Sharon’s Phony Disengagment

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It’s remarkable that Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan is not more widely recognized for the hoax that it is, as only a few lonely voices have done. Left journalist Haim Baram has termed it a “fairy tale,” and Gush Shalom activist Uri Avnery has called it a “fraud,” “an exercise in deceit,” while author and academic Tanya Reinhardt has provided documentation demonstrating the lack of any practical steps Israel is taking that would indicate a serious intent to remove the settlers (see below). Nevertheless, despite the absence of such evidence the media and the international community largely continue to take Sharon’s disengagement plan seriously, aiding his agenda. Meanwhile Israel continues to pour resources into the settlements, even as it consistently moves the pullout date further and further into the future. At the same time the Israeli government maintains its hard line policy against the Palestinians, driving military incursions into Gaza and the West Bank at will, without let or hindrance from the U.S. or the international community. Sharon refuses to negotiate with the Palestinians, continues work on the separation Wall, gobbling up Palestinian land and water resources and as his government relentlessly strengthens its crushing encirclement of hundreds of thousands of thousands of West Bank Palestinians.

Sharon advanced the Gaza disengagement plan at the height of the corruption scandal that seemed to enmesh him and his sons. Sharon’s plan cleverly shifted the agenda and provided the political cover enabling President George W. Bush by means of an exchange of letters in mid-April to reverse long standing U.S. policy and U.N. resolutions relating to the Palestinians. In particular, President Bush brushed aside the critical principle, often reiterated at the U.N., of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory conquered by force. In his dramatic joint press conference in Washington with Ariel Sharon on April 14th, President Bush, recognizing “new realities on the ground,” declared that Israel can permanently keep major settlements in the West Bank, For good measure he also rejected the Palestinian right of return to Israeli territory. In addition, while freezing the Palestinian leadership out of these negotiations, Bush effectively gave carte blanche to the continued Israeli construction of the Wall on Palestinian territory, albeit with the meaningless reservation that it was to be regarded as a temporary structure.

While the Bush concessions to Sharon were not in themselves binding, nevertheless the Israeli prime minister well understood their value as an historic precedent that it may be difficult even for a succeeding Kerry administration to ignore or overturn. It’s no wonder that on the return flight from Washington, Sharon and his colleagues celebrated with champagne. In a Knesset speech two weeks later, Sharon bragged that the U.S. concessions represented “the harshest blow to fall on the Palestinians since 1948.” Not surprisingly, when Israel’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, a member of Sharon’s government, announced that Sharon was cleared of all corruption charges, aside from a relatively quiet opposition, there was little hint of effective public protest against a leader who had successfully brought about a crucial change in U.S. policy.

Ironically and tragically, the Gaza disengagement plan also provided political cover for the brutal ravages Sharon ordered this winter and spring in Gaza. These included the assassinations of Hamas leaders Sheik Yassin and Dr. Abd al- Rantisi, an extensive Israeli invasion of Rafah in which at least 60 Palestinians were killed, almost 300 Palestinian homes demolished, and close to 4,000 people made homeless. These outrages should be seen as more than merely an attempt to defeat the Palestinians: the Palestinians were soundly defeated in 1948 and once again in 1967. Sharon’s purpose goes much further. His aim is to continue the consolidation of Israeli control over all of the former Palestine and ultimately to make it impossible for the bulk of the 4.8 million Palestinians who now live there to remain.

Sharon’s apparent plan is to continue to put tremendous pressure on selected areas in the occupied territories, biding his time until events allow him to proceed with large-scale expulsions from the West Bank and Gaza (and later from Israel). Shraga Elam, a Swiss based Israeli investigative journalist, suggests that the Operation Rainbow Rafah operation was conducted along the lines of the old master plan, “Field of Thorns” which foresees a mass deportation of the Palestinians.[1] The photos that appeared in April of Palestinian families carrying away their belongings as best they could from their homes in Rafah in fear of Israeli tanks and bulldozers, could not but bring up memories of the mass expulsions of Palestinians in 1948. The images from Rafah are harsh reminders of how relatively simple from a military point of view it will be for the IDF to carry out expulsion orders once the political shoe has dropped.

Despite these stark realities, commentators continue to put forward the theory that Sharon’s brutalities in Gaza and the West Bank are meant to put the Palestinian community on notice in preparation for the day that the Israelis leave! Much also is made in Western analysis of the supposed Israeli willingness to be rid of Gaza. Yitzhak Rabin’s statement in 1992 that he wished that Gaza would just “sink into the sea,” is perceived as expressing a consensus Israeli attitude. But such a view doesn’t take into account the Zionist goal of a creating a Jewish state in all of the former Palestine. Removing Israeli settlers would be at cross-purposes with everything the Zionist community has worked toward since well before the birth of Israel.

Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan is not new. As Meron Benvenisti, longtime critic of Israeli settlement policy, explained in Ha’aretz, similar plans have come and gone “quite a few times over the past 20 years.”[2] Moreover, if the Western media weren’t generally prejudiced to favor Israel over the Arabs, more would be able to see through Sharon’s parliamentary maneuvers and his recurrent “Cabinet Crises.”

The May 2nd Likud party referendum that voted down his plan was widely seen as a personal defeat for Sharon, even though the vote suited his purpose to delay any substantive changes to the Gaza settlements. It’s telling that Sharon decided not to present his scheme to a national referendum that stood excellent chances of winning.

On the ground, there is no evidence of Israeli plans to leave Gaza. Instead, circumstantial evidence supports the view that the Israeli settlers are planning to stay indefinitely and in good time will increase their numbers. Tanya Reinhart pointed out in March that there was “no sign on the ground of any intention to evacuate from Gaza.” Work on fortifying the strategically important settlement of Netzarim that separates the northern area including Gaza City from the rest of the strip “has only intensified.” At the cost of millions of shekels, the Israeli government continued to build a new electronic security fence around Netzarim. Reinhart emphasized that the Israeli chief of staff approved these plans and the region commander issued orders that included the appropriation of land from the Palestinians.[3]

Two weeks later Reinhart noticed a “pretty relaxed” settler from Netzarim appearing on Israeli TV who reasoned that “If the defense minister is building right now a new security fence for us, then surely he does not intend to evacuate us.” [4] Even the New York Times noticed that the settlers have little cause for concern. A relevant story in early April quoted an unnamed Israeli official to the effect that there were no plans in the offing to dismantle Gaza settlements and that settlement projects “in the pipeline” are going forward. The same article quoted Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the Gush Qatif settlement bloc in Gaza who flatly contradicted an Israeli government announcement that settler development would be halted. “On the ground there are a lot of projects, a lot of families coming here all the time.”[5]
In early May, Sharon’s own national security advisor, Giora Eland appeared to be confident enough of the strength of the Israeli position to state flatly that the disengagement plan “could be dead.” At a Washington Institute symposium, Eland, the chief architect of the disengagement plan, said: “Frankly, I don’t know what would be the political solution that would enable [Sharon] to move forward [with the plan], if such a solution can be found.”[6]

But such brash truth telling, was at cross-purposes with U.S. diplomatic requirements that demanded a more comforting cover story. Thus, on June 6, 2004, Sharon engineered a 14-7 cabinet vote in favor of his proposal. Even so, the approved plan included “contradictory language about the evacuation of Jewish settlements.” Disengagement from Gaza was approved but there was no decision to dismantle the Jewish communities there.[7] In order to enable this sleight of hand in plain sight, Sharon was forced to pay a political prince, effectively narrowing his parliamentary majority down to 62 of the Knesset’s 120 members. Two members of Sharon’s coalition quit, Effic Eitam of the National Religious Party (NRP) and Likud member, Yitzhak Levy, the deputy social affairs minister. A few days earlier, when it appeared that otherwise Sharon would narrowly lose a 12-11 vote, he dismissed two extreme right wingers from his cabinet: Transport Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Tourism Minister Benny Elon.

But compared to his achievements, Sharon’s parliamentary losses are marginal, especially since his attorney general has cleared him of corruption charges. Relieved of this pressure, Sharon was able to regain the initiative in his negotiations with Labor and if he decides to include them in his government, clearly it will be on his terms. In addition, Sharon has deflected any serious criticism from Washington. At least through the U.S. election season, the likelihood that he will experience any pressure to advance the peace process or to negotiate with the Palestinians is close to zero. Moreover Sharon’s program of devastation in the West Bank and Gaza continues, as he shrewdly continues to increase the military pressure on the Palestinians in such a way as to keep the violence below a critical threshold to minimize any international criticism.

The propaganda campaign continues

In early June Israel announced that it would offer compensation to Jewish settlers who are willing to pull out of Gaza. Settlers were given a September 1, 2005 deadline to leave voluntarily. If they don’t leave, according to the announcement, the Israeli army, would then evacuate any remaining settlers by September 15th. Each of the evacuated families would receive an average of $300,000 according to press reports.

Once again, this new compensation initiative seems merely a public relations move to satisfy the U.S., Arab leaders and the international community. The latest plan puts off the date of settler evacuation until September 2005, almost a year after the U.S. presidential elections. (An earlier deadline had been set at March 2005.) Moreover, it was announced that the withdrawal will take place in four stages, with each stage requiring a positive vote in the cabinet. It’s not difficult to imagine that those votes will come out the way Sharon decides they should.

As far as compensation for those settlers who voluntarily choose to leave, if payments are eventually made, it’s not unlikely that the U.S. will find a way to pick up a large proportion of the tab, resulting in a win-win situation for Israel. Even as Israel continues to pour money into the Gaza settlements, some Israelis would receive payments to relocate elsewhere (perhaps temporarily?) while Sharon’s government will find ways to postpone indefinitely the removal of the Gaza settlements.

It’s all in the fine print

The details of the June 6 revision of the disengagement plan confirm that no actual removal of settlers is mandated, or even allowed. Tanya Reinhardt referenced two articles in Ha’aretz detailing the changes that emphasize, “the decision does not allow for the dismantling of settlements.” Special roadblocks to removing settlers are created, especially one that forces the prime minister to return for another positive cabinet vote should he wish to begin the evacuation process. Moreover, when this cabinet discussion takes place, the members are enjoined to take “into account the circumstances at the time.” According to reporter Aluf Ben, “this phrasing was the key to the compromise that was reached.” In addition, “A softening of the timetable was adopted whereby the government merely ‘stated its intention’ to complete the evacuation by 2005, instead of the previous: the process of evacuation was to be completed by the end of 2005.”

Ben also reported that the freeze on construction in the Gaza settlements was significantly watered down. Under the guise of an allowance for the “support for the needs of daily life,” virtually no restriction are placed on the resources that could continue to pour into the settlements. And to emphasize that the revised Sharon plan would not interfere with current and future plans for the expansion of the Gaza settlements, the Knesset also removed any and all bans on construction permits and leasing of lands for the Gaza settlements. [8]

In this election season, the Bush administrations as well as prospective Democratic nominee John Kerry seem more than ever subservient to Israeli wishes. The same can be said for the U.S. Congress, unable to voice even the smallest protest against the assassination of the top Palestinian political leadership in Gaza in March and April. In late June, both houses of Congress, acknowledged the power of the Zionist lobby with lop sided majorities voting for resolutions strongly endorsing President Bush’s giveaway to Sharon. Absent the kind of pressure only two presidents, Eisenhower and Carter, were able to mount to force Israel to return captured Arab territory, it’s hard to see what motive Sharon would have for displacing settlers he has worked so diligently to implant. It’s true that American interests vis à vis the Arab and Muslim community would be served if some positive movement regarding Israeli settlers, not to mention negotiating with the Palestinians, could be offered. But Sharon understands as well as any previous Israeli leader that it is not his job to please the Americans. It’s their job to please him.

Notes:

[1]. See http://www.between-lines.org/archives/2000/dec/Shagra_Elam.htm

[2]. April 8, 2004, quoted in Middle East International, No. 723, April 16, 2004.

[3]. Tanya Reinhart, “Sharon’s ‘Disengagement’ from Gaza, March 30th, 2004, http://www4.alternativenews.org/opinion/display.
php?id=3644

[4]. Yediot Achronot, April 20, 2004, Tanya Reinhart, translated by Netta Van Vliet.

[5]. New York Times, April 3, 2004. James Bennett, “Sharon Says He Has Ordered a Halt to Gaza Development.”

[6]. Forward, May 14, 2004. Ori Nir. “White House Pressures Sharon on Disengagement Plan,”

[7]. Washington Post, June 7, 2004. Robin Shulman, “Compromise Plan on Gaza Approved by Israeli Cabinet.”

[8]. Yediot Achronot, June 8, 2004. Tanya Reinhardt, “The address for protest is Labor’s headquarters.” Ha’aretz, June 7, 2004. Aluf Ben, Gideon Alon, and Nathan Guttman, “Disengagement is on its way.” Ha’aretz, June 7. Aluf Ben, “What’s been approved and what’s been changed.”

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