the very fact that it is being discussed at all.

Israeli leaders lately have been warning of an "encroaching Palestinian demographic threat". Earlier, a leading Israeli demographer warned that Jews in Israel were on the verge of becoming a minority in mandatory Palestine — the region from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean administered by Britain until late-1947.

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has so far been circumspect about the idea of banishing the Palestinians from their homeland. Last year, when members of his Likud Party approached him with the idea, Sharon reportedly told them that "the international situation wouldn’t be conducive to expelling the Palestinians." Since 1948 Israel has consistently refused to allow the repatriation of the refugees, arguing that allowing some or all of them back to their homes — many of which have been levelled — would undermine Israel’s "Jewish identity".