As a lifelong liberal Zionist, I have spent the last 18 months struggling for some kind of moral clarity, if not hope, as my sometime home descends further into violence.
After 18 months of tormented reflection, I now blame Yasser Arafat for his dishonesty and intransigence, and for his cowardly and self-serving refusal to tell his own people that Camp David was the best offer they would ever get. And I have likewise come to condemn Ariel Sharon for his brutality, his attempts to exploit security concerns to hold onto morally and militarily indefensible settlements.
But it was a recent poll of Israeli public opinion that truly reoriented my thinking. According to the Jerusalem Post, an overwhelming majority of Israelis have come to recognize two truths: that the occupied territories must be relinquished, and that the Palestinian Authority is not a partner for negotiation but an enemy to be destroyed. Israel’s leaders ought to act on both prescriptions.
A withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip has proved to be a practical imperative as well as a moral one. The continued occupation cannot do other than dispossess, humiliate and brutalize Palestinians, and inevitably accustoms its occupiers to such behavior. Each day of occupation stokes Palestinian fury, and brings young Israeli soldiers closer to trigger-happy panic or blind rage.
Yet the greatest tragedy of the present predicament is that Israel cannot withdraw from the territories without catastrophic consequences. The Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, for example, left would-be militants with the impression that the use of force could in fact bring Israel to its knees. This moral but ill-conceived concession has played a critical role in perpetuating the current round of violence.
And the dangers Israel faces from terrorist groups within the occupied territories have never been greater.
In a story dated March 24, The New York Times reported that Arafat had entered into a secret deal with Iran to import ever more sophisticated weaponry into the areas under his control. An intercepted shipment, organized by the highest echelons of the Palestinian Authority, included “a ton of C-4, which Israeli authorities said is nearly three times more powerful than the homemade explosives used by most Palestinian suicide bombers.”
The practical consequences of such arms deals are made palpable in an article by Douglas Frantz in last week’s Times on the increased deadliness of Hamas bombings, which it attributed to the fact that “Hamas is now using weapons-grade explosives instead of home-made bombs manufactured using fertilizer, a fact the Israelis have confirmed.”
Frantz’s story includes the following instructive line: “‘Forty were killed and 200 injured — in just two operations,’ another Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, said with a smile.”
Zahar and his associates, like the radical Iranian intelligence services with whom Arafat made his clandestine alliance, will not settle for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah implacably seek the destruction of the entire Jewish state.
Israel cannot withdraw while leaving in place armed militias tens of thousands strong, ruthless terrorist organizations equipped with high explosives, and a regime determined to bring mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and missiles into the mix. Letting such groups continue in their activities will produce not peace but an ever bloodier war of attrition, with Israelis and Palestinians bearing the brunt of the unending terror.
The Palestinian Authority as currently constituted can never be a partner for peace, and the terror must be curtailed. Israel should accordingly descend on its enemies as never before, and capture, disarm or kill the militants who pose a daily threat to its security. It should crush the serial killers of Hamas and the terrorist regime that has become their ally. This, Sharon is undeniably inclined to do.
If you think military action isn’t an effective response to Zahar and his associates, consider the fact that since this offensive began, only one successful suicide bombing has occurred, in comparison with the umpteen attempts and multiple lethal successes of the previous week. The only reason no restaurant patrons have been slaughtered this week is that their would-be killers are fighting for their lives in the streets of Nablus and Jenin.
If left unchecked, the Israeli armed forces can capture, kill or disarm the enormous bands of armed guerrillas now engaging them in firefights in the streets of Jenin. The Israel Defense Forces can find and seize the most sophisticated and dangerous Palestinian weaponry, and destroy the facilities that would otherwise allow for its future manufacture. Both of these objectives have proved feasible in the offensive to date, which has captured more than 2,000 rifles and uncovered more than 15 bomb factories, according to Israeli authorities.
The destruction of the Palestinian Authority, the disarmament of its forces, and the deposing of its leaders will eliminate the infrastructure that has shielded, supplied and funded terrorists for the last 18 months.
But such action is not enough; when the Palestinian Authority no longer exists, and Zahar and his cohorts no longer walk free, Israel must make a permanent and unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Israel must end not only its military occupation, but must also remove its settlements. The iron fist must be applied impartially.
If Sharon were wise, if he had foresight as well as ruthlessness, he would make a deal with the United States to withdraw Israel’s soldiers and settlers from Gaza and at least 90 percent of the West Bank immediately after the conclusion of military operations. With the exception of a few settlements immediately adjacent to Jerusalem, which house nearly half of the settler population, the settlements must be dismantled and their residents evacuated.
The current crisis can only be resolved by bold and brutal action by Israel’s leaders, with considerable suffering on the part of both Palestinians and Israelis, settlers and soldiers. Such an effort will leave Israel without a partner for peace, but with a defensible border and hope for a secure and ethical future.
Eli Muller is a junior in Silliman College. He is the features editor of the Yale Daily News.