When seven Palestinians were brutally killed on the Haram Al-Sharif last September, following Sharon’s blatant provocation the day before when he visited Al-Aqsa compound, I wondered: had it been any other place on earth, the legitimate expression of Palestinian outrage would have been easily contained by use of traditional crowd dispersion techniques. Water canons, maybe even tear gas would have been used instead of rubber bullets and live ammunition. Nobody would have been killed and the violence to which we are now exposed daily would not have been allowed to happen. In retrospect, it seems that, whether led by Barak or now by Sharon, the Israeli government, even as early as 29 September, was determined to repress Palestinian protest of Israel’s ongoing occupation through unprecedented violence and excessive force — including the shocking use of American-made F16 fighters — against the completely unprotected Palestinian civilian population.
With this in mind, Israel’s recent “temporary” re-occupation of territory under Palestinian jurisdiction should also be understood as not incidental but part of a larger, well planned Israeli scheme.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I am not in Sharon’s head. Therefore, trying to make sense of his grand plan can be difficult at times. The fact of the matter is that the “temporary” re-occupation of several areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is not about defending the “helpless” illegal Israeli colonies nearby, whose inhabitants are in fact heavily armed and well protected by the Israeli army. Otherwise, why would Israeli tanks and bulldozers systematically raze hundreds and hundreds of hectares of cultivated Palestinian land and destroy the homes of innocent civilians while in the process of re-occupying these areas for a few hours? Why would the Israeli army step up its air raids and shelling by tanks and helicopter gunships if not in an attempt to kill and maim hundreds of Palestinians or, at least, to terrify and humiliate children, women and men? In seven months, the Israelis have killed 506 Palestinians. Over 0.5 per cent of the total Palestinian population, 23,000 people, have been killed or injured. One third of them are children and more than 60 per cent were shot while in their homes, schools, or workplaces.
Is Sharon simply indulging his penchant for destruction, spilling the blood of Palestinians as he has done so many times before? In 1953, at the tender age of 25, he oversaw the massacre of Qibya, during which 45 Palestinian homes were blown up and 69 civilians were killed in cold blood, half of them children and women. The international community protested the bloodshed resulting in this excessive use of force. In the early 1970s, during the final days of the War of Attrition at the Suez Canal, Sharon retaliated against Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip with harsh measures; again, his brutality was criticized, particularly by sources outside Israel. Thousands of homes in the refugee camps were demolished, hundreds of young Palestinian men were arrested and deported to Lebanon and Jordan and political leaders were exiled to the Sinai. Six hundred relatives of suspected fighters, including women and children, were transported to detention camps in southern Sinai. In 1982, Sharon authorized the odious mass murder of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon. He was later accused of “indirect responsibility” by an Israeli investigation committee and had to resign. This time around, a mere 19 years later, Sharon has carte blanche to kill.
Or maybe Sharon, a long-time advocate of “Jordan is Palestine,” is hoping to force demoralized Palestinians into a third exodus? His appointment of Rehavam Ze’evi in March 2001 says it all, as Ze’evi is a well-known proponent of the “transfer doctrine” — i.e., the expulsion of the Palestinians and annexation of the occupied territories to Israel.
At any rate, the erection of tents in Beit Hanoun, Khan Younes or Deir Al-Balah in the Gaza Strip, following the recent re-occupation and subsequent destruction of these areas, is strikingly reminiscent of 1948. Back then, close to a million Palestinians were forcefully evicted from their land and had to take refuge under tents in several makeshift camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in neighboring Arab countries. Many Palestinians were also expelled from Palestine by the Israeli army, which orchestrated a campaign of mass destruction and massacres aimed at scaring off those who were trying to hold on to their land. Much like Qibya, which surely resonates in Sharon’s memory, Deir Yassin continues to serve as an inspiring example for the Israeli general his peers nickname “the bulldozer.”
For the record, and to show what Sharon is aiming at, I would like to refer to the account of the barbaric massacre of Deir Yassin given by Jacques de Reynier, the chief delegate of the International Red Cross, who was able to reach the village and witness the aftermath of the massacre: “Three hundred persons,” he said, “were massacred… without any military reason or provocation of any kind; old men women, children, newly-born were savagely murdered with grenades and knives by Israeli troops of the Irgun, entirely under the control of their chiefs.” Nineteen years later, a new Palestinian exodus was to take place when an additional 350,000 Palestinians were forced out of their land and houses following the Six-Day war.
What Sharon has in mind is probably a combination of killing for the sake of killing, and insidiously “encouraging” the Palestinians to leave their land by annihilating what they cherish the most: their children and their land. Thus, the leveling of land during the “temporary” re-occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza could also signal his intention to make way for further annexation in a not-so-distant future. After all, land confiscation has ruled and continues to rule Israeli policy, whether in the West Bank and Gaza (by way of expanding settlements) or within Israel proper, where the little land that remains to the so-called “Israeli Arabs” is still being inexorably expropriated. The re-occupation tactic is yet another potential manifestation of this policy.
Nor must we forget that Sharon is a firm proponent of settlement expansion, only made possible by stealing Palestinian land. When he embarked on a political career in the mid-1970s, he launched a “master plan” aimed at settling two million Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to ensure Israel’s security. Between 1977 and 1981, as minister of agriculture, he managed to double the number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He was then considered the patron of the militant settlers’ movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful). Between 1990 and 1992, while minister for construction and housing, Sharon further encouraged the development of settlements in the West Bank, particularly to house Soviet immigrants. Today, his calls to step up settlement construction, supposedly to accommodate natural growth, do not even fool the Americans, who are calling for a settlement freeze.
After all, Sharon gave us fair warning before assuming his new position as Israel’s prime minister last March, when he declared that if he was elected, he would consider the Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements null and void. He is thus now at ease to violate each one of them and re-occupy zones under the full jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Owing to Sharon’s past and his ambitions, the line between temporary re-occupation and planning for outward annexation grows finer as each day passes. What he tends to forget, however, is that Palestinians remember 1948, 1967 and years of Israeli land confiscation. This is precisely why they are not ready to embark on a third exodus and leave the door open to further Israeli land appropriation.
Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi is President of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees.