As the Israeli army reimposed a nearly complete lockdown on the West Bank in the aftermath of the Christmas Day 2003 suicide bombing outside of Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reportedly deputized a top general to draw up the “separation plan” he threatened seven days earlier at the annual Herzliya conference on security issues. As widely predicted in the pre-performance publicity, at Herzliya Sharon announced that Israel would take unilateral measures to “disengage” itself from the Palestinians if Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei does not crack down on the armed Palestinian factions and engage in negotiations on Israeli terms.

Sharon’s much advertised oration contained nothing new and no details on when and how his proposals would be implemented. He did name some of the unilateral steps to be taken, including accelerated construction of what commentators variously call the “separation barrier,” “security fence” or “apartheid wall” (depending on political persuasion) and “a change in the deployment of settlements, which will reduce as much as possible the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population.” The reception of the Herzliya speech provides yet another example of the politico-cultural chasm between what even the most moderate Palestinians might consider an acceptable Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement and the self-referential rhetoric of the Israeli government and its supporters.

Ambiguous Intentions

The absence of specifics in Sharon’s speech allowed other cabinet ministers to interpret his intentions. Justice Minister Tommy Lapid of the middle-class, pro-free market Shinui Party believes the Palestinians have three months before Sharon’s plan, which he supports, is put into effect. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the Likud, a recent convert to a kind of two-state solution, announced that tens of thousands of settlers might have to move. Olmert made the rounds of Israeli talk shows promising to avoid the menace of a binational state by implementing a version of Sharon’s plan that would ensure Israel an 80 percent Jewish population (the current figure is 78-79 percent). Ultra right-wing members of the cabinet from the National Union Party, as is their custom, hysterically proclaimed that they would leave the government if a single settlement was abandoned.

The outcry on the far right gave rise to speculation that Sharon was anticipating early elections in 2004. His present coalition government may remain in office until early 2007 as long as it maintains a Knesset majority, which the far right’s defection would erase. Alternatively, the Labor Party, or at least its right wing—those elements identified with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Minister of Defense Benjamin Ben Eliezer—might join a government led by Sharon which would pursue some permutation of the Herzliya plan. After all, “separation” between Israel and the Palestinians, which would be identified in the United States as segregation, has been a slogan of the Labor Party since the 1980s.

Facts on the Ground

Such machinations aside, the fact remains that most of the major elements of Sharon’s plan were being implemented well before his December 18 speech. The 90-mile northern section of the separation barrier has been completed, and the Israeli cabinet recently approved construction of a 228-mile southern section. According to a recent UN report, these two components of the barrier would isolate 274,000 Palestinians in small enclaves. An additional 400,000 Palestinians would have restricted access to their agricultural fields, jobs, schools and hospitals controlled by the Israeli army. The final route of the separation barrier, still a subject of debate among Israelis, could effectively annex about half the West Bank to Israel. Several recent protests by Palestinians and Israeli and international peace activists at locations along the barrier bespeak the widespread sense that the fence-and-wall complex is yet another “fact on the ground” with which Israel can alter the terms of a future comprehensive peace deal in its favor. Israeli troops fired upon one such demonstration on December 31, wounding at least 17.

As Sharon and Olmert speak of “relocating” existing settlements in the Occupied Territories, new ones are being established. Before Sharon became prime minister, there were 145 settlements officially recognized by the Israeli government and some 400,000 settlers (including the exclusively Jewish neighborhoods in and around East Jerusalem). According to Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, 56 new settlements have been established in 2002-2003. Of the eight settlement “outposts” Sharon claimed to dismantle in the spring of 2003, in his very partial and selective implementation of Israel’s obligations in stage one of the “road map” sponsored by the so-called Quartet of the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia, five have been rebuilt. The Bush administration has mildly protested the continuing settlement activity by deducting less than $300 million from the $11 billion in loan guarantees Israel is receiving in the current fiscal year. This amount is supposedly equivalent to what Israel has spent on construction in the settlements, but it is trivial in relation to the combined aid Israel receives from the US and Israel’s total expenditures on settlements.

The latest settlement project is in the center of the village of Jabal Mukabbir, near Jerusalem. Its strategic purpose is to thicken the circle of Jewish settlements surrounding East Jerusalem. On December 20, about 500 Israeli peace activists from Peace Now, Ta`ayush (Coexistence) and other groups demonstrated peacefully against construction of the settlement, named Nof Zahav, jointly with Palestinian residents of the village. The press release of the demonstrators quoted the speech of MK Ran Cohen of the dovish Meretz party who said, “We, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, are demonstrating here against the lies of Sharon. At Herzliya he spoke of dismantling settlements, and here, in the heart of a Palestinian village of 15,000 residents, they are building a new settlement! Sharon spoke of activating the road map—and here, at Jabal Mukabbir, they are not going for peace at all, but are sending in the bulldozers to destroy peace! Sharon talks of separation—and here, we see invasion by yet another settlement!” These fine words (at least for supporters of the road map) obscure the inactivity of Meretz, Peace Now and other elements of the Zionist peace camp since the outbreak of the second intifada.

As of late December 2003, there are 757 roadblocks in the West Bank. Earlier in the month, Sharon announced measures to ease the movement of Palestinians through these roadblocks and of Palestinian merchants seeking to cross the Allenby Bridge into Jordan and the Rafah border post into Egypt. However, workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip will not be allowed to enter Israel. When Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz visited Washington in November, he presented a plan to create jobs for Palestinians by establishing enterprises in Israeli settlements and industrial parks along the “seam line,” a term referring not to the Green Line which demarcates Israel’s internationally recognized eastern boundary, but to the new effective border between Israel and the Palestinian territories created by the separation barrier. The Mofaz proposal would render Palestinian employment contingent on de facto recognition of the permanence of at least some settlements and Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Responding to these Israeli proposals, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield criticized Israel at a donors’ conference for the Palestinians on December 10 in Rome. He said Israel had done too little, too late to alleviate the human distress in the Palestinian territories and questioned the security rationale for the roadblocks.

No “Relative Calm”

Yet just weeks after being announced, even Israel’s limited measures to ameliorate Palestinian suffering have been annulled. A total closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been proclaimed and non-resident Palestinians have been prohibited from entering Jerusalem in response to the suicide bombing carried out by Said Hanani, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, at the Geha Junction in Petah Tikva on December 25. The murderous attack took the lives of three victims in addition to Hanani and wounded 16.

This bombing was preceded by several Israeli army raids on Nablus in which at least five Palestinians were killed. On December 23, the Israelis assaulted the area of Rafah bordering Egypt in an effort to discover tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. Nine Palestinians were killed and 42 wounded in this operation. Egyptian authorities claimed the tunnels did not reach into Egypt. Only minutes before the Petah Tikva attack, Israeli helicopters executed the extrajudicial killing of Muqlid Hamid, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza. Four other Palestinians were killed and 12 were wounded in the assassination. These events ended 81 days of what the Israeli and Western media commonly designate as “relative calm.” Ahmad Qurei has suspended all negotiations with Israel, and there is no indication when they may resume.

Indeed, there were no aerial assassinations or suicide bombings during those 81 days. However, Israeli raids killed 117 Palestinians during that period. Geha Junction bomber Said Hanani hails from the village of Beit Furik, which is surrounded on all sides by Israeli checkpoints. He, like most young men of the village, was unemployed and had, as Gideon Levy wrote in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, “no reason to get up in the morning other than to face another day of joblessness and humiliation.” As Levy hinted, neither the “disengagement” outlined at Herzliya nor the status quo offer a solution to the dehumanizing conditions of intensified occupation.

Knowing the Audience

In light of the already thoroughly unilateral measures with which Israel is pushing ahead in the Occupied Territories, why did Ariel Sharon need to make a speech at Herzliya at all? He surely knew that his words would inconvenience at least some members of the Bush administration and antagonize the entire Palestinian Authority. The answer is that Sharon does not have and never has had any intention of negotiating a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians. He has long advocated imposing a unilateral settlement on Israel’s terms, and he has been consistent in his view of how much territory—42-50 percent of the West Bank and an unspecified percentage of the Gaza Strip—the Palestinians should be allotted. The only change is that Sharon is now prepared to allow the Palestinians to call these territories a “state.”

Sharon’s principal audience was the Israeli Jewish public. In the weeks before his Herzliya speech, Sharon’s standing in public opinion polls had been declining. The media was regularly reporting corruption and influence peddling scandals involving his sons. Four former heads of the General Security Service had publicly criticized his policies towards the second intifada. Twenty-seven air force pilots had announced that they would no longer carry out extrajudicial executions. An internationally publicized trial of five high school graduates who refused to be drafted into the Israeli army concluded on December 16 with their conviction. The five were among the organizers of open letters signed by over 300 high school seniors over the course of two years announcing their refusal to serve in an army of occupation. Three days after the speech, 13 members of the ultra-elite General Staff Commando unit declared they would refuse to perform military service in the Occupied Territories.

Finally, two recent unofficial initiatives—a plan devised by Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh and the Geneva Accord negotiated between Palestinian and Israeli teams headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo and Yossi Beilin respectively—proved that a negotiated Israel-Palestinian agreement is possible and contradicted the Sharon-era mantra that “there is no one to talk to” among the Palestinians. While both of these plans fall short of a comprehensive solution to the conflict based on international law and human rights, they demonstrate conclusively that Israel’s illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories and Israel’s aspirations to annex parts of the West Bank are the main obstacles to a Palestinian-Israeli agreement.

Facing such pressures, Sharon was compelled to advance his own “plan” in order to avoid dealing with the Quartet’s road map or the other plans which are even more generous to the Palestinians. His promise to separate Israel and the Palestinian Arabs resonates with the deep-seated racism in Israeli Jewish culture. His proposal to enact unilateral measures draws on the historic unilateralism of the Zionist movement. “What matters is not what the goyim [non-Jews] say, but what the Jews do,” said David Ben-Gurion, Israel first prime minister, on many occasions.

The spirit of Sharon’s speech also draws on the Bush administration’s legitimation of unilateralism, at least for reliable clients of Washington, despite the initial cavils of the White House at the speech’s letter. The Forward, a Jewish weekly published in New York, reported on December 26 that a “senior White House official” had summoned key journalists to inform them that the Bush administration’s vocal disappointment at the unilateral measures floated in Sharon’s speech was only for public consumption. In fact, this official claimed, the Israeli premier had shown the White House a draft of the speech beforehand. In any case, the US now prefers to highlight the part of the speech where Sharon affirmed Israeli support for the road map—a document which Israel officially declined to “accept” and to which it appended 14 reservations.

Pelted With Shoes

Arab clients of Washington continue to be humiliated before their populations by such indulgence of Ariel Sharon by the Bush administration. On December 19, Egypt’s semi-official al-Ahram newspaper asserted that the White House had rejected Sharon’s threat to take unilateral measures against the Palestinians. The next day the same paper reported Israel’s arrest of Adnan Asfur, the Hamas spokesperson in the West Bank. Asfur is generally considered a moderate within Hamas. Yet he bizarrely stated in an interview with al-Ahram only hours before his arrest that Sharon’s speech was an important achievement for the Palestinian resistance because it was an indirect admission that the occupation was unsustainable. On December 21, al-Ahram reported that the Palestinian Authority had denounced the Bush administration’s positive reception of Sharon’s speech as consistent with the road map—without noting the contradiction between this news and its original report.

The most spectacular embarrassment for the Egyptian government connected to this affair was the attack on Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher by Palestinians in Jerusalem on December 19. Maher was pelted with shoes during Friday prayers at al-Aqsa mosque. After a long period with very limited official Egyptian presence in Israel, Maher had come to meet Sharon in an effort to help restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. The Islamic radicals who attacked Maher are allegedly members of the Islamic Liberation Party, a tiny group whose Egyptian branch was liquidated after attempting to incite an armed insurrection in 1974. They do not, as the al-Jazeera satellite TV channel insinuated, represent any broad segment of Palestinian opinion despite the spontaneous outburst of anger directed at Ahmad Maher.

The public assault on Egypt’s foreign minister in Jerusalem underscores the impotence of the regime of his boss, President Husni Mubarak. Egypt is too dependent on Washington to do more than quietly protest while the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands deepens. Moreover, Mubarak is too frightened of a potential domestic upheaval to mobilize the already existing popular outrage against Washington and Israel. At the same time, most of the Egyptian opposition forces are mired in a politics of rhetoric in which loquacious denunciation of Israel and American imperialism and conspiratorial thinking substitutes for the hard work of building a popular constituency for democracy and economic equity. Such are the multiple impasses to which Sharon’s determination to defeat Palestinian national aspirations continues to contribute.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Sharon’s Unilateral Steps," Middle East Report Online, December 31, 2003.

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