News Analysis

Until last weekend Israel’s 1 million Palestinian citizens had stayed out of the debate about the country’s imminent disengagement from Gaza. “It’s not our story,” they said when pressed, “this is an entirely Jewish conversation.”

That is no longer the case. Last weekend Arab drivers in the Galilee could be seen flying black ribbons to commemorate the Aug. 4 killings of four Arab citizens on a bus by a young Jewish extremist with his Israeli army-issued rifle.

The 19-year-old gunman, Eden Nathan Zada, presumably hoped that by killing Arab citizens he could provoke riots across the Galilee that would draw the massed ranks of soldiers away from Gaza. The settlers might then be able to reach their desired destination, the threatened settlements of the Gaza Strip.

The country’s Arab minority, however, is refusing to be dragged into a confrontation with the security forces. And for the moment, at least, the government appears to be siding with Arab citizens against the extremist settlers. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who lost no time in denouncing Zada as “a bloodthirsty terrorist,” needs Palestinian citizens to stay “on his side” as he takes on opponents who hope to bring about his downfall over the disengagement.

But what about the day after the pullout from Gaza? What does Sharon plan then? In this respect, the country’s Arab citizens have strong grounds to be extremely fearful, as many of their leaders admit in private.

Their reasoning is based on an understanding that the second intifada is all but finished and that a third intifada — with very different features and goals — will begin soon after disengagement. The signs are that, despite their success in staying out of the two previous intifadas, the minority will have little choice but to be dragged into the struggle this time.

That assessment is based on a view shared by almost all Palestinians that Sharon has no intention of turning the disengagement — what they interpret as a military redeployment to Gaza’s perimeters — into the first step towards Palestinian statehood.

As if to confirm their fears, the Israeli prime minister and his generals are already warning that they will respond “very harshly” against any signs of what Israel regards as Palestinian “terrorism.” General Eival Giladi, an adviser to Sharon, has said there is likely to be “major collateral damage,” that is civilian deaths, if Gazans refuse to keep quiet post-disengagement.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to believe Palestinians and Israelis will not be forced into another round of bloodletting.

So what will be the battleground of a third intifada? Most likely, it will be shaped by Israel’s current obsessive policy of “ethnic consolidation,” of which disengagement is only a small part. Israeli demographers believe that today’s slim majority of Jews in the land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan — 5.2 million Jews to 4.9 million Palestinians — will be eroded within a decade.

The disengagement will instantly erase at least 1.2 million Gazans from the balance sheet. But as the historian Benny Morris and the former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon have suggested, the Israeli government’s greater concern is the “unfinished business” of 1948, the 20 percent of the indigenous Palestinian population who were not expelled from the newly founded state of Israel 57 years ago.

According to Professor Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University, Israel has reached a “dangerous turning point” where it is searching ever more desperately for a pretext to remove the citizenship rights of the Palestinians it inherited unwillingly in 1948. The goal, says Peled, is to create a demographically pure Jewish state and alongside it a stunted, phantom state for the region’s Palestinians.

As a result, Palestinians under Israeli rule — whether Arab citizens or occupied subjects — are finding themselves being pushed into the same corner, victims of the same oppressive and racist policies. The more Israel presses on with its “unfinished business” from 1948, the more likely it is that a third, even more violent intifada is just around the corner.

Jonathan Cook reports from Israel. This article is excerpted from a longer article written for The Electronic Intifada, found at electronicintifada.net.

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