Al-Ahram Weekly – 25 March 2004
If Israel delivered a message with the three missiles that slammed into a Gaza street on Monday morning killing Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’s spiritual leader, and eight others, few in Israel could agree either on the meaning of that message or to whom it was addressed.
Was it directly linked to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral “disengagement” plan — the promised evacuation of most Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip — or was it planned months in advance, as Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom insisted? Did it bring the withdrawal nearer or make it less likely? Would Yassin’s death fatally harm Hamas’s organisational structure, or send the group’s popularity soaring? And would it assist the Palestinian Authority security forces in re-establishing their control of Gaza, or act as a powerful recruiting sergeant for Islamic fundamentalism, possibly driving Hamas into the arms of Al-Qa’eda?
Such speculation was rife in the Israeli media.
While denunciations of the assassination were unequivocal and universal across the rest of the world (with the exception, of course, of President Bush who hoped only that Israel would keep “the consequences in mind” when selecting whom to execute next), in Israel commentators were evenly divided on the merits of the operation.
Zeev Schiff, the Ha’aretz newspaper’s military analyst, argued that following the assassination — and the wave of more assassinations promised by Israel — “Hamas will not be able to claim that the withdrawal was prompted by the group’s terrorist operations”. Ben Kaspit, writing in the Ma’ariv daily, on the other hand, feared: “All Muslims, around the world, will burn with desire to explode next to us. The threshold of violence will reach new heights and terrorist motivation will flourish.”
In fact, Sharon’s calculations — however mistakenly undertaken — lie elsewhere.
Gaza has always been for Israel’s leaders the bargaining chip of last resort: unlike the West Bank, it lacks resources of both water and land, and has no symbolic religious- national value. With more than 1.3 million Palestinians caged inside, Gaza ticks away as a disproportionately noisy “demographic timebomb” threatening the Jewish state. Apparently, now resigned to sacrificing Gaza, Sharon hopes to guarantee from a troubled and violent disengagement two big prizes: the first, a territorial windfall in the West Bank underwritten by generous US compensation for “losses” in Gaza; and the second, a power vacuum in the Strip that should ensure civil war among Palestinian factions for generations.
Since Sharon launched himself on his mission to find a “unilateral” solution to the conflict (for which read: one not in the interests of the Palestinian people), he has ostensibly faced two main groups of internal opponents, both drawn from circles he would normally count as friends. The first are his traditional allies in Likud, including several cabinet ministers. Some are unhappy at the idea of any withdrawal from occupied territory. But Sharon is more responsive to those who argue that the Gaza evacuation is being handed to the Palestinians on a plate, without Israel winning any concessions.
Sharon is not concerned about concessions from the Palestinian leadership, which he declared irrelevant long ago. But he wants concessions from the United States, mainly in terms that will redraft the US-backed roadmap to a Palestinian state into a document for the annexation of much of the West Bank.
His Likud opponents, tentatively led by Binyamin Netanyahu, are demanding from Sharon — a little too conveniently — exactly the terms demanded of the US President by Sharon’s envoy to the White House, Dov Weisglass. At Sunday’s cabinet meeting Netanyahu laid down his conditions for accepting disengagement: an end to the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the effective annexation of the major West Bank settlements.
Weisglass, it was widely reported, was due this week to press the same issues in Washington. He would also raise an additional topic: financial compensation for Israel.
After Sunday’s meeting Ha’aretz noted that senior Likud politicians privately reported that the conditions set forth by Netanyahu had been “coordinated in advance with Sharon’s office”.
The other set of critics apparently at odds with Sharon are drawn from the military establishment. They have been arguing, like Schiff, that a non-negotiated evacuation from Gaza will be interpreted by Palestinians as a rout. The “leaving Gaza with our tail between our legs” scenario re-opens wounds among the army still sore from Ehud Barak’s hasty retreat from south Lebanon in 2000. Many commanders argue that the withdrawal not only strengthened Hizbullah but also inspired the Palestinians to follow suit by launching the Intifada.
Sharon, therefore, had little problem persuading the army of the benefits of hitting Yassin as he left a Gaza mosque on Monday. But the prime minister’s own reasoning is more complex, and cynical.
If Sharon is to persuade the US, and later the world, to buy his annexation of large swaths of the West Bank under cover of a “security fence”, he has to use the seemingly benign withdrawal from Gaza to reinforce the message that the Palestinians know no other path than terror. As Ha’aretz ‘s veteran Palestinian affairs correspondent Danny Rubinstein observed, the killing of Yassin was less a blow to Hamas than “the final nail in the coffin of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza”.
Last week Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was formulating a new security plan for restoring his security forces’ control in the Strip, including over Hamas activists. This week those proposals were in tatters: no PA policeman will dare lift a finger against Hamas. The Islamic militants will have free rein.
This is a recipe for anarchy and civil war, and there can be little reason to suspect that Sharon does not understand this.
The prime minister’s disengagement — should it ever come about — would be the end of the occupation and its transformation into a military siege by land and water of a beleaguered, destitute and angry nation trapped behind a fence. Palestinian resistance, either as Qassam rockets fired at Israeli cities or the occasional suicide bomber slipping out, would doubtless be greeted by Israeli air strikes or land invasions.
By Sharon’s reckoning, if Gaza can be promoted as the image of Palestinian statehood, a state in the West Bank will be stillborn.