Escalating Violence Faces Israel

Israel and the prospects for peace in the Middle East face grave difficulties in the face of Prime Minister Sharon's massive stroke. Even prior to his hospiltalization, violence against Israel was escalating.

'Israel can only have a peace partner if the Palestinian leadership fulfills two conditions. (1) It recognizes the right of the state of Israel to exist. (2) It rules out violence as an instrument to advance its political interests including the use of international terrorism.' 

These comments were made in an exclusive interview with Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold in his Jerusalem offices. Gold, who was the eleventh Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN (1997—1999), has also served as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gold was referring to Israel's recent decision to launch a military offensive in the northern Gaza Strip. After a barrage of Kassam rockets landed in southern Ashkelon near strategic Israeli installations, Israel's Defense Forces (IDF) recently implemented Operation Blue Skies, targeting Palestinian bases in a 'no—go' zone area of the Strip meant to halt continuing rocket attacks. The IDF also targeted terrorist bases in Lebanon in order to stop Katyusha rockets from landing in Israel's northern towns. The defense operations are part of Israel's determination to establish a stable deterrence both on its northern and southern borders.

A deteriorating Palestinian Authority

According to Gold,

'Israel has learned an important lesson from the repeated rocket attacks that have been launched against southern Ashkelon and the western Negev. Israel paid an intolerable price when it implemented full withdrawal from the disputed territories from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, because it placed vital facilities within the range of some of the simplest weaponry that the Palestinian terrorist organizations currently possess.'

Israel's current military offensive is also in response to the inability of Palestinian Authority (PA) forces and that of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to disarm terrorists and clamp down on their operations.  Recently, three Palestinian terrorist groups claimed they have acquired long—range Grad missiles, most likely smuggled over Israel's border with Egypt, which can reportedly target areas up to 25 kilometers within Israeli territory. They have also said they possess maps indicating where Israel's army bases are located.

The inaction of the PA reflects the growing crisis in its ranks as Fatah factions and Hamas leaders vie for power leading up to the January 25th Palestinian elections, which have been threatened with postponement. Not only are many in Israel concerned with the possibility of a strong show of support for Hamas in the elections, but European and US leaders are also worried that Hamas already has increased influence in the decision—making process of the Palestinian Authority.

Concessions — do they work?

As Israeli political parties try to enlist votes for the March 28th elections, plans are being drawn up to show just how much territory these parties are willing to give up in a future peace agreement with the Palestinians. Gold is concerned whether a future Israeli government will pay attention to defensible borders. He stated emphatically,

'Israel must ensure when it considers drawing borders in the West Bank that it retains territories that topographically dominate its most significant strategic facilities, and equally it must make certain that it controls the Jordan Valley so that weaponry from the east doesn't flow into the arsenals of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.'

Most analysts would agree that Israel's unprecedented concessions in numerous agreements with the Palestinians, spanning a decade of the 1990's, did not bring real peace. Instead, the results have been greater resistance from radical Islamic groups with increased attacks against Israel and the West.

'There are many in Europe who mistakenly believe that the more Israel makes concessions to the Palestinians in terms of territory, the more it becomes possible to reduce the rage of radical Islam toward the West,' claimed Gold.

But Israel's steep compromises in negotiations, as well as unilateral withdrawals, without the necessary security safe guards put in place, have resulted in jihad organizations filling the vacuum in areas formerly under Israeli control. Gold emphasized,

'It should not be surprising that one of the first developments that occurred when Israel first withdrew from the Gaza Strip was that elements from Al Qaeda entered Gaza and have begun to establish an operational presence in that territory.' 

Because of more radical Islamic groups penetrating Israel's borders, the strategic situation is shifting. Gold warned,

'Israel must prepare for a period of de—stabilization and not assume it is entering in to an era of greater security in the years ahead.'

The growing popularity of Hamas

Some Israeli analysts believe that Hamas leaders operating outside of Gaza and the West Bank have a different strategy than Hamas leaders acting in the territories. They claim that because Hamas is running for the Palestinian elections, it confirms the organization has recognized the current borders of states in the Middle East, and has conformed to the Palestinian political process. But Ambassador Gold disagrees.

'Hamas is not just a religious version of Fatah. It is not a Palestinian organization whose whole focus is Palestinian.' 

Gold claims that from a Hamas perspective, all the states that were created after World War I are illegitimate divisions of the Islamic world.  

'Hamas will speak with a moderate voice when it talks with Western reporters. But anyone who reviews statements that Hamas makes in Arabic has to see Hamas as part of the global Islamist network'. 

According to Gold, Hamas is also struggling against the West.

'And the more that is clarified to Israel's allies abroad, the greater the likelihood they'll understand the magnitude of threat that we are all together dealing with.'

Questions remain as to whether Hamas will become the ruling political party of the Palestinian Authority and, if so, whether Israel will negotiate with Hamas.  Gold said if Israel does it will be a terrible mistake.  He stated,

'Hamas is an organization that is not just interested in the West Bank and Gaza, but rather the elimination of Israel and for that matter, of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and therefore, any policy of appeasement toward an organization like Hamas will only enhance its stature and create a far more dangerous situation for the future stability of the Middle East.'

Hamas already controls many local municipalities in Palestinian towns and in the future may end up controlling entire ministries within the Palestinian Authority. The ambitions of Hamas have senior Israeli military officers worried. In a recent briefing to foreign journalists and diplomats, Israeli Reserve Major General Amos Gilad expressed his reservations,

'They want——and they're not hiding it——to take over the Palestinian Authority gradually,'he said.

Gilad talked about some of the group's strategies, including the desire for an alternative military establishment to that of the Palestinian Authority.  He clarified it was not because of their immediate struggle with Israel, but in order to widen their own territorial claim of 'Hamistan.' Hamas is already establishing a new and popular army, which Gilad thinks will be more powerful that the Palestinian security forces in several years. 

Meanwhile, the PA pays an estimated 60,000 security men on a monthly basis. Israel's military has challenged the Palestinian leadership to crack down on Hamas and other terrorist groups, but to no avail. Gilad explained his frustration in speaking with leaders of the Palestinian security forces.

'The moment you ask them, 'why are you not doing anything against terror', they will say, 'we are incapable'. We ask then, 'why are you paying salaries for 60,000 security men'? If only half of them are capable, they could do more against Hamas.'

Gilad also expressed concern that Hamas is preparing an infrastructure for terror.

'They anticipate that in the future the mood among the Palestinians will change; despair and hopelessness among the Palestinians will come back to terror as the only option, and they (Hamas) want to be prepared. So, that's why we know for sure, and we are discovering from time to time, they are preparing spectacular acts of terror in order to shake Israel and the relations between Israel and the Palestinians,' he stated. 

Another problem for Israel is the military's assessment that Hamas wants to gain political power not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank.  Analysts see the January election, if it takes place, as a turning point in Palestinian politics. The concern is not in Hamas receiving a majority of votes, but the expectation that the group will win at least 1/3 of the votes. The results could yield increased influence for Hamas, enabling the terrorist group to stop Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas from moving ahead in peace negotiations with Israel.

Furthermore, the strategy may be that Hamas will opt to stay in the political minority, most likely to emphasize the inadequacies of the current Palestinian Authority leadership.  Gilad's assessment is this:

'They want to offer the alternative, solutions for everything, whatever you want. It goes together with the pure image of Hamas. The corruption will stay with the Palestinian Authority.  The solution will stay with Hamas.'

A powerless leader

Most Israeli leaders agree that the current deterioration within the Palestinian Authority is being caused by a lack of successful leadership expressed through 'father figure' Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. The Palestinian population seems to respect him, but he has failed at being able to curb the appetite for power among various Palestinian factions, and rather than take control, he leads by appeasement.  Dore Gold has personally negotiated with Abbas.  As Policy Advisor under former Prime Minister Netanyahu, Gold spent many hours in 1996 working out the Hebron agreement with Abbas. Gold admits that the Palestinian leader exudes a sense of personal integrity and speaks with sincerity, however,

'he is completely powerless. And, the bottom line is, he is unable to fulfill the requirements that the Quartet Road Map have established in Phase One, which is not only a full and unconditional cease fire, but also the beginning of the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure. Because Abbas is weak, he seeks to co—op Hamas, rather than fighting Hamas. And, therefore, he is creating a very dangerous situation.'

General Gilad expressed his disappointment with the failures, so far, of the Palestinian Authority chairman to implement agreements. Gilad insists that Abbas says the right things and sends the right orders to be carried out, but he's not taken seriously, and the Palestinian security apparatus lacks any directive to cope with terror. Furthermore, in Gilad's estimation, the main challenge Israel faces today is the regime of Abbas, the split of Fatah factions, and the poor image of the Palestinian Authority within the population. 

'The Palestinian Authority is the main problem.  I consider it one of the most important challenges we are facing today. They don't have any credibility. There is a very profound contradiction between the declarations of Abu Mazan (Abbas) that I believe reflect in his mind. He is against terror. He wants one law, one weapon, and so on. But, he is not going to do anything...His strategy is to find political arrangements, and based on the image of quietness he looks at the future, and he wants to have the permanent agreement.'

The permanent agreement that Gilad speaks of is a final status peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians based on the Quartet Road Map. 

'We are obliged to the Road Map that says, clearly, you must dismantle the terror organizations of Hamas. He (Abbas) doesn't have any intention to do it,' stated Gilad.

The Road Map and new policy initiatives

So far the Palestinian leadership has only been able to work out a temporary truce which not all terrorists are adhering to. Ambassador Gold feels that's not enough.

'Violence cannot be negotiated...The Road Map is not a perfect document. But, it has a certain fundamental sensibility and that is, security must precede diplomacy. You can't negotiate with someone who wants to kill you. Israel should never again be put in a situation that every time it reaches a dead lock in negotiations three car bombs go off in Tel Aviv. That's what happened with Yasser Arafat in the 1990's, and that's what the Road Map seeks to prevent from occurring again.'

Gold's assessment is that Israel has to shift its fundamental policies of diplomacy. 

'The assumption that we will have a Palestinian leadership that will fight terrorism and in that way, serve Israel's security interests is a mistake'. He added, 'I believe that Israel is in a strong position. It's got a highly motivated and well— skilled military. The only problem Israel can face is if it makes policy errors which increase its vulnerability because of the concern for western support.'

Gold believes Israel must put forward a diplomatic plan which leaves vital elements of its security in the hands of the Israeli army.  Based on the recent IDF launching of Operation Blue Skies it seems that at least part of that New Year initiative is already being implemented.

C. Hart is a 25—year veteran journalist in print and broadcast media, living in Israel since 1995, reporting on political, military and diplomatic issues in the Middle East.