This week's headlines already distributed the hide of the bear: the Katif Bloc settlements in the Gaza Strip will be evacuated, the homes will be placed under the responsibility of an international body that will supervise their transfer to the Palestinian Authority, and the army camps will be shut down, with the Israel Defense Forces deploying on the international boundary along the Gaza Strip - and all by the end of the year.
MK Zvi Hendel (National Union) reacted angrily: "The depth of the withdrawal will match the depth of the investigation" - referring to the police investigations under way against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and echoing a phrase coined by former prime minister Ehud Barak in relation to the Golan Heights. His party colleague MK Uri Elitzur accused Sharon of cheating those who voted for him. Rabbi David Hacohen, from Bat Yam, speaking at an emergency meeting of right-wing rabbis, asserted: "The dismantlement of Jewish settlements is a crime against the Jewish people ... no less than the Munich agreement, which was done with the Nazis." Residents of the Katif Bloc of settlements in the Gaza Strip demonstrated on Wednesday in Jerusalem in an effort to get the plan rescinded.
All these people and others are behaving as though Sharon means - even for a minute - what he is saying. As though this were a prime minister whose dominant trait is credibility. As though his past shows that he does what he promises. In fact, all Sharon really wants is to gain time. That has been his strategy for the past three years. He wants to look good in the eyes of the Americans. For that he needs a plan of some sort, which he presented yesterday to three emissaries of U.S. President George Bush, so they can go home and tell their boss that Israel is moving in the direction of ending the conflict.
By the time Sharon meets with Bush, at the end of March, his disengagement plan will have become part of Bush's "road map," which will be good for the president's election campaign. In fact, the only thing of interest to Bush now is quiet. He just wants Israel to vanish from CNN's screens until after November. That way Sharon will gain another year of doing nothing, and then the crunch will come, and all the plans will have to be clarified from the beginning. Sharonism at its finest.
Sharon, after all, has been hurling such bombshells since he came to power in February 2001. He defeated Ehud Barak in the elections thanks to the slogan "peace and security," but then failed to bring either the one or the other. Thousands of people have been killed on the two sides, and the severe economic crisis is aggravating unemployment and poverty. He then started to talk about a Palestinian state and even used the word "occupation." He spoke, but so what? Afterward he promised to evacuate illegal settler outposts, but the 44 outposts of three years ago have now mushroomed to 102, and you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Of late he has begun to talk about evacuating West Bank settlements, but he's referring, at most, to three small settlements that the army has a hard time protecting - Ganim, Kadim and Shanour - but which have no political meaning. The more he talks about occupation, evacuation and disengagement, the more the settlements blossom and flourish, receiving more and more budgets at the expense of the development towns and cuts in education and social welfare.
Sharon has no intention of suddenly changing at the age of 76. He always believed in "facts on the ground." When he became agriculture minister in the first Begin government (1977), he became the father of the settlements in the West Bank, based on a strategy that the Palestinians will in the end be forced to surrender to facts on the ground and force. In 1979, as a cabinet minister, he voted against the peace treaty with Egypt. In 1982, as defense minister, he took Israel into Lebanon, in a war that was supposed to change the map of the Middle East but whose price was the lives of 1,000 soldiers and thousands of wounded and disabled.
In 1985, Sharon voted against the withdrawal to the Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon. Six years later he opposed Israel's participation in the Madrid peace conference. In 1993 he voted against the Oslo accord. The following year he abstained in the Knesset vote on the peace treaty with Jordan. In 1997 he opposed the Hebron agreement engineered by the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and in 2000,when Barak finally pulled the IDF out of Lebanon, Sharon protested against "the way it was done." He wanted the pullout to be preceded by an Israeli campaign of bombing and devastation in Lebanon.
So, all Sharon's talk about evacuation and disengagement are no more than hot air. Actions are what count, and they are perfectly visible in the West Bank: red roofs on every hilltop. This week, a report issued by Peace Now described Israel's real policy in the territories: more settlements, more dispossession, more humiliation, more abuse.
According to the Peace Now document, there are now 102 settler outposts. Dozens of them were expanded in 2003, hooked up to the power grid and the water supply, were made accessible by new roads and were bolstered with permanent structures. All this while Sharon was promising Bush to evacuate the illegal outposts. Of the 102 outposts, 58 are illegal, because every outpost established since March 2001 is considered illegal. So says the road map. In other words, Sharon is making a laughingstock not only out of Israel's citizens, but also out of Bush.
The Katif Bloc settlers are planning to establish three new settlements and to absorb 500 new families, half of them this summer. This week, the Knesset transferred NIS 51 million to encourage construction in the settlements, at the expense of a similar cut in aid for homeless young couples. So, anyone who wants to can believe Sharon. The facts say the opposite.
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