Last week, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon declared that if the Palestinians did not soon take significant steps to curb “violence”, he would begin a unilateral “separation plan” to disengage entirely from any negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
This ultimatum represents the summation of the Israeli government’s skillful media strategy throughout 2003. Sharon is now testing the water, daring to say out loud what he has been working towards throughout his time in office: the consolidation of Israel’s illegal seizure of 58% of land across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and with it, the total subjugation of the Palestinian people.
Sharon’s success in edging closer to this goal in 2003 is profoundly worrying. On the ground, Israeli troops have been steadily putting his plan into action, imposing a military occupation whose every act is calculated to degrade, humiliate and imprison the Palestinian population. The closure has been executed with the use of brutal and indiscriminate violence against innocent civilians and has cost thousands of lives. Today alone, 10 Palestinians were killed during Israeli attacks in Gaza, and the last week has seen daily invasions of the Belata refugee camp in Nablus, supported with tanks.
Yet the Palestinians find themselves in a situation unique in modern politics: as an occupied people held responsible for the security of their occupiers. The Palestinians’ legal right to oppose Israeli hegemony has been turned against them by Sharon’s presentation of the conflict as one between equally-matched military forces, and by the almost unconditional support he receives from many powers, in particular the United States.
The muted response from the international community to Sharon’s announcement will only have emboldened the prime minister. Throughout 2003, Sharon’s strategy has been to play for time, knowing that with a presidential election beckoning, the most pro-Israeli US president ever will do nothing that might jeopardize the support of his Jewish and right-wing Christian constituencies. In October, Sharon had the audacity launch air-strikes on Syria for the first time in 30 years, in a bid to cast Israel as an operational ally to the US’s mission in reshaping the region.
With the eyes of the world focused on Iraq, Sharon found the opportunity to discard the half-hearted initiative of the road map, yet has continued to present Israel as a victim in the world’s media, while gaining time for his draconian strategy on the ground. The result has been a reoccupation of the entire West Bank and 60% of the Gaza Strip, and a ferocious policy of settlement expansion. Since Oslo, the size and population of Israel’s settlements has increased by 200%, again with only feeble protestations from abroad. In 2002-2003 alone, 56 new settlements have been erected, and of the mere eight Sharon claimed to have disabled, five have been covertly rebuilt. As well as Israeli soldiers, the settlers themselves subject the Palestinians to frequent attacks, seeking to drive them out of their homes and seize their land and property. Every effort is made to destroy the Palestinians’ livelihood and civil liberties. Curfews remain in place in many areas, imposed with the continual threat of violence. The number of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank has reached 757 according to OCHA.
To reinforce the settlements and complete the seizure of land, Sharon’s construction of the separation wall in the West Bank continues. If completed, the wall will stretch for at least 1000 kilometers, achieving Sharon’s ultimate aim of a strategic destruction of the possibility of a Palestinian state. The West Bank will be reduced to clusters of ghettoes and prisons, with access, security and resources remaining under Israeli control, and the Palestinian population locked away, out of sight from the world’s eyes.
Again, any international response to the wall’s construction has been paralyzed by Sharon’s media strategy. World leaders have expressed fears that the wall and the new borders it defines will soon become a fait accompli, impossible to remove, but no action has yet been suggested except for the customary platitudes urging a new round of peace talks that Sharon can safely ignore. The international effort has also been distracted by the Geneva accord, a plan which, though dismissed by both the Israelis and Palestinians, is consuming time and attention during which Sharon is pressing ahead with his own agenda.
For all his success however, Sharon has reached a strategic impasse, even as he pushes ahead with his plan. Throughout, he has applied the same bulldozer approach that he used in his previous wars as a soldier, but his background has blinded him to other political realities that military might alone will not resolve. In particular, he has turned a blind eye to the growing demographic problem in the occupied territories. The Palestinian population now stands at 4.8 million, matching that of Israel, and has a birth rate that far outstrips that of its occupier. These people cannot simply be wiped off the map, much as Sharon might desire it.
Moreover, Sharon has utterly failed to provide the security he promised to the Israeli people. In pursuing policies in the occupied territories that are calculated to kill and oppress, and abandoning any semblance of a strategy geared towards a peaceful solution, it should be abundantly clear to Israelis that their prime minister cannot guarantee their safety. In reducing the Palestinian population to the state of overwhelming desperation that can only ensure continued conflict, Sharon is consciously jeopardizing the lives of his own citizens, as well as those of the Palestinians. Sharon has also failed to break the strength of Palestinian resolve, and in attempting to rob them of a country and livelihood, he is breeding generation upon generation of Palestinians whose sole purpose will become opposition to the Israeli occupation.
History has proved that a mere wall cannot contain such opposition. Sharon’s history as a war criminal is well-documented, but the crimes currently being propagated by his government and his occupying troops are equally crimes against his own people. Israelis and Palestinians alike will never attain the peace they crave while this man remains in power and there can be no more important task for the world in the months ahead than stopping this man.
* Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary General Palestinian National Initiative