A Tale of Two Assassinations

On the night of 1 May, six Palestinians who had since 29 March been besieged along with Palestinian leader Yasir ‘Arafat in the Ramallah governorate compound, were handed over to a joint American-British security team. Although Israeli Prime Minister Sharon had previously demanded extradition of the six as a precondition for lifting the blockade – and informed his cabinet he was “prepared to go to new elections” over the issue – the Palestinians’ arrival in a Jericho prison, which will function under Anglo-American supervision, heralded the departure of the last Israeli tanks from Ramallah.

The American-brokered deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian standoff in Ramallah has been widely lauded, both for defusing a confrontation with potentially catastrophic political implications, and for signaling the beginning of sustained American engagement with the Middle East. Closer examination of the facts suggests the Bush administration is playing with a fire largely of its own making, and that its conduct in this affair is symptomatic of a US approach which both aggravates conflict and obstructs meaningful progress towards peace.

Three of the six detained Palestinians – Hamdi Qur’an, Basil Al-Asmar, and Majdi Irhimi – are cadres of the Martyr Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the occupied territories. They are joined by ‘Ahid Ghulmi, their commander; Ahmad Sa’adat, Secretary-General of the PFLP; and Fuad Shubaki, finance officer of the National Security Service, one of the Palestinian Authority’s many security forces. The first three are alleged to have carried out the 17 October 2001 assassination of Rehava’am Ze’evi, Israel’s Minister of Tourism. Ghulmi is accused of having organised the attack, and Sa’adat of authorising or commissioning it. Shubaki is alleged to have been a key player in the ‘Karine A’ affair, named after a ship loaded with 50 tons of weapons and munitions seized by Israeli forces off the coast of Yemen in January of this year.

Although Ghulmi and his three comrades were convicted by a Palestinian kangaroo court during the recent siege and sentenced to terms of between one and 18 years, Sa’adat and Shubaki have yet to be tried. This notwithstanding, most observers believe all six would be found guilty if afforded a fair and proper trial. That is precisely where the trouble begins.

The Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades adopted their name in the Summer of 2001 in homage to Sa’adat’s immediate predecessor, Mustafa Zibri, who was in July 2000 elected to replace the ailing George Habash but was on 27 August 2001 assassinated by an Israeli aerial death squad in his Ramallah office. The Mustafa assassination was widely understood to be in direct response to what the Israeli military termed a qualitatively unprecedented Palestinian guerilla attack on a Gaza Strip outpost several days previously, which left three soldiers dead and seven wounded. Although the Gaza attack had been carried out by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and not the PFLP, it would prove to be neither the first nor last time that Israel put into practice its policy of making no distinctions between Palestinians who resist its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By targetting a political rather than military official for the first time since the beginning of the current Palestinian uprising, and in the process killing the head of the most influential Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) faction after ‘Arafat’s Fatah movement, Sharon simultaneously sought to send a clear message – which his spokesman Ra’anan Gissin termed “a signal” – to the rest of the Palestinian leadership, and ‘Arafat in particular.

In the immediate aftermath of the Mustafa assassination, Israel stated that the PFLP had during the uprising conducted numerous armed attacks in the occupied territories as well as a series of car bombings in Jewish settlements and Israeli cities which left several dead – a statement of fact uncontested by the organisation, which routinely claims responsibility for its actions. Israel additionally claimed Mustafa was personally involved in the preparation and deployment of PFLP car bombs, a highly implausible contention for which no substantive evidence has been produced.

The Mustafa assassination followed dozens of other targeted killings carried out by Israel during the uprising, and resumed a tradition of Israeli liquidation of Palestinian leaders and diplomats stretching back to the early 1970s. Against this, Palestinian militants had despite their occasional efforts yet to conduct a fatal attack against a prominent Israeli official or emissary. In the specific context of the Mustafa assassination, and the general one of an increasingly violent uprising in which the various Palestinian paramilitary formations not only cooperate but also compete to inflict the most painful blow upon Israel, many observers predicted the PFLP would respond by attempting to kill a senior Israeli personality.

Seen from the perspective of the PFLP, perhaps the only candidate with better qualifications than Ze’evi for its retaliatory exercise would have been Sharon himself. To begin with, Ze’evi was at the time of his assassination a serving minister, leader of a political party (which formed part of Israel’s ruling coalition), and a longstanding member of parliament. A graduate of the Command and General Staff College of the US Army, he had prior to his political debut attained the rank of general during a lengthy (and often bloody) military career.

Secondly, Ze’evi was at the time of the Mustafa assassination a member of both the full and security cabinets of the Israeli government, and thus shared personal and political responsibility for the killing of the PFLP leader. Additionally, Ze’evi was legally culpable for each and every Israeli attack against Palestinian civilian non-combatants carried out during his term of office not justified by military necessity and conducted pursuant to government decisions he supported; a cursory reading of available human rights reports suggests eventual proceedings would have been rather lengthy.

Ze’evi was also one of Israel’s most visible and bellicose racists. The Moledet (‘Homeland’) Party he founded during the 1980s was established for the exclusive purpose of advocating and promoting the mass expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (euphemistically termed ‘voluntary transfer’ in party literature). At a time of increasing global concern about the rise of neo-fascist political parties fueled by xenophobia, it has been a generally unacknowledged fact that the Israeli variants are among the world’s most successful. (Indeed, one Socialist International official recently berated Israeli Foreign Minister Peres on the grounds that European social democrats are urged by Israel’s Labour Party to isolate states in which far-right parties achieve power and gladly do so, while Peres and his colleagues do not hesitate to form coalitions with Ze’evi and other militant supremacists – people whom the late Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz famously termed “Judeo-Nazis”.)

While one can question various aspects of the Ze’evi assassination such as its political utility, it was by any reasonable standard a proportionate response to the Mustafa killing, because it targeted a single individual of broadly similar stature who – unlike Mustafa in relation to the DFLP’s Gaza attack -shared responsibility for the act to which retaliation was being sought. Ethical considerations with respect to extra-judicial execution, the more general issue associated with the assassination of a politician, and the principle of reprisal are certainly relevant, as are the rules of a game established by the Israeli government and indeed Ze’evi himself the moment several missiles tore into Mustafa in an operation which received their prior approval and subsequent praise.

Although the Oslo agreements commit the PA to prevent any act of violence by any Palestinian (they place no such restrictions upon Israel), there is no suggestion the PA had advance knowledge of the plot and failed to stop it, or was involved in any other way. Rather, ‘Arafat was criticised and condemned in the wake of the Ze’evi killing in the context of the PA’s failure to meet its broader security commitments – obligations never recognised by the PFLP, which rejected Oslo from the outset.

If against this background – and ignoring the broader context of the anti-colonial rebellion in which the two assassinations took place – it seems ironic that Sharon, who ordered the hit on Mustafa, besieged ‘Arafat – who cannot by any standard be considered legally culpable for the Ze’evi killing – in order to force the extradition of PFLP men accused of an act of retaliation against the Sharon government (presumably with the additional objective of deterring Israel from similar attacks in future), there is more; during a previous (albeit less severe) siege of the PA Ramallah compound which commenced in December 2001 and continued intermittently until mid-March of this year, and in which Israeli demands in connection with the Ze’evi case also played a key role, the issue of extradition was never even raised. Rather, Sharon insisted that the PA fulfil its bilateral treaty obligations towards Israel by itself arresting the remaining PFLP suspects (Sa’adat had been nabbed in El Bireh in mid-January). In order to add weight to its demands, Israel rescinded the unrestricted freedom of travel ‘Arafat had enjoyed pursuant to the Oslo agreements and confined him to Ramallah.

Amid vociferous Israeli accusations that ‘Arafat was extending “protection” to the fugitives in the Ramallah area, the four were in March located in a Nablus hideout by the Palestinian Preventative Security Force, and detained after a shootout. They were subsequently transported to Ramallah in American diplomatic vehicles and there delivered to PA security in an arrangement approved not only by the US but by Sharon personally (the territory between Nablus and Ramallah like most of the West Bank remains under full Israeli control and the PA feared the men would be grabbed by Israel if it moved them itself). Sharon demonstratively responded that, since ‘Arafat had met Israel’s conditions, he was once again free to travel – within the occupied territories. Every foreign trip by ‘Arafat would by contrast require a separate decision, which if positive would not include a guarantee that the Palestinian leader would be able to return.

An examination of the US response to the two assassinations does much to explain its current, direct involvement in the crisis. In August 2001, Washington refused to condemn the Mustafa assassination, did not call upon Israel to arrest those responsible for the planning and execution of the attack and bring them to justice, nor – an important point given that the killing had been carried out with US weapons funded by the American taxpayer – in any way suggest the assassination could influence US-Israeli relations. Rather, it sufficed with an oblique reference to its previously-stated disagreement with Israel’s policy of assassinations, expressed concern that such attacks could “inflame” the conflict – responsibility for the resolution of which was once again placed squarely on the shoulders of ‘Arafat and the PA – and issued its habitual appeal for mutual “restraint”. If there was any criticism of the Israeli action – and this would be stretching the definition of the term somewhat – it related to the fact that 22 US citizens lived in the building where Mustafa was killed (in the event, none were injured). Although the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz characterised the US reaction as “relatively weak”, a number of commentators termed the US reaction unusually severe because State Department spokesman Richard Boucher questioned the efficacy of assassinations and appealed to Israel to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Palestinians. In either case, one would on the basis of the US reaction be hard pressed to infer that a significant turning point in the unfolding Israeli-Palestinian drama had just been reached.

Seven weeks later the US took a rather different view of such acts. The White House, State Department, and numerous Congressional representatives publicly, explicitly, repeatedly, unreservedely, and unambiguously condemned the Ze’evi assassination as an unjustifiable “act of terror,” vociferously demanded that ‘Arafat’s forces hunt down and bring to justice those responsible (and indeed dismantle the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades and all similar formations), severely criticised the PA and ‘Arafat personally (yet again) for their failure to halt Palestinian violence, and made it clear that deteriorating US-Palestinian relations had suffered yet another significant blow and were highly unlikely to be set right unless and until the Ze’evi matter had been adequately resolved. One could be forgiven for concluding that the Mustafa killing had been the inevitable Israeli reprisal for the PFLP’s felling of Ze’evi.

With the Bush administration increasingly adopting Sharon’s war against the Palestinians as part and parcel of its own campaign to eradicate the Al-Qa’ida network, Israel had little difficulty in obtaining US support for its escalating demands in the Ze’evi case. In April, it reached the point where the American president, neglecting both the Israeli-Palestinian agreements to which his predecessor had affixed his signature (which do not require extradition), and the arrangements recently facilitated by his own government, publicly backed Sharon’s demands to put the six Palestinians on trial in Israel. It was in fact only in the context of Washington’s reconsideration of Israel’s intention to eliminate ‘Arafat from the scene that it began to search for a way out of the Ramallah crisis, and in so doing brokered the Jericho scenario.

In a situation where even Palestinians who in October 2001 opposed the Ze’evi assassination in light of the latest Israeli offensive believe the PFLP suspects should be decorated rather than imprisoned, and in which very many of them would support PFLP Deputy Secretary-General ‘Abd-al-Rahim Malluh’s denunciation of the Jericho facility as a “Palestinian Guantanomo”, the US has embarked on an extremely dangerous course by supervising the imprisonment of Palestinians accused of retaliation against an Israeli assassination which the US effectively chose to support – a course which could yet come back to haunt it. (Indeed, as part of a deal about a week later to end the Israeli siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, the CIA was instrumental in obtaining the PA’s endorsement of the first deportations of Palestinian militants from their homeland since 1992 – thus setting an even more dangerous precedent).

Israeli and American demands upon the PA in the Ze’evi case are also somewhat inconsistent with their own conduct in such matters. In 1995, Musa Abu Marzuq, a senior member of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) politbureau, was detained on American soil. Although the Clinton administration characterised him as a dangerous terrorist and presumably had sufficient evidence to verify its claims, the US government refused to put him on trial for fear of the political consequences, preferring instead to let him languish in prison without charge or trial. Not less importantly, the government of self-proclaimed anti-terrorist guru Binyamin Netanyahu (in which Sharon was a prominent minister), having made all kinds of accusations against Abu Marzuq which its notorious military court system could have effortlessly translated into multiple convictions, pointedly declined US offers to extradite him to Tel Aviv. Its decision, on the grounds that Abu Marzuq’s imprisonment in Israel was likely to result in a significant wave of Hamas attacks, did not elicit a word of criticism from Washington or indeed any other member of the global coalition against Palestinian terror. This, at a time when this same coalition was – at Netanyahu and Sharon’s ceaseless urging – consistently demanding that the PA crack down on Hamas (and other radical Palestinian organisations) with all its might, irrespective of the political or operational consequences. Abu Marzuq was therefore – with the personal approval of the late King Husain – in 1997 deported to Jordan, a close US ally at peace with Israel where Hamas was allowed to maintain a significant presence throughout the 1990s with barely a whimper of American or Israeli protest. (The primary reason this presence was condoned is that those involved viewed the political threat posed to the PA by its Islamist rival as a useful tool in their dealings with ‘Arafat).

Similarly, when Hamas security and Jordanian police in 1997 arrested several Israeli Mosad agents in Amman who had just botched an attempt to poison to death Hamas politbureau chief Khalid Mash’al, the same, incessantly pontificating Netanyahu, did not for a moment hesitate to release the Islamist organisation’s founder and spiritual leader, Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, from almost a decade of Israeli imprisonment in order to win the Mosad men’s speedy release. He similarly ensured that the antidote required to save Mash’al’s life – and Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan – was immediately delivered to an Amman hospital. That Abu Marzuq (currently in Tehran) and Mash’al (today based in Damascus) represent the most militant faction within Hamas, and that Yasin (repatriated to Gaza) is the one who unites the movement’s competing trends, was apparently of no consequence. In the case of Israel and the US, invocation of raison d’etat to so thoroughly violate the cardinal principles of the Netanyahu rulebook on fighting terror (adopted wholesale by Washington and foisted by it upon the rest of the planet), apparently demonstrates their sophistication in dealing with complex and sensitive security matters. Yet, whenever the PA has sought to deal with complex and sensitive security matters on the basis of raison d’etat, it is a sure signal that the governments of Israel and the United States – with Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill typically taking the lead – are about to enter into another round of ‘Arafat-bashing. More often than not, it is also a sign that another assassination of a prominent Palestinian militant is just around the corner – the obvious effect and perhaps intention of which is to subvert any understandings reached by the PA with the Palestinian Islamist opposition to halt attacks against Israeli civilian targets.

While one can characterise US involvement in the Ze’evi case in many different ways, the only one which comes to mind concerning the role of its junior British partner is breathtaking stupidity. As the power which created the Arab-Israeli conflict by transforming an Arab territory into a Jewish homeland during its post-First World War Palestine Mandate, it is once again directly involved in mediating Arab-Zionist relations, yet again by imprisoning Palestinians who threaten the security of a colonial regime. As if to emphasise that it did not return to make amends, London seconded a former director of Northern Ireland’s infamous Maze Prison to supervise the Jericho facility – a structure originally built by the British in the 1930s.

The double standards inherent in Anglo-American intervention are no less evident in the Shubaki case. Although fundamental details of the Karine A Affair – including the ship’s destination – remain murky and contested, and some have suggested the existence of an elaborate sting operation, Israel and – after initial hesitation – the US, insist it was smuggling weapons clearly prohibited by the Oslo accords for deposit in the PA’s arsenal. With a perfectly straight face, American officials and congressional representatives have uninterruptedly bashed ‘Arafat and the Palestinians over the “ship of terror”, while having nothing whatsoever to say about the continuation of nearly USD 2 billion in annual military grants to Israel despite the fact that the latter is using weapons so obtained in violation of numerous laws and regulations, including the US Arms Export Controls Act. Indeed, at the height of Israel’s April West Bank offensive, Washington came perilously close to awarding the Jewish state a supplementary USD 200 million gratis in recognition of its contribution to the “war against terror”, and eventually did so in early May.

Against the above, the US and UK have made no parallel moves to intervene in support of Palestinian rights and have worked to sabotage the efforts of others who have. In early May, Washington threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution which would have compelled Israel to cooperate with a UN fact-finding mission to Jenin – a mission initially proposed by the Bush administration to forestall the establishment of a full-blown commission of inquiry, but permitted to rendezvous with oblivion as Israel’s quid pro quo for dropping its extradition demands. The Americans have been no less active in preventing the deployment of international monitors or a protection force to the occupied Palestinian territories. Within the European Union, the Blair government was among those who in April vetoed efforts to suspend the EU’s Association Agreement with Israel (which explicitly states that the trading privileges extended to the Jewish state are conditional upon its observance of basic human rights standards).

On the basis of the available evidence, which is to put it mildly voluminous, it is for all intents and purposes inconceivable that the US is serious about “sustained engagement” to foster peace in the Middle East. Israeli security concerns, which are formulated in a manner which preclude meaningful negotiations on a viable permanent settlement, will remain the cornerstone of American involvement in the conflict. US efforts will doubtlessly engage other, including humanitarian and political, aspects of the crisis. But absent significant threats to its vital interests in the Middle East and/or substantial domestic opposition to its policy in the region, Washington will continue to avoid core issues such as ending the Israeli occupation and dismantling Jewish settlements, paying them only lip service and keeping other mediators either at bay or subordinate to its own agenda. It is an agenda which not only obstructs peacemaking, but aggravates what is already a very bloody conflict.

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