In spite of dramatic announcements every now and then, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been consistent in his government’s positions and practices. Motivated by his ideology, his strategy was, and still is, to undo the developments created by the Oslo agreement that he opposed. That includes regaining direct control over the Palestinian territories, being part of the historical land of greater Israel, and dismantling the Palestinian Authority because of its potential development into a Palestinian government.
The Israeli illegal settlement expansion policy has been one of the major tools for achieving these strategic objectives. The expansion of Jewish settlements on confiscated Palestinian land has proved to be incompatible with peace. In fact, peace requires dismantlement of these settlements. For these reasons, Sharon’s recent announcement about evacuating settlements in Gaza was not taken seriously by Palestinians who were not excited at all, even though the evacuation of the settlements is a core issue.
Palestinians know that Sharon stands for the expansion of settlements and cannot be for evacuating them. Soon, Palestinian political instincts will be proved correct. Sharon wants to evacuate settlements in Gaza in order to consolidate and expand settlements in West Bank including East Jerusalem which of course has major ideological dimensions. Again, this goes to prove his consistency.
Their should be no doubt that this recent political move by Sharon is also a sign of crisis which stems from his arrogance and die hard belief that he can achieve peace and security only by force. Hence the moniker, “if force is not working then the answer is more force.” Gaza, which is kept under tight Israeli control as a bargaining chip, has been a heavy security, political and moral burden.
In addition Sharon needed to release some of the pressure on Israel resulting from mounting international criticism regarding the continued building of what the Palestinians call the apartheid separation wall. The timing of this “initiative”, coming on the eve of a scheduled visit by Sharon to Washington where he is expected to be on the defensive on numerous issues, is suspect at best. The American administration will be conducting the talks according to the parameters of the roadmap which Sharon has never really supported. He will also face difficulties on the wall and settlement expansion, especially in light of the growing noise--including inside Washington--concerning the negative effect of his policy on “Bush’s vision” in conjunction with the demographic issue.
Accordingly, this new announcement will be a useful tactic to diffuse pressure and divert attention, on the short term, and on the other hand it will contribute to the consolidation of the occupation. What this initiative will fail to achieve, however, are the declared Israeli objectives of peace and security. The events of the last three years have shown that violence will only breed more violence. The deepening and widening of this vicious circle of bloodshed will only hasten the ongoing radicalization in both Israeli and Palestinian societies, with long term negative effects on any potential peace not only for now, but also for the future.
Ghassan Khatib is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet. He has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
For nearly three years I have had a standing bet with a number of colleagues who believe that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will eventually dismantle settlements. If, indeed, he removes a single settlement, I have to eat my laptop!
Perhaps I should be thinking about whether to boil or broil the laptop, and what to season it with. But I'm still skeptical.
First, because however cynical and "pragmatic" a politician Sharon may be, he really does believe that each and every settlement serves a tactical security purpose and that the totality of the settlement map is vital for Israel's strategic security. Ten years ago I sat with him for two hours in an attempt to understand his views. I then published a map of the "Sharon plan" in the appendix to a study in which I recommended settlement removal and border adjustments for final status. Sharon phoned me, both to praise and to protest: the map of Palestinian enclaves surrounded by settlements in the West Bank that I attributed to him was accurate. But the map had left the Gaza Strip blank! Didn't I pay attention when he illustrated how Netzarim, Kfar Darum and the Qatif settlements were deployed precisely in order to fragment the Gazan Palestinian population like in the West Bank, and to divide the Strip into three controllable enclaves?
So when Ariel Sharon inarticulately cites vague "security" considerations for removing nearly all the settlements from the Gaza Strip according to an indefinite timetable, continues to belittle the demographic threat, and says "the world has changed, times have changed", I'm skeptical as to whether Sharon has changed. Has he really stopped thinking like an infantry battalion commander and begun to think like a grand strategist and a statesman?
The most plausible explanation for his new position is that recent events—the advent of the Geneva accord, the collapse of the Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) government, the growing chaos in the Palestinian Authority and the rise of Hamas, the post-Iraq moderation emerging in Syria and elsewhere, the election year lull in US involvement, the sharp drop in Sharon's approval ratings and, perhaps most importantly, the growing criminal case against him and his sons—combined to convince him that he had to be seen to be taking the initiative. The objective is not to get out of Gaza; it is to restore support among the broad Israeli political center, keep President Bush behind him, and in general make himself seemingly so indispensable—suppose his informal "referendum" shows that 70% of the public wants him to move ahead with his plan—that both the public and the political establishment will beg him to remain in office no matter what the attorney general says.
This is a typically convoluted Sharon domino scheme—the same kind that got us into so much trouble in Lebanon in 1982. In the best case (for him), he'll weather the coming political storm and the public will forget about his Gaza promises the way it forgot about his promises of peace, security, a Palestinian state, and ousting Yasser Arafat. In the worst case, he may indeed withdraw from the Strip, but only if he feels certain that he can guarantee American and public support for remaining in most of the West Bank for the indefinite future, thereby virtually guaranteeing that the Israeli-Palestinian relationship will come to be seen by the world as a pre-1994 South African situation, with a Jewish minority ruling indirectly over Palestinian bantustans.
Because Sharon's Gaza plan is not a "Gaza first" plan, i.e, it is not intended to pave the way for a similar withdrawal from most of the West Bank and is not accompanied by an offer to negotiate a reasonable agreement with a realistic Palestinian leadership; because this is an admission of military failure rather than (in the case of left wing demands for withdrawal) political failure; and because it comes shortly after Sharon's disastrous swap with Hizballah of hundreds of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners for three dead bodies and a scoundrel—it will, if carried out, also be perceived as proof that the man only understands force.
Yet despite all these reservations, Sharon's rhetorical readiness to embrace "disengagement" should be welcomed. Alongside all the drawbacks, the removal of a single settlement—not to mention 17 in Gaza and three on the West Bank—is a positive precedent and a step closer to the kind of genuine withdrawal Israel requires in order to remain a Jewish and a democratic state.
The US, Egypt, Jordan and the Israeli public must insist that Sharon not exploit this step in order to create new political facts, like adding settlements to the Jordan Valley and the greater Jerusalem area and building intrusive fences deep inside the West Bank, that mitigate against an eventual viable two state solution. For the Palestinian Authority this may be the last opportunity to get its act together, recognize the benefits of an unconditional transfer of additional land, and ensure its ongoing rule in the Gaza Strip. Egypt and the United States have every interest to make sure that the PLO, and not Hamas, takes over.
If it happens, I will gladly eat my laptop.
- Published 9/2/2004 ©bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.
bitterlemons.org: What is your opinion on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip settlements?
Abdel Qader: First of all, we will not oppose the evacuation of any settlement. Therefore, we see any evacuation as part of an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian Territories. However, there is a difference between leaving settlements and that having a positive effect on the ground. We believe that Sharon is trying to kill the roadmap which was adopted by the United States, the Quartet, and the international community, and to implement an alternative plan in the region which is from a purely Israeli perspective. This is part and parcel with the Israeli plan of “separation” from the Palestinians; yet another example of unilateral Israeli measures.
Sharon is trying to transform Gaza into a ghetto by evacuating some settlements. Remember, the Sharon proposal goes for only 17 settlements out of a total of 21 in the Gaza Strip. Therefore, the proposed evacuations will have no political value since four settlements will remain in the Strip. It is clear that these moves cannot be seen as a political evacuation, but a security one. For Sharon proposes “relocating” some of the settlers from Gaza to settlements in the West Bank. You can say he wants to leave through the door in Gaza and enter through the window of the West Bank. It’s just moving from one occupied Palestinian land to another.
We feel that Sharon’s plan is dangerous because he is trying to sidestep both international legitimacy and the roadmap. These are attempts to impose the status quo on the Palestinians by locking them within enclaves, whether in the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip. By doing so, he is sending the message that the Palestinians are a people who do not deserve a state. These steps would abort the chances of creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and will have many dangerous repercussions.
bitterlemons.org: What sort of dangerous repercussions?
Abdel Qader: First, this would open the door to the continuation of the brutal conflict between our two peoples for generations to come. It is well known that there are different solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One is based on the two-state solution. The second is based on one, bi-national state. The third is based on conflict—the removal of one or the other people. The separation wall precludes the creation of a viable and independent Palestinian state. That leaves us with the two remaining possibilities and we know that Sharon doesn’t want a bi-national state. Therefore, this opens the door to a conflict which will last for a very long time. This conflict will also reinforce the ideology of the radical Islamic elements within Palestinian society who also says that conflict and war are legitimate solutions. Sharon is trying to force the Palestinians to choose the option of conflict instead of choosing peace through the two-state solution. This is very dangerous.
bitterlemons.org: Do you believe that the Palestinians Authority is currently capable of taking control of the Gaza Strip?
Abdel Qader: Look, the situation in the Gaza Strip is very difficult. Gaza is a ghetto, besieged and destroyed. We don’t really have any security services in Gaza. Some were completely destroyed, and what remains are simply individuals or disconnected groupings—some of which are contradictory. This obviously has negative repercussions on the security situation in Gaza.
bitterlemons.org: Does the PA have complete control over Gaza?
Abdel Qader: From a professional perspective, no. The Palestinian Authority does not have the means to control the entire Gaza Strip at this time. This only reinforces the position of the Islamic groups there. Israel bears responsibility for the destruction of the security infrastructure in Gaza and for the deteriorating situation. I can say that if the status quo is prolonged, there are many doubts if the PA can assume responsibility for the Strip in the near future.
bitterlemons.org: So what are you doing to counterbalance the weakness of the PA?
Abdel Qader: Right now we are relying on the Fatah Movement as the alternative to the destroyed Palestinian security forces. Therefore the situation is quite precarious. If the siege of Gaza is not lifted, and the PA is not given the opportunity to impose its authority in an effective manner, then I am pretty sure that Gaza will be transformed from a ghetto into a jungle.
bitterlemons.org: Do you believe that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will lead to the strengthening of Hamas since it sees itself as an alternative to the PA?
Abdel Qader: I want to clearly state that we are in favor of Israel withdrawing from any inch of occupied Palestinian territory. If we have the choice of and Israeli presence or Hamas in Gaza, of course we would choose Hamas or any other Palestinian faction. But this depends on the way that Israel withdraws from Gaza and their aims. It depends on the PA having the opportunity to assert its authority and Israeli cooperation with the PA. If Israel withdraws in an abrupt fashion and without any prior coordination with the PA, this will surely help Hamas. But it appears that Sharon wants to destroy the PA and had no need for the Palestinian Authority. He wants there to be civil strife which leads to a civil war in Gaza. A withdrawal based on bad intentions and without coordination with the PA will transform Gaza into a living hell.
bitterlemons.org: If you could address the Israeli public and policy makers directly, what would you say to them?
Abdel Qader: I would tell them there is no alternative for the two peoples other than the return to the negotiating table. There is no choice but to live together peacefully on this land. We know that there is no military solution because Israel has tried unsuccessfully with all its weapons to crush the Palestinian people. They cannot force the Palestinians to surrender. All these unilateral measures will fail in the end. The Israeli people must take responsibility and put an end to these policies aimed at humiliating and oppressing the Palestinian people. Israelis must reject the imposition of any security solution to the conflict and strive towards a fair and just political one for the good of the coming generations. We both need a political resolution based on the right of Palestinians to an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem the capital of both states.
Hatem Abdel Qader is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Jerusalem and is a member of the Higher Committee of Fatah.
When Ariel Sharon revealed his plan to evacuate Israeli settlements from Gaza and beyond, he was not simply shifting the focus away from the scandals facing his family. The investigations may have accelerated or delayed the process, but from an Israeli perspective, the logic of unilateral disengagement is inescapable. As one of the founders of Israel’s post-1967 settlement policy, Sharon resisted this approach for a long time. But if he had not announced this move, another leader would have. If he is forced to resign, his successor is likely to follow a similar course.
Public opinion polls and other indicators demonstrate that the majority of Israelis view the territorial status quo—based on a Swiss-cheese map of intertwined Palestinian cities and Israeli settlements—as unacceptable. Israeli military responses to three years of terror have been quite effective, but sporadic attacks continue, and the costs of protecting small and isolated settlements are unreasonable. In addition, the multiple checkpoints, frequent closures and other sources of daily friction between individual Palestinians and Israeli soldiers contribute to the tension. And the political status quo poses a demographic threat to the survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
At the same time, the efforts to end this situation through negotiation of a stable agreement—from Oslo to the Quartet’s roadmap—have had catastrophic results. Until there is a credible Palestinian leadership to disarm the various factions and implement a lasting accord based on the two-state model, negotiations are not going to end the conflict, and may add to the violence. The evolution of a pragmatic Palestinian leadership anchored in basic societal changes will take many years or decades. Until then, Geneva and other paper concepts discussed under Arafat’s watchful eye simply lack credibility, and public relations campaigns supported by the EU will not change this situation.
Under these conditions, unilateral disengagement has become the least bad option, as many Israelis, including Sharon, now recognize. In the absence of what academics and policy makers refer to as “ripeness”—in terms of broad societal readiness to make realistic compromises—Israel needs to define pragmatic de facto borders. This logic led to the intense public demand for construction of a separation barrier/fence/wall, which has proven effective in protecting the northern coastal cities such as Netanya and Hadera from terror attacks.
The construction of a separation barrier, and a clear—if temporary—boundary, only makes sense with the reduction in the points of friction and greater contiguity for the vast majority of both Palestinians and Israelis. This means the removal of isolated settlements near Palestinian cities, and strengthening of Israeli control in strategic areas, including Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, to ensure border control. (This is not a peace plan, and political and diplomatic issues related to the 1949 ceasefire line—the “Green Line”—are irrelevant.)
However, despite the logic and support from the Israeli consensus, the implementation of this process will be difficult and costly. Sharon’s long-term core constituency anchored in Judea, Samaria and Gaza denounced limited unilateral withdrawal as “appeasement”, and violent resistance is expected. If the issue is brought to a referendum, it is likely to gain approval, but this could delay implementation, and force some changes.
Opponents also argue that withdrawal from Gaza will be seen by Palestinians as a victory, and, like the IDF’s sudden pullout from Lebanon in May 2000, will encourage more terror. However, others counter that in the long term, Israeli security and deterrence were strengthened by this move. Attacks are far less frequent and Hizbollah’s power base in Lebanon was weakened, as recognized by its backers in Damascus and Teheran. Furthermore, many Palestinians, including Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), have declared that the decision to copy Hizbollah’s tactics of terrorism was a disaster. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal will give the Palestinians far less than would have resulted from an agreement with Ehud Barak four years ago, and efforts to use terms such as “apartheid” to demonize Israel via the UN and the International Court will not change the situation.
In addition, for Israel’s Arab citizens, separation means an end to the unfettered access to the West Bank that they have enjoyed since 1967. However, in contrast to the period between 1948 and 1967, when this territory was under Jordanian occupation and the armistice lines were impassable, the current policy of unilateral disengagement includes mechanisms for regulated movement at numerous crossing points. Jordanian fears of a mass movement of Palestinians resulting from disengagement are also unsupported.
As a result of these and other factors, the implementation of unilateral disengagement, whether under Sharon’s leadership or a successor, will face many challenges. But unless a better option appears that provides security, reduces friction and ensures the survival of Israel as a Jewish democratic state, the course is unlikely to change.
Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg is the director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar Ilan University.
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