Israel launches missile attack on Arafat's headquarters - Sharon Declares "War on Terror"

Alan Woods and Ted Grant take a look at the current situation developing in the Middle East after the suicide bombings and the subsequent missile attacks on Yasser Arafat's headquarters. The US-inspired peace initiative seems dead in the water, as Sharon virtually declares all-out war.

Last weekend saw Israel yet again stunned by a new terrorist blitz that left 31 dead and 200 injured. Yet again the streets of Israel were the scene of indescribable carnage, of severed limbs and the smell of burnt flesh. The most deadly 12 hours of suicide bombings since the Palestinian Intifada broke out 14 months ago began shortly after 11.30pm on Saturday, when Jerusalem was rocked by a massive double explosion.

Two suicide bombers blew themselves up simultaneously in the busy Ben Yehuda Street, killing ten young Israelis, who were milling around outside popular coffee bars. They ranged in age from 14 to 20. About 180 more were treated in hospital. Half an hour later, a booby-trapped car was detonated 50 yards away on the other side of Jaffa Road. It burst into flames, but its presumed targets - rescue workers and onlookers -escaped unhurt.

In mid-morning, another suicide bomber blew himself up on a crowded bus in Haifa. The bomb, estimated at 10kg, shattered windows, peeled the roof off and buckled the steel frame. Fifteen passengers were killed and at least 45 wounded, two critically. Arabs and Jews in Haifa rushed into the street after the blast, giving water to the wounded and helping them into ambulances.

Only five of the Haifa dead had been identified last night. The rest were so mutilated that the police appealed for relatives to contact them. At least five of the wounded were Filipino guest workers. In a separate attack, two Palestinians killed an Israeli at Elei Sinai, in the Gaza Strip, before Israeli troops shot them dead.

On Monday morning Israelis were still reeling from three suicide bombings - two in the centre of west Jerusalem and one in the port city of Haifa. An explosion was also reported in Bethlehem but this was apparently caused by a Palestinian militant preparing a bomb which exploded prematurely.

Retaliation

Israel immediately laid the responsibility for these suicide attacks at the door of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. After hearing the news of the attacks, Ariel Sharon cut short a visit to the US to fly home. Up to this moment, the Americans had been attempting to twist Sharon's arm to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to calm the nerves of moderate Arab states in the "anti-terrorist coalition".

Only US pressure prevented Sharon from sticking the boot into the Palestinians earlier. But now the whole situation has changed. Sharon will demand the right to retaliate, and Bush will have to agree. An Israeli official said there would be "intensive action" against groups responsible for the violence. "The Americans know that Israel will fight terror in the way it sees fit," the official said.

As soon as Ariel Sharon flew back from the US for his emergency cabinet meeting he made his views plain. The attacks were followed by an uncompromising statement by the Israeli Prime Minister, who bluntly stated tonight that yesterday's terrorist attacks in Jerusalem were the responsibility of Arafat:

"Arafat is responsible for everything that is going on here...anybody who stands up to kill us is in danger himself," Sharon said in a televised address to the nation. Sharon warned that Israel would use "full force, full determination, all the means used to this day and new means available to us."

Sharon called an emergency cabinet meeting where demands were made by his right-wing colleagues to expel Mr Arafat, topple his regime and take the fight deeper into the occupied territories. He later convened a meeting of the full Israeli government, which Israel Radio, citing Sharon aides, said was expected to approve harsh retaliation, but stop short of crushing Arafat's Palestinian Authority. But the facts suggest otherwise.

Israeli retaliation was swift and bloody. Israeli helicopter gunships slammed into Gaza, firing at least nine missiles at targets in Gaza City which caused a number of deaths and over a hundred injured. The Israeli missiles landed near Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the city. A helicopter belonging to the PLO leader was destroyed.

Everyone knows that the suicide bomb attacks were nothing to do with Arafat who is desperately trying to ingratiate himself with the Americans. In fact, responsibility for the attacks has been claimed by the militant Islamist organisation Hamas in retaliation for Israel's assassination of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, the group's military leader in the West Bank, in a missile strike 10 days ago. Despite these well-known facts, the Israelis are still insisting that Fatah and Tanzim are responsible and Arafat's bodyguard was targeted - as well as Arafat himself.

Arafat has recently been doing everything in his power to conciliate Israel, arresting members of opposition groups and cracking down on demonstrators. After the recent bombings, the Palestinian Authority - facing the prospect of being placed in the enemy bracket in the West's "war on terror" - responded by declaring a state of emergency, and issuing an unusually strong condemnation of the attacks. It has once again rounded up dozens of Islamic militants.

But all this is of little interest to the hawks in Tel Aviv. They have been waiting for an excuse to crack down on the Palestinians with even greater ferocity than heretofore. They expected to have their chance with America's blessing after September 11, and were bitterly angry when Bush, following his own agenda, tried to restrain them. Now the latest suicide bombings have given them the green light. American objections are brushed to one side.

Peace talks in ruins

The conclusion is inescapable. The latest military attacks represent a crossing of the Rubicon. This amounts to a declaration of war. The latest explosions in Palestine have immediately blown the US peace initiative out of the water. The Oslo Agreement was already long dead. Now any chance of a new agreement brokered by America is in ruins. The Palestinians have appealed to the US to order Israel to end the strikes - in vain. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "Obviously Israel has the right to defend itself and the president understands that clearly."

The latest events have created an unstoppable dynamic in Israeli government circles. This means that Arafat is now in a very precarious position. He has lost support inside Palestine and is hated in Tel Aviv. The latest Israeli attack was clearly motivated by a murderous intent. Sharon has decided that Arafat must be eliminated. All this does not suit Washington, which is attempting to use Arafat to bring the Intifada under control.

Washington has been trying to get Arafat to stop the Intifada, to arrest and imprison all militants, and in return it wants Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians - including some kind of vague promise of a state in the future. In the global calculations of US imperialism, the aspirations of Israel are a matter of secondary importance. Naturally Sharon does not see things in the same way.

The Israeli leader has compared Israel's campaign to that waged by America against Osama bin Laden: "Just as the United States acts in its battle against world terror, under the brave leader of President Bush, just as it acts with all its strength, so shall we do...with all the means at our disposal." And he answered - for Washington's benefit:

"Arafat is the main impediment to peace and stability in the Middle East...Arafat will not succeed in deceiving the government I head...Arafat has chosen the path of terror...to try to make diplomatic gains through murder."

US plays its own game

America has been compelled to give its approval for Israeli military retaliation, while attempting to limit its scope so as to avoid toppling Arafat. Washington has said that it was up to Israel to decide how to respond, "although Mr Sharon should consider the consequences."

The Americans and Europeans have been piling the pressure on Yasser Arafat to act to shore up his tottering regime before it is too late. Even as the Palestinians prepared for Israel's military response, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, speaking on US television, said: "It is a moment of truth, Mr Arafat." It was, he said, "absolutely necessary for him to take positive action now."

The US President, George Bush, led the chorus: "This is a moment where the advocates for peace in the Middle East must rise up and fight terror. Chairman Arafat must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice."

All this presupposes that Arafat is still capable of controlling events in his own territory. That is clearly not the case. Arafat has done everything in his power to assert his control, but control is fast slipping out of his hands.

The Palestinians appealed in vain to Israel not to retaliate so that their security services could track down those responsible. The Israeli Communications Minister, Ruby Rivlin, dismissed Mr Arafat's condemnation as "words in the wind". Tel Aviv's reply was immediate and brutal. Israeli paratroopers shot dead four armed Palestinians south of Jenin last night as the army tightened the cordon around West Bank cities.

This is all bad news for Bush's Middle East mediator, Anthony Zinni. The retired US Marines general laid a wreath on the site of the bombing, saying: said: "This is the deepest evil one can imagine to attack young people and children, to attack rescue and emergency vehicles trying to come in." This is known as playing to the gallery. But his words did nothing to endear him to the hard-line Orthodox Jews who were praying and agitating there. They booed him.

Obviously a man of some spirit, Zinni vowed not to let the bombings sabotage his mission: "It's important to stay together to fight this, that we don't let it deter us from our goal of peace, and that we stand together and make the world see that we will not tolerate this." But Zinni's spirit notwithstanding, this peace mission has about as much chance of success as a snowball in hell.

Terrorism's reactionary role

The senseless tactic of individual terrorism will lead to nothing positive for the Palestinian people. The weekend's suicide bombings were terrorism of the worst kind. The sequence of explosions was timed to try to kill those fleeing from earlier blasts, and thus was calculated to cause the most widespread slaughter of civilians. Such an act cannot be supported or condoned in any way. It is true that the Israeli imperialists have behaved with the most callous cruelty towards the Palestinians. Many of the youth in the occupied territories are desperate and desire revenge. But these methods will prove to be entirely counter-productive.

To the extent that Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas are pursuing a rational strategy, it is to render the cost to Israel of occupying the Palestinian territories too high to be borne. But this is a mistake. Such tactics do not harm the Israeli establishment in the slightest. On the contrary. They strengthen it, and particularly its most reactionary wing, which is prepared to wade in Palestinian blood to secure its expansionist objectives. The terrorists want the Israelis to react with extreme force, and they will not be disappointed.

How can the Zionist state be defeated? Certainly not by insane tactics that weld together the whole population of Israel against the Palestinians. As a result of the latest madness the response of Ariel Sharon in launching new and even more ferocious raids against the Palestinians will be popular with his electorate. There will be no protests or opposition to it. Is that a good thing for the Palestinian cause? On the contrary. That is the surest road to disaster. Not to see this is complete blindness.

The recent atrocities have played right into Sharon's hands - just as terrorism always plays into the hands of reaction. He will make use of the situation to inflict new punishments on the Palestinians. Since the Palestinians are the weaker side, it is extremely foolish to provoke the Israelis. It makes no sense, since they will hit back hard. What do such tactics achieve?

Sharon seems to be as short-sighted as everyone else in this conflict. What will he have achieved by a victory for Hamas? This would carry with it the risk of all-out war, which might turn into a general war in the Middle East. Maybe Sharon is calculating that since war with his Arab neighbours is inevitable sooner or later, it is better to get it over with now. He is confident that Israel can win a military victory, and probably his confidence is justified. But what would he have achieved by such an adventure?

After a war, all the contradictions will remain and will be quadrupled. Moreover, a war would inevitably threaten a whole series of Arab bourgeois regimes with overthrow - including Saudi Arabia. Such a prospect horrifies the Americans, and this explains why they are straining with might and main to halt the slide into chaos.

The US imperialists do not like the way things are going between Israel and Palestine because they do not want new convulsions in the Middle East which could threaten to wreck their "coalition against terrorism". They need to placate regimes like Egypt, Jordan, and above all, Saudi Arabia. But they do not control events. Rather it is Sharon who is in control, and Sharon will put the interests of Israel (as he understands them) before America's wishes.

The programme of Sharon is the programme of Greater Israel - the programme of further territorial expansion which can only be at the expense of the Palestinians. The problem is that further expansionism will increase the despair of the Palestinians, leading to new outbreaks of terrorism.

An infernal spiral

At the time of Sharon's election, some "clever" people thought that he would bring peace, on the very peculiar logic that, as a right-wing hawk, he would be well placed to make compromises with the Palestinians. We said that this was wishful thinking and we have been shown to be correct.

Sharon is not interested in compromise. His slogan is "what we have we keep." His tactics are calculated to prevent a deal with Arafat, whom he regards as his main enemy. In answer to the pleas of the Americans for a ceasefire, he has repeatedly insisted on absolute quiet before a ceasefire can be declared. Since he himself decides what constitutes absolute quiet, the ceasefire never happens. And since he demands public order before the tanks are withdrawn from Palestinian areas, and since he knows that Arafat cannot deliver on this demand, his tanks stay put.

The language of Sharon is deliberately copied from the speeches of George W. Bush. What flows from this, despite all denials, is that Israel will take action to topple Arafat. This seems highly likely. Sharon has decided to ditch Arafat and deal with what he hopes will be more pliable successors. This is a dream. His successors will be more militant, not less. Many in Israel - probably the big majority - will applaud it. But the result will not necessarily be to Israel's liking. Hamas and other fundamentalist organisations are growing at Arafat's expense. Further bloodshed and chaos is in store.

At a certain point there will be a political crisis in Israel. The leaders of the Israeli Labour Party are now the stooges of America. That places them in a very uncomfortable position. As we pointed out when Sharon was elected, the Americans would insist on Labour joining a national unity coalition in order to apply some moderating pressure on Sharon. But unfortunately for Bush, Shimon Peres's influence in the government is nil. The "Labour" leader presents a picture of helplessness.

Pressure - US-inspired, no doubt - is already building up on the Labour Party to break the coalition. This is not intended seriously since Washington needs its stooges inside the government. It is meant rather as a means of putting pressure on Sharon. But he is unlikely to be fooled by this bluff. Leaving the government will not be so easy. To do this in the middle of a war - given the present mood in Israel - would damage the Labour Party seriously, at least in the short run. Later on, there will be a reaction against the war inside Israel. But the Labour leaders are not noted for courage and so, at least for the time being, Sharon can feel safe.

Washington now fears justifiably that the war in the Middle East is set to worsen dramatically. Israel will use the present crisis as an excuse to tighten its iron grip on Palestine. New Israeli settlements are being built in the occupied territories all the time. The basis is being laid for a new period of bloodshed, death and chaos. Add to this the possibility of another American intervention against Iraq, and the picture is complete.

On a capitalist basis, there is no solution to this problem. The farce of the so-called Palestinian Authority has led to tragedy, as we predicted in advance. The whole situation has now entered into an infernal downward spiral of violence and counter-violence. No-one can control it. It will run its bloody course until it has exhausted itself and the ground is prepared for some new manoeuvre, some new negotiations, some new meaningless "accord" which will hold together until the next explosion, and so on ad infinitum.

The biggest losers will, as always, be the ordinary people of Palestine, because they are weaker. The philosophy of the Israeli imperialists is always the same: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life." Except that it is not a life for a life. For every Israeli killed, they will kill a dozen Palestinians. They are in a position to destroy the economy of Palestine and deprive thousands of families of a crust of bread.

But the people of Israel will not escape their ration of suffering, bloodshed and tears. Unless and until the Palestinian question is resolved, as one observer correctly pointed out, "the Israeli people are condemned to suffer further atrocities stretching into the future as far as the eye can see."