Violence and its Rhetoric: Sharon and the US

Rebecca Luna Stein
MERIP Press Information Note 52, March 28, 2001

(Rebecca Luna Stein teaches in the department of anthropology at
the University of California at Berkeley.)

One week after Prime Minister  Ariel  Sharon's  warm  welcome  to
Washington,  there  can  be  little  doubt  of  US  support   for
continuing Israeli aggression in the Palestinian territories.  On
March 28, in response to a suicide attack just inside the Israeli
border,  Israeli  helicopter  gunships  bombed  the   Palestinian
Authority (PA) central offices in the Gaza  Strip  and  the  West
Bank city of Ramallah. Their target was an arms  depot  belonging
to Force 17, Yasser Arafat's presidential guard, which the Sharon
administration holds responsible for recent  attacks  on  Israeli
citizens. Israel's most recent bombing campaign, which  left  one
Force 17 member  and  one  Palestinian  civilian  dead,  was  not
unexpected. In visits with President Bush and Secretary of  State
Colin Powell last week, Sharon suggested in  only  thinly  veiled
language that Force 17 and its  infrastructure  would  soon  come
under fire in the name of retaliation. "I gave orders  to  remove
checkpoints and open roads for Palestinian welfare," said Sharon.
"But when I opened the roads, it resulted in terrorism...Since  I
promised not to  surprise  you  [the  United  States],  don't  be
surprised if we punish the perpetrators, those who send them, and
their supporters." That evening, in  a  speech  before  the  pro-
Israel lobby AIPAC, Colin Powell called for an "end to violence."
The contradiction went largely unremarked in  the  mainstream  US


Historically, Ariel Sharon has not been welcomed  in  Washington.
Successive US administrations have  considered  his  advocacy  of
building more settlements "an obstacle to peace." Yet the cordial
reception Sharon received in Washington last week does not mark a
decisive shift in US  Middle  East  policy.  In  the  process  of
Sharon's transformation from a popularly reviled  figure  on  the
Israeli right into the Prime  Minister  of  Israel,  his  violent
histories in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza have largely receded
from public view in both Israel and the US.

In their discussion, George W. Bush and Sharon found  many  areas
of agreement: the need to contain  Iran  and  Iraq,  support  for
regional missile defense systems, and concern over "international
terrorism" and "regional stability." The Bush administration  has
yet to articulate comprehensive policy guidelines for the  Middle
East. Yet over the course of recent  months,  the  administration
has clearly expressed its rejection of both  Clinton's  proposals
for a Middle East peace settlement  and  his  tactics  of  active
involvement in conflict resolution. During the course of Sharon's
two-day visit to Washington,  the  Bush  administration  scarcely
mentioned the Oslo accords and used the  phrase  "peace  process"
very sparingly. Arafat, one of the most frequent visitors to  the
Clinton White House, has  yet  to  receive  a  formal  invitation
despite the strong recommendation of the State Department. Sharon
has warned that the world will view any  invitation  extended  to
Arafat as "a  signal  that  terror  pays."  Thus  far,  the  Bush
administration seems to concur.

While  Middle  East  policy  is  still  inchoate,  the   rhetoric
presented  by  Powell  and  Bush  is  evidence  of  yet   another
administration committed to virtually  unconditional  support  of
Israel, despite its continuing occupation  of  Palestinian  lands
and repression of  Palestinians.  In  his  speech  before  AIPAC,
Powell confirmed the US's "special friendship"  with  the  Jewish
state and the US commitment  to  maintain  Israel's  "qualitative
military edge." The administration's  rhetoric  on  Jerusalem  is
replete with contradictions. On the  one  hand,  one  heard  some
criticism of settlement building in Har Homa and support  for  UN
resolutions 242 and 338. On the other, Bush promised to move  the
US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby affirming  Israeli
claims over the eastern city and its environs, a platform  Sharon
strongly reiterated during his visit. Sharon's  warm  welcome  by
the Bush administration suggests that both the settlement  rebuke
and the  invocation  of  UN  resolutions  protecting  Palestinian
persons  and  territories  are  little   more   than   rhetorical
flourishes, designed to  appease  Israel's  critics.  Indeed,  on
March 28 the US vetoed a UN  Security  Council  resolution  which
would have established a UN protection force in the West Bank and


On March 7, on the  eve  of  Sharon's  inauguration  as  Israel's
eleventh Prime Minister, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began to
implement new policy directives for  the  West  Bank.  Under  the
cover of darkness, army bulldozers systematically  destroyed  the
road linking Ramallah  to  the  northern  West  Bank,  preventing
passage to Birzeit University by means of trenches and moats, and
effectively sealing off the Palestinian town. Over the days  that
followed, Israeli armored vehicles patrolled the trenches  in  an
effort to prevent the  flow  of  ambulances,  commerce  and  foot
traffic in and out of the city. When pressed by the international
media, whose coverage of the siege forced an IDF retreat  in  the
week that followed, Sharon spoke of the need to thwart  Ramallah-
based terrorists who planned an assault in Israel.

The siege on Ramallah was merely the  first  manifestation  of  a
dramatic shift in  IDF  policy  under  the  leadership  of  Ariel
Sharon. As the Israeli press reported last week, this new  policy
(code-named "Operation Bronze") calls for the West Bank and  Gaza
to be administered as 64 separate areas, any one of which can  be
isolated from the remainder of the Palestinian  territories  when
the IDF sees fit. This blueprint is designed to maximize  control
and minimize  the  general  unrest  produced  by  less  localized
closures  --  to  consolidate  Israel's  military  power  over  a
population which increasingly has nothing left to lose. From  the
army's standpoint, it is an  effective  strategy  of  divide  and
rule,  whereby  "troublesome"  areas   will   be   punished   and
"cooperative"  ones  rewarded,  while   appeasing   international
criticism  of  closure  as  collective  punishment.  The   nearly
hermetic closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip since  September
of this year has produced skyrocketing unemployment (currently at
48 percent), growing poverty and  increasing  scarcity  of  basic
necessities like food and fuel. The  losses  to  the  Palestinian
economy since the fall of 2000 are estimated at a  staggering  $2
billion. Meanwhile, in keeping with Ehud Barak's policies, Israel
retains its hold on $250 million in  tax  remittances  which  are
rightfully due to the PA. To release the  funds,  Sharon  argues,
would be to finance the murder of Jewish Israelis.


Not surprisingly, last week's conversations  between  Sharon  and
senior officials in the Bush administration largely skirted  this
context, focusing instead on Palestinian terrorism  and  Arafat's
responsibility to contain it. On the question of  "violence,"  in
his speech before AIPAC, Powell spoke in generalities:  "Violence
is corrosive of everything the parties  in  the  region  hope  to
achieve.  Violence  provokes  armed  reaction,  not  compromises.
Leaders have the responsibility to denounce violence, strip it of
legitimacy, stop it." Powell's  desituated  rhetoric  --  applied
equally to everyone and to no one  --  effectively  stripped  the
conflict of its grossly inequitable  power  relations,  obscuring
Israel's overwhelming use of  force  against  a  largely  unarmed
population  in  the  West  Bank  and  Gaza   following   Sharon's
inflammatory visit to the al-Aqsa mosque. Perhaps most remarkable
have been the mild US rebukes of Israel's assassination policy of
the last six months. In February, after Israel  publicly  boasted
about the killing of Force 17 operative Masoud Ayyad,  senior  US
officials were mostly concerned  by  the  public  nature  of  the
attack: "[T]he problem is  that  a  killing  in  such  a  visible
fashion incites the public in the territories, and  in  the  Arab
world at large, and leaves us with  a  diplomatic  problem."  The
assassination policy itself went unchallenged.

During the time  of  Sharon's  visit,  the  mainstream  US  media
colluded in the obfuscation of Israeli  violence  --  as  it  has
throughout the  second  intifada  --  drawing  attention  to  the
killing of a Jewish settler in the West Bank (a man identified by
the Associated Press only as a "father of six") while the ongoing
policies of siege, starvation and army brutality within the  West
Bank  and  Gaza  Strip  were  mostly  ignored.  Sharon's  primary
objective during this visit -- as  articulated  by  Hassan  Abdel
Rahman, the PA's Washington representative -- seems to have  been
realized: Sharon sought to persuade the world  to  "overlook  the
atrocities and the war crimes that are committed by  the  Israeli
army and the Israeli government in the Palestinian territories."


Even as this history of Israeli violence disappears from  the  US
media and the official rhetoric of the Bush administration, a new
bolder vocabulary of protest and critique has  begun  to  surface
within both the US and Israel. In the pages of the Hebrew  press,
and -- quite anomalously -- on the editorial page of the New York
Times,   activists   and   intellectuals   have   been    granted
unprecedented space to  link  current  Israeli  policies  in  the
Occupied Territories with the  history  of  apartheid  policy  in
South Africa. What is new is twofold:  both  the  willingness  of
liberal (and not only radical) thinkers to  make  this  parallel,
but  the  willingness  of  mainstream  media   to   print   these
commentaries in  their  pages.  But  such  frank  assessments  of
Israeli state-sanctioned violence and  selective  application  of
the principles of democracy should not  encourage  nostalgia  for
the kinder Israeli administrations of the past. The challenge  of
the current historical moment under Sharon  is  similar  to  that
posed by the rise of Netanyahu: that  the  politics  of  protest,
particularly among the Jewish-American and Jewish Israeli  lefts,
not glorify by contrast the Labor  administration  of  Rabin  and
Peres  and  their  Oslo  "peace  process."  For  while   Sharon's
"Operation Bronze" outlines new strategies  of  military  control
and containment, the groundwork for this  strategy  was  laid  in
1993 by the Rabin administration's closure of the West  Bank  and
policy  of  separation.  Critical   responses   to   the   Sharon
administration must look frankly at this history.