Sharon’s war

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Israel can be expected to make good use of its warplanes, tanks and guns during August. No one will be watching. US President George Bush, the putative peace broker, is not thinking of pursuing a ceasefire: He on holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Other world leaders are vacationing in the country or at the seaside. Public opinion is asleep on the beach until the 1st of September.

This means Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a clear two weeks to “take out” more key Palestinian targets in his all-out war of attrition against the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the Palestinian people.

Make no mistake. Sharon is waging a war. His generals have called it a “guerrilla war”. He characterises it as “active defence.” That is a misnomer. Sharon is not engaged in defence but offence.

The well-connected and thoughtful Israeli commentator, Akiva Eldar, writing in Haaretz on Aug. 7, describes Sharon’s “strategy” as waging war “without declaring war” camouflaged by “all the international peace and ceasefire initiatives.” Sharon’s war aim, says Eldar, is to “make a new order next door” by “toppling the Palestinian National Authority.”

In early June commentators of all nationalities were expecting Israel to launch a conventional ground and air offensive against Palestinian self-rule enclaves to rout the PNA’s security services and police, destroy its headquarters and ministries and, perhaps, reinstall the Israeli military government. Elements of one of the Israeli general staff’s contingency plans were leaked to the authoritative British defence publication, Jane’s for publication in its less authoritative “Foreign Report”. World capitals called upon Sharon to exercise restraint which he did, keeping the plan for a “big bang” in his hip pocket.

Another Israeli analyst, Gideon Levy, who also contributes to Ha’aretz, makes the point on Aug. 12, that although Israel describes its policy “as being one of `restraint’, it hasn’t restrained itself – it has only underplayed the level of violence it unleashes.” Sharon’s “restraint” is, therefore, an illusion.

In reality, Sharon has unleashed continuous total warfare.

On the governmental and security level, the Israeli army targets the very same PNA installations and institutions selected for demolition under the “big bang” plan. But they are being taken out piecemeal: Sharon is using “salami tactics” rather than the sort of blanket assault he used for Lebanon in 1982. While he is determined to flatten the physical presence of the PNA, he wants its cadres to desert. Specific policemen and intelligence officials have been eliminated in Israel’s assassination campaign, undermining the morale of PNA police and security agencies. A number of policemen have left PNA units and joined Fateh’s Tanzim, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

On the economic plane, Sharon’s forces impose strict closures on Palestinian enclaves, surround them with earthwork barricades and trenches and prevent supplies from getting through. The Palestinian economy is at a standstill, two-thirds of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live below the low Palestinian poverty level but must pay high Israeli prices for goods and services.

On the popular plane, Israel has re-asserted its control over every aspect of Palestinian life. The army sets up checkpoints where Palestinians are searched and humiliated as they move from one town or village to another in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has instituted a reign of terror in the West Bank and Gaza. Heavy fingered Israeli soldiers and tank and artillery crews shoot at random into Palestinian neighbourhoods, killing innocent civilians. Snipers take out individual Palestinians during demonstrations. Israeli border police and soldiers beat Palestinians taking part in pro- tests, walking down the street or driving in taxis. Palestinians are not safe in their homeland.

So far Sharon has achieved one of his key political objectives. He has killed off the Oslo accords which he rejected in 1993 and continues to oppose today. The international community no longer presses him to implement the many provisions Israel failed to honour. The release of Palestinian prisoners, the endlessly debated “Third Redeployment” (withdrawal) from the West Bank, the “safe passage” linking the West Bank to Gaza are all forgotten. Now the most the international community hopes for is an uncertain ceasefire. The best deal Sharon is offering, once there is “total quiet”, is to discuss with the Palestinians “long-term interim arrangements”.

Sharon’s “talking softly but wielding a big stick” strategy was not carefully calculated or plotted. It evolved from the failed attempt of his predecessor to “manage” the Palestinian Intifada. Sharon’s “war of attrition” is dictated primarily by his personal need to be seen by Israel’s foreign friends as “restrained” and reasonable. Sharon wants to be regarded as a “new man” instead of the officer known for “exaggeration” and “excess”. Sharon also needs to keep the Labour Party in his right-dominated coalition because Labour – particularly Nobel laureate Foreign Minister Shimon Peres – gives the government respectability and credibility. Finally, Sharon has to take a tough line with the Palestinians to keep his right-wing coalition partners and the clamourous settlers who are their constituents in line.

So far Sharon has succeeded in prosecuting a total campaign of attrition against the Palestinians but this does not mean he will, ultimately, win the 100-year war between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. He cannot win because he is fighting to turn the clock back to the days before Oslo in order to maintain the occupation and continue the Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza. But his brutal little war will be seen in the future as just another bloody, costly episode in the epic struggle for possession of Palestine. This can only come to an end when the Israelis decide to reach a fair settlement with the Palestinian people.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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