Sharon’s Escape from Alcatraz

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes
(I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts)


Sharon’s recently announced intention to unilaterally evacuate the occupied Gaza Strip did come as a surprise. Up to the last couple of months, the so-called founding father of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories had insisted that no settlement would be dismantled, at least not before a final peace agreement with the Palestinians was reached – which practically means forever, since Sharon believes a peace agreement is unreachable in any foreseeable future (quite correct, given Israel’s rejectionist positions). And now, all of a sudden, the announced evacuation of Gaza. Has Sharon “finally understood” what the peace camp has been saying for decades? Well, not quite.

Palestinian Disbelief

Israeli journalists sent to get the Palestinian reaction were (as always) disappointed: instead of falling in love with their great oppressor the minute he claimed he might stop dispossessing them, ungrateful official Palestinian sources dismissed Sharon’s announcement with disbelief. On the one hand, their mistrust is understandable: Sharon has a lifelong reputation of lying, as his superiors and colleagues have been saying for decades. Many of his insinuations in the recent months about certain settlements that might be “moved” actually served as an immediate trigger for settlers to fortify them. On the other hand, the reaction of the Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot be seen apart from its own interest. The PA is fighting for its survival against competing forces – in Gaza mainly the Islamic Hamas Movement, but also against some of its own units, inspired by Israel’s aggression and strangulation policy to develop into independent local militias. A unilateral Israeli withdrawal would weaken the PA even further: after all, the PA has a record of corruption, it is ineffective in supplying welfare, education and health services, and it cannot give any sense of security against the overwhelmingly superior Israeli military might. If even its function as negotiator becomes superfluous, one may rightly wonder what’s the use of the PA at all. So the PA’s disbelief should be seen, at least partially, as wishful thinking.

Left-Wing Objection

An astonishing reaction comes from Yossi Beilin, considered to be the left-end of the Zionist peace camp. Beilin objects to Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal, claiming there is no reason to leave Gaza without getting anything in return. It is indeed revealing to see that for Beilin, the settlements in Gaza are not a moral stain, a financial burden and a military headache that Israel should get rid of, but a precious asset that should be traded for some worthy “rewards”: a precise echo of similar views regularly aired by former PM Ehud Barak, the right-wing extremist who exploded the Oslo process, initiated the Intifada and destroyed the Israeli peace camp from within, to whom Beilin dedicated his last book.

But whereas Barak’s views are based on his inherent objection to peace, Beilin’s motivation is different: He has a vested interest (politically, and, broadly speaking, also financially) in the well-being of the PA, which is in fact his partner for the Geneva Accords. For Beilin, relieving 1,5 million Palestinians in Gaza of the abusive presence of Israeli settlers and military is not a good idea for Beilin, if its price might be weakening his partners in the corrupted PA. Compared with that, even Shimon Peres – whose complicity in the settlements project is of Sharonic dimensions – sounded this week like the voice of sanity, saying that withdrawing from Gaza was its own reward.

Moving the Pawns

I do not think Sharon is lying when he says he wants to evacuate Gaza: I think he really means it, otherwise he wouldn’t have risked giving legitimacy to this popular left-wing slogan. He may not be strong enough to do it: though an overwhelming majority (up to 80%) of the voters have always been supportive of getting out of Gaza (which is why Sharon is now toying with the idea of referendum), the government is extreme right-wing and the Knesset is very pro-settlers too. But paying attention to Sharon’s words, and especially to the small print (often omitted in the media), reveals his true intentions.

Note that Sharon has been talking all along of “moving” settlements, not dismantling them. The difference is now becoming clear: Sharon’s plan is to move whole settlements from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

A Western reader may be appalled by the idea, but this is Israel: citizens are not autonomous subjects with dignity and rights, but mere pawns in the government’s arsenal. The whole settlements policy is based on that: we put people where we like, be it a war zone if needed; we won’t let them go even if they want to (see previous column); and we redeploy them elsewhere whenever necessary. Almost all the Gaza settlements where created by Sharon following the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in 1982; many settlers moved there from Sinai. Now they should be moved elsewhere; they were informed about it exclusively by the Israeli media.

It’s the same Israeli media, by the way, which is already shedding tears about the poor Gaza settlers to be “uprooted” for generous compensations, totally blind to the fact that they live amongst 1,5 million Palestinians, 70% of whom are refugees who were violently uprooted from their land within Israel, and trapped in the most densely populated region on earth with not a cent of compensation.

Why Gaza?

Don’t err in illusions: no one intends to make Gaza a Palestinian State, no one even claims to. Gaza has a very different function. As senior Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea wrote a few years ago, Gaza is Israel’s penal colony, its “devil island, Alcatraz” (quoted by Tanya Reinhart). Even now, alleged “terrorists” and their relatives from the West Bank are regularly deported to Gaza, which is surrounded with electric fences, its access to the sea blocked by the Israeli navy, and is thus completely sealed off the outside world. Sharon intends to keep a 100 meter strip along the Egyptian border (where the army has been systematically destroying all Palestinian houses), to make sure Alcatraz is fully contained. There is thus no reason for Israel to sit inside Alcatraz, with its endless poverty and water shortage, unemployment and hopelessness: let the prisoners run their own lives, while we sit safely all around it and watch the prisoners perish. And to give a sense of proportion, take a look directly above, on the same scale, are (in gray) the Gaza Strip (left) and the West Bank (right).

So What is Sharon Up To?

As Hannah Kim of Ha’aretz (6.2.04) says,

“Sharon’s plan has not changed and it remains what it has been for years […] He keeps changing the title of his plan: ‘Long-term interim agreement,’ ‘Stage two of the road map’ or ‘Unilateral evacuation.’ […] And always, always he goes back to the same thing – to ensure that the map he draws, the very same map, will not allow the existence of a Palestinian state that will be able to live alongside Israel. In order to contain this danger, Sharon is prepared for ‘painful concessions,’ that is – the evacuation of a few Jewish settlements in the territories.”

In return for pulling out the settlements from the Gaza Strip, but keeping its strangulation from the outside, Sharon now asks for American support for massive extension of the West Bank settlements, and, according to some reports, even for a formal annexation of large parts of the West Bank to Israel. He also wants American consent to the route of the Apartheid Wall, which means annexing de facto some 20% of the West Bank to Israel, as well as breaking the Palestinian population of the West Bank into numerous isolated enclaves, many of which are economically totally unviable so that their inhabitants will be forced to move elsewhere. This is Sharon’s “new” plan: not ending the occupation, but getting rid of a nuisance, evacuating a few Jewish cells out of Gaza Alcatraz, in order to entrench the occupation of the lion’s share – the West Bank – even further, but this time with unprecedented American support.

Strategically, then, Sharon’s “disengagement” plan is just another name for occupation, and should be rejected as such. Tactically, however, the plan does have advantages. For my part, I support any Israeli withdrawal, any eviction of any settlement anywhere. If Sharon is ready to give back a third of the Gaza Strip now occupied by 7,500 settlers, let him do that, and the sooner the better. But at the same time, one must remember that Sharon has not changed, and one must resist his true intentions: to perpetuate the occupation, and consequently the armed conflict, by a seemingly generous “gift.”

–Ran HaCohen

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at