Sharon’s deadly calculus

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The Israeli press these days is full of articles and comments that suggest that Ariel Sharon is preparing for full-scale war. On the one hand, Sharon’s cosmetic show of “restraint” may simply be an effort to ensure that when he does choose to launch his war, he can say that he had no choice and that it was a last resort, while, on the other, the increasing atrocities against the Palestinians, including mass demolitions, executions, kidnappings and car bombings may be an effort to provoke a Palestinian response which could be used as a justification for any war plan.

Israel was about to launch an enormous military assault in the occupied territories hours after the June 2 bomb attack in Tel Aviv which killed 21 Israelis, but the assault was forestalled because of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s announcement that he accepted a “ceasefire”, according to an unnamed Israeli military official quoted by the Associated Press on July 12.

Sharon’s record, from the 1950s through the Lebanon war and up until the present day, leaves no doubt that he is both capable of and eager for the most reckless and bloodthirsty actions. Rather than being surrounded by voices of restraint and moderation, Sharon faces increasing calls from his base constituency for war, and the Israeli Army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz has in recent months made comments that suggest he would’t be opposed to further escalations of the Israeli aggression either.

With these warning signs in the air, the possibility that Israel will choose to launch a total war against the Palestinians cannot be dismissed. This could take the form of a “limited” operation to destroy the Palestinian National Authority, or even start a wider regional war involving neighbouring countries under the cover of which Israel might seek to expel a large number of Palestinians and thereby hope to forestall for a little longer its eventual and inevitable withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Yet it is also clear that any military adventure which results in Israeli troops returning permanently to the streets and alleys of Palestinians cities and refugee camps in so-called “Area A” will be almost impossible for Israel to maintain. The winner or loser of any war between the Israeli army and the Palestinian people will not be determined by military strength (by that measure Israel will always be the winner), but by the ability of each side to withstand casualties and pain over the long haul.

War exacts an enormous cost on any society, first and foremost human, but also economic. Israel is extremely sensitive to casualties and can barely tolerate the loss of any soldiers. It was this weakness that led to the collapse of its occupation of southern Lebanon. The Palestinians are able to bear a higher level of casualties, not because, as Israeli government racist incitement claims, Palestinians value life less but because Palestinians have more at stake. Palestinians are resisting occupation and struggling for survival against an insatiable power that is determined to strip them of the little of their land that remains beneath their feet. Most Israelis know, by contrast, that their soldiers are not dying in order to ensure the survival of Israel, an economic power bristling with the most fantastic and deadly weapons, but only to ensure the existence of colonies populated by a minority of fanatic settlers. In short, Palestinians are fighting for freedom, Israelis for empire.

Israel, as a highly industrialised country with a relatively small population and an army which relies on reservists, cannot fight a protracted war. Mobilising the reserves removes the best and the brightest from the economy and diverts them into economically unproductive military activities. Israel simply cannot field the tens of thousands of troops it would need to try to control every street and village in the occupied territories for any lengthy period. Already, Israel’s economy has suffered grievously as a result of the Intifada, and a lengthy mobilisation of reserves would deal it a death blow. For this reason, Israeli military planners have always sought to limit wars to a few days and to launch them at the moment they see as most opportune.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have little to lose on the economic front. Their relatively tiny economy has already been crippled by Israeli siege and collective punishment and they have learned to withstand extreme deprivation for the sake of freedom.

Israel has always been aware of these costs: its entry into the Oslo process was not an attempt to end the occupation and secure peace, but only to change the calculus and make occupation less expensive and risky. By removing Israeli troops from town centres and besieging the towns from the periphery, Israel gave up none of its control over Palestinian life, but it reduced the number of soldiers needed to control the occupied territories and the number of points at which Israelis could be vulnerable to Palestinian resistance. So, in contrast to the first Intifada, where every street and alley was a potential confrontation ground, clashes in the new Intifada are reduced to relatively few major intersections and checkpoints. As bad as Sharon thinks things are now, he must know that going back to the situation where every soldier in every alley is a target, this time not for stones but for bullets, is one which while he may not mind, the Israeli public could not accept or withstand for long. If the Israeli army returns to the refugee camps, it can expect to lose soldiers every day.

Perhaps because of the limited opportunities to confront occupation troops, Palestinian resistance fighters have shifted to attacking settlers and soldiers as they travel the roads of the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli army has no answer for this and, in response to several recent attacks on settler cars, has resorted to the failed Barak tactic of shelling Palestinian police stations. In southern Lebanon, Hizbollah became so adept at setting off undetectable roadside bombs that Israel withdrew its troops to fixed positions, on the theory that hundreds of miles of road are far harder to protect than a few bunkers. But retreating to fixed positions only made the Israelis sitting ducks and hastened the collapse of the occupation.

Throughout the Oslo years, Israel greatly expanded its roads and settlements in the occupied territories in the false belief that under the guise of a US-sponsored “peace process” it had got away with an historic theft. But all it has done has greatly increased its exposure. The Palestinian people have made it quite clear that they will resist the occupation until it ends completely, and they are learning more about the occupier’s vulnerabilities every day. Even Sharon will have to stop and think before he does anything more foolish than he has so far.

Mr. Ali Abunimah contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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