Al-Ahram Weekly – 26 February 2004
It was a momentous week for the Jewish state. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics published the latest census figures for the year 2013 showing that the Arab population in Greater Israel was the smallest ever at just 687,000 compared to a Jewish population of a fraction over eight million.
Who could have imagined 10 years ago — when then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was grappling with an evacuation of settlers in Gaza — that only a decade later the demographic time bomb would have been so completely defused? At the time, let’s recall, the media was full of dire predictions that soon the Palestinians — in what were often distinguished separately as the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper — would outnumber Jews in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.
They feared that the right and the settlers were leading us to disaster: if the pursuit of a two-state solution was rejected, Israel would either have to abandon its title of “the only democracy in the Middle East” and become an apartheid state (with Palestinians denied the vote) or it would effectively cede power to the Palestinians at the ballot box and so lose its Jewish character.
Looking at copies of Ha’aretz and Maariv 10 years back, one finds hysterical headlines warning that one in four children inside Israel (that’s when the Jewish state did not officially include the West Bank and Gaza) was Muslim. Now the figure across the whole of Greater Israel is less than 10 per cent.
How was this miraculous turnaround achieved? Unpopular though it may be to say it today, substantial credit must go to Sharon. Conventional wisdom says the discredited prime minister of the day endangered the whole settlement project in the Palestinian territories by agreeing to an evacuation of Gaza in a last desperate attempt to distract attention from a string of corruption scandals threatening to bring him down. But on closer examination it now appears that the Gaza “unilateral disengagement” plan was a masterstroke by that most wily of military and political tacticians. Although analysts at the time were baffled that the plan had come from one of the architects of the settlements — recall his injunction to followers to “go grab the hilltops” — in fact Sharon appears to have used the evacuation as a banner behind which to rally support for his chosen successor.
Knowing that his downfall was only months away, Sharon engineered the defeat of his Likud archrival, Binyamin Netanyahu. Sharon was still haunted by the idea that once in office Netanyahu — a disciple of free markets — would inadvertently destroy the Greater Israel for which Sharon had striven for so long. Sharon therefore entrusted the Gaza evacuation to his deputy, Ehud Olmert, a man driven by a similar ambition to destroy the Palestinian people and their hopes of nationhood. The pair managed to drag out the evacuation of 7,500 settlers for two years, while Sharon swung the succession in Olmert’s favour. No one in the party dared challenge Olmert when he was carrying out a policy that had the overwhelming support of a conflict-weary public (recall the referendum that showed the plan to have the backing of almost 80 per cent of Israelis).
But the evacuation was really a distraction. All the while, Sharon, and then Olmert, pursued another goal: the rapid completion of two walls around the West Bank — one well inside the Green Line (the border before the 1967 war) and the other deep in the Jordan Valley. The international excitement over the evacuation created a breathing space that Olmert exploited to finish the wall.
Admittedly there was an outcry when Olmert announced in late 2006 that he was annexing to Israel all land outside the Palestinian enclaves. But the storm soon abated. In a good will gesture he released Marwan Barghouti from prison and installed him as the new president of the Palestinian State of Gaza and the West Bank. It was a triumph for Israel. A state on the whole of the West Bank and Gaza would have given the Palestinians 22 per cent of historic Palestine. This way they had sovereignty over only 45 per cent of the West Bank and about 85 per cent of Gaza (Sharon and Olmert had cleverly annexed the land around three settlements in the northern part of the Strip and the border with Rafah during the evacuation). Had anyone done the math, they would have worked out that the new Palestinian state was being created on about 10 per cent of historic Palestine.
Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza enclaves — including Israel’s own Palestinian minority — found themselves stripped of the rights they would have enjoyed in either the new Palestinian state or the expanded Israeli state. They belonged instead to the military government of Israel’s Civil Administration. As the years passed many of them moved voluntarily into the enclosed population centres of cities like Nablus, Jenin, Qalqilya and Ramallah. Others had to be induced to move: either through ever more strict Israeli land confiscation policies or through relocation grants provided by the European Union.
But by late 2009 the Europeans had grown tired of pouring money into the bottomless pit of the Palestinian state. Unemployment stood at nearly 85 per cent, most of the population was suffering from malnutrition, and cholera and typhoid outbreaks were frequent. The Palestinians became ever more radicalised, with support for the biggest party, Islamic Jihad, reaching at least 60 per cent.
It was at that point that the Americans stepped in. President Hillary Clinton, in one of the most generous humanitarian gestures ever, announced a $120 billion aid package for the Palestinians. Any adult living in the West Bank or Gaza enclaves was entitled to an $80,000 grant to resettle in the Democratic Republic of Iraq. The only condition was that their Palestinian citizenship had to be exchanged for Iraqi citizenship
At first, mainly young men left to attend Iraqi universities (the Palestinian education system had collapsed the year before). But after the Israeli government revealed that much of the money being sent home to the enclaves was being used to fund terror — including the development of Jihad’s lethal Kassam-12 rockets — severe controls were placed on all bank transfers. Two years ago, the trickle of Palestinians emigrating became a stampede. Whole families packed up their belongings and caught one of the frequent Jordanian buses to Baghdad, and a new life. Today, barely anyone other than the elderly and infirm lives in the enclaves.
The talk now in European capitals is of paying to tear down the barriers around the West Bank enclaves after concerns by environmentalists that the wall has severely disrupted the natural migration patterns of West Bank fox and deer. American Jewish groups, however, have been lobbying to preserve sections of the wall as memorials to the Arab persecution of the Jewish people in their historic homeland.
It is almost amusing to reflect on the very public soul-searching of the Israeli left about the future of our state in the early years of the new millennium: should they support two states for two peoples or one state for Jews and Arabs in all of historic Palestine? It is clear that all their agonising was so much self-indulgent hot air.