Vol. 1, No. 7 October 23, 2001
The October 22 request by the U.S. State Department spokesman that Israel “immediately” withdraw from and not return to Palestinian-controlled areas (Area A) implies that such actions are in violation of the Oslo Accords, that they hamper the prospects for a return to negotiations, and that they threaten the wider American war on terrorism. None of these implications are correct. The statement stands in marked contrast to the past understanding shown by President Bush that placed the burden of cease-fire implementation on Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat.
Israel’s Legal Right to Combat Terrorism in Area A
The Palestinian Authority is in wholesale violation of its commitments to combat terror, confiscate illegal weaponry, and end incitement, as a party to the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements. Accordingly under international law, Israel has a right to redress these violations, and need not unilaterally abide by the Oslo agreements if doing so is detrimental to the security of its citizens.
In fact, however, Israel’s incursions into Area A are not a violation of the Oslo Accords, and the American implication that they are serves to undermine both these accords and the potential for future agreements:
Article I (1) of the Oslo II agreement stipulated that “Israel shall continue to exercise powers and responsibilities not transferred,” including responsibility for “the overall security of Israelis.”
Article XII adds that Israel has “all powers to take steps necessary to meet this responsibility.”
Article XI of Annex I states that Israeli military engagement steps may include actions “within the territory under the security responsibility of the [Palestinian] Council.”
These powers were reconfirmed in the 1997 Hebron Protocol, which entitles Israel to “carry out independent security activities for the protection of Israelis in H-1” (H-1 is the functional equivalent of Area A in Hebron). In the meantime, the Hebron Protocol security arrangements, including the joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols on the controlling heights of Abu Sneina, have collapsed entirely.
There is, accordingly, no legal basis for the unconditional American request to end Israeli incursions into Area A that are necessary to safeguard the security of Israelis.
Defeating Palestinian Terrorism: The Only Route Back to the Negotiating Table
Both before September 11 and after, with greater intensity, the United States has sought to press Israel and the Palestinians onto the path of renewed negotiations as outlined by the Mitchell Committee report. The Mitchell framework sets out four steps in clear sequence: 1) an immediate and unconditional end to all violence, 2) a meaningful cooling-off period, 3) confidence-building measures, and 4) resumption of negotiations.
Israel has gone to extraordinary efforts to give the Mitchell framework a chance to work, including the declaration of a unilateral cease-fire, and unconditional support for the Mitchell framework and the cease-fire plan negotiated by CIA Director George Tenet. Following September 11, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and negotiated a plan to implement the Tenet and Mitchell plans, but this too was not implemented by the Palestinian side. Israel gave Arafat a list of 108 militants operating in Palestinian Authority areas; from this list, Peres requested that Arafat arrest ten of the most urgent “ticking bombs.” Only one of the ten was known to have been arrested.
The assassination of Israeli Minister Rehavam Ze’evi on October 17 by the PFLP, an organization with headquarters in Ramallah and Damascus, presented the ultimate test of whether Arafat would ever voluntarily crack down on terror. Despite statements by Palestinian spokesmen that Ze’evi’s killers would be arrested and Palestinian terrorist groups outlawed, there has been no systematic crackdown on the infrastructure of these groups. It is now known that Palestinian Authority security personnel helped smuggle one of Ze’evi’s murderers to areas under full control of the Palestinian Authority.
The tactical, rather than strategic, nature of the PA’s supposed anti-terror efforts were exemplified by the death of Bethlehem Tanzim/Fatah commander Atef Abiyat in a “work accident.” Abiyat was killed by a bomb intended for Israelis, despite the fact that Arafat had personally told Peres, and confirmed through security meetings, that Abiyat was “in detention.”
The U.S. does not argue that Arafat is fulfilling his responsibilities. On the contrary, President George Bush has reportedly sent a letter to Arafat demanding that a series of concrete actions be taken to prevent terrorism. The demands that Israel cease its military actions against terrorism, however, directly contradict and diffuse the American attempt to put pressure on Arafat.
State Department Criticism of Israel Does Not Protect the Anti-Terror Coalition
So long as Arafat sees that the Israeli actions are limited, necessarily temporary, and causing a rift in U.S.-Israeli relations, he has a substantial incentive to wait out the Israeli counteroffensive and make no strategic break with terrorism. The State Department’s call for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal effectively advocates a return to the status quo ante, a situation under which the Palestinians were massively violating their security obligations under the Oslo agreements.
The State Department’s harsh criticism of Israeli actions detracts from the pressure on Arafat to crack down on terror and therefore fuels the conflict it is meant to douse. By fueling the conflict, such statements also directly harm American coalition-building efforts, gaining the U.S. only marginal credit in the Arab world. After all, the primary problem of America’s Arab allies is joining the fight against a fellow Muslim state — not the issue of Israel. Arab states, like Osama Bin Laden himself, use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an excuse to justify actions and policies that are largely unrelated to the fight against terror. Recognition of Israel’s right to self-defense would help discredit the notion that there are exceptions to the war on terrorism. Furthermore, such recognition would increase the likelihood of a return to negotiations, and reduce the diversionary claims of America’s secondary coalition partners.