The Assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi
The assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam (“Gandhi”) Ze’evi by Palestinian gunmen on October 17, 2001, outside his hotel room in Jerusalem, was unprecedented. It was the first time that an Israeli cabinet minister was killed by a Palestinian since Israeli independence.
The Popular Front for the liberation of Palestine (PFlP), which had rejected the Oslo Accords and opposed the PA, claimed responsibility and said it was in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of its leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, in August.
The Israeli reaction was immediate and significant. Prime Minister Sharon announced that “everything has changed” as this was clear evidence that Arafat had failed to carry out his promise to prevent more violence. U.S. President Bush condemned the assassination “in the strongest terms” and called on the PA to act against those responsible. The U.S. State Department called it a “despicable act of terrorism” and called upon Arafat and the PA to find and arrest those responsible.
Ze’evi was an unusual character who had been a prominent individual in Israel’s military and political spheres. In prestate days, he was a Palmach commando. He served in Israel’s War of Independence and in the Six-Day war. He had an illustrious military career, rising to the rank of general. Politically, he was outspoken on his belief in the need to transfer Arabs from lands claimed by Israel and reflected right-wing political attitudes and perspectives.
Although Ze’evi was head of a rightwing political party (Moledet), his murder generated strong responses from both the Right and left. The leader of the Meretz opposition at the other end of the political spectrum noted that the murder of Ze’evi put the PA to a test. He said the PA could not remain silent for long and would have to take strong measures to deal with the murderers.
Sharon v. Arafat
Violence and especially terrorism against Israelis escalated dramatically in early December 2001. Attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa elicited a special cabinet meeting on December 3 at which the cabinet determined that actions more wide-ranging than those taken against Palestinian terrorism to that point were required:
According to the decision by the Ministerial Committee for National Security of October 17, 2001, the Government has determined that the Palestinian Authority is an entity that supports terrorism, and must be dealt with accordingly. In the framework of this decision, the Ministerial Committee for National Security is authorized to decide on operational steps (military, diplomatic, information, and economic).
This determination is subject to change—by Cabinet decision—if the Palestinian Authority fulfills its commitments, according to the agreements, to prevent and foil terrorism, punish terrorists and dismantle the terrorism infrastructure. . . .By the authority of section 8 of the Anti-Terrorism Regulations, the government hereby declares that the Tanzim and Force 17 [Presidential Guard] are terrorist organizations, and will be acted against accordingly.President Bush had issued a statement about the attacks on December 2:
I was horrified and saddened to learn of the bombings that took place tonight in Jerusalem. I strongly condemn them as acts of murder that no person of conscience can tolerate and no cause can ever justify. . . . Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority must immediately find and arrest those responsible for those hideous murders. They must also act swiftly and decisively against the organizations that support them. Now more than ever, Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority must demonstrate through their actions, and not merely their words, their commitment to fight terror.
Israel intensified its crackdown on PA territory in mid-December, a day after Palestinian extremists ambushed a bus in the west Bank, killing at least 10 Israeli civilians, and a day after Israel severed all ties with Arafat, blaming him for Palestinian violence against the Jewish state, including recent attacks that killed 44 people in 11 days.
In retaliation, Israeli helicopters and F-16 fighter jets hit Palestinian security force targets in Gaza City, including a compound used by Arafat. Two Israeli missiles struck near a Palestinian mosque while the political and spiritual leaders of the militant Islamic group Hamas were inside. In Ramallah, helicopter gunships fired missiles at a Palestinian government building, and Israeli troops advanced on Arafat’s headquarters, sending tanks to within 200 yards of it. Other troops seized the Voice of Palestine radio station compound, bulldozed several buildings, and forced the station off the air.
Offices of Arafat’s Fatah organization in Jenin were hit in a helicopter raid. Israel also moved against Arafat’s senior aides, including Marwan Barghouti, the head of the Fatah faction in the west Bank and one of the most popular figures in the intifada who was linked to a large number of shooting attacks against Israelis. The Israeli security cabinet said that while Arafat would not be personally harmed he was “no longer relevant as far as Israel is concerned and there will be no more contact with him.”