Al-Ahram Weekly – 1 April 2004
There is an understandable, though unhealthy, trend among prominent critics of Israel, including both Palestinians and Israeli anti- Zionists, to suggest that any scheme proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that appears to benefit the Palestinians must be a “phantom” plan, or illusion, as Mustafa Barghouti recently put it on these pages.
Their logic is appealing. Sharon’s “disengagement” — the evacuation of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip — would effectively be an end to the 37-year occupation. All Israeli leaders, and most especially Sharon, have struggled to make sure there would never be a Palestinian state. Ergo, Sharon is lying. “Sharon is not changed or changing anything,” writes Barghouti.
Israeli academic Tanya Reinhart adopts much the same line in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, warning us to remember the words of the American historian Howard Zinn: Governments lie. “It appears that this generalisation is one of the most difficult for people to internalise and digest in a democratic society,” she says. “Until this changes, the majority is doomed to believe again and again the same lie.”
Neither Barghouti nor Reinhart is wrong in predicting an ever more dismal future in store for Gaza and the West Bank. Nonetheless, I for one want to challenge their confidence in dismissing Sharon’s evacuation plan as a trick. To do so risks both misunderstanding what is likely to happen next and formulating the wrong strategies for opposing it. It makes the job of those who wish to point out that the situation is deteriorating — rapidly and dramatically — all the harder.
Many of those convinced that nothing has changed were also among those who nearly two years ago re-assured us that Sharon was adamantly opposed to carving up the Promised Land and so would never complete what was then called a “separation fence” and has since been rechristened the “security” or “anti- terrorism” barrier.
They — and, I hasten to add, briefly I too — argued the erection of the wall in the West Bank had been forced on the prime minister by his Labour coalition colleagues as proviso for their remaining in the national unity government.
We all know what really happened: either Sharon was serious about completing the wall from the outset and used his PR people to mislead us, or he quickly saw how the fence-cum- wall could be turned to his advantage. Now the wall is being built at an accelerated pace and there is lots of behind-the-scenes talk about building a second wall on the eastern side of the West Bank, close to the border with Jordan.
Those who nearly two years ago dismissed the wall as a one-week wonder should be a little more cautious on this occasion.
That is not to say that the evacuation will happen. Let’s not forget that Sharon stands on the brink of a police investigation into a host of corruption allegations that threaten to sink his premiership. He is also an old man who — if appearances are to be believed — is not in the best of health.
But in putting forward a “unilateral solution” to the conflict in the form of a Gaza disengagement Sharon has changed both the room for debate in Israel and the mythic narrative generations of Israelis have been raised on that tiny, isolated settlements like Netzarim are integral to the Zionist mission. Just by articulating the idea that there may one day be no settlers in Gaza, Sharon has revolutionised the possibilities of Israeli thought. That, for an ideologue of the “might is right” school, is no light matter.
The mistake being made by critics like Reinhart is that they have swallowed a little too easily the public relations campaign being waged by Sharon and his emissary to the US, Dov Weisglass: that the evacuation is the ultimate sacrifice being made by Israel in the interests of peace and the creation of a Palestinian state.
Sharon is not interested in peace, says Reinhart, so the evacuation cannot be his real intention. Doesn’t that rather assume that the evacuation will contribute to peace and the creation of a Palestinian state as its goal? And who says so? Sharon.
In truth, losing Gaza is no sacrifice at all. It is a wretched scrub of land that does not have the resources to cope with its 1.3 million Palestinian inhabitants, let alone its few thousand land and water-hungry Israeli settlers. It has no meaningful resources Israel can plunder.
And Gaza’s huge Palestinian population causes Israel two major headaches: one derives from a demographic panic that Palestinians will soon outnumber Israelis in a single apartheid state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; the other derives from the mammoth costs of policing that apartheid state in Gaza, placing a disproportionate drain on Israel’s already strained military budget.
Sharon’s evacuation should be seen in the light of those two pressing realities. Unlike the US-backed roadmap, or any of the other recent American initiatives, no one forced the Israeli prime minister to sign up for disengagement. In fact, Washington has been loath to give its blessing, even at this early, and untested, stage.
So might there not be a plausible scenario in which Sharon would want to evacuate the Gaza Strip, rather than just pretend to want to? Is it not possible that he could turn disengagement, just as he did the wall, to his advantage?
To start with, given the demographic and financial costs of occupying the Gaza Strip, the prime minister and his generals might very well be searching for a “Get out of Gaza free” card. In fact, they might hope for much more: billions of dollars in financial compensation from US taxpayers for Israel’s “losses”, as well as the even more invaluable asset of international goodwill.
Let’s not be sentimental about Israel’s leadership. I am not arguing that they are suddenly overcome with a desire to help the Palestinians realise their ambitions for statehood. Rather, the goodwill engendered by a withdrawal would be used to finish the wall in the West Bank and annex large swaths of Palestinian land for the benefit of the settlements project.
But the problem as Sharon sees it is that for such a plan to work successfully, two potentially irreconcilable conditions will have to be met.
First, the Palestinians must be convinced that Israel is not leaving Gaza “with its tail between its legs”, as army commanders have put it. That, we know, was the message of the missile strike that incinerated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin last week.
The fear in the Israeli army — shared by Sharon — is that, if Hamas believes its own violent rejection of Gaza’s occupation forced the settlers out, Palestinian resistance in both Gaza and the West Bank will be galvanised. That could sabotage Sharon’s plans for the smooth annexation of West Bank settlements.
The second condition is that the world must be persuaded that the evacuation is a magnanimous gesture by Israel, one designed to contribute to the peace process and the creation of a Palestinian state. Then if the withdrawal proves a failure, the Palestinians, as has happened so often before in the conflict’s history, will be blamed.
There is no doubt that the evacuation should it ever be put into practice — and there are always innumerable obstacles to the implementation of such plans — would fail to promote peace. In fact, if leaks to the Israeli media are to be relied on, it has been designed to do just the opposite.
The evacuation plan Sharon is selling the world is, I think, genuinely intended as an evacuation. But that is not the same as an end to the occupation. Only in this sense is Barghouti right to say the plan is an illusion. He is wrong to argue that therefore nothing will change.
By removing its presence in Gaza, Israel can convincingly claim to the rest of the world that it is no longer the inciting cause of Palestinian anger and resistance, or “terrorism”, in the language of the West. That will make the plight of Gaza unutterably worse.
The reason is to be found in the philosophy of “unilateralism” so enthusiastically adopted by Sharon in the past few months. A unilateral withdrawal of soldiers will be simply their redeployment, to lines outside the fence around Gaza rather than inside it. Gaza will instead be besieged by the military on all sides. There will be no smooth handover to Palestinian security forces and no sovereignty for Palestinians either.
(When the wall is finished around a series of Bantustans in the West Bank, no doubt a similar redeployment will be carried out there too. Why spend money on policing a resistant Palestinian population when they can just be caged in?)
What will happen after Israeli troops have “left” is predictable. The desperate and hungry masses of Gaza will drop even further off the international community’s radar screen. Their only way to get attention will be to fire Qassam rockets out of the Strip at Israeli towns, or try to slip suicide bombers through the security cordon.
Should they succeed, Israel will have the right — arguably even under international law — to defend itself. It will be able to launch indiscriminate air strikes or invade by land with troops, and hardly a voice in the West will be raised in opposition.
An even better outcome for Sharon, however, would be for his army to redirect the energies of the militant Palestinian factions into internal power struggles. Yassin’s assassination should be seen in this light too.
From a safe distance, with troops besieging Gaza on all sides, Sharon and his generals can turn the Palestinian groups — already at loggerheads — into puppets of Israel’s will. By strengthening one faction and weakening another, through a policy of selected assassinations and privileging some as recipients of international aid, Israel can choose to its liking where the balance of power lies.
Should international peace-keepers, or Egyptian forces, be drawn into policing the Gaza Strip, then they are likely to become targets of this infighting. The blame is bound to fall on Palestinian rather than Israeli shoulders.
This appears to be the best guess, given Sharon’s history, of the dark future he has in store for Gaza, and eventually for the West Bank. Many factors, of course, may sidetrack his plan in the meantime. But to turn a blind eye to all the signs and claim that disengagement is just another wily Sharon trick would be foolhardy in the extreme.