Without an explicit goal and an explicit timetable for specific moves, the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement is yet another milestone on the road to nowhere.
IT is the fate of Israel, with its massive burden of religious history and associations, that every few years some event or the other is ballyhooed as "historical". In the past quarter-century, there was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historical visit to Jerusalem in 1978, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt (signed, for no good reason, in Washington), the 1991 Madrid Conference, the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians (again signed, for no good reason, in Washington, and for which three characters were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2003, Yasser Arafat's death in late 2004, and now Arafat's successor Mahmoud Abbas shaking hands with Ariel Sharon and declaring the Palestine uprising to be at an end.
It all goes back to Ariel Sharon's announced decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel since June 1967. One of the most crowded places on earth, packed with Palestinian refugees from the wars of 1948 and 1967, it lost a third of its land area to Israeli expropriation, where idyllic Jewish settlements sprang up, with lavish lawns and fruitful plantations, inhabited by 8,000 settlers and guarded by battalions of Israeli soldiers. Inevitably, the wretched refugee camps - which reminded the Nobel laureate and Portuguese writer Jose Saramago of "Nazi concentration camps" - became hotbeds of frustration and rage, fuelled Islamic militancy and bore terrorist fruit.
Sharon's Army commanders had been warning him for years that the Gaza Strip was ungovernable, cost a mint to keep barely under control, and was simply not worth the effort. This was obvious enough, but while the general population in Israel was not especially sympathetic to the settlers, Sharon and his government were loath to appear to be pulling out "under fire", that is, while Qassam rockets (a kind of home-made projectile) were falling on the settlements and even on the Israeli town of Sderot, and Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers and tanks were repeatedly annihilated by astonishing feats of resistance by the Hamas and the Islamic Jehad. Some commentators in Israel voiced doubts about Sharon's true intention. Was he serious about quitting the Gaza Strip, or was this a ploy to divert attention from Israel's ceaseless expansion in the West Bank and the ongoing construction of the "Separation Wall"?
In any case, so long as Arafat continued to breathe, Israel "had no partner for peace", and could more or less continue unhindered. But with Arafat buried, and the election of the famously moderate Mahmoud Abbas, alias Abu Mazen, as his successor, the stage was set to start a new round of "historical moments". The first scene in Act Umpteenth of the Palestinian tragedy took place in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, with the usual handshakes and bland speeches. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak acted as host and he and King Abdullah of Jordan served as understudies for the usual American "mediator".
The Israeli press gleefully echoed Abbas' declaration that the intifada was over and done with. But, on the ground, things were less smooth. Despite Abbas' best efforts, a few Qassams continued to fall and the militant organisations - Hamas, Islamic Jehad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - did not sign on the dotted line. Then the popular, jailed leader of the Tanzim militia of Fatah, Marwan Barghouti, announced defiantly from his prison cell: "The intifada is not over." Some say that Israel's systematic assassination of the leaders of these groups has left them so fractured and chaotic that Abu Mazen may hear different things from different factions and not be able to obtain a binding commitment. In fact, even if all the militants agreed to a ceasefire - and clearly the general Palestinian population is weary to the bone of the miseries inflicted by Israel in the name of security - the conflict is not, and cannot be, at an end.
DIFFICULTIES arose almost immediately. The first to reach the media had to do with the transfer of the control of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). But more obstacles arise daily. The Israeli technique in these situations has been the same ever since the Camp David agreement with Egypt, when the legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, Dr. Meir Rosenne, spent days niggling at the historic peace accord, breaking it down to the smallest technicalities, as if drawing up an exceptionally uncooperative divorce settlement. The same thing happened when the Oslo Accord was boiled down and put in writing. It avoided spelling out the final aim or a proper timetable for concrete stages, and the small print was designed to empty the grand concept of all meaning. Instead of a Palestinian state, the sides ended up negotiating the shape and management of the scattered compounds in which the Palestinians would be allowed to live without Israeli soldiers and settlers in their midst.
The Israelis, by and large, are content to see a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, even if they resent the lavish compensation to be paid to the settlers, approved by the Knesset (Parliament) on February 16. Israelis are assured that they need not fear Gaza Strip after the evacuation: It will be a tightly sealed ghetto, closed off from the air, land and sea. A few Gazans will be allowed out to work for Israelis, relieving the labour shortage caused by the recent mass deportation of foreign "illegal workers". The United Nations and the European Union are committed to ensuring that the population of the Gaza Strip does not starve, but that is all. In the meantime, there have been no suicide bombings for a while, which is all the Israeli public really cares about, and Sharon has achieved one important purpose: for now, Israel's occupation of the West Bank is off the table. Moreover, the P.A. has accepted that its main function is to provide security - not to the Palestinians, to be sure, but to Israel. Mahmoud Abbas has even promised to execute "terrorists".
However, whether Abbas succeeds in keeping the lid on the intifada will depend not on the fine print of the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement, but on the situation on the ground. The Palestinian elections gave him only a temporary and conditional mandate. Unless things improve significantly in the West Bank, the uprising will erupt again. Marwan Barghouti is by far the most popular Palestinian leader, but he was not allowed to run in the elections. In Palestine, as in Iraq, the occupier decides who may and who may not present his/her candidacy, and Barghouti was sentenced to several life-terms in prison. But if he were to give the signal, the West Bank - with its 300,000 Jewish settlers, its Jews-only roads, its tunnels-for-Arabs, its expropriated fields and uprooted orchards, its water sources drying up as Israel siphons them off, its devastated towns and villages - will erupt like a volcano.
Significantly, the Sharm al-Sheikh agreement mentions no timetable, sets no final goals. Abbas tried to garnish the occasion with some fine words. He had no choice, or his end will soon come, when either his people will have his head, or the Israelis will lock him up and demonise him as they did to Arafat.
Meanwhile, Sharon has won another long breathing spell in power. The Israeli right wing will feed on the anger of the settlers and their supporters and probably replace the old war-horse with the younger and even more U.S.-oriented Benjamin Netanyahu. The Labour Party and its hangers-on, the small parties of the invertebrate Left, do not represent a serious Opposition.
Uri Avneri - Israel's veteran radical, former magazine editor, member of Knesset and an all-round maverick - wrote that it was no accident that there was no U.S. representative at Sharm al-Sheikh. The George W. Bush administration is content to let the Israel-Palestine conflict simmer on, being unaware or indifferent to its corrosive effect throughout the Arab world. Washington helped to portray Arafat as the chief obstacle to peace, and regularly places the onus for the deadlock on "Islamist terrorism", that is, it is not the Israeli occupation, not the repression and dispossession of the Palestinians, but their resistance which threatens what the West calls "the civilised world". This fits the Bush administration's global outlook, which the Israelis eagerly endorse.
Sharm al-Sheikh is a beautiful place, but nothing beautiful will come of the latest round of filibustering. Without an explicit goal, without an explicit timetable for specific moves, this is another milestone on a road to nowhere. Things will have to change in a very profound way, regionally and globally, before the Palestinians will be able to breathe free.
Yael Lotan is a writer and peace activist based in Tel Aviv.