Israel in Dual with PA Over Ramallah Closure
The city of Ramallah is serving as the showcase in a battle of wills between the new government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the recoiling regime of PLO chief Yasser Arafat over the use of economic sanctions and blockades to douse the violent Palestinian uprising.
Upon taking office last week, Sharon ordered the IDF to tighten an existing closure around Ramallah due to specific intelligence that a terrorist cell in the Palestinian town was trying to carry out car-bomb attacks in Jerusalem. Israel arrested several cell members and had hard evidence more were at large in Ramallah, including operatives from Arafat's elite bodyguard unit Force 17, who were intent on staging massive bombings inside Israel.
Ramallah lies just north of Israel's capital and has become the main hub of Palestinian commerce in the "West Bank." By the weekend, the IDF had dug trenches around the city and erected checkpoints on most roads out of Ramallah, cutting it off from nearby Arab villages and work opportunities in Jerusalem.
In the days following, Sharon's cabinet approved an easing of Israeli army blockades on Tulkarm, Bethlehem and other Palestinian population centers in Judea/Samaria, but kept a tight security lid on Ramallah due to the threat posed by the active terror cell. On the outskirts of town, long lines of traffic have backed up for miles in both directions as Israeli soldiers carefully check identity documents and contents of vehicles, producing a very visible display of the current front lines of the evolving Palestinian confrontation with Israel.
Ever since the renewed Palestinian intifada erupted in September, Israel has used a combination of security closures, economic sanctions and precision hits on terrorists to try to quell the uprising. Israeli voters turned to Sharon last month in hopes he would be less restrained than his predecessor Ehud Barak in combating the daily attacks. Sharon has quickly adopted a tougher stance, saying that while he wants to help the Palestinian people, the stiff security and economic measures will not be eased until Arafat acts to reduce the level of violence.
Knowing the Palestinians are not starving and his throne is still secure, Arafat has responded with defiant condemnations of Israeli policies, appeals for emergency international aid and calls for the intifada to continue.
Anxious that Arafat is being dangerously weakened, a visiting delegation of European Union officials met with Sharon on Tuesday and urged him to lift the closure and release around $50 million in VAT tax rebates owed to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. But even dovish Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres joined Sharon yesterday in refusing to hand over any funds to the PA, since it would likely be used to pay the salaries of Force 17 and other Palestinian security forces involved in terrorist attacks on Israelis. Sharon called such a move "unethical," and added the PLO has "property worth over a billion dollars all over the world."
The EU delegation said their initiative was coordinated with Washington. Recently, US Secretary of State Colin Powell also told Sharon to "lift the siege," contending that security blockades and economic pressure only increase Palestinian anger and violence. Sharon has countered that the blockade is aimed at thwarting terrorist attacks and is not collective punishment against the Palestinians. He also responded that the economic crisis facing the PA is a result of their own choice to use violence and terror, abandon negotiations, and breach agreements with Israel.
Sharon said that in order for Israel to help improve conditions for ordinary Palestinians, Arafat needs to clearly call for a cessation of terror, stop incitement, renew security cooperation with Israel, and begin fighting terror. Sharon and Peres coordinated their stands before meeting separately with the Europeans, with both agreeing that when an area is quiet, it will be possible to lift closures and make conditions easier in that area.
But Arafat is exploiting the clampdown on Ramallah for public relations purposes, hoping the sight of the long traffic jams will deflect the concurrent international pressure on him to curb the uprising and root out rampant financial corruption within his regime - a main contributor to Palestinian misery. The EU delegation said they would continue to donate funds to pay salaries for PA personnel, but in a meeting with Arafat on Monday evening also insisted that he fight terror and open his budget to outside scrutiny.
The delegation was headed by current EU President and Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, and included EU commissioner Chris Patten and special Mideast envoy Miguel Moratinos. After meetings with Arafat, Sharon and Peres, the delegation then went to Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to ask him to raise financial support for the Palestinians in the Arab world.
Patten said yesterday they plan to closely monitor funds transferred to the PA to ensure they do not find their way into the pockets of Arafat or other PA officials. Their comments followed a report in THE JERUSALEM POST that Arafat has put aside $20 million in a Swiss bank account to offer to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in exchange for a safe haven if he is forced to leave the Palestinian areas.
Patten claimed both sides were signaling an interest in calming the situation, but "the central problem is who takes the first step." A European diplomatic source said that Sharon's demands on Arafat, "are definitely reasonable, and can be ... [acted on] with a decision by Arafat, without any need for internal political discussion in the PA."
The IDF eased the closure on Ramallah on Tuesday, despite the fact a "hot alert" about the local terror cell is still in place. But a senior adviser to Arafat warned the Sharon government that unless it lifts the "siege" by this Saturday, "Israelis will not be safe anywhere in Israel." Senior PLO official Bassam Abu Sharif said if the blockade is not lifted by this weekend, Israelis should stay away from cafes, restaurants, bus stops, and other public places, because "individuals are ready to blow themselves up."
Abu Sharif told THE JERUSALEM POST, "I advise Mr. Sharon to lift the siege... People are suicidal; no one can stand the arrogance of Israeli soldiers anymore... More and more Palestinians want the Israelis to suffer," he warned.
Palestinians have been trying to forcibly break through IDF barricades around Ramallah in recent days. They brought in a bulldozer at one checkpoint on Monday, with a Palestinian demonstrator reportedly killed in the ensuing confrontation.
And on Wednesday, Israeli Arab and Jewish leftist Knesset members joined a protest at one of the worst bottle necks between Ramallah and Jerusalem, calling it "a crime against the Palestinian people." Hundreds of cars were lined up in either direction, and motorists honked their horns in frustration.
Media reports have focused on Palestinians with alleged cases of medical emergencies stuck in traffic. Israeli authorities have denied several reports of Palestinian deaths attributed to long delays at checkpoints near Ramallah, Jenin and Nablus.
Intifada leaders ordered a "Day of Rage" on Wednesday and another Friday in a bid to spark street battles with the IDF. Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub today charged Israel with making up the story of the car bombers to justify the crackdown.
But Meir Shetreet and Matan Vinai - two moderate members of Sharon's cabinet who voiced misgivings about the Ramallah closure just days ago - seem to have changed their minds, saying today the security restrictions should be lifted only once Palestinian attacks on Israelis cease. "One simple thing they could do is stop the violence," said Shetreet, the new Justice Minister from Likud. "It's very painful to watch an entire people in a situation like this, while its leadership is on a rampage, is irresponsible and, in fact, would be willing to put them up against a wall if it would net them any international profit," he said.
Cabinet minister Matan Vilnai, a former IDF general and Labor MK, also laid the blame for the restrictions squarely at Arafat's door today, suggesting it was the will of the Palestinian leadership that their people be made to suffer. "After that, they summon the media and say how miserable they are," he charged.
The restrictions on Palestinian movement has led to a reduction in the number of terrorist attacks in Judea/Samaria in recent days, although scattered shooting, bombing and stoning incidents were reported. Late last night, the IDF's elite Duvdevan counter-terrorism unit arrested two Palestinians suspected in attacks north of Ramallah.
In the Gaza Strip, heavy exchanges of gunfire lasted throughout Tuesday afternoon and into the evening between IDF soldiers manning a post at the Gush Katif community of Gadid and Palestinians in Khan Yunis. Today, the IDF is investigating reports that a Palestinian man was shot during a skirmish in Gaza.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.