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Politics

Sharon’s Strategy Succeeds

18 August 2005

Sharon’s Strategy Succeeds (For Now)

By Gwynne Dyer

Asher Weisgan, the Israeli settler who murdered three Palestinians at random in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh on Wednesday, was clearly very upset by the forced evacuation of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called him a “Jewish terrorist”, which was true enough — but like all terrorists, he was seeking to create a political effect. He wanted to goad the Palestinians into some act of retaliatory terror so monstrous that it would force Sharon to halt the evacuations.

So far the major Palestinian militant organisations haven’t fallen into his trap — but then they are terrorists themselves, and would understand exactly what Weisgan was up to. It’s the same sort of tactic that Hamas used when it started bombing Israeli civilian buses in the middle of the1996 election.

At that time, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had just been assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to his policy of trading “land for peace” with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and it looked as if Rabin’s heir Shimon Peres was going to float into office on a sympathy vote and finish what Rabin had started. Hamas utterly rejected a compromise peace that left Israel in possession of most of former Palestine, so it started bombing in order to stampede Israelis into voting for the Likud candidate, Binyamin Netanyahu, who was as determined as they were to prevent a “land-for-peace” deal. It worked.

Some people find this kind of logic convoluted and even paranoid, but they haven’t spent much time in Israel or Palestine. Each side has its hard-liners who must give public lip-service to “peace”, but really would prefer eternal confrontation to a peace that requires compromises on territory. There is a great deal of tacit collaboration between them, with each group of extremists giving the other side plausible reasons to break off negotiations and reject concessions. Things are rarely what they seem in this struggle.

Which brings us to Ariel Sharon, formerly the hardest of hard-liners and the moving force behind the whole policy of creating Jewish settlements on conquered Palestinian land after 1967. Has he actually changed his spots, or is the evacuation of the Gaza Strip just a smoke-screen for his real intentions? Well, listen to him.

“I think it is important that they (Gaza settlers) know that what they did was not in vain. There are certainly great achievements, with the big (West Bank) settlements that will remain in Israeli hands.” He is removing 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip (where they lived surrounded by 1.3 million Arabs and could never be secure anyway) in order to secure the position of some 400,000 Jewish settlers on formerly Palestinian land in the West Bank. That’s not exactly a defeat for Zionism, if it works.

It all comes down to what Israelis call the”demographic problem.” Most of them want to live in a state that is both Jewish and democratic, but for decades now some of them have also nourished the dream that that state could include all or almost all of former Palestine. Palestinians have a much higher birth-rate than Israelis, however, and despite the immigration of a million people of Jewish descent from the countries of the former Soviet Union over the past fifteen years, Arabs now make up almost exactly half the people living under the Israeli government’s control.

Or rather, they would, if Ariel Sharon was not pulling the Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip and redefining the territory’s 1.3 million Arabs as no longer Israel’s responsibility. The withdrawal also ends a pointless waste of Israeli lives: nearly a hundred Israeli soldiers have been killed trying to protect the hopelessly vulnerable settlements. (Some of them started calling themselves “human flak-jackets.”)

Sharon has a solution for the West Bank, too. The “security fence” that is now creating a new de facto border there will incorporate almost all the Jewish settlements into Israel but exclude most of the West Bank’s Palestinians. Demographic problem greatly ameliorated, and Israel gets to keep a lot of the more desirable land.

As for the settlers in the Gaza Strip, the more heart-rending their distress at being evacuated, the better it looks internationally. Sharon has been under strong international pressure to revive the “peace process” ever since he took office, so he needed a distraction. The anguish of the settlers, relayed around the world by television, creates the impression that Israel has made a great sacrifice and relieves the pressure on Sharon to do anything else.

So he doesn’t really mind the images coming out of the Gaza Strip, although he must pretend to. Only the small minority of Israeli religious extremists who cannot bear the thought of relinquishing a single stone of the Promised Land see this evacuation as a real tragedy, so they need something else to mobilise their fellow-countrymen against it. That something else, of course, is some ghastly act of Palestinian terrorism.

All Palestinians want the Israeli settlers out of the Gaza Strip, regardless of Sharon’s real motives, so they are not going to do such a thing voluntarily. Therefore they must be goaded into it. And hence Asher Weisgan’s act of “Jewish terror,” for which he will probably spend a few years in jail and then emerge as a hero to all his friends. Only very stupid Palestinians would fall for this provocation — so for the moment, at least, Sharon is getting away with it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“So far…worked”)