For a brief moment, at the end of June, it appeared that the Bush administration intended to exert a measure of control over Ariel Sharon’s manipulation of events in the Middle East. So it seemed on June 27th, in the course of an “unprecedented” clash at a White House photo op between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The “two leaders repeatedly contradicted each other and appeared to be growing edgier with each passing minute.” (Forward, June 29, 2001). Sharon insisted that the cease-fire negotiated by special envoy, former CIA director, George Tenet, and agreed to on June 13th, was “nonexistent.” President Bush, on the other hand, argued that “substantial progress” had been made. Afterwards, administration officials felt confident enough to complain that Sharon’s sparring over the issue was “ill mannered” and inappropriate in front of live TV cameras. For their part, Israeli officials privately blamed Bush’s “inexperience” for the public dust-up.
Initially it looked as if the Americans would stick to their guns and attempt to pressure Sharon to adopt the American view in order to move toward the Mitchell timeline, and Secretary of State Colin Powell was sent to the region to consolidate the American position. However, by the time Powell returned from his brief trip on July 1, it became clear that Sharon had forced the Americans to submit to the Israeli interpretation. Sharon refused to be pressured into conceding that a cease-fire had begun, crushing Palestinian hopes of even token movement toward a settlement freeze and the possibility that tensions could be lowered and the Israeli siege lifted. In addition, after pressure from the Israeli side, Powell was also forced to publicly backtrack from his endorsement of the Palestinian call for international monitors. Nor did Powell have a Plan B. “You can’t come up with a new idea every two weeks on how to stop the violence, ” he was quoted as saying on his way back to Washington. (New York Times, July 1, 2001, “Powell Finds Setting Timetable for Mideast Peace Confounding”) Nothing has changed since then to ameliorate the current state of affairs. Indeed the situation has deteriorated into a disastrous spiral as Sharon’s triumph has forced the United States and the international community (not to mention the Palestinians themselves) to accept an extraordinary level of violence as an acceptable status quo.
Sharon’s total victory has isolated the Palestinians and left them virtually alone to face their greatest danger since the 1967 War when two to four hundred thousand West Bank and Gaza residents were forced to become refugees. Arafat was so alarmed by the weakness of the Palestinian position that he felt compelled to grant an unusual interview with the New York Times (7.8.01) where he begged for help in an effort to find a way to restrain the Israelis.
A key reason for the Palestinians’ desperate plight is the Israeli success at convincing the Western public that the Arabs are responsible for the current crisis. It’s as if the fundamental issue of Israel’s 34 year illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was not ongoing and had no bearing on the situation. If the Sharon government were interested in a lowering of tensions, and were willing to implement confidence-building measures, they could put a stop to the violence in short order. The stone throwing and the attacks on Israeli soldiers would cease if Israeli troops were moved back from their aggressive positions near Palestinian population centers. As it is now, Israeli troops are deployed “in several localities éapparently for no other purpose than to further torment the Palestinians and make their daily life as unbearable and harsh as possible.” The Israeli blockade of their towns and villages places intolerable and unimaginable burdens on their everyday life. Sometimes even those with life threatening illnesses are not allowed past Israeli roadblocks. Since the current intifada began ten months ago, about twenty Palestinians died of their illnesses at Israeli checkpoints. (Khalid Amayreh,“Let us not fool ourselves,” Media Monitors Network, June 26, 2001, http://184.108.40.206/khalid12.html).
Moreover, the Israeli Defense forces, entrusted with keeping order in the territories generally ignore the violence of the settlers. On June 14, two Palestinian motorists were murdered less “than 24 hours after Prime Minister Sharon told his supporters “we should surprise them [the Arabs] on the roads and make them feel unsafe.” In another example, in the aftermath of the July 19th killing by Israeli settlers of three Palestinians out of a party of eight returning home by car from a pre-wedding gathering, extremist Israeli Tourist Minister, Rehavam Zvi, charged that the “Palestinians murdered their own people in order to expedite the deployment of international observers in the Occupied Territories. (Khalid Amayreh, “Things we will never talk about,” July 27, 2001, http://220.127.116.11/khalid18.html).
The threat to the Palestinians
As the Israelis continue to apply ever growing political, military and economic pressure, Palestinians must ask if the Israelis really want peace or are they deliberately engaged in raising tensions in order to pursue their Zionist goal of removing the Palestinians from their land. If the definition of Zionism is the establishment of a Jewish state on all of historic Palestine, then the remaining obstacle must be the 3.3 million Palestinian who currently live in the occupied territories.
Press reports in Israel quoting government officials, politicians and settler spokespeople speak openly of mass expulsion (“transfer” as they prefer to call it) as the only viable solution to the present crisis. According to one left wing Israeli analysis: “One big war with transfer at its end é this is the plan of the hawks who indeed almost reached the moment of its implementation. (“Louder Voices of War: Manufacturing Consent at its Peak,” Tikvah Honig-Parnass, Between the Lines, July 2001, Vol 1, #8) But how would the Israelis engineer such an outcome in the context of today’s realities? One way to analyze the situation is to distinguish between Israel’s short and long term policy requirements. For example, to answer their short-term needs of dealing with the intifada, they have already implemented their most severe siege of Palestinian towns and villages. They have stepped up house demolitions, incursions into Palestinian territory and assassinations of “militants” not to mention attacks with F-16s and Apache helicopters on a civilian population.
How might the Israelis implement their ultimate goal of mass expulsion? We can get a clue to the Israeli approach from reports about Sharon’s purported plans to “reoccupy some of the West Bank’s towns and once and for all put an end to the Palestinian Authority” (“Big Pines II é Rumors are rife of an Invasion Plan,” Akiva Eldar, Ha’aretz. July 10, 2001). According to Jane’s Information Group in London these plans call for Israeli “air strikes by F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers, a heavy artillery bombardment, and then an attack by a combined force of 30,000 menétank brigades and infantryé” (CBS News, July 7, 2001) What would be the purpose of such an invasion plan? Might the Israeli intention be simply to remove Arafat from the scene and replace him with someone more “flexible?” If that were the only objective, than Israel would pay an enormous price for relatively little gain. As one Israeli journalist put it: such a war would be “bizarre because its planners have been unable to come up with a single reasonable goal é except the satisfaction of the Israeli public’s desire for revenge” (“The last barrier along the road to war,” Reuven Pedatzur, Ha’aretz. July 26, 2001)
So how can we make sense of these leaked war plans? The rationale becomes clearer if such plans mask the more comprehensive goal of the expulsion of the bulk of the Palestinian population from the West Bank and Gaza. In one scenario, such an expulsion would proceed behind the cover of a regional war involving Syria and Lebanon and perhaps other regional powers. (One advantage of an operation against Lebanon is that it would allow the recapture of some of the water sources the Israelis lost when they left Lebanon in May 2000.)
Easier said than done?
Even though the Israelis may already have a military plan in place to expel the Palestinians, yet the practical and political hurdles may be difficult if not impossible to overcome. Indeed, many Zionists and their sympathizers have long maintained that another mass expulsion is not a practical possibility. They have pointed out that there are huge numbers of Palestinians to be removed, (not to mention many thousands who would undoubtedly be killed), and that it’s difficult to imagine to where they could be banished. The surrounding countries, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon already hold significant numbers of Palestinian refugees, and it may not be so easy to find places for them there. Moreover, in the 1948 expulsions, known in Arabic as “al- nakbah” or the catastrophe, the majority of the 750,000 or more refugees fled and were escorted by the Israeli military to the West Bank and Gaza. This time, it would be largely from the West Bank and Gaza that Israel would remove them.
Another difficulty is that there is already a precedent of an Arab country taking a stand against such mass expulsions. On December 17, 1992, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin attempted to expel 415 Hamas “activists” from Gaza to southern Lebanon. The incident turned into a fiasco and a public relations nightmare when the government of Lebanon refused to accept the Palestinians and they were forced to camp in the barren hills at the Israeli border for more than a year.
But these objections merely indicate that it is only in the current political climate that such expulsion plans cannot be put into operation. As hot as the political climate is at the moment, clearly the time is not yet ripe for drastic action. However, if the temperature were raised even higher, actions inconceivable at present might be possible. As we have seen, Sharon has already gone a long way toward creating the political climate he requires by routing Bush and providing for a higher level of violence. As far as raising tensions, the Sharon government may already be guilty of having employed even more heinous means of achieving its objectives. Russian born Israeli journalist Israel Shamir advanced such a theory when he pointed to the disclosure in the Sunday London Times (June 24, 2001) that the Israeli security services were involved in the June 1st Disco bombing (quoted the same day in Ha’aretz.) Shamir argued for a skeptical look at the affair from the point of view of “qui bono,” that is to say, whom such a bombing would benefit. The Disco bombing that killed at least 18 Russian immigrant youth changed dramatically the political atmosphere and resulted in unprecedented unity on the part of the Israeli public. Arafat supported the conspiracy theory In his New York Times interview, when he claimed that immediately after the attack, he presented the Israelis with a report that the suspected bomber “was a longtime informant for Israeli intelligence, a Palestinian who had been granted Israeli citizenship and resettled in Israel like many collaborators.”
If the Israeli security services were indeed involved in the Disco bombing, that would help explain Sharon’s “restraint” in refraining from large scale Israeli retaliation in the aftermath. If the Israeli government is not beyond engaging in such activities (in his article, Shamir cites several precedents), then it’s easier to imagine how the atmosphere necessary to initiate expulsion plans can be created. The Israeli security services need not necessarily be involved in the next big attack. All they would have to do is allow such an attack to succeed when they prepared the way. The latest Israeli outrage, the missile attack on Hamas offices in Nablus of July 31, 2001, killing eight, is so blatant that it might actually backfire but even so, it is likely to make the intended contribution to Sharon’s larger goals.
The way is prepared and the method has been outlined
Once the decision for war and expulsion is made, how would it be implemented? According to an article in mid-May by journalist and former member of the Knesset, Uri Avnery, the mechanics of such an expulsion are very easy to implement. He explains that it is not necessary that there be an official decision by the Israeli government. “It is enough to tell the army that every officer has a `free hand’ — as they have already been told. Nothing more is needed. When the opportunity arises it may happen.” Press reports had already appeared in Israel indicating “a fierce competition between army officers, especially the brigades and battalion commanders, about who can escalate more.” This competition is “orchestrated by Shaul Mofaz, the chief-of-staff, who in turn is pushed by Ariel Sharon and his hatchet-man Fuad Ben-Eliezer.”
“Escalation is built into the process.” Palestinian mortars would lead to attacks by Israeli fighter planes which in turn would lead to Islamic suicide bombers and so on. Avnery theorized that there may be a “sinister reason for the escalation. When [certain politicians] say that the escalation may lead to a second nakba, one can turn the sentence around: in order to make a second nakba possible, there must be an escalation. This can be a conscious, semi-conscious or even unconscious intention.” (Uri Avnery, “A Second Nakbah,” May 19, 2001, http://www.mediamonitors.net/uri22.html) As Tikvah Honig Parnass noted in her article, “the transfer or mass expulsion of Palestinians is a central aim of the planned massive military operation, which may develop to a full-fledged war.” She also explained that when the necessary political atmosphere is achieved, “the weak objections of Egypt and Saudi Arabia will have faded away.”
It’s far from certain that the impatient Sharon will actually achieve the required superheated climate necessary to accomplish the goal of expulsion. But even if he doesn’t, he is likely to continue to search for ways to maintain maximum pressure on the Palestinians. If he fails to achieve mass expulsion, the task will simply remain for the next Israeli government because the pressure for such an eventuality comes not merely from the present government, but from the larger Zionist ethos shared by the vast majority of the Israeli public.
Why are “the people of the Book” willing to contemplate such horrors? An answer comes from the Malthusian theory that population tends to grow faster than available resources. The resulting political pressure often explodes into violent conflict that serves to restore a balance between demand and supply. The five regional wars since 1948 and the two intifadas since 1987 may be seen as the particular ways the struggle for control of the scarce land and water resources in the area have thus far played out. From a Malthusian point of view it should not be surprising that population pressures on available resources should have brought us to the current state of affairs. At the end of WWI, the former Palestine was home to fewer than 700,000 souls (90% Arab) and now there are 6 million Israelis and 3.3 million Palestinians who occupy the same area.
An example of how the struggle over limited resources play out can be seen in the dramatic difference between Israeli and Palestinian access to water. The Middle East is currently undergoing the fourth year of a terrible drought, the worst drought in a hundred years (exacerbated perhaps by global warming). Israelis currently maintain a 10 to 1 advantage in water use. In an atmosphere of lower tensions, Palestinian demands for greater water parity would very likely gain greater visibility. As it is, in the current political climate the striking injustice of Israeli settler swimming pools in the West Bank brimming with plenty of water while Palestinians in nearby areas must carry scarce water by hand from distant wells, goes virtually unaddressed.
Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming political pressures, an Israeli inspired war and the mass expulsion of the Palestinians is not inevitable. Since such a catastrophe is very much against the American interest, they must continue to seek ways to defuse the situation. With judicious intervention, it’s possible for Israelis and Palestinians to find a way to live together even if not comfortably. The hope of the Palestinians must be that events will play out in such way that the international community will act to prevent the calamity that Sharon and his people are striving to create.
Mr. Ronald Bleier is Editor of DESIP.