Locked in War's Embrace
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon needs Hamas and its suicide bombers to destroy Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority
By Amy Wilentz*
Los Angeles Times - October 13, 2002 - NEW YORK -- Ariel Sharon's nickname is "the Bulldozer." He's called that because of his temperament, a man who brooks no challenge and who ignores all obstacles. But in recent times, the sobriquet has become more literal. As prime minister of Israel, the Bulldozer's favorite policy instrument has been the bulldozer -- platoons of them, in fact.
The bulldozer does Sharon's hard work for him; it has become his political alter ego. He uses it to tear down the houses of relatives of Palestinians suspected of participating in terror attacks on Israel. He uses it to create access into the warrens of refugees in the camps. He uses it to knock down the walls of the Muqata, Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, and then to knock down some of the buildings there, and then to knock down some more of the buildings there, some more walls. Today, the Muqata is just rubble and a single building, and the Israelis, who have ostensibly lifted the siege against the Palestinian leader at U.S. urging, have merely retreated 25 or so yards to the Muqata's periphery--or former periphery. The sad irony of this seemingly endless real estate battle is that before the complex was turned over to Arafat's authority in 1994, the Muqata was the central command for Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Two peoples, so tightly bound to each other, etc., etc.
True to type, Sharon is a person who does not hesitate to invade another's "personal space." He's not standoffish. During the days of Oslo, he was not much visible, but you knew he was around. One way to sense the presence was to walk through the Arab quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. If you passed by a certain doorway there, you'd notice that it was guarded by two or three Israeli soldiers in full uniform, with machine guns. If you bothered to inquire about what important building this could be, you'd be told that this was a house that Sharon had bought in the quarter. Just to show he could do it, people said. To make a point. That he had the right. This house and the reason he occupied it certainly came to mind when Sharon showed he had the right to march on the Temple Mount in September 2000 and, by doing so, gave the Palestinians the final excuse they needed to begin the bloody and destructive Al Aqsa intifada.
The battle over Arafat's Muqata has really been a microcosm of the battle over the eventual political status of the Palestinians. By now, there can be no mistaking what Sharon's plans are: the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and the retaking of the West Bank, and probably Gaza in some guise (although it has often been said of Gaza: Who would want it? Which is why it has been shoved back and forth so often, even in its recent history, among neighboring peoples).
The Bulldozer is not a man of subtlety. He does what he means to do: If he destroys the authority, that's because that's what he wanted to do; he will not do it by accident. If in the process he elevates Hamas and its political power, it's a price he's clearly willing to pay. If by some chance his actions against Arafat make Arafat more popular among the Palestinians, that's fine. He does not seem to spend a lot of time preoccupied with the future of Palestinian democracy. Democracy for the Palestinians, like peace with them, is not something that weighs on Sharon's conscience. He sees himself as at war with Palestine; in his mind, Israel is waging eternal war against the implacable, inhuman Arab foe. When suicide bombs are exploding everywhere, you begin to think he might be right.
But he's not. It's important to peer through the smoke and blood, and look for truth, not bombast. An acceptable peace would be accepted, and it doesn't have to be a peace where one side is removed from the scene. Clearly, it can include neither the old formula of sweeping the Jews into the sea nor the new formula of sweeping the Palestinians out of the territories. After many years of delusion, the Palestinians recognized that they were not going to uproot the Israelis, and they came to the peace talks -- to oversimplify for a moment. During the days of Oslo, people, including Israelis, talked about the two-state solution, or if they did not like that, the one-state solution. But no one, except Hamas and Meir Kahane's Kach party, talked about the elimination of populations.
Now that Oslo has come undone, however, certain Israelis (and Sharon has not divorced himself from them) have begun once again to contemplate what was started in 1948: actually getting rid of the Palestinians, moving them out. The plan, which is now euphemistically called "transfer," seems more plausible today than it did then, because of Israel's incomparably superior firepower. During Sharon's campaign, the bumper stickers and posters around Israel used to read "Sharon = Peace and Security." Now, even more ominously, they read: "Transfer = Peace and Security." At the end of e-mails sent out by Israeli settler organizations, there is a line that reads: "Take it back. Take it all back."
What is happening now in Israel and on the West Bank and in Gaza looks like war because it is war. Sharon operates outside anything that might semi-reasonably still be called a peace process, and the reason why? Because he does not believe in peace with Palestinians. It is beyond his imagining. When Sharon sees peace or anything like it, he goes after it, like a child with a tower made of blocks. It tempts his hand. What seemed to bring him into the most recent siege of the Muqata (and can there ever be another? Is there enough left?) was that, according to Israeli military intelligence, the Palestinian Authority's Tanzim and Al Aqsa wings had quietly established a cease-fire; that Palestinians were actually talking about replacing Arafat; that members of Palestinian civil society had condemned suicide bombing.
All this taken together with President Bush's interest in a Palestinian state meant, to anyone who was watching, that the Palestinians were gearing themselves up for another foray into international legitimacy and peace. Peace is the tower Sharon cannot leave standing. So the Bulldozer waited for another suicide bombing, which Hamas gladly provided, as usual, and used it as a pretext to go after the Palestinian Authority again.
One could mention Sharon's insane preoccupation with the authority, and his laying responsibility for all violence against Israel at Arafat's door. One could discuss his reasons for doing so (destroy putative peace partner; end silly Oslo talk once and for all; keep Israel intact as is; extend the occupation ... ), and for attacking Arafat every time Hamas or anyone else strikes. One could say that nothing has been so obviously cynical as Sharon's destroying Arafat's security apparatus while demanding that the Palestinian president clamp down on Hamas et al. But the argument has moved beyond all this. All this is, in a sense, restating what ought by now to be evident.
Unlike the Muqata, the house of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the quadriplegic eminence grise of Hamas, which sits down a dusty street behind a basketball court in Gaza, still stands. No bulldozer has bulldozed it. In fact, Yassin's low, modest home has never been attacked by the Israeli Defense Forces, never been shelled. One could mention the fact that for all Abdulaziz Rantisi's terrible bluster and menace, the IDF has also never touched this senior Hamas official, who is frequently quoted and not exactly in hiding. Why, one wonders, is Yassin's house intact while Arafat's headquarters are in ruins?
The likely answer is that Sharon and Hamas have the same agenda: the destruction of peace. The extremes dance to each other's music, and Sharon must be fully aware that after smashing peace each time it rears its ugly head, he will be left to deal with Hamas. Hamas has just been one of his tools for getting rid of the Palestinian Authority and everything it stands for. Once that's done, Hamas will be easier to run under: It has no standing, no international legitimacy, no Western friends. He can just blow it away.
The only problem with this scenario, like all scenarios envisioned by the blindered Sharon, is that other factors, sometimes outside factors, come into play in the Middle East. It's not all about him and Israel. There is Sept. 11 and the great feeling of solidarity among Arabs that America's war against the Taliban's Afghanistan engendered. The Arab street, as it is called, is likely to side with any Palestinian movement, including Hamas, against the Israelis in any coming confrontation.
There is also the growing U.S. distaste for Sharon's smashing and crashing, as President Bush tries to placate the Arab world while preparing to wage war against one of its constituents. Sharon is in a tight spot, one that demands a feel for diplomatic niceties and a sensitivity to nuance, qualities he is not known for. Sharon, or at least Israel, needs the counterweight of moderate Palestinians, like the ones who signed a document disavowing suicide bombings. The Palestinian cause will not vanish without some real justice for Palestinians. Neither occupation, nor fences, nor transfer will end the bloodshed. Even justice may not end it completely -- but it will, or would have, gone a long way.
This is why Sharon has never been so questioned and so doubted among Israelis as he has in the wake of his last descent on the Muqata. He has been leading the country down a dark and dangerous path, and more of his countrymen all the time are reluctant to follow.
The opposition in Israel is now making some feeble movements, and one can only hope it will have the courage -- and it takes a lot of courage when your own people are being blown up around the corner -- to continue to challenge Sharon in a meaningful way, and loudly. Following his own instincts and impulses, the general has unwittingly let his country down. The opposition cannot afford to do so. If the Israeli peace movement and its natural political allies move together, as they have in the past, it is possible that Sharon's political future will end up buried beneath the ruins of the buildings his bulldozers took down.
*Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of "Martyrs' Crossing: A Novel."