Assassination's ominous message
Israeli minister’s killing a sign peace unlikely until land issue settled.
East Jerusalem — The first Israeli government minister to be killed by Palestinian assassins died here yesterday on violently contested land that he had built a political career defending.
A fierce advocate of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Rehavam Ze’evi, Israel’s tourism minister, was shot dead, reportedly with a silencer-equipped weapon, at 7 a.m. yesterday at the Hyatt Regency hotel in East Jerusalem, which is ruled by Israel but is claimed by Palestinians as the future capital of their own independent state.
Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat promised to hunt down and punish the perpetrators, while the Israeli Cabinet — from which Ze’evi had resigned on Monday — issued an ultimatum threatening military action against the Palestinian Authority if it failed to move against those responsible.
“If they do not meet these demands, Israel will have no choice but to view the Palestinian Authority as a terrorist-supporting entity and act against it accordingly,” said a Cabinet statement issued early this morning.
Responsibility for the killing was acknowledged by the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in revenge for the assassination two months ago of its leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, by the Israeli military.
The group released a video showing three masked gunmen standing next to a large poster of Mustafa. Reading a statement, one of the gunmen said that “Rehavam Ze’evi will only be the first.”
But the specific targeting of Ze’evi — who had helped draw up controversial new boundaries for Jerusalem after Israel took control of its Arab-populated east side in the 1967 Middle East war — carried a larger message: There will be no peace without a resolution of the settlements issue, and the two sides are nowhere near such an agreement.
Attacks on Jewish settlers have been a prime spur for Israeli military incursions into areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority — which in turn have produced a spiral of violence, including suicide bombings and major setbacks for the peace process.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has labeled the attacks as terrorism, an accusation that Palestinians almost universally reject. “They are legitimate acts of defense against those who have seized and occupied our land,” says Hamza Monsour, a Palestinian militant leader living in exile in Jordan.
ZE’EVI BACKED SETTLERS
Many of the 200,000 settlers, however, view themselves as pioneers, reclaiming what they regard as ancient Jewish homelands. And Ze’evi, a 75-year- old retired major general, was among their most high-profile backers.
In protest against the withdrawal of Israeli troops guarding a Jewish enclave in the Palestinian city of Hebron, Ze’evi, a member of the National Union Party, had announced his resignation Sunday from Sharon’s coalition government, along with Minister of Infrastructure Avigdor Lieberman.
The troop withdrawal enraged the settler community. “This is the end of the settlements, the end of the state of Israel,” said Danny Dayan, a spokesman for Ma’ale Shomron, a small settlement north of Jerusalem. “We will fight with all of our might, we will take to the streets,” he warned Sharon in an emotional confrontation Monday.
The settlements issue has festered for two decades, through several U.S.- and European-led efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the Oslo peace accords were signed by PLO leader Yasser Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, just under 33,000 Jewish homes had been constructed in the Gaza Strip or beyond the “Green Line” that separated Israel from the West Bank prior to 1967.
In 1995, Rabin was murdered by a Jewish extremist opposed to any reduction of the Israeli military presence in the occupied territories.
20,000 NEW HOUSING UNITS
Since Oslo, at least 20,000 new housing units have been erected there. Nearly 200,000 Jewish settlers now live east of the Green Line in heavily defended communities, walled off from 2 million Palestinians. Another 6,600 Israelis live inside the Gaza perimeter, among 1.2 million Palestinians. Jerusalem is shared by 472,000 Jews and 280,000 Palestinians.
According to Mussi Raz, a parliamentary member from the liberal Meretz Party, 73 percent of all housing units offered for sale to Israelis in August were in the occupied territories.
Palestinians — and Israelis who regard the creation of a Palestinian state as vital to peace — say the settlements are part of a government strategy to permanently populate huge chunks of the territories with Jews.
“The principal reason for the massive increase in settlement is policy,” said Gilad Ben-Nun, research director of Israel’s Peace Now organization. “Apart from ideological motives, people move to the territories because the government encourages them with extraordinary incentives.”
Nearly 60 percent of the new units built after the Oslo accords were public housing, financed by the state. Interest rates on mortgages are as low as one- fourth of those in Israel proper. New settlers also enjoy reductions of 10 percent on income taxes and 7 percent on social security taxes.
“If the government suddenly terminated special benefits to settling on the West Bank, you’d see a significant movement of people back into Israel, to underpopulated areas like the Negev,” said Ben-Nun, referring to the country’s largely agricultural south.
In the West Bank, scores of these settlements now dot West Bank hilltops, connected by specially built roads to each other and to Jerusalem. The majority have fewer than 500 residents.
OUTPOSTS HARD TO DEFEND
Critics argue that the settlement policies endanger the nation’s overall security, by committing Israeli troops to a patchwork quilt of widely dispersed Jewish “outposts” that are extremely difficult to protect. More than three-fourths of Israeli military and civilian deaths in the year-old Palestinian intifada have occurred in the occupied territories.
“Despite the fact that the events of this past year have proven the settlements are a security, economic and political burden, this government continues to expand them,” said Peace Now, in a statement issued Tuesday.
The issue has grown even more controversial with the open endorsement of Palestinian statehood by the Bush administration, Britain and other European countries. That may prove impossible to achieve without an agreement on the future of the settlements.
Under pressure from Washington, the conservative Israeli government appears to have accepted the notion of a Palestinian state — a softening of position that National Union ministers said on Monday had also led to their decision to resign.
The next day, Sharon, while spelling out tough conditions, hinted that a full-fledged peace proposal might be imminent.
Then, two hours after the shooting of Ze’evi, a government spokesman said that all contacts with the Palestinian Authority had been indefinitely suspended. The Cabinet also decided to cancel steps instituted earlier this week to ease the plight of the Palestinians in the territories, restoring a blockade of the West Bank city of Ramallah and other areas.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw by telephone, “If Arafat doesn’t take the matters in hand, everything will go up in flames.”