Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcement that he plans to remove virtually all Israeli settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip has caused a shock wave in Israel.
Has some sudden epiphany convinced Sharon that the settlements are the key obstacle to peace and that Israel’s future is jeopardized by the continued attempt to incorporate occupied Palestinian territories into a greater Israel?
Many Israelis, especially in the military, have long felt that the Gaza settlements are pointless, and a massive drain on national resources for no serious purpose. The small Gaza settlements are purely symbolic, in stark contrast to the massive settlements on the West Bank, which have literally reshaped the landscape and are designed also to transform its demographic and political realities, making Israel’s control permanent.
While Sharon talks about removing settlements in Gaza, he is continuing to build them all over the West Bank, because he has no intention of permitting a real Palestinian state to be constructed.
One of the main reasons President Bush’s “road map” for peace failed was that Sharon reneged on promises that he would start removing new settlement “outposts.” Instead, he made a show of removing a few small, uninhabited sites, while setting up many more new ones and expanding dozens of major settlements up and down the West Bank.
Since Sharon broke those promises, Israel has announced thousands of new settler housing units. It recently allocated $1 million for yet another Jewish-only road in the West Bank, this one to connect an outpost settlement to a school run by an extremist Israeli group the U.S. State Department has formally designated as a terrorist organization.
Sharon’s announcement could simply be a ploy to offset scandals at home, and growing pressure on Israel abroad, by trying to create the impression that he is taking some far-reaching initiative without intending to actually do anything.
Within Israel, his proposal has divided the opposition.
The right now is split between those who see him as a traitor to the cause of settling all of “Eretz Yisrael,” or the Land of Israel, and those who see him as a pragmatist who can make tough decisions. Some on the left mistrust him completely, while others, like Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, welcome his proposals.
Sharon’s announcement has also drawn international attention away from the appalling separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.
Sharon probably does intend to remove the settlements from Gaza, although his strategic vision has only been hinted at.
His spokesman Raanan Gissin explained that “Sharon envisages territorial exchanges with the Palestinians as part of future permanent arrangements, under which Arab Israeli localities would pass under the sovereignty of the latter, while Jewish settlements [in the West Bank] would be integrated into Israeli territory.”
Sharon seems to be looking for a way to keep control of the West Bank—hence all the new settlements and the separation wall deep inside Palestinian territory—but maintain a Jewish majority among citizens of Israel.
Twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs. Gissin is proposing to strip at least some of them of their citizenship and transfer their villages to a Palestinian mini-state within a greater Israel.
From what we can piece together from his actions and statements, Sharon’s vision includes offloading to a faux Palestinian state the burden of Gaza, political responsibility for Palestinians in the West Bank, and a significant number of Israeli citizens of Arab origin as well. Such an arrangement would closely resemble efforts by South Africa’s apartheid rulers to maintain white rule and strip black citizens of their rights as South Africans by creating ostensibly independent states for them known as Bantustans.
That ploy failed disastrously because the international community saw this deception for what it was, while the injustices it created on the ground led to ever more determined protest and resistance.
It appears that Sharon is hoping to pull the same trick and get away with it.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. Hussein Ibish is communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. This article first appeared in The Chicago Tribune on 6 February 2004.