|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
27 Aug. - 2 Sep. 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Settling for war
As Palestinian and ex-Israeli leaders gathered in Norway to congratulate themselves on the Oslo Accords' fifth anniversary, Palestinians and Syrians have been painfully reminded of the agreement's most fundamental flaw: the Israeli conviction that peace with the Arabs and ongoing Jewish settlement in the occupied territories can somehow coexist. They never have and they never will, as two events last week proved.
On 19 August, an Israeli ministerial committee headed by Ariel Sharon agreed to build 2,300 housing units and 2,500 "holiday chalets" in the occupied Golan Heights, the biggest single settlement expansion on the Heights since Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud-led coalition came to power in 1996.
The decision caught many Israeli pundits off guard, largely because recent weeks had appeared to register the slightest of thaws in the frigid relations that now prevail between Tel Aviv and Damascus. A week before, Israel's Defence Minister Yitzak Mordechai had stated to the German magazine Focus that the depth of Israel's withdrawal on the Golan would be equal to "the depth of security" on the border with Syria. Mordechai swiftly retracted those comments, under pressure from coalition members who viewed his phrase as uncomfortably close to Yitzak Rabin's formula that the "depth of withdrawal" on the Golan would be equal to "the depth of peace" with Syria.
Yet it seemed a more conciliatory message was being aired by Israel, and Syria responded in kind. On 17 August, Syria's Foreign Minister Farouq Al-Shara told Lebanese TV that were Israel to offer a comprehensive peace based on the June 1967 armistice lines, Syria "would not hesitate" to endorse it. Two days later, Sharon buried the peace beneath the bricks of 5,000 new settler's houses.
There are around 13,000 settlers on the southern and eastern flanks of the Golan and about 17,000 Syrians who live in Druze villages in the north. The argument that Israel needs a massive settlement expansion in the south for "natural growth" is spurious. There are dozens of vacant units on the Golan unsold and empty. Nor, given the Knesset's summer recess, is Netanyahu under any real pressure from the Golan lobby in Likud or other coalition parties like the Third Way.
The real motive propelling Sharon and Netanyahu to approve settlement on the Golan is strategic. Blocs of settlements along the south and east of the Heights are required to preclude any future peace agreement with Syria based on the "full withdrawal" formula. By expanding these settlements, Israel is trying to establish enough facts to force Syria to accept an agreement of partial redeployment rather than withdrawal and to substitute security arrangements rather than international law as that agreement's foundation. For all Likud's anti-Oslo posturing, it is in fact the Oslo formula applied to the Golan. And it is one Syria will reject.
To back up their rejection, the Syrians need only look to how the formula has worked out for the Palestinians in Hebron, perhaps the most potent symbol of Oslo's failure. On 20 August, 63-year-old Shlomo Ra'anan was stabbed to death and his caravan home set ablaze in Tel Rumeida, a tiny settlement enclave implanted deep in downtown Hebron. Tel Rumeida houses seven settler families and has been a bastion of the Gush Emunim and Kach settler movements since it was established in 1984. Following the killing of 29 Palestinians by Kach supporter Baruch Goldstein in 1994, Rabin briefly considered uprooting the settlement. Warned that such an eviction could produce a civil war in Israel, Rabin opted instead to impose a six-week curfew on the 120,000 Palestinians who live in Hebron.
Netanyahu seems to be following a similar line, though with some variations. Following the attack, the army imposed a blockade on Hebron, preventing all Palestinian (but not Jewish) access and egress from the city. It also curfewed the 30,000 Palestinians who live within the 20 per cent of Hebron that falls under Israel's direct military control. Closure and curfew have now been in place for four days, causing shortages in water and the death of a three-month-old baby boy who died from respiratory problems after being prevented from reaching Hebron's Aliya hospital by an Israeli army checkpoint.
In the meantime, Hebron's Jewish settlers ran amok, overturning Palestinian market stalls and attacking any Palestinian they could lay their hands on. In response, on 22 August Palestinian youths spread out along the partition line that separates "Israeli" from "Palestinian" Hebron and fought the usual street battle of rocks and molotov cocktails versus rubber bullets. Three Palestinians were injured and 10 arrested by Palestinian police who had wedged themselves between soldiers and protesters to quell the confrontation.
If the army's military response to the attack was predictable, Netanyahu's political response was incendiary. On 23 August, the Israeli cabinet decided to replace the caravans that presently house Tel Rumeida's settlers with "permanent structures" surrounded by fences, allocating some 10 million shekels from the treasury to finance them. To assuage the fears of "ghettoisation" expressed by the pro-settler National Religious Party, Netanyahu assured all that "a fenced-in settlement can later be expanded". To drive the point home, the government ordered that some 20 other isolated West Bank settlements also be provided with fences and augmented army patrols.
Despite the difference in scale, Netanyahu's response to the Hebron attack is akin to his strategy on the Golan. Settlements are implanted first as preemptive facts on occupied territory. They are then consolidated and defended in the name of the settlers' security. Finally, they are used to justify the enlarged borders of a future Israeli sovereignty. In Hebron, the ruse is transparent, producing a Palestinian resistance that is shifting from popular confrontation to guerrilla attacks.
On the Golan, a guerrilla warfare strategy is not an option. The only alternative to withdrawal there is war.