At long last, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has started to talk about the occupation, but doesn't have a clue about the subject. Nor do many in his close circle - cabinet ministers, advisers, army generals, politicians - have any idea what the occupation is all about.

When the prime minister's confidants boast about the wealth of experience the veteran statesman has accumulated - "He has already seen it all," they say - they need to be reminded that there is one thing, at least, that Sharon has never seen: He has never seen the Israeli occupation, certainly not the occupation as it has evolved in the past few years, with all its ugliness and cruelty.

What does Sharon know about life under curfew, in communities that have been under siege for years? What does he know about the humiliation at checkpoints, or about people being forced to travel on gravel and mud roads, at risk to their lives, in order to get a woman in labor to a hospital? About life on the brink of starvation? About a demolished home? About children who see their parents beaten and humiliated in the middle of the night? About prisoners and detainees held without trial who haven't spoken to their families for more than two years? About dialysis patients who are unable to reach the hospital for treatment?

Tul Karm, for example, was under continuous curfew without a break last week. Does Sharon try to imagine what it's like to live under unbroken curfew for days and weeks, without leaving the house, without a fresh supply of food or medicines, in crowded homes filled with children and old people? What in the world does the prime minister of Israel know about the soldiers' behavior and the distress of the local residents? Isn't it important for him to know, to at least know?

But how will the prime minister find out about life under the occupation if the only information he gets comes from army and security sources? The focus of interest of these elements is fighting a short-term war against terrorism, preemption and liquidation. It is impossible to get a full and true picture from them.

In the past, the coordinator of government activities in the territories was a source of some information about the goings-on in Palestinian society and about its distress. However, since the appointment to the position of Major General Amos Gilad, who recently retired, even that partial source of information has been blocked completely. Gilad saw his position as that of a kind of alternative director of Military Intelligence; and instead of representing the plight of the Palestinians before the decision-makers, as he was supposed to, he chose to be one more anti-Palestinian propagandist.

For example, he constantly insisted that there is no hunger in the territories. But did he bring to the prime minister's attention the findings of international agencies indicating that an entire generation of Palestinian children is suffering from serious malnutrition?

Israeli prime ministers have long stopped visiting the Palestinian territories and rarely meet with their residents. This lack of knowledge on the part of those who will ultimately decide the fate of the territories without having the least idea of what is going on in them is almost macabre.

It wasn't always like this. At the beginning of the occupation, Israeli leaders visited the territories and met with representatives of the Palestinian population. They were not always genuine representatives. Usually, they were a group of venerable "dignitaries," as they were called - mukhtars, elders and heads of clans. Still, leaders such as Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, the founding fathers of the Israeli occupation, were familiar with the territory to some extent and knew some of the people there.

Sharon, in contrast, knows only maps. It is no coincidence that he resorts to them so frequently: You don't see people on maps. Sharon rolls out his maps at every opportunity, demonstrating great knowledge of every hill and every tree in the territories, and completely ignoring the people who live there and their needs. From this point of view, Sharon is the direct descendant of some of the leaders of the Zionist Movement who also ignored the Palestinians and talked about "a land without a people for a people without a land." There is not one Arab to be seen in the exhibition of historical photographs mounted now in Tel Aviv by the Jewish National Fund.

In this sense, Sharon is also the authentic representative of the majority of Israelis: They, too, don't have a clue about what is really going on in the territories. Most of them don't want to know either. The process by which they form their opinions is also based on lack of knowledge, partial knowledge or distorted knowledge. However, in the case of the prime minister, at such a critical moment, such ignorance is deplorable.