Global Policy Forum

Misleading or Misled?


By Simon Tisdall

March 5, 2003

In a speech on Iraq's future in Washington last week, the US president claimed Saddam Hussein's downfall could be the start of "a new stage for Middle East peace".

Specifically on Palestine, Bush argued that an end to Iraq's support for terrorism would help moderate Palestinian reformers and "democrats" choose new leaders for a new Palestinian state.

This is disingenuous, at best. It is Bush and Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, not the Palestinian people, who insist on replacing Yasser Arafat and other Fatah veterans. It is Bush and Sharon who refuse to talk to the Palestinian leadership until that happens. Saddam has got nothing to do with it.

A process of Palestinian Authority reform is under way, encouraged by Tony Blair and the European Union. By agreeing to appoint a prime minister, Arafat has implicitly accepted a reduction in his presidential powers.

But Sharon's refusal to allow West Bank delegates to attend a recent government-sponsored conference on reform in London suggested that he would be content to see reform efforts stall.

Bush's fixation on terrorism has an obvious genesis. But his linking of Palestinian extremist attacks such as suicide bombings to Saddam, like his linking of al-Qaida to Saddam, is specious - in terms of evidence and his own political motives.

Like other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq has offered financial assistance to the families of suicide bombers after the fact. But that does not amount to complicity in the commissioning of such heinous crimes.

Sadly, far too many Palestinians already believe they are justified in resorting to violence. They do not need any encouragement from Saddam.

Bush should ask himself why this is. A clue may be found in last Monday's attack on the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza by the Israeli army, backed by heavy armour. Eight people died in that attack, including a pregnant woman buried with her children when her house collapsed around her ears.

Another clue could be found in the previous day's assault on Khan Yunis, which killed three people. Or in Tuesday's raid on a Jenin cafe, which left a teenager dead.

Of course, Israel can rightly say that it has suffered terribly from terror attacks in the past two years or more. After a relative lull in Palestinian violence during the last two months, suicide bombers struck again in Haifa today, killing 15 people in an appalling and unjustified attack.

Israeli army shootings and killings in the occupied territories are now a daily occurrence. In fact, they seem to be increasing.

Since Hamas gunmen blew up an Israeli tank in Gaza on February 16, 45 Palestinians have been killed in 14 Israeli raids in Gaza alone.

Bush's new dawning age of reconciliation and trust looks even more unlikely when the wider context is considered.

The people of the West Bank and Gaza are not only under semi-constant military pressure. They are also effectively under mass house arrest, hampered by roadblocks and curfews and other restrictions from carrying out even the most banal of daily tasks.

This situation has been compared by one writer in Israel to the military government that was imposed on the country's Arab citizens from 1948 to 1966. But in some ways it is even worse now.

"The new military government is stepping up intervention in every walk of life. You need permits not only for the passage of people but also to move merchandise. In large parts of the West Bank, Israeli consent is now required to build a house, to lay a water or sewage pipe, mend a road or a power line," wrote Danny Rubinstein in the Ha'aretz newspaper this week.

Overall, about two million people endure restrictions on movement. None may work in Israel any longer. Palestinians expect further closure orders for their universities. According to the charity, Medical Aid for the Palestinians, one third of Palestinian children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition.

A new report from the World Bank this week estimates that over half the Palestinian population is living on less than $2 (£1.25) a day, half the workforce is out of work, and that the Palestinian economy, heavily dependent on foreign aid, is close to collapse.

The report says that the intifada that began in 2000 has cost the Palestinians about £5bn, adding that a principal cause of economic dislocation was Israeli restrictions on travel and freedom of movement.

To cap it all, Bush's speech last week made no mention of Israel's UN-dictated obligations to withdraw. Far from it. Instead Bush indicated that the US has relaxed its objections to the continuing expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

Speaking the very next day, Sharon made it clear what that meant. It meant not only the "natural growth" of existing settlements. It also now meant their active development.

Yet amid this great oppression and injustice, it is not Israel but the Palestinian Authority, condemned by Sharon and the US for failing to curb violence, ostracised by Bush, and still handicapped by last summer's systematic Israeli destruction of its infrastructure and administrative centres, that is expected to change its ways as a prior condition for any new negotiations.

Bush said in his speech that he has a "personal commitment" to a Palestinian state. But he has said much the same before. Nor does this first use of the word "personal" make it any more likely to happen. Bush is not good at keeping promises - as America's voters, like the Afghans, are beginning to discover.

In truth, the dream of Palestinian statehood is fading in the face of Sharon's new "facts on the ground", in the steady loss of the best land and resources to Jewish settlement, in the daily repression by Israel's military, in the apparent inability of Arab and European states to stop it, and in the indifference or collusion of the Bush administration.

Perhaps Bush is being deliberately duplicitous. Perhaps he just does not understand the reality of what is happening in Palestine.

Or perhaps, despite all his bombastic talk about a post-Saddam dawning of a new age of Middle East democracy, he simply does not care.




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