Some of Israel's limited objectives regarding Rafah are problematic but nevertheless achievable, at least in the short term. But its broader objectives are not achievable.
Certainly the plan to prevent the export of terrorism from the Gaza Strip, once evacuated, can be enhanced by reducing Palestinian capabilities of importing weaponry by means of tunnels. The tunnels can be uncovered and destroyed, the tunnel diggers and tunneling entrepreneurs arrested. The Philadelphi road can be widened by destroying additional Palestinian houses, thereby ensuring that future tunnels will have to span a far greater distance. Just as Israel's security fence works well against suicide bombers, so physical barriers like a wider no-man's land and deep ditches can be made to work against tunneling.
Israel will continue to pay a heavy price for these preventive activities in terms of international opprobrium. This is particularly true insofar as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will have to revisit Rafah periodically in order to ensure that new tunnels are not being dug, while the Philadelphi road will remain a focus of conflict even after disengagement. Nor will Egypt be a willing collaborator here: the Egyptians do not intend to be drawn by Israel into armed confrontation with Palestinian arms smugglers on their side of the border; they prefer that Israel bear this burden.
Beyond the immediate issue of the tunnels--rendered genuinely urgent by intelligence that katyusha rockets capable of hitting Ashkelon were about to be brought into the Gaza Strip via the Rafah tunnels--a second objective of Israel's current offensive is to restore its deterrent profile and project an image of strength in the aftermath of successful Palestinian attacks on Israeli army armored personnel carriers (APCs) in the Gaza Strip that left 11 IDF soldiers dead. The current Israeli-Palestinian exchange of blows is over strength, deterrence and disengagement, and can be traced to the Palestinian suicide bombing in Ashdod port a few months ago. The IDF concluded from that attack that Hamas aspired to present itself as having chased Israel out of Gaza. Accordingly it sought to ensure that Palestinians see Israel as departing from a position of strength. This led to the targeted killings of Hamas leaders Yassin and Rantisi. But it did not prevent the next round: Islamic Jihad's successful attacks on the APCs.
Hence the perceived need, once again, to "send a message of strength". This is a problematic venture. At the end of the day, no matter how much damage we do in Gaza prior to our departure, Palestinian militants will indeed conclude that we dismantled settlements there because we only understand the language of force. That is the inevitable cost of the folly of building the settlements in the first place. But it pales alongside the strategic benefits of disengagement: reducing the occupation with all its ills, and beginning to roll back the settlements that so endanger Israel's future as a Jewish and a democratic state. That is why disengagement remains worthwhile, whatever the military score inside the Gaza Strip.
Yet another, broader objective of the occupation of Rafah can be traced directly to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He believes that the use of massive Israeli force can compel the Palestinians to capitulate, and that leaders will then emerge who at least passively acquiesce in his territorial goals. It was clear from the moment Israel commenced its reoccupation of the West Bank two years ago that Gaza's turn would come. Here, as always, Palestinian militants helpfully provided the provocation that justifies or at least rationalizes the Israeli operation. In this endeavor Sharon can draw encouragement from the radical reduction of terrorism in the West Bank brought abut by Israeli occupation and incursion policies. Nor does this reoccupation approach contradict Sharon's concept of disengagement, insofar as it is intended to ensure that those areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank that Israel leaves will remain quiescent.
The Rafah operation might at least temporarily produce some positive results--for Israeli security and for the disengagement plan. But there remain two serious problems with the entire Israeli approach in Gaza.
One is imagery. There is simply no way to invade a teeming and hostile city of 150,000 residents in the global media age and make it look good. When an IDF Radio reporter, himself a soldier, broadcasts live from Rafah that the Palestinian families fleeing their destroyed homes with a few meager belongings on their backs "look like the Nakba" (the "disaster" of the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948)--and this, two days after May 15 Nakba Day--then we can hardly complain when the rest of the world, the non-combatant world which insists that the traditional rules of war apply to the fight against terrorism, accuses us of breaking those rules.
The other problem is more substantive. Israel's military operations in the Gaza Strip, as in the West Bank, continue to reflect a lack of any realistic strategy for peace on the part not only of Ariel Sharon, but of Yasser Arafat and George W. Bush as well. Without such a strategy, no genuine progress is likely in Rafah or elsewhere. Under these circumstances, reoccupation and destruction in Rafah do not produce an alternative, docile leadership; they just produce more Arab anger and resentment.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
There are three different possible reasons for this dramatic, unprecedented and unprovoked escalation in Gaza, which began in Zeitun neighborhood in Gaza City and continued in Rafah.
The first and most important is internal Israeli politics. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently experienced two defeats that affected his political standing. The first was the defeat of his "unilateral disengagement" proposal in the Likud party referendum. The second defeat was the success of the Palestinian resistance in Zeitun and later in Rafah in blowing up two military armored vehicles and killing 11 Israeli soldiers. Those attacks were a political blow to Sharon since he had been trying to pass off the impression that a string of high-level assassinations in Gaza were successful in overcoming the Palestinian resistance. Further, the attacks were carried out in the occupied territories and against soldiers, not civilians, meaning that Israel was not afforded the usual sympathy--and matching criticism of Palestinians--it receives after attacks on civilians.
A second reason for this escalation is simply the reigning spirit of revenge. These incursions were marked by their brutality and savagery, out of proportion to their supposed military aims. Most of the 50 people killed over these three days were unarmed civilians, and an inordinate number of them were children. The destruction to infrastructure appears to have been unnecessary, and included the complete debilitation of the power and water networks in the area. Eyewitness accounts tell of the random demolition of groups of homes far from the border that Israel keeps telling us it is trying to protect.
The third possible explanation for this escalation is the laying of the groundwork for the possible implementation of "version two" of Sharon's plan, which includes working out multilateral arrangements on the Egyptian-Palestinian border. In sum, however, this "preparation" is simply part of an ongoing Sharon strategy of using the Israeli military and resorting to force and violence to terrorize the Palestinian people and leadership. Really, what this Israeli government is trying to do is to wreck the morale of the Palestinian people in such a way that it is able to impose the kind of political solution that Israel wants and Palestinians do not.
The conclusion that can be drawn from this bloody week in Gaza, whether we are talking about the Israeli incursions, demolitions of homes and killing of innocents, or the Palestinian attack on Israeli soldiers there, is that peace and security cannot be achieved by violence and force. Pressure will only produce explosions. Peace, security and a political solution based in dignity can only be achieved if the two sides accept to replace the strategy of violence with peaceful negotiations that are based on international law, rather than on exploitation of the balance of power.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
The events of Rafah and the Gaza question must be viewed within the broader context of changes in the mainstream Jewish public in Israel and its attitude toward the Palestinians and the Arab world.
The two paradigms that mainstream Jews had believed in for decades recently collapsed. One was based on the hope of establishing in the entirety of the Greater Land of Israel a shared Jewish-Arab political entity; the other, on the partition of the land between Jews and Arabs in an historic compromise ("peace"). Both were based on the assessment that they served the "real interests" of each side. The first lost the adherence of mainstream Jews following the intifada in the late 1980s. The second lost their trust when the structural failure of the Oslo illusion became evident.
Every generation apparently needs to learn these lessons anew. Paradoxically, in an earlier generation, the pessimistic Zionist conclusion was articulated by a man who had placed peace with the Arab residents of the country at the top of his order of priorities. It was the founder of "Brit Shalom", Arthur Rupin, who formulated in his diary in 1931 a sad conclusion that is today equally applicable to the state of relations between Israel and the Palestinians: "What we can get from the Arabs we don’t need, and what we need we cannot get [from them]."
The mainstream of the Jewish public today understands that Israel has to disengage from the Palestinian population in order to maintain a nation state that is both Jewish and democratic. Since there is no Palestinian partner for an historic compromise that is prepared to abandon both terrorism and the demand for "return", Israel must act unilaterally and withdraw from the heavily populated heartland. Israel will withdraw to a border it will determine unilaterally in accordance with the demographic reality, incorporating the three settlement blocs where most of the settlers dwell. Along this line a physical barrier is being erected, designed to terminate the "creeping return" of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into Israel, to reduce Israel's vulnerability to Palestinian terrorism, and to afford Israelis an acceptable quality of life and standard of living.
This barrier, the fence, enjoys public support in Israel primarily as a defense against terrorism, but its significance goes far deeper. In recent decades the entire way of life of the Jewish population had been dictated by its intimate contact with the Palestinians. The Jews have come to understand that the illegal Palestinian migration, as well as the crime and the corruption from the territories, are no less detrimental, in the long run, to their way of life than the terrorism.
In recent years Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, one of the most prominent proponents of the Greater Israel paradigm, has also reached similar conclusions. His acceptance of partition, acquiesce in a Palestinian state and even willingness to dismantle settlements does not derive from hope for peace, but rather from despair regarding the chances of historic compromise as well as from recognition that the status quo endangers the democratic nation state of the Jewish people. His plan for unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria rests on the assumption that the Palestinians are not a potential partner to a "two states for two peoples" compromise, and that Israel cannot wait until (if ever) such a partner emerges.
Sharon's disengagement plan enjoys the massive support of the general Israeli public, and of the Likud voters, but Likud members rejected it. While some of the plan's opponents ideologically reject uprooting of settlements, there are many, notably within the security community, who are mainly concerned lest the image of Israel fleeing the territories encourage more terrorism. Acutely aware that the image of Israel "fleeing" Lebanon due to Hizballah terrorism contributed to the war initiated by the Palestinians in 2000, they fear that unilateral departure from Gaza is liable to promote even worse acts of terrorism in the West Bank (perhaps even among the Arab citizens of Israel).
The Rafah operation is intended not only to strike at terrorists, but primarily to enhance Israel's capacity to deal with them following its departure from the Gaza Strip. The key is the weapons supply conduit along the Egyptian border. The main objective is to expand Israeli control over the ridiculously narrow strip of land that separates Egypt from Gaza, through which weapons are smuggled to the Palestinians. The byproduct of a resolute operation in Gaza is a message to the Palestinians that Israel is determined in its struggle against terrorism and is creating the conditions that will enable it to meet this challenge for as long as it takes.
The cost of such determined action is additional damage to Israel's image. But this issue too must be seen within its wider context. The media, European media in particular, present such a convoluted and distorted image of Israel's struggle against Palestinian terrorism that Israel no longer has anything to lose. If the fear of such damage to her image deters Israel from taking needed action in time, terrorism will only be stepped up to a point where more drastic counter measures are called for. Those measures, in turn, will certainly cause even worse damage to Israel's image.
Unilateral disengagement is inevitable because all other options are unacceptable. The offensive against Palestinian terrorism will persist, to demonstrate that terrorism has set Palestinian national objectives back rather than allowing Palestinians to dictate Israeli policy. This requires steadfastness and stamina. Israelis have demonstrated in the last few years that they have more of those qualities then anyone expected.
Dan D. Schueftan is a senior fellow at The National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa. He teaches political science at that university and at the Israel Defense Forces National Security College and the IDF Command and Staff College.
bitterlemons: What do you think the incursions and demolitions in Rafah have to do with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza, if anything?
Abdel Shafi: I think that Sharon has distinguished himself in being very, very brutal and inconsiderate of human rights principles. What is happening in Rafah is only in line with his general performance.
bitterlemons: As a veteran advocate for the Palestinian cause, what are your observations about what is happening in Rafah?
Abdel Shafi: Our position is very clear. We have adopted a conciliatory position by asking for a Palestinian state on one-fourth of historic Palestine. Still, this is opposed and not respected by the Israeli side. You can imagine how one might describe this Israeli position.
I know that Zionism claimed all of Palestine, but I think that it is high time that Palestinian rights in Palestine are recognized. Our conciliatory position is proof that we are sincere in [attempts] to realize a needed peace between the two communities. This is being neglected and Sharon is having his way in brutalizing the Palestinian people in the hope that they will succumb and abandon their rights.
I know that our performance is not very organized. I know that we commit mistakes. I don't agree with suicide actions on our part, but Israel is doing something similar with its aerial bombardments. They target one person, and then kill several people standing beside him. This is just as bad as the suicide acts committed by the Islamists.
Israel's performance is far from showing commitment to peace principles, to international principles, and it is high time that the objective of peace is given more consideration and more sincerity.
bitterlemons: Have you given up hope on the intervention of the international community?
Abdel Shafi: No. I am sorry that the international community is adopting a very passive ineffectual position, but still I hope that it will wake up to its responsibilities and not just stand by and watch.
bitterlemons: What can you say about the relationship between United States President George W. Bush and Sharon and its impact on the conflict?
Abdel Shafi: I am very unhappy with the Bush performance. I don't know how informed he is about the [Palestinian] problem and its historic background. It seems to me that Bush's actions do not indicate that he is very well informed about the realities of the problem. He is very involved in his career and his future. Certainly, this has terrible repercussions.
bitterlemons: Do you see a way in which Palestinians can make the best of this situation?
Abdel Shafi: I think there is much that can be done. The Palestinians have been acting without even the slightest organization. One of the weaknesses of Palestinians is that they are very emotional, and this at times works against their interests. We have to be more organized, less emotional and really see things objectively--and act objectively. Much of what we do deprives us of the support of the international community. We have been suffering such terrible injustice, and our performance deprives us of the needed sympathy.
bitterlemons: Did anything surprise you about what happened in Rafah?
Abdel Shafi: I would be the first to admit that we often do things that we should not do. We commit mistakes. But exploiting that, as Sharon is doing, is brutal.
Haidar Abdel Shafi heads the Palestine Red Crescent in Gaza. He was chief negotiator in the Madrid talks and was elected in 1996 to a Palestinian Legislative Council seat, only to resign in protest of Palestinian Authority policies.
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