Tuesday, May 16, 2000
It was not a spontaneous outbreak of Palestinian civil disobedience. This time real battles were involved. True, they were contained and limited to certain locations, but the exchanges of fire yesterday between IDF soldiers and Palestinian security people were significantly more serious than even the Hasmonean Tunnel incidents of September 1996.
Israel opened the tunnel, and the situation quickly deteriorated. Yesterday, by contrast, almost everything was planned. Palestinian security agents and numerous politicians were among the demonstrators.
One, Salah Te’amra, a member of the Palestinian parliament, told reporters in Bethlehem that even if Yasser Arafat himself were to come and order him to halt, he would continue marching on the IDF positions near Rachel’s Tomb. Then the stone throwing began, followed by live fire. The Palestinian security marched alongside the demonstrators.
In Bethlehem, the situation did not get completely out of hand, but in other locales, the Palestinian security personnel were the first to open fire with live bullets in response to the rubber bullets shot by IDF soldiers.
Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), considered the No. 2 man in the Palestinian Authority, commented on Palestinian radio yesterday morning about whether the Palestinian Authority had launched the riots for the prisoners held by Israel.
“We in the Palestinian government are responsible for the fate of the prisoners because they are our flesh and blood. We believe they fought for peace and now they must go free.”
As important as the prisoners issue may be to the Palestinian Authority, it was not the crux of the matter yesterday.
While the riots broke out in many places from Jenin to Gaza, it was no coincidence that the most severe incidents took place at the Judea and Samaria junction, north of Ramallah. That is the location of the IDF command post and the Civil Administration in the territories, and it symbolizes more than anything else the Israeli administration of the territories. The intentional shooting at IDF soldiers with Arafat and his people just a few hundred meters away was more not the whim of a junior officer.
Why did Arafat launch the riots? He probably wanted to speed up the deadlocked talks and make diplomatic gains. The Palestinian leadership has been saying for some time now that the Israelis only understand the language of violence. What caused Israel to withdraw from Lebanon if not the Hezbollah attacks?
Arafat still has fond memories of his gains after the tunnel riots. Then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had refused to meet him until then, immediately asked to see him and a short time later, Arafat won the withdrawal from Hebron.
Expecting to make similar gains, Arafat will probably start calming his people down. It will not be easy. Yesterday’s casualties will be buried today, and a number of angry demonstrations are planned for the end of the week. But the Palestinians security system is disciplined enough to put down the riots immediately if necessary.