On 15 October the Israeli army began to wind up its latest incursion into Gaza — 16 days of military assaults against the Hamas militias who use home-made, but often lethal, rockets. The operation has killed around 100 Palestinians including civilians and some children.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he wants Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005. The government will dismantle the homes of 8,000 settlers. In order to do that the Israeli army must improve “security”. That has involved demolishing many hundreds of Palestinian homes near the Gaza borders.
The settlers and their supporters virulently oppose the withdrawal. Most Israelis support it. Others — the Israeli leftists — deeply mistrust it. They believe that the plan is a cover for an extended and indefinite occupation of the West Bank.
Their fears were confirmed on 8 October when Dov Weisglass, a senior adviser to Sharon, said “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state”.
Written just before the latest assault on Gaza, the following article (substantially abridged) analyses these events. It is by Beate Zilversmidt and Adam Keller and is taken from The Other Israel, newsletter of the Israeli left peace bloc Gush Shalom.
In the middle of 2003 there were… signs of Israeli society growing weary of a never-ending conflict. Even the army’s high command showed itself sceptical about the chance of achieving a military solution. Sharon came to be regarded as having no real policy and offering no concrete solutions. The Geneva Initiative and other proposals of “alternative diplomacy” gained wide support in the general public. The growing discontent was reflected in the “refusal letters” signed by Air Force pilots and later by elite commandos.
At the end of 2003, Sharon and his advisers came to the conclusion that the PM’s political survival depended upon his taking up a part of the peace movement’s agenda.
Since he dropped his “Gaza Disengagement” bombshell back in February 2004, it has quickly assumed the status of “the only game in town” on both the internal Israeli and international diplomatic arena.
Sharon’s plan falls far short of the minimum requirements for peace: it offers no negotiations with the Palestinians but a unilateral Israeli action, with repeated proclamations that “there is no partner”; and, indeed, Israel has no Palestinian partner whatsoever, for what Sharon says he wants — to withdraw from Gaza — is intended only to facilitate continued Israeli rule over the West Bank and the eventual annexation of considerable chunks of that territory. And even in the Gaza Strip, withdrawal would be far from complete, with Israel retaining complete control over the outside borders and the option of repeated incursions “in order to fight terrorism”…
Can Sharon go through with it… with the settlers and their… friends having penetrated deeply into Sharon’s own Likud Party and constituting a significant part of the Israeli army’s officer corps?
And should we want Sharon’s plan to succeed, since its failure would be counted… as a major victory for the extreme right? Should we wish for its failure, since its success may leave the Palestinians with little more than a series of truncated enclaves? Or may one cherish hopes that Sharon’s initiating a partial withdrawal would set off a process with its own dynamics, going far beyond what Sharon himself intends?
On 2 May when Sharon lost his Likud Party referendum, some of us felt a bit relieved. At least, so it seemed, the settlers had now cleared the deck of Sharon’s deceptive promise, and more honest options would regain the limelight.
However, shortly afterwards, unofficial press leaks made mention of secret meetings between Peres and Sharon, in which the Labour leader pledged to bring his party into the government, should the PM manage to resurrect the Gaza Disengagement and get the cabinet to adopt it. And Peres conspicuously failed to condemn the Sharon-inspired invasion of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, in which civilians were shot dead and houses demolished by the dozen.
In order to gain a majority in the cabinet, Sharon fired two extreme-right ministers on the eve of the crucial vote. The vote was for a compromise text and was markedly different from what Sharon had presented back in February… The decision on the evacuation itself was put off for March 2005.
This change was to win over the powerful group of ministers headed by Binyamin Netanyahu. Also, having the whole Gaza withdrawal come up for a crucial ministerial vote again next year would greatly enhance Sharon’s negotiation position towards the next US administration — whoever is re-elected.
Having rammed his programme through the cabinet, Sharon was once again the “colossus bestriding the Israeli political scene”…
This view… was further buttressed when Attorney-General Mazuz formally cleared him of a longstanding corruption scandal…
Sharon was much in need of fresh parliamentary support, since the extreme right parties either bolted [from] his government or stayed in with the… purpose of sabotaging the Gaza Disengagement from the inside…
But unexpected hitches came up, one after the other — unpredicted or underestimated by both Sharon and Peres.
The Likud Rebels concentrated their fire on the Labour Party and held an intensive campaign against its joining the government.
Finance Minister Netanyahu — not formally part of the “rebels” — [stepped up] his free-market policies, which Peres had characterised as “swinish capitalism”. Netanyahu provoked an all-out confrontation with Israel’s port workers over his Port Privatisation Scheme — knowing the Labour Party would be bound to declare its public support for the workers.
The settlers and their supporters held an impressive protest, holding hands in a human chain from the Gaza Strip to Jerusalem. The event accentuated the sense of Sharon’s isolation…
Sharon made a supreme effort to mobilise his supporters for the vote on Labour’s inclusion, but was nevertheless roundly defeated.
Now we see the situation of a ruling party constantly at loggerheads with its head — this cannot last forever. A deep personal and political crisis in the party which has governed Israel during most of the last quarter century, and which has been the champion of the occupation and construction of settlements, could have incalculable results for the future of Israel and the entire region.
Immediately upon Sharon’s unveiling of his disengagement plan, the Israeli army High Command announced a new doctrine: in the intervening period until the withdrawal, Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip must… land the heaviest blows possible at “terrorist targets”, so as to deny the Palestinian militias the possibility of claiming that they had driven the army out.
In earlier phases of the intifada, most attention on both sides was given to suicide bombings. It was suicide bombings by which Palestinians succeeded again and again in striking at the heart of Israel.
But Palestinians had achieved this by forgoing moral standards, and paid an enormous price: Israelis became united in fear and hatred, providing Sharon with an automatic popular sanction for any cruelty he chose to perpetrate; the Palestinian cause got internationally besmirched and associated with murderous terrorism, an especially onerous charge in the post-9/11 world…
Since early 2004, there had been a prolonged lull in suicide bombings. This fundamental change was given different explanations by different observers.
Israeli governmental and military speakers tended to attribute it solely to Israeli action: the partially-erected Separation Wall…; the effective spy networks…
It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate the ongoing debate in… Palestinian civil society on the issue of the suicide bombers, the numerous signatures of Palestinian intellectuals on petitions and the clear pronouncements of two successive Palestinian Prime Ministers against the indiscriminate killing of civilians.
But Israeli generals are increasingly preoccupied with two other measures used by Palestinian militias, especially in the Gaza Strip: tunnels and missiles… methods of fighting which can bypass fences and the highest of walls.
Since the Intifada outbreak in 2000, Israeli soldiers had been engaged in a grim and Sisyphic search for and destruction of Palestinian smugglers’ tunnels…
Defining the Rafah tunnels as “the lifeline of terrorism”, General Yom Tov Samiya — who had been in command of the Gaza region during the Intifada outbreak — came up with the idea of extending the “sterile” Philadelphi zone from its present width of 100 metres to 500 metres, or even to a… kilometre. Such a widening would, it is true, make the smugglers’ task far more difficult… It would, however, also require the destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes — in fact, the razing of a large portion of Rafah.
Back in 2001… the army was authorised to carry out piecemeal Rafah demolitions, carrying out an “incursion” every week or two and demolishing 10 to 20 houses each time.
Such “minor” demolitions get little or no media attention, even when they involve the killing of civilians.
By 2004, the army had managed to demolish hundreds of Rafah houses and lay waste considerable swathes of ground, but was still far short of the target set for the “widened Philadelphi” project. The Disengagement Plan created a sense of urgency. Its terms provided for retention of “Philadelphi” in Israeli hands even after evacuation of the rest of the Strip, so as to place a buffer between Gaza and Egypt and “cut the area off from international terrorist influences”. This meant that the “widening” should be completed by 2005…
Things came to a head with a bloody week in early May, when two Israeli armoured personnel carriers were blown up… Eleven soldiers were killed — with two others losing their lives during the search for parts of the bodies of their comrades…
This provided the government and army with a pretext to launch a largescale invasion of Rafah — “Operation Rainbow” — with the proclaimed aim of “cleaning up the terrorist lairs”.
Dozens of houses were destroyed, but, owing to legal action taken by Palestinians, it was only a fraction of what the army originally planned.
The wave of protests increased with news that an Israeli tank at Rafah had used live shells to disperse a crowd of unarmed Palestinians.
Since then, the army has returned to the earlier routine, occasionally resorting to desultory, destructive raids into Rafah, but their grand design seems to have run into trouble.
In general, the Egyptians, direct neighbours of the Gaza Strip to its south, have acquired a key role in the constant international mediation efforts accompanying the Gaza Strip fighting. The aim: achieving a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians as well as a smooth transition of power after the Israeli withdrawal.
A key component of all these schemes is the idea of introducing into the Strip a number of officers and officials from Egypt, who would be charged with training the reorganised Palestinian security forces…
In practice, however, mediation efforts by the Egyptians — as well as the Americans, the Europeans and various international agencies — have so far achieved little more than fleeting local truces. The chief obstacle was Sharon’s utter determination that withdrawal from Gaza be a completely unilateral Israeli action, not subject to negotiation with anybody, and especially not the Palestinians.
By now, the possibility of ever renewing talks with the Palestinians has been made dependent upon an enormous host of ill-defined conditions: “Fighting firmly against terrorism, implementing thorough reforms, eradicating corruption and incitement…” Palestinian compliance would, presumably, have to be verified by Sharon himself…
Simultaneous with the murky and sluggish diplomatic games, the daily killing of Gazans went on — invariably described in military communiqués as “terrorists” or “gunmen”, an assertion often disputed by the Palestinian side which gave lists of names of unarmed civilians killed. Only very rarely was the matter investigated thoroughly — as overworked peace and human rights activists could only… take up exceptional cases, such as those involving the killing of children.
The bloody events were usually reported in terse news items on back pages — if at all. The Israeli public hardly noticed any of it. But the public was quite aware of the increasingly frequent Palestinian retaliation — the shooting of Qassam missiles from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory…
The Qassams have mostly fallen in or around the hapless town of Sderot…
Mostly, the Qassams hit nobody… Still, life in Sderot had become a kind of Russian roulette. On a morning in June, a Qassam fell near a Sderot kindergarten, killing a four-year-old child as well as an adult passerby…
The IDF invaded in force the town of Beit Hanoun, from whose environs the fatal Qassam originated. The people of Beit Hanoun spent a whole month in hell, the army day after day destroying homes, fields, orange groves, hothouses and even beehives. The pretext was always that “it could be used as cover for the launching of missiles”, but it was of course collective punishment.
Through it all, the Qassams went on flying — in fact, many more than usual. The army had expected the suffering population of Beit Hanoun to confront the militias — and some of them did, leading to some violent confrontations between Palestinians, which the Israeli media published with relish…
Inter-Palestinian confrontations broke out at other locations in the Gaza Strip, involving large-scale demonstrations, riots and the setting on fire of official buildings, and even some gun battles between rival factions. The phenomena spread… also to Palestinian towns on the West Bank.
Several threads… could be discerned in the sudden chaos: a dissatisfaction in the Palestinian society’s grassroots with many of the Palestinian Authority’s officials…; a naked power struggle between various leaders and factions…; …a blatant Israeli interference in Palestinian affairs on the basis of the Sharon party line: Yasser Arafat is evil incarnate, and anybody opposing him must be supported to the hilt.
In fact, Sharon — as well as the mainstream politicians and newspaper commentators — had somebody particular in mind: Muhammad Dahlan, security chief in Abu-Mazen’s short-lived Palestinian cabinet…
When Dahlan openly criticised Arafat he found himself too warmly embraced by the Israeli establishment — and his support among Palestinians swiftly melted away. The former security chief was quick to make a u-turn, declare himself to be Yasser Arafat’s most humble and loyal servant, and was eventually received back into the Palestinian leader’s graces…
Eventually a deal was made for the army’s withdrawal from Beit Hanoun, being replaced by Palestinian police who were instructed to prevent the shooting of Qassams. For their part, the militias were amenable to respect the deal.
After two weeks, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired a missile into Gaza… killing five Hamas militants. And on the following day Qassams again rained down on Sderot, and the army was again asked to do something, and its soldiers closed down the checkpoints and divided the Gaza Strip into three separate enclaves, and…
So, it seems, it will go on and on and on until September 2005, when Sharon is supposed to carry out his Disengagement — and possibly, for much longer than that…
In the West Bank, the situation is different. Sharon has made no pledge of withdrawal (beyond the four token settlements to be dismantled — out of more than 100).
More than two years ago, Sharon had sent his army into the West Bank cities, disarmed the Palestinian Police and reduced the Palestinian Authority to little more than a shell — but did not set up a military government to manage daily life. Rather, the Israeli army exercises the privilege of entering at will to detain “wanted terrorists”… while for the rest of the time the cities are allowed to sink into total chaos and anarchy.
Immediately outside the cities, there is the extensive network of army checkpoints and roadblocks, holding a stranglehold over every Palestinian’s ability to move even to the nearest village. The last few months have seen a relative relaxation of that stranglehold in most sectors of the West Bank (except for Nablus, which remains under close siege). But this relaxation was a favour, granted at Sharon’s whim (or as a sop to international public opinion and Israeli human rights groups), which can at any moment be withdrawn.
Meanwhile, Israeli settlements all over the West Bank continue to grow, send out “outposts” and create ever-new “facts on the ground”.
In the past half year the steady settlement expansion has been overshadowed by a more rapidly spreading growth — the… Separation Wall/Fence/Barrier…
Under the guise of protecting Israel’s civilian population from suicide bombers, the Wall would in practice predetermine the future border — in Israel’s favour. The course of the Wall… would cut deep into the West Bank, depriving individual villages (and individual farmers) of their land and livelihood — and at the same time, deprive the Palestinian people as a whole of ever having a viable state with territorial continuity.
But it was precisely this convergence of threats — to personal land and livelihood and to general national survival — which mobilised threatened village communities all across the West Bank. And the fact that most people of these communities possessed no weapons beyond sticks and stones — yet all of them were highly eager to defend their land — of itself defined that the struggle be unarmed and almost completely non-violent, even when faced with soldiers shooting live ammunition (demonstrators at Bidu Village alone lost five inhabitants to the army’s bullets). Moreover, in this form of struggle — unlike the armed struggle which was at the centre in earlier phases — it was quite natural for Israeli and international activists to join in, and they did.
This kind of struggle also had concrete results. First, in the army seeking individual deals with villages and restoring… part of the land that had originally been taken away. Then, in making the issue of the Wall a central issue in the international public opinion and diplomatic arena, eventually in the internal Israeli discourse as well.
On 30 June there was a day of elation and jubilation for peace activists who crowded into the hall of the Supreme Court, as the judges ordered the state to change more than half of the 30-kilometre stretch of the Separation Wall… and stated… that this ruling would serve as a pattern and precedent for future appeals against other parts of the Wall. It was ruled that depriving villages of most of their land, even if reasons of state security were cited to justify it, was totally unacceptable and “contrary to the basic principles of proportionality”. The state was ordered to pull down the parts that were already built and erect them elsewhere…
However, the judges had ruled that it was legitimate to build the Wall/Fence inside the West Bank, in the interest of state security, that even confiscation of some Palestinian land was acceptable. And the court did not itself draw up the new route of the Wall, to fit with these criteria, but left this new demarcation to the government…
Another court verdict, issuing a week and half later from the International Court of Justice, was a different kettle of fish. Their “Advisory Opinion” stated that while Israel had a right to defend itself by building a defensive wall or fence, it could only do so only on its own soil, not in Occupied Territory. Therefore, each and every length built beyond the Green Line must come down.
“We follow only the rulings of our own courts,” stated minister Lapid, as his fellow ministers engaged in calling the judges of the Hague anti-semites and worse. But Attorney-General Mazuz begged to differ, stating that Israel must abide by the International Court’s judgments, that it must recognise the Territories as being Occupied, and the Geneva Convention as being fully applicable to them.
Inhabitants of A-Ram — a hitherto rather prosperous Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem — lodged an appeal against the soon-to-be-built Wall whose course would cut them off from jobs, school and hospitals in Jerusalem. But a week before the court session, a suicide bomber was caught at A-Ram, blowing himself up prematurely and killing two local Palestinians.
State representatives told the Supreme Court that A-Ram had become a terrorist highway, which must be blocked without delay. To the shock of the A-Ram inhabitants and their Israeli friends, the judges authorised erection of the Wall there “as a temporary measure, pending the court’s final decision and capable of being reversed if need be”.
A year ago, peace-seekers looked anxiously to the Wall as the final factor that might create the new, irrevocable status quo, sweeping the option of a viable Palestinian State from the realm of possibility. Nowadays, it is the settlers who are anxious lest the Wall, in its new course, would fix the Green Line (or a line quite close to it) as Israel’s definite border.
This account ends on a note of general uncertainty. While the verdict on the wall remains unclear… Sharon holds on to the captured public agenda, the declared plan for Gaza withdrawal keeping the limelight and drawing attention away from plans to maintain at its most brutal the occupation on the West Bank…
But even if [there is withdrawal], that would not automatically lead to an end of the occupation in at least this small territory; it may only be a change of its form. And there also would remain the more essential question: would withdrawal… [set] up a dynamic which would take the country and the region much further than Sharon intends?
The same factors which are at work now would have some effect on the outcome of all this… among all these, the efforts… peace and human rights activists can make to influence [events] — whether by demonstrating in the streets of Tel-Aviv, lying down with Palestinian villagers in front of bulldozers, collecting evidence.
To a considerable degree it will also depend on the outcome of the American elections in November — in which we all hope for the downfall of Bush, while being far from sure of how much we can expect of Kerry.
Much will also depend on deeper processes in Israeli society, in particular, on the right-wing side of the political spectrum…
But while one can get some satisfaction and hope from the confusion and disarray among one’s opponents, similar phenomena are evident in our own milieu.
Quite a few activists despair of ever achieving what had been over so many years the clearly defined aim of the Israeli peace camp: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace along a peaceful border similar to (or slightly modifying) the pre-’67 Green Line.
Some, like a part of the Peace Now leadership, turn to embracing Sharon’s “disengagement” hoping that they can make use of it, but quite likely falling into the trap of being used themselves. Others, like the initiators of the recently published “Olga Document”, find refuge in the idealised concept of a single, egalitarian state where Israelis and Palestinians will live in amity with no ethnic distinctions — an attractive vision whose chances of realisation are far more remote than those of the two-state solution.
Two states, a Benelux solution, confederation or Middle East Union — many possibilities lie hidden in the future, if only we survive this violent period of nihilism and distrust, needing all our energy not to give way and sink deeper.
By 5 June 2005, Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will have lasted 38 years — exactly two-thirds of Israel’s total span of history, and Israelis under 40 years of age will have had no personal experience of the Green Line at all. It is logical to assume that a point of no return shall be crossed at some point. Still, the Green Line lives at the heart of the international diplomatic consensus, enshrined in countless resolutions of the United Nations and of virtually any other body concerning itself with the future of the Middle East. And Israeli conscripts on occupation duty in Hebron, who were born when the city was already under Israeli rule for decades, persist in talking of a leave spent “back in Israel” — showing their awareness that Hebron is not truly part of their country.
It was in the same Hebron that the peace forces received new, unexpected strength. After we had seen refusal to serve in the army becoming more widespread, a group of soldiers who did serve literally broke the silence and powerfully exposed the injustice of occupation.
Often, the contents of a daily news broadcast make us feel exasperated and angry, on the edge of despair. Still, as Israeli citizens, members — however dissident — of the Israeli society, we hope that the point of no return has not yet been reached and that the joint efforts of those who care, inside and outside the country, will make sure it never will.