Israel's especially cruel sanction

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The Bush administration is weighing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's request to break all ties - and end all American aid - to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Washington should also consider the especially cruel nature of Israeli punishments and reprisals - as well as Arab terrorism and resistance to Israeli occupation that lead to these reprisals.

One form of Israeli punishment is the destruction of Muslim and Christian Arab homes with explosives and bulldozers. During the Palestine Mandate, before Israel's creation in 1948, British military administrators used this weapon against Jews and Arabs - though most often against Arabs, accused or suspected of anti-British terrorism.

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This odious practice - banned by the Fourth Geneva Convention on the conduct of foreign military occupation - has continued, both in areas under Israeli control and in others temporarily conquered by Israeli forces, as in Syria (in 1967 and 1973-74) and south Lebanon and Beirut's Palestinian outskirts (between 1978 and the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000). I have watched it happen repeatedly since 1965.

Israel's recent air and ground attacks against Palestinians in both the occupied and Palestinian-administered autonomous West Bank and Gaza territories have included this form of punishment. In response to Arab suicide bombings and other attacks, the Israeli Army most recently blasted a strip of homes along the Gaza border with Egypt.

Mr. Sharon's spokesmen insist the houses were "mostly uninhabited." Some, they say, concealed tunnels used for smuggling arms from Egypt. UN and relief agencies report hundreds of newly homeless people as a result.

In mid-January, several large, new houses were blown up and bulldozed with little or no warning in or near ethnically Arab East Jerusalem.

Justification: The houses were "illegal" because the owners had obtained no Israeli building permits. The trouble is, no matter how long a Christian or Muslim Arab and his family have lived in East Jerusalem, which Israel wrested from Jordan in 1967 and then formally annexed, they are, in more than 90 percent of cases, refused a building permit when they apply.

The purpose, as many Jewish observers have said, is simply to further the "Judaization" or Israeli settlement of formerly Arab areas. One consequence is that peaceable people decide to resist the occupation, join the Palestinian intifada - and yes, many of the younger men and some women do become terrorists.

Repeatedly, they begin using guns and bombs against the occupying army and against the Jewish settlers who have encroached on their land, water wells, or have - especially in 1948 and 1967 - taken over their (undamaged) houses.

Between 1920 and Israel's founding, the British authorities continued what had been a rarer pre-World War I Ottoman Turkish practice. Moshe Sharett, an early Israeli statesman sympathetic to the Palestinian plight, described how during the Arab revolt against the British between 1936 and 1940, the British Army drove out villagers and then destroyed their homes, as part of the "counterterrorist" campaign.

One British district commissioner in the West Bank was thanked by higher authorities for the "punitive demolition" of 53 houses. Israeli author Tom Segev estimates in his recent book that between 1936 and 1940, the British destroyed 2,000 houses.

The Arab town of Jaffa was already hard hit by British demolition of several hundred homes in the summer of 1936. During the initial Arab-Israel war of 1948, Jewish terrorists from the Stern Gang drove a truck into Jaffa, with oranges concealing explosives, and blasted away buildings in the center, including a feeding center for children.

In August 1967, just after Israel's victorious Six-Day War, in which it conquered the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt's Sinai, and Syria's Golan Heights, this reporter asked then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan at a news conference whether he believed Israel's prolonging of the British "Military Emergency Regulations" of 1948 was a wise move, leading to better Jewish-Arab understanding or real peace.

After an angry stare, Mr. Dayan said, "Yes, we think blowing up houses is very useful and is a deterrent against terrorists."

It happened again and again. In the Christian villages of Birim and Tikrit, in Israel's northern Galilee near the Lebanese border; in Quneitra, the Golan Heights town that Israel had to evacuate following an interim Syrian-Israeli agreement negotiated by Henry Kissinger in 1974-75; and in many of the villages of south Lebanon, as well as in hundreds of districts in Gaza and the West Bank, from 1967 until now.

President Bush's advisers, and the perennially pro-Israel majority in Congress, should review the past and think again about the future, before breaking all ties with Mr. Arafat, besieged by Israeli tanks for weeks in his Ramallah headquarters.

Arafat faces urgent Israeli and US pressure to "halt terror." In first Israeli, and now American formulations, this pressure is equated with the worldwide campaign exerted against the Al Qaeda network since the Sept. 11 attacks. These were condemned by Arafat and all thinking Palestinians.

Arafat is truly caught between a rock and a hard place. After recent Israeli killings of Palestinians in Nablus, thousands of Palestinians stormed a Palestinian Authority jail, freeing at least one member of the extremist Hamas group. Things can now only get worse.

Unless the Bush administration uses its muscle to restrain violence by both sides, a new cease-fire or armistice in this tragic conflict, let alone peace, will be impossible to achieve. Apparently we must await new leadership in both Israel and the promised, but still hypothetical, state of Palestine.

In other words, there must be an American effort to bring about a new state - a new state of mind, in fact - that will make both sides realize that the occupation must end, and that only then, with lots of determined help from the outside, can they reach peace by imposing it on themselves.

• John K. Cooley, a former Monitor Middle East correspondent, is the author of 'Green March, Black September: the Story of the Palestinian Arabs' (Cass).

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