Bush-Sharon's Hell on Earth

— David Finkel

"BRINGING DEMOCRACY TO the Middle East" is what George Bush calls his policy from Iraq to Palestine, and with a straight face too.

Let's imagine, then, what a free and democratic Palestinian election in the Occupied Territories--Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem--might have looked like in 2004.

The two main political currents would presumably have coalesced into coalitions led by their most popular leading figures--at the head of the secular nationalist camp, Marwan Barghouthi; and leading the Islamist camp, Dr. Abdul-Aziz Rantisi.

This would have been a dynamic and most interesting campaign, and the winner would have become a Palestinian Prime Minister with a mandate both to resist the Occupation and to negotiate with the government of Israel.

No way would Israel or the United States permit that choice. Instead, of course, Dr. Rantisi as well as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the central leadership of Hamas, have been murdered in Israeli helicopter gunship strikes; and Marwan Barghouthi has been sentenced to five consecutive life prison terms for resistance operations by the Tanzim militia.

So much for bringing democracy to Palestine.

The articles here put into perspective some of the recent events that are turning Palestine and Israel into a real hell on earth.

Yoav Peled presents a vision of how the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees can be addressed from the point of view of "transformative justice" and beginning a process of authentic reconciliation of the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab nations. Peled's discussion reminds us, on the one hand, of the fact that this critical political and moral issue can be resolved on both a practical and principled basis; and on the other, of the enormous gulf between such a solution and today's Israeli or U.S. policy.

Henry Herskovitz brings the issue home, where it belongs, with a first-hand report from a conference of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), where U.S. politicians of both parties, with liberal Democrats especially featured, fall over each other in effusive solidarity with the world's new apartheid state.

These articles, and the eyewitness report from Rafah as well as Uri Avnery's report on drastic West Bank changes, should be read in the context of the following recent developments, which there isn't space to analyze in depth here:

* The assassination of Palestinian leaders along with dozens of their family members and civilian bystanders;

* Massive destruction and carnage in the Rafah refugee camp and elsewhere in Gaza;

* Continuing construction of Ariel Sharon's Apartheid Wall in the West Bank, and routine shooting of Palestinian villagers and Israeli activists waging a non-violent resistance campaign to halt it;

* George W. Bush's (and John Kerry's) endorsement of Israeli assassinations and explicit support for Israeli annexation of major West Bank settlements under the cover of "withdrawal from Gaza."

* The political crisis of Sharon's government coalition, which may collapse with ultra-rightist defections over "surrendering" a sacred square inch of Gaza. After firing two ministers from the fascist National Union party, Sharon may be forced to forge a new government coalition. He can accomplish this by turning to the Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, a man whom the editor of Israel & Palestine Report, Maxim Ghilan, aptly and concisely calls "that political shrivelled mummy and ancient prostitute."

* The warning by relief agencies that wide sections of the Occupied Territories, especially in Gaza, face the real prospect of starvation, along with Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon.

Is there any wonder that despair, rage and terrorism are spreading?

The Consequences

Two particular questions of longer-term consequences follow from this string of developments.

First, is the "two-state solution" dead? Certainly the completion of the Apartheid Wall, and an explicit United States endorsement of Israeli annexation of West Bank settlement blocs, could kill off the practical possibility of achieving even a minimally viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Bush's proclamation (which Ariel Sharon's team actually wrote for him) stated that the Palestinian refugees Right of Return is to be to "the new Palestinian state," not to Israel. Simultaneously Bush endorsed Israeli actions which will leave that Palestinian state without the land or resources to support its own population--let alone absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees.

In short--just as Ariel Sharon envisioned--the United States has embraced the "two-state solution" in a way that is guaranteed to crush it.

How long a two-state solution remains a viable framework for struggle can be decided only by the Palestinian people under occupation. But make no mistake: There is no practical alternative solution available. If the two-state solution dies, the hope for any viable Israeli/Palestinian peace dies along with it for another generation or longer.

Second, how will with the Palestinian Islamist movement and Hamas in particular respond to the serial assassinations of its political leadership?

One expectation was that Hamas would respond with an escalated campaign of suicide bombings. As an immediate consequence, this seems to me possible but not likely.

Hamas, I suspect, has to deal with four pressing issues. It must urgently find ways to protect its leadership; it needs to incorporate waves of new recruits as it becomes the most popular resistance organization in Gaza; and it needs to expand its capacity to meet the basic needs of a desperately impoverished population that forms its mass base of support. Finally, of course, it must find a way to respond to the assassinations.

In military terms, a suicide bombing campaign inside Israel has probably become much more difficult, though not impossible to mount. More important, politically, it's hard to see how the random bombing of a civilian Jerusalem bus stop or Tel Aviv pizza parlor would "adequately" answer Israel's murders of Sheikh Yassin and Dr. Rantisi, and its pledge to kill every Hamas leader.

Ultimately it's possible that only a very large operation with many casualties, or the assassination of Israeli political leaders, carried out inside or outside Israel, would meet the criteria of "equivalence" with Israeli state terrorism.

Such an event, the attempted assassination of ambassador Shlomo Argov, served as the pretext for Ariel Sharon to organize the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. That nightmare scenario and the likely consequences plunged both peoples into depths of barbarism that had not yet been imagined. A repeat would probably be much worse.

ATC 111, July-August 2004