How many lives will the declaration cost? The PA is readying itself for violent clashes with Israel after a statehood declaration so as to galvanize world opinion.
July 4, 2000.
Yasser Arafat’s decision to declare Palestinian statehood on September 13 was on the agenda yesterday during the PLO’s Central Council meeting in Gaza. The Palestinians rely on the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement (which Barak and Arafat have signed) as the basis for this date – the Sharm accord cites September 13th as the target date for the signing of a permanent status accord.
Nasser Al-Kidwa, the PLO’s UN observer, advised Arafat to move the declaration date up to September 1, noting that the following week the UN General Assembly’s “Millennium” meeting will be held, with heads of states from around the globe in attendance. Al-Kidwa’s reasoning was that Palestinian interests would be served were Arafat to appear at this meeting as the leader of a sovereign country.
The Central Council is the appropriate, authoritative PLO forum for reaching decisions of this magnitude. Its 129 members represent a cross-section of the various streams in the Palestinian national movement.
Arafat convened a meeting of the Central Council shortly before the May 1999 date also set as statehood declaration target deadline. At the time, however, leaders from the United States, Europe and elsewhere implored him to defer the statehood move to after Israel’s elections. Arafat agreed. The PA Chairman held the Central Council meeting, and the PLO body decided that the statehood declaration would wait until a new government took over in Israel.
Now, however, it does not appear that Arafat can defer the fateful step any longer. In the aftermath of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s unproductive visit here last week, the Palestinians’ intentions seem increasingly clear.
The Palestinians don’t want to wait any longer. “We can’t postpone the decision indefinitely,” states Zakhria al-Ara, the head of the Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip.
Arafat’s inclination to go ahead with the statehood declaration in September enjoys widespread popular support. Virtually all Palestinian political groups back the statehood declaration – non-PLO affiliated Hamas and Islamic Jihad are lone exceptions.
Arafat’s aides asked Ahmad Yasin to take part in the Central Council meeting this week, but Hamas’ spiritual leader demurred, claiming that “we already declared Palestinian independence in Algeria in 1988, and this pronouncement gave us neither freedom nor sovereignty – why should we make another declaration?”
The September proclamation is expected to announce that the new Palestinian state includes all territories conquered by Israel in 1967, including East Jerusalem. More than three months before declaration day, the Palestinians are lobbying energetically in the international arena, trying to cultivate support for their position concerning the 1967 borders. They believe that most Third World countries will recognize this borders stance; and the Palestinian leadership expects that most European states, and perhaps even the U.S., will condone the position.
Wary that it might simply remain unsubstantial rhetoric on parchment, the Palestinians want to underline the declaration with practical steps. One such move could include organizing mass protest marches around Jewish settlements. Protesters in such events would not be full-scale military figures; they would be political activists such as “tanzim” operatives, Fatah-affiliated political operatives organized in groups that have a paramilitary aspect.
Reports about Palestinian mobilization for statehood-related events have prompted IDF officers to redeploy units on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In turn, this beefed-up IDF presence hasn’t gone unnoticed by Palestinians.
Palestinian newspapers have in recent days carried reports about IDF tanks newly positioned on the Gaza border, and about new IDF outposts being set up near Jewish settlements, and adjacent to Arab cities.
Mahmoud Dahlan, the pre-eminent PA security official on the Gaza Strip, was asked on Saturday by Israel’s Channel Two what he thinks will happen, should the IDF re-enter Gaza. He answered, in cryptic defiance, “they’re welcome.”
He meant, in other words, that such a step would be very bad. His colleague Hassan Asfour, a PA cabinet member and final status negotiator, has said that a decision to redeploy the IDF in the territories would be the most foolish policy move ever enacted by an Israeli government.
Dahlan, Asfour, and Muhammad Rashid (Halad Salam, Arafat’s economics adviser) have close, friendly working relations. All three are considered to be top calibre, extremely talented men who influence Arafat’s decisions. Together, they wield consider political power, and their outlook matters.
Act of war
This trio is not the only to advise Israel to think twice about responding to a statehood declaration with a show of force. Other Palestinian spokesmen have warned that should Israel respond to the declaration by annexing territories (a possibility which Prime Minister Barak has broached), this move would be considered an act of war.
Clarifying this threat, Palestinian leaders explain that the reference is not to all out, formal war against the state of Israel. Nor does anyone talk about terror attacks, at least not for the weeks left before September.
Many ranking PA officials estimate that the IDF would respond to riots and sieges undertaken against settlements by deploying helicopter strikes, according to a scenario referred to by IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz – the Palestinians do not expect a no-holds-barred IDF operation to reconquer territories now controlled by the PA.
Whatever the scale, everyone concurs that violent clashes are inevitable, and that many Palestinians will be injured by them. Freih Abu Medein, the PA Justice Minister, and Marwan Barguti, the Fatah head on the West Bank, have announced that the Palestinians will be willing to sacrifice thousands.
Israeli officials have interpreted such pronouncements as bravura designed as a show of Palestinian determination. If Intifada-era images of burned tires and hurled stones changed the atmosphere in Israel and the region as a whole, then it’s a sure bet that scenes featuring bloodshed and masses of Palestinian casualties will convulse public opinion around the globe.
These highly-charged expectations, fears and tensions are the background to a Palestinian statement issued early this week. In order to prevent violence from erupting, the Palestinians declared, they’re ready to resume talks with Israel immediately in Washington.
Albright promised to issue invitations to the negotiation teams soon. Talks could begin as early as the end of next week. Yet few believe that it will be possible to organize a White House summit when these discussions between the negotiation teams end.
Responding to Barak’s jockeying in favour of the three-way summit with Arafat and Clinton, Abu-Allah stated that the summit proposal has become an end in itself for the Israelis. In actual fact, Abu-Allah added, the summit is only a means to attain political objectives.
Should such a summit be held at the end of July or the beginning of August, just a few weeks before the anticipated Palestinian statehood declaration, it’s likely to be dominated by an effort to forestall violent skirmishing in mid-September.