Regards from Hamas leader Khaled Meshal
As September approaches, the Palestinians themselves aren’t sure what their plan is, but one thing is for sure: It’s not the economy, stupid.
The baklava almost got stuck in the officers’ throats. A week ago, Munib al-Masri, the world’s richest Palestinian, hosted a group of Israeli officers from the West Bank coordination unit at his Nablus home. At one point he mentioned that he had received the pastry from Damascus, from his friend Khaled Meshal, head of the Hamas politburo. “Khaled sends regards,” he said.
The Nablus billionaire played a mediating role, though it was apparently more marginal than he described, in the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas two months ago. Ahead of September, when the Palestinian Authority plans to seek United Nations recognition for a state, Masri is worried. He has despaired of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rigid stance and is convinced that if there is no drastic change, the sides will return to violence.
Masri built a spectacular mansion on Mount Gerizim, below the Samaritans’ neighborhood. He considers the opulent structure to be a show of Palestinian independence and pride; it was built during the second intifada, which left Nablus shattered.
The slender 77-year-old host launched into a discussion about history, peace and freedom.
The Israeli officers listened politely and were careful to avoid a direct political argument.
Masri, who has been mentioned several times in recent years as a possible Palestinian leader, reiterates things he told the Israeli media two months ago. He sees himself as a friend of the Israelis, but is fed up with them; without a quick solution and a full, immediate Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the whole region will go up in flames and will take our grandchildren’s future with it. He is especially aggrieved that his eldest grandchild − who bears his name − was seriously wounded on Nakba Day at the Lebanon border. He blames an Israeli sniper.
All the hot spots
Touring the territories last week, government coordinator of activities Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot touched on all the open wounds his office deals with: efforts to calm the Palestinians, security coordination, attempts to advance economic projects, the limited maneuvering space within the Israeli political echelon, and maintaining relations under the double threat of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and September’s looming unrest.
Israeli press reports notwithstanding, the Palestinians do not have a concrete strategy for the next few months. There will be a UN request, though even some PA members are dubious about whether the move will prove useful; they certainly are apprehensive about the risks inherent in the widespread popular action that might follow. The prime minister, Salam Fayyad, opposes the use of violence outright. There will be difficulties in the UN, ranging from U.S. opposition to dwindling European support.
On the main road in the village of Beit Wazan, west of Nablus, Dangot met with Nablus governor Jibril Bakri under heavy, somewhat edgy, Palestinian security. The governor promised that the PA could maintain quiet, if Israel does its part. The reconciliation agreement with Hamas has so far not affected the PA’s security units, and cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces has not been downgraded.
Dangot went on to visit an aluminum plant, a complex, modern project that clearly involved a large investment. The owners asked for help obtaining a permit to import materials to produce aluminum. The Shin Bet security service objects, as these materials could also be used to make bombs. The signs of an economic boom are visible everywhere. Dozens of new businesses have opened in Hawara, on Nablus’ southern outskirts. Once, would-be child suicide bombers were caught there; now there’s a small amusement park and a branch of a hamburger chain.
The coordinator’s unit plays a critical stabilizing role. Along with maintaining dialogue with the Palestinians, the unit’s officers are supposed to serve as sensors regarding the atmosphere in the territories. Dangot urges his staff to report truthfully to the brigade commanders. What is obviously hampering the effort is the absence of a clear long-term Israeli policy. How far can the IDF go in terms of aiding the PA? Are these strategic moves, or efforts to repair cracks until the big explosion?
“The problem is that we have no idea whether what we are doing now will be good or bad for coming generations,” admits an officer serving in the West Bank. If you dig beneath the surface, you discover that even the supposed consensus that economic improvement deters war is actually very much disputed.
At the beginning of 2006, this thesis was presented at a gathering of senior Central Command officers. Two of them − Yair Golan (as of this week GOC Northern Command) and Chico Tamir − disagreed with it bluntly. They argued that the conflict runs far deeper and will continue regardless of the economy. Gradually, given the quiet of the past few years, the IDF has returned to the old economic conception, though no one talks any longer about the Oslo hopes. For the officers, as for most Israelis, that dream seems to have gone up in the smoke of exploding buses and the second intifada.
Dangot, speaking with Masri, emphasized the need to strengthen economic projects.
“General, you people do not get the picture,” Masri replied angrily. “The problem is political, not economic. The economy can go to hell.”
Fueling the flames
As Dangot’s jeep passed Tapuah junction, a young man with long sidelocks peeked through the window of the vehicle. Here, a few days earlier, a few right-wing youngsters surrounded the car of IDF West Bank commander Nitzan Alon and hurled invective at him.
In the media, the “incident” was described as an attack on the brigadier general’s vehicle.
For no particular reasons, Alon is considered the great enemy of the settlement enterprise. Dangot is less well-known here.
On a hill between the Palestinian village of Burin and the settlement of Yitzhar, the coordinator hears worrying news. His officers indicate there has been a marked increase in tension between settlers and Palestinians. In the past few months, the Israeli side has initiated most of the aggression. The murder of the Fogel family in March by two young Palestinians has enflamed passions here. The settlers of Yitzhar are taking systematic steps to frighten Palestinians and to use violence to keep them away from the settlement.
A similar phenomenon is discernible in Havat Gilad and Bracha.
During the first half of 2011, Jews torched a mosque, damaged 29 Palestinian homes and burned one house in Samaria. Some 600 olive trees and 750 saplings were harmed, poisoned or chopped down, as were 300 pine trees. The Civil Administration listed 48 disturbances by Jews and another 27 physical encounters between settlers and Palestinians.
For the time being, there has been no violent Palestinian reaction to the latest attacks. The IDF says one reason for this is Governor Bakri’s effort to keep the lid on. Some incidents are apparently not being reported, because the Palestinians have despaired over the IDF’s and the Israel Police’s negligent handling of their complaints.
In another month, the olive harvest will begin in the West Bank. This year, given the political events expected in September, it will be an even more sensitive period than usual. But most worrisome is the danger faced by mosques, as this could spark far more serious unrest. Four mosques have been torched by settlers in the past two years, and more may be coming, mainly because despite repeated police and Shin Bet raids, not one indictment has yet been filed.
Burin has become a prime target for residents of nearby settler outposts. “Sometimes they come from Yitzhar and sometimes from Bracha, and sometimes from several directions,” says M., who lives in Burin. “In the past it was a ‘price tag’ action, after the Civil Administration demolished one of their structures. But now it looks like they are coming to burn cars here even when electricity rates increase,” he says with a half-smile.
Two weeks ago, he adds, a group of settlers torched dozens of dunams of villagers’ olive groves. “It was on Thursday at exactly 11:35 A.M. About 15 settlers from Yitzhar came toward the junction, but the police were waiting for them there. They moved to the olive groves, the police following them. The police called out, ‘Go home,’ and they started to go back up to Yitzhar. But then the police car left. They immediately came back down through the groves toward the road and Hawara Junction, started a fire, burned our groves and left.”
M. has experienced many encounters with the Israeli neighbors. A few days ago he came to the Ariel police station, accompanying a friend who had been shot by settlers. The friend, he says, “lives at the eastern edge of the village, close to the Givat Ronen outpost.
His name is Bruce Lee.”
Bruce Lee Eid, a Palestinian Authority policeman, emerges to greet the visitors. His hand is bandaged. “Just last night, settlers approached my house and shone flashlights on it,” he tells Haaretz. “They saw we were home and ran off.” He was born in Burin as Ahmed Eid, but at a relatively young age decided to rename himself after the action movie star. On his ID card, his name is written as “Burus Lee.”
On April 19, he relates, he returned home after another long shift at the Nablus police station. “At about 2:30 P.M., we went up to the roof to eat. I saw a herd of sheep a few hundred meters from the house, below Givat Ronen. I told the children to go inside, closed the door and walked toward the sheep − right here, 50 meters from the house. I saw people approaching. I would say there were 15 settlers there. They started to shoot stones at us with a slingshot − that’s one thing they learned from us. I immediately called the Palestinian police, but the settlers kept coming closer and then they shot at me. One bullet struck me in the hand and the other in the leg, near the hip. I can’t use three fingers of one hand.”
Eid identified two of the assailants in a police lineup in the Ariel station. He moved to the new house, which is fairly close to Givat Ronen, not long ago. “Twice they burned the house and four times they tried to stop the construction. They smashed tiles and cinderblocks and tried to break the foundation pillars. They burned the logs for building the roof. I fear for my children. Every night I am afraid they [the assailants] will come back again.”
These incidents are not confined to Burin or to the villages south of Nablus. On Wednesday, 18-year-old Palestinian Bassem al-Hatib came to the hospital in Jenin with head contusions. His friends related that they had been ambushed by settlers near the former settlement of Homesh, which was evacuated during the Gaza disengagement. They said several settlers stoned their car as they drove from Nablus to Jenin, injuring Hatib. It seems to be only a matter of time before Palestinians are killed in one of these incidents. In the meantime, the decision-makers seem a lot more occupied with boycott laws than with Jewish lawbreakers in the West Bank.