Israel signaled yesterday that in deference to Washington's campaign against
Iraq it will hold back from its usual tough response following Monday's suicide
bombing which killed 14 bus passengers.
But it swiftly made life harder for many Palestinians with a ban on drilling
for water because it said the Palestinian Authority leader is conducting a "water
intifada". It also barred olive picking at the height of the harvest.
The ban on bore holes is particularly tough as it means many Palestinians are
unable to irrigate crops. Some villages will be deprived of drinking water.
After the last major suicide bombing a month ago, Israeli tanks again laid
siege to Mr Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, reducing much of it to rubble until
the Palestinian leader was trapped in one isolated building with about 200 followers.
The Israelis would have been content to leave him there, but the White House pressed
prime minister Ariel Sharon to lift the siege because it was undermining the US
campaign to win Arab backing for an attack on Iraq.
After Monday's bus bombing, in which some of the victims were burned alive
in the inferno that engulfed the vehicle when its fuel tank blew up, the Israelis
apparently did not need to be asked to consider an alternative reaction.
The interior minister, Eli Yishai, said Israel is taking American interests
into account in deciding its response.
"There are those who say that we need to react now and immediately, with all
power and all force," Mr Yishai told Israeli army radio. "On the other hand, we
could cause difficulties for the Americans. If the Americans attack Iraq, it's
in our interest as well as that of the Americans."
But the government apparently found other ways to make the Palestinians pay,
even though it denied any linkage, when the infrastructure minister and leader
of the extreme rightwing National Religious party, Effie Eitam, ordered a ban
on Palestinians drilling for water in the West Bank.
A member of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, Abdel Rahman Tamimi, said the
move prevents many in the occupied territories from irrigating fields and will
deprive some villages of their only access to water.
"If they apply this thing, that means most of the Palestinian farmers in the
north of the West Bank and the Jordan valley will not be able to pump water for
their fields. Some of those wells are also used for drinking," he said. "If it
is allowed to go on, most of the land in the north will be under threat of desertification
and then people will have to leave. That's what the Israelis want, of course."
Mr Eitam said he issued the order because the Palestinians are conducting a
water intifada. He said the authority had failed to build purifying facilities
in the hope of "polluting Israel's ground water", and he accused it of "stealing
water" from Israel and Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.
Mr Tamimi sees it differently. "The Palestinians have been reluctant to expand
the water treatment plants for a reason: the Israelis want to force the Palestinian
water authority to connect the Jewish settlements on the West Bank to those treatment
plants. It's a way of trying to force the Palestinians to recognize the settlements
as legal and legitimate."
Mr Eitam said the ban was imposed in consultation with the defense minister,
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who imposed his own restrictions yesterday by barring the
picking of olives mid-way through an already difficult harvest.
Technically, the ban has been put in place because the army says it lacks resources
to protect Palestinians from Jewish settlers who have been attacking pickers across
the West Bank. But the Palestinians say that there is a lack of political will
to protect them, and that the bar on olive picking will have a devastating impact
on a key source of food and cash for many communities.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002