One week after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s warm welcome to Washington, there can be little doubt of US support for continuing Israeli aggression in the Palestinian territories. On March 28, in response to a suicide attack just inside the Israeli border, Israeli helicopter gunships bombed the Palestinian Authority (PA) central offices in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Ramallah. Their target was an arms depot belonging to Force 17, Yasser Arafat’s presidential guard, which the Sharon administration holds responsible for recent attacks on Israeli citizens. Israel’s most recent bombing campaign, which left one Force 17 member and one Palestinian civilian dead, was not unexpected. In visits with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell last week, Sharon suggested in only thinly veiled language that Force 17 and its infrastructure would soon come under fire in the name of retaliation. “I gave orders to remove checkpoints and open roads for Palestinian welfare,” said Sharon. “But when I opened the roads, it resulted in terrorism…Since I promised not to surprise you [the United States], don’t be surprised if we punish the perpetrators, those who send them, and their supporters.” That evening, in a speech before the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Colin Powell called for an “end to violence.” The contradiction went largely unremarked in the mainstream US media.
Sharon in Washingotn
Historically, Ariel Sharon has not been welcomed in Washington. Successive US administrations have considered his advocacy of building more settlements “an obstacle to peace.” Yet the cordial reception Sharon received in Washington last week does not mark a decisive shift in US Middle East policy. In the process of Sharon’s transformation from a popularly reviled figure on the Israeli right into the Prime Minister of Israel, his violent histories in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza have largely receded from public view in both Israel and the US.
In their discussion, George W. Bush and Sharon found many areas of agreement: the need to contain Iran and Iraq, support for regional missile defense systems, and concern over “international terrorism” and “regional stability.” The Bush administration has yet to articulate comprehensive policy guidelines for the Middle East. Yet over the course of recent months, the administration has clearly expressed its rejection of both Clinton’s proposals for a Middle East peace settlement and his tactics of active involvement in conflict resolution. During the course of Sharon’s two-day visit to Washington, the Bush administration scarcely mentioned the Oslo accords and used the phrase “peace process” very sparingly. Arafat, one of the most frequent visitors to the Clinton White House, has yet to receive a formal invitation despite the strong recommendation of the State Department. Sharon has warned that the world will view any invitation extended to Arafat as “a signal that terror pays.” Thus far, the Bush administration seems to concur.
While Middle East policy is still inchoate, the rhetoric presented by Powell and Bush is evidence of yet another administration committed to virtually unconditional support of Israel, despite its continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and repression of Palestinians. In his speech before AIPAC, Powell confirmed the US’s “special friendship” with the Jewish state and the US commitment to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge.” The administration’s rhetoric on Jerusalem is replete with contradictions. On the one hand, one heard some criticism of settlement building in Har Homa and support for UN resolutions 242 and 338. On the other, Bush promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby affirming Israeli claims over the eastern city and its environs, a platform Sharon strongly reiterated during his visit. Sharon’s warm welcome by the Bush administration suggests that both the settlement rebuke and the invocation of UN resolutions protecting Palestinian persons and territories are little more than rhetorical flourishes, designed to appease Israel’s critics. Indeed, on March 28 the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution which would have established a UN protection force in the West Bank and Gaza.
On March 7, on the eve of Sharon’s inauguration as Israel’s eleventh Prime Minister, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began to implement new policy directives for the West Bank. Under the cover of darkness, army bulldozers systematically destroyed the road linking Ramallah to the northern West Bank, preventing passage to Birzeit University by means of trenches and moats, and effectively sealing off the Palestinian town. Over the days that followed, Israeli armored vehicles patrolled the trenches in an effort to prevent the flow of ambulances, commerce and foot traffic in and out of the city. When pressed by the international media, whose coverage of the siege forced an IDF retreat in the week that followed, Sharon spoke of the need to thwart Ramallah-based terrorists who planned an assault in Israel.
The siege on Ramallah was merely the first manifestation of a dramatic shift in IDF policy under the leadership of Ariel Sharon. As the Israeli press reported last week, this new policy (code-named “Operation Bronze”) calls for the West Bank and Gaza to be administered as 64 separate areas, any one of which can be isolated from the remainder of the Palestinian territories when the IDF sees fit. This blueprint is designed to maximize control and minimize the general unrest produced by less localized closures—to consolidate Israel’s military power over a population which increasingly has nothing left to lose. From the army’s standpoint, it is an effective strategy of divide and rule, whereby “troublesome” areas will be punished and “cooperative” ones rewarded, while appeasing international criticism of closure as collective punishment. The nearly hermetic closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip since September of this year has produced skyrocketing unemployment (currently at 48 percent), growing poverty and increasing scarcity of basic necessities like food and fuel. The losses to the Palestinian economy since the fall of 2000 are estimated at a staggering $2 billion. Meanwhile, in keeping with Ehud Barak’s policies, Israel retains its hold on $250 million in tax remittances which are rightfully due to the PA. To release the funds, Sharon argues, would be to finance the murder of Jewish Israelis.
Not surprisingly, last week’s conversations between Sharon and senior officials in the Bush administration largely skirted this context, focusing instead on Palestinian terrorism and Arafat’s responsibility to contain it. On the question of “violence,” in his speech before AIPAC, Powell spoke in generalities: “Violence is corrosive of everything the parties in the region hope to achieve. Violence provokes armed reaction, not compromises. Leaders have the responsibility to denounce violence, strip it of legitimacy, stop it.” Powell’s desituated rhetoric—applied equally to everyone and to no one—effectively stripped the conflict of its grossly inequitable power relations, obscuring Israel’s overwhelming use of force against a largely unarmed population in the West Bank and Gaza following Sharon’s inflammatory visit to the al-Aqsa mosque. Perhaps most remarkable have been the mild US rebukes of Israel’s assassination policy of the last six months. In February, after Israel publicly boasted about the killing of Force 17 operative Masoud Ayyad, senior US officials were mostly concerned by the public nature of the attack: “[T]he problem is that a killing in such a visible fashion incites the public in the territories, and in the Arab world at large, and leaves us with a diplomatic problem.” The assassination policy itself went unchallenged.
During the time of Sharon’s visit, the mainstream US media colluded in the obfuscation of Israeli violence — as it has throughout the second intifada — drawing attention to the killing of a Jewish settler in the West Bank (a man identified by the Associated Press only as a “father of six”) while the ongoing policies of siege, starvation and army brutality within the West Bank and Gaza Strip were mostly ignored. Sharon’s primary objective during this visit — as articulated by Hassan Abdel Rahman, the PA’s Washington representative — seems to have been realized: Sharon sought to persuade the world to “overlook the atrocities and the war crimes that are committed by the Israeli army and the Israeli government in the Palestinian territories.”
Countering Sharon’s Rhetoric
Even as this history of Israeli violence disappears from the US media and the official rhetoric of the Bush administration, a new bolder vocabulary of protest and critique has begun to surface within both the US and Israel. In the pages of the Hebrew press, andmdash;quite anomalously—on the editorial page of the New York Times, activists and intellectuals have been granted unprecedented space to link current Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories with the history of apartheid policy in South Africa. What is new is twofold: both the willingness of liberal (and not only radical) thinkers to make this parallel, but the willingness of mainstream media to print these commentaries in their pages. But such frank assessments of Israeli state-sanctioned violence and selective application of the principles of democracy should not encourage nostalgia for the kinder Israeli administrations of the past. The challenge of the current historical moment under Sharon is similar to that posed by the rise of Netanyahu: that the politics of protest, particularly among the Jewish-American and Jewish Israeli lefts, not glorify by contrast the Labor administration of Rabin and Peres and their Oslo “peace process.” For while Sharon’s “Operation Bronze” outlines new strategies of military control and containment, the groundwork for this strategy was laid in 1993 by the Rabin administration’s closure of the West Bank and policy of separation. Critical responses to the Sharon administration must look frankly at this history.