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Who is interested in escalation?

By Amira Hass
Ha'aretz 05/16/2001


A week ago last Tuesday, a "military source" met with correspondents covering the territories and surveyed the situation on the West Bank (the Judea-Samaria region, minus Jericho). Midway through the survey, the "military source" said: "I am happy that there are no mortars or anti-tank shells here. I would not like to see them here - on either side. I am assuming that they [the Palestinians] do have them.".Some of the correspondents asked for clarification of this statement and the "military source" continued: "This assertion is backed up by solid evidence. There are unquestionable facts that have come to the surface. Granted, we have not actually seen these weapons; however, it is very probable that there are mortars here."

The "military source" was again asked to be more specific: "Are you saying that the mortars are there, but are simply not being used at the moment?" And the reply given to the correspondents was: "I think that they will use them somewhere down the road, depending on the way they see the confrontation and depending on what their primary interests are at the time."

The correspondents then heard the promise that the Israeli response to mortar shelling would be "very tough" and would not just be a "pinpoint counter-attack." It would not be a mere "mortar chase." And what are the prospects that the Palestinians will use mortars? "From the standpoint of statistical probability, each day that passes increases the likelihood" was the answer.

No wonder that, immediately afterwards, newscasts opened with the report that the Israel Defense Forces' assessment was that the Palestinians would use the mortars in their possession on the West Bank as well. This was the lead item on radio and television news broadcasts all that day, and in the newspapers the following day. Here was further evidence that the Palestinians were escalating the conflict. Meanwhile the IDF was only preparing itself for an appropriate response and for an effective way of ending that threat.

The groundwork was already laid: Last Saturday, IDF missiles killed two Palestinians in Jenin. One of them was a traffic cop and the other was a member of Fatah, who had been traveling in his car with some of his friends. These people had been planning a mortar attack, IDF sources said.

A few facts and figures that the "military source" conveyed in the aforementioned meeting and the meaning of those facts and figures have gotten lost on the way. For example: of the 2,900 "shooting incidents" that took place between last September and the day of that meeting, 34 percent had been directed against civilians (on the West Bank), while the rest were directed against soldiers; 115 roadside bombs had been planted on the West Bank and 24 terrorist attacks and attempted terrorist attacks against targets within Israel were launched from the West Bank; of all the incidents on the West Bank, 12 percent were "direct hits against targets" and 8 percent were "attacks on physical targets, such as buildings and cars; in 4 percent of the incidents there were casualties (injuries or deaths).

Apparently, so far the Palestinians have shown great respect for the Green Line, although it is very easy to penetrate Israel from the West Bank. Moreover, two thirds of the operations were directed against military personnel. Of course, that fact is not legitimate in the eyes of Israelis, because they do not believe that the imposition of Israeli rule on the Palestinians justifies armed struggle. Obviously, the fact that people were killed or injured in 4 percent of the incidents is horrifying. Nonetheless, this fact does prove that the Palestinians' capability is very limited. It would seem that the IDF and Israel's political leaders are convinced that the only way to ensure that the Palestinians' capacity for inflicting harm is kept very limited is to kill more people and to produce greater damage on the Palestinian side. Proof of this approach can be seen in the fact that the IDF killed five Palestinian national security personnel on Monday when those personnel were inside their permanent position in Bitounia, just west of Ramallah.

Here are a few questions about the logic of that IDF operation (while the immorality of the action raises many unvoiced questions):

* As is the case with all Palestinian national security personnel, the casualties here were Gazans. Residents of the West Bank are not desperate enough to join up for such a demanding job, which is both thankless and poorly-paid. This fact is common knowledge to the IDF top brass and the Shin Bet security service. As usual, the Gaza Strip is taking most of the really hard punches from the IDF. Did anyone in the IDF or the Shin Bet consider what impact the killing of five Gazans in a single operation would have on the morale of the besieged population of the Gaza Strip? Did anyone in the IDF or the Shin Bet consider how the feelings of the members of that population would influence the political decisions of the Palestinian leadership?

* More than 70 percent of all Gazans are refugees. Thus, it would have been reasonable to assume that most of those who were stationed at that position in Bitounia were refugees. Fate decreed that all five killed in the operation were in fact refugees. Did the commander who gave the order for this attack take into account the impact that the killing ("murder" in Arabic) of the five would have on the Palestinian security services in Gaza, most of whose personnel are refugees? How will these personnel now relate to orders to closely monitor persons planning terrorist attacks? or to orders not to participate in the "popular resistance committees"?

* Palestinian national security personnel have not been involved in any shooting incidents against Israeli targets. Quite the contrary, the Shin Bet could easily inform the IDF and Israel's political leaders that this agency is trying very hard to prevent armed persons from approaching "points of friction" with the IDF. If their "reward" for such actions is to be killed while sleeping in their beds, why should they not decide to join those who are doing the shooting and at least die in battle?

* The five Gazan refugees were killed at their post just one day before Nakba Day. The IDF and the Shin Bet issued warnings of a possible escalation of violence on Nakba Day; yet, by killing another five refugees, they have increased the feelings of anger in the Gaza Strip on the day of that area's great catastrophe. So far, the Israeli response, which is 20 times more powerful than any Palestinian attack, has not managed to paralyze the Palestinian armed struggle. The only conclusion to be drawn is that Israel's responses must now be 100 or 200 times more powerful than the Palestinian attacks. That is why IDF troops killed Ahmed Zaqout, Salah Abu Amra, Mohammed al-Khalidi, Mohammed Abu Daoud, and Ahmed Abu Mustafa. This is not escalation. This is a quantum leap forward. This is just a "preemptive strike." Meanwhile, Israelis are standing to attention and maintaining silence.

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