TCS Daily

And After The Gaza Withdrawal?

By Rory Miller - August 9, 2005 12:00 AM

On Aug. 15, Israel is scheduled to begin its unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. This unprecedented action, which is expected to take about a month, will see the dismantling of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza (as well as four in the northern West Bank).

The Gaza disengagement has been hugely controversial within Israel. In particular, the government's decision to use the Israeli army (the IDF) to carry out the forced removal of Jewish settlers from the area at a time of ongoing suicide attacks against Israeli civilians has threatened to split Israeli society.

But for the international community, the Gaza disengagement plan is of little interest as it relates to the pressures and fissures it has caused within Israel. Rather, it is viewed as the first stage of a complete Israeli withdrawal from territories captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli (Six Day) War, as well as the first real opportunity for the Palestinians to govern themselves free from Israeli military intervention or settlements since the 1994 Cairo Agreement established Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho.

That this is the predominant interest of outside parties can be clearly seen by examining the five criteria that the European Union (EU) insisted had to be met before it would support Israel's disengagement plan.

First disengagement had to take place in the context of the Road Map for Middle East peace, the performance-based plan adopted by the international quartet of the EU, US, Russia and the UN in April 2003, which in its original form called for a permanent status agreement on the boundaries of a Palestinian state between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) no later than the end of 2005.

The EU also insisted that any disengagement process had to be a step towards a two-state solution; could not involve a transfer of settlement activity to the West Bank; must involve an organized and negotiated handover of responsibility to the PA, and must be accompanied by Israel's facilitation of the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Gaza.

The EU's emphasis on the need for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal was repeated by the World Bank in a June 2004 report entitled Disengagement, the Palestinian Economy and the Settlements, which argued that disengagement in and of itself will be of little value in contributing to either a future peace settlement or an improvement in economic and social conditions for the residents of Gaza unless supported by massive financial assistance.


James Wolfensohn, who was head of the World Bank when this above report was published, is now using his role as the international quartet's special envoy for disengagement to reiterate the view: "This is a moment of destiny. Both sides need to understand the issue that the economic and social development of the West Bank and Gaza is part of Israel's security."

As such it is hardly surprising that the international community has been busy pledging significant sums to help the Palestinians develop Gaza's infrastructure and economy following the Israeli withdrawal.

At the March 2005 London Meeting on Supporting the Palestinian Authority, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that the EU will be providing $330 million for this, while in July the G8 group of leading industrial nations promised $3 billion. On a bilateral level, a whole host of nations, headed by the US, which has pledged an extra $350 million, have also promised special aid on top of existing contributions to rebuild Gaza post-disengagement.

While all this is to be welcomed, the truth is that if the international community is serious about maximizing the chances of peace and an end to Palestinian statelessness in the wake of the Gaza disengagement then it needs to provide more than money to the PA, which, according to the World Bank estimates, already receives about $1 billion in annual donor assistance.

First, the international community needs to acknowledge the huge political and personal risks that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has taken by implementing his disengagement plan in the face of staunch domestic opposition. This has already been forthcoming from the Bush administration as well as a number of unexpected sources. One thinks in particular of the praise heaped on Sharon by President Jacque Chirac and other leading French politicians during his recent visit to France.

But words of praise are not enough. We saw clearly during the ill-fated Oslo era that even Israel's most vociferous Western critics were willing to congratulate the Jewish state when it was perceived to be making sacrifices or concessions that kept Oslo alive -- such as following the 1997 Israeli withdrawal from Hebron or the 1998 Wye River Accord. But during both the Oslo and post-Oslo eras, there were few statements emanating from the world's capitals that either acknowledged Israel's right to address its legitimate security concerns or reprimanded the Palestinians for failing to meet their own obligations.

In the post-disengagement era this can no longer continue. The PA must now start being held accountable for its failure to neutralise Gaza as a base for anti-Israeli incitement and terror attacks and must be urged to address the issues of corruption and political repression that has so alienated growing segments of the Palestinian population.

This is necessary for practical, as well as moral, reasons. If Israelis continue to feel threatened by Gaza-based terrorists in the post-disengagement era, political and public support for any future concessions on the scale of the Gaza withdrawal will be drastically reduced. In particular, the world community needs to end its unthinking criticism of the Israeli security barrier/fence and should be honest enough to admit that its construction, rather than the huge sums that have poured into PA coffers over the last few years, has made Israel's withdrawal from Gaza possible by reducing terror attacks on Israel to a level that allows Sharon to implement his plan.

It is now also necessary for the international community to pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the governing Fatah party to try harder to re-establish control over Gaza before the parliamentary elections to the Palestinian National Council scheduled for November. This will be no easy task. Over the last few years the Palestinian leadership has lost much of its influence in Gaza to the extreme Islamist group Hamas.

But a Gaza dominated by Hamas -- a group that remains committed to the destruction of Israel and the defeat of democratic and secular forces among the Palestinians -- will not only become a hotbed for anti-Israeli and anti-Western Islamist terror but will make the establishment of a functioning democratic Palestinian state impossible no matter how much international money is pumped into the area.

In the coming months the international community could of course take the easy option. It could continue to pledge money that it knows will disappear into the abyss of corruption and waste that is the Palestinian treasury, while ignoring Israeli security concerns and refraining from pressing the PA into dealing with the issues of corruption, political repression, terrorism and anti-Israeli incitement. But as we should know all too well from our experience of past Middle East peacemaking, the easy option is not usually the one that brings about a just solution to conflict or lasting peace.

Dr. Rory Miller is a senior lecturer in Mediterranean Studies at King's College, University of London. His book Ireland and the Question of Palestine, 1948-2004 was published by Irish Academic Press earlier this year.


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