When news of Ariel Sharon’s stroke broke, only a few Palestinians gathered in the streets of Gaza to express their feelings. TV reporters were lucky enough to find small groups of boys handing out cake as a way of expressing their joy – but that’s about as far as it went. It’s not that Palestinians are indifferent to what goes on in Israel, but they have more urgent concerns, closer to home.
Their list of worries is long. The potential for trouble in the elections due on 25 January is great. Conflicts between local factions are rising, with armed thugs roaming the streets, kidnapping westerners and attacking policemen. Public services are poor or non-existent, and unemployment is high.
Such is the grind of daily life that Palestinians have had little time to worry about the fate of Sharon or the future of his new party, Kadima. They know that the best they can expect from Kadima is to carry on with the disengagement plan, the very plan that, although praised elsewhere, has added to the lawlessness and impoverishment of Gaza. Palestinians now realise that, although the Israeli withdrawal may have given them back their land, there is little you can do with more land when the economy is in ruins.
No, Palestinians do not lament the end of Sharon’s political life, nor do they pray for Kadima to win the Israeli elections on 28 March. But they are fully aware that things could get even worse; Israeli voters could opt for Likud and its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu. Being the opportunist he has often proved to be, Netanyahu might move to the centre ground now that it has become vacant. Given his role in derailing the peace process, it would be wiser, however, to expect the worst.
Palestinians, it seems, have no choice other than between the bad and the worse. This, at least, is the kind of message to which Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade would want Palestinians to resign themselves. These groups would argue that the Palestinian public has no option but to continue on the “road of resistance”.
Yet there is still hope for Palestinians and Israelis alike: Amir Peretz. Rather than gloat about the misfortune that has befallen the people of Gaza since the withdrawal, as Israeli politicians and commentators of the right have been doing, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party might see the damage that is being done. He would realise that it is impossible to establish overnight a Palestinian economy independent from the occupation authority to which it had been subordinate for decades. He would also accept that, however desirable it might be for the Palestinian Authority to establish security on its own, it is struggling.
Most Palestinians acknowledge that Peretz stands little chance of winning the election, given the political mood in Israel. In any case the more Palestinians vest hope in him, the less appealing to Israeli voters they are likely to make him. Peretz’s best chance depends on his ability to convince Israeli voters that unilateral disengagement is a dishonest way of evading the essential, though costly, task of finding a peaceful solution. Worse still, it doesn’t get rid of the risk of confrontation, nor does it minimise it, so much as postpone it.
Peretz will argue that Sharon and his supporters have not made Israel more secure for its citizens. Instead, they are creating a military front in Gaza not unlike the one that existed on the Israeli-Lebanese border during the 1970s and early 1980s, when south Lebanon was under the control of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It was Sharon himself who decided then that the north of Israel could be made safe only by invading Lebanon and expelling the PLO. Could unilateral disengagement from Gaza lead to a repeat of the disastrous Lebanon venture of 1982?
Peretz is the only hope, albeit a remote one, and if anything is worth praying for it is that Israelis face the fact that they can live in peace only if the two communities enjoy equal prospects of a peaceful and productive life . . . and that Palestinians reject the self-destructive calls of the militant groups.
Samir el-Youssef was awarded the 2005 Tucholsky prize for freedom of speech for his writings on Palestine