Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 18 January 2006
Issue No. 777
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

And now, the Sharon factor

Sharon's near-fatal decline in health worries some Palestinians that whoever might come next will be worse, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank

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Clockwise from left: Ariel Sharon's empty chair and gavel at a cabinet meeting this week; an Israeli security guard stands outside Hassadah hospital in Jerusalem where Sharon is receiving treatment; Sharon by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem just one day after he was first voted in to the presidency

Playing devil's advocate

Who's next?

Ordinary Palestinians as well as resistance groups didn't hide their gleeful response to Sharon's virtual death by massive stroke. Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, argued that the "region will certainly be better off without Sharon". One of Hamas's candidates in the Hebron region remarked that, "Sharon's illness and looming death should be viewed as a mercy from God to Sharon's present and would-be victims."

Similarly, an Islamic Jihad activist in the Bethlehem region said that, "even if Sharon had a hundred strokes per day, he still wouldn't level up with the thousands of innocent people whose deaths he had caused."

Such feelings are understandable to a large extent. Indeed, for most Palestinians, Sharon has always been child-killer, home- demolisher and orchard-destroyer; the "butcher of Sabra and Shatila" who mercilessly killed thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

Sharon will also be remembered as the man who oversaw the building of the gigantic separation wall, carving over half of the West Bank into Israel and reducing the bulk of Palestinian population centres into virtual detention camps. Indeed, for the Palestinians, it is hard to imagine a more hateful figure.

However, while Palestinians may view Sharon's physical death, when it comes, with not a small amount of gloating, few can be unmoved by the Israeli premier's political death, which seems certain. In fact, the timing of Sharon's end is not particularly expedient for the Palestinians.

Sharon's absence is already generating political uncertainty and even turmoil in Israel. Sharon, at least publicly, was committed to the roadmap, although most Palestinians and many Israelis doubted his sincerity in this regard. Nonetheless, even if one reserved the benefit of the doubt on this point, it is clear that Sharon was the only Israeli leader who could take hard decisions, such as the decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and dismantle Jewish settlements there.

Hence, there are those in the Palestinian camp who are worried that the Israeli political scene could lapse into incertitude, which would militate against Palestinian interests.

To be sure, the Palestinians didn't pin real hopes on Sharon to facilitate the creation of a truly viable Palestinian state. They are aware of his prevarications, equivocations, and deception. The infamous "14 reservations" which Sharon attached to his government's acceptance of the American-backed "roadmap" for peace between Israel and the Palestinians effectively eviscerated the plan of any real substance.

This said, Sharon -- who for decades insisted that Jordan was Palestine -- finally accepted the eventuality of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even that, however, didn't really represent any kind of "ideological conversion" as many of his Israeli and American apologists would argue. He himself indicated on many occasions that he had to accede to the concept of a Palestinian state, or "state-let", because Israel can't allow itself to become a bi-national state, for the sake of its prized Jewish identity.

Sharon also understood that the paramount strategic nature of Israel's relations with the United States, and thus couldn't reject President Bush's vision of two states -- Palestine and Israel -- living peacefully side by side.

Nabil Shaath, probably one of the most dovish Palestinian leaders, believes that Sharon had no faith in the peace process, as his policy of settlement expansion and territorial aggrandisement testifies. Shaath, like other Palestinian intellectuals and leaders, is concerned that Sharon's absence -- physical or political or both -- will increase uncertainty over the peace-making process with the Palestinians.

This Palestinian ambivalence stems mainly from doubts that Sharon's Kadima Party, which is often described as Sharon's party or the "one-man party", could collapse without the man at the helm who created it. Many Palestinians dread the possible return of a right-wing government lead by the likes of Benyamin Netanyahu, who opposed the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, meaning any genuine and credible political process would have to wait at least four more years.

A Netanyahu government would also likely mean a widespread, and possibly unbridled, resumption of the theft of Palestinian land and the building of yet more Jewish settlements. Indeed, very few Palestinians believe that whoever succeeds Sharon will be less sinister or more benign for the Palestinians and their enduring cause.

Meanwhile, Palestinians are going ahead with their illustrious election campaigns as if Sharon's illness was totally irrelevant. Imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti was quoted as saying earlier this week that the 25 January elections wouldn't be affected by Sharon's death or political disappearance.

For the time being, it seems that most Palestinians, including Hamas, agree with Barghouti.

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