Dropping a 1-ton bomb onto the residential building that was the hideaway of Hamas' top field marshal, killing over a dozen civilians along with Sheik Salah Shehada, represents a strategic shift for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa intifada, the Likud leader's primary preoccupation has been to discredit, dismantle and disempower the Palestinian Authority. Now that that objective has been virtually attained, Sharon can turn to his most pressing objective: making sure that the cycle of violence continues indefinitely, thereby guaranteeing (at the cost of increasing the Israeli civilian death toll at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers) that Israel will never pull its troops, or settlers, out of the occupied territories.
To those who think that there is some kind of ancient personal animosity and mistrust between Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which caused the Israeli prime minister to declare him, rather than Sheik Yassin (Hamas' spiritual leader), public enemy No. 1, consider this historical anecdote, as related by the writer and correspondent Marek Halter in the French daily Liberation last April. In September 1970, Halter had been invited to the residence of the Israeli prime minister to discuss the Jordanian civil war. As King Hussein of Jordan launched his Bedouin Guard against Arafat's PLO militia, which had massed on the outskirts of Amman and Irbid to the north (PLO guerrillas operating as a state within a state were threatening to overthrow Hussein), Ariel Sharon, then chief of the Southern Command Staff of the Israeli army, managed to convince Golda Meir to support Arafat as a way to resolve the Palestinian question. The Palestinians, he said, would finally have their own country, and the Jordan River, he argued, would constitute the best natural boundary between Israel and the new Palestinian state. Golda Meir authorized Sharon to take an armored division of Israeli soldiers towards Irbid, to help Arafat achieve his coup d'etat. Henry Kissinger, however, aware of the unfolding power play, called the Israeli prime minister and convinced her to play the king and call off the operation. A disgruntled Sharon turned his troops back, and Hussein's tanks quickly annihilated the PLO during what became known as Black September. Arafat had to flee to Lebanon for his life, where he painstakingly rebuilt the PLO from scratch, only to be defeated and evicted again in 1982, this time by Sharon.
Sharon's politics have nothing to do with any kind of historical hatred toward Arafat, and despite his public declarations to the contrary, he has no more personal animosity or mistrust toward Arafat than toward any other prospective Palestinian leader. His great genius has been to fool Bush and the entire State Department that he would gladly negotiate with some other Palestinian representative, realistically knowing there could never be any, for lack of anyone with Arafat's stature, not to mention internal rivalry between all the various Palestinian factions. Sharon merely wants the same thing he wanted in 1970, Eretz Israel -- the grand biblical Israel stretching from Jordan to the Mediterranean, unencumbered by the presence of another people with national aspirations.
In 1970, Arafat could have been an instrument toward that end, but today he is the major obstacle. Whereas in 1970, Sharon was anxious to become Arafat's ally despite the fact that the Palestinian leader had for years been attacking Israeli targets and launching commando raids against Israeli checkpoints, today, as the most visible and legitimate representative of a Palestinian population that wants a state in the West Bank and Gaza strip (all parts of Eretz Israel), he is the enemy. By refusing to recognize that Arafat has any shred of legitimacy, by wrecking the infrastructure of the Fatah leadership and of the Tanzim, Fatah's military wing, by destroying the Palestinian security apparatus and the command centers of the Palestinian Authority, and by humiliating the Palestinian people, Sharon has in effect allowed Hamas to expand its policy of suicide bombings to unprecedented levels, and has by the same token managed to radicalize the Palestinian mainstream. All worthy ambitions for a man who will not resign himself to giving back to the Arabs what Israel won in 1967. Suicide bombings recently became a staple of even Arafat's Tanzim militia, through the actions of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an organization tied to Fatah.
Although it is possible to argue that Sharon does have a vision for peace, namely a demilitarized Palestinian state that would be substantially narrower than the present West Bank, it is highly doubtful that his vision for a final settlement will ever be anything more than purely academic. Under his unofficial plan, Israel would maintain two bands of territory on the eastern and western flanks of the fledgling Palestinian state for security reasons and to guarantee continued control of Israel's water supply. All of Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and not a single Jewish settlement would be dismantled (although a recent poll showed that two-thirds of Israelis are in favor of removing these isolated enclaves that have served as the main focal point of Palestinian resentment). Referring to a minuscule, isolated Israeli bastion in the Gaza Strip, Sharon made his preemptive ideological leanings evident: "The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv."
Evidently, Sharon's biggest fear is pathological -- it is the insurmountable, irrational conviction that Israel will disappear if any land once occupied by Jews is handed over to Palestinians. Unless Israel can control the borders, airspace, and even the educational policies of a hypothetical Palestinian nation that will be curtailed territorially by not one, but two, cordons sanitaires on either side of it, such a state, in his view, would threaten the very existence of Israel. For Ariel Sharon, the notion of a Palestinian state exists only to satisfy the United States, and his lip service to the idea of territories for peace serves only as a red herring allowing him to preserve the present precarious status quo.
No world leader has gone so far as to even comment on Sharon's plan for a Palestinian state, and there is no doubt that Arafat himself would rather die a martyr than accept a pale, truncated version of what he was offered at Camp David.
Although killing the founder of the military wing of Hamas, a man probably responsible for hundreds of Israeli civilian casualties, is an understandable goal, one can only question why Sharon ordered the use of a huge bomb instead of the smaller laser-guided Apache helicopter missiles that could have pinpointed Shehada's apartment, and not leveled the entire three-story building and caused so much collateral damage. Bearing in mind that the Israeli attack took place the day after Sheik Yassin had outlined, in several interviews, the possibility of a Hamas cease-fire in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank towns and an end to targeted assassinations of Hamas operatives and leaders, the reason seems clear: to prolong the cycle of violence indefinitely, thereby perpetuating the perceived necessity for Israeli military control over the occupied territories, and stalling any real possibility of negotiations that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
The price to pay for such a stubborn ideological stance, and for the dream of Eretz Israel, is sure to be worse than anything we've seen so far. Hamas is a many-headed hydra. Sheik Shehada's death, combined with unnecessary civilian casualties, including many children, will only stir the radical organization to unprecedented homicidal heights. The question is, will that price be too high for Israel, or will Israelis and American policy makers continue to tolerate Sharon's attempts to force a military solution to the Palestinian quandary?