Cover story -- Israel
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  January 20, 2006

Israelis, Palestinians face future in Sharon's shadow


A visit to the Middle East always means a sort of metaphysical passing into the headlines. In Jerusalem, the stuff of news is all around you: soldiers and settlers, checkpoints and disputed holy sites, and depending on where your itinerary takes you, bombs and bullets. Here the news of a conflict that seems eternal and abstract to most Americans is local news.

I arrived in Jerusalem the day news of Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke flashed across Web sites and television screens. The headlines were mostly predictable: What’s next? Who’s next? Medical details. One headline was not: Pat Robertson Suggests God Smote Sharon.

Robertson might well have provided us a teaching moment, not in theology but in the politics of the military occupation Ariel Sharon has spent more than half a century manipulating on the battlefield and in political office.

“He was dividing God’s land,” Robertson said to his television audience, “and I would say, ‘Woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course .’ ”

He was referring to Sharon’s recent disengagement from Gaza, which meant Israeli troops quitting Gaza after a 38-year occupation and the removal of Israeli settlers and their fortified settlements from land they had essentially squatted by force.

One way to see it, then, is that Sharon gave Gaza back to the Gazans, so God gave Sharon a stroke. It’s an unusual line of thinking and some would say it highlights a problem of perception common to this conflict. Perhaps Robertson would be less sure of the divine nature of Sharon’s near-death experience if he had seen the flyers the Israeli Air Force was dropping over northern Gaza (near the land purportedly handed back to Palestinians) one week prior to Sharon’s stroke. The flyers included a map and a warning.

The map showed a new “no-go” zone that roughly covered the land vacated by the settlers in northern Gaza. The warning: “Anyone who does not take heed of this notice is putting his or her life in immediate danger.” Soon the Israelis were shelling the land that had been given up by Israel just months earlier -- retaliation for Palestinian militants using the newly vacated land to launch rockets into Israel.

Defending the shelling of Gaza recently, Israel’s deputy prime minister (now acting prime minister), Ehud Olmert, explained: “When we were deep in Gaza, there was shelling and terror, and we couldn’t carry out operations … because the Jewish population was in the heart of the Arab population.

“At the time, the only way to fight terror was to go in deeper, have more friction, and to endanger ourselves more. From that standpoint, now we have much more flexibility and ability to use the means we have.”

Talk of Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza is like talk of Sharon himself: Is he a man of war, a man of peace, or, somehow, both?

On the Israeli side of the Israeli/Palestinian divide, which is now, in many places, a towering concrete wall, the consensus is only that Sharon was a man of pure dedication to Israel.

* * *

Security, both real and imagined, always has a cost. What Israelis are willing to do for a sense of security -- security from Palestinian suicide bombers retaliating against occupation and occupier or from the apparent nuclear ambitions of a vocally anti-Israel Iranian government -- is a constant matter of contention in Israeli political discourse.

Liberals in Israel speak of a shift to the right in Israeli society in recent years, especially where security is concerned. They have seen invasions, assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders (usually by missile) and a complete disengagement from anything resembling peace negotiations with the Palestinians. “Sharon didn’t just disengage from Gaza,” Hirsh Goodman, a senior fellow at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Israel, told me. “He disengaged from the Palestinians as a whole.”

Conservatives, of course, insist the shift has been to the left. Sharon, long associated with the right-wing Likud party, made a dash for the center a few months back and created his own party, Kadima. Israel’s Labor party is the moderate left.

But Israeli lefts and rights and centers are fluid, Goodman said. “When there are suicide bombings going off twice a day, Israeli society moves to the right. When the two sides are talking, it moves to the left.”

David Horovitz, a veteran of the Israeli right and editor of the Israeli English-language daily, The Jerusalem Post, sees no such fluidity. “Anyone who tells you there has been any shift to the right,” he said, “is lying to you.” Horovitz pointed to Sharon’s own leftward drift from right to center.

As for negotiations, Horovitz holds to a line much older than Sharon’s time in the prime minister’s office: There is nobody on the other side to talk to. And with the militant Islamic party Hamas seeking and winning public office for the first time in its history (eclipsing the old guard of Arafat’s Fatah party, seen as corrupt by many, perhaps most, Palestinians), Horovitz says that any Israeli politician “looking for somebody who is interested in coexisting with the state of Israel will have nobody to talk to in the foreseeable future.”

Ilan Pappe, a historian at Israel’s Haifa University, and who, unlike Horovitz, does not place the failure of negotiations exclusively with the Palestinians, said that the last five years of Sharon have seen Israel “entrenched in the opinion that we do not have to negotiate, but can dictate what peace is all about -- with American support.”

It goes on like this, the current discussion in Israel. And the layers of complexity, barely charted here, seem infinite.

“With each day you are in the country,” Goodman assured me, “you will become more confused.”

* * *

Pappe notes that the Israeli discussion of past and future features Palestinians only where terror is concerned, and often excludes them altogether. “After 57 years,” Pappe said, “the Palestinians do not exist. When the future is analyzed, it is all between the Israelis and themselves. The Palestinians are alien, strange, very violent people -- would Sharon’s successor be able to deal with these horrible people?

“There is nothing about history, the occupation, the humanity of the other side. It’s very worrying.”

Much of my time here has been spent on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem and in the West Bank, where there is not much nuance in discussion of Ariel Sharon. There is no talk of the man’s complexity that you hear in the Israeli press. Palestinians are still talking about the 40-day curfew of April 2002, when the Israeli army responded to a particularly brutal and deadly suicide bombing in a resort town on Passover by invading and occupying every city and many of the villages of the West Bank, battling Palestinian militants, killing civilians, and destroying essential civil infrastructure. For Palestinians, the mythology of Ariel Sharon has undergone no manipulation in the shadow of his decay.

“He is a military man,” one woman, a computer technician at Bethlehem University and a mother of three, told me dryly. “A warrior cannot also be a politician.”

She was not wondering what is next for Israel or for the Palestinians, she was thinking of the beyond: “How will he explain himself when he meets his God?”

She was thinking of his role in the war of 1948, which led to the creation of the state of Israel and the displacement of some 860,000 Palestinians. She was thinking of his role in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps after Israel’s brutal invasion, and she was thinking of the checkpoints, the settlements and the so-called security wall.

The wall. Some Palestinians call it the “Apartheid Wall.” When it is finished, it will enclose the Palestinian population of the West Bank in a combination of towering concrete slabs, watchtowers and electric fencing. Where the wall already exists, it is a dramatic statement -- a symbol of an attempt to disentangle the hopes of Palestinians from the hopes of Israelis. When you see the wall it is difficult to think about anything but the wall. Radio call-in questions like “What’s next for Israel/Palestine?” seem purely academic.

Traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem requires passing through a newly expanded Bethlehem checkpoint. Your taxi drops you at the wall, with its towers and fortified gates. From there you follow the arrows through an indoor maze of gates with lights that flash red or green. Get lost in the maze and a security person watching on a video screen will direct you in Hebrew over loudspeakers. Bags must be inspected by x-ray and sometimes by hand. If they ask, soldiers must be told of your intentions in Bethlehem -- and this is just for foreigners. Palestinians can be held for hours of queuing and questioning.

Palestinians without Jerusalem ID cards wishing to pass through the checkpoint into Jerusalem must receive special permissions that are nearly impossible to obtain. The anti-occupation rhetoric is that Palestinians are living in a prison. Entering Bethlehem with my wife, Laurel, who teaches in a prison, the comparison seems adequate.

In another part of the West Bank, the ancient city of Hebron, I attended a family’s celebration of an uncle’s return from living for three decades in the United States. I drove from Jerusalem on a highway constructed to facilitate the easy movement of West Bank settlers. My car, driven by Palestinian friends, had the yellow license plates of Israelis and all Jerusalem residents. Yellow plates are often waved through checkpoints. White plates, reserved for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, mean more stops and more questions. Still, even with the coveted yellow plates, a car following not too far behind mine, also from Jerusalem and heading to the living room celebration in Hebron, arrived three hours late, having been caught up in a roaming Israeli checkpoint my car had apparently barely avoided. Uninhibited, the drive from Jerusalem to Hebron would take about 30 minutes.

Even on a stroll through Hebron’s old city with the celebrated uncle there were checkpoints (in this case, ostensibly protecting a settler minority living among the old city’s many thousands of Palestinian residents). A soldier in a nest of green sandbags pointed a gun at our queue of mostly young locals. We passed through a gate one at a time. As I passed, a young soldier in a metal box with a tiny window asked me, “Do you have a gun or a knife?”



These are, of course, security measures born of an intensely violent conflict: one of the world’s strongest armies against an occupied population of millions using largely guerrilla tactics. It is also a war between two terribly militarized civilian populations. Worse, it is a war between victims. The late Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad once noted that an authentic recognition of “two communities of suffering” here is key to any kind of authentic move toward peace.

Talk of authentic peace, with Sharon incapacitated in a Jerusalem hospital, is not dominant today on either side of the wall. Talk is of security measures or liberation from them. An evening spent digging around at an English-language bookstore in East Jerusalem helped frame the conversation in a context much broader than the imminent passing of a national leader.

I stumbled upon the “Iron Wall” doctrine of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, referenced in the book I was holding as “the ideological father of today’s Likud party,” Sharon’s party until November 2005, when he left after many months of conflict over his Gaza plans.

The Jabotinsky doctrine was published in 1923. “Every indigenous people,” he wrote, “will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how the Arabs will behave and go on behaving so long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent ‘Palestine’ from becoming the land of Israel. [The sole way to an agreement, then,] is through the iron wall, that is to say, the establishment in Palestine of a force that will in no way be influenced by Arab pressure. … A voluntary agreement is unattainable. … We must either suspend our settlement efforts or continue them without paying attention to the mood of the natives. Settlement can thus develop under the protection of a force that is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will all be powerless to break down.”

Next I came across an interview with Israeli historian Benny Morris from January 2004. When the state of Israel finally opened its archives more than a decade ago, Morris researched and wrote a book that challenged many of Israel’s creation myths, which served an endemic Israeli denial of the devastation of 1948. Though his work endeared him to Israel’s critics, he held fast to an ends-and-means philosophy common in Israel: “An iron wall is the most reasonable policy for the coming generation,” Morris said. “What Jabotinsky proposed is what Ben Gurion adopted. In the 1950s … Ben Gurion argued that the Arabs understand only force and that ultimate force is the one thing that will persuade them to accept our presence here. He was right. That’s not to say that we don’t need diplomacy. Both toward the West and for our own conscience, it’s important that we strive for a political solution. But in the end, what will decide their readiness to accept us will be force alone. Only the recognition that they are not capable of defeating us.”

Later that evening, poring through the Web site of Israel’s English language Haaretz newspaper (considered a left-wing paper here), I found, in a column by Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, a sort of softer take on the “Iron Wall” doctrine and the recent actions of Ariel Sharon:

“Sharon did not want the fence. Sharon did not want to evacuate settlements. However, at the end of a lengthy maturation process, he found himself actualizing the deep Israeli insight that emerged as a result of the collapse of the peace process and as a result of the great war of terror: It is precisely in the absence of peace that Israel needs a border. It is precisely because the conflict will continue that Israel needs dividing. Until the Israelis and the Palestinians learn to make love again, they need a lengthy period of separation. Only the creation of a line separating the Israeli space from the Palestinian space will liberate Israel from the colonial syndrome and liberate the Palestinians from the victimization syndrome. Only the creation of a buffer between the two peoples will end the symbiotic relationship between them and lead both of them toward true mutual recognition.”

Standing on the Bethlehem side of the wall, in the driveway of a Palestinian home, an armed guard in a watchtower looking down at me, I wondered how Shavit’s “time out” theory would play. Passing back through the checkpoint on my way to a friend’s apartment in an affluent Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem, I stop wondering altogether. I remember a Palestinian man who passed into Bethlehem with me earlier in the day, wearing a backpack embroidered with text message grammar (R U Okay?) and carrying the youngest of three children on his shoulders. He helped me most of the way through the checkpoint maze and then pushed ahead, shouting: “One more step and you will be free!”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 20, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: