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JERUSALEM. Israel recently agreed to withdraw its forces from Bethlehem and populated Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip while the Palestinian Authority takes on the responsibility of policing residents there.
Israeli soldiers and tanks moved to the outskirts of Bethlehem, allowing the residents who have been under curfew for nine weeks to leave their homes.
But the tight military blockade around the city continues, cutting it off from other parts of the West Bank. Bethlehem has been transformed into an island.
But even this small gesture, initiated by Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, has little to do with his concern for the Palestinians, 2 million of whom have been imprisoned in their homes for nearly 70 days.
Rather, the appearance of Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna on the political scene — as a contender for leading the Labor Party in the next national elections — seems to have induced Mr. Ben-Eliezer to finally negotiate with the Palestinians. Mr. Mitzna, who is part of Labor’s dovish wing, has, according to the polls, a 60 percent lead over Mr. Ben-Eliezer.
While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not opposed Mr. Ben-Eliezer’s initiative, he has a few ideas of his own.
On Aug. 20, only hours after Israeli and Palestinian forces began implementing the Gaza-Bethlehem First withdrawal plan, he authorized the arrest of Mohammed Saadat, the brother of Ahmed Saadat, who is the current leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The elite military unit that was sent to do the job killed Mohammed, the young brother.
As the news of Mr. Saadat’s death spread, violence once again flared in the occupied territories following nearly two weeks of relative quiet.
The PFLP also vowed to avenge the assassination, and if the past is any indication of the future, it will make good on its promise.
Mr. Sharon, though, is not a man to make arbitrary decisions. Killing Mr. Saadat was just part of his ongoing attempt to subjugate the Palestinians.
The closures and curfews have not worked, nor have the extra-judicial executions, the demolition of homes and the deportation of family members. So perhaps arresting and killing brothers of political leaders — "as a potential deterrent" — will.
But what is Mr. Sharon’s goal?
After an F-16 jet dropped a one-ton bomb on a crowded residential area in Gaza on July 22, killing 17 people — nine of them children — and wounding more than 140 others, Mr. Sharon exclaimed that the attack had been one of Israel’s "biggest successes."
Despite harsh international criticism, Mr. Sharon remained unrepentant.
The Israeli press suggested that his triumphant cry had less to do with the operation’s formal objective — the extra-judicial execution of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh — than with the successful destruction of a unilateral cease-fire agreement formally finalized by different Palestinian military factions a day before the massacre.
Predictably, the cease-fire was annulled and a series of Hamas attacks followed, killing nearly 30 people and wounding many more. Among them was the bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria, where nine people died, including five Americans.
Not unlike the bombing of Gaza, killing Mr. Saadat on the eve of the implementation of Gaza-Bethlehem First was meant to add fuel to the violence. It is still too soon to tell how many Israelis will die this time.
Again and again, Mr. Sharon has chosen the battleground as the arena of action because he does not believe in a diplomatic solution to the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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 Yasser Arafat remains in charge, if Mr. Sharon gets his way, a "reformed" Palestinian Authority will no longer serve as the political representative of an independent state.
Rather, it will operate as a subcontractor for the Israeli government — a civil administration of sorts, responsible for education, health, sewage and garbage collection, and for policing the streets, as Gaza-Bethlehem First appears to entail.
The strategy is clear: confer on the Palestinians the costly role of managing civil life, but eliminate their political freedoms while controlling them from afar. South Africans called them Bantustans.
To accomplish this vision, Mr. Sharon needs to break the spirit of the Palestinian people, hoping that at a certain point they will bow. This, it seems, is exactly what he has been trying to do. The Gaza-Bethlehem First plan does not undermine his objective because it prolongs the strangulation and humiliation of the Palestinians, even while it allows them to leave their homes.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org