Sharon's Iron Wall

31 October 2005
Newstatesman Special Issue

He pays lip-service to peace and speaks of his country's need for security, but in reality Israel's prime minister is waging a savage colonial war.

A quarter-century before the establishment of Israel, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, published an article entitled "On the Iron Wall". In it, he argued that voluntary agreement between Arabs and Jews was unattainable, and that the only way to realise the Zionist project was behind an iron wall of Jewish military strength. Zionism had to be implemented by force and the wall would compel Arabs to abandon any hope of destroying the Jewish state. Once this was achieved a second stage could begin: negotiations with the Arabs about their status and national rights in Palestine.

The iron wall remains Israel's strategy - and until now has been vindicated by history. The 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation marked the transition from the first to the second stage of iron-wall strategy: by signing it, Israel and the PLO agreed to recognise each other and settle their differences by peaceful means. The Palestinians believed that by giving up their claim to 78 per cent of pre-1948 Palestine they would eventually gain an independent state stretching over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with a capital in East Jerusalem. Twelve years on, they are bitterly disappointed.

The Oslo process broke down: Israel reneged on its side of the bargain and the Palestinians reverted to violence. The most blatant transgression against the spirit, if not the letter, of the accord was the expansion of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the construction of roads to connect them with Israel. These settlements are a symbol of occupation and a threat to the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state. To the Palestinians, settlement expansion suggested that Israel had not been negotiating in good faith and that its real intention was to repackage rather than to end the occupation.

With the election of Ariel Sharon in 2001, Israel regressed to the first stage of the iron-wall strategy. Sharon has nothing to offer the Palestinians on the political front. A champion of violent solutions and an opponent of Oslo, he has refused to discuss the final status of the territories until the Palestinian Authority delivers an end to the violence, though he knows this condition is impossible to meet. He treats the Palestinian Authority not as the government of a state in the making but as a subcontractor failing in his primary duty: to safeguard Israel's security.

While using the rhetoric of peace, Sharon seeks to deny the Palestinians any independent political existence. When, in 2003, the "quartet" (the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) launched the "road map", a plan supposed to lead to an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005, Sharon's government pretended to go along with it, but its policies remained unchanged. It continued to order army incursions into the Palestinian territories, assassinations of militants, the demolition of houses, curfews and the deliberate infliction of hardship to encourage Arab migration from the West Bank. At the same time, settlement activity continued, in blatant violation of the road map.

The government also began building the so-called separation or security barrier in the West Bank. The barrier's declared purpose is to prevent terrorist attacks, but it is as much about land-grabbing as it is about security. Israel is redrawing borders at the expense of the Palestinians, separating children from their schools, farmers from their land and whole villages from their medical facilities in flagrant violation of international law. The barrier was condemned by the International Court of Justice and by the UN General Assembly, but construction continues regardless. For Jabotinsky the iron wall was a metaphor for military strength; in Sharon's crude hands it is turning into a hideous physical reality.

How does the disengagement from Gaza fit into this? Realising that time and demography were not on Israel's side, Sharon began to look for ways of distancing Israel from the main Palestinian population centres, while keeping as much of their land as possible. The plan he came up with was unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four isolated settlements on the West Bank. Characteristically, it was not even presented to the Palestinian Authority as a basis for negotiations.

To the world, Sharon presented the Gaza disengagement as a contribution to the road map. But to his right-wing supporters he said: "My plan is difficult for the Palestinians, a fatal blow. There's no Palestinian state in a unilateral move." The withdrawal from Gaza is part of an attempt to deny the Palestinians an independent political existence on their land. At some point Sharon may come up with another unilateral move: the offer to withdraw from most of the West Bank to a line of Israel's own drawing. This would create a Greater Israel incorporating Jerusalem and the main settlement blocks, while confronting the Palestinians with another paltry take-it-or-leave-it offer that would deepen their disarray.

Sharon is the last in a long line of Israeli leaders to invoke spurious arguments of security to defend the indefensible. The Palestinians do not pose a threat to Israel's basic security; it is the other way round. Israel is not fighting for its security or survival, but to retain territories it conquered in 1967. The war that Israel is waging against the Palestinian people on their land is a colonial war. Like all other colonial wars it is savage, senseless, directed mainly against civilians, and doomed to failure. As Karl Marx observed, a nation that oppresses another cannot itself remain free.