A War of Sharon's Making


For more than a year it has been discussed in the media and the political and military system: is what is going on between Israel and the Palestinians a war, or is it just "fighting"? Early this morning, the question has been resolved: it is war indeed. The government of Israel has officially and formally declared the Palestinian Authority and its president Yasser Arafat to be enemy, and instructed the armed forces under its command to actively and aggressively pursue the war by land, and sea.

This is not a random happening. In fact, it is the logical culmination of the policies undertaken by Ariel Sharon ever since he assumed power in February; and in fact, these are a direct continuation of Sharon's policies as Defence Minister in the early 1980's, when he initiated a disastrous invasion of Lebanon for the purpose of destroying the PLO and expelling Arafat.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Sharon has been edging closer and closer to this all-out war. Measures of oppression were steadily piled on top of each other, yesterday's outrageous innovation becoming today's routine. The "strangling closure" imposed on Ramalla at the very first week of Sharon's tenure and which aroused then many international protests was, in fact, far less severe than the siege at present imposed on each every West Bank town and village.

And the same process of familiarization had gone on with regard to the bombing of Palestinian cities - first by helicopter gunships (as already started by Barak), then by F-16 fighter planes; and with the more and more widespread assassination of Palestinians suspected of terrorism; and with armed incursions into Palestinian-held areas - first for days, later for weeks, then months.

Mediation efforts and plans there had been in plenty throughout Sharon's term. The PM hardly ever rejected any of them openly. Rather, he used what so far seems a foolproof method: making a rigid demand for seven days of "complete and absolute cease-fire" before any substantive negotiations can take place, and then making a gross provocation, just before the newest cease-fire is about to go into force.

What happened a bit more than a week ago was a particularly effective use of the technique: a few days before the latest mediator, the ex-US General Zinni, Sharon authorized the assassination by helicopter gunships of Mahmud Abu Hunud, a Hamas leader prominent and popular enough to ensure that his death would be avenged in Hamas' brutal fashion - particularly since the assassination took place when Palestinian public opinion was already inflamed by the death of five Palestinian children from an explosive charge set up by Israeli army sappers (which was, apparently, an accident).

The ploy was, in fact, quite obvious. It was commented on in the media at the time; the knowledgeable Alex Fishman pointed in Yedito Aharonot (Nov. 25) that the Abu Hunud assassination broke the tacit agreement between Arafat and Hamas not to carry out suicide bombing -- an agreement which had been in force for several months, and whose existence may well have saved dozens of Israeli lives.

Without access to Sharon's confidential records, there is no way of conclusively proving that the PM actually desired what followed. There is no doubt that he and his military and intelligence advisers knew full well what would result from assassinating Abu Hunud and nevertheless ordered the deed to be done. Nor can there be a doubt that Hamas' grisly revenge, causing the death of 26 randomly chosen Israelis, was of an inestimable profit to Sharon. It gave him the perfect pretext for the declaration of war upon Arafat, effectively scuttling the Zinni mission and letting the Pentagon hawks gain the upper hand over the State Department in the adminstration's infighting. As a the result Sharon's onslaught upon the Palestinians got an unprecented open backing from Washington.

With that kind of backing, Sharon could afford to adopt an openly contemptuous attitude to his Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, whose international prestige as Nobel Peace Prize laureate and supposed peacemaker were hitherto vital to the Sharon Government. Now, the PM could afford to ram his declaration of war through the cabinet and brush aside Peres' objections.

Sharon has been trumpeting his new campaign as "a war on terrorism" . But how can anybody seriously claim that the cause of "fighting terrorism" can be furthered by bombing and destroying Yasser Arafat's personal helicopters, which anyway never could fly without the Israeli Air Force's approval? Or by sending tanks and bulldozers to wreak the runways of Gaza International Airport - the airport which was inaugurated three years ago by President Bill Clinton in person, and which had been closed down ever since the outbreak of the Intifada? Or by again invading Ramallah, a large portion of which was just recently occupied by Israeli tanks without in the least diminishing the intensity of the Palestinian rebellion? Or even less, by systematically targeting and destroying the installations of the Palestinian Police and security services - the very apparatus with which Arafat had just begun the difficult and delicate task of confronting Palestinian militants.

Seen in the perspective of an Israeli Prime Minster who is determined to maintain Israeli occupation of and settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to smother any emergent Palestinian statehood, Sharon's campaign of the last days makes all too much sense. In which case Sharon seems to be getting the Bush Administration’s support in destroying what Secretary Powell described, just two weeks ago, as the United States' vision for the region's future: a viable Palestine living in peace side by side with Israel.

Adam Keller

Tel-Aviv, Dec. 4, 2001