Two weeks after 60,000 Likud members voted against a pullout from the Gaza Strip, about 150,000 Israelis filled Rabin Square in Tel-Aviv, calling upon the government to proceed with the withdrawal plan. The first group supports the vision of a Greater Israel, the second supports the state of Israel. The first group believes that without Gaza Israel will be destroyed, the second believes that with it Israel will be destroyed.
The contested area is an extremely densely populated yet arid region. Enclosed by a security fence on three sides and the Mediterranean Sea on the fourth, Gaza has become a prison for most of the population. Within it live 1.3 million Palestinians, of which over 900,000 are refugees who moved to the region after losing their homes in 1948. There is barely any industry in the Strip, and very few residents have been able to obtain permits to leave in search of work.
Unemployment rate is estimated at 50 percent, and figures indicate that 84 percent of the Palestinian residents live in poverty, with an average per capita income of $2 per day. Considering that the Strip is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, it is not surprising that most people have become dependent on aid handouts. Practically all doors have been closed, except, of course, the mosque doors.
7,500 Jewish settlers also live in this desolate region, less than one percent of the total population of Gaza. They believe in the Greater Israel, and now control over one third of the Strip’s territory. Whereas about half of the Palestinians live in squalid refugee camps, the settlers have nice villas with green lawns and playgrounds, and use about seven times more water than their occupied neighbors.
Ironically, Sharon’s unilateral plan to dismantle the Gaza settlements and withdraw the troops who guard them, while closing of all the Strip’s borders — including access from air and sea — was also informed by the Greater Israel paradigm. Sharon realized that the occupied Palestinians will always have a demographic advantage in the area, and he is no longer willing to allocate outrageous amounts of resources to protect the handful of Jewish settlers living there. One senior United Nations official recently put it to me in the following way: “Sharon intends to remove the wardens, lock-up the prison, and throw the keys into the sea.”
Sharon’s proposal, though, is also about annexation, not only withdrawal. One clause stipulates that areas within the West Bank “will remain part of the state of Israel, among them civilian settlements, military zones and places where Israel has additional interests.” The Bush Administration supported this clause, legitimating Sharon’s request to annex de jure what has already been annexed de facto. The idea is to provide legal standing to the 220,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and the 180,000 living in East Jerusalem, and, in this way, reduce the possibility that they will need to return to Israel proper in any future agreement.
Paradoxically, though, the Likudniks rejected their leader’s plan. The highly efficient yet extremist West Bank settler organization, the Yesha Council, managed to hijack the ruling party. In the days leading up to the referendum, settlers went from door to door, convincing Likud voters to reject Sharon’s proposal; ultimately, 60 percent were persuaded.
Why, one might ask, did the West Bank settlers reject Sharon’s unilateral plan? After all, in return for relocating 7,500 settlers, Bush acknowledged the legality of 400,000 settlers and, in this way, helped cement the dream of a Greater Israel.
The answer is simple. The settlers know, better than anyone else, that in the occupied territories the rule of law matters much less than facts on the ground. The settlers learned as much from Sharon himself, who is considered the father of Israel’s unruly settlement project. They accordingly care less about legalisms and more about implementation, and a withdrawal from Gaza would create a dangerous precedent: it would be the first time that Jewish settlements were dismantled within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And if it can happen in the Strip, it can happen in the West Bank as well.
Sharon no longer accepts this logic, and while he might have lost the battle, he has yet to lose the war. He is intent on moving forward with his original plan, and the military campaign launched in Gaza in many ways serves his objective.
Sharon turned Gaza into a military playground some time ago. Yet after his recent defeat at the polls he decided to transform it into a Lebanon of sorts. Whereas only 12 out of the 116 terrorist attacks perpetrated inside Israel since the eruption of the second Intifada came out of the Gaza Strip, 45 percent of the Palestinians killed by the Israeli military are Gazans (about 1,000 people). The Israeli military has destroyed hundreds of houses in the Strip, thus rendering over 17,500 people homeless. In the past few days the south part of Gaza was cut-off from the north, and as scores of Palestinians were killed and over 100 houses were demolished, thousands fled Rafah in fear of being hurt. A whole civilian area was transformed into a war zone. The Lebanonization of Gaza has succeeded.
On the one hand, Sharon has successfully convinced large segments of the Israeli public that the military campaign in Gaza, including the massive house demolitions, are carried out in order to “stop the terrorist cells’ oxygen.” Unlike his 1982 invasion of Beirut, this time even the Supreme Court has given its green light, rendering both Sharon and his campaign kosher.
On the other hand, the senseless deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers during the campaign’s first days has shocked the Israeli public, reminding it of the pointless occupation of Lebanon. Their deaths have become an impetus for insisting on the withdrawal of troops and the dismantling of settlements.
Sharon, so it seems, is destroying Gaza in order to withdraw from it, thus suggesting that the new Sharon is still the old Sharon. His myopic plans, informed by short term security concerns, totally ignore Israel’s aspiration to be a democratic state in the Middle East and have nothing to do with a vision of peace. Regardless of whether he manages to implement his plan, the vision of a Greater Israel, as opposed to a state of Israel, has, for the time being, triumphed.
NEVE GORDON is an activist in Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org