Sharon’s ‘Disengagement’: A Pacifier for the Majority

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Getting out of the Gaza Strip is an old dream of the majority in Israeli society. Even before the Oslo agreements in 1993, the call to get out of there was heard after every terror attack. Today, according to the polls, it has the support of 60-70% of the Israelis. But governments come and fall, and still, this majority has not found the political power to realize its will.

At the start of the Oslo process, the majority believed that Israel was withdrawing first from the Gaza Strip. But Rabin gave the concept of withdrawal a new meaning: he left all of the settlements intact, increased their territory, and built a heavy fence around the areas left for the Palestinians. With the Gaza Strip imprisoned and isolated, there began a process of eternal negotiations with the Palestinian leadership over the details of further stages that would, perhaps, materialize at some future point. The majority believed at the time not only that we had already left Gaza altogether, but also that we were just about to get out of the rest of the occupied territories and end the occupation. This continued until the explosion that Barak created reminded us that, in fact, we have not yet gotten out of anything.

In February of 2002, Ami Ayalon and the council for Peace and Security called for a break from the route of eternal negotiations. It is both possible and necessary, they said, to withdraw unilaterally from the territories that the majority agrees we will get out of at the end of the process: all of the Gaza Strip and all of the West Bank, excluding 6%-10% of the big settlement blocks. This means evacuating unilaterally and immediately all of the settlements in these areas, even before the final agreement. At the polls, 60% supported this idea, but what came out of it at the end was an extensive campaign to ‘let us first build a fence’ (kodem gader ve-az nedaber). In the elections of 2003, Mitzna stepped into the spotlight with a more modest version of the idea of unilateral withdrawal - Let us evacuate the settlements of the Gaza Strip immediately. But during his election campaign, “immediately” has turned into “in a year or two after the elections”, and in the meanwhile, let us strengthen the fence.

But now, so the papers say, we have finally reached a historical turn. The majority is asked to believe that of all Israeli leaders, it is Sharon who will get us out of Gaza. Sharon, who shaped the map of the settlements in the Gaza Strip in the seventies, and explained persistently the supreme strategic importance of the Netzarim settlement in cutting the Strip into halves, Sharon of the Lebanon war, Sharon of Jenin - he is the one who will now dismantle the Gaza settlements and end the occupation there.

For those who doubt, ample evidence is provided by the world of politics. Intensive negotiations of the plan take place, with the U.S. and with Egypt. Low and behold, the right wing is already protesting, the settlers are furious, the chief of staff Ya’alon has reservations, and Sharon may be about to loose his coalition - a strong indication of how serious he is. Those who still doubt remember that there have already been many plans in the past, and road maps and diplomatic convoys, and still it turned out at the end that Sharon did not really mean what he said. To restore their faith, the political discourse is filled with explanations on why this time it is different. Some say that Sharon has changed, or that he has had to yield to the will of his voters, to whom he has promised peace. Others explain that what drives Sharon is the need to distract attention away from the various scandals and allegations of corruption in which he is involved, or that perhaps he is willing to give up on the Gaza settlements in order to gain international support for his fence plan in the West Bank.

The point is that in order to achieve the goals assumed in these explanations, one does not need to dismantle a single settlement. It is sufficient to declare intentions, and start a new process of negotiations. This is precisely what all Israeli governments have done successfully since 1993, and what Sharon has done for the last three years. The only innovation is that now negotiations take place with everyone except the Palestinians. All that is needed is to throw a pacifier at the majority and to convince them that this time Sharon really means it. This way, the majority will continue to sit silently another year, and let Sharon apply the Gaza model also in the West Bank.

The American historian Howard Zinn formulated a simple rule: Governments lie. It appears that this generalization is one of the most difficult for people to internalize and digest in a democratic society. Until this changes, the majority is doomed to believe again and again the same lie.

Narrowing the prison cells

Sharon’s “disengagement” plan was introduced in early February 2004, at the peak of international criticism of Sharon’s project of the Wall, with the Hague hearing scheduled to begin just a few weeks later, on February 23.

In an interview with Ha’aretz, Sharon announced that “this vacuum for which the Palestinians are to blame, cannot go on forever. So as part of the disengagement plan I ordered an evacuation — sorry, a relocation — of 17 settlements with their 7,500 residents, from the Gaza Strip to Israeli territory… The aim is to move settlements from places where they cause us problems or places where we won’t remain in a permanent arrangement. Not only settlements in Gaza, but also three problematic settlements in Samaria.” (Yoel Marcus, Ha’aretz, Feb 3, 2004).

Although the headlines presented this as a plan for an immediate unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, modeling Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, Sharon, in fact, clarified already in this interview that “the process will take one to two years”. He explained that a long process of negotiations lies ahead, not with the Palestinians, who will be excluded from any negotiations about the plan, but with the U.S., with whom, “agreement is needed on both the evacuation and the matter of the fence” (ibid).

Three days later, full details were given on what Sharon asks of the U.S. in return for his generous concessions - “shifting the separation fence to the east, with U.S approval, to a temporary security line that will surround more settlements than the present path of the fence… The new security line will be maintained until the full application of the road map. After negotiations [with the Palestinians] resume and an agreement reached, [Israel] will move the fence to the border that will be determined.” (Aluf Ben, Ha’aretz, Hebrew edition, Feb 6, 2004). Sharon also seeks U.S. permission “to expand the big settlement blocks in the West Bank, which are to be annexed to Israel in the permanent agreement” (ibid).

Indeed, the fence-route has been at the center of intense Israeli negotiations with the U.S. Nachum Barnea, one of the most well briefed Israeli journalists, reports that “Israel does not ask for money to finance the evacuation, although it will be glad to get it. It mainly seeks support of the fence-route.” (Yediot Aharonot Saturday supplement, Feb 20, 2004).

Apart from the negotiations with the U.S., there is no sign on the ground of any intention to evacuate from Gaza. A committee was formed to make plans about how to compensate the settlers there, but so far there are no reports of any interviews or contacts made by the committee with any of the settlers, nor of any concrete plans it has come up with. There isn’t even a list of the settlements that supposedly will be evacuated from Gaza. Shortly after Sharon’s ceremonial announcement to Yoel Marcus in Ha’aretz, we heard that “sources in Sharon’s office have said that the planned evacuation of Gaza will include less than the 17 settlements that Sharon mentioned in the interview with Yoel Marcus. According to a diplomatic source in Jerusalem, Sharon may propose to evacuate in the first stage only the isolated settlements and postpone the evacuation of the Katif block [the largest settlements block in the Gaza Strip] to a second stage” (Aluf Ben and Arnon Regular, Ha’aretz, Hebrew edition, Feb 9, 2004).

One could infer that at least isolated settlements such as Netzarim are being prepared for evacuation in the near future. This, in fact, would be a significant step forward. As Sharon has repeatedly explained, the Netzarim settlement was not erected arbitrarily. It lies close to the seashore in the middle of the Strip. In order to reach it from the mainland, Israel built a special road dotted with Israeli army posts. This road, with its constantly widening “security strip” separates the northern area of Gaza city from the rest of the Strip.

Transit between the northern part of the Strip and its southern part is completely at the mercy of the Israeli army, which means that, in reality, it is not possible for Palestinians. Evacuating at least this settlement with its road and army posts would enable some territorial continuity in the crowded Gaza Strip. But on the ground, work on fortifying this settlement has only intensified in recent weeks. “The IDF is currently building, at the cost of millions of shekels, a new electronic fence for Netzarim… The new fence will prevent penetration under foggy weather conditions… The chief of staff approved the plan and the region commander issued the orders, including the appropriation of land from Palestinians” (Nachum Barnea, Yeddiot Aharonot Saturday Supplement, March 12, 2004).

But since both Israelis and the world are so eager to believe that Sharon intends to evacuate the Gaza settlements soon, who would notice the daily horrors? At least the fence project in the West Bank is a focus of some world attention. In the Gaza Strip, the fence was already completed during the first stages of the Oslo process. The Strip has become a huge prison, further divided internally into smaller prison units. But the present project of the military is narrowing the prison cells even further. This is done through a steady erasure of houses and orchards along the “security strips”.

Alex Fishman, the senior military analyst of Yediot Aharonot, describes one of the projects that continues as Israel “prepares to withdraw”. “In the Gaza battalion, they keep executing gradually but systematically the old dream: to widen the “Philadelphia” road [along the border with Egypt] to at least one kilometer in width… The realization of this dream has been happening for two years already. Every time the IDF spokesman announces that our forces are operating in the area of Rafa to expose tunnels, a few rows of houses are erased in the refugee camp. In some of the segments of the road, the width is already a few hundred meters, and their hands are still outstretched.” (Yediot Aharonot Saturday Supplement, March 19, 2004).

Now that Sharon “intends to withdraw”, this project can continue undisturbed. Since the announcement of the new initiative, there have already been three murderous Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza (reported on February 12, March 8, and March 17-21). At the same time, new prospects are opened for the future maintenance of the prison, e.g. who should be responsible for feeding the prisoners. National Security Advisor Giora Eiland, who is in charge of composing the full details of the disengagement plan, explained in a meeting of the security establishment with Sharon that as Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip “it would no longer be responsible for what happened there. ‘Let the world worry about them,’ he said. ‘I will no longer be the occupier in Gaza, so it will be as much the Egyptians’ and Europeans’ business as mine’ ” (Aluf Benn, Ha’aretz, March 18, 2004).

Here is how Amira Hass describes the daily reality of the Gaza Strip:

This is an admission of failure. The written word is a failure at making tangible to Israeli readers the true horror of the occupation in the Gaza Strip… This admission of the failure of the written word is not meant to enhance the role of photography. A picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, but for the Israeli occupation to approach some level of comprehension, Israelis need to see tens of thousands of photographs, one after the other, or watch documentaries that are at least eight hours long each, so they could grasp in real time the fear in the eyes of the school children when some whistling above turns into twisted crushed metal with charcoaled bodies inside.

Another movie should show the viewers the vineyards of Sheikh Ajalin, the ripe grapefruits, the peasants who for years nurtured the fruit with great love only to see it all turned to scorched earth left behind by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. No movie has yet been produced that would enable Israelis to taste the wonderful grapes of Sheikh Ajalin. The vineyards are gone so the military positions can protect Netzarim.

How would photographs illustrate the following facts - from September 29th up to Monday this week, 94 Israelis have been killed - 27 civilians and 67 soldiers, according to the IDF. From that same date up to February 18th this year 1,231 Palestinians have been killed - all of them were terrorists? Lacking a central Palestinian agency, there are differences between the data provided by Palestinian groups and none claim to be 100 percent accurate…

The failure to bring all this home to readers is not because of the weakness of words or a lack pictures. It is because Israeli society has learned to live in peace with the following facts. There are 8,000 Jews and 1.4 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The total area of the Strip is 365 square kilometers. The settlements occupy 54 square kilometers. Along with the areas held by the IDF, according to the Oslo accords, 20 percent of the Strip is under Israeli control. That’s 20 percent of the territory for half of one percent of the population.

The proximity of every expansive settlement to the densely populated, suffocating crowded Palestinian community is what causes the large number of Palestinian casualties in the Gaza Strip, including many civilians. It is what determines the flexible rules of engagement, the type of bombs that break into fragments, the unmanned aircrafts that fire missiles.

Source: Amira Hass, Words have failed us, Ha’aretz, March 3, 2004.

Prof. Tanya Reinhart is a lecturer in linguistics, media and cultural studies at the Tel Aviv University. She is the author of several books, including Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948. Parts of this article first appeared in Hebrew in Yediot Aharonot, March 17, 2004.

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