Operation Days of Penitence, launched on September 29, 2004, is the Israeli military’s most extensive incursion into the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the current Palestinian uprising and its largest offensive within the Occupied Territories since the 2002 reconquest of West Bank cities during Operation Defensive Shield. Two weeks and more than 100 deaths later, it is increasingly clear that Israel’s determination to prevent Palestinian militants from using the northern Gaza Strip as a launching pad for rocket attacks on Israeli border towns provides a partial explanation at best for the unfolding drama. The stakes are much higher, and they extend well beyond the conflict zone.
The backdrop for the incursion is, of course, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for "unilateral disengagement" from the Gaza Strip, initially unveiled in late 2003. Stripped to its foundations, Sharon’s plan revives the traditional Israeli view that the structure of Israeli-Palestinian relations should be determined not by negotiation with the Palestinian national movement but rather by Israel’s undisputed military superiority and physical control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sharon and his fellow travelers reject the concept of a Palestinian partner because they are loath to contemplate the Israeli concessions that any negotiated agreement would necessarily entail. But, at root, "disengagement" is widely popular in Israel because the Labor Party failed to conclude a viable agreement with the Palestinians in the framework of the Oslo accords. The resulting four years of increasingly violent conflict have seen a growing majority of the Israeli public prepared once again to give unilateralism the benefit of the doubt.
SHARON’S STRATEGIC OPENINGS
While Sharon had little trouble rallying the public and the parliamentary opposition to his side — the Labor Party was so enthused by his plan that it initiated coalition negotiations to ensure its success — his core constituencies within the Likud Party and the settler movement have been uncooperative and often hostile. Blinded by their resolve to keep the Occupied Territories in their entirety, they refused to appreciate the strategic opportunities so evident to Sharon. In the months preceding announcement of the disengagement plan, the Israeli premier had overseen calculated sabotage of the "road map" initiative advanced in May 2003 by the Quartet of the US, UN, Russia and the European Union. Europe’s subsequent embrace of the informal Geneva Accord, concluded in mid-October 2003 between prominent Israelis and Palestinians, carried with it the risk that the international community might seek to fill the diplomatic void if Israel did not act first. On the other hand, Washington’s virtually unconditional embrace of Sharon, coupled with the reality and regional implications of the US occupation of Iraq, meant that if Israel did act it would enjoy an unusual degree of latitude. The continuing Palestinian uprising — particularly the increasing sophistication of the Hamas attacks within the Gaza Strip and associated public criticism of the costs of retaining that benighted territory — and the need to keep up appearances formed the only constraints.
Much as Menachem Begin had in 1979 evacuated the Sinai Peninsula in order to retain the other occupied Arab territories, Sharon proposed to relieve Israel of the burden of Gaza in order to consolidate Israel’s grip within the West Bank. No sooner had he formulated his intentions than George W. Bush rushed to embrace them. At an April 2004 joint press conference at the White House, Bush told the world he had given the Israeli prime minister a letter stating that Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice line demarcating the internationally recognized boundary between the West Bank and Israel was "unrealistic" as it would require leaving "major Israeli population centers." The letter also conveyed Washington’s understanding that Palestinians made refugees in 1948 would not be settled in Israel. With this letter, Bush reversed decades of formal US policy on settlements, borders and refugees while a beaming Sharon looked on. Indeed, the letter took down the entire legal edifice undergirding the peace process launched by Bush’s father in Madrid in 1991 and the policy upheld during the Clinton years that any changes thereto must be mutually agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinians.
CANDOR AND CIRCUMSPECTION
The significance of these developments, even if they do reflect what had effectively become US policy in practice, is difficult to overstate. Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s most senior political adviser, hit the nail on the head in a particularly candid interview that appeared on October 6 in the Israeli daily Haaretz. Weisglass told the interviewer: "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with…a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress. The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."
Coming at the height of the US presidential campaign — an unlikely coincidence — Weisglass’s statements elicited only a tepid reaction from Washington. A State Department spokesman spun the comments with the claim that Sharon did not really mean what his closest adviser had just publicly enunciated on his behalf. "It’s for the Israeli government to explain Mr. Weisglass’s comments and for them to explain what the position of the government of Israel is," said Richard Boucher on October 7. "The Prime Minister of Israel has issued a statement where…he states…that the road map is the only way forward to achieve peace." Washington has shown similar circumspection about the present Israeli incursion in Gaza, with Secretary of State Colin Powell following a US veto of a strongly worded UN resolution by asking that Israel end its offensive "as soon as possible."
In addition to the White House’s endorsement, Sharon’s plan has the advantage of not relinquishing physical control of the Gaza Strip. While Jewish settlements and Israeli military bases within the territory would be removed, there would be continued Israeli control of boundaries and borders (including access to and from Egypt and the West Bank), air space and coastal waters. Those elements of the plan, along with Israel’s self-proclaimed right to "fight terror" inside Gaza even after withdrawal, ensure that the strip will remain the world’s largest open-air prison.
STARK CHOICES FOR PALESTINIANS
Sharon’s determination to act unilaterally means that, as a matter of design, there is to be no Palestinian counterpart with whom to implement the initiative. This reality has produced both a new series of dynamics within the Palestinian political system in the Gaza Strip, and added extra dimensions to existing Israeli-Palestinian ones.
On the Palestinian side of the equation, three main trends have emerged. The first, represented by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, sees disengagement primarily as a threat, and is above all determined to avoid the political consequences of Sharon’s initiative as spelled out by Weisglass. Sharon’s success necessarily entails their failure to achieve their strategic objective of a viable Palestinian state within the Occupied Territories established on the basis of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and to maintain their stewardship of the Palestinian national movement. The second trend, associated with former Gaza security chief and current strongman Muhammad Dahlan, views disengagement as an opportunity to revive the political process interrupted by the renewal of violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict in September 2000. Rather than seek to scuttle Sharon’s initiative, they believe that through cooperation or, failing that, reciprocal Palestinian measures, disengagement will establish the basis for renewed international engagement leading to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Their ability to ensure stability in the Gaza Strip in the wake of an eventual Israeli withdrawal will both place them at the helm of the political system and mark them out as reliable partners with whom Israel and the international community can do business. The third trend, most visibly represented by Hamas but encompassing a broader array of Islamist and nationalist militants, sees disengagement as vindication. As in southern Lebanon, a strategy of armed struggle is compelling Israel to withdraw from occupied territory without an agreement or a political quid pro quo. It therefore follows that those who sowed the seeds of resistance will reap the harvest of political profit.
Both Dahlan and Hamas have their power base in the Gaza Strip, and Dahlan’s agenda is all but predicated on his ability to neutralize the Islamists. So it is perhaps surprising that the internal Palestinian conflicts that emerged in July 2004 were between forces loyal to Dahlan and Arafat. Simply put, Dahlan’s first priority has been to establish control over the Palestinian security forces and the Fatah movement. For this reason, the ongoing spate of kidnappings, attempted assassinations and arson attacks has been widely attributed to armed elements enjoying his support. If the methods have been thuggish, they are also clever, in that they target officials who are both universally reviled for their malfeasance and closely identified with Arafat. Such activities have also been accompanied by increasingly vociferous calls for democratic reform and public accountability.
Yet Dahlan’s assumption of the reformist mantle is also his greatest weakness. Security chiefs, particularly in the Gaza Strip, have virtually no public credibility in this respect. Given the broader political context, Dahlan has additionally been denounced as a putschist — and his campaign portrayed as an instrument of foreign forces — by Arafat loyalists. No less importantly, Hamas, ambivalent about Dahlan since he led the PA’s brutally successful anti-Islamist crackdown in the mid-1990s, remained decidedly aloof. Its only intervention, a telephone call to Yasser Arafat placed by Hamas politburo head Khalid Meshaal in mid-July to emphasize the need for national unity and reform, sent a clear message that the Islamists would not be facilitating Dahlan’s ambitions.
Rather, Hamas has been preoccupied with ensuring that Israel is at least seen to be withdrawing from Gaza under fire, and that its efforts are translated into a requisite share of the political pie in any post-withdrawal scenario. Formerly content with the luxury of rejectionist opposition, today Hamas seeks the opportunities of power but not — yet — the burden of leadership. Indeed, no faction has been as systematic in registering its followers for the first tranche of municipal elections scheduled for December 2004.
Hamas’s tactics — increasingly bold attacks on Israeli encampments within the Gaza Strip, close cooperation with other armed groups and, particularly, launching improvised missiles over the fence meant to isolate the Gaza Strip — could well portend the future of the West Bank if Sharon does indeed withdraw and complete the separation barrier in the West Bank. It is precisely for this reason that Sharon is determined to crush the Islamists in the course of Operation Days of Penitence. By neutering them in their Gazan strongholds, he hopes to reassure the Israeli public that they need not fear disengagement and that it will have no strategic ramifications within the West Bank. Simultaneously, Israel is sending a shot across the bow of Palestinians who might contemplate similar tactics from West Bank regions that abut the Israeli heartland.
The political stakes invested by Israel in the disengagement plan, coupled with the personal stakes for Sharon, also explain the extraordinary brutality of the current offensive — schoolchildren shot dead in their classrooms, an officer emptying his magazine into the body of a dying girl and increasingly brazen accusations leveled at international organizations like the UN Relief and Works Agency. It seems unlikely the worst has passed. Palestinian armed groups are bent on demonstrating that Sharon will be leaving Gaza in the same manner that his predecessor Ehud Barak left Lebanon. They have been neither deterred nor defeated by the security zone established by the Israeli military within the northern Gaza Strip. Inexorably, Sharon is being driven to pursue the militants ever deeper into the Gaza Strip in order to demonstrate that Israel’s generals only retreat in the wake of decisive victory. Horrific as the current reality undoubtedly is, it could yet prove to be the opening gambit of a larger conflict.
Indeed, Sharon’s refusal to countenance either a negotiated disengagement or even a reciprocal ceasefire that would necessarily curtail Israel’s freedom of action within the Occupied Territories makes further bloodshed all but inevitable. In the meantime, the choices facing Palestinians are stark. To many, the conflict between those allied with Arafat and Dahlan appears, in the words of a Fatah activist, as little more than "a struggle between Palestinian thieves and collaborators over the privilege of governing the world’s most desolate corner on behalf of Israel’s foremost war criminal." By the same token, people have little faith that Hamas can end the occupation with homemade rockets, but full confidence that Israel will extract an increasingly high price from the civilian population in lieu of its inability to eliminate the rocket crews. Meanwhile, the periodic attempts to forge a Palestinian strategic consensus, now sponsored by Cairo, remain blocked on account of competing strategies and interests. Yet these on-again, off-again talks could offer the only escape hatch from an increasingly desperate reality.