Ariel Sharon, former Israeli general and Prime Minister, died today after. I followed Sharon obsessively for an intense 18 month period while filming a documentary on Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. I feel like I got to understand the man quite well. I often felt that Sharon looked a lot more comfortable in a military uniform than in a suit and tie, which makes sense considering that he fought in every single war in Israel’s short history.
It is Sharon’s last major act, as Prime Minister, that is the most fascinating, and most misunderstood of them all. Sharon’s unilateral initiative to withdraw from the Jewish settlements he helped pioneer in Gaza was not a political one-eighty as most pundits like to believe, but I believe, a tactical maneuver to intentionally delay peace talks and solidify Israel’s power over the Palestinians.
While I can’t prove this theory to be true, it seems like a likely possibility to me. Here’s why:
Sharon knew Gaza better than any Israeli. Leading up to the pullout, Hamas was the most powerful and popular organization in Gaza by a long shot. Street signs in Gaza City before the pullout were covered in Hamas propaganda posters depicting Jewish settlers running away from Hamas’ Qassam Martyrs Brigade. Hamas rallies attracted hundreds of thousands, turning the streets of Khan Yunis and Gaza City into seas of green. Sharon had to know that if Israel pulled out unilaterally it would quickly fall into the hands of Hamas. To believe otherwise, in my opinion, just does not jive with his intelligence or understanding of Gaza. The vast majority of Israeli intelligence officers and most vocally, current Prime Minister Netanyahu predicted this exact scenario before the pullout. And they were completely correct. It didn’t take long for Hamas to fill the Detroit-sized vacuum left by the IDF when it pulled its last soldier out of Gaza and shut the gates.
With Hamas’ bitter rival Fatah firmly in control of the West Bank, I see the Gaza pullout as a classic “divide and rule” maneuver. Sharon pulled out of Gaza to ensure that the Palestinians would remain divided, and thus unable to field a negotiating team that would represent all their interests. This allowed, and continues to allow, Israel the ability to focus on growing settler populations in the West Bank and Jerusalem, where they know the demographic battle is not a lost cause, as it was in Gaza. If Sharon wanted to accelerate peace talks, he would have coordinated a bilateral withdrawal with Fatah, bolstering their power in Gaza. But instead, he made a unilateral move that delayed peace talks, allowed Israel to consolidate power where it mattered (West Bank and Jerusalem Corridor), and increased Israel’s leverage in case the Palestinians should ever form a united political coalition.
Sharon’s pullout from Gaza was not a step towards peace or political moderation, but a brilliant, chess-like maneuver that would make Sun Tzu proud. His last great act was to fool the world into thinking that a hawk could turn into a dove.