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David Miller: Is There Hope For The Middle East?

David Miller Online.

Is There Hope For The Middle East?

The comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that his government is prepared to open dialogue with the Palestinians without the stipulation that there be seven days of peace is perhaps a glimmer of hope in the darkness that has fallen over the Middle East in the past seventeen months. This call comes amidst a growing cycle of violence in which the casualties are mounting. Despite Mr. Sharon’s tough talk and intense military campaign against Palestinian targets, more Israelis are dying than ever before. If Mr. Sharon proceeds with this change in policy it will provide the first real hope for a peaceful settlement during the Intifada and an opportunity that must be seized.

One must not forget that the Israeli people voted for the policies of the Sharon government. It was their electoral college that brought to an end the dovish policies of Ehud Barak’s Labour government and brought Mr. Sharon into office on the promise that a tougher line would be taken towards the Palestinians and that offensive action would ensure a peace rather than concessions.

What has happened is the exact opposite. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) continues to carry out military operations against Palestinian targets in the Occupied Territories and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat remains confined to his headquarters in Ramallah. After each terrorist attack, the Israelis open fire with f-16 fighter planes and Apache helicopter gunships and move tanks and infantry into Palestinian ruled towns. Despite this the suicide bombers still return.

The problem that Israel faces is that no matter how much firepower and military might it uses it cannot prevent low level attacks from taking place. The bombing of a Jerusalem café close to Mr. Sharon’s home demonstrates the effectiveness and the lethality of the Palestinian suicide tactics. For a start the choice of soft targets such as this is random and without first rate intelligence there is no way of knowing which target is next. There is also the fact that the weapon in these attacks is simply one person and in no way to prevent these people from infiltrating the Israeli cities. If Mr. Sharon is successful in creating the buffer zones that he talked about in his recent speech then Israel may stem the flow of suicide bombers through its borders. But as Palestinians and Israelis live side by side, this task is extremely difficult if not impossible.

The final problem here is that the operatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not afraid to die for their cause. This is the Palestinians’ most lethal weapon as it demonstrates the difficulty in defending ones people against those who are trying to kill you and who have accepted that they too will be killed in the process. This was the reason September 11 was as devastating as it was. Had the al-Qaeda operatives wanted to live to see the results of their mission, they probably would have resorted to using a car bomb or similar device. There would have been a greater possibility that they would have been stopped in the act or trying to make their getaway, as was the case in the first World Trade Centre attack in 1993.

What is happening here is that Israel is not learning the lessons that have plagued the British in Northern Ireland. In that conflict, as with the Middle East, there is an armed force deployed with massive amounts of firepower and resources that has not been able to defeat a small terrorist force. Here, the two sides are in such close proximity that it is difficult for the British to find the terrorists as they hide among their own communities. As each generation has come of age so too have another group of men willing to fight and if necessary die for their cause. The British have dealt with the Northern Ireland situation by opening dialogue with the republican groups and offering concession. They had little choice. They were tiring of the conflicts and the attacks made on their people and they could see that the intractable nature of the conflict made victory impossible.

There are signs that Israel is tiring of the conflict with the Palestinians and despite the harsh rhetoric of Mr. Sharon and his supporters are no closer to finding security. It is perhaps an irony of the situation but this may be the best way forward for peace. Israel should follow the British example and offer dialogue with the Palestinians and if necessary, offer them their state and freedom. That way Israel places the emphasis for peace squarely with Mr. Arafat and his people and it becomes their decision as to whether they really do want calm in their region or whether they will let peace slip through their fingers once again.

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