Repeat Performance

Paris. Voices in Israel, now backed with the forceful intervention of President George Bush, are demanding that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon crown his reconquista of the West Bank by naming a new Palestinian leader. If he does so, it will be his second exercise in Arab king-making. The first was twenty years ago in Lebanon. Eighteen years and thousands of dead later, Israel was as happy to leave as the Lebanese were to see them go.

The parallels between the invasions of Lebanon and of the Palestinian Authority zones are too many to ignore. Sharon holds Arafat responsible for Palestinian violence in exactly the way Israeli leaders used to blame. The Lebanese government, like Arafat, was too weak to stop a war whose roots go far deeper than whoever happens to be in nominal charge.

Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Palestinian commando movement came into being. And Israel hit Lebanon after every Palestinian raid organised in Beirut. The Israeli army waged a steady war on Lebanon’s cities, villages and infrastructure. In 1968, Israel destroyed thirteen civilian aeroplanes of Lebanon’s national airline at Beirut airport, just as this year it destroyed the Palestinian airport in Gaza. Israel’s raids strengthened the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Lebanon then. And Sharon’s siege and destruction of Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters has restored some of Arafat’s popularity now. In Lebanon, the Israel-PLO battles sparked a war that destroyed the Lebanese state. Israeli actions in the West Bank have crippled the PA.

When Israel failed both to control the PLO in Lebanon and to destroy its popularity in the occupied territories, it invaded Lebanon – twice, in 1978 and in 1982. In 1982, the defence minister, Ariel Sharon, went further and played Lebanese kingmaker. After expelling 14,000 PLO fighters from Beirut in August, he forced the Lebanese parliament to choose as president the Christian militia commander Bashir Gemayel. Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote in Righteous Victims (John Murray, 1999), “Israel had forcefully lobbied for Gemayel’s election and, indeed, its troops escorted a number of deputies to the session.” The Israeli army flew President-elect Gemayel to northern Israel for a secret meeting with Prime Minister Menachem Begin at which Begin demanded that Gemayel publicly visit Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and sign a treaty of peace with Israel. Gemayel resisted, saying that a treaty and visit would further weaken his credibility with the Muslim half of his population.

In the meantime, Sharon and Gemayel plotted an assault on the Palestinian refugee camps in west Beirut that bears an uncanny similarity to Israel’s operations in the West Bank since March. The IDF would roll over the Green Line from Christian east Beirut to seize key buildings and roads. Gemayel’s militiamen would be transported to the refugee camps to root out “terrorists” – in violation of Israeli undertakings to the United States to leave west Beirut unmolested. Morris wrote that the plan called for Gemayel’s Phalange to “do the dirty work in the refugee camps, carrying out arrests, interrogations, and demolition of buildings.” Menachem Begin had already spoken of the “transfer” of Palestinians from south Lebanon, as some of Sharon’s cabinet members urge the “transfer” of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan.

When a Syrian agent assassinated Gemayel, Sharon put the plan into action. He told Gemayel lieutenant Elie Hobeika, as Israel’s Kahan Commission of Inquiry discovered, “I don’t want a single one of them left.” Sharon said he meant “terrorists,” but there were no armed fighters in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Hobeika, whose men slaughtered civilians for thirty hours under the light of Israeli flares, took him to mean Palestinians. The distinction was lost, as it was sometimes this year in Israeli attacks in the West Bank. Hobeika was due to testify in January this year against Sharon in a Belgian court examining the Sabra and Shatila massacres, but he was assassinated. Israel’s Justice Ministry, meanwhile, announced that Israel would not ratify the International Criminal Court treaty because the tribunal “could consider the settling of Israelis in the territories as a war crime.”

For Sharon to assassinate or remove Arafat and appoint a tame Palestinian in his place would repeat the mistakes of Lebanon. Israel occupied Lebanon and helped to destroy the Lebanese state. Twenty years later, Sharon is reoccupying West Bank cities and dismantling the Palestine Authority infrastructure. Sharon named Lebanon’s president, as some in his cabinet want to appoint a new Palestinian leader. He further demands that the next PA president do Israel’s bidding, as he and Begin ordered Gemayel to do theirs. The first policy was a catastrophe for Israel and for Lebanon. It led to the creation of Hizballah, Muslim fundamentalists who became the first guerrillas to drive Israel out of territory it had occupied. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, it had lost more soldiers and killed more civilians than in any war since 1948. If Sharon disposes of Arafat and finds a Quisling, what reason is there to suppose he will succeed with a policy that failed before?

The other question is what, in Sharon’s reckoning, would constitute the success of this week’s Operation Determined Path? If it is to assume military control and leave a Palestinian administration to collect the rubbish, he may succeed. If it is to increase the area under settler control of West Bank land from an already high forty-two per cent and integrate it into Israel, he may succeed in that as well. But Palestinians will go on dying to oppose him, because it negates their survival as a people. If the Determined Path is to achieve a peace for Israelis and Palestinians to live beside each other in dignity, failure is etched into its very bones.

Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban said in London in 1970, “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” Do they have to exhaust them twice?


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