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What's next in the Israel-Palestine conflict?
After the Arafat crisis

By Eric Ruder | November 5, 2004 | Page 6

JUST AS Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won a critical vote on his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, his scheme was overshadowed by Yasser Arafat's illness.

The day after the vote in Israel's Knesset, the Palestinian Authority (PA) chief was rushed to a Paris hospital. As Socialist Worker went to press, his prognosis was still unclear. But whatever happens now, Israeli and Palestinian officials have both begun preparing for a time after Arafat.

For decades, Arafat has represented the Palestinian struggle for national liberation, serving as its spokesperson and best-known strategist. In the late 1960s, Arafat helped unite the Palestinian movement under a single banner and link it to other national liberation movements around the world. This earned him the respect of Palestinians and a huge international profile--and the hatred of the Israeli establishment.

When the second Intifada erupted in 2000, it marked a rejection of the Oslo "peace" process by masses of Palestinian masses, who experienced a sharp decline in their living standards, while Israeli settlements in the West Bank doubled in size. At the same time, a small number of PA officials used their positions of power and privilege in the new mini-state to establish monopoly control over sectors of the economy, making themselves a fortune.

Still, though Arafat had negotiated and agreed to every detail of Oslo in the hopes of finally winning a Palestinian "statelet" on a sliver of historic Palestine, he nevertheless managed to preserve his role as the symbol of Palestinian resistance. He was helped by the fact that Israel placed him in its crosshairs, which aroused enormous sympathy among Palestinians.

The fact that Israeli officials never ordered Arafat's assassination--as they have countless other leaders of the Palestinian resistance--is a testament to his popularity. Instead, Israel employed a different strategy, attributing every act of resistance, every attack on Israeli troops and every suicide bombing to "Arafat, the terrorist mastermind"--even those carried out by Palestinian factions hostile to Arafat's PA.

The Israeli government declared that Arafat wasn't suitable as a "partner" in the "peace process"--using this as the pretext for imprisoning him in his Ramallah compound, which was reduced nearly to rubble. And the U.S. government--Israel's main backers internationally--went along with the attack on Arafat.

Sharon's plan for disengagement from Gaza comes in this context. It is not about peace or justice.

Gaza, a tiny strip of land that borders Egypt, is home to 1.2 million Palestinians and 7,500 Israeli settlers--who nevertheless occupy one-third of the land. Most Israelis have long favored Israel's withdrawal from this area, content to let Palestinian leaders take responsibility for the squalor and suffering of Palestinians who live there.

Only the most fanatical settlers--and their influential political representatives in Sharon's government--cling to the dream of "pacifying" Gaza. This right wing could still succeed in frustrating Sharon's plan--or even force new elections--but the question of how to withdraw from Gaza now defines the terms of the debate within the Israeli establishment.

"Sharon's disengagement plan is part of a comprehensive political plan aimed at continuing the status quo of occupation under conditions more favorable to Israel," said Azmi Bishara, a leader among Palestinians within Israel and a member of the Israeli parliament. "We oppose this plan because it is not intended to make a step towards the reaching of a final settlement, but rather it is an alternative to one."

Sharon's plan uses the idea of withdrawal from Gaza to justify annexing more of the occupied West Bank. It would leave Israel in control of Gaza's borders, air space and ports. And Israel would keep the "right" to carry out military operations inside Gaza, including "the taking of pre-emptive and reactive steps to use force against threats posed from within the Gaza Strip."

As Bishara says, "This means that killing operations, assassinations and demolition will continue after the implementation of the separation plan. This is in harmony with Sharon's intentions in leaving burned land behind in Gaza, and with the goal of continuing to destroy the Palestinian national movement, which is Sharon's historical goal."

But with Arafat sidelined, Sharon's surface justification for unilateral withdrawal--that the PA under Arafat is a terrorist state--has evaporated.

The situation also shows just how much Israel has come to benefit from the presence of a weakened Arafat. Since no one will believe that any of Arafat's possible replacements could command enough influence to order every act of resistance, it will be harder for Israel to assert that the resistance is directed by one Palestinian figure and deny that the occupation itself is the central source of opposition.

And with no Palestinian able to give the PA the legitimacy that Arafat did for years, more and more influence will likely go to the factions that organize the Palestinian resistance. Because of Arafat's prestige, he was able to make concessions to Israeli negotiators that no other figure could and still command respect.

But with or without Arafat, one thing is certain: Israel's war to "cleanse" Palestine of Palestinians--with U.S. backing--will continue. And so will the struggle against it.

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