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Israel and the Palestinians: A New Strategy

By Moshe Yaalon

The former IDF chief of staff proposes a different approach to dealing with an old conflict.


In September 2000, after several years of low-key restiveness and occasional clashes—which were, in hindsight, a telling sign of things to come—the Palestinians began a full-scale, murderous onslaught against Israel.11 This offensive, misleadingly called the “Second Intifada,” supposedly began as a popular protest against Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. In fact, it was a calculated move that had been planned for some time beforehand.12 The real cause of the outbreak was the Camp David summit of July 2000. In the course of those talks, Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister made a series of stunningly generous offers to the Palestinians, which included the establishment of a state in almost 90 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, as well as the transfer of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty. According to Barak, this was done out of a willingness “to pay a painful price to bring about an end to the conflict.”13 Arafat rejected these offers, however, for the simple reason that he had never intended to end the conflict in this way: He was not interested in a solution that consisted of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living peacefully side-by-side. When pressed to cooperate with Barak’s bold conciliatory offer, Arafat preferred to return to his old ways.14 The withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon a month earlier had reinforced his confidence that Israel’s spirit could be broken by violent means, and Sharon’s ascent to the Temple Mount gave him a casus belli for the popular “heroic” war he had been dreaming of for a very long time.15
Throughout the Palestinian Terror War (the so-called Second Intifada), then, Arafat wore two hats: The first was that of the firefighter, and the second that of the serial arsonist. Many people continued to view his leadership as the only thing capable of dampening the flames, if not of putting them out entirely. Riding the waves of these expectations, Arafat met with Israeli and foreign diplomats, showered the media with moderate statements, and expressed his profound distress in the face of the escalating violence. At the same time, when out of view of the TV cameras and beyond earshot of the microphones, he was relentlessly feeding the flames of the Intifada.16 Arafat did not have to give explicit orders to carry out terrorist attacks; his subordinates understood his wishes all too well.17 There is ample evidence that attests to this fact: Documents seized by the IDF during Operation Defensive Shield in April-May 2002 exposed the Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman’s support for operatives deeply involved in terrorist activity.18 To finance these assassins, Arafat did not hesitate to make use of funds donated to the PA by the international community.19 And so, while the violence intensified and many Palestinians lost their livelihood, terrorist cells continued to receive payments in cash.
Arafat’s death in November 2004 and the election of Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) as chairman of the Palestinian Authority on January 9, 2005, offered the Palestinian leadership an opportunity to change course. And indeed, Abu Mazen was reluctant to feed the flames that Arafat had ignited. Though he did not budge from the traditional Palestinian opposition to the very idea of a Jewish state, he understood that the violent confrontation with Israel was having devastating consequences for the Palestinians. He therefore called for “the building of our homeland” in place of armed struggle.20 Unfortunately, the new PA chairman was unwilling to pay the price of a confrontation with Hamas. He missed the crucial window of opportunity presented by the beginning of his term, when he might have been strong enough to impose his will on opposing factions. He wasted the international credit he was given by trying to incorporate the Islamic terrorist organizations into the Palestinian government. He consistently cited his own weakness in order to justify his actions and to throw the ball back into Israel’s court. Ironically, in the end, the weakness he had turned into a type of strategic asset became a painful reality. The corrosion of the PA, together with the decline in Fatah’s power, signaled to the religious fundamentalists that the time had come to take over. As a consequence of Hamas’s victory in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council on January 25, 2006, and its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Abu Mazen went from being the head of a pre-nascent state to a man who governed little more than several office buildings.
Today, the Palestinian agenda is increasingly dictated by Hamas, which finished the job Arafat began: burying the Oslo peace process. Islamic jihadism does not disguise its intentions or goals behind flowery rhetoric intended for Western ears. It openly proclaims its intention of wiping the Jewish state off the map and scornfully rejects any settlement based on a “land for peace” equation. Hamas considers Palestine Muslim holy ground (waqf), and any territorial concession constitutes an act of heresy and treason. True, Islamic radicals may occasionally concede to temporary breaks in the violent struggle under the guise of a hudna (ceasefire) or tahadia (temporary calm). But these are merely tactical timeouts used for reorganization and rearmament in anticipation of the next round of fighting. Hamas leaders find theological justification for such actions, often misinterpreted by outside observers as signs of moderation, in two Koranic verses, “Believers, when you encounter the infidels on the march, do not turn your backs to them in flight. If anyone on that day turns his back to them, except for tactical reasons, or to join another band, he shall incur the wrath of God and Hell shall be his home: an evil fate.”21
Hamas’s interpretation of these words and the worldview it expounds leave little room for the possibility of peaceful coexistence with a Jewish state. The mounting strength of its fundamentalists, who have enlisted the support of Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran, has dampened the hopes of even the most dedicated optimists in the Israeli peace camp. Indeed, Palestinian society’s slide down the slippery slope of jihad on its way to self-destruction—a process for which Fatah is no less responsible than Hamas—appears to be inevitable. We are forced to ponder the question: Does this downtrodden society still harbor the will to stop its decline before it is too late—for its own good, and for ours?
 
III
There is no doubt that the overall picture is bleak. The Palestinian leadership has not only let down the Israelis, who expected it to forsake terrorism, but it has also rained down devastation on its own people. The suffering of the Palestinians as a result of the actions undertaken by Arafat and his followers is both extensive and acute, and its consequences will continue to be felt for many years to come.
In order to fully comprehend the ongoing failure that is the Palestinian Authority, it is important to note that, since the signing of the Oslo accords, this entity has received international aid on a scale unmatched by any other country or organization since World War II relative to the size of its population.22 Between the years 1994 and 2000, this aid amounted to an average of half a billion dollars a year. Between 2001 and 2004, following the eruption of the Palestinian Terror War, the Palestinian Authority received an average of about one billion dollars a year. Most of this money was siphoned off into the bloated bureaucracy and security apparatus of the PA.23 These sums have been gradually increasing since Arafat’s death, despite the partial freezing of Palestinian accounts following Hamas’s electoral victory in January 2006.24 And the pie has only been getting larger: At the December 2007 Paris Donor Confrence, the decision was made to transfer over seven billion dollars in aid to the PA over the years 2008-2010.25
The Palestinians are therefore in no position to complain that the world has not shown them generosity. They do, however, have the right to ask where the vast majority of this money has gone, and why the impoverished masses have not benefited from the fruits of the international community’s charity. The answer to these questions is no mystery. It can be found, for instance, in the enormous bank accounts held by senior officials of the PA and especially by Arafat himself. A report prepared by the International Monetary Fund in 2003 found that between the years 1995 and 2000, 900 million dollars of the Palestinian Authority’s budget was transferred to a secret bank account controlled by Arafat.26 It is difficult to determine with certainty how much of this money was pocketed by Arafat and how much was used for other purposes, such as funding terrorist activities. Either way, behind the Palestinian leader’s abstemious public image stood a financial empire. Some have estimated Arafat’s personal wealth to be in the billions,27 much of which is still apparently concealed. Not surprisingly, in March, 2003, Forbes magazine ranked Arafat sixth on its “Billionaires: Kings, Queens, and Despots List.”28
Arafat’s associates were not overlooked when the spoils were divided. The monopolist structure of the Palestinian economy offered them ample opportunities to get rich quick. Prominent figures from the PLO and key figures in the West Bank were granted exclusive rights to import and distribute products and goods in PA-controlled territories. The cement industry, for example, is dominated by the Qurei family, of which the former Palestinian prime minister Abu Ala is a member. The fuel and oil production market is controlled by Muhammad Rashid, Arafat’s former money manager, and Hassan Asfour, who served as an adviser to the late chairman. Senior politician Nabil Shaath has a monopoly on importing computers. Muhammad Dahlan, former chief of the Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip, enjoys a monopoly on gravel. And this list is by no means complete. With no standardized guidelines for licensing companies, bidding for government contracts, collecting fees, and ensuring transparency, the Palestinian economy was trampled under the feet of the powerful men Arafat sought to promote.29
The dismal outcome of this culture of corruption soon became apparent. In 1998, while heading the Central Command, I asked Abu Firas Liftawi, then governor of Ramallah, to give me a tour of the industrial zone—an area with which I was familiar from my tenure as commander of the Judea and Samaria Division. I expected a flourishing industrial center and was dumbfounded to find that it was anything but. I asked the governor about investments that were to have been streaming into the place. “The investors have fled,” he said. “They understood that in order to do business here they would need to pay large sums to Arafat’s people.” “What did you say to them?” I asked. “That they only need to pay me,” he answered, and smiled.


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