Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War against the Palestinians
London: Verso, 2003
Ariel Sharon is an embodiment of paradox. Over a half-century career in war and politics, “The Bulldozer,” as he is widely known in Israel, has sown violence everywhere in his wake, yet thrives on the very chaos he himself encourages. Sharon is a self-fulfilling prophecy: a man on horseback who continually restores order while persistently fomenting disorder. This downward spiral became positively vertiginous after Sharon won prime ministerial office in 2001. The Camp David “peace” process is a distant memory, the Bush “Roadmap to Peace” an endless detour. The reality on the ground is suicide bombers, gunship strikes from the sky, death, destruction and despair. And bobbing atop the roiling sea of hatred is Ariel Sharon, avatar of anarchy and guarantor of order. Now in 2004, Sharon has seemingly reinvented himself: advocating a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, he is bitterly attacked by hardliners in his own Likud party, while incongruously drawing support from the Israeli peace movement.
How much of the disaster of Israeli-Palestinian relations can be laid at the feet of one man is, of course, a debatable question. Baruch Kimmerling, who holds joint appointments at the University of Toronto and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is the coauthor of a distinguished history of the Palestinian people, has taken on the task of assessing the impact of Sharon on Israel and on the Palestinians. In his view, structure and agency must be kept in balance in any analysis. He sees a process at work in Israeli policy post-2000 that he calls “politicide” of the Palestinians, but argues that this process did not begin with Sharon. Rather, it is a consequence of the 1967 war when the West Bank and Gaza were brought under occupation, and even more profoundly of the “very nature and roots of the Zionist movement,” reinforced by a series of regional and global events and processes. But Sharon does play a leading role in pushing these consequences – so much so in Kimmerling’s subtitle he calls the present crisis “Ariel Sharon’s War.” It is Sharon’s own personal history, as soldier and politician, that forms the thread of Kimmerling’s analysis of the course of Israel’s descent into the abyss.
By politicide, Kimmerling means something more subtle than the facile charge of genocide sometimes flung at the Israelis. “I mean a process,” he writes, “that has, as its ultimate goal, the dissolution of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate social, political, and economic entity. This process may also but not necessarily include their partial or complete ethnic cleansing from the territory known as the Land of Israel.” Kimmerling, who considers himself a critical “Israeli patriot,” argues that this program is not only a monstrous injustice against the Palestinian people, but will inevitably rot the moral foundation of the Jewish state. Indeed, this process is already well underway, as authoritarianism, the militarization of Israeli society, intolerance of dissent and the systematic dehumanization of the Palestinian Other all contribute to what Kimmerling does not shrink from calling “a drift to fascism.”
Ariel Sharon is the fullest embodiment and most effective instrument of politicide. Sharon was born in pre-independence Palestine, and first served as a noncommissioned officer in the 1948 war that followed the creation of the state of Israel. In the early 1950s he formed and commanded a secret commando force called Unit 101 that specialized in brutal reprisals against Arabs responsible for cross-border attacks on Israelis. In 1953, in reprisal for the murder of an Israeli woman and her two children, Sharon led Unit 101 on a raid against Qibiya, a Palestinian village in the then Jordanian West Bank. Forty-five houses with their inhabitants inside were blown up, and 67 men, women and children died. Sharon was accused of disregarding orders and exceeding reasonable limits, but for the same reasons, he began developing a following among bellicose young hardliners, and the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was sufficiently pleased with Sharon’s initiative that he bestowed his personal patronage on him.
The Qibiya incident encapsulates Sharon’s entire career: his disregard and resentment of authority, a predilection for employing excessive force, exacting a price on Palestinians far out of proportion to the alleged provocation and a remarkable capacity to draw personal political profit from his own rash actions. The Sharon Formula was already patented half a century ago.
During the Sinai campaign of 1956, Sharon disobeyed orders and recklessly led his men into an Egyptian trap, out of which they fought with considerable unnecessary losses. Sharon managed to turn this act of military folly into yet another PR advance for his reputation outside the military. During the 1967 war he commanded the Israeli Defence Forces in a series of victories over the Egyptians marked by a massive and unprecedented kill ratio: thousands of Egyptians were slaughtered with negligible Israeli casualties. Now confirmed as Israel’s premier soldier, Sharon surrounded himself with PR flacks and flunkies to cultivate his Caesarist political ambitions.
In 1973 Israel was caught off guard by an Egyptian-Syrian attack. In the Israeli counterattack against the Egyptian advance into Sinai, Sharon with characteristic recklessness exposed the troops under his command to unnecessary casualties. His overriding goal was personal aggrandizement – to be the first Israeli commander to cross the Suez Canal. As Kimmerling writes, “Sharon suffered a minor wound to his forehead and a photograph of the bleeding Israeli general riding on African soil and circled by admiring soldiers chanting ‘Arik, King of Israel’ was spread across the country and around the world.”
Image had triumphed over reality, and Sharon made his move into politics. Shifting in and out of the Knesset, and crossing party lines from Likud to special adviser to Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then back again with Likud as a leading minister in the governments of Menachem Begin, Sharon the politician emerged as the champion and patron of the settlers, with the master plan of creating “facts on the ground” that would guarantee perpetual Israeli hegemony over the occupied territories swallowed in 1967. Despite being strictly illegal under international law, not to speak of being morally indefensible, this settlement policy ultimately became the driving force of Israeli-Palestinian relations, souring all attempts at a solution and poisoning the wells of peace. A historical irony: in 2004, Sharon himself is being buffeted and threatened by the same settlers he has so disingenuously encouraged for three decades. He had an early taste of this in 1982 when he directed the forced withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Sinai, returned to Egypt as part of the Sadat-Begin accord. To Sharon and Begin, taking Egypt out of the game freed their hands to intensify their grip on the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza without provoking another regional conflict: like the Gaza settlers today, the Sinai settlers were pawns to be sacrificed for the bigger picture.
The other main item on Likud’s geopolitical agenda at this time was to destroy Lebanon as a Palestinian base. In 1982 Sharon as Defence Minister persuaded or manipulated Begin to launch an all-out military assault on Lebanon, eventually reaching the capital, Beirut. The war was as ugly and brutal as anything that Israel has undertaken in its history. Kimmerling refers to the savage seven-hour aerial bombardment of Muslim quarters of Beriut on Black Thursday (August 17, 1982) as akin to the firebombing destruction of Dresden by the Allies near the end of World War II.
The worst came the following month with the horrific atrocities of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. With the full cooperation of the Israeli army under Sharon’s watch, Israel’s allies, the Phalangist Christian militias, entered the camps on the evening of September 16 and systematically began beating, raping and murdering the inhabitants, while the Israelis kept the camps sealed and incommunicado. In two days, the fascist militiamen slaughtered more than 2,000 men, women and children, making clumsy and ineffectual attempts to bulldoze the bodies. When the news struck the world’s media, outrage and indignation were universal. To their credit, this included many Israelis: 400,000 disgusted Israelis filled Tel Aviv’s central square demanding an investigation of those responsible. The fingers pointed at none other than Ariel Sharon, and the official Israeli investigation (the Kahan Commission) found in 1983 that Sharon bore personal responsibility for the events, and that he should resign or be sacked as minister.
The Lebanon adventure was senseless from the point of view of Israeli national interests. Having accomplished nothing but a public relations fiasco, the IDF was pulled back from Beirut but remained for years as a hated foreign army in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah was born as a Syrian- and Iranian-sponsored resistance movement among the Lebanese Shia community and eventually grew into such an effective force that it drove Israel out of Lebanon altogether – the only decisive military defeat ever inflicted on the IDF by an Arab force.
Meanwhile the real architect of the folly, Sharon, labelled by an official inquiry as, in effect, a war criminal, had gone into temporary political abeyance, only to enjoy yet another resurrection. When the Camp David process in 2000 teetered on the brink over, among other things, the deeply disputed status of the sacred sites of Jerusalem, the incompetent Labour Prime Minister Ehud Barak permitted a highly publicized provocation by Sharon: a visit to the Temple Mount near Al-Aqsa, the third holiest shrine in Islam. This set off a renewed burst of violent protest by the Palestinians dubbed the Second or Al-Aqsa Intifada, more brutal repression by the Israelis, and an escalating round of intercommunal bloodletting that soon drowned all faint hopes of a peaceful settlement. Once again, Sharon was playing his time-tested role of fomenting chaos and then putting himself forward as the strong man promising to restore order. In February 2001 he was elected Prime Minister in a landslide, and returned with an even bigger majority in January 2003. “Arik King of Israel” represents the ultimate triumph of the maxim that nothing succeeds like failure.
As Kimmerling shows his readers, Sharon in power has been able to clear away the obstacles to the final achievement of his lifelong objective of the politicide of the Palestinian people – and, in the process, turned Israel into something that increasingly resembles a quasi-fascist state. Kimmerling is one of the handful of Israeli dissidents deeply mortified and appalled at what has been done to his Jewish homeland. Others who contributed in the past to this critique have buckled under the pressure and now embrace Sharonism, or worse. Benny Morris, for instance, who previously published devastating historical analyses of how Israel was built in 1948 on a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing, now publicly advocates the forcible cleansing of the entire Palestinian population from the Occupied Territories, and even suggests that if all the Palestinians had been driven out in 1948, there would be no “trouble” with them today.
Sharon himself has stopped short of publicly advocating a “Final Solution” to the Palestinian question, although some of his ministers do so. Kimmerling argues that politicide does not involve genocide as such, or necessitate the complete ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Rather, it entails the destruction of the Palestinian people as a national entity. This has been Sharon’s objective, and for the sake of his broader vision he is ready to make apparent concessions in lesser matters.
Hence his plan to depart from Gaza in exchange for a free hand in the West Bank, where he is insistent on the completion of his infamous Wall (described euphemistically as a “Fence”) which slices through Palestinian lands, eventually incorporating everything to the west of it within Israel and further undermining the social and economic basis of a viable Palestinian community. At the same time as he insists on the closure of the (totally unviable) Jewish settlements in Gaza, he is massively stepping up new and expanded settlements on the West Bank. Gaza, a Hamas hellhole of poverty and overcrowding, can be effectively sealed off and left to stew in its own bitter juices, Sharon apparently reasons – much like the Warsaw Ghetto, one might add. The Palestinians on the West Bank meanwhile can be shattered, broken up into harmless reserves bisected by the Wall and by defence routes patrolled by the IDF and armed and aggressive settlers. And Sharon can confidently count on the consummate stupidity of Hamas, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other such groups to always choose the precise actions that guarantee overwhelming Israeli popular support for more repression.
The external circumstances have certainly been propitious for the achievement of Sharon’s vision. 9/11 convinced the Bush administration, already populated at the top by pro-Israeli lobbyists posing as foreign affairs experts, that Sharon’s battle against the suicide bombers is exactly the same battle as Bush’s “War on Terrorism.” After all, it is the President’s deep philosophical precept that “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists.” Sharon is with us, Bush reasons, and therefore he has received what effectively amounts to a blank cheque, a free hand with the Palestinians. No enormity is too great to wink at; any fussy qualm stated by Colin Powell, the administration’s diplomatic cover, can be swept away at Sharon’s word. Thus the United States expresses theoretical reservations about the Wall, but folds in practice when Sharon sticks to his plan. Sharon pushes settlements as “facts on the ground,” and then the President suddenly discovers that “realities on the ground” mean that it is “unrealistic” for the Palestinians to talk of rolling back the wave of settlers. In one of the looniest statements in the history of diplomacy, Bush even described Sharon as a “man of peace.”
Bush’s Middle Eastern policy is backed by a strange new alliance of the Christian evangelical right with the Israeli Lobby, a Christian-Zionist partnership that effectively holds Washington in its iron grip. And the Democrats have a track record of equal if not greater aversion to even the faintest ruffling of the Israeli Lobby’s feathers.
If Sharon can count on his blank cheque from Washington, the same cannot be said for his own political constituency in the Likud party and points further rightward. His crafty plans for sacrificing Gaza as a token Palestinian pseudostate in exchange for full hegemony over the West Bank are not appreciated among the Gaza settlers or the hardliners in his own party. Not given to nuance or subtlety, these people see any concession as weakness, any negotiation as betrayal. Sharon has suffered defeats in the Likud party over Gaza, and Shin Bet, the internal security service, has warned that Sharon may even be targeted for assassination by extremists like the man who murdered Yitzhak Rabin. That would indeed be a historic irony on a cosmic scale. But Sharon is nothing if not a survivor, and he may yet implement his plan, even if it requires the breakup of the Likud and some new coalition, possibly including religious parties as well as the dazed and decayed remnants of Labour (that jaded old roué Shimon Peres would like to be included once again in government).
If Kimmerling is right, Sharon’s politicide agenda is still on track, even if exigencies necessitate some zigzags and bypasses along the way. It may be a mistake, however, to view the goal as a place to come to rest. Ariel Sharon’s entire career has been premised on permanent chaos. He does not want policy solutions to problems, because he is the “solution” to the very problems he has himself stirred up. He does not want conflict resolution, because conflict is the premise of his political survival. The day the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved will be the day that Ariel Sharon is exorcised from the body politic. Unfortunately for the world, he has little to worry about.