Sharons Old New Year


On the eve of 2003 Ariel Sharon gave some flesh to his vision of a Palestinian state with “provisional borders”, the second stage of the untested “roadmap towards peace”. One year on — and at the same Herzliya venue — he gave vent to what might happen should the roadmap remain folded on the Bush administration’s shelf.

“If in a few months the Palestinians still continue to disregard their part in implementing the roadmap, then Israel will initiate the unilateral step of disengagement from the Palestinians,” he said.

The contrast between the two roads is more apparent than real. Whether by agreeing to an interim state or having it imposed through Israeli diktat, the most the Palestinians can look forward to in the foreseeable future is a truncated entity, divided into four cantons, on around 40 per cent of the West Bank and parts of Gaza. The difference — one year on — is that Sharon is closer to his vision than he was.

One reason for this is the growing Israeli and American consensus that the roadmap is now not much more than an instrument for managing the conflict. Even this may be too much for Sharon. He now believes the roadmap is tied to the longevity of Ahmed Qurei’s government and that that has a shelf life of no more than six months. He is already taking steps to hasten the collapse.

Since the collapse of the latest Palestinian cease-fire talks Israel has killed 23 Palestinians and arrested dozens in the West Bank and Gaza, with Rafah and Nablus again bearing the brunt of the assaults. It has also revived assassinations. On 25 December two Islamic Jihad men and three Palestinian civilians were killed in a helicopter rocket attack in Gaza. This was followed by a similar attack five days later on two Hamas men that left the fugitives unscathed but 11 civilians wounded.

It is an article of faith among the Palestinian factions that no cease-fire can hold as long as the assassinations and arrests continue. Sharon intimated that Israel would respond to “quiet with quiet”. He now appears determined to preempt that possibility. Hamas (which has not claimed an attack inside Israel in over three months) has said that Israel will pay a “heavy price” for the assassination attempt.

Keeping the conflict on a low flame has always been Sharon’s preferred method for diverting attention from policies aimed at “strengthening Israel’s control over … areas” in the occupied territories “which will constitute an inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future agreement”, as he put it in his Herzliya speech.

On 30 December Israel’s Interior Ministry released figures showing the settler population had increased by 16 per cent during Sharon’s three years as prime minister, compared to an average growth rate of 1.8 per cent. This means there are now over 400,000 settlers in the occupied territories, with the fastest growing settlements being not only the “consensus” settlements in and around East Jerusalem but also the “ideological” enclaves in Gaza and Hebron.

Sharon can also claim success in keeping “strategic coordination” with the US government over his policies. A case study in this was the US reaction to the Herzliya speech. At first it was cool, with White House spokesperson Scott McClellan warning that the US would “oppose any unilateral steps that would block the road towards negotiations under the roadmap that leads to the two state vision”. Within days, however, McClellan was saying the administration was “pleased with the overall speech”.

How to explain the turn? One diplomatic source says that whatever irritation Washington sometimes expresses over this or that aspect of Israel’s policies it remains wedded to the Sharonian view that nothing can move politically until the PA acts against the militias and moves to replace the existing Palestinian leadership.

At best this means the US is prepared — for example — to allow Sharon to “accelerate” construction of the barrier in the north, south and east of the West Bank as pressure on the PA to get its security act together. At worst it could mean that Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel “in tranquillity, security and peace” is the same as Sharon’s.

Faced with Israel’s ongoing unilateralism and Washington’s indifference, the PA’s political options are shrinking as rapidly as its territory. Unable to secure a cease-fire, Qurei has postponed a meeting with Sharon, preferring to rally Arab support for the PA and against the barrier by travelling to Saudi Arabia. But given the current state of Arab disarray and powerlessness few Palestinians believe a renewed diplomatic offensive will go any further than the roadmap.

The only ray of light has been a revival in mass Palestinian actions of civil disobedience protesting the construction of the West Bank barrier. On 26 and 27 December thousands of Palestinian, Israeli and international solidarity activists confronted the Israeli army along the barrier surrounding Qalqiliya, leaving a US and Israeli citizen wounded by army fire.

For some Israelis this drove home the point that a barrier the purpose of which is more colonial than security related is likely not only to deepen the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians; it may also set Israeli against Israeli. For Palestinians it demonstrated that nothing highlights their cause and polarises Israeli opinion better than “popular non-violent civilian resistance against the Apartheid Wall”, in the words of Palestinian community activist, Mustafa Barghouti, who has long championed this mode of resistance over the armed variety practiced by the militias.

(Artiklen er bragt 2. januar 2004 i den egyptiske avis Al Ahram Weekly)

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