When the inhabitants of Bethlehem came out of their homes, after the long weeks during which Israeli soldiers shot at everything in town that moved, they discovered that the landscape had changed. While they were imprisoned in their homes, the army had been working day and night to separate them from the world by a trench two meters deep and a murderous wire fence, sharp as a razor, that could cause anyone entangled in it to bleed to death. The town and its suburbs (Bet-Jala, the Aida and other refugee camps) had become a big prison.
This week, members of the Palestinian parliament tried to get to the session that dealt with “reform”. The trip to Ramallah, half an hour in ordinary times, took them four hours, including a series of humiliations at the many army checkpoints.
Bethlehem is a suburb if Jerusalem. Hundreds of threads tie it to the city. All these threads are cut now. Jerusalem is further from Bethlehem than the dark side of the moon.
This kind of fence is being erected now in many places around the country, cutting the Palestinian enclaves off not only from Israel, but from each other, too. The slogan is “separation”, and that sounds good to Israeli ears. “We are here and they are there,” as the lamentable Ehud Barak used to declare. The real situation is quite different: “We are here and we are there.” Because the separation is not only unilateral, but also unidirectional. Palestinians are forbidden to cross into Israel, but the settlers and soldiers cross into Palestine.
Sharon’s war against the Palestinian people is continuing at full speed. The erection of the fences is only one of its operations. The second one is the settlement activity that has not stopped for a moment. Old settlements expand, new ones spring up and all over the occupied territories the building of bypass roads goes on, expropriating Palestinian lands and strangling Palestinian villages.
The third operation of the war bears the glorious title of “reform”.
When Sharon declares that the reform of the Palestinian Authority is a condition for the resumption of the peace process, it is another device to prevent any negotiations. It also allows Sharon to climb on the bandwagon of Bush, who is demanding a democratic reform of the Authority (without, of course, demanding the same from countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and China.)
The slogan of reform also serves another of Sharon’s purposes: it attracts public attention, causes the Jenin events to be forgotten and the daily incursions and killings of the IDF in the Palestinian territories to be ignored.
But as the Great Reformer of Palestine, Sharon is following a much more important agenda. As a general in the army, he was famous as a commander who “reads the battlefield”, meaning that he had the ability to grasp instinctively where the crucial spot in the enemy front is located. For example: long before the October 1973 war, Sharon had decided exactly were he would break through the Egyptian front and cross the Suez canal when the time arrived.
Sharon decided long ago that the crucial point in the Palestinian front is the leadership of Yasser Arafat. Many believe that Sharon’s efforts to eliminate the Palestinian leader spring from a personal vendetta, after Arafat slipped out of his hands in Beirut. But the matter is far more serious.
Sharon knows that if he succeeded in breaking Arafat, we would be breaking the backbone of the Palestinian people for many years to come–years in which he could finish the job of filling the territories with settlements and annexing them to Israel. Arafat is a strong and authoritative leader, who holds all the strands of the Palestinian people together, preventing a civil war between them and is the only one who can take courageous, historic decisions.
Many different parties are now speaking about reforming the Palestinian Authority, and each one of them has a different agenda. For Sharon, reform means doing away with Arafat and installing a group of Quislings (as he tried 20 years ago with the creation of the “village leagues”.) For Bush, “reform” means appointing a Palestinian leadership that will follow his (and, indirectly, Israel’s) orders, in return for the creation of a Palestinian client-state like Puerto Rica or Andorra (as Netanyahu once said).
Among the Palestinians themselves, some see reform simply as a means to push their rivals out and take their place. I suspect that some of the reform-toting Palestinians work for the Mossad and/or the CIA. Hamas hopes that the reform will bring about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and clear the way for its own takeover. Other Palestinians are striving honestly for the immediate establishment of practices appropriate for an ordered state, quite ignoring the fact that the Palestinian people is still in the middle of a fight for its very existence, faced with the real danger of finally being driven out of its country.
Many Palestinians want a different reform: one that will cut out the parasitical elements, which have attached themselves to the Palestinian authority, and prepare the Palestinian people for the next, decisive stage of its struggle for liberation. Not reform instead of the struggle, but reform for the struggle. None of them intends to fulfill the dream of Sharon and Bush to liquidate Arafat or turn him into a Palestinian facsimile of Moshe Katzav, the figurehead President of Israel.
Uri Avnery has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation.