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BICOM Daily Briefing January 14 2004

Last updated: 2004-01-14

In breaking news this morning, a suicide bomber blew herself up at an entrance to Gaza Strip's Erez crossing terminal to Israel, killing four Israelis and injuring twelve. This attack follows the terror ambush last night outside the West Bank settlement of Talmon, in which one Israeli was killed and three wounded. The incident, carried out by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, is reported by Reuters and the BBC, as well as Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, Yediot Ahronot and Maariv.

The Guardian and The Independent both have comment pieces today dealing with the demographic issue and unilateral withdrawal from an Israeli point of view. The Guardian also has an article by historian Benny Morris on his research into the 1948 War of Independence and the question of the Right of Return. The paper also reports on the death last night of British pro-Palestinian activist Tom Hurndall. The Times, meanwhile, covers PM Sharon’s comments yesterday regarding the future of the Gaza Strip. The paper also has a feature about a Swiss woman who is seeking to have a conviction she received for smuggling Jewish refugees into Switzerland during World War II quashed. The Sun has an opinion piece defending chat-show host and columnist Robert Kilroy-Silk.

In the Israeli papers, Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post focus on the Prime Minister’s latest remarks concerning the Gaza Strip. Haaretz also reports on the US call for a summit meeting between PM Sharon and Palestinian PM Abu Ala. Maariv has a report detailing what the paper claims to be the prime minister’s plans to move Gaza Jewish settlers to new homes close by in the Negev. The paper also reports on the plans by MK Mohammed Baraka (Hadash) to testify against Israel at the ICJ hearings in the Hague. Yediot Ahronot, meanwhile, covers claims that US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld is advocating a military strike against Syria.

Quotes of the Day:

PM Sharon hopes Israeli troops can leave Gaza someday

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to IDF troops (Maariv, 14/01): “I hope that the time will come when you will no longer need to sit in Gaza, and will be able to engage in more essential things.”

Israel sceptical whether a meeting with Abu Ala would bear fruit

Israeli Government source (Haaretz, 14/01): “There is tremendous disappointment over Abu Ala, who has failed on every front, and the Americans likewise believe his term will be short-lived.”

UN Secretary-General condemns anti-Semitism

Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General (Haaretz, 14/01): “The recent upsurge of attacks on Jews, synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish targets in Europe, Turkey and elsewhere, show this hatred to be, not just the stuff of history, but virulent still… no one should be allowed to use criticism of Israel's actions as a mask for anti-Semitism.”

Behind the News:

Female bomber kills 4 Israelis at Gaza entrance

A female suicide bomber blew herself up early this morning at one of the entrances to Gaza Strip's main Erez crossing terminal to Israel, killing four Israelis and injuring twelve. Haaretz reports that Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the armed wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, jointly claimed responsibility for the blast. The four dead were all Israeli security personnel deployed at the site, Israel Radio reported. Palestinian witnesses said a woman waiting to pass through to the Israeli side blew herself up. The soldiers then forced everyone out and shut down the crossing after the blast.

The terminal, where thousands of Palestinian workers go out to work within Israel during the day, was one of the last remaining expressions of official cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. David Baker, an official in the Prime Minister's office, told Haaretz that the bombing proved that “the Palestinian terrorists not only have blatant regard for Israeli lives but an equally blatant regard for their own economic interests. The Erez Crossing allows Palestinians to cross over into Israel for the purpose of work. Here we see how Palestinian terrorism not only strikes at Israelis, but also is a clear detriment to improving the Palestinian economy.”

Israeli killed near Talmon

This morning’s attack came a day after terrorists ambushed a car in the West Bank, killing Ro'i Arbel, a 29 year-old father of five and resident of the nearby settlement of Talmon. Three other Israelis were wounded in last night’s attack on the car they were in. The gunmen were from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a faction within the Fatah movement. The attack marked the first time that an Israeli has been killed in an attack by Palestinians since a December 25 suicide bombing near Tel Aviv killed four people.

Israeli officials sceptical of chance of productive Sharon-Qurei meeting

The United States is calling on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) to meet to discuss the implementation of the deadlocked Road Map. US Ambassador to Israel Dan Kutzer passed the message on to PM Sharon. Sharon is due to see the ambassador for a routine meeting today. Israeli officials are sceptical that a meeting between Abu Ala and the Prime Minister would have any substantial results. They consider that Abu Ala has proved a disappointing failure on all counts, and speculate that he will shortly be leaving office.

PM Sharon hints at evacuation of Gaza Strip

In a speech to IDF troops yesterday, PM Sharon expressed his hopes that Israeli forces would one day leave the Gaza Strip. The Prime Minister’s remarks will be added to the long list of statements he has made recently regarding what he sees as the need for some territorial concessions by Israel, whether in the context of an agreement with the Palestinians, or as part of a unilaterally imposed arrangement.

Officials denied yesterday that Sharon’s remarks were hinting at an impending Israeli withdrawal from the Strip. No such dramatic pull out would take place, sources confirmed, nor had the fate of Jewish settlements in the Strip yet been decided. In today’s Maariv, Shalom Yerushalmi maintains that in private conversations, the Prime Minister has outlined a plan for the future of Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip, according to which they will be offered land in the Negev - close to the existing settlements, but within the boundaries of the Green Line.

Head of Military Intelligence points to rift between Syria, Iran and Hizballah

In a briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Head of Military Intelligence, Maj-Gen Aharon Zeevi-Farkash said yesterday that Syria’s overtures to Israel have opened up a rift in the Syria-Iran-Hizballah axis. Zeevi said it was important to exploit this rift, in order to further weaken the extremists of Hizballah. He further noted that US and Israeli pressure on Damascus was clearly having an effect. Assad has forced a lower profile on terror groups based in Syria, and is toning down public pronouncements against Israel. He noted, however, that Syrian support for terror is a key part of the Baathist regime’s self-image, from which it derives status in the Arab world. Hence, such support would not cease.

On the Palestinian side, Zeevi asserted that Arafat’s ties to Fatah terror groups remain intact, and that the PLO leader is continuing to transfer funds to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigades.

Comment and Opinion:

David Horowitz (The Independent, 14/01): “There's a lot of healthy cynicism about Sharon's withdrawal declarations, which he has reiterated several times in recent days, including at a raucous convention of his own Likud party where he was heckled and howled at. On the left, the conviction is that this is all hot air. Among his rather rattled loyalists, there is a tendency to regard the Prime Minister's talk of unilateral disengagement, to new, more "efficient" security lines, as an ultimatum, designed to prompt the Palestinian Authority into an unlikely crackdown on terror groups, and thus pave the way for a return to the negotiating table. But on the unreconstructed right, as the 100,000-plus demonstration in Tel Aviv on Sunday night underlined, they are taking him at his word. And they are worried.”

“His rightist critics charge that Sharon has "gone soft", caved in to American pressure. But the truth is that Sharon has merely acknowledged the demographic reality: very soon, there will be more non-Jews than Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea - in all the areas, that is, presently under Israeli control. If Israel does not separate from the Palestinians, the Jewish state will find itself replicating apartheid South Africa, its shrinking Jewish minority decried worldwide for denying voting rights to a growing non-Jewish majority. Only by disengaging from the territories can Israel remain both Jewish in population and democratic. Sharon has been remarking for months that Israel's own existential imperatives mean it cannot annex the territories. And since he has concluded, in the aftermath of Mahmoud Abbas's brief unhappy term as PA prime minister last year, that there is "no one to talk to" on the Palestinian side, he sees his only alternative as unilateral action.”

Jonathan Spyer (The Guardian, 14/01): “Israeli right-of-centre politics is today turned in on itself. The reason for this derives from the prominence in recent weeks given to proposals for unilateral disengagement by Israel from the Gaza Strip and the greater part of the West Bank, in the event of the continuation of the current deadlock between the sides. The Likud party's raison d'être, since its formation in 1973, has been the rejection of any territorial compromise in the West Bank, an area it considered crucial strategically, and which is saturated with sites and symbols of Jewish historical, cultural and religious importance.

In order to grasp what is happening in Likud, it is important to understand that the party has always rested on two not necessarily compatible foundations. The first is a disenchanted political realism, an acceptance that Zionism would need to re-establish itself in Israel in the face of violent Arab opposition to its claim, and a consequent viewing of the world and the conflict in stark, zero-sum terms. The second is a romantic nationalism, and a sentimental, historical attachment to the land. The combination of these factors makes for a heady cocktail. While Israel in 2004 is no longer a country of rigid ideologies, a version of these concepts may be said to form the bedrock view of a majority of Israeli Jewish voters. However, for important figures in Likud, the combination can no longer be sustained.”

“Undoubtedly, progress within the framework of the road map would be preferable from Israel's point of view. A unilateral arrangement can offer no long-term solution to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and the broader Arab world. At the same time, the urgency of the hour demands action. There are growing voices on the Palestinian side calling for the abandonment of the two-state solution and the adoption of a strategy of demanding a single state, based on an imminent Arab majority, between the river and the sea. Given the stated lack of will of the Palestinian administration to confront terror organisations, progress on the road map is unlikely.

To rule out the possibility of an imposed, unilateral arrangement would effectively make the future of Israel hostage to the Palestinian Authority. This is something a Likud government is unlikely to be willing to do. As such, unilateral disengagement will and should remain an option for Israel, should it become clear that the Palestinian national movement has decisively and finally abandoned the path of partition.”

Benny Morris (The Guardian, 14/01): “Since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the early 1990s, the Palestinian leadership has demanded that Israel both accept responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem and accept the refugees' "right of return", as embodied in UN general assembly resolution 194 of December 1948. From June to August 1948, the Israeli cabinet endorsed a policy of barring a return, arguing that a mass return of those who had fought and tried to destroy the Jewish state would mortally threaten the state's existence.

This argument is as valid today as it was in 1948. Israel today has five million Jews and more than a million Arabs. Were 3.5 to 4 million Palestinian refugees - the number listed in UN rolls - empowered to return immediately to Israeli territory, the upshot would be widespread anarchy and violence. Even if the return were spread over a number of years or even decades, the ultimate result, given the Arabs' far higher birth rates, would be the same: gradually, it would lead to the conversion of the country into an Arab-majority state, from which the (remaining) Jews would steadily emigrate. Would Jews really wish to live as second-class citizens in an authoritarian Muslim-dominated, Arab-ruled state? This also applies to the idea of replacing Israel and the occupied territories with one, unitary binational state, a solution that some blind or hypocritical western intellectuals have been trumpeting.

To many in the west, the right of refugees to return to their homes seems natural and just. But this "right of return" needs to be weighed against the right to life and well-being of the five million Jews who currently live in Israel, about half of whom were born in the country, have known no other country and have no other homeland. Wouldn't the destruction or, at the least, the forced displacement of these 5 million - and this would be the necessary upshot of a mass Palestinian refugee return, whatever Arab spokesmen say - constitute a far greater tragedy than what befell the Palestinians in 1948 and, currently, a graver injustice than the perpetuation of the refugeedom of fewer than 4 million Palestinians?”

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Israel Briefing supplied by BICOM