With the emergence in the past few days of an Israeli "unity cabinet" under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, both Israelis and Palestinians seem to be preparing for a new phase in the confrontation in the occupied territories.
The unity cabinet has a predictably but disturbingly hawkish tinge, with only Foreign Minister-designate Shimon Peres enthusiastic about negotiating with the Palestinians. Others, including Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer from the far right of the Labor Party and fringe figures such as Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Beitenu party and Rehavam Zeevi of the National Union party are cause for serious concern. Zeevi favors the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and has compared Yasser Arafat to Hitler. Lieberman has recently threatened to bomb Iran, Egypt and Lebanon.
It is hard to avoid the sense that Israelis have concluded that the continuing uprising against their rule in the occupied territories is intolerable and are preparing to turn wholeheartedly toward a "military solution." Not only are ministers cranking up the rhetoric, so are military officials. Preparing the groundwork for a major offensive, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli military chief of staff, said that the Palestinian Authority is becoming a "terrorist entity" and that retaking the patchwork of small autonomous zones in the West Bank ruled by the authority is "a possible direction" for Israel. His deputy, Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, added that "the situation, as it is, is unbearable. Within a few weeks or months, we will have to decide what to do with it."
The mood is hardening on both sides. Palestinians are increasingly feeling that Israelis are not serious about negotiating an end to the occupation and that the entire peace process, from the Oslo accords to the Camp David summit in July, all boiled down to attempts to get the Palestinians to police themselves on Israel's behalf. The belief that a concerted campaign of resistance, and even guerrilla war, in the territories is the only path to real freedom from Israeli rule is gaining currency with each bloody day.
On the ground, the violence is only increasing. Last weekend Israeli troops killed six Palestinians, including a 9-year-old boy in his home, a 43-year-old mother leaving a market and a mentally handicapped Gaza man known to be a harmless vagrant. In retaliation, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed himself and three Israelis at a market in Netanya. Shortly after the bombing Israelis seized and savagely beat a nearby Palestinian man, and it was only last-minute intervention by police that prevented them from hitching his body to a truck and dragging him through the market.
The Israeli army has already moved into the beginnings of a new phase in the conflict by encircling Palestinian cities and towns, now including Jericho and Ramallah, with elaborate barriers such as anti-tank trenches about eight feet deep and five feet wide, among other barricades. These are symptomatic of the "separation" that many Israelis propose as a solution in the occupied territories. In practice, all separation can mean is a deepening of what already is a pervasive system of apartheid in the territories. Everything suffered by black South Africans -- including political disempowerment, impoverishment, dependence on work and travel permits, curfews, land confiscations, and living under separate and unequal legal systems -- is already the Palestinians' lot.
Deepening the apartheid, making Palestinian towns and cities even more prisons than they already are, will only intensify the uprising. Yet Lieberman seems to speak for the army, the new government and the Israelis who elected it when he declares that "to say there is no military solution to the conflict is really nonsense."
But there is no such thing as a military solution to a political problem. If the Israeli cabinet and army feel that there is a military solution, that means they think they are looking at a military and, at best, administrative problem.
All of Israel's next moves appear to be planned on the mistaken belief that a tougher line will make the occupation tenable and persuade Palestinians to settle for something less than full independence from Israeli rule. More aggressive Israeli military actions, which will be aimed primarily at a defenseless civilian population, will bring no peace to Israel. They will only increase the number of Palestinians who conclude that there is no hope for ending the occupation until Israelis suffer because of it just as Palestinians do.
Protests will continue. Hemmed into besieged West Bank towns, Palestinian cadres will increase their attacks on the most visible and vulnerable elements of the occupation -- Israeli settlements and Jewish-only bypass roads. And of course, more suicide bombs are a grim probability.
As long as Israelis are unwilling to end their occupation, and Palestinians are unwilling to endure it, a downward spiral in the cycle of violence seems unavoidable. Intervention by the international community is the only obvious way out, especially since this conflict is largely taking place in occupied territory. If international intervention was ever warranted and legally justifiable, it is here and now.
The writer is communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company