Letter from Israel: A Cell is Still a Cell

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Israeli defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer recently reached an agreement with Palestinian interior minister Abdel Razak Yehiyah called the 'Gaza, Bethlehem First' plan.

Israeli forces will evacuate Bethlehem and Palestinian-populated areas in the Gaza Strip while the Palestinian Authority will take on the responsibility of policing the inhabitants. Accordingly, Israeli soldiers and tanks have moved to the outskirts of Bethlehem, allowing the residents who have been under curfew for nine weeks to leave their homes. The tight military blockade around the city continues, however, Bethlehem has been transformed into an island.

But even this small gesture, initiated by Ben-Eliezer, has little to do with the minister's concern for the Palestinians, 2 million of whom have been imprisoned in their homes for quite some time. Rather, the appearance of Amiram Mitzna on the political scene--as a competitor for leading the Labour Party in the next national elections--seems to have induced Ben-Eliezer to finally hold negotiations with the Palestinians. Mitzna, who is part of Labour's dovish wing, has, according to the polls, a 60 percent lead over Ben-Eliezer. While prime minister Sharon has not opposed Ben-Eliezer's initiative, he has a few ideas of his own. On 20 August, he authorised the arrest of Mohammed Sa'adat, the brother of Ahmed Sa'adat, who is the current leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The elite military unit that was sent to do the job killed the young brother. As the news of Mohammed Sa'adat's death spread, violence once again flared in the occupied territories, following almost two weeks of relative quiet. The PFLP also vowed to avenge the assassination.

Sharon, though, is not a man to make arbitrary decisions. Killing Sa'adat is just part of his ongoing attempt to subjugate the Palestinians. The closures and curfews have not worked, nor have the extrajudicial executions, the demolition of homes and the deportation of family members, so perhaps arresting and killing brothers of political leaders--'as a potential deterrent'--will. But what is Sharon's goal?

The reader may recall that after the F-16 jet dropped a one-ton bomb on a crowded residential area in Gaza, killing 17 people--nine of them children--and wounding over 140 more, Sharon exclaimed that the attack had been one of Israel's 'biggest successes'. Despite harsh international criticism, Sharon remained unrepentant. At the time the Israeli Hebrew press suggested that his triumphant cry had less to do with the operations formal objective--the extrajudicial execution of Hamas leader Salah Shahada--than with the successful annihilation of a unilateral ceasefire agreement formally finalised by the different Palestinian military factions a day before the massacre. Predictably, the ceasefire was annulled and a series of Hamas attacks followed, killing almost 30 people and injuring many more. Not unlike the bombing of Gaza, killing Sa'adat on the eve of the implementation of the Gaza, Bethlehem First plan is meant to add fuel to the fire of violence. It is still too soon to tell how many Israelis will die this time around.

Again and again Sharon has chosen the battleground as the arena of action, because he does not believe in a diplomatic solution to the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His overall objective, though, is not to wipe out the Palestinian Authority, as some commentators seem to suggest, but rather to forcibly change its role. Regardless of whether or not Yasser Arafat remains in charge, if Sharon gets his way, the 'reformed' Palestinian Authority will no longer serve as the political representative of an independent state. Rather, it will operate as a subcontractor for the Israeli government. The strategy is clear: confer on the Palestinians the costly role of managing civil life, but eliminate their political freedoms, while controlling them from afar. South Africans called such areas Bantustans.

To accomplish this vision Sharon needs to break the spirit of the Palestinian people, hoping that at a certain point they will bow down. The Gaza, Bethlehem First plan prolongs the strangulation and humiliation of the Palestinians, even while it allows them to leave their homes. 'It's like expanding the elephant cell at the city zoo from 30 square yards to 50,' a friend from Bethlehem told me over the phone. 'The new cell offers a bit more space, but it is nonetheless a cell.'