Revisited four years later, Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza offers several very important lessons. On the Palestinian side, they involve state-building. On the Israeli side, the lessons touch on demography, resettlement and, perhaps most important, Israel's failure to come up with an efficient post-disengagement strategy for dealing with the Gaza Strip and Hamas.
Even if we disregard PM Ariel Sharon's willful and foolish decision not to negotiate the modalities of the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, the latter's failure to capitalize on the withdrawal and the generous international aid offered the PA for Gaza reconstruction and development constitutes a dramatic failure in Palestinian state-building. The only ones who took advantage of the withdrawal successfully were Hamas, who dramatically and violently gained control over the Strip two years later. Now PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad appears to be applying lessons learned from Gaza in developing the West Bank economy and government institutions. But it could be too late for Gaza.
For Israel, the singular success of disengagement from Gaza is demographic. Even those who argue that Israel is still legally the "occupier" of the Strip have to recognize that the removal of the settlers from Gaza is a net demographic gain for Israel as a Jewish state. Whatever the future disposition of the Strip, no longer are Jewish and Arab populations mixed there in a manner that points to a single bi-national state as the solution. It was instructive during last January's fighting in Gaza to note that, with the possible exception of some of the displaced Gaza settlers, even those Israelis who egged on the Olmert government and the IDF to reoccupy the entire Strip never suggested that settlers be brought back too. It was also instructive to watch wiser heads prevail and decide in favor of avoiding reoccupation.
The Gaza settlers, on the other hand, at least temporarily won a very different battle in making their removal look to Israelis like a failure at the human level. They were aided by incredible government ineptitude to the extent that, four years later, virtually none of them have moved into new permanent dwellings and the fiasco of their resettlement is held up as "proof" that removing them was a mistake.
Removing them was not a mistake. But if we are ever going to remove far larger numbers of settlers from the West Bank, whether under a unilateral initiative or by virtue of agreement with the PLO, lessons have to be learned about dealing with settlers who are ideologically motivated to refuse to cooperate with the authorities. One idea increasingly discussed is for the government to compensate settlers financially with a generous lump sum and to stay out of initiatives to build them new communities.
State-building, demography and resettlement aside, here we sit four years later, surrounding Gaza on three sides (including the sea), without a viable strategy for dealing with it. This is undoubtedly the most telling failure of the withdrawal.
When Sharon implemented the disengagement four years ago, he threatened that any attempt by Gaza militants to attack Israel thereafter would be met by a heavy military response. He undoubtedly understood the damage to its deterrent profile that Israel would sustain by leaving Palestinian territory unilaterally. But when the first post-withdrawal Qassam rockets began to fall in Israeli territory, instead of responding disproportionately with an offensive along the lines of last January's Cast Lead operation, Sharon retaliated by closing the Gaza crossings and neutralizing all the careful preparations for integrating Gaza economically with its surroundings.
So began the economic warfare strategy against Gaza. It escalated after the Hamas takeover in June 2007 and continues to this day. It has completely failed to bring Hamas to its knees, while inflicting collective punishment on 1.5 million Gazans, alienating what is left of the middle and agrarian classes and enriching Hamas-licensed tunnel-diggers. In the single instance in which it was replaced by a military strategy, in January of this year, the blow inflicted appears to have been at least temporarily effective. But since Hamas' primary condition for maintaining a ceasefire is removal of the economic blockade and that blockade is clearly counterproductive, the January offensive could probably have been avoided, just as future conflict could possibly still be avoided if we cease the economic warfare now.
Other instances of misconceived strategies for Gaza are also apparent. Egypt doesn't know how to deal with the Islamized Strip either. Israel's decision to negotiate with Hamas through Egypt's good offices is also questionable insofar as it has failed to produce a stable ceasefire or the return of Gilad Shalit. And Israel's refusal to offer to talk directly with Hamas (which in any case might rebuff the offer, since it won't recognize Israel) paints us unnecessarily into a rejectionist corner.
On balance, I believe we are better off having withdrawn from Gaza, if only because removal of settlements at least temporarily alleviated one of our most pressing existential threats: demography. But the absence of constructive and creative strategic thinking on our part regarding Gaza ever since then is dispiriting. We can do better.- Published 31/8/2009 © bitterlemons.org
It's been four years since Israel evacuated its settlers and army from the Gaza Strip. Since then, Israel has kept Gaza under a tight siege that has undermined the economy of the already impoverished Strip. Now there seems to be consensus among most Palestinians and Israelis, though for different reasons, that the withdrawal was not constructive as far as peacemaking and ending the conflict are concerned.
In Israel, the right wing has disavowed any similar withdrawals from the West Bank, while the Israeli left maintains that a withdrawal outside the context of a negotiated process will not serve peace objectives.
On the Palestinian side, the PLO camp was very critical of the move from the outset. It was interpreted by the mainstream as an attempt to consolidate Israeli control over the West Bank, including continued expansion of settlements, rather than a step toward ending the occupation, as it was being promoted at the time by Israel.
Indeed, and in order to put that dramatic event into perspective, it is useful to remember that the Gaza withdrawal was one component of a package that was presented by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Herzliya Conference in early 2005 and was described as a new unilateral approach to relations with the Palestinians.
That approach was based on two assumptions. The first was that there was no Palestinian partner to negotiate with. This assumption aimed at discrediting the Palestinian leadership and escaping Israeli obligations to engage it. The second was the notion that by force rather than negotiations, Israel would better achieve its objectives.
The intended policy of the right-wing Israeli government at the time was actually responsible for rendering the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas irrelevant. Abbas' position in Palestinian politics is based on pursuing negotiations to secure a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and he is perceived by the Palestinian public as fulfilling mainly that role. If Israel has no intention to talk to him and will even withdraw from parts of occupied territory without doing so, then, from a Palestinian perspective, why is he needed?
In parallel, Hamas, which consolidated its popular position by pursuing a strategy of armed attacks against Israel and Israelis while criticizing the failure of Abbas' approach as fruitless, found in the Israeli withdrawal a golden opportunity to further strengthen its public support.
Hamas argued that continued armed resistance, as led by Hamas, had been ultimately responsible for Israel's decision to leave Gaza. Maintaining this strategy, the movement argued, would eventually bring the same result in the West Bank. Indeed that line of argument was at the core of Hamas' election campaign six months after the withdrawal that ultimately brought it a historic victory in legislative council elections.
The unilateral Israeli strategy begun then persists to this day, even if it marks a departure from the prescribed formula for reaching a two-state solution that was adopted by the international community and accepted by the Israeli leadership, at least under Yitzhak Rabin. The strategy ultimately aims at fragmenting the Palestinian territories and linking the different parts to other states. Pushing Gaza toward Egypt is one such example.
The unilateral track also tries to shift the economic dependence of the different parts of occupied Palestinian territory from Israel to other parties, whether the international community through foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority or neighboring states like Egypt.
Finally, Israeli unilateralism also seeks to cement a functional division between the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority in running the daily affairs of the West Bank.
In all aspects, the unilateral approach goes against the grain of finding a negotiated and peaceful settlement to the conflict.- Published 31/8/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Centre. This article represents his personal views.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Disillusionment and deterrence
by Amnon Lord
The disengagement from Gaza opened the door wide for a de facto partition of the land between two states--and failed. The conventional wisdom on the Israeli side--left and right, whether they liked the idea or not--was that the Palestinians were being given an entire piece of land, vacated down to the last inch on the basis of the 1967 borders, and they would have a chance to change course for their own good. They would be able to set an example of nation-building, statehood and, most of all, a quiet and safe border that would demonstrate to Israelis the meaning of land for peace. Any territory you withdraw from on the Gaza model becomes a peaceful and safe border, thus putting enormous pressure on the Israeli government to continue the process.
Before the actual pull-out on August 15, 2005, huge international corporations readied development projects that promised great profits. Those businessmen, among them some Israelis, showed what the real expectations were.
It's not clear why all this collapsed. The outcome of the Gaza initiative left most Israelis in utter disillusionment about the mere possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinians. If there is any concrete outcome for Israelis, it's a very sad one. Sixteen years ago, no one would have believed that an historic process of reconciliation between two peoples on the land of Israel would eventuate in 100 Israeli war planes bombing targets within the historic boundaries of Palestine. This alone is a tragedy beyond belief.
But once this absurd process started, one could say that at the level of narrow national interests Israel registered two major achievements, consolidated in the wake of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza at the beginning of this year: deterrence and broad national consensus. It was proven that on these two borders where Israel carried out unilateral withdrawal, when the need arose to strike forcefully almost the entire nation supported it. This, it could be argued, is a huge gain compared with the loss of deterrence and some strategic depth.
But those unilateral withdrawals committed Israel to a very tough military operational choice. Israel abandoned the failed doctrine of limited conflict, the blabocratic tactics of so-called low-intensity warfare, and returned to an updated doctrine of deterrence wherein, if it chooses, it could opt for decisive victory. Both in Lebanon and in Gaza it chose not do so because it didn't want to create a vacuum and utter destabilization.
Recent Tel Aviv University Peace Index polls show that 79 percent of the Israeli public views Operation Cast Lead as a success and 71 percent view the operation favorably. That means that with all the destruction, Israelis have internalized the process Israel went through from disengagement until today. When you withdraw unilaterally, inflicting pain on your own society, and then get in return missiles and mortars and more, there are no inhibitions once a military response is unleashed.
Still, it seems that overall, from the Israeli perspective, the negative results outnumber the positive. It now appears that no Israeli leader in his right mind, not even Chaim Oron from the leftist Meretz party, will be willing to try unilateral evacuation from territories in Judea and Samaria because the mere thought of rockets on Kefar Sava or Ben Gurion airport sends shivers down every Israeli's spine.
Fewer and fewer soldiers are willing to participate again in an operation designed to uproot settlers. And from the settlers' side there is a twisted lesson from the Katif bloc not to exclude any kind of resistance should disengagement phase II loom on the horizon. The same dynamic witnessed among fanatic settlers after the Yamit evacuation in 1982 was repeated on a larger scale in 2005: despair, alienation from Israeli civil society and from the Israeli state in general. There are phenomena of extreme right wing anarchists preparing for rebellious violence against Palestinians and Israeli soldiers alike.
Perhaps the most negative result of the disengagement is the creation of an Islamist terrorist duchy inside the boundaries of the country. This Muslim Brotherhood foothold is a strategic threat to Israel and a clear danger to Egypt as well. Because the terrorist ambitions of Hamas have no limits, this could result in future in an even larger Israeli military response that would cause further suffering on both sides of the border.
But to end on an optimistic note, it does seem that the Hamas leadership understands that there are limits to the suffering the Gazan community can absorb as a price for ideological fanaticism.- Published 31/8/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Amnon Lord is senior editor and a columnist at Makor Rishon newspaper.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
An historic event
an interview with Eyad Sarraj
bitterlemons: How important, in hindsight, was the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip?
Sarraj: It was a very significant step in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, very serious indeed for us. It was well planned and prepared over a long time. It came about once the Israeli military establishment headed by Ariel Sharon decided to take the option, as one of his aides, Dov Weisglass, said at the time, to put the peace process in formaldehyde.
Israel wanted to stop negotiating borders, stop negotiating Jerusalem and, something not made explicit at the time, get rid of the demographic bulk of Palestinians in Gaza as well as separate Gaza from the West Bank. This was all a long time before Hamas took control.
This is not a new Israeli plan. As far back as the late 1980s, Israeli strategists presented six scenarios for a Palestinian state. One of them was a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. This scenario was exactly what Sharon ended up choosing.
bitterlemons: How important is the fact that the withdrawal was unilateral?
Sarraj: Israel never wanted seriously to negotiate peace and has always evaded such negotiations. A unilateral withdrawal was meant to send the signal that Israel had no partner to negotiate peace, something that significantly weakened Mahmoud Abbas.
And this Israeli unilateralism was a watershed. It was a strategic decision to separate Gaza from the West Bank and bring back a situation that existed before 1967. It was an attempt at reversing the strategy that had been pursued by Yitzhak Rabin.
bitterlemons: You say the withdrawal weakened Abbas. Not more than six months later, Hamas won parliamentary elections. How important was the withdrawal in this respect?
Sarraj: There were other important factors, more significant than the withdrawal. These include allegations of corruption and mismanagement by Fateh, and certainly the failure of the peace process. There were also internal problems within Fateh itself. These were all more significant than the withdrawal.
The unilateral withdrawal, however, put the first nail into the coffin of hopes for an independent Palestinian state by separating Gaza from the West Bank. Sharon wanted a complete separation of Gaza from the West Bank by 2008. And now Salam Fayyad [the PA prime minister] is presenting a plan for building a state in the West Bank with no mention of Gaza. Palestinians are good at playing the roles Israel assigns them.
bitterlemons: Has Gaza been irreparably separated from the West Bank?
Sarraj: I hope not. It seems Israel is determined to keep Gaza separate and not allow negotiations to lead to an independent Palestinian state. It is clear to me that Israel wants the end result to be some kind of entity on what's left of the West Bank, after settlements and Jerusalem are taken away, with Gaza pushed toward Egypt.
bitterlemons: Will Egypt play this part?
Sarraj: Egypt has little choice. It is under US pressure and, for its own security reasons, it has to control the border with Gaza.
bitterlemons: What are Egypt's options then?
Sarraj: Cairo cannot lift the siege from its side as long as Israel continues its siege. But Fateh and Hamas are not helping the Egyptians. Cairo is desperate for a Palestinian [reconciliation] agreement so Egypt can push for an opening of all crossings into Gaza, including Rafah. The Shalit negotiations may be the beginning of such a domino effect.
bitterlemons: If Palestinian factions are aware of this Egyptian position, shouldn't that act as motivation for them to reconcile?
Sarraj: It should if they are thinking of the interests of Palestine as a whole, not their own narrow interests. But they are not.
bitterlemons: Did the withdrawal bring anything positive for Gaza?
Sarraj: Of course it is positive that there are no settlements now in Gaza. But Gaza remains under occupation. In the long term, the most important thing is that the siege on Gaza, the separation of Gaza from the West Bank, and the settlements and wall in the West Bank are opening the eyes of the world to the real nature of Israel's racist, apartheid policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians. This may lead to a concerted effort at starting a serious boycott and sanctions campaign against Israel to rescue Israel from itself. This is the only way to make Israel change.- Published 31/8/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Eyad Sarraj is a political commentator and the chairman of the board of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.
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