Like Sharon’s 1982 war in Lebanon, which was also minimized as simply an “operation” (Operation Peace for the Galilee), Operation Defensive Shield had political goals far beyond that indicated by its modest “defensive” name. Under the guise of destroying the “infrastructure of terrorism,” Sharon (and his willing partner Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the elected head of the Labor Party) believe they have accomplished two major goals that fundamentally alter the political situation. In Jenin they destroyed the Palestinians’ ability to resist the ever-expanding Occupation. And in Ramallah they destroyed the infrastructure of Palestinian civil society, rendering the Palestinians unable to govern themselves. To be sure, terrorist “incidents” will still occur occasionally, but the Israeli army is today engaged in mopping up exercises. It enters Palestinian areas with absolute impunity, with nary a whiff of opposition from the international community.
The Israeli government believes it has defeated the Palestinians once and for all. What is left is mopping up operations what we are witnessing these days in towns and cities throughout the West Bank and construction of a type of rule that leaves Israel firmly in control of Jerusalem and the West Bank (and its settlement network intact), yet relieves it of direct rule over the Territories’ three million Palestinians. It is no coincidence that Israeli and American insistence on “reforms” within the Palestinian Authority begin with the security services and that Washington has “discovered” in Muhammad Dahlan a “leader” it can deal with. So, too, can the vilification campaign being waged against Arafat be interpreted as trying to get beyond him to a leader who will sign off on a mini-state that ensures Israel’s continued control.
In order to make this all palatable to the international community, however, Israel and the US must also offer a sop to the notion of Palestinian self-determination. The outlines of Sharon’s grand scheme are already taking shape on the ground. Israel’s emerging post-incursion strategy has three main components:
“Separation.” On the surface the notion of “separation” seems to be an innocent security measure. It involves the construction of a massive “buffer zone” extending along the “Green Line” some 10-20 kilometers into Palestinian territory, where Israel is currently erecting a formidable maze of concrete walls and barricades, trenches, canals, electrified and barbed-wire fences, bunkers, guard towers, surveillance cameras, security crossings and platforms. While it has its security side, the policy of separation is intended to delineate the areas of the West Bank that Israel wishes to claim. In eliminates forever the possibility that the thick corridor between the Ariel settlement bloc and Greater Jerusalem will be relinquished to the Palestinians, as Clinton’s plan envisioned. It places the large settlements in the western part of the West Bank squarely (and irreversibly) within the de facto border created by the security installations including East Jerusalem, which is today being “isolated” from the wider West Bank. “Separation” is, in the end, a mechanism for annexation of about 15% of the West Bank under the guise of “security,” effectively removing it as a subject of negotiation. The militarized “buffer zone” is only one component of a wider system of incorporation that includes the construction of the Trans-Israel Highway and the “by-pass” highways that link it to the settlements.
Cantonization also requires restrictions on Palestinian movement reminiscent of South Africa’s notorious “pass laws.” Palestinian residents will need permits issued by the Civil Administration, Israel’s military government, for travel between cities and cantons within the West Bank and Gaza. These permits will be valid for specified hours only (5 AM-7 PM), and will have to be renewed each month. Like the South African “passbooks,” these internal permits imprison Palestinian residents within their tiny cantons. The Civil Administration has also announced that West Bank residents of Areas A and B will be denied all entry to Israel (including East Jerusalem), thus tightening the already strangling “closure.”
Cantonization. One of the most dramatic outcomes of the Israeli incursions is the effective nullification of Areas A, B and C, fundamental components of the Oslo process. Instead a new, more rational form of control is emerging, one that institutionalizes the siege on the Palestinian cities and turns it into a permanent administrative arrangement. The extra-territorial status of Areas A and B, supposedly under the civil jurisdiction the Palestinian Authority, has been effectively ended. Areas A and B will be replaced by an even more constricting system of cantons (called euphemistically and misleadingly “security zones” in Israeli parlance). The West Bank, it was announced this week, will be carved into eight zones organized around the major cities: Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Tul Karm, Ramallah, Jericho, Bethlehem and Hebron. Gaza will be divided into three such zones. Besides restrictions on movement of people, Palestinian cargoes will have to be transferred “back-to-back” to Israeli trucks at platforms strategically located between Palestinian cities, then re-transferred back to Palestinian vehicles for transport to their Palestinian destinations. Cargo travelling between Hebron and Jenin, for example, will have to be loaded and unloaded some five or six times. Not only does this policy violate international law guaranteeing freedom of movement in occupied territories, it also deals a devastating blow to Palestinian commerce, already virtually moribund.
Settlement and Israel-Only Highway Expansion. Besides military and administrative measures, Israel has always relied on “creating facts on the ground” to make its presence in the Occupied Territories irreversible and neutralize any attempt to wrest control from it. Simultaneous to presenting its cantonization plan, the government publicly announced its intention to build 957 housing units in the West Bank settlements, most in the “Greater Jerusalem” area. Both its timing and the casual, almost contemptuous way it was announced at a time when the international community is working to freeze settlement construction under the US Tenet Plan indicates the degree to which Israel feels its activities are beyond international control. And the construction of the 480 kilometer system of “by-pass” highways that link the settlements into Israel while creating additional barriers to Palestinian movement continues unabated.
Since the Palestinians have been roundly and, in Sharon’s view, permanently defeated, there is no longer any need to give even lip-service to the limited independence envisioned for the Palestinians in the Oslo “peace process.” The ongoing incursions begun in late March have destroyed Oslo once and for all a key goal of Sharon and his predecessor/successor Netanyahu. We have returned to the notion of “autonomy” formulated by Sharon’s mentor Menachem Begin, and for which the Civil Administration was established in 1981 and for which the war in Lebanon was fought in 1982. The Palestinians’ choice, to put it starkly but precisely, is between incarceration and transfer.
Sharon’s grand scheme (until such a time that transfer is made possible, i.e. when a Palestinian state emerges in Jordan) is today emerging “on the ground” as follows:
The West Bank will be divided into three or four separate cantons according to settlement blocs and Israeli highways already in place. A northern canton would be created around the city of Nablus, a central one around Ramallah and a southern one in the area of Hebron, with a possible separation of Qalkilya and Tul Karm from the rest. Each would be disconnected from the other and connected independently to Israel. A road or two might connect the different cantons, but checkpoints and cargo docks would ensure completely Israeli control. Each canton would be granted local autonomy under the supervision of the Civil Authority.
Since the international community would demand a sop (no more) to Palestinian self-determination, Gaza will become the Palestinian state, probably when Arafat leaves the scene and a more compliant leader can be found to sign off on such an arrangement. If Israel was hard-pressed to concede more, it could upgrade the status of the Palestinians in the West Bank from “residents of autonomous cantons” to Palestinian “citizens without endangering its control.
Does Israel really believe this scenario is possible, that the Palestinians will submit to a truncated set of autonomous islands instead of a viable and truly sovereign state? The answer is “yes.” Given the state of international response for the foreseeable future, Israel sees little effective opposition to this arrangement provided that it can maintain a kind of “industrial quiet” that will allow the US, Europe and the Arab states to get on with their particular agendas. Besides some discordant noises coming from NGOs and some churches (as well as the Muslim community abroad, whose influence has been largely neutralized since 9-11), the international community has proven extremely compliant. Incarceration, and eventually transfer, seems eminently plausible to Sharon and his colleagues. Despite protestations by Sharon, the May 12th vote by acclamation of the Likud Central Committee against the establishment of any Palestinian state flowed logically and smoothly from “Operation Defensive Shield.”
Jeff Halper (53) is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and a Professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University. He has lived in Israel since 1973.