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Playing at Peace

Limited pullout won't bring Israel lasting peace.

Dateline: Monday, August 22, 2005

Last week's dramatic scenes from Gaza filled TV screens around the world with images of Israel getting tough with Jewish settlers.

The message seemed clear: Israel is willing to make great sacrifices in order to win peace with the Palestinians, including forcing its own people to leave their homes.

So after months of international criticism over its construction of a wall that cuts deeply into Palestinian territory, Israel — and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — managed to win some very favourable press coverage last week.


[Their message is:] If you think removing 8500 settlers from Gaza is difficult, you can forget about any plans for removing 400 000 Jewish settlers from the West Bank.

Let's not forget the settlements were illegal under international law, and should not have been built in the first place. Still, if the Gaza pullout is the beginning of a complete Israeli withdrawal from all the territories it has occupied for 38 years, then this is certainly a positive move.

It seems more likely, however, that this withdrawal is a one-shot deal. If so, it is of little value. Worse, it could be a cynical attempt to reduce pressure for further withdrawals.

The truth is that, while painful for some individuals, the withdrawal from Gaza isn't much of a sacrifice for Israel. The security cost of protecting 8500 Jewish settlers living amid 1.3 million hostile Palestinians was enormous. Besides, Gaza is mostly a barren wasteland with little historical value for Israel.

The real prize from Israel's point of view isn't Gaza, but the occupied territories of the West Bank — particularly Jerusalem — which abound in sites of historical and religious significance for Jews (as well as Muslims and Christians) and which offer significant resources, particularly water.

The question is: Having pulled out of Gaza, will Israel now be in a stronger position to resist international pressure to withdraw from these precious territories, which Israeli officials refer to by their Biblical names, Judea and Samaria, and consider part of Israel?

One Israeli general, quoted in The Times of London last week, spoke openly about the public relations value of the Jewish protestors: "Israel needs them to protest to show the world how difficult this is for Israel and to draw a line for the next time, when there are demands for Israel to (pull out of) Judea and Samaria."

That explains why some of the fiercest Jewish protestors last week didn't actually come from Gaza, but from West Bank settlements. Their furious resistance was meant to send a message to the world: If you think removing 8500 settlers from Gaza is difficult, you can forget about any plans for removing 400 000 Jewish settlers from the West Bank.

Mainstream North American media suggested last week that Ariel Sharon, a long-time hard-liner and father of the settler movement, had compromised his militancy to make a bold bid for peace.

With this new-found media image as a moderate, even improbably a "man of peace," Sharon has manoeuvred himself into a better position to fully secure what he's always ultimately been after: "Judea" and "Samaria."

Man of peace indeed.

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