Until this weekend Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens had stayed out of the debate about the country’s imminent disengagement from Gaza. “It’s not our story,” they said when pressed, “this is an entirely Jewish conversation.” Although Israeli Jews have been flying blue and orange ribbons from their cars for months - showing respectively support for and opposition to the disengagement - car aerials in Israel’s Arab towns and villages have remained resolutely bare.
That is no longer the case. At the weekend the Arab drivers in the Galilee could be seen flying black ribbons to commemorate the killings of four Arab citizens on a bus on Thursday afternoon by a young Jewish extremist with his Israeli army-issued rifle. Now Israel’s Palestinian citizens find themselves part of the conversation, whether they like it or not.
Mourners at the funerals in the Arab town of Shefaram on Friday were agreed that the bus was attacked because it was a soft target for extremist settles prepared to use any tactics to stop the disengagement. The 19-year-old gunman, Eden Nathan Zada, presumably hoped that by killing Arab citizens he could provoke riots across the Galilee that would draw the massed ranks of soldiers away from Gaza. The settlers might then be able to reach their desired destination, the threatened settlements of the Strip.
The country’s Arab minority, however, is refusing to be dragged into a confrontation with the security forces. And for the moment, at least, the government appears to be siding with Arab citizens against the extremist settlers. Ariel Sharon, who lost no time in denouncing Zada as “a bloodthirsty terrorist”, needs Palestinian citizens to stay “on side” as he takes on opponents who hope to bring about his downfall over the disengagement.
But what about the day after the pullout from Gaza? What does Sharon plan then? In this respect, the country’s Arab citizens have strong grounds to be extremely fearful, as many of their leaders admit in private.
Their reasoning is based on an understanding that the second intifada is all but finished and that a third intifada - with very different features and goals - will begin soon after disengagement. The signs are that, despite their success in staying out of the two previous intifadas, the minority will have little choice but to be dragged into the struggle this time.
That assessment is based on a view shared by almost all Palestinians that Sharon has no intention of turning the disengagement - what they interpret as a military redeployment to Gaza’s perimeters - into the first step towards Palestinian statehood.
And as if to confirm their fears, the Israeli prime minister and his generals are already warning that they will “respond very harshly”, as Sharon recently told Condoleezza Rice, against any signs of what Israel regards as Palestinian “terrorism”. General Eival Giladi, a military adviser to Sharon, has said there is likey to be “major collateral damage”, that is civilian deaths, if Gazans refuse to keep quiet post-disengagement. In such circumstances, it is difficult to believe Palestinians and Israelis will not be forced into another round of bloodletting.
For the time being, however, Palestinians are adopting a wait-and-see policy as they try to divine their future and the likely response of the international community. They are fully aware that, just as Olso altered the terms of the conflict, the disengagement will transform the nature of the occupation and require new strategies of resistance.
So what will be the battleground of a third intifada? Most likely, it will be shaped by Israel’s current obsessive policy of “ethnic consolidation”, of which disengagement is only a small part. Israeli demographers believe that today’s slim majority of Jews in the land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan - 5.2 million Jews to 4.9 million Palestinians - will be eroded within a decade. For Israelis that revives issues that have been dormant since the Jewish state was established through war and ethnic cleansing in 1948.
The disengagement will instantly erase at least 1.2 million Gazans from the balance-sheet. But as the historian Benny Morris and the former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon have suggested the Israeli government’s greater concern is the “unfinished business” of 1948, the 20 per cent of the indigenous Palestinian population who were not expelled from the newly founded state of Israel.
Today comprising more than one million Israeli citizens, they are perceived by the Sharon government to be a double threat. First, they challenge Israel’s self-promotion as a “Jewish and democratic” state by exposing the fact that its politics are framed in entirely ethnic and racist terms.
But, more importantly in the eyes of Israeli policy-makers, a large Palestinian minority at the heart of the Jewish state fatally undermines Israel’s territorial ambitions in the occupied territories. Through potential marriage to the one million “Israeli Arabs”, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are offered a backdoor route to Israeli citizenship, thereby reversing the ethnic cleansing of more than half a century ago.
As Israel has been turning up the heat on the occupied territories, Israelis have begun fearing that more Palestinians will choose this path. That was why the Knesset passed an amendment to the Citizenship Law last month, making it impossible for most Palestinians to naturalise as Israelis on marrying an Israeli Arab. It closed once and for all the door on potentially tens of thousands of Palestinians, and many more of their offspring, who might have been eligible for Israeli citizenship.
The other strategy being formulated by Sharon against Israel’s Palestinian minority is what is being called the “silent transfer” of a sliver of land known as the Little Triangle, close to the West Bank, along with its quarter of a million Arab citizens, from Israeli sovereignty to that of the Palestinian Authority. In return Sharon would demand the annexation to Israel of illegal Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, including Maale Adumim and Ariel.
Despite the overwhelming opposition of the Triangle’s residents to the plan, Sharon is reported to be working with his officials to devise a way to sell this “transfer of citizenship” to the international community. If the plan is carried out, the Triangle’s inhabitants would lose all citizenship rights, and instead would find themselves being encased behind a new section of Israel’s wall.
According to Professor Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University, Israel has reached a “dangerous turning point” where it is searching ever more desperately for a pretext to remove the citizenship rights of the Palestinians it inherited unwillingly in 1948. The goal, says Prof Peled, is to create a demographically pure Jewish state and alongside it a stunted, phantom state for the region’s Palestinians.
As a result, Palestinians under Israeli rule - whether Arab citizens or occupied subjects - are finding themselves being pushed into the same corner, victims of the same oppressive and racist policies. The more Israel presses on with its “unfinished business” from 1948, the more likely it is that a third, even more violent intifada is just around the corner.
Jonathan Cook reports from Israel. He is a contributor to two forthcoming books, The Other Side of Israel (published by Doubleday, September 6) and Catastrophe Remembered (published by Zed Books, October 7). His website can be found at www.jkcook.net.