Throes of Disengagement

On April 14, 2004, Israeli PM Ariel Sharon sent a letter to US President George W. Bush announcing his decision to freeze the "Road Map" and undertake, instead, a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli public read the basic points two days later. Sharon’s new plan set off a struggle within the Likud, his party, where it threatens to undermine him. There is a real possibility of new elections. On the Palestinian side too, the prospect of Israeli disengagement has raised the issue of who would rule Gaza. In July the streets of the Strip erupted in a quasi-coup that was aimed against PA President Yasser Arafat –” although nominally under the slogan of fighting corruption. The disturbances have since subsided, but the Palestinian arena continues to seethe and roil.

Bush had no choice but to shelve his Map and support Sharon’s initiative. This development follows on America’s problems in Iraq. We have often referred in these pages to the close connection between the war in Iraq and the conflict in Palestine. Israel had hoped that a clear American victory would firmly establish Washington’s global dominance; all peoples, including the Palestinians, would then understand the necessity of toeing the American line. The "ripple effect" would enable Israel to snuff out the Intifada and impose on the Territories a single submissive regime.

Washington did topple Saddam Hussein, indeed, but its subsequent entanglement had ill effects for the "reformers" it hoped to put in Arafat’s place: Abu Mazen, who had to resign the Prime Ministry of the PA, and Muhammad Dahlan, of whom we shall speak below. Both are identified with the American-Israeli axis.

Recently a delegation of Israeli generals paid a visit to Virginia, where they took part in a conference on "limited confrontations": conflicts with guerrillas or terrorists, often supported by the civilian population, which do not reach the level of all-out war. The meeting revealed very close (if discreet) cooperation between the Israeli and US experts. The Israelis complained to their US counterparts: "The American entanglement in Iraq is having a detrimental effect on the whole Middle East. All the region’s players –” from Iran to Egypt, from Syria to the Hizballah and the Palestinians –” are keeping close track of the drama in Najaf, and they are drawing conclusions." (Amos Harel, Ha’aretz August 20, 2004.)

Anarchy and Corruption in the Likud

The region’s players, along with the Americans and Europeans, are also tracking events inside Israel.

Israel has a strategic need to separate from the Palestinians. Economically, socially, and internationally, it cannot continue to bear the burden of occupation. On this point the whole Israeli establishment agrees, including business people, the army, the Shin Beth, and the Labor Party. A new UN report on the situation in the Territories calls Israel’s "apartheid regime…worse than the one that existed in South Africa." (Ha’aretz August 24, 2004) The author, John Dugard, knows what South Africa was: he is a Professor of Law there. Israel’s Attorney General, Meni Mazuz, has voiced concern that international sanctions may be on the way.

Sharon too is aware of the danger. His disengagement plan has been described as a sacrifice meant to protect Israel’s West Bank settlements from the growing wave of international condemnation. Yet whenever he tries to make a move, his old buddies threaten to cut his hamstrings. Bible-thumping settlers and Likud Mafiosi set the agenda for a new Masada.

Sharon never expected that his plan would arouse such opposition within his traditional electoral base. He finds himself fighting on two unaccustomed fronts: the ideological front of the settlers, represented in his government by the National Religious Party (Mafdal), and, secondly, the Likud itself, from its ministers to its Knesset members to the Mafiosi to the rank-and-file.

There is a stable majority in Israel that favors withdrawal from Gaza. Even the rank-and-file Likudniks at first backed the disengagement plan, emboldening Sharon to reach over the heads of recalcitrant Likud ministers and hold a party plebiscite. To his consternation, however, the settlers (most of whom are not Likudniks) put on a major campaign, reached the hearts of the Likud members, and on May 2 they turned the majority against him. One reason for the settlers’ success was that Sharon could not point to a partner on the Palestinian side. Nor could he promise that disengagement would bring an end to attacks on Israelis.

After this first debacle, Sharon understood that he could not count on his own Knesset faction to support disengagement. He decided to broaden the coalition by returning to a national-unity government with the Labor Party. On August 18, the Likud Central Committee bashed him again, voting against Labor’s entry. Where disengagement is concerned, all Sharon’s attempts to reach an agreement within his party have come to nothing.

Sharon encounters opposition from all those Likud leaders who stand to lose their posts to Labor in a national-unity government. Each of the threatened has his own contingent of wheeler-dealers in the Likud central committee.

A word about these wheeler-dealers: Long before the last elections in 2003, the opinion polls forecast major gains for the Likud (which did, in fact, increase its seats from 19 to 40). This expectation raised appetites. The party’s institutions became focal points for pressure groups with lots of cash, whose help or hindrance could determine a candidate’s place on the party list. The rival camps were riddled with threats and promises that verged on –” and sometimes trespassed into –” criminality. Every camp, including the Prime Minister’s, depended on deals. Any connection to ideology or political program was secondary. Some of these elements, guarding the people they raised to power, now aim their slingshots to shoot down Sharon’s disengagement plan.

A principal leader in the fight against a national-unity government is Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom. If Sharon brings Labor in, Shalom will likely have to hand his prestigious office to Shimon Peres. He hides his personal interest, however, by saying that what he opposes is a government consisting of the Likud, Labor and Shinui. It would be too leftist by Likud standards, he says. Shalom would not object to a government with Labor and the ultra-orthodox parties. This proposal is mere camouflage, however. Everyone knows that such a government is a non-starter: the ultra-orthodox Shas would block disengagement.

In sum, Sharon’s disengagement plan has turned him into a leader sans party. Without dismantling a single settlement, he is as crippled as were his two predecessors: Ehud Barak, who lost his government on the way to Camp David, and Netanyahu, who fell from power after making the Wye Agreement. Israeli prime ministers suffer from chronic paralysis on their left side.

Anarchy in the PA

Sharon’s disengagement plan caused a tidal wave, as well, within the Palestinian Authority (PA). A rebellion took place on the streets of Gaza. Nominally, it was directed against corruption (of which there is no lack), but the real issue was this: who would rule Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal? Although such withdrawal still appears merely virtual, just the voicing of the intention led pressure groups within Fatah to try and strengthen their positions in anticipation. Their guiding assumption has been that Gaza would become a separate unit unto itself, with no further connection to the West Bank. (We should recall, in this regard, that from 1948 until 1967 the Gaza Strip was administered by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan. Ironically, it was Israel and the PLO that connected the two.) Given these secessionist tendencies, Yasser Arafat is the sole authority that can keep the two parts of Palestine united. If secessionist elements in Gaza were to reach a separate arrangement with Israel, his bargaining position would be, of course, much weaker. That was the background for the test of strength that took place in Gaza during the sizzling months of July and August.

The recent spate of anarchy began on July 16 when armed Fatah groups took over the office of Gaza Police Chief Ghazi Jabali, wounding two of his bodyguards. They accused him of stealing $22 million from the Palestinian people, then paraded him through the streets of al-Bureij, a refugee camp.

Ghazi Jabali is notorious for corruption, but he is also an Arafat appointee. Although his kidnappers released him after a couple of hours, the incident showed how far security had deteriorated. It led Prime Minister Abu Ala (Ahmed Qureia) to throw up his hands and announce his resignation. He was joined by Amin al-Hindi, head of General Intelligence, and Rashid Abu Shabak, head of Preventive Security in Gaza. Both had appeared a few days earlier before a committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, where al-Hindi had said: "In the lack of sufficient budgeting, the people of the security organizations have developed their own independent sources of funding, among them seizure of land. The anarchy in the matter of weapons, under the pretext of armed struggle, and the ‘tunnels,’ where whatever is smuggled through gets sold at commercial prices for a profit, have created a chaos so severe that it’s now beyond control… I do not sense that we, as an organization, have political support and backup." Al-Hindi’s words were seconded by all the others who testified before the committee. They feel manipulated by Arafat, but they appear helpless to present an alternative.

On July 18, amid the wave of resignations and the general collapse, Arafat appointed his nephew, Musa Arafat, to be the central coordinator responsible for the security organizations in Gaza. Musa Arafat and his followers then took over the television building and most of the police stations, declaring a state of emergency. His appointment stirred up rage among the militias, which brought thousands into the streets, including armed men. In the eyes of the demonstrators, the appointment of Musa Arafat symbolizes a deepening of control by the "’Tunis crowd" (those who arrived with Arafat in 1994 and quickly received the top leadership positions).

There were rumors that Muhammad Dahlan, head of Preventive Security during the Oslo period (1994-2002), was the real force behind the protests. These rumors helped Arafat to quench the flames. Beyond his own armed forces, Dahlan has no public support; he is known as one of those who made their fortunes at the people’s expense. With Abu Mazen, he is also thought to have too cozy relations with the US and Israel.

In quenching the flames, Arafat also had help from two additional factors. One was Khaled Mashaal, who heads the Hamas political desk abroad. Mashaal phoned from Damascus to tell him that, in this particular struggle, Hamas is with him. This position is not surprising. The last time Arafat struggled for survival, when the US and Israel forced him to name Abu Mazen as PM, Hamas did all it could to torpedo the appointment –” and succeeded. The logic behind Hamas’ support for Arafat is that it does not want to see Gaza broken into warring groups. In such a situation, it would be forced to enter a civil war. Hamas prefers, at present, that the PA remain intact. This gives it room for maneuver.

The other factor helping Arafat was Israel. Its leaders had apparently concluded that the rebellion in Gaza was premature. On August 4, a Shin Beth car arrived at the house of the new appointee, Musa Arafat, and whisked him off to a Shin Beth office. He met with the organization’s deputy head. A few days later Israel authorized a limited re-distribution of rifles to the Palestinian police in several cities.

On the other hand, Aluf Benn in Ha’aretz (August 8) mentioned that Israeli officials were maintaining "informal contacts" with Dahlan. Among them he named the head of the Shin Beth. We infer, then, that both rival factions in the PA continue secret romances with Israel, despite the destruction in Rafah and the devastation in Beit Hanoun. Arafat, meanwhile, has managed to dissuade Abu Ala from resigning. He has been helped as well by a hunger strike of the political prisoners, which began on August 15. This arouses feelings of solidarity and national unity.

As we go to print, things have quieted down in Gaza. Arafat has managed to survive another round. He will continue to block any change that does not both ensure his power and secure his release from the Muqata’a in Ramallah, where he has spent almost three years as a virtual prisoner.

Arafat can take consolation from the fact that both his Israeli and American counterparts are imprisoned too. As Zvi Bar’el put it in Ha’aretz on August 20, to each his Muqata’a! In all this, however, there is nothing to advance the cause of the Palestinian people.

Within the Palestinian area, all those who resign their posts or complain about corruption point accusatory fingers at Arafat, but they fear to come out in the open as alternatives to him. Arafat knows this full well and succeeds in playing one off against another. On August 23, by the way, Dahlan came up to the Muqata’a and was reconciled with him. Abu Mazen too, we expect, will soon return from his self-imposed exile to bask once more in the shadow of el padre.