Sharon’s Preemptive Zeal


No more than a month ago I sat with a friend drinking coffee at the Hillel Cafe in Jerusalem. Today it is a shattered edifice, with blood stains on the floor. Indeed, this was the first thought that crossed my mind after hearing the news about the horrific suicide attack that left another 7 Israelis dead and 45 wounded. "I could have been there," I said to myself.

It is a frightening thought, one that has crossed the mind of many an Israeli, particularly since the eruption of the second Intifada in September 2000 — a period in which 244 suicide attacks have been carried out. Just as disturbing, though, is the thought that this bloody reality has been accepted by the Israeli public as part of their daily routine; so much so that the same people who are terrified to leave their homes now consider Israel’s gory mode of existence as their karma, as if the political realm were in some odd way predetermined.

But politics, as the great Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt repeatedly stated, is the realm of freedom, where humans actually have the opportunity to begin something new through speech and deed. Even "in the epochs of petrifaction and foreordained doom," she claimed, the faculty of freedom, "which animates and inspires all human activities and is the hidden source of production of all great and beautiful things" usually remains intact.

What Israelis and Palestinians have been witnessing in the past few weeks is a concerted effort to destroy the road that might have led the two peoples out of a foreordained doom and into a new beginning. Notwithstanding the impression some people might have, this myopic effort has been led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, not only by Hamas. His strategy is one of preemptive strikes.

Approximately two months ago, the different Palestinians factions decided to implement a houdna (ceasefire in Arabic) and to stop attacking Israeli targets. Despite the fact that numerous militant groups operate without a central command in the Occupied Territories, for almost a month and a half the houdna managed to hold up. While one assault was perpetrated in the West Bank by a small splinter group, the violence had subsided and it appeared as if serious negotiations would resume.

Then, suddenly, as if out of the blue, the Israeli military invaded Askar refugee camp, killing four Palestinians, including two members of Izzeddin Al-Qassam, Hamas’ military wing. The operation was a preemptive strike, the Israeli spokesman explained.

The Palestinians decided not to retaliate.

Less than a week later, on August 14, Israeli troops entered Hebron and killed a member of the Islamic Jihad. Another preemptive attack. Only this time the Palestinians did respond, and on August 19 a suicide bomber exploded inside a public bus. Israel, in turn, used its forces to carry out a series of extra-judicial executions, and now a month after the preemptive assault on Askar camp, the streets between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea are once again covered with blood.

The logic of preemptive strikes, however, does not merely inform Sharon’s policy of extra-judicial executions; it is the logic that has informed his actions throughout his military and political careers.

Three examples will have to suffice: the Jewish settlements, the Lebanon War, and the separation wall.

Sharon is considered by many to be the father of Israel’s unruly settlement project. He earned this title while serving as Minister of Agriculture during Menachem Begin’s first government. Sharon had hoped to become Defense Minister and was disappointed when Ezer Weizmann received the appointment, but minor details of this kind have never stopped him from pursuing his goals.

Weizmann opposed the settlement project and opined that Israel should withdraw from the territories within the framework of a peace accord. Sharon, on the other hand, believes in the Greater Israel, and, in order to preempt the possibility of any future agreement based on land for peace, he initiated, as the chair of the government’s Settlement Committee, a massive settlement enterprise. Whereas Israel built 20 settlements between 1967 and 1976, within less than four years Sharon managed to build close to 50 new settlements, totally changing the landscape of the West Bank.

In August 1981, Sharon became Defense Minister. Four years earlier, he had told an Israeli reporter that "the Arab states are swiftly preparing for war, and we are sitting on a barrel of explosives wasting our time on nonsense. The Arabs," he continued, "will launch a war in the summer or the fall." The war did not come, at least not until Sharon assumed office.

The story of how Sharon led Israel into Lebanon, hoping to establish a puppet government in order to preempt attacks from the north, is by now well known. When Israel finally withdrew its forces 20 years later, thousands of civilians and soldiers lay buried in the ground, hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced, and much of Lebanon was in shatters, but Sharon held on to the logic of the preemptive strike.

Not unlike the settlement project, Lebanon War, and extra-judicial executions, the separation wall should also be conceived as a preemptive attack. While Sharon declares that the wall is being built solely for security reasons, he neglects to say that it is not being erected on the 1967 borders, and is actually being used as an extremely effective mechanism to expropriate Palestinian land and create facts on the ground so as to preempt any future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Its effect is not less violent than the assassinations and suicide bombings. Already in this early stage, the wall has infringed on the rights of more than 210,000 Palestinians, some of whom now live in ghettos between the wall and Israel.

The crux of the matter is that Sharon’s preemptive logic undercuts all form of dialogue and negotiations. Its rule of thumb is violence, and then more violence, whether it manifests itself as a military attack or as an aggressive act of dispossession. So while it may seem that the bloody routine is in some way preordained, it is actually Sharon’s preemptive zeal alongside Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s fundamentalism that has clouded the horizon and concealed, as Arendt might have said, the possibility for a better future.

NEVE GORDON teaches politics and human rights at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and has written about the outsourcing technique within the Israeli context for the Journal of Human Rights. He can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

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