From what Sheikh Ahmed Yassin told the Palestinian journal Al Manara, one learns that Ariel Sharon has succeeded in confusing the Palestinians. A week after Israeli voters defeated their peace camp and strengthened the right, the Hamas leader offered them a hudna, a truce. He proposes an end to attacks on Israeli civilians - not including the settlers - for 10 years, in exchange for what he calls an end "to the racist actions against the Palestinian people." A week ago, that declaration from Palestinian organizations might have added a few important Knesset seats to Labor and Meretz.
Why did he take the hudna out of mothballs after Sharon's victory - and while there are alerts about a possible kidnapping of soldiers as hostages for a prisoner exchange? The answer might be found in his criticism of the Islamic attacks on September 11, 2001. "They acted on behalf of the West and the United States and against the interests of the Muslims," said the Islamic extremist from Gaza about Osama bin Laden's operations from Afghanistan. And, added Yassin, "the attacks intensified the Israeli pressure on the Palestinians."
He said in the interview that he has been receiving many envoys from neighboring Arab states. Apparently, the messages carried by those envoys are about the need to rehabilitate the image of Islam in the eyes of the West.
It's also possible to identify the distress of a commander losing soldiers in what Yassin said. According to reports provided to the Egyptians and Western agencies, the Palestinians lost 72 people (according to Israel, "only" 46) and 691 were wounded, in January alone. They believe that the enormous number is part of a quiet reform in the rules of engagement. They say the army prefers to see crowded Islamic cemeteries rather than crowded Israeli detention camps.
Yassin doesn't appear to believe that Sharon will go for the hudna that the prime minister rejected last year. The sheikh said Hamas accepted the invitation to the Cairo talks "on the assumption the Palestinian resistance would continue everywhere" - meaning also inside Israel. Meanwhile, the next round of the Cairo talks have been postponed to the end of the week instead of resuming tomorrow as originally planned. The participants were asked to use the time to come up with answers to the key question: Will Sharon turn their declaration of a cease-fire into a victory declaration about "defeating terrorism" and use it as proof that he doesn't need the Road Map to reach his goal. On the other hand they understand that if the talks in Egypt don't yield a cease-fire, Sharon will celebrate a victory "since I told you there's nobody to talk to."
The plowing ban
This time the settlers weren't on their own. This time it wasn't the police that avoided a confrontation with the thugs in tzitziot. It was the Israel Defense Forces that oversaw the theft of Palestinian lands in south Mt. Hebron on Saturday, preparing the groundwork for Transfer. The soldiers acted in direct violation of a court order from December 19, 2002, which ordered the army to allow the Palestinians to plow their fields in the area.
One of those farmers, Mohammed al Nuaja, described the events in a sworn affidavit given to attorney Shlomo Lecker. Nuaja told Haaretz the following:
"For two months we've been seeking authorization from the Civil Administration in Hebron to plow our lands near the settlement of Susia. Last week Major Tarek Shanan and our lawyer, Shlomo Lecker, told us we could plow the land on Saturday. On Saturday at 10 A.M., when I was already in the field, Tarek called my cellphone and said we could start working. An hour later he showed up, accompanied by a soldier who videotaped the area. He promised that if we did not finish that day, he would allow us to continue the following day, and said it was important the settlers get used to seeing us come in and out of our land. They left about 15 minutes later, and we continued plowing.
"A little after 12 P.M., an armed settler showed up with a walkie-talkie, threatened us and told us to leave immediately. A soldier on duty at the settlement, who spoke with Tarek before, told the settler we had permission to plow. The settler ignored him and said `Who's Tarek? I decide around here.' The soldier refused to cooperate with the settler and the settler called on his walkie-talkie to someone and I heard him summoning more soldiers. Meanwhile, I called Tarek and asked for his help. He said he would speak with the army and come.
"A few minutes later, a group of soldiers showed up accompanied by an army jeep, followed by a settler's jeep. The settler spoke with the soldiers and the soldiers ordered us onto our tractors to follow them. When we reached the road, I saw Tarek and asked what happened. He said everything would be straightened out when we got to the nearby army base. When we reached the army base, soldiers were waiting with plastic handcuffs and rags. They cursed us, handcuffed us, blindfolded us, and threw us into a wadi. Every once in a while, someone came by and kicked us. Some soldiers competed over who could throw stones that would hit us. One of us has a piece of metal in his spine, and I asked for permission that he be allowed to sit in a more comfortable position. The soldiers laughed and asked if maybe we want them to bring us pillows.
"We sat that way from 1 P.M. to 8 P.M., when they told us they were letting us go and warned us the next time we went to the fields, they wouldn't talk to us, but simply shoot us. They told us that we should send people in the morning to the base to get the tractors. On Sunday morning we sent four people to the base at 8 A.M. to get the tractors. They were handcuffed and blindfolded until night time and told to come back the next day for the tractors.
"Now our lawyers say we should leave the matter to them, and not go back to the base. Meanwhile, we can't plow, and this morning, the settlers brought large trees - not saplings - and planted them on our land. Three settlers warned us that we have to guard their trees.
"I heard that the Civil Administration is saying that we were plowing our land in an off-limits area (indeed, that was the Civil Administration's official response to a query from Haaretz). That's a total lie! Do you really believe that after we've waited so long for permission to plow, we'd risk going into an off-limits area? We didn't do anything bad. They want to make us leave our lands. One of the soldiers said to me, `This isn't your land, it belongs to the Jews.' I told him we've been living here thousands of years, and he laughed and said, `but we came from the sea.'"
About 50 members of Ta'ayush, the Arab-Jewish cooperation group, were in the area on Saturday as human shields for Nuaja and his friends. The Ta'ayush people were rebuffed by the police and army after being promised that the Palestinian villagers would be allowed to plow their lands without being disturbed.
When the Ta'ayush people saw the tractors leaving the field in a convoy escorted by the army jeeps, one of the peace activists, Yigal Burner, called the Civil Administration to ask what happened to them. He was told the police were holding them, as is routine in such cases. A similar statement was made to Haaretz by the IDF Spokesman's Office. The spokeswoman for the Civil Administration, Talia Somekh, confirmed nine Palestinians were held at a military base, but suggested the explanation should be given by the army. The army spokesman's comments on Mohammed al Nuaja's statement have not reached the newspaper.