#60 - Sharon's War in the Occupied Territories - a lethal threat for both Palestinians and Israelis

May 2002


There is a deathly lull in Palestine. Sharon's so-called "Operation Defensive Shield" has been suspended for the time being. But for how long? The question which is on everyone's minds is not whether Sharon will resume his offensive, but when, and how far he will take it next time round.

On the West Bank, Israeli tanks were withdrawn from towns and villages at the end of April. But they remain everywhere on the roads, ready to strike. The area has been divided into eight military zones centred on the main towns. Neither people nor goods are allowed to pass from one zone to another without a special permit from the army. Vital necessities are lacking due to the destruction of the past two months and the virtual standstill imposed on the local economy by the Israeli occupation. The mountains of rubble left in the towns by Israeli shells and missiles are still being cleared, revealing yet more dead bodies. Hundreds of Palestinians, who were arrested over the past eight weeks, are kept in prisoners' camps with no justification other than the diktat of the military. As to the Gaza Strip, the other part of the Palestinian Occupied Territories, it narrowly avoided a full-scale invasion which Sharon cancelled at the last minute, at the beginning of May - but no-one believes for a second that this threat has gone forever.

Meanwhile, suicide attacks in Israel and against Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories are taking place almost every day. In fact Sharon's invasion has only succeeded in increasing the number of casualties among the Israeli population. Far from bringing the "new era of peace" he had promised to the Israeli population, Sharon's state terrorism has only provided Palestinian terrorist groups with more recruits willing to sacrifice their lives against the Israeli state. What else could explain, for instance, the gesture of the two teenagers, aged 12 and 15, who were shot down at the end of April while trying to sneak into a Jewish settlement armed with kitchen knives? No matter what Sharon may claim, these youths could not have been the instruments of an alleged "terrorist plot". But their attempt shows, without any doubt, how Israel's brutal repression has led to the utter exasperation, anger and despair of a whole population.

Sharon and the Israeli government were not naive enough to think that "Operation Defensive Shield" would stop the terrorist attacks. They knew, on the contrary, that invading the West Bank would only bring more suicide attacks, by intensifying the rivalries between the Islamic groups. Just as they knew that the systematic destruction of the Palestinian Authority's buildings would force Fatah, Arafat's organisation, to turn to terrorism in order not to be sidelined by its rivals. Significantly, it was Arafat and Tanzim, the military wing of Fatah, which were systematically blamed for the terrorist attacks, not the Islamic groups, despite the fact that the latter claimed responsibility for most of them.

Sharon used the US "war against terrorism" and the fear caused by suicide bombings in Israel to justify his invasion of the West Bank. But terrorism was by no means his main objective. As he explained himself, on March 3rd, the Palestinians "need blows. They must understand that they are defeated." This is the language of all colonial oppressors. Sharon's real agenda behind "Operation Defensive Shield" was to terrorise the Palestinian population into submission. To this end, the Palestinian Authority had to be destroyed, not because it was a threat to Israel, but because it was a symbol around which the Palestinian population could rally against Israel's oppression, regardless of its failings. And the huge refugee camps of Jenin and Batala, the traditional strongholds of Palestinian militancy, had to be reduced to rubble, to hammer it in that rebelling against Israel was pointless and in any case much too costly to be worth it.

Sharon has stated many times that as far as he is concerned, Israel's so-called "war of liberation" - i.e. the war launched in 1948 by the new Israeli state in order to impose its existence on the Arab world - is not over yet. First in the military and then as a far-right politician, Sharon built his career around the objective of a "Greater Israel" developing far beyond its present borders. If and how Sharon intends to achieve this under the present circumstances remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that "Operation Defensive Shield" fits in some way within such a perspective.

That Sharon's policy represents a lethal threat for the Palestinian population has been demonstrated clearly since Sharon came to power in February last year. This can be measured already in the numbers of dead in Palestinian ranks and the extent of the devastation inflicted both in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But it is not just for the Palestinians that Sharon represents a mortal danger. As Marx pointed out, talking about Britain's oppression of Ireland: "a people that oppresses another can never be free." This has been true of the Israeli population ever since the inception of the state of Israel. Today, however, Sharon's expansionist policy may give a much more dramatic illustration of Marx's statement. For the Israeli population it represents a danger which may turn out to be far worse than the suicide bombings themselves.

From the first Intifada to the Oslo agreement

One of the targets and casualties of Sharon's offensive against the Occupied Territories was the Palestinian Authority, in other words the Palestinian autonomous administration which came out of the peace process initiated by the Oslo agreement, back in 1993.

The Israeli far-right was always opposed to this agreement. Not because it produced a resolution which was in any way favourable to the Palestinian population - which it certainly did not - nor even because it weakened the position of the Israeli state in the Middle-East. But in and of itself, the Oslo agreement, on paper at least, amounted to the recognition by the Israeli state, for the first time ever, the right of the Palestinians to take their fate into their own hands and live on their own land. It did not matter to the Zionist far-right that this recognition actually resulted in worse conditions for the Palestinian population. The very idea that the Palestinians should be granted any rights at all on Israeli-controlled land was simply unbearable to the Zionist far-right.

The fact is that the Oslo Agreement did involve historical concessions on the part of the Israeli state - concessions which reflected Israel's impotence in containing the first Intifada.

It should be recalled that this first Intifada (or uprising in Arabic) began as a spontaneous rebellion in October 1987, following a road accident in which several Palestinians had been run over by an Israeli army vehicle. Riots, including the famous scenes of thousands of youth throwing stones at heavily-armed Israeli soldiers, general strikes and boycotts became daily events in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli state did everything it could to contain the uprising. The army turned the Occupied Territories into a no-go area. The circulation of people and goods was stopped. Hundreds of demonstrators were shot, thousands were jailed. But to no avail. Day after day the youth came back to harass the Israeli soldiers while Palestinian workers marched against the Israeli road blocks.

By 1992, five years after the beginning of the Intifada, the Palestinians' mobilisation was still showing no sign of weakening, despite Israel's stepping up of the repression (in 1992 alone, 25,000 Palestinian were arrested). But in Israel itself, opposition to the army's repression was growing. More and more soldiers were refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. The Intifada could never have defeated the military might of the Israeli state, but it was beginning to demoralise a whole section of its army.

It was at this point that Yitzhak Rabin's Avoda party (Labour party of Israel) came back to power, in the June general election, following a campaign in which Rabin declared his willingness to negotiate with Arafat's PLO in order to bring the Intifada to an end. In adopting this policy, Rabin was definitely breaking with his party's traditional denial of the existence of a "Palestinian question." Yet Rabin was certainly not a "dove". He owed his prestige to having been the army chief of staff during the Six-Day war, in 1967. If Rabin was now talking about "peace", it was only the expression of a growing consensus among the Israeli ruling class.

Indeed, not only was the Intifada putting the cohesion of the Israeli army at risk, but it was seriously undermining the Israeli economy. The year before, recession in America, Israel's main trading partner, had seriously reduced the country's exports. At home, the Intifada deprived Israel's industry of its traditional source of cheap labour from the Occupied Territories. Moreover it deprived the Israeli economy of the limited, but not insignificant market, represented by the population of the Occupied Territories, which was about half that of Israel. Above all, as long as the Intifada went on, there would be no possibility for Israel to trade with the neighbouring Arab countries - not even with Egypt despite this country's formal recognition of Israel in 1977.

There were other, mostly political reasons for Rabin to be willing to negotiate with the PLO. At the end of the 1980s, Arafat had already made unilateral concessions to Israel by recognising formally the existence of the state of Israel, thereby implicitly reducing the nationalists' demand to that of an independent state in the Occupied Territories. Above all, the PLO was no longer in a position of strength. In the Occupied Territories, its political domination was now threatened by Islamic groups like Hamas. In fact the Israeli authorities had something to do with this. In order to undermine the radical nationalist current represented by the PLO, Israel had consistently supported the forerunners of Hamas - the Gaza Strip's Islamic Congress and the West Bank's Muslim Brotherhood - throughout the 1980s. But beyond Israel's manoeuvres, the main factor in the PLO's loss of ground to fundamentalist groups, was simply that Arafat did not seem to have anything to offer any more. For nearly a decade Arafat and the PLO leadership had been sitting in Tunis, sending delegations all over the world and begging the United Nations to intervene against Israel - without any success. For many young Palestinians who were looking for ways to fight the Israeli occupation, the PLO's respectable policy made the radical-sounding language of the fundamentalist groups seem a lot more attractive.

However, and this was an essential element in Rabin's calculations, the PLO still had a strong apparatus on the ground in the Occupied Territories. In particular, it controlled most of the town councils. And while it was losing ground among the younger generations, it still retained enormous prestige among the rest of the Palestinian population.

Rabin, however, took no chances. Repression was stepped up in the Occupied Territories. At the same time as Israeli diplomats were making contact with PLO representatives under the auspices of the US, a massive six-day military offensive by land, sea and air, was mounted in South Lebanon, at the end of 1992, to wipe out the PLO's last military bases. So by the time the secret negotiations started in earnest, in early 1993, the PLO had virtually no military striking power left. This meant that the implementation of a future agreement would depend entirely on the goodwill of the Israeli army.

Not an independent state but Palestinian homelands

In contrast to the scenario hailed at the time by the media, the Oslo agreement did not in any way recognise the right of the Palestinian people to set up an independent state.

This agreement involved two series of documents. In the "letters of mutual recognition" which were exchanged by the two sides in Oslo, in August 1993, Arafat reiterated his unconditional recognition of the state of Israel, but Rabin only recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian population, without recognising formally the right of this population to have its own state. At this stage the only commitment made by Rabin was to engage in official talks with the PLO with a view to finding a resolution to the Palestinian question. Then, on September 13th, a "declaration of principles", which both parties signed on the lawn of the White House, went a little further. Israel agreed to withdraw its troops from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho. These two areas were to have self-governing status (excluding the Israeli settlements already established in the Gaza Strip) under a new body, the so-called Palestinian Authority whose first task would be to restore internal order in these two areas after the departure of the Israeli army, using its own police force.

In return for this token autonomy, therefore, Arafat accepted the role of policing the population and bringing the Intifada to an end on behalf of the Israeli state. To carry out this task, Arafat could not rely on the PLO cadres on the ground - they had been much too closely involved in the Intifada to be willing to turn against it. However, Arafat could count on the 5,000 men or so who staffed the PLO's headquarters in exile, in Tunis. So when the Israeli army withdrew from Jericho and the Gaza Strip as planned, in 1994, it was this state machinery in waiting, fully equipped with brand-new uniforms and weapons, which took control in the two areas. Needless to say this caused a lot of resentment among the local PLO cadres who had been fighting in the streets for all these years, and in many cases had been wounded or jailed, while most of the officials of the new Palestinian Authority were having a comfortable time in Tunis. And subsequently this resentment was to lead many of these cadres to distance themselves from Arafat.

In the protracted negotiating process that followed, from Washington to Paris, Cairo, the Wye Plantation, Stockholm, Amman, Camp David, Sharm, etc.., the Israeli government granted Arafat no favours. At each step it demanded actual results from Arafat's policing operations, before putting on paper more details concerning the rights it agreed to recognise for the Palestinian Authority.

While the vague terms of the original Oslo agreement seemed to leave many doors open, those of the interim agreement signed by both sides in September 1995 should have left no illusions with regard to what the Israeli state was willing to concede. East Jerusalem, although the largest Palestinian urban concentration, was left out of any future discussions altogether. The Occupied Territories were to be divided into three zones - A, B and C. In zone A, the Palestinian Authority was to have civil and security control; in zone B, it was to have civil control while the Israeli army remained in charge of security; and in zone C, the Israeli authorities were to retain total control.

When the proposals for the boundaries of these zones were eventually put on the table by the Israeli government, in March 2000, the 5,800 sq km of the West Bank were divided as follows: zone A covered only 18% of the land, including the most densely populated areas; zone B covered 21% and zone C was made up of the remaining 61% - this last zone included all Israeli settlements and connecting roads together with most of the valuable land and water resources. In the Gaza Strip, the division was even more caricatural: zone C comprised 20% of the land which was effectively set aside to be used exclusively by only 6,500 Israeli settlers, while the one-million strong Palestinian population had to make do with the remaining 300 sq km!

Not only were the Palestinians never granted independence, but the so-called "autonomy" they were offered did not even cover a viable territory. Zone A of the West Bank, for instance, is made of 227 separate enclaves, connected by Israeli-controlled roads, meaning that families were separated by Israeli roadblocks and the circulation of people and goods within the so-called autonomous Palestinian area was dependent on the goodwill of the Israeli army.

To all intents and purposes, the peace process merely confined the Palestinian population of the Occupied Territories to tiny enclaves comparable to Indian reservations in the USA or to the South African homelands of the apartheid era, surrounded by the tanks and roadblocks of the Israeli army.

In Israel - a shift to the right

In fact, despite the Nobel Prize for Peace that he received jointly with Arafat and Shimon Peres, Rabin was quite open about the limitations he intended to put on the peace process. In a speech he gave in October 1995, for instance, Rabin declared that there would no return to the pre-1967 borders of Israel (and therefore no complete withdrawal of Israel from the Occupied Territories). And he added that what the Palestinians would get through the peace process was, in any case, "less than a state."

By that time, the policy of the Israeli government was already shifting away from its previous apparent willingness to make concessions. The pressure of the Intifada had been significantly reduced by Arafat's return to the Occupied Territories and the partial withdrawal of the Israeli army. The peace process had enabled the regimes of several Arab countries to justify ending their embargo against Israel, thereby opening up new profitable markets for the Israeli economy. And the cheap labour of the Occupied Territories had been replaced by even cheaper labour imported from Eastern Europe, Thailand, China, the Philippines and other poor countries. As far as the Israeli ruling class was concerned, there was no reason to make more concessions.

It was indeed under Rabin that the development of new Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories was restarted. This was not an entirely new policy, of course. Already in the 1970s, while Rabin was also in office, this policy had been introduced in the Gaza Strip under the auspices of Rabin's security adviser - who was none other than Ariel Sharon. But only a few settlements had been built so far, initially because there were not enough volunteers to resettle in the Occupied Territories and subsequently because of the Intifada. In 1995, however, this policy was relaunched on an unprecedented scale - all the more so because, due to the growing flow of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, the authorities had no difficulty in finding "volunteers" who were given no other choice. Moreover, partly for military purposes and partly due to the appalling state of the road network in the Occupied Territories, for lack of any effort to develop it since 1967, the new settlements were connected between each other and with Israel with a brand new network of motorways which Palestinians were forbidden to use. Of course, all this building often involved the expulsion of previous Palestinian occupiers and the destruction of their homes. And once a settlement had been built, there was no question of the Israeli government renouncing full control of it.

Rabin's murder by a Jewish fundamentalist, at the end of 1995, opened the way to an even sharper shift to the right. His immediate successor, the Labour party leader Shimon Peres, was known to be in favour of limiting the Palestinian autonomous zone to the Gaza Strip only. Faced with intense agitation from the far-right religious parties which denounced the Oslo agreement as treason, Peres conceded more and more ground. So in the 1996 general election, the far-right Likud party won the vote under the corrupt and opportunistic leadership of Netanyahu, who was openly opposed to the Oslo agreement. Not only did the settlement programme carry on, but Netanyahu stepped up the policy of sealing off Palestinian enclaves, already introduced under Peres, while refusing to carry on with the peace process.

But it was after the 1999 election, which was won again by the Labour party, this time under Ehud Barak that the screw was turned most brutally. It must be said that Barak, like Rabin, was a former chief of staff of the army, who had left the army only four years before to become Rabin's minister of the Interior. And it was precisely for this reason that he had been chosen by the Labour party to lead it in the election. Unlike Netanyahu, Barak was not known to be opposed to the Oslo Agreement, but he was certainly the political voice of an army which had never concealed its reluctance towards the peace process.

Under Barak, once again, the building of Israeli settlements was stepped up while the phased withdrawal of Israeli troops which had been agreed so far within the peace process was stopped. It was Barak who inaugurated many of Sharon's present methods: sending helicopter gun ships to shell Palestinian towns in the Occupied Territories in blind retaliation to terrorist attacks against Israeli soldiers or civilians and the murder of well-known Palestinian figures in targeted attacks.

Meanwhile Israel's society was becoming increasingly polarised. The right-wing shift in the government's policy went together with a similar shift in society. In this the terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinian Islamic groups certainly played a major role, particularly once Barak's government started to retaliate in kind by shelling Palestinian towns. This was the starting point of a murderous spiral which forced a whole section of Israel's public opinion to rally behind the army and Barak's bellicose policy. But in addition, the numerous concessions made by the successive governments to the religious far-right parties had given them an unprecedented audience. Not only were these parties throwing their weight around in the streets, but they were providing military assistance and training to volunteers in the Israeli settlements of the Occupied Territories. And their racist demagogy, which blamed the Palestinians for everything that went wrong in Israel, from the suicide attacks to the growing unemployment and rising inflation, found an echo in some of the worst off sections of the population, particularly among recent immigrants, who were experiencing difficulties in building a new life in Israel, and among the Sephardic Jews - immigrants who came from North Africa in the 1960s and 70s, only to find themselves discriminated against, because, ironically, they had so much in common with the Palestinians.

Above all, it was Barak who brought the peace process to an end, at the Camp David meeting, which had been planned for July 2000 in order to discuss the permanent status which would eventually be granted to the Palestinian Authority. At this meeting Arafat was faced with an "informal" offer: in return for the 9% of the West Bank comprising the Israeli settlements, connecting roads and military bases, the Palestinian Authority was offered some land in Israel, amounting to just over one-tenth of this surface, some of which was just stretches of desert currently used by Israel for the dumping of toxic waste. In addition, Barak demanded that, as a "temporary" measure the B zone which was to remain under Israeli military control, should be increased from 21 to 31%. If this was the status proposed by Israel, the future Palestinian state, assuming it was ever allowed to exist, would never be a viable entity. Regardless of his willingness to play along with the US mediators who attended the meeting, Arafat had no choice but to turn down this cynical offer - which then allowed the Israeli government to blame him for the collapse of the peace process.

In fact there was so little political difference between Barak and Sharon that Barak tried his best to convince Sharon to join his government as minister of Defence. But by that time, Sharon already had higher ambitions. The political scene had been shifted so far to the right since Rabin's murder that Sharon could now aim at joining the government not as an ally in a ruling coalition but as the head of this coalition. Time was working for him, he only had to wait.

The Palestinian powderkeg explodes again

By the end of 2000 there were over 170 settlements in the Occupied Territories with a 300-mile network of connecting roads which the Palestinians were not allowed to use. This network had cost $3bn to build, entirely funded by the USA. Since 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories had almost doubled to 195,000. In East-Jerusalem, the mostly Palestinian part of the Jerusalem area, the Jewish population had increased over the same period from 20,000 to 170,000. Over the same period again, over 140 sq km of Palestinian land had been confiscated for the settlement programme.

Moreover, the economic impact of the sealing off of Palestinian areas by the Israeli army was dramatic. Workers who used to work in a different part of the Occupied Territories or in Israel, lost their jobs, being unable to travel to work. Farmers were unable to sell their products, shopkeepers were prevented from restocking their shops. Factories had to close down for lack of parts and raw material. Altogether it is estimated that by the end of 2000, unemployment in the Occupied Territories had risen to 40% from 25% two years before.

Not only was the Palestinian population considerably worse off but it had even less freedom of movement in the Occupied Territories than before Oslo. In addition to more harassment from the Israeli army, it had to face the harassment of the rival police forces operating under the Palestinian Authority. And it was for this that the Intifada had been stopped?

It was as a result of this combination of anger, despair and growing discontent against the corruption of Arafat's administration, that the Islamic fundamentalist groups, which had been largely sidelined during the Intifada, were able to find new recruits for their terrorist policy. But among the Palestinian masses the powderkeg was ready to explode again - and it did, on September 28th, 2000.

This time, the trigger was a deliberate provocation - a visit by Sharon accompanied by a thousand-strong security force, to the site of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. It was not difficult to imagine the likely reaction to this provocation by the most hated Israeli politician among Palestinians. Barak, who had given his clearance to Sharon's demonstration of strength, knew what he was doing, even if he may not have measured fully the possible consequences - particularly the fact that it would bring his own downfall. But Sharon had probably achieved exactly what he wanted - a demonstration of the failure of the peace process in containing the Palestinian rebellion and a pretext to re-occupy a large part of the Occupied Territories.

By the next day, in any case, the Palestinian youth were back on the streets, throwing stones at the large force of police and soldiers which had been sent by Barak in the area. That day the army opened fire on the demonstrators, leaving four dead and several hundred wounded.

The second Intifada now spread almost immediately to all the main towns in the Occupied Territories. Within a week, large reinforcements of Israeli tanks and soldiers had entered the West Bank and Gaza Strip and surrounded the main urban concentrations. The stalemate was back to what it had been ten years before. The Israeli state had demonstrated that the peace process was no longer relevant and that the existence of the Palestinian Authority was no protection for the Palestinian population.

But by the same token, Barak had given a tremendous boost to the popularity of the Islamic fundamentalist groups which now appeared as the only forces willing to fight the Israeli occupants. They were to step up their campaign of suicide attacks against Israel, thereby forcing Fatah to do the same for fear of being outflanked, by setting up a special terrorist unit, the Brigades of the Martyrs of Al Aqsa.

Sharon's time arrives

Predictably, despite a huge military deployment, Ehud Barak proved impotent against the rioting, just as he proved incapable of stopping the wave of terrorist attacks. Every day dozens of Palestinian demonstrators lost their lives under Israeli fire. But each victim brought out larger contingents on the demonstrations and more recruits to the terrorist groups.

Five months after Sharon's provocation, the prime ministerial election was due, in February 2001. Sharon, as leader of the Likud, campaigned on a programme promising "the end of terror" and a lasting peace. He was careful not to say a word about the Oslo agreement or the peace process - his reputation spoke for itself anyway. Instead of announcing his intention to use more military force, he focused on demanding that Arafat should clean up his own house. In fact, it was very hard to see any significant difference between the Labour party and Sharon as far as their campaigns were concerned - all the more so because Barak had announced in advance that if Sharon won the election he would be prepared to join his coalition government as Defence minister.

On election day, Barak's votes dropped by 48% compared to 1999, while Sharon topped the poll easily. Apparently a significant section of the electorate had chosen to switch their vote from Barak's version of Sharon's policy to the original version. But the most striking feature of this election was the record level of abstention - 41% as opposed to 25% in 1999. Among the Arab-Israeli electorate, which traditionally voted massively for the Labour Party, 82% had abstained this time round. And this abstention accounted for about half of Barak's losses.

Sharon's election must have been seen across the Occupied Territories as an ominous sign. Indeed, it should be recalled that Sharon record goes back a long way, to 1953, when he was the commander of an Israeli unit which massacred 70 civilians in the Jordanian village of Qibya. Subsequently Sharon climbed the ladder to the top of the army hierarchy until he chose to make a political career after the Yom Kippur war, in 1973. Four years later he joined Herut, the far-right party set up by Menachem Begin, the former supreme commander of Irgun, a wartime Jewish terrorist militia. Subsequently Sharon held government positions most of the time, including in a few Labour-led governments. In particular he was Defence minister in 1981-83, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and was responsible for the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Chatilah camps in Beirut. Significantly, although forced to resign because of this allegation, Sharon was allowed to remain in the cabinet during the following ten years. In other words, Sharon is not just a well-known butcher in the war of the Israeli state against the Palestinian population, he is also a "respectable" politician, who is a very long-standing member of the establishment. As to his own views about the Occupied Territories, of which he has given many samples in interviews after his election, they are very simple: as far as he is concerned, Israel should not abandon one inch of land from the Occupied Territories to anyone, whether Palestinian or otherwise.

Sharon cultivates his image as a military "hero" and a champion of a "Greater Israel", as he did, for instance, in an interview published shortly after his election in which he declared: "The War of Independence has not ended. (..) A normal people does not ask questions like will we always live by the sword' (..) The sword is part of life." But Sharon also poses as the strong man who does not depend on any party (even though he would probably never have been elected without the support of the Likud) and as a providential leader who can bring all the main parties together in a national coalition.

But if Sharon can afford to make such a claim, it is primarily thanks to the Labour party's contemptible renunciation of what it is supposed to stand for. Indeed, only two weeks after Sharon's election, the old Labour veteran Shimon Peres had already negotiated a role in Sharon's ruling coalition, under the pretext that Israel's existence was in danger! And today, not only does Sharon's government include Peres as foreign minister, but its Defence minister, in charge of military operations in the Occupied Territories, is the current Labour party leader. And yet, the Labour party remains the largest party in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Without its support, Sharon would have been unable to rely on a majority in the assembly. But following its long-standing tradition (having been continuously in office from 1948 to 1972), the Labour party has always chosen to be on the same side as the state machinery and its army. Even if this means, as it does today, sitting in government with unsavoury characters like Sharon himself and, above all, his motley crowd of far-right religious partners.

All-out offensive against the Palestinian population

Once in office, Sharon wasted no time. Just four days after his swearing-in ceremony, on 11th March 2001, he replied to an approach from Arafat to resume peace talks by declaring that the whole process would have to be restarted from scratch, thus cancelling de facto the Oslo agreement. The following week, he ordered a large-scale police operation, which netted two dozen alleged terrorists, including one prominent figure of Arafat's personal guard. The next day, for the first time, Israeli troops moved into the Gaza Strip to take over land which was meant to be under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Thereafter Sharon's policy came down to an unending series of acts of retaliation in response to suicide attacks, usually involving the shelling of the population of Palestinian towns and villages; so-called "preventive" attacks, using the same methods, under the pretext of stopping possible attacks against neighbouring Israeli settlements; and targeted murders of alleged terrorists.

This tit-for-tat strategy lasted for the whole of last year. But it could only "work", as it were, provided the suicide attacks carried on. When this did not happen, as in November last year, when a cease-fire arranged by Arafat with all Palestinian groups held for a full week, Sharon resorted to a provocation by ordering the assassination of Hamas leader, Mahmud Abu Hanud. Of course, this resulted in a immediate wave of further suicide bombings in Israel - thus bringing Sharon's strategy back on course.

By that time, however, Sharon had already decided to change tack. Maybe he thought that Israel's public opinion was ready for large-scale military interventions in the Occupied Territories. But above all, he wanted to use the US "war against terrorism" as a cover for his own agenda so as to avoid pressure from the USA to show more restraint. Not that the US leaders have ever given a damn about the fate of the Palestinian population, of course, but they do worry about their cosy relationship with some of the Arab states.

The Autumn saw the first of a series on simultaneous invasions of towns in the Occupied Territories, involving sustained bombing and shelling for days on end, and of course heavy casualties and blind destruction on the Palestinian side. However, instead of slowing down the rate of terrorist attacks in Israel, as a section of Israeli opinion was probably hoping, it had the opposite effect. In fact, it was as a result of this first large-scale offensive that Fatah chose to resort to suicide attacks as well. Far from reducing the number of casualties in Israel, Sharon's state terrorism in the Occupied Territories was causing more deaths in Israel than ever before.

By March, however, after over four months of repeated invasions which only resulted in more terrorist attacks, the patience of the Israeli population for Sharon's murderous tactics seemed to be wearing increasingly thin. Opinion polls showed growing support for the setting up of an independent Palestinian state (although how this was to be done was another matter) and opposition to Sharon's dirty war was growing in the army. Indeed, by that time the petition launched a few months before by 52 Israeli officers to announce their decision not to serve in the Occupied Territories, was gathering momentum. Over four hundred had signed it, including a significant number of senior officers.

Nevertheless Sharon chose to take a gamble. Using the pretext of a suicide bombing which killed 19 people attending a dinner celebrating a religious festival, in the coastal resort of Netanya, Sharon launched his largest offensive ever. A few days later he shifted his government's centre of gravity further to the right by appointing three more members of the religious far-right to ministerial positions, including a member of the Religious National Party, the political wing of the settlers' "Bloc of Faith."

This time, the offensive was concentrated solely on the West Bank. But it targeted all the major towns, as if Sharon wanted to create an irreversible situation, which would make a resumption of the peace process impossible. It even came to the point, on several occasions, when Sharon seemed to consider the option of liquidating Arafat. In the end he did not do it, certainly not for lack of desire, though.

Even Sharon has to take into account the reactions of both the Palestinian and the Israeli population. It is one thing to humiliate Arafat by keeping him imprisoned in his Ramallah headquarters, depriving him of water, electricity and telephone lines and killing his bodyguards, but it is quite another thing to risk a general Palestinian uprising, and probably protest in Israel by murdering him - especially now that Arafat has regained some of his credit by refusing to leave the country. So Sharon kept Arafat alive, as a possible reserve card.

But what he did not do, was to exercise the same relative restraint with regard to the Palestinian Authority itself. In fact all its machinery was systematically destroyed, from the TV and Radio stations to the Met office, the Administration and Agriculture buildings, the public records building, not to mention the security ministries and many others.

Neither did he spare the Palestinian population. The massive destruction of houses first through shelling and then by bulldozing, in the refugee camps of Jenin and Balata, the systematic house-to-house search for "terrorists", carried out in all towns, the curfew imposed on 600,000 inhabitants of the West Bank - all these actions had no objective other than to force the thousands of inhabitants of these camps to disperse and to terrorise the Palestinian population as a whole. By the same token it was setting an example and acting as a warning to the rest of the population of the Occupied Territories as to what was on the cards for them in future.

Imperialism's hypocritical game

It is worth, at this point, mentioning the cynical role of imperialism in the catastrophe which is affecting the Palestinian population. The latest so-called "deal" brokered by Bush on 28th April, between the Israeli government and Yasser Arafat, puts in a nutshell the hypocrisy of the imperialist powers and the total contempt they have displayed for the populations of the Middle-East ever since Sharon launched his first offensive against the Palestinians.

Indeed, what is this so-called "deal" about? Allegedly it allows Arafat to leave the building in which he has been confined since the beginning of April, in Ramallah, and move "freely" within the West Bank. In return, a team of US and British "correctional officers" will take responsibility for guarding six PLO activists in a Palestinian jail. These activists include one of Arafat's close collaborators, who is wanted by Sharon for an attempt to smuggle weapons, and five members of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), who have already been sentenced to various terms in prison by Arafat's own military court for their role in the assassination of the far-right Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Ze'evi, last year.

And this was what Bush had the nerve to call "an important step towards peace in the Middle-East." Yet at the same time as he was uttering these words, Israeli tanks had entered Hebron, the largest town of the West Bank, killing nine people, and Israeli soldiers were already smashing their way into people's homes in a house-to-house search for "terrorists and weapons". This operation against Hebron was in open defiance both of the UN Security Council resolutions and of Bush's own public exhortations to Sharon to pull his tanks out of the West Bank. Despite this, Bush found nothing to say about Sharon's latest provocation, except to invite him for an official visit to Washington at the beginning of May. His only stern words were for Arafat whom he ordered to seize the opportunity to "condemn and thwart terrorist activities" - a cynical joke given that all Palestinian radio and TV stations have already been destroyed by Sharon's tanks and missiles, as has most of the infrastructure of the Palestinian authority, while Arafat's "freedom" to move remains entirely dependent on the goodwill of the Israeli army, which is in total control of the West Bank.

Meanwhile, as in Hebron and, during the following day, in two refugee camps in the Gaza strip, Israeli troops were able to carry out unhindered their punitive operations against the Palestinian population. And Sharon, on the strength of Bush's invitation to visit him, felt confident enough to turn down point blank the UN's demand for an urgent enquiry into the massacre carried out, two weeks earlier, by Israeli troops in Jenin's refugee camp.

It is worth noting in passing the unsavoury role played in this diplomatic parody by Blair and his foreign minister, Jack Straw. Everyone remembers Blair claiming that "Britain is leading the peace process in the Middle-East" and boasting of his "expertise" as a peace-broker acquired in Northern Ireland, when he left for his last visit to Bush's ranch in Texas, on 6th April. At the time, Downing Street insisted that Blair would not just be dancing to Bush's tune - in support of extending the "war against terrorism" to Iraq - but that he would also be giving him firm advice on how to deal with the Middle-East. No-one knows whether Blair actually offered his advice. But what we do know is that in their final speeches following the meeting, neither Bush nor Blair himself said a word about the Middle-East. And so far, Britain's only contribution to "leading the peace process in the Middle East" will have been to provide prison wardens to guard PLO activists on behalf of Sharon! However, by an ironical twist of history, it turns out that the Jericho prison where these wardens are on duty, was built during the British mandate over Palestine, in the 1930s - a forgotten aspect of Britain's contribution, not to peace, but to the present tragedy in the region!

There is nothing to expect from the West

What is clear, in any case, is that all the noises made by London and Washington about their efforts to bring peace to the Middle-East have amounted so far to giving Sharon a free ride in his terrorist war against the Palestinian population.

Not that it would be difficult for the imperialist leaders to put real pressure on Sharon, just to force him, for instance, to implement the withdrawal of his troops from the Occupied Territories required by UN resolution 3013, which was adopted by the Security Council on 30th March.

Indeed, while being the world's 16th wealthiest country in terms of GDP per head, Israel is also, by far, the biggest recipient of US foreign aid - accounting on its own for 30% of the US total. The present level of US aid going to Israel is estimated to be $5bn per year - $1.8bn in military aid, $1.2bn in economic aid, $2bn in federal loan guarantees. In addition to this, Israel receives around $1.5bn from tax-deductible private donations from US citizens through numerous charities. In total this flow of dollars coming from the US represents no less than 40% of Israel's export revenue, without even taking into account Israel's exports to the US, which is the world's biggest importer of Israeli products.

In other words, just turning off the tap of US aid and other donations to Israel would probably leave Sharon with no option other than to toe the line. This is something that Washington has done countless times against a long list of poor countries, for reasons which were, in most cases, minor compared to Sharon's open defiance of the UN - not to mention the list of countries which are the targets of US trade sanctions, or the so-called "rogue" countries whose assets in the US have been frozen for rather dubious reasons.

So what is indeed lacking in Bush's "drive for peace" in the Middle-East is simply the political will to do anything which might harm his relationship with Sharon or weaken the Israeli state.

This should not come as a surprise, of course. After all, the Israeli state, together with the Saudi royals, are the two main pillars of the imperialist system of domination in the Middle-East - and, as such, they are the guarantors of the West's oil supply and profits against the region's populations. What is more, out of these two pillars, Israel is the most reliable from the point of view of imperialism, in so far as the repressive policy of its state against the region's poor has the backing of the majority of Israelis, so far at least.

For the imperialist leaders, the fate of the Palestinian people has never carried much weight against their oil interests. And it carries even less weight today, when the Palestinians appear weakened by Sharon's offensive and with their organisations in disarray. So, in the absence of an immediate danger for the region's stability, why would the imperialist powers risk alienating Sharon by seriously trying to contain his expansionist ventures, especially as he seems so effective in crushing the resistance of the Palestinian activists?

This is why it is a deception - and a dangerous one - to put forward the demand that a UN-sponsored (meaning, necessarily, US-controlled) "peace-keeping" force should be sent to the Occupied Territories in order to keep Sharon's tank away. Even if the US leaders allowed such a force to be sent - something which Bush has opposed adamantly so far - and assuming it did not arrive too late, it would still not constitute any protection for the Palestinian people, let alone the beginning of a resolution of the present conflict.

One should remember the criminal role played by a similar UN "peace-keeping" force during the war in Lebanon. Not only did it leave the field open to the massacres which were carried out in refugee camps, under the supervision, if not the direct orders, of Sharon himself. But later on, the US warships of the UN contingent intervened on the side of president Gemayel's far-right government by shelling the poor districts of Beirut which had risen against him.

Today, it is not hard to imagine what side a UN "peace-keeping" force would take in case of a Palestinian uprising, or simply if the Palestinians attempted to reclaim the large parts of the Occupied Territories which are presently allocated for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers.

What future for the Middle East?

The cost of the Israeli state's terrorist war for the Palestinian and Israeli populations can be measured in terms of their respective casualties since the beginning of the second Intifada. Officially, 1,552 Palestinians had been killed up to May 20th and around a third as many among the Israeli population.

On both sides these casualties are already intolerable. On the Palestinian side, of course, the cost of Sharon's adventurist policy must now be measured also in terms of the numbers arrested or jailed, the extent of homelessness caused by Israeli bombings and the brutal cut in the population's standard of living. According to the World Bank's own figures, the proportion of the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories living on less than $2 per day has increased from 20 to 50% since the beginning of the 2nd Intifada.

The truth, however, is that Sharon's policy is one of impotence. It illustrates the inability of the Israeli army to contain the resistance of the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. But if Sharon has got away with this criminal policy, so far in any case, it is only due to the absence of any substantial political opposition among the Israeli population. The Labour party has never had a role independent from the state and the other groups on the left are either too small or too respectful of the political setup to represent any threat for Sharon.

So far therefore, Sharon's strategy has been to destroy what was left of the Palestinian Authority, while terrorising the Palestinian population. But it is still difficult to gauge what his short and medium terms aims might be and how he hopes to achieve them. Sharon has to take into account the balance of political forces in Israel itself. And for the time being he may still think that this balance of forces is not in his favour, which is what may explain his unexpected shelving of the planned offensive against the Gaza Strip.

Regardless of Sharon's objectives, however, political overbidding may come from his allies on the religious far-right, who are all in favour of a complete annexation of the Occupied Territories, if not their "ethnic cleansing" by deporting the Palestinian population to neighbouring Arab countries or terrorising it into fleeing by its own "free will". These fanatical lunatics ignore one major detail however. If Sharon has not embarked on this, despite being a long-standing advocate of a "Greater Israel", it is because he does not think he can afford it politically.

Already there is a significant opposition to Sharon's policy in the country, in the population as well as in the army. Recent opinion polls show a majority in favour of ending the conflict as early as possible and settling for an independent Palestinian state. What different people might place under such a label may cover a wide range of options - but they all express a common desire for peace, certainly not all-out war.

The anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv, on May 11th, showed the extent of opposition to Sharon's policy: 70-100,000 demonstrators in a country whose whole population is no more that 6.3m - and in a context where there is enormous pressure on people "stand up to the threat to Israel's existence", to use Shimon Peres' words, is very significant.

There is also another area of Sharon's policy which is generating opposition in the Israeli population - his latest budget. With it comes a series of drastic cuts in social benefits and social spending in general, a 15% hike in water prices, a 1% increase of VAT to 18%, a 4% cut in National Insurance payments, a 2-year freeze of the minimum wage, child allowances cut for all families in which no member has served in the army, a 40% cut in housing subsidies for the poorest families, etc. All these cuts affect primarily the working class and the poorest, at a time when unemployment is increasing dangerously as a result of the collapse of the high-tech speculative bubble. And they must be resented all the more bitterly by those who are most affected as, at the same time, Sharon has caved in to the employers' lobby by introducing additional subsidies for them and to the religious far-right, by retaining the favourable tax treatment available to settlers and the tax allowances for their large families. Of course, the national trade-union confederation Histadrut, which is really not much more than an appendix of the state machinery, has given its support to Sharon's budget and so has the Labour party. But it remains to be seen whether the Israeli working class will swallow this bitter pill so easily.

In any case, if Sharon was to embark on an all-out war in the Occupied Territories he would have to crush any opposition and to militarise the Israeli population into obedience - including the one million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens and have already shown massively their opposition to the common policy proposed by Sharon and the Labour party in the ballot box - as well as the tens of thousands of anti-war protestors who are still able to express their opposition.

This is where the main danger lies for the Israeli population, much more than in the Palestinians' suicide bombings. Behind Sharon and his coalition government lies the threat of the religious far-right and its lunatic thugs occupying an increasing part of the political scene in Israel. While terrorist bombings are exclusively blamed on Palestinian groups these days, one should not forget that the Jewish religious far-right has its own lot of terrorist groups - including one, for instance, which made the front pages of some Israeli papers a few weeks ago, when it was revealed that it had bombed (or rather attempted to bomb in one case and succeeded in another) Palestinian primary schools in East Jerusalem! The militarisation of Israeli society behind an all-out offensive against the Palestinians would inevitably push such raving, murderous thugs into positions of power, together with their vicious anti-communist, anti-working class and racist demagogy. And this is something that the majority of the Israeli population would pay for dearly.

This is why it is urgent that the Israeli opposition to Sharon's threat of all-out war gathers momentum. But it is just as urgent that this opposition finds a way of linking up with the Palestinian masses, so as to disarm the racist demagogy of the Islamic fundamentalists who are trying to use the Palestinian poor as cannon fodder for their reactionary agenda.

Ultimately if the possibility of catastrophes such as that threatened today by Sharon is to be eliminated once and for all in the Middle East, a new generation of youth, workers and activists, both in Israel and in Palestine, will have to acknowledge the fact that it is the old nationalist policies which have led their respective populations to be confronted today by this lethal danger. They will have to recognise that there can be no future in the Middle East outside a fraternal coexistence of the masses of all religions, languages and traditions, across the entire region and without the destruction of the artificial states inherited from the colonial period.

In Israel this new generation will have to rediscover the political traditions - socialist or communist, but in any case with solid proletarian and internationalist roots - which belonged to the refugees who were misled by the predecessor of today's Labour party into thinking that by building their own state against the Palestinian population, they would create the basis for a better, fairer society, when in fact their colossal efforts have only succeeded in creating a cut-down version of expansionist apartheid - a historical monster, in fact.

And in Palestine this new generation will have to draw the lessons of all these decades of isolated and bloody defeats under nationalist leaderships - while the huge poor masses of the region were left without any perspective due to the respect of the Palestinian leaders for the existing Arab regimes, no matter how reactionary and oppressive. It will have to rediscover the lesson learnt the hard way by the former colonies of the Russian empire, after the 1917 October revolution in Russia, that the best and only real allies of the poor masses anywhere in the world are the proletarians of the other countries, not their oppressors.

By rediscovering these political traditions, this new generation will seek to reformulate the future in terms of the common interests of all the poor and exploited masses of the Middle East against their common oppressors, be they the local capitalists, the remnants of a feudal past or the imperialist powers. Then and only then will there be a real future for today's Israeli and Palestinian populations, and for the Middle East as a whole.