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Ariel Sharon promised the Israelis that he had a secret means of suppressing the Palestinian Intifada, the uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that began last October. Believing that it was better to crush the Palestinians than to study and respond to the reasons for their despair, Israelis overwhelmingly voted him in to flourish his secret weapon. But this turned out to be no more than his favourite military tactic -‘always escalate’.
Since elected in February, Sharon has responded to ineffective attacks from Hamas in Gaza by destroying Palestinian homes and olive groves on a massive scale, digging vast, medieval-style trenches to ghettoise Palestinian villages, by ensuring that the Palestinian Bantustans throughout the West Bank are even more isolated and unworkable than they already were and by locking Palestinian families into their homes through virtual 24-hour curfews. He has in his cabinet men like Rehavan Ze’evi, his Minister of Tourism, who supports the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank.
But what has all this achieved? Believing that the 1993 Oslo Accords would give them a viable, independent Palestinian state in exchange for full recognition of the Israeli state, Palestinians shunned the suicide- bombers. But the Israelis merely accelerated their settlement-building and no state materialised. In Gaza today, Palestinians pin pictures of the bombers back up on the walls of the hovels of their refugee camps, against a background of anger, misery and despair that had not existed like this for 20 years. There are now increasing mortar shell attacks on Jewish settlements and increasing terrorist attacks in the very heart of Israel. Israelis who felt safe inside Israel and considered that the problems between irritating settlers and far-away Palestinians almost a foreign issue will increasingly find the war coming to their doorsteps. If escalation fails to bring the Palestinians to heel and increases Israel’s insecurity, Sharon will be in a dangerous quandary. If he backtracks the militant Palestinians will cry victory as they did when Israel withdraw from Lebanon. If he escalates further Israel will became as much a pariah in the region as the Crusaders became after their massacre of Jerusalem’s Muslims and Jews in 1099 precluded all hope of reliable alliances. Besides this the Bush administration, desperate to ensure Arab support for a hard-line policy against Iraq and favouring an energetic oil policy, will not allow Israel to go beyond a certain red line. US Secretary of State Colin Powell made this clear in April when he forced Israeli forces to withdraw from areas of Gaza.
Sharon may be repeating the mistakes he made in Lebanon from which Israel made its escape in 2000. His mandate in 1982 had been to punish the PLO attacks on Jewish settlements but he pushed on to Beirut against orders and the Israeli army was bogged down in fearful circumstances for 18 years. His reputation was tarnished even in Israel when an Israeli enquiry found him indirectly responsible for the massacre by Maronite Christians of thousands of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Beirut. When the Israelis withdrew journalists could tour the disgusting al-Khiam prison in south Lebanon paid for by Israel and run by its Christian allies.
But despite Sharon’s behaviour many Arabs believed that he would be able to deliver a ‘peace of the brave’. They distrusted Barak who spoke honeyed words but built many more settlements than his noisy predecessor, Netanyahu. And it was Barak who presented the Camp David Accords last July as an Israeli concession that would restore to the Palestinians 90 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza, and sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem. It was, Barak assured the world, the best they had ever been offered. But as any map of the agreement makes entirely clear what they were actually offered was an extraordinary honeycomb arrangement in which expanding Jewish settlements and settler roads, usually built on the sites of seized Arab land, bifurcated the West Bank hundreds of times over. Had Arafat accepted the Camp David formula, Palestinians would continue to be trapped into a tiny area, only able to reach Jerusalem let alone the airport after winning complex military security passes. All external borders would continue to be controlled by Israel. Palestinian sovereignty would only cover the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. Of Jerusalem Historically, Jerusalem was the commercial, social and cultural centre of Palestinian life but hardly any Palestinians from outside Jerusalem are now allowed by Israel to reach it.
When Israel and the PLO negotiated in 1991-93, the former had highly qualified lawyers and detailed maps while the inexperienced Palestinians, agreed to defer crucial issues and took a great deal on trust. They hoped that the accords would bring them a proper state. I remember Palestinians bending over backwards to work with Israeli partners. Syrian businessmen told me how eager they were to start doing business in Tel Aviv. Today such hopes of an energetic Levantine business world are but dreams. It is difficult to imagine such enthusiasm ever being generated again even if Israel were to switch from escalation to moderation.
Today Palestine is so impregnated with Jewish settlements that a two- state solution, based on the apartheid system is probably no longer possible. The ‘Iron Wall’ advocated by the hard-line Zionist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, in the 1930’s is a chimera. But can Israel survive forever through military muscle alone as a uniquely Jewish state, a state of 5 million people implanted into a world of 1000 million Muslims ? It seems very doubtful and a first in history even if US support never wavers. The Palestinian academic, Edward Said, believes in a one-state solution. This might hark back to Ottoman days when Muslims, Christian and Jews enjoyed rights within a Ottoman millet system while paying fealty to central government in Istanbul.
Said is deeply impressed by Israeli groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights who place themselves between Israeli bulldozers and Palestinian homes and olive groves. As Said stresses, for Palestinians to even contemplate expelling Jews who reside in Israel would be both immoral and impractical, at odds with the multi-ethnic state that Palestine always was. A new Israel-Palestine state would be secular and democratic and non sectarian as called for by Arafat’s Al Fatah movement since the 1960s. Religion would play no role in citizenship. Said believes that all citizens in any state should enjoy equal rights, the principle that applies in the democratic West today. Any alternative now looks frightening indeed for both Israelis and Palestinians.