Times of London

Dear Friend,

ARAFAT’S CHILDREN: PROTESTS AT LAST FROM THE WEAK WHO PROTECT THE STRONG

Editorial by the Times of London

Stone-throwing, flag-waving Palestinian youths ripped through the town of Ramallah yesterday in the first of two “days of rage” declared by Yassir Arafat’s Fatah organization. It will have been no trouble to recruit this rent-a-mob; there is rage to spare, after nearly six months of futile battling against Israeli occupation. But rage, the most nihilistic of impulses, has done nothing but harm to Palestinians.

A few powerless people, as they mourn children killed in crossfire or pushed, like human shields, ahead of rioters attacking Israeli troops, are beginning to whisper the truth — that they are being deliberately exposed to danger and death, exploited by their own side’s gunmen.

As The Times reported yesterday from El Bireh, the Palestinian residential area where people’s flats are daily used by snipers attacking a nearby Jewish settlement, locals have appealed to the gunmen not to expose their families to returning fire. For response, they get official banners acclaiming their dead infants as martyrs. They too hate Israel. But they do not want to be martyrs to an unending, unwinnable confrontation. They want to be left alone.

These grieving voices should be heard, by their own leaders and by others. They are ignored. The European Union has had plenty to say about the damage inflicted by Israel’s economic blockade and military roadblocks in the West Bank; in Jerusalem yesterday, that was also Chris Patten’s theme. But foreign leaders limply shrink from condemning the cynicism with which various Palestinian factional leaders, who themselves are in no firing line, have played upon popular fears and frustration.

From Hamas and Fatah’s increasingly militant Tanzim militia leaders, both out to destroy any chance of negotiated cohabitation in this wracked land, each Palestinian death is a weapon of war. But even Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator who was once a moderate, has signed up to the politics of hate. This week she circulated an incendiary “open letter” purporting to be from Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister. “To every man, woman and child in the Palestinian territories”, it said, “you are my target; you will be made to suffer; and you shall pay for the original crime of being a Palestinian.”

This crude forgery is black propaganda and bad satire. What good can Ms Ashrawi think to do by inciting the most violent to fresh extremes? Six months after it started, the “al-Aqsa intifada” has presented Palestinians with a grim set of accounts. Death has claimed at least 345 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs and 65 other Israelis; hundreds more have been maimed.

The Palestinian central bank calculates that economic activity, already feeble, has halved. In some areas it is down by 80 per cent. Tourism, which could be a big earner, is for obvious reasons only a memory now, bringing in a mere 7 per cent of what it made before. Trade is ruined. More than 160,000 Palestinians cannot travel to their jobs in Israel.

But such statistics do not reveal a more corrosive and potentially lasting evil, the brutalization of children of both sexes who are trained and indoctrinated at terrorist boot camps before being used as expendable cover for gunmen. “Closure does not frighten us”, shouted protesters yesterday. It should. Civilians are paying an unendurable price — children first. Tense Israeli troops have too often shot before asking questions; but the harsher truth is that those children should be kept far from trouble, not pushed towards it.

At his first full Cabinet this week, Mr Sharon promised to ease restrictions on most Palestinians and to punish only those responsible for violence. That must be right. It is easier said than done, certainly while Mr Arafat sticks to the official Fatah line that all Israel understands is violence. In the coming fortnight, violence is likely to worsen, ratcheted up in advance of the March 27 Arab summit in Jordan.

There are risks for Israel in lifting restrictions around towns such as Bethlehem and Hebron at a time when Fatah is calling on Arabs to join “the beginning of war” and Saddam Hussein is training thousands of volunteers to send. Israel must maintain its vigilance so long as Mr Arafat scorns the compromises that would make for a better, freer Palestine.

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