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March 15, 2002
Sharon’s Lessons In Terror

It was on March 4, the day Israeli security forces killed 17 Palestinians—five of them children—that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called upon security forces to “increase the number of Palestinian casualties” in order to “teach them a lesson.” One of the adult fatalities was a 55-year-old woman from Jenin; another was Dr. Sliman Khalil, who was slain while evacuating the injured from a nearby refugee camp. “We must first strike the Palestinians a heavy blow before we can begin negotiating peace,” Sharon said.

Declarations of this kind are uncommon in Israel, if only because leaders rarely say, with such brutal honesty, what they intend to do. Sharon’s call for the escalation of violence should also be understood within the larger framework of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism,” a war that has destroyed all sense of shame. Bush, Sharon understands, has changed the rules of the game.

But the war on terrorism has not only altered political discourse; it has also dramatically increased the violence within Israel/Palestine. The evening before the March 4 killings, I went to a peace rally to protest the Israeli military infiltration into two refugee camps, where an additional 24 Palestinians had been shot dead. As I was walking from my car toward the prime minister’s house, the sound of a loud explosion reverberated through the Jerusalem night.

The ensuing echo of ambulance sirens left little doubt about what had happened. An hour later, standing with a peace sign in my hand, my mother called my cell phone to check whether I was all right; she said a suicide bomber had exploded himself outside a synagogue, killing 10 guests who had been celebrating a bar mitzvah inside.

It is within this macabre context that one must interpret Sharon’s decision to employ more force. The Israeli premier is, to be sure, not mad. Yet he realizes that in a fortnight about 200 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed, joining more than 1,000 people—many of them children—who have died since the second intifada erupted in September 2000. The Israeli invasion of Tul-Karem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and an additional five refugee camps in early March is its largest military operation since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

But why did Sharon want to escalate the violence? The answer has to do with control and domination, the underlying objectives of the war on terrorism. To put it differently, the annihilation of terrorism is not the ultimate goal of either Bush’s or Sharon’s wars.

Sharon’s true objective is a “greater Israel.” 1948 appears to be his historical reference point. During that war, the fledgling Zionist government decided to ensure a Jewish majority within what would become Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were evicted by force from their homes, creating the Palestinian refugee crisis. The Palestinians refer to Israel’s War of Independence as Nakbah, or “the catastrophe.”

Sharon realizes the only way to accomplish his expansionist aspirations is through all-out war. If enough Jewish blood is shed, he might gain the legitimacy needed to embark on such a campaign, and he will then have the opportunity to expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land. This measure is not without public support. Many of the 50,000 right-wing protesters who gathered at Rabin Square on March 11 carried banners calling for the “transfer” of Palestinians from Israel.

Preparations for the current escalation have been long in the making. Immediately following September 11, Sharon, sensing the public mood in the United States, drew a parallel between Arafat and bin Laden. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he suggested, is a war on terrorism—which, according to Bush’s new rules, provides a perfect excuse for perpetrating the most pernicious acts.

Ironically, it is the other war on terrorism—the one Bush is waging—that may very well obstruct Sharon’s plans, at least for the time being.

Gen. Anthony Zinni, U.S. envoy to the Middle East, arrived in the region March 14, for diplomatic purposes. His mission, however, has little to do with U.S. shock at the current level of violence. Zinni’s job, it seems, is to smooth the way for Vice President Dick Cheney, who is also in the Middle East to muster Arab support for Bush’s impending attack against Iraq. The administration realizes that with Israel bombing Arafat’s headquarters and killing scores of Palestinians each day, there is little chance Cheney will receive the backing he wants from Arab countries, who have almost unanimously spoken out against Israeli aggression.

Bush’s megalomania might bring some calm to the area—but this calm, even if it does come, will last only until he launches the attack against Iraq. At which point, all hell will probably break loose.

Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University and can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il.


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