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JERUSALEM. A few hours after the F-16 jet dropped a 1-ton bomb on a crowded residential area in Gaza, killing 17 people — 11 of them children — and wounding over 140 more, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon exclaimed that the attack had been one of Israel’s "biggest successes."
Israeli spin-doctors immediately understood that the massacre would generate bad PR and changed the official line, using apologetic adjectives like miscalculation, mistake, error, and oversight to describe the deadly assault. Noble Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres took it upon himself to lead the remorseful choir, hoping to suppress world censure.
Despite harsh international criticism, Sharon remained unrepentant. The Israeli press has suggested that his triumphant cry has less to do with the operation’s formal objective — the extra-judicial execution of Hamas leader Salah Shahada — than with the successful annihilation of a unilateral ceasefire agreement formally finalized by the different Palestinian military factions a day before the massacre.
Predictably, Hamas did not wait long to retaliate. As I write these lines, the television is broadcasting gory images of the dead and wounded students of Hebrew University, which my partner and many of our friends attend. Ambulance sirens echo outside, while every few minutes the number of casualties is updated on the screen. Yet another massacre has been perpetrated.
There is nothing fatalistic about Middle East violence, even though the carnage scenes have become routine. Butchery is an act of free will. Sharon deliberately chose to add fuel to the dying fire when he bombed Gaza, because he does not believe in a diplomatic solution to the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither do Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Sharon will now most likely use the Hamas attack in order to justify Israel’s further reoccupation of Palestinian territories. His overall objective, though, is not to wipe out the Palestinian Authority, as some commentators seem to suggest, but rather to forcibly change its role. Regardless of whether or not Yasser Arafat remains in charge, if Sharon gets his way, the "reformed" Palestinian Authority will no longer serve as the political representative of an independent state. Rather, it will operate as a civil administration of sorts, responsible for education, health, sewage and garbage collection.
The strategy is clear: confer on the Palestinians the costly role of managing civil life, but eliminate their political freedoms. South Africans called it Bantustans.
To accomplish this vision Sharon needs to break the spirit of the Palestinian people. This, it seems, is exactly what he has been trying to do. Following the brutal Israeli assault dubbed "Defensive Shield," he has held almost 2 million Palestinians under tight military curfew. These people have been imprisoned in their homes for over six weeks.
Sharon will continue the strangulation and humiliation of the Palestinians, hoping that at a certain point they will bow down. The reprisal attack by Hamas only gives him more ammunition, which is why he considers the Gaza massacre a feat worth celebrating.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org