Time for Peace in the Middle East is Running Out

Despite protestations by Sharon, the vote by acclamation of the Likud Central Committee against the establishment of any Palestinian state flowed logically and smoothly from “Operation Defensive Shield.” In that ferocious incursion into Palestinian areas, the Sharon government believes it has defeated the Palestinians once and for all, and can thus drop the pretense of even a Palestinian mini-state. It has three good reasons for thinking so:

Jenin. Although the Israeli attacks of March-April 2002 (disingenuously called “Operation DEFENSIVE Shield”) extended far beyond the Jenin refugee camp, Jenin became the focal point and symbol of Israel’s thrust to “destroy the infrastructure of terrorism.” In fact, it represents for Sharon the final defeat of any Palestinian attempt to resist the Occupation. The Palestinians, in his view, have nowhere to go. Their infrastructure is demolished, and given Israel’s suffocating control of the besieged islands of Areas A and B, they will never be able to reorganize. There may be isolated incidents, but the problem of terrorism/resistance has been reduced to manageable proportions.

Ramallah. Although the Israel assault on Ramallah received far less press and was focused on events around Arafat’s compound, it represents nothing less than the destruction of the Palestinian Authority’s ability to govern. In Ramallah virtually the entire civil infrastructure was destroyed – all the data of the government ministries, hospitals and clinics, the land registry office, the courts and banking system, businesses, non- governmental organizations and research institutes, even the Palestinian Academy of Sciences. What has this to do with destroying “the infrastructure of terror?” Nothing. But, then, fighting terror was always a convenient excuse for maintaining the Occupation. Into the vacuum created by the destruction of Palestinian civil society the Civil Administration, Israel’s military government, is already stepping. Palestinians wishing to leave the country now need a special Civil Administration permit. And we must not miss the “message” of the soldiers left behind: “Death to Arabs” scrawled on walls with excrement, excrement and urine spread throughout offices and homes, wanton destruction of furniture, equipment, artworks, gardens, infrastructure.

The American Congress. On May 2nd, in the wake of the attacks and in anticipation of Sharon’s visit to Washington, Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution (94-2 in the Senate, 352-21 in the House), supporting Israel’s campaign to destroy “the terrorist infrastructure” and attacking the Palestinian Authority. The resolution showed clearly why the US Congress is Israel’s “trump card,” allowing it to defy the international community while thumbing its nose at American administrations. It will stand with Israel no matter what. And it will do so for many reasons that have nothing to do with the issue itself: Defense dollars, the influence of the Israeli-American Jewish lobby AIPAC and of the Christian right, perceptions of a common “Judeo- Christian heritage,” anti-Arab and anti-Muslim phobia, a common reduction of the world’s problems to the fight against terrorism, and plain ignorance. Congress, at this stage, appears unassailable.

Believing it has defeated the Palestinians once and for all, the government’s task is now to construct a form of occupation dressed in the old but respectable clothes of “autonomy.” Autonomy allows Israel to retain control of the West Bank and the settlements while dumping its two million Palestinian residents into a truncated set of disconnected islands. In a worst-case scenario, autonomy resembles apartheid, with the Palestinians exercising some local control over their municipal affairs but still governed by Israel and lacking citizenship. The best such a scheme offers is a mini-state representing the old South African bantustan of Bophuthatswana.

Sharon’s own grand scheme envisions a three-fold “solution” to the Palestinian problem:

First, Arafat will be transferred to Gaza, which will become one large prison for PLO members. At some point, probably when Arafat leaves the scene and a more compliant leader can be found, Gaza will become the Palestinian state as a sop to international demands for Palestinian independence.

The West Bank will then be divided into three separate cantons according to settlement blocs and Israeli highways also 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. Each would be connected independently to Israel, with thin Israeli-controlled links between them. Each canton, whose residents would be denied any citizenship, would be granted local autonomy.

Finally, Israel would ensure Palestinian submission through “quiet transfer” and economic cooptation. “Quiet transfer” is the policy, practiced today, to make life so miserable for the Palestinian middle classes that they leave the country “voluntarily.” Emigration of the educated Palestinian middle classes to render the society weak, leaderless and easily controlled. Since the outbreak of the second Intifada it has been estimated that 150,000 Palestinians have left the Occupied Territories, the vast majority of them middle class (many Christians from the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas). Those that remain, the working classes, will benefit from seven industrial parks being built on the “seam” between Israel and the Occupied Territories by the Peres Center for Peace. The combination of weak leadership and adequate employment – similar to the Maquiladoras along the US-Mexican border – would, Israel believes, effectively counteract any tendency towards renewed resistance.

Fanciful as all this may seem, this is the scenario being pursued by Sharon and Sharon’s likely successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, with the acquiescence of Labor. Having struggled all the years since Oslo to transform Israel’s concept of a Palestinian mini-state into a viable and truly sovereign one, we find ourselves back in the 1970s when the struggle was to transform autonomy into a semblance of independence. Time is running out. Every day the Occupation grows stronger – another road, another settlement, another barrier, greater repression, greater separation, increased emigration, growing despair. There seems no sense of urgency in the slow pace of international intervention. With few countervailing forces, are we witnessing the victory of occupation over freedom? The answer is still blowing in the wind…

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.