ROME - Only a few short months ago, Israel's then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, stormed Jerusalem's Al-Aksa Mosque at the head of 1,000 police, igniting the second Palestinian "intifada" that now rages out of control.
Sharon's coup won him election as prime minister but plunged the region into chaos.
In North America, Palestinians are blamed by the usually pro-Israel media and politicians for the current wave of violence and terrorism. But here in Europe, and around the world, there is a rising wave of anger and condemnation against Israel's repression in the Occupied Territories. Only the U.S. stands behind Israel, and less so by the day.
The European Union is debating imposing trade sanctions on Israeli exports from the Occupied Territories. Senior EU officials charge Israel with violating the Geneva Convention and international human rights laws. The Convention, signed by Israel, expressly forbids military action against the population of the occupied territories.
A top official of the Swiss-based International Red Cross charged Israel's campaign to assassinate Palestinian officials and its increasing employment of heavy weapons against civilians was tantamount to "war crimes." Israel's use of tanks against Palestinians is being compared to the Soviets' brutal crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising in Budapest. Israel rejects all such criticism, insisting it is merely combating "terrorism."
Last week, Israel tried to assassinate one of the most senior Palestinian officials, Jibril Rajoub, a moderate and possible successor to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, by pouring tank fire into his home. This, the second attempted murder of a PLO leader in the last weeks, caused the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, a former high-ranking official of the U.S. pro-Israel lobby, to accuse the Sharon government of trying to block any chance for peace by assassinating moderate Palestinian leaders who can stop the violence.
Sharon's unleashing of Israeli hit squads has produced a new spiral of revenge attacks. Palestinian extremists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad lobbed mortar fire at Israeli settlements and staged bloody human bomb attacks against Israeli civilians. Israel retaliated by blasting Palestinians with artillery, gunboats, tanks, helicopter gunships and, last week, U.S.-supplied F-16 fighters.
ttacks by Palestinians on Jewish civilians are criminal, and militarily useless, as is Israel's shooting at Palestinians.
They provide Israel with the excuse to unleash its military might against a defenceless civilian population, and have silenced Israel's pro-peace moderates. Palestinians who believe they can duplicate the victory of Hezbollah guerrillas over Israel in Lebanon are dangerously deluded.
Still, Israel's continued colonization of Arab land remains at the heart of the current conflict. Sharon made clear Israel will not stop expanding settlements on occupied Arab land, though many are only partly inhabited. Sharon has repeatedly urged settlers to grab as much Arab land as possible to create "irreversible facts" on the ground.
Israel continued to build settlements during the decade of the Oslo Peace Accords, in spite of pledges to stop. Each settlement had to be protected by an army base, a cleared security zone, and Jewish-only "security roads," all built on expropriated Arab land. The strategically-sited settlements carved up Arab territory into a patchwork, making any coherent, viable Palestinian state impossible. This relentless expropriation, including the bulldozing of Arab villages and precious olive groves, which take a century to produce fruit, was the main element that ignited the current "intifada."
Israel's moderates and left have long demanded settlement-building cease and the settlers, mostly from the U.S. or Russia, be relocated to Israel. No real peace will be possible as long as they remain. Many of the 200,000 settlers came for subsidized housing; others because they believe God gave them the Arabs' land. Israeli moderates say these fundamentalist colonists should not hold the fate of Israel and the Middle East in their hands. The American Mideast scholar, Edward Said, puts it even more harshly, calling the settlers "heavily-armed, fanatical religious cultists."
A decade ago, George Bush Sr. tried to pressure Israel to cease expanding settlements by threatening to withhold some of the US$3-5 billion the U.S. gives Israel annually. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, were immediately accused of anti-Semitism and scourged by the media. Campaign funds poured into the coffers of a little-known Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton.
So President George W. Bush is being extra cautious. Instead of leaning on Israel, he is hiding behind the international Mitchell Commission Report, which called on Palestinians to cease violence and terrorism and on Israel to halt settlements and stop using deadly force against civilians.
Behind the scenes, Secretary Colin Powell is gently pressing Israel to halt its blitzkrieg. But Sharon again refused to stop settlements. Arafat agreed to everything, but is powerless to do anything. The Palestinians are leaderless.
Ariel Sharon appears increasingly brutal and irrational, almost as much a menace to Israelis as he is to Palestinians.
Arafat is comatose. The only person who can restore order to the region is Bush, but he can't forget the Mideast minefield his one-term father stumbled into.
Uri Avnery is a journalist, peace activist, former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom, the most militant part of the Israeli peace movement.