MIDDLE EAST: Terrorism

February 16, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Will Mideast violence scuttle the "road map?"

It could. Some Mideast experts say the recent escalation of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians represents a grave threat to the U.S.-backed peace plan, which insists that both sides renounce violence. Still, the plan is clearly a foreign-policy priority for the Bush administration. American, Palestinian, and Israeli leaders have said they remain supporters of it, and Secretary of State Colin Powell plans to meet next week, possibly in Jordan, with other road map backers in an attempt to devise a way to stem the violence.

Who is behind the violence?

The Israeli Defense Force has targeted extremists the government says are directing attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. On the Palestinian side, three groups have mounted recent assaults on Israelis, including a rare joint attack on June 8 against an army outpost. All have been designated foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department:

  • Hamas: The Palestinians’ major Muslim fundamentalist movement, Hamasincludes an extensive social service network as well as an armed wing. Its social services network includes schools, orphanages, mosques, health care clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. Its founding charter endorses armed struggle, the destruction of Israel, and the creation of an Islamic state on the West Bank and Gaza. Since 2001, Hamas has stepped up its campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli civilian and military targets. It took credit for the June 11 Jerusalem bus bombing that killed 16. The size of Hamas’ official membership is unknown, but it is believed to have tens of thousands of supporters and sympathizers.
  • Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ): Like Hamas, PIJ is committed to the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state and the destruction of Israel. But it’s much smaller and less organized than Hamas and focuses exclusively on terrorism. PIJ increased its activity in 2002 and has launched attacks on Israeli city buses, shopping malls, cafes, and other civilian targets.
  • Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades: Al-Aqsa is a collection of West Bank militias affiliated with the al-Fatah faction, the secular Palestinian nationalist movement whose founders include Palestinian President Yasir Arafat and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The group wants to drive the Israeli military and settlers from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem and to establish a Palestinian state. While it initially vowed to target only Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in early 2002 it began attacking civilians in Israeli cities.

Will Israel stop targeting extremists?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that, if recently installed Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas cannot stop the attacks, Israel would continue to hunt down Palestinian militants.

Is the Palestinian leadership committed to stopping the attacks?

Bush administration officials and the Israeli government say they distrust Arafat and refuse to deal with him. Instead, they have put their faith in Abbas. Many experts say Abbas is genuinely dedicated to reining in Hamas and other militants. But he faces an unenthusiastic Palestinian public, a skeptical Israeli government, and Palestinian security forces of questionable loyalty.

What would curb the violence on the Palestinian side?

A ceasefire or a forceful crackdown on the terror groups. A crackdown would require a revitalized and restructured Palestinian state security service under Abbas’ command, support from the Palestinian people, and cooperation with Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies, experts say.

Could Abbas negotiate a ceasefire?

He has tried. But extremists were unhappy with what they saw as concessions he made at a June 4 summit meeting with Sharon and Bush. They broke off ceasefire talks on June 6, and attacks on Israelis resumed a few days later.

Would a ceasefire be a permanent solution to the terror?

No. Abbas believes a ceasefire of perhaps a year’s duration would provide time to prove to the Palestinians that he can negotiate an equitable deal with Israel, experts say. Israel has been wary of the plan, on the grounds that it would only interrupt the violence and give time for terrorists to build their arsenals. But under U.S. pressure to compromise, some experts said that, until the recent renewal of violence, Israel appeared ready to accept a ceasefire as a starting measure.

How much domestic support does Abbas have for a crackdown?

It’s hard to judge. According to a recent opinion poll conducted by Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, 72 percent of Palestinians believe Abbas should be given a reasonable amount of time to prove himself. At the same time, though, terror groups are estimated to have the support of roughly a third of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. Experts say Abbas, who was appointed prime minister in March by Arafat at the urging of the United States and Israel, fears concessions to Israel could provoke a backlash from Palestinians who already view him as too heavily reliant on foreign support.

Palestinian attitudes toward Israel appear deeply negative. A poll released June 4 by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 80 percent of Palestinians believe that the "rights and needs of Palestinians cannot be taken care of as long as the state of Israel exists."

Are there risks tied to a crackdown?

Abbas is reportedly worried that cracking down forcefully on terrorism could spark a Palestinian civil war.

Is Abbas capable of conducting a crackdown?

Not at the moment, most experts say. Israeli military activity over the two-and-a-half years of the current intifada has reportedly severely damaged the Palestinian security apparatus in the West Bank and, to a lesser degree, in the Gaza Strip, that was built up following the 1993 Oslo peace accords. According to Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations, it would take about six months to rebuild the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.

Does Abbas have control of all of the Palestinian security forces?

No. According to The New York Times, Israeli and Palestinian officials have said that though the Palestinian Authority’s roughly 14 security agencies now formally report to the new Palestinian security minister, Muhammad Dahlan, in reality more than half maintain allegiance to Arafat. The prime minister is making efforts to consolidate his control and root out Palestinian Authority security forces still loyal to Arafat.

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