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Friday, January 06, 2006


'There Is No One Else Who Evokes This Terrible Reaction'

Karma Nabulsi


He is no statesman and his motives have never been opaque - conquest
by military means

Everybody knows that Ariel Sharon had a dark past. For us
Palestinians, for me as a Palestinian, he is our dark present. The
entire destruction of the fabric of our civic and political society
over the past five years has had the looming presence of Sharon at its
black heart. That single moment when in the year 2000 Sharon went to
the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) to light the chaotic, atavistic
fuse of his return to political power - the moment that sparked our
revolt against everything that he represented, and which began his
rise to power - that single moment was the essence of his persona, the
uniquely ruthless, relentless dynamic of his role as conqueror.

With the return of this man, we were lost, again, and one could not
let his return be witnessed without an active daily resistance to it,
and the fate he had in store for us. It was this single fact that
mobilised me to work again in the political realm. Having lived in
Beirut with my family and friends, and having worked, and fought, and
stayed alive throughout the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that Sharon
engineered in the spring and summer of 1982, I had no doubt what he
had in store for us when he began his final climb back to power. And
just so: in February of 2001, within three days of being elected prime
minister, he was replaying across the West Bank and Gaza his dark
arts, a mad echo of his practices of 20 years before in Lebanon: the
assassination and destruction of the fighters, the local defence
committees, the refugee camps. Women and children and young men
killed, our buildings demolished, our institutional infrastructure,
our records, our art, broken, gone. And, of course, our leadership
encircled and besieged.

If he destroyed our leader, he believed, he would destroy our
collective aspirations for freedom and for an independent Palestine.
His vision of our destiny was quite simply one of apocalyptic
proportions, he was no politician, nor elder statesman. To us, he was
always the classic military conqueror and adventurer - we never found
him "controversial", nor his motives opaque. He never left us
guessing. His practices, his aims, his intentions were made clear
through his policies. Every Palestinian man, woman and child
witnessed, lived, or died under that vision, and they each understood
it well.

But during the new war launched by Sharon against our people, the
generation of 1982 that I was part of were more scattered, further
flung to the four corners of the world, farther away from being able
to do anything to help, even more powerless than before. So to those
of us who had fought in those earlier battles and were still living,
his return did something more cruel than simply bring back haunting
reminders of those days, and of how many friends had died. It changed
the look of what we did, our luck, our motives, how we had failed to
stop him when we were younger.

Sharon has shaped everything for us: young, or old, in exile, or at
home in an Israeli prison under occupation. He is emblematic of our
condition; worse than emblematic, it is his very fist we feel. To this
day I have not been able to watch him on television, but must avert my
eyes at the immense presence of this avatar - there is no one else who
evokes this terrible reaction.

I know this is shared by Palestinians everywhere, especially the
survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, for which, let us not
forget, he was culpable, according even to an Israeli tribunal, the
Kahane Commission. They recommended that he never be allowed to return
to public office.

To us, to me, his mission had always been thus: to kill our
resistance, our organisations, our solidarity, our institutions, and
above all our national liberation movement. He did not want us to have
a national framework, his desire was to reduce us to small quarrelling
groups and factions trapped under his prison rule, disorganised,
disintegrated, or co-opted; he planned actively and provocatively (and
carefully) to create such an impoverishment of our people's public and
private life.

This he did through the iron tools of military rule: assassination,
imprisonment, violent military invasion. His fate for us was a
Hobbesian vision of an anarchic society: truncated, violent,
powerless, destroyed, cowed, ruled by disparate militias, gangs,
religious ideologues and extremists, broken up into ethnic and
religious tribalism, and co-opted collaborationists. Look to the Iraq
of today: that is what he had in store for us, and he has nearly
achieved it.

His great skill was breaking ceasefires whenever he felt cornered to
make a political concession towards peace, he sought to provoke an
inevitable response, which could then be used to advance his military
aims, and free his hands to expand settlements, expropriate land in
Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank. He never cared for Gaza, it was
a military asset. Indeed he won internationally uncontested control of
the West Bank (which was always his goal), by returning it. An empty
gesture anyway: in practice it is still owned and run by Israel, but
now turned into a tragedy of heartbreaking proportions, a destroyed
place, corrupted beyond description by the devastation of Israel's
terrible role there since 1967.

We Palestinians saw how he well he understood the west, how far he
could push it - he had an almost magical ability to measure how craven
the response could be to his violations of common decency and
international law, how much he could get away with. He would test, and
test the limits of his actions, would he get a red light? Would the
Americans stop him?

I watched him at this, day after day, during the invasion of Lebanon
in 1982, from besieged Beirut, which was in flames. Every time he
would break the ceasefire, break his word to the Americans. We, on the
other side of this equation, were waiting, hearts in mouths, for
international protection, intervention, help of any kind not to be
left at his mercy. How many times in these last years did he break the
ceasefire in Gaza through a provocative assassination, an aerial
assault, a military raid killing dozens of civilians to provoke Hamas
to attack Israel? His pattern was set in stone, a stone around our

Two summers ago, I went back to Shatila Camp where I had lived and
worked for so many years, the first time since 1982, and I have
returned many times in the past two-and-a-half years. Twenty-three
years ago we had been evacuated from the city, with the rest of the
PLO, at the end of the siege of Beirut, and only two weeks before the
massacres. But we only agreed to leave with international guarantees
that the civilian refugee camps would be protected from the fascist
Lebanese militias. Instead Sharon invaded Beirut (that he could not
take while we were there), surrounded the refugee camps, and had his
forces light up the night sky with flares, while the Lebanese militia
did their work with knives and axes and guns, day after day. He let
busloads of them in, no Palestinians allowed out.

I have talked a lot about those days with old friends who survived the
camps, exiles now living far away in snowy northern Europe. What it
meant to have left under orders, what it meant to have been trapped
behind. For the ones who had to stay behind when the fighters left,
you see, already understood Sharon well.

ยท Karma Nabulsi is a politics fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and a
former PLO representative

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