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In an April 4 Washington Post article about Israel's detention and temporary exile of almost the entire male population of the Palestinian refugee camp of Tulkarem (around 2,000 men), the reporter informs the reader that this and the killing that day of 7 Palestinians "were a departure from the relative calm that has prevailed here since the start of the Iraq war." A few days later an AP story said that the Israeli missile attack on a Hamas leader which killed at least 5 innocent bystanders "ended a lull in Israeli air strikes since the beginning of the war in Iraq."
The idea that Israel has been restraining itself during the war on Iraq is absurd. In the first few weeks of the war, more than 25 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed, hundreds injured, and the largest campaign of home demolitions in two years took place around Jerusalem.
This could be considered "relative calm" or "lull" only when compared to the run-up to the war when Israel stepped up its campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian population. By the time the war on Iraq started, more than 200 Palestinians had been killed-including American peace activist Rachel Corrie-dozens of Palestinian homes were demolished, hundreds of trees destroyed, and the Gaza Strip attacked and divided.
Israel is desperate to create "irreversible facts on the ground" as the US threatens to impose a "road map" to peace originally drawn up by the Quartet (the US, EU, UN, and Russia) last October. The initial draft calls for the creation of provisional borders and institutions of a Palestinian state by the end of 2003 and independence by 2005.
This timetable plus the involvement of countries like France and Russia in the process has Sharon's government scrambling to have the road map scrapped. Short of that, they hope to at least change the final outcome from one of an independent Palestinian state to an entity with some type of limited sovereignty.
Sharon has been able to get the US to delay the road map's release so that his government can negotiate more favorable language and consolidate Israel's control over areas it wants to permanently annex. Meanwhile the Israeli military is busy assassinating Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders hoping to provoke a major suicide bombing or wave of such attacks which would make the Quartet less amenable to a Palestinian state.
This policy of "targeted killings," i.e. extra-judicial executions of Palestinian leaders-widely used by Israel in the first year of the intifada-provoked retaliatory suicide attacks in the beginning of 2002, which Israel then used to justify its devastating invasion of Palestinian cities and town in the West Bank last spring.
Up to now Israel's preferred method of establishing facts on the ground has been the construction of Jewish-only settlements in the Occupied Territories. As the road map has made settlement construction difficult, Sharon has turned to the separation wall that Israel is building around the West Bank (the Gaza Strip is almost hermetically sealed from all sides) to steal more Palestinian land.
Sharon has proposed two major changes to the wall which will not only gobble up more of the West Bank-including roughly 3,000 Palestinians and three colonies of 40,000 settlers-but break it up further by building another wall separating the Jordan Valley from the rest of the West Bank.
All this will test the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Abas willingness and ability to put down the intifada to clear the way for negotiations. The US seems to think Abas, better known as Abu Mazen, can get the job done and is pressuring Israel to give him a chance. After all, he is one of the few Palestinian leaders who has publicly opposed the intifada and could feasibly replace Arafat.
The question remains: would the most right-wing Zionist administration and Congress in US history really push for a "peace plan" which is not agreeable to Israel? Probably not. Bush has already held up its release for months and a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders is now demanding that the administration address Israel's concerns about the road map. The swift US victory over Iraq will only add to Israel's resolve not to make any concessions.
But the US knows that if it is to succeed in its occupation of Iraq, it has to at least appear to be pursuing a resolution to the conflict. A recent communiqué to the Israeli Foreign Ministry from Washington illustrates this well. According to Aluf Benn of Haaretz, it says that the US is doing its best to "neutralize the Iraqi threat to Israel" and that it "will deal with other radical regimes in the region-not necessarily by military means-to moderate their activities and fight terrorism," but that Israel "must play its part."
So while the Bush administration has made some concessions to Israel on the road map, it has also insisted on a settlement freeze, giving Abu Mazen a chance, and restraint during the war on Iraq. Whether the administration backs this up with action is not clear, but it wouldn't be unprecedented. In similar circumstances after the first war on Iraq, Bush Sr. froze Israel's loan guarantees to get it to stop settlement construction and smooth the way for a peace agreement.
The first Bush, however, was obliged to reward the Arab regimes for hosting and fighting with US troops. And, incredibly, Israel managed to turn the resulting Oslo peace process (1993-2000) in its favor, doubling its settlements in the West Bank. Today, the second Bush is not burdened with his father's obligations and his administration is crawling with Zionists who dream of reshaping the Middle East in Israel's image.
It's too early to predict the fate of the road map-much depends on how the US fares in Iraq. Swift success could very well postpone any such effort. As Omar Karmi puts it in an Electronic Intifada editorial: "The US appears to be the only country in the world that fails to realize the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for Middle East peace. It appears that the road map this administration is navigating by will take it to Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran and Riyadh before it realizes that all roads lead to Jerusalem."