Ariel Sharon, the ‘Butcher of Beirut’ and the man whose desecration of the Haram al-Sharif in September 2000 sparked the al-Aqsa Intifada and helped him to be elected prime minister of Israel the following year, was hailed as a peace-maker last month when the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) voted to approve his plan for Israel’s so-called ‘withdrawal’ from Ghazzah.
Ariel Sharon, the ‘Butcher of Beirut’ and the man whose desecration of the Haram al-Sharif in September 2000 sparked the al-Aqsa Intifada and helped him to be elected prime minister of Israel the following year, was hailed as a peace-maker last month when the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) voted to approve his plan for Israel’s so-called ‘withdrawal’ from Ghazzah. The vote on October 26, which Sharon’s government won by 67 votes to 45, took place in Jerusalem, which Israel now claims is its “eternal and indivisible capital”, although under international law it is in fact an occupied city, and despite vociferous protests from Jewish settlers and others who object to Israel withdrawing from any Palestinian territory at all, any where. It paves the way for Sharon to push forward his plans for giving up the settlements in Ghazzah as a prelude to enormous annexations of Palestinian lands in the West Bank.
The intense Israeli operations in Ghazzah in the last few months, which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, including much of the leadership of Hamas and other Palestinian organizations, should not be allowed to disguise the fact that the Israeli decision to withdraw its settlements is a considerable victory for the Palestinians and the intifada they launched in 2000, having despaired of the ‘peace process’ and the political leadership offered by the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli operations confirm their massive military superiority, their utter ruthlessness, and the fact that they can get away with any degree of brutality without any meaningful censure from the international community. All that was known in any case, however.
The fact is that Ghazzah was once seen as relatively unproblematic by the Israelis, a small and isolated area that was easy to control and could even become a model for its management of the occupied territories, compared to the larger and more troublesome West Bank. The facts that Ghazzah has a large population, densely packed into a small area, and is almost entirely dependent on Israel for its economic life, were thought would make it pliant and easy to manipulate. Although the land in Ghazzah is not as good as that in the West Bank, the zionist settlements there, in two zones at the area’s northern and southern ends, taking up about a third of the territory, for 7,500 settlers compared to 1.3 million Palestinians crammed into the other two-thirds, were once seen as more secure than the settlements in the West Bank. Now, the Israelis may not have been defeated militarily in the usual sense, as they were by the Hizbullah in Lebanon, but they have certainly been forced, by the sheer strength, depth and persistence of the Palestinians’ resistance, to accept that they cannot hold the territory any longer; that the cost and difficulties of trying to maintain and protect the settlements, and the communications and other infrastructure required to service them, is simply unsustainable. However the Israelis may try to misrepresent their withdrawal as a magnanimous and unilateral gesture towards peacemaking, whatever damage they do in their final months in Ghazzah, and whatever problems may yet lie ahead for the long-suffering Palestinians of Ghazzah, all this should not be allowed to overshadow their achievement in forcing even Ariel Sharon to recognise the fact that they will never allow the settlements to remain there.
However, recognition of the Palestinian achievement needs to be coupled with recognition of two other points. First is that Sharon – who is nothing if not cunning – has succeeded in turning defeat in Ghazzah into a positive part of the latest version of the zionist masterplan for securing Palestine as a whole. The so-called peace process was always designed to consolidate Israel’s grip over the whole of Palestine by maintaining direct control over its key interests, while sub-contracting the administration of the Palestinian communities to an emasculated pseudo-state whose establishment would be presented to the world as a magnanimous concession on Israel’s part. It was hoped to achieve this through a process of negotiation by which the Palestinians would be persuaded, by Israel and its international supporters, particularly the US, to legitimise their own surrender. While Yasser Arafat and others in the secular Palestinian leadership saw this process as some sort of recognition and victory, however hollow and humiliating, the Palestinian people and Islamic movements understood its true nature and rejected it. Ariel Sharon was always a critic of the peace process; like the neo-cons in the US, he preferred less subtle ways of achieving the same goals as those of his political opponents. By portraying the withdrawal of settlements from Ghazzah as a concession, he hopes to garner domestic and international support for imposing the same solution on the West Bank as Israel failed to secure through negotiation: the legitimised annexation of Jerusalem and most Israeli settlements, control over the Haram al-Sharif, the right of Israel to control the Palestinian areas’ borders, the economy, communications and security, the withdrawal from responsibility for administering Palestinian areas, and international recognition of its permanent effective rule. This was a settlement unacceptable to Palestinians, and Muslims worldwide, a few years ago; they must now find ways of opposing and thwarting it in its new form, despite the near-total international support that Sharon can expect, and the routine failure of Arab and Muslim states to support the Palestinians.
At the same time, we must not forget the Palestinians of Ghazzah. In recent years Ghazzah has often been described as an ‘open prison’ in which the Palestinians have suffered great hardships. The danger is that, with the settlements withdrawn, international attention turned elsewhere, and the Israeli military in full control of its borders and major means of communication with the rest of the world, it will become a closed prison in which Palestinians’ suffering will increase rather than decrease. The economic and social problems facing 1.3 million people in an area just 40km long and 5km wide – one of the most densely populated areas in the world – with nearly 40 percent unemployment, 75 percent of people living in poverty, and its infrastructure deliberately destroyed or badly damaged by Israeli attacks, are immense. It is also effectively sealed off from outside help, particularly from Muslim countries. Israel is determined to increase the suffering of the Palestinians in Ghazzah, to punish the Palestinians for their victory, and so that it can claim that the Palestinians cannot look after themselves and manage their own affairs. Again, little can be expected from Muslims governments, but Muslims around the world must do all we can to help them, economically, culturally and socially as well as politically.