BY ROHAN PEARCE
On March 5, a group of Palestinian school children sent a letter to US President George Bush, in which they wrote, "[E]ven our parents' comforting does not free us from the horror we live on a daily basis, the images of funerals, humiliating checkpoints and injured friends, and the fear of the sounds of shelling and gun ships".
Their plea for peace and justice was in stark contrast to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aims, outlined in a speech in the Knesset (parliament) on March 4. Sharon said: "It won't be possible to reach an agreement with them [the Palestinians] before [they] are hit hard. Now they have to be hit. If they aren't badly beaten, there won't be any negotiations. Only after they are beaten will we be able to conduct talks. I want an agreement, but first they have to be beaten so they get the thought out of their minds that they can impose an agreement on Israel that Israel does not want."
Sharon's reaffirmation of his war on Palestinians follows some of the most violent weeks in Israel and the Occupied Territories since the second intifada began. At least 70 people were killed last week alone.
Divisions over Sharon's stance have deepened among the Israeli ruling elite, with the threat of a split in Sharon's "national unity government" by members of the Israeli Labour Party.
Most members of the Labour Party favour leaving the coalition. However, party chairperson Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (who is also defence minister in Sharon's government) opposes the move. A Labour Party meeting to discuss continued participation in Sharon's government, originally scheduled for March 7 was postponed until the March 11.
Ben-Eliezer has convinced most Labour MPs that they should not withdraw their support for the government, although he admits that they will have to at some point.
Foreign minister and Labour Party member Shimon Peres still favours withdrawal from the government, saying that if he had known how Sharon would act towards the Palestinians, he would not have joined the government.
Rescheduling the meeting has meant that there is little chance of Labour Party MPs supporting a no confidence motion being put to a vote in the Knesset on March 11.
Pressure has also mounted on Sharon from the right of the government's coalition. National infrastructure minister Avigdor Lieberman and tourism minister Binyamin Elon have threatened to resign if the Israeli travel ban on Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat is lifted.
Sharon's all-out push to crush Palestinian resistance has drawn fire within Israel and internationally.
Following Sharon's March 4 speech, there was even muted criticism from the US government. US Secretary of State Colin Powell told a US congressional hearing that "Prime Minister Sharon has to take a hard look at his policies to see whether they will work", adding: "If you declare war on the Palestinians and think you can solve the problem by seeing how many Palestinians can be killed — I don't know [if] that leads us anywhere."
Inside Israel there is growing criticism of Sharon's strategy for dealing with the "Palestinian problem". In August 2001 41% of Israelis believed that the intifada could be crushed by using increased military force, however only 26% believe this now.
More than 50% of those who participated in an online poll conducted by the Jerusalem Post — a right-wing Zionist newspaper — thought that Sharon's government will be toppled this year.
A strongly worded editorial in the main Israeli daily Ha'aretz on March 5 said that "[t]he Sharon government and especially the prime minister, are doing nothing to stop the hostilities. Indeed they are fanning the flames."
The editorial went on to criticise some of the more recent atrocities committed by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) — the murder of four Palestinian children in Ramallah and the killing of the head of the Red Crescent society in Jenin. It said of the Palestinian deaths: "All those who are shocked by the deaths of innocent Israelis cannot be apathetic to the deaths of innocent Palestinians. As we count our dead, they count theirs."
The Palestinian death toll is now well over 1000. According to the Palestinian Health, Development and Policy Institute there were already 1008 dead by February 15. Thirteen percent of those were 15 years old or under. Eighty-five percent of the dead were civilians.
As the intifada continues, the Israeli army is increasingly having to deal with soldiers refusing to serve, fueled in part by increasing numbers of reserve officers who have signed the "combatants' letter". More than 300 officers have signed the letter, which states their refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories. Last week a reserve officer left his West Bank post, protesting over vague rules that authorise soldiers to shoot Palestinians.
According to the February Peace Index poll, 23% of Israelis support the "refuseniks" — an increase of 50% since their campaign begun. More than 6500 civilians have signed a petition supporting the reservists' actions.
Three of the officers who signed have been given 28-day prison sentences for refusing to serve.
In Upper Galilee, peace activists have formed a new group calling for Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Some of the group were members of the Four Mothers organisation which called for the IDF to withdraw from Lebanon. The group has already organised several demonstrations. Their first roadside vigil attracted 75 people, despite only expecting a handful.
"The fact is that no nation can occupy another people for long, as history has proven", said Armelle Lehman, one of the organisers of the group. "If the Palestinians start to hear a different voice being sounded in Israel it may help motivate them to opt for an end to the violence and seek a political solution to the issue."
From Green Left Weekly, March 13, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.