Not as Soon as Possible, but Immediately

Where are the Americans these days? Has anyone in the Middle East heard from them lately? A week has passed since President George Bush called on Israel to pull its forces out of the West Bank cities they entered, but almost nothing has happened.

Where are the Americans these days? Has anyone in the Middle East heard from them lately? A week has passed since President George Bush called on Israel to pull its forces out of the West Bank cities they entered, but almost nothing has happened. The Israel Defense Forces pulled out of the Christian town of Bethlehem. Is that what the president's word is worth? Two weeks have gone by since the army invaded six West Bank cities, and the occupation is becoming increasingly entrenched. The soldiers feel quite comfortable in the living rooms of the homes from which the inhabitants have been kicked out, and the number of liquidations has reached an appalling new height: 10 people assassinated in a little more than two weeks, and in total 63 Palestinians killed, some of them civilians (according to the count of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights).

America is simply too busy with other matters, while its tool, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, talks softly and carries a message asking us if we wouldn't mind leaving, please. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres's too-clever-by-half translation of the presidential "immediately" into "as soon as possible" was accepted, so the IDF continues with its punitive revenge operation for the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi. Now it looks as though Israel is not going to leave these new-old occupied territories before the next presidential scolding, and in the meantime there is a situation on the ground that few Israelis bother to think about. That situation has to be brought to an end, irrespective of the flaccid position taken by the United States.

With the Israeli media and public sunk in an attitude of "quiet, we're occupying," it is necessary to turn to the small local weekly Zman Hasharon to hear the outcry of the mayor of Qalqilyah, Ma'arouf Zaharan, who seeks mercy for his occupied city. There is a growing shortage of food and medicines there, the water and power supplies are constantly interrupted, Israeli tanks are deployed everywhere, even at the entrance to the city's well-kept zoo, preventing even the animals from getting their food. "You are shooting indiscriminately, killing young people, demolishing homes, starving the population, destroying orchards, impounding ambulances and not even letting us collect the garbage," wrote the desperate mayor of the city, which is located five minutes from Kfar Sava.

Only people who watch Palestinian local television stations are exposed to the terrible scale of the population's suffering over the past two weeks. One funeral follows another, human tragedies come thick and fast. No one was interested last week in the story of Fatma Abed Rabbo, whose newborn infant, to which she gave birth prematurely in her car after five years of fertility treatments, died before he could be taken to a hospital, because soldiers at a roadblock refused to let her through. At one time, stories like this used to shock at least part of the Israeli public. In 1996, the story of Faiza Abu Dahuk, a Bedouin woman whose newborn child died after she was stopped at three different roadblocks on her way to a hospital, was at least discussed by the cabinet.

Under cover of the partial media blackout, which derives mostly from lack of interest and only in small measure from any inability to cover the story, an unprecedented occupation regime has been imposed in five West Bank cities for the past two weeks - worse even than the worst periods of the previous occupation. Even without a curfew being officially declared in most places, the tens of thousands of residents of Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Qalqilyah, Tul Karm and their surroundings are afraid to leave their homes: Though they are accustomed to occupation, Israeli tanks were never before parked in their neighborhoods. Imagine the tanks of a foreign army in your streets, where your children play.

The return of the soldiers means also the return of phenomena familiar from both the West Bank and Lebanon. Last week A., a woman who lives in Ramallah, related how soldiers entered the home of her elderly neighbor in the dead of night, for no apparent reason. They smashed a window, poked around in the closets, woke up everyone in the house, scared the children to death, and left.

To avenge the killing of Rehavam Ze'evi, Israel has effectively turned all of Area A, under full Palestinian control, into Area B (Israeli security and Palestinian civilian control). The taboo on entering Area A has been shattered for good. With the boundaries erased, the Palestinian Authority's rule is crumbling, along with the last remnants of Palestinian sovereignty and of the national pride that somehow existed in the West Bank. It is very symbolic that the Israeli tanks in Bethlehem crushed every traffic light in the city under their treads: The traffic lights were the first development project carried out by the Palestinian Authority there.

Every day that passes deepens the occupation and every terrorist attack consolidates it. The Shin Bet security service talks about the about major successes it has had thanks to the new occupation, but that is a terribly shortsighted view to take. No one has thought about the price that will one day have to be paid. As we imprison residents of entire cities in their homes and brutalize the population, totally eliminating any semblance of normal life for tens of thousands of innocent people, we are sowing more seeds of hatred. Not that hatred was not there before, but the present occupation is expanding it, bringing it into every home where people still believed in coexistence with Israel. That fact will never be entered in the deficit side of the ledger of Israeli policy, because the keepers of the records note only the number of those arrested and liquidated - on the profit side. It appears to be more than mere chance that the Shin Bet's code name for the table of Palestinians who have been hit is "apple in honey." But the price of these dark days will be exacted. They must be brought to an end, before it is too late. Forget "Ramallah first" and "Jenin last" - the IDF must leave immediately, not merely "as soon as possible."