On March 15, Israel’s parliament barely approved the scheme put forward by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with U.S. approval, to unilaterally “disengage” from the Gaza Strip by evacuating most of the Jewish settlements in the narrow seaside territory. The vote in the 120-member body was 46 for, 45 against.

Sharon also infuriated the Palestinian people with his claim that talks are impossible with the current Palestinian leadership because they are failing to stop attacks on Israelis. Calling the Prime Minister’s statement “unacceptable,” Palestinian negotiations minister Saeb Erekat declared that Sharon’s announcement “means the pursuit of authoritarian and aggressive policies, and this could be a dangerous escalation.”

In a statement released the same day, Hanna Amireh, a top leader in both the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian People’s Party (formerly Communist Party), called Sharon’s plan and his negotiations about it with Washington “unprecedented hegemony and intransigence” and an effort “to impose a unilateral settlement to the conflict … far from the Palestinian people and their leadership.”

In return for withdrawing from Gaza, Amireh said, Sharon wants ratification of the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank, “which is eating up half the Palestinian territories,” as well as consolidation of the major settlement blocs in the West Bank and official U.S. recognition of Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem as Israel’s permanent capital.

Sharon regards all these as non-negotiable, Amireh said, while the negotiable part involves what might be left for the Palestinians, such as establishment of a besieged Palestinian state with temporary borders and superficial signs of sovereignty.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shaoul Mofaz’ statements that unilateral separation opens the door to resuming negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of the roadmap – but only after three to five years – means the aim is to impose the roadmap with Sharon’s conditions, interpretations and reservations, Amireh said.

“In this sense, Sharon’s disengagement plan is a way he can freeze the final settlement and reinforce the policy of the occupation status quo indefinitely,” the Palestinian leader said – an “imposed unilateral scheme” that gives up settlements in return for seizing over half the Palestinian territories after surrounding them with the separation wall. Sharon is presenting it “with the full support of the U.S. and in light of an ineffective European official role and absence of any Arab role,” he added.

Amireh noted that Sharon’s move is timed to take maximum advantage of the regional implications of the U.S. occupation of Iraq “before it is too late.”

He also pointed out that Sharon’s plan emerged following a series of Israeli failures, including its inability to impose a military solution or a solution at odds with international resolutions, failure to remove the Palestinian leadership and its president or to find a Palestinian collaborator.

Along with the negative aspects of the plan, Amireh said, “we have to note also the signs of retreat in the Israeli official positions,” especially after Israel said 2003 would be the year of military decisiveness and the toppling of Yasser Arafat and insisted it would refuse to evacuate any settlement or settler unless a permanent settlement was reached with the Palestinians.

This retreat – although it seems superficial at this phase and does not tackle the real core of the expansionist policy of the occupation – entails an initial recognition that the current policies cannot continue and that Israel cannot afford the costs of such policies indefinitely, Amireh said.

“We stand now at an important and critical juncture through which the course of the framework of evacuating the settlements will be decided,” Amireh said. “Will it be the framework of Sharon – the disengagement plan and reinforcement of occupation under the name of an interim solution, making it a permanent solution of the Palestinian cause? Or will it be the framework of international legitimacy resolutions and transformation of the withdrawal from Gaza and evacuation of settlements into a preliminary step to implement these resolutions?”

The other Arab and international factors, which have not operated so far, will have a major impact in frustrating Sharon’s scheme, Amireh said. “The struggle against the wall will constitute the key element in building a Palestinian-Arab-international alliance to frustrate those schemes. There is no doubt that the unity of the Palestinian people and their various forces, and the performance of their leadership, should play a decisive role to frustrate those schemes.”