In the looking-glass world of Middle East politics, it is easy to forget that Ahmad Saadat, the imprisoned Palestinian leader Israel summarily arrested in Jericho late on Tuesday, is wanted for masterminding the killing of the Jewish state’s most notorious racist politician-general.
Rehavam Zeevi, head of the Central Command in the late 1960s and early 1970s, personally developed and managed Israel’s brutal regime in the newly occupied West Bank. After retiring from the battlefield, he waged a relentless war against “the Arabs” on the political front. His Moledet party, founded in the 1980s, advocated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Greater Israel – in other words, from Israel and the occupied territories.
His thinking became so acceptable after the outbreak of the intifada that he was appointed tourism minister in Ariel Sharon’s first cabinet. Maybe Sharon thought that, with Zeevi for company, he really might start to look like a man of peace.
Zeevi’s killing by gunmen in a Jerusalem hotel in 2001 was about as close as the Palestinians have managed to get to emulating an Israeli-style targeted assassination – with the difference that, in the Palestinian operation, no bystanders were killed.
Israelis were, and still are, horrified by the killing of Zeevi, with most taking the view that the Palestinians broke all the rules of engagement in targeting an elected politician. That neatly ignores the point that Zeevi’s death was retribution for Israel’s earlier assassination of a widely respected Palestinian politician, Abu Ali Mustafa, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
But what is sauce for the goose was never going to be sauce for the gander.
Ahmad Saadat, Mustafa’s successor and the man blamed by Israel for Zeevi’s killing, raced to the top of the army’s wanted list. Under international pressure, the Palestinian Authority, in the days before it was entirely dismembered by the Israeli army, arrested him.
To prevent his targeting for assassination by Israel, and in the vain hope of winning a reprieve for Yasser Arafat from his effective house arrest in Ramallah, the Palestinian leadership brokered a deal with Britain and the United States in 2002. The two countries agreed to provide monitors to guarantee Saadat’s confinement in the tiny West Bank town of Jericho, in the sun-baked lowlands of the Jordan Valley.
Four years later, on Tuesday morning, Britain reneged on its understandings with the Palestinians and quit Jericho, but not before telling Israel it was going. As if waiting for its cue, Israeli armour rolled into Jericho at once to capture Saadat and a handful of other wanted men.
To Palestinians, the British broken promise, as well as the hasty exit from Jericho and apparent collusion with Israel, all smacked a little too painfully of other episodes of British foreign policy in the Middle East. There were echoes of 1956 and London’s pact during the Suez Crisis with Israel on the invasion of Egypt. And there were echoes too of 1948, when Britain hurriedly abandoned Palestine, though not before it had effectively fulfilled the Balfour Declaration’s promise of creating a Jewish homeland by allowing hundreds of thousands of Jews to immigrate.
That in large part explains the outpouring of rage from Gaza to Ramallah on Tuesday, as well as the kidnapping of foreigners. Britain’s duplicity was a reminder – if it was needed – that nothing has changed in a century of Western “diplomacy”.
So what was Britain’s defence of its inflammatory action? According to foreign minister Jack Straw, Britain had no choice but to pull the monitors out of Jericho because of growing concerns for their safety.
That will have sounded more than hollow to Palestinians. The intifada has all but passed Jericho by. With a population of about 15,000, it is the quietest place in the West Bank and Gaza. During the decades of Israeli occupation it earnt an unflattering reputation as the dumping ground for small-time collaborators, the ones Israel did not reward with safe haven in its own territory.
Jericho is a small Palestinian island in a sea of Israeli occupation. Most of the Jordan Valley has been entirely controlled by Israel for decades. According to reports in the Hebrew media, Israel is poised to announce the Valley’s annexation sometime after its elections later this month.
Around Jericho itself the Israeli army has dug a deep ditch to prevent all unauthorised movement in and out of the city. And beyond that is the busy “settlers’ highway” through the occupied Jordan Valley, linking Jerusalem with the north of Israel, officially known as Gandhi’s Road – after Rehavam Zeevi. He earned the nickname “Gandhi” as a skinny youth in the army.
In fact Jericho has been so peaceful during the intifada that six months ago, Israel reopened it to tourism, allowing package tours to pass through the Israeli-manned checkpoint on the only route into the city. I myself have visited the city on several recent occasions, staying in its hotels and enjoying their open-all-year swimming pools. What is apparently safe for tourists and journalists is not safe enough for British officials.
The problem now is that Straw’s “concerns” about safety may become self-fulfilling. A backlash against foreigners is as certain as the attack on Tuesday against the British Council offices in Gaza. There are few tourists in the West Bank any longer, particularly since Israel made entering so difficult with the construction of its wall. But there are still a significant number of foreigners working for humanitarian organisations.
Their presence is important. Many of the organisations themselves have become little more than sticking plasters, unable to cope with the festering sores of Palestinian life under an ever-more restrictive occupation. But having foreigners living in Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron offers an insurance policy – even if a small and inadequate one – against more reckless Israeli army incursions. At the very least, foreigners can bear witness.
There would be nothing worse than the West Bank – after Israel’s limited withdrawals and the completion of its wall – becoming a tiny Palestinian ghetto-state, one where neither the international media nor aid workers dare venture. There is also nothing that would satisfy Israel more.
Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living in Nazareth, is the author of “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State”, published by Pluto Press next month. His website is www.jkcook.net.