Waiting for Sharon
Among Palestinians in the occupied territories, the prospect that Ariel Sharon will be Israel's next prime minister is met with a shrug of the shoulders. The indifference is not from ignorance. Palestinians know well Sharon's history. They have always been the victims of it.
Leading the Israeli army's "southern command," Sharon ruthlessly crushed the Palestinian resistance in what was then the newly occupied Gaza Strip in the early 1970s. And of course it was Sharon, as Israel's defense minister, who was held "indirectly responsible" (by an independent Israeli Commission of Inquiry) for the massacre of about 2,000 Palestinians at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The commission recommended that Sharon "draw the appropriate personal conclusions" and resign from his post as defense minister.
Rather, the Palestinians' apathy is explained by the comparison they make between Sharon and Israel's present prime minister. "By his actions, Ehud Barak has erased any difference between the two men in the Palestinian perception," says Palestinian political leader Mustafa Barghouthi. Four months after Sharon--with Barak's approval--decided to "demonstrate Jewish sovereignty" over the Islamic holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem by making a provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif, Palestinian losses from Israel's suppression of the "intifada al-Aksa" are beginning to reach Sabra and Shatila proportions.
According to Barghouthi's Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, Palestinian casualties from the Israeli army and settlers now stand at nearly 360 killed and more than 13,000 injured. In addition, according to a UN economist, a military blockade isolating each Palestinian town and village from the other in the occupied territories has caused a 13 percent decline in the Palestinians' GDP and a 50 percent increase in their unemployment and poverty levels.
"The vast majority of Palestinians don't see Sharon or Barak. They see an army, with Sharon and Barak as its generals," says Barghouthi. Some Palestinians see more. They believe a Sharon victory will be a boon for their cause. "He will expose the true face of Israel," says Hussam Khader, an activist in Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement in Nablus, "and force the world, including the US, to address its real responsibilities to the peace process."
This is not a vision shared by the Palestinian negotiators. Perhaps they are aware that the "world" is never so negligent of its "responsibilities" as when Israel is the culprit, but surely they are concerned that the fall of Barak and rise of Sharon may spell the end not only of what is left of the negotiating process but also their own privileged leadership position within it. This may be why Arafat is warning that Sharon would be a "disaster" for the peace process and would increase the risk of regional war.
For most Palestinians--and a few Israelis--the recent "intensive talks" between the two sides at the Egyptian resort of Taba were thus seen not as a genuine attempt to seal an agreement, but as a charade to woo back to Barak's fold two Israeli constituencies threatening to abandon him on election day, February 6. These include some elements of the Jewish left, appalled by his excessive response to the Palestinian uprising, and the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel who remember that it was Barak (and not Sharon) who gave the order that the police shoot dead thirteen of their kin during October protests in Galilee.
The difference in the appraisal of a Sharon victory is not the only rift between the leaders and the led in Palestinian society. Another is over whether to participate at all in negotiations when Israel is still using lethal force to put down the uprising and the West Bank and Gaza are still under siege. For the various Palestinian factions--including Fatah--the subtext of the Taba negotiations was less "peace" than a joint effort by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to, if not end the intifada, then at least keep it at an acceptable level of violence.
The suspicion was acute because all were aware that Taba was conceived at a meeting in Cairo in early January between Israeli and PA security chiefs, brokered by the CIA. Since then--aided by the quiet resumption of cooperation between the two security forces--there has been a steep decline in the popular demonstrations that marked the initial phase of the uprising and a less pronounced fall in the number of armed Palestinian attacks on soldiers and settlers that characterized the next. The danger is that as the national struggle has ebbed, a wilder, more indiscriminate violence has taken its place.
In the last two weeks of January, four Israeli civilians--as opposed to soldiers and settlers--were killed in the occupied territories, apparently for no other reason than being Israeli in the wrong place at the wrong time. There has been a revival of Palestinian "collaborator" killings similar to those that so blighted the last years of the first intifada. And, most ominous, there has been the return to Palestinian political assassination as distinct from the Israeli army's "precise" (and extrajudicial) execution of Palestinian political and military leaders.
On January 17 the head of the Palestinian Authority's Broadcasting Corporation, Hishem Mekki, was shot by masked gunmen in a Gaza hotel. He was killed for "practicing sex and stealing money," ran a statement from the Brigades of Al-Aksa, a vigilante group made up of disaffected members of Fatah and the PA's intelligence forces. The hit was popular among local Palestinians, who loathed Mekki--and others of his ilk--for his corruption, arrogance and womanizing. But wiser Palestinian heads see in his murder a sign that the struggle for liberation from Israeli rule is being replaced by a struggle for power within the regime.
Given such a scenario, the Palestinians could hardly be in worse shape to confront the "Sharon era." And eighteen years after he was forced to resign from office because of Sabra and Shatila--and 16 to 20 points ahead in the polls--Sharon could hardly be in better shape. Especially as there is no evidence at all to suggest he has changed his ways.
In an interview in early January with a Russian-language radio station in Israel, Sharon reminisced about the methods he had used in Gaza in the 1970s. He plowed vast "security roads" through the refugee camps, shot dead any Palestinian suspected of nationalist activity and conquered the Strip locale by locale. "I succeeded in bringing quiet to Gaza for ten years," he recalled. Would he use the same methods today? "Today the situation is different," he said, but "the principles are the same principles."