As the Israeli military attacks on the West Bank continue, their full aim is becoming apparent. It fits in closely with Ariel Sharons longer-term policies, has little to do with curbing suicide bombers, and has serious implications for the region as a whole and the security of Israel in particular.
It is probable that the entire operation was originally intended to take about four weeks, with rather more than half of that involving intense military actions in cities and towns throughout the West Bank. The climax of the operation would come with protracted assaults in Gaza, including the occupation of the densely populated Palestinian refugee camps.
There was an expectation that the United States would not intervene early enough to limit the full extent of the military operations, but this has been turned on its head by the intense pressure on Washington from a number of Arab states. The most notable of these have been Egypt and Jordan, not least as their own populations respond to the Al-Jazeera factor the widespread and persistent reporting of the Israeli actions on independent satellite TV news channels.
At the time of writing (10 April), large-scale military operations have not commenced in Gaza. If they do, then the fighting will stretch over at least a week and will be of an intensity exceeding that of Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem. It will be a disaster for the United States and will further inflame tensions across the Middle East.
However, if Sharon is holds back from going into Gaza then his full intentions will not have been achieved. Moreover, Hamas, which draws much of its strength from communities in Gaza, will see its position enhanced within the Palestinian community.
Israels real purpose
If one thing is well nigh certain about the intense conflict of the past two weeks, it is that the purpose is not to curtail the risk of suicide bombing. That is not something that can be done by blanket military operations against centres of Palestinian population. Indeed it is very much more likely to produce further generations of potential suicide bombers.
The military operations actually have a quite different purpose, and this has become clear as the effects of the war have become apparent. They are, in short, aimed at destroying the capacity of a putative Palestinian state to operate.
Information on the impact of the Israeli attacks remains extremely limited, as journalists have been prevented from reporting from within the Palestinian areas, but some reports have seeped out. Firstly, it is probable that casualties have been high, with several hundreds killed on the Palestinian side, and many more seriously injured. Secondly, there has been a systematic process of dismantling the apparatus of the Palestine National Authority.
Much of the military action has been directed against the police and security forces of the PNA, with substantial numbers having been killed and many hundreds taken into custody. Police stations and barracks have been destroyed, as have intelligence and security centres. Moreover, and in some ways much more significant, there has been the destruction of the PNAs administrative infrastructure.
Information on this remains incomplete but is sufficient to show that there has been widespread destruction of offices and facilities of PNA ministries and Palestinian non-governmental organisations. The Ministry of Local Government and the Ministry of Education in Ramallah have been ransacked by Israeli troops, as has the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics.
NGOs engaged in medical support and youth-work have seen their offices destroyed. Shopping centres have been damaged, electricity transmission lines and water mains have been destroyed, and thousands of houses have been wrecked or damaged.
None of this will directly limit the risk of suicide bombings, but it will certainly have a major impact on the ability of the PNA to run its own services when there is a military withdrawal.
Overall, the Sharon policy is one of dismantling the apparatus of the Palestinian state that has been built up over the past eight years. Indeed, one of the significant if subsidiary reasons why there is so much anger in a number of European capitals is that much of this infrastructure has been carefully developed with aid from EU states and is now wrecked.
The Lebanon experience
The parallels with the Israeli military action in Lebanon in 1982 are highly relevant to current circumstances and give us some idea of the likely consequences of the current operations.
Sharon launched Operation Peace for Galilee on behalf of the Israeli government in the summer of 1982 in response to rocket and other attacks across the border from South Lebanon and in the wake of an assassination attempt against the Israeli ambassador to London. It was claimed initially to be a limited military operation designed to produce a secure zone in Southern Lebanon: the war over the Falklands/Malvinas islands between Britain and Argentina earlier that year was cited as an example of the legitimacy of taking such action in pursuit of security.
In the event, it turned out to be the start of a massive military operation by land, sea and air designed to destroy the Palestinian military organisation in Lebanon. The invasion took the Israelis right up to Beirut and resulted in the hugely destructive siege of West Beirut, with more than ten thousand people killed, even before the massacres in the refugee camps at Sabra and Chatilla later in the year.
Poorly-armed Palestinian militia proved very difficult to overcome and international pressure eventually forced an Israeli withdrawal from Beirut that also involved the evacuation of Arafat and his militia to Tunis. The Israelis stayed in occupation of southern Lebanon for several years but eventually withdrew from much of the territory in the face of guerrilla actions by Hezbollah militia.
Resistance from the Palestinians in West Beirut was greater than expected, and one response by the Israeli defence forces was to make extensive use of artillery and air attacks. These were frequently deployed in densely populated urban areas one of the reasons for the high number of deaths and injuries. Similar tactics are being used at present.
If the current operation was to continue to its planned completion, there would be little left of the PNA infrastructure; yet if negotiations were to become possible, then the Palestinians would be placed in a real position of weakness. That, at least, appears to be the position of the Sharon government, and would result, in the governments expectations, in a settlement in which control of the occupied territories would remain firmly in Israeli hands.
Further suicide bombings would prompt further substantial use of force, and Palestinian entities would be limited to a number of weak centres of population heavily constrained by settlements, strategic roads and appropriate military control.
Three conditions of conflict
Although most international opinion remains deeply critical of the current Israeli operations, Sharon retains support within Israel, at least for this action, even if a substantial minority of the population would prefer the rhetorically more extreme Binyamin Netanyahu.
The main and obvious reason for this support is the deep-rooted effects of the suicide bombings on Israeli society, especially the Passover massacres. This is compounded by the outlook of around one million recent immigrants, mostly from Russia. Their presence has moved the Israeli political scene further to the right, not least because their own perceptions of insecurity are perhaps even greater than longer-established citizens.
There is therefore a combination of three factors. One is Sharons own predisposition for hard military action and utter distaste for compromise. The second is the level of domestic support, and the third is the lack of any real pressure from the United States, even bearing in mind George W. Bushs recent statements. It will have taken Colin Powell seven days to make the twelve-hour journey to Israel, allowing the Israelis sufficient time to rush through their operations on the West Bank.
Israel threatened from within
There appears to be an assumption, within both the Sharon government and Israeli armed forces, that the current operation will suppress Palestinian aspirations and allow greater Israeli control. This is unlikely in the extreme. The Palestinians lost many thousands of people in Beirut in 1982, about a thousand were killed in the first intifada and another thousand had died in the uprising over the past eighteen months. None of this destroyed their resolve to overturn occupation, and the current Israeli action is likely to strengthen greatly the more radical elements.
Recent perceptive interviewing by some western journalists with Hamas leaders in Gaza confirm that their analysis is that Israel is doing precisely what Hamas wants. The intense military action, killing and injuring very many hundreds of Palestinians, will serve to further radicalise opinion, bringing forward many more people willing to die for their beliefs. In all probability, there will be further and more extensive use of suicide bombings in the months ahead, as the bus-bombing in Haifa has already shown.
There are two further factors that should cause concern for anyone with the genuine security interests of Israel at heart. One is the widespread assumption within Israel that Palestinian society is composed of ill-educated religious extremists and that anyone who opposes Israel troops in their actions is necessarily a terrorist. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Palestinians in the occupied territories are probably the best educated people in the whole of the Arab world, with a remarkable network of schools and universities forming the basis of an intense concern with education. Not only are they very well informed, and determined, but they have at least as great an attachment to their country as the average Israeli has to Israel.
The second factor is more ominous for the Israeli security forces. In the last two weeks of intense fighting, Israel has been fully dominant in its use of firepower, using tanks, artillery, bombers and attack helicopters with near impunity. Yet it has proved difficult and costly to take control of some of the Palestinian urban areas, as events in Jenin have demonstrated.
Furthermore, there is little evidence of the discovery of major arms supplies, and Palestinian militia have made little use of some of the more effective weapons that they undoubtedly have.
Sharons very use of military force therefore results in Israel being in a huge dilemma. If the armed forces units are withdrawn from the main centres of Palestinian population, the militia will re-group, the suicide bombings will continue and they may well intensify. If, on the other hand, Israel maintains a high level of military occupation, it will not only fly in the face of international opinion, but its military forces will become persistently vulnerable to guerrilla attack, as was already starting to happen up until last month.
There is, for Israel, a very uncomfortable conclusion to be drawn from this use of force: as well as being tremendously costly in human terms, it will actually be deeply counter-productive to the security of the State of Israel.
In the final analysis, there is no alternative whatsoever to Israel negotiating a full and just settlement with the Palestinians. What appears currently to be the powerful and effective use of force by the Sharon government is actually disguising a deteriorating security environment for Israel and is the greatest obstacle to Israel gaining a peaceful and secure future.