President Bush’s endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” plan, coupled with the Sharon government’s assassination of two leaders of the Hamas movement in Gaza, has inflamed tensions in the Middle East and jeopardized prospects for a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, peace activists say.

“Bush has reversed nearly 40 years of American foreign policy on the question of the occupied territories,” said Andrea Shapiro, a steering committee member of the predominantly Jewish, Chicago-based group, Not In My Name. “His support for Sharon’s plan is a disaster. He has completely caved to the Likud Party’s position on the question of the right of return. He has, in fact, rejected his own Road Map, as weak as it was.”

At a White House press conference with Sharon April 14, Bush supported the Israeli prime minister’s plan to evacuate Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank, while preserving much larger settlements in the West Bank and permanently blocking Palestinian refugees from resettling in Israel.

Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, if it takes place, may take years, Shapiro told the World. “One thing is certain. Gaza will continue to be surrounded by walls, by border guards, by the Israeli military. Its airspace and seaports will be controlled by Israel. It will be one big concentration camp.”

Not In My Name has sharply condemned the Israeli government’s policy of extra-judicial assassination of Palestinians, including that of Sheihk Ahmed Yassin on March 22 and – three days after the Sharon-Bush meeting – Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, another leader of Hamas in Gaza.

Ziad Abu-Rish, a fellow at the American Friends Service Committee’s Middle East Peacebuilding Unit in Philadelphia, said Sharon’s “withdrawal” has strings attached – namely, Bush’s support for the West Bank land grab and the denial of the Palestinians’ right of return.

Bush implicitly endorsed Israel’s assassination of Yassin and Rantisi, Abu-Rish told the World. “If Israel is serious about stopping terrorist attacks, why not arrest the suspects and try them in a court of law? These assassinations are clear attempts to escalate the conflict.”

Abu-Rish, who is Palestinian, said these developments will intensify hostilities and undermine and draw attention away from nonviolent efforts to resolve the conflict, like the growing movement against Israel’s apartheid wall.

A just and lasting peace must be based on international law and UN resolutions, Abu-Rish added. “Any attempt to put forward something other than those basic principles is an exercise of self-interested power, not principle.”

Abu-Rish commented, “It’s not just Bush. Look at John Kerry – on the same day that Sharon and Bush met, Kerry spoke in support of the plan and said Israel has the right to use any means it sees fit to protect its interests.”

Joshua Ruebner, grassroots advocacy coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, called Sharon’s plan “very dangerous.”

“It’s unbelievable that the president of the United States would bargain away Palestinian rights with the head of the Israeli government,” he told the World.

The U.S. Campaign, a coalition of 120 organizations, has denounced Israeli extra-judicial assassinations as contrary to international law.

“The only way forward is to uphold the relevant UN resolutions on the conflict, human rights law, and other international conventions,” Ruebner said. “We have people working in 135 congressional districts, lobbying their congresspeople to move in this direction. We’re holding a national organizers’ conference in early June. We’re making progress, but we welcome help in this effort.”

Sam Webb, national chairman of the Communist Party USA, told the World, “Bush’s shameless support for Sharon’s policy of territorial annexation, military unilateralism and political assassination will only escalate tensions and violence in the Middle East and should be universally condemned. Only a negotiated solution that allows for two states, based on the 1967 borders and UN resolutions, will begin to bring peace and security to the Jewish and Arab peoples as well as a homeland for the heroic Palestinian people.”

Webb called Bush’s move “not surprising, given that his administration pursues a similar policy in Iraq and worldwide.”

Churches for Middle East Peace, which includes the National Council of Churches USA, issued a statement saying, “The president’s blatant disregard for Palestinian and Arab participation and sentiment places a future peace and our own security at risk.” It quoted Jim Winkler, a United Methodist Church leader, who said, “President Bush has effectively told the world that what Israel has taken by force from the Palestinians is now acceptable. This is a road map to war.”

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