The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended its siege of the Ramallah compound of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat from intense criticism at home and abroad, saying the goal of the operation was to arrest those involved in terrorist activities who had sought refuge there.
Responding to two suicide bombings last week that killed seven, Israel since last Friday has confined Arafat and a group of followers to one building in the compound after destroying the rest of the former British fortress. That action triggered worldwide condemnation and large-scale Palestinian street demonstrations in support of Arafat.
The protests came in defiance of an Israeli curfew and at a time when Arafat was being largely written off by his own people.
“Here was Mr. Irrelevant being treated [by Israel] like he was the queen bee,” said Richard Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It was a bungle,” added a blunt Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. ”They know it is and they are trying to find an elegant way to get out.”
But as of Wednesday, Israel remained at the compound, despite a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to the siege. The United States had issued a similar call but abstained on the 14-0 UN vote, explaining that the resolution failed to condemn the terrorist groups and those who provide them political cover and safe haven.
It was the first Security Council measure against Israel since Palestinian violence erupted exactly two years ago. The U.S. had blocked earlier Arab moves to censure Israel.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said Israel would comply with the resolution if the Palestinian Authority complied with the provision calling on the PA to bring militants to justice.
“Since the Palestinian Authority definitely not only is not arresting terrorists but actually aiding and abetting them, then it is highly unlikely that we could unilaterally fulfill our part of the resolution,” Gissin told Reuters.
In noting the intent of the military operation — tanks have ringed the compound — Sharon adviser Dore Gold said Israeli intelligence believed that 20 of 200 Palestinians with Arafat were “hardened terrorists.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said talks were under way with Palestinian representatives to try to end the siege, which was roundly denounced by some Israeli columnists.
“The images of monster-like destructive equipment at the Mukhata do us no good in the world,” wrote Yoel Marcus in the Israeli daily Haaretz, referring to the name of Arafat’s compound. “To shoot and demolish around Arafat’s office is also playing with fire.
“That business of replacing the Palestinian flag with an Israeli one looks like a renewed occupation of the territories. World public opinion does not like to see the strong humiliating the weak. And we’re playing with fire against the American administration, which is focused on Iraq and warns us publicly and secretly not to shock the region and obstruct their plans.”
Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations said that although she understood Israel’s “appropriate anger” at the suicide bombings after six weeks without such attacks, its response did “not get them where they wanted to go” because it only served to resuscitate Arafat.
“Israel’s reoccupation of [West Bank] towns have not stopped suicide bombings and this is a horrible thing for Israel,” she said. “Since this hasn’t worked, we have to try something else.”
Just a day after a suicide bomber killed an Israeli policeman, another suicide bomber blew himself up as he boarded a bus in the heart of Tel Aviv, killing six. The last victim, a 19-year-old Scottish yeshiva student, succumbed to his injuries a day later and his family donated his organs to others. One of his kidneys went to save the life of a 7-year-old Palestinian girl.
After the adoption of the UN resolution, Israel directed its wrath at the European Union, which drafted the resolution as a compromise between one written by the U.S. and another composed by Arab states.
Israel’s UN ambassador, Yehuda Lancry, told Israel Radio that Israel viewed the U.S. abstention in the context of the “Iraqi issue and its desire not to further strain relations with its European partners.”
During the UN debate, several speakers questioned why the U.S. and Britain were pressing for a resolution against Iraq for flouting UN directives while Israel has never been called to task for its violations.
“They said Israel had violated 28 resolutions and Iraq 14,” said Rashid Khalidi, a former Palestinian adviser and now director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago. “It’s a question everybody has been asking — is the action being sought against Iraq because of its violation of Security Council resolutions or is it something else?
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an independent, nonprofit institute for policy research, issued a paper saying that most of the UN resolutions critical of Israel have been nonbinding recommendations of the General Assembly “that reflect the political currents in the world body.”
It said the Security Council resolutions calling for an Israeli withdrawal from territories seized in the 1967 Six-Day War require a negotiating process and are not self-enforcing, unlike those against Iraq. And it pointed out that Syria, now a member of the Security Council, has been violating the UN-imposed trade sanctions against Iraq by earning about $1 billion annually in illegal purchases of Iraqi oil.
Israel’s minister of internal security, Uzi Landau, last week told a meeting here sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs that Israel was better prepared than it was 11 years ago should Iraq again attack Israel in response to an American invasion. He said Israel was ready with vaccines and that it had developed the Arrow anti-missile system to destroy Iraqi missiles fired at the Jewish state.
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he is concerned that Arabs opposed to an American-led attack on Iraq might stage a “spectacular terrorist attack” in Israel to provoke a massive Israeli reprisal in the hope of “slowing down the American road to Baghdad.”
“There are some people who just want to kill Jews, and there are others who think the Palestinian-Israeli arena is [President George W.] Bush’s Achilles heel,” Makovsky said. “So an effort might be made by some on the Arab side to join the two arenas to slow down the countdown towards war.”