Demographic, Environmental,
Security Issues Project

Sharon’s Disengagement Charade: A Screen for Oppression

by Ronald Bleier
January 2005

Sharon first advanced his Gaza disengagement plan in a speech at the December 2003 Herzliya conference, “an annual gathering of Israel’s financial, political and academic aristocracy.” Sharon’s plan was reaffirmed in an interview in Ha’aretz in early February 2004 and was published in the Israeli papers April 16, 2004.[1] Except for a few marginalized critics, the plan was universally regarded as a major breakthrough despite the lack of a Palestinian partner or any evidence that Sharon actually intended to follow through with the removal of Gaza settlements.

The disengagement plan appeared at the height of the corruption scandal that engulfed Sharon and his sons and served to deflect domestic political opposition as well as growing international opposition to Israel’s construction of the Wall on Palestinian territory. Sharon’s plan provided President George W. Bush with sufficient cover to reverse long-standing U.S. policy relating to the Palestinians. In particular, Bush brushed aside the critical principle, often reiterated at the U.N., of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory conquered by force. In his dramatic joint press conference in Washington with the Sharon on April 14, 2004, President Bush, bowing, as he put it, to “new realities on the ground,” declared that Israel can permanently keep major settlements in the West Bank. Bush also rejected the Palestinian right of return to Israeli territory and froze the Palestinian leadership out of negotiations. At the same time, Bush effectively gave carte blanche to the continued Israeli construction of the Wall on Palestinian territory, albeit with the meaningless reservation that it was to be regarded as a temporary structure.

While the Bush concessions to Sharon were not in themselves binding, nevertheless the Israeli leader well understood their value as an historic precedent. It’s no wonder that on the return flight from Washington, Sharon and his colleagues celebrated with champagne. In a Knesset speech two weeks later, Sharon bragged that the U.S. concessions represented “the harshest blow to fall on the Palestinians since 1948.” In June 2004, both houses of Congress, by lop sided majorities, followed up with resolutions unreservedly endorsing President Bush’s giveaway to Sharon. Not surprisingly, when Israel’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, a member of Sharon’s government, announced in June 2004 that Sharon was cleared of all corruption charges, there was no effective protest in Israel against a leader who had successfully advanced a punishing anti Palestinian agenda both on the ground and in the international arena.

The disengagement plan also provided Sharon with cover on the military front. A succession of ruthlessly brutal intensive major IDF operations proceeded from March 2004 through October 2004 mostly in Gaza, but also including the West Bank, particularly in Hebron. These sweeps were kicked off with Operation Continuous Story and the March 2004 assassination of wheelchair bound Hamas political leader Sheik Yassin in Gaza and followed up the next month with the murder of his successor, Dr. Abd al- Rantisi. This was only the beginning for Gaza residents as Operation Rainbow soon followed in May 2004, followed by Operation Active Shield June –July 2004 and Operation Days of Penitence September-October 2004. Typical of the brutality, in a two-week period during Operation Rainbow in southern Gaza in May, at least 60 Palestinians were killed, almost 300 Palestinian homes demolished, and close to 4,000 people made homeless. Throughout these operations, large amounts of Palestinian farmland and property including olive groves were arbitrarily confiscated and bulldozed.

One reason that Sharon has continued to get a free ride on the strength of his disengagement plan, despite his long history as a tireless and powerful opponent of Palestinian national rights, is that many cannot believe that he would be so reckless as to propose the unilateral removal of settlements without the intention of following through. But such a view of Sharon fails to take into consideration his willingness to take unprecedented risks, as well as his shrewd calculation of both the domestic and international landscape. In Israel, there is no political opposition to speak of. In the United States, Bush and his radical, pro Israeli neocon team is firmly in place for a second term and wholly supportive of his goals and his tactics. Moreover, as a veteran of more than 50 years on Middle East scene, Sharon understands that when it comes to making concessions to the Palestinians and other Arabs, agreements and treaties can be broken, delayed, and put off indefinitely.

Thus far only a few lonely voices in Israel have pointed to the counterintuitive nature of the disengagement plan and have openly questioned Sharon’s intention to remove the Gaza settlements. Left journalist Haim Baram has termed it a “fairy tale,” and Gush Shalom activist Uri Avnery has called it a “fraud,” “an exercise in deceit.”[2] Israeli author and academic Tanya Reinhart has gone further than anyone else, providing invaluable documentation demonstrating the lack of any practical steps Israel is taking that would indicate a serious intent to remove the settlers (see below). Despite the absence of such evidence, the media and the international community largely continue to take Sharon’s disengagement plan seriously, aiding his agenda. Meanwhile Israel continues to pour resources into the settlements, suggesting that so far from evicting Jewish settlers from Gaza, the plan is to maintain them over the long term. In that case, it’s not the Israeli settlers who will be leaving, but rather a million Palestinians who will be forced from Gaza.

For a relatively brief period, in the course of the national election campaign of 2002-2003, it seemed that Sharon might be held to some level of accountability for his hard line policies that resulted in a relatively high level of Israeli deaths. However, after he easily won the January 2003 elections, public opinion seemed to shift into an acceptance of the total Sharon package, embracing the disengagement plan as a convenient screen for his stepped up depredations in the West Bank and Gaza. Whatever opposition to Sharon existed, virtually disappeared, and to this day, nothing stands between the Palestinians and the cruelest Israeli policies. Kathleen Christison, a former CIA analyst who has been following Middle East issues for three decades, in a recent article, summarized some of the bitter reality Palestinians confront. The picture she paints is important because it is evidence that Sharon is in the midst of a campaign to make civil life impossible for the bulk of the Palestinian community. The current dimensions of the situation, she writes, go back to the April 2002 siege of the West Bank when

Israeli forces rampaged through the territory, destroying the entire infrastructure of Palestinian civil society: Israeli soldiers laid waste Palestinian civil ministries for education and health and agriculture; smeared feces throughout the Ministry of Culture; destroyed computers and hard disks and, with them, the entire written record of Palestinian society; ransacked Palestinian businesses and banks; bulldozed whole housing blocks; destroyed land registry maps and census records, as if to erase all trace of Palestinian existence. …

Gaza is largely in ruins, a Middle Eastern Dresden, thanks to repeated Israeli air and bulldozer assaults. Nearly two thousand homes have been demolished in Gaza since the [2000] intifada began, leaving many more thousands of innocent civilians homeless, and Israeli helicopter gunship attacks and assassination operations have wrought still more destruction. Israel controls Gaza's southern border with Egypt and its Mediterranean coastline and fences off the other two sides of the Gaza Strip with razor wire and electronic cages…

Israel's separation wall has destroyed prime Palestinian agricultural land, bulldozed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian olive trees, destroyed or more often appropriated for Israeli use most Palestinian water wells, destroyed Palestinian markets and halted commerce, destroyed Palestinian homes. Israeli closure policies have prevented most Palestinians from working inside Israel since the beginning of the peace process a dozen years ago. Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank impede movement and halt commerce. Movement of people and goods into and out of both the West Bank and Gaza is totally at the mercy of Israel. Yet the West wonders why the Palestinian economy is not thriving.

Israel has reduced every Palestinian security headquarters throughout the West Bank and in Gaza to rubble. These structures, which served not only as security headquarters but as the center of municipal governance, with mayor's offices, jails, and health clinics, were large compounds serving multiple purposes, the locus of what Tony Blair would call "proper" infrastructure -- now mere heaps of concrete. Arafat's own headquarters in Ramallah, the Muqata, was a multi-structure compound covering one or two city blocks, in which Israel imprisoned Arafat for three years and where during the assault of 2002 Israel's military left only one building undamaged. [3]

Arafat’s sudden illness and death on November 11, 2004 briefly put a halt to some of Israel’s most high profile deadly and destructive military operations. Yet, only a month later in mid December, using the pretext of rockets fired by the military wing of Hamas, Israel resumed its pitiless assaults in a two-day operation that killed 11 Palestinians in Khan Yunus in Gaza.[4] Confiscations of Palestinian land also resumed. In early January, Dr. James Zogby appeared on BBC TV news, pointing out that in the previous two weeks, Israel had appropriated 3,000-4,000 acres of Palestinian land. [5]

What’s behind Sharon’s scorched earth policy in the occupied territories? How does making tens of thousands of Palestinians homeless and making civil life impossible for millions of Palestinians advance his agenda? Such questions answer themselves. Sharon’s policies should be seen as more than merely an attempt to defeat the Palestinians: the Palestinians were soundly defeated in 1948 and once again in 1967 and both their 1987 and 2000 intifadas, for all their sacrifice, didn’t yield lasting gains and were effectively defeated. Sharon’s purpose goes much further than merely defeat. His aim is to continue the consolidation of Israeli control over all of the former Palestine and ultimately to make it impossible for the bulk of the 4.8 million Palestinians who now live there to remain.

Time is a double-edged sword in Sharon’s hands. Time is on his side, since he can ensure that the Palestinian position continues to deteriorate while he continues ratchet up the pressure as much as circumstances allow. Yet, he well understands that he may be the only figure on the current political scene in Israel with the ability to shape as well as to take advantage of conditions, and that his term in office is not limitless. Thus we can expect that he will continue to ratchet up the pressure on the Palestinians and that he act quickly and decisively if he sees or can create an opportunity to implement his expulsion plans.

Shraga Elam, a Swiss based Israeli investigative journalist, suggests that Operation Rainbow (April - May 2004) in which several neighborhoods in Rafah were devastated was conducted along the lines of the old master plan, “Field of Thorns” which foresees a mass deportation of the Palestinians.[6] The photos of Palestinian families carrying away their belongings as best they could in fear of Israeli tanks and bulldozers, could not but bring up memories of the mass expulsions of Palestinians in1948. The images from Rafah are harsh reminders of how relatively simple from a military point of view it will be for the IDF to carry out expulsion orders once the political shoe has dropped.

Facts on the Ground

In Gaza, there is no evidence of plans to remove Israeli settlements. From early 2004 through the end of the year, all the evidence suggested that the government, so far from implementing or preparing for removal, was actually facilitating their continued influx. Back in March 2004 Tanya Reinhart reported that there was “no sign on the ground of any intention to evacuate from Gaza.”[7] Indeed, all the signs pointed in the opposite direction. Work on fortifying the strategically important settlement of Netzarim that separates the northern area including Gaza City from the rest of the strip “intensified.” At the cost of millions of shekels, the Israeli government continued to build a new electronic security fence around Netzarim.[8] It was clear that the Israeli chief of staff approved these plans and the region commander issued orders that included the appropriation of land from the Palestinians.[9]

Two weeks later Tanya Reinhart noticed a “pretty relaxed” settler from Netzarim appearing on Israeli TV who reasoned that “If the defense minister is building right now a new security fence for us, then surely he does not intend to evacuate us.”[10] Even the New York Times noticed in April 2004 that the settlers have little cause for concern. A relevant story quoted an unnamed Israeli official to the effect that there were no plans in the offing to dismantle Gaza settlements and that settlement projects “in the pipeline” were going forward. The same article quoted Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the Gush Qatif settlement bloc in Gaza who flatly contradicted an Israeli government announcement that settler development would be halted. “On the ground there are a lot of projects, a lot of families coming here all the time.”[11]

Subsequent Israeli Cabinet and Knesset decisions regarding the disengagement, engineered or approved by Sharon, were consistent with the general theme of creating parliamentary hurdles to any actual removal of settlements, even while they were heralded in the press as ushering in a historic new era of settlement evacuation. For example, in a little noticed June 6, 2004 cabinet decision, even stiffer legislative roadblocks were put into place before a Gaza withdrawal could be ordered. The amended plan didn’t allow for the dismantling of settlements and stipulated that the prime minister will have to go back to the cabinet when he wants to begin the evacuation process. This revision also eased the way for continued funds to flow toward expanding the settlements.

Similarly on October 26, 2004, the Knesset passed a resolution reaffirming the June “amended disengagement law” which contains “nothing to evacuate settlements.” The resolution ordered the cabinet to reconvene at a later date and decide whether or not to evacuate settlements, which settlements, and at what speed, in consideration of circumstances at that time.”[12] Tanya Reinhart spells out the limits to the approval granted to the disengagement plan.

The only thing the Israeli government, followed now by the Israeli Knesset, has approved, then, is to have a discussion of the idea of dismantling Gaza settlements sometime next year [2005]. It was also decided that in the meanwhile, building and development in the Gaza settlements may continue: "The approved plan ensures 'support for the needs of daily life' in settlements slated for evacuation. Bans on construction permits and leasing of lands were also removed from the prime minister's proposal.” And indeed, on the ground, slots of land are still being leased (for ridiculously cheap prices) to Israelis who wish to settle in Gaza, and building permits are granted by a special committee appointed by the government in the same "dramatic" meeting on June 6.[13]

Reinhart continues by explaining “none of these facts were registered in public consciousness. The actual content of the cabinet decision was reported only once - on that same day [in June 2004] - and then disappeared from the papers that keep recycling the stories about its heroic significance. Precisely the same happened in the present round [October 2004]. …But again, this information appeared only once or twice, buried underneath bold headlines that even compared Sharon to Churchill. This is how a myth is built.” [14]

True to form, a little noticed combined CBS/AP report at the end of December 2004, noted that the disengagement plan “suffered a setback” when a parliamentary committee “failed to approve a set of guidelines for dealing with Jewish settlers in the evacuation.” [15] Critical observers will not be surprised when at strategic moments in future such “setbacks” will conveniently appear.

Reinhart shines more light on Israeli government intentions when she reveals that compensation to settlers willing to leave Gaza is to be postponed indefinitely. She explains that if the Israeli government were seriously interested in removing settlements, they would begin to compensate those willing to leave in order to isolate the remaining hardcore. Many believed, Reinhart writes, that the Knesset approved the compensation plan on Nov 4, 2004. However, the fine print reveals that it has only passed the first reading. Normally the required 2nd and 3rd reading of the bill would follow promptly. But in this case, the follow up readings “will take place only after the government decides on actual evacuation, in March 2005 or later. Till then no one will be compensated.”[16] Meanwhile, the Israeli press reported that in December 2004, 11 more families moved into a Gaza settlement. [17]

Avnery reports

Thanks to Uri Avnery’s reporting, we learn that in December 2004, a year after he first unveiled his plan at the Herzliyah conference, Sharon, in a speech at the same forum, signaled that he would do everything he can to avoid removing Jewish settlements from Gaza. According to Avnery’s “ free translation,” the Prime Minister laid out a two-part strategy of indefinite delay. According to Avnery, Sharon said, “If it is possible to avoid the implementation of the plan altogether, especially the evacuation of settlements, without losing the sympathy of the world and the Israeli public, fine.” Point two:

If there is no alternative and implementation must start - everything must be done to drag out the matter, and especially the evacuation of settlements, for as long as possible. Evacuate one settlement and rest. Evacuate another one and rest again. It should take years.

According to Avnery, Sharon concluded this section, by saying that the disengagement “should not change the plans concerning the West Bank.”[18] While Avnery is currently alone in his understanding of what Sharon actually said in Herzliyah his ‘free translation” can be seen as a guide to Sharon’s operating procedure and his plans for the future.

Protests helps Sharon

What are we to make of the noisy and highly publicized protests and demonstrations against Sharon’s disengagement plan? These should be seen in the same way as we are to view the parliamentary maneuvers he has orchestrated: as an elaborate dance and spectacle, under the control of an accomplished political tactician and strategist. The Gaza settler movement pays close attention to the fine print of the cabinet and Knesset decisions that affect their lives, and they regulate the strength and vigor of their protests accordingly. Many understand that protests against the government actually serve Sharon’s interest by providing a loud and visible excuse for delay after delay.

Nor should it be surprising to find that Sharon himself plays a crucial role in manipulating the protests. For example we learn that instead of cracking down on extremist protestors, Sharon “maintained a virtual silence in the face of” over the top settler provocations. “Many in the army…wonder in private…how the prime minister expects them to carry out this complex assignment without any clear guidance from the government.” One Likud leader, Deputy Defense Minister, Ze’ev Boim, bemoaned the lack of an indictment against an outspoken advocate of disobedience, Yitzhar settler Noam Livnat. Boim went on Israeli radio to warn “if the government doesn’t take firmer steps now, “It might be impossible to carry out the disengagement.”[19] Indeed.

As a result of the promulgation of the disengagement plan, concern has been raised about the possibility of a civil war between the opposing sides. However, since Sharon does not intend to dismantle settlements, such concerns are a false alarm. They are part of the spectacle that provides cover to the international community. Thus the Europeans and others are able to take the path of least resistance and ignore Israel’s unrelenting march toward the ethno genocide of the Palestinian community.

It’s true that the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin set a frightening precedent. But a decade ago, extremists understood that Rabin, unlike Sharon, was determined to follow through with a measure of autonomy for Palestinians. Sharon on the other hand has already reversed all the gains made under Rabin and has brought the Palestinian community to a desperate low not seen since 1948. Despite all the fuss in the press, since there is no daylight between him and the extreme settler element they have no motive to assassinate him.

As the Palestinians replace Arafat with Mahmoud Abbas, the leader preferred by Israel and the U.S., the outlook is grimmer than ever. Palestinians must thread their way in a world dominated by Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush. There is a terrible parallel to 1982, when Sharon was effectively at the Israeli helm and U.S. Middle East policy was, as it is today, driven by similar radical pro Likud voices who seem to find the dissolution of order and stability in the Middle East – and everywhere else -- more to their taste than the reverse. The precarious future of the Palestinians is once again in the hands of their bitterest enemies.

The End

[1] Uri Avnery, December 18, 2004. “The Mountain and the Mouse. Tanya Reinhart, “Sharon’s disengagement” from Gaza,” March 30, 2004 and “What kind of state deserves to exist, Yediot Aharonot, April 20, 2004.

[2] Uri Avnery, “The Mountain and the Mouse.” Israeli historian and academic, Ilan Pappe calls the Sharon Gaza plan a “charade.” At the same time, he writes that the “plan could eventually lead to the eviction of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip…[although this] does not take Israel or its oppressive policies out of the Gaza Strip or West Bank.” (“The Charade of Peace,” News From Within, (Jerusalem, English) October/November 2004)

[3] Kathleen Christison, January 3, 2005, “Patronizing the Palestinians: The Trouble with Optimism

[4] Al Jazeera, December 19, 2004, “Israeli helicopters strike Gaza towns.”

[5] BBC TV news, January 10, 2005.

[6]http://www.between-lines.org/archives/ 2000/dec/ Shraga_Elam.htm

[7] Tanya Reinhart, March 30, 2004, “Sharon's ‘Disengagement’ from Gaza

[8] The Netzarim settlement also acts as a focal point for casualties on both sides, generating pretexts for disproportionate Israeli retributive raids.

[9] Tanya Reinhart, March 30, 2004.

[10] Tanya Reinhart, “What kind of State Deserves to Exist?” Yediot Achronot, April 20, 2004, translated by Netta Van Vliet.

[11] The New York Times, April 3, 2004. James Bennett, “Sharon Says He Has Ordered a Halt to Gaza Development.”

[12] Yuval Yoaz, Ha'aretz, Oct 26, 2004. Quoted in Tanya Reinhart, November 16, 2004, “Sharon's Gaza Pullout: Not Gonna Happen!,” The Electronic Intifada

[13] Reinhart, Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] CBS/AP, December 28, 2004.

[16] Reinhart, October 26, 2004.

[17] Ha’aretz, December 17, 2004. Nadav Shraga, “11 new families settle in Gaza’s Nissanit.”

[18] Avnery, “The Mountain and the Mouse,” op. cit, note 1.

[19] Forward, January 7, 2005. Ofer Shellah, “Settlers Attack Army in a Bid To Stop Gaza Disengagement”

Demographic, Environmental,
Security Issues Project