When Sharon started talking about his intention to leave Gaza more than a year ago reactions both in Israel and abroad varied. Some doubted Sharon’s sincerity, fearing he was simply raising a smoke screen to divert attention from the mounting accusations of corruption against him at the time. Others believed he was deeply concerned about the increasing “demographic threat” - the fact that Jews are now a minority in all the lands ruled by Israel — and by abandoning densely populated Gaza, Israel could buy a little time. But Sharon made it very clear right from the start that Gaza was not the place for the Jews to stay indefinitely, and to maintain the presence of less than eight thousand settlers at an astronomically high cost was no longer viable. This last factor seems to be the one that weighed most, even if the others also played a role.
The debate over the issue, including stiff opposition demonstrated by wide sectors of Israeli society, the threats of violence and disruption by the settlers and official procrastination, justify certain deductions. One is that Israel has truly concluded that the Gaza Strip, already densely populated and with a high birthrate of “hostile” Palestinians, will never be a suitable place for Israeli colonization and expansion, and therefore the sooner the departure, the less painful it will be.
The idea of abandoning Gaza is not new. On several occasions, Israel proposed a settlement that would involve leaving Gaza, and even allowing the Palestinians to call it a state. But none of these schemes had much traction. Even when Gaza became a useless burden on the Israelis, they still refrained from abandoning it just like that, because the Israeli tradition is not to part with anything without gaining profit from it. Israel’s handling of the current “disengagement” plan is clearly based on that tradition. This leads to a second deduction.
Israel, which has been confronting considerable, and costly resistance in the Gaza Strip, does not want to allow the impression that withdrawal of any kind is a sign of weakness and therefore a reward to Palestinian “terrorism.” Israel is reeling from the perception it was forced out of Lebanon in 2000.
To avoid that, Israel has managed quite successfully, with American, Arab, European and Palestinian Authority acquiescence to frame the Gaza plan as if it is a great concession for peace. Rather than seeing Israel’s planned departure as an inevitable retreat dictated by stiff Palestinian resistance, and consequently a lesson that Israel only responds to those who set limits for it, it has been granted respectability and listed as an achievement of the Quartet and as a potential step in fulfilling the moribund Road Map. Sharon has been hailed in Washington, and many European and even Arab capitals for his daring policy. There have been many newspaper articles and commentaries about Israel’s “painful sacrifice,” and no doubt staged and exaggerated scuffles between Israeli soldiers and anguished settlers will be presented as further evidence of Sharon’s determination. All this is designed to lead to the impression that Israel is doing the world a favor. This leads to the third deduction.
Sharon is not going to undertake the great “sacrifice” of giving up Gaza without asking for a very high price. And already, the international peace process industry are so eager to support him that they dare not question his unrelenting drive to fill what remains of the West Bank with settlers. The day after the Quartet foreign ministers met in London, last week, and expressed their “support” and “optimism” for the Gaza scheme, Israel gave its answer by announcing a plan to double the number of settlers in the occupied Jordan Valley and the northern shores of the Dead Sea near Jericho. Sharon and his advisors have made it clear time and again that they have no interest in the Quartet’s Road Map and no interest in a final settlement with the Palestinians. Isn’t it time the world takes Sharon at his word?
Israel does not even talk about “withdrawing” from Gaza, because in fact, it is simply changing the shape of the occupation. Israeli forces need be in the heart of Gaza only to protect the settlers. Once the settlers are gone, Israel can occupy Gaza from the perimeter; it will still control Gaza’s land, sea and sky and the Palestinians inside will be Israel’s prisoners just as they are now. Israel’s Foreign Minister even warned that after the “disengagement,” his country reserves the right to enter Gaza and bomb Palestinians there any time it sees fit.
Although the present provides more than enough evidence of Sharon’s hostile and expansionist intentions, those who seek peace in the region also have a duty to learn from the past. Sharon’s tactics have not changed one bit. The late President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, recalled in his memoirs that in 1977, Sharon proposed to the Israeli cabinet establishing settlements in Sinai “whose only purpose was to obstruct peace or else serve as bargaining counters in the negotiations,” with Egypt. Today, Sharon is doing essentially the same thing, pretending that he is giving up assets. Those who are praising Sharon are not providing him support to undertake a “courageous” step, to use the word of French President Jacques Chirac, but providing Sharon cover for annexing the West Bank and dumping the catastrophic results of Israel’s oppressive rule in Gaza on someone else. But silence and inaction (or misguided and trivial action, like appointing the former World Bank head as the representative to Gaza) prevail and the Gaza disengagement is to be considered positive and constructive no matter how high the price is that Palestinians must pay for it.
The final deduction is that the Palestinian leadership has placed itself in a position where it must accept this miserable situation or be accused of missing another great “opportunity” or “generous offer.” And if Israel decides after all to remain in Gaza, or the “disengagement” goes badly, the Palestinians will be blamed for failing to “disarm terrorist organizations.” At the same time, Palestinians will be asked to make a model, Scandinavian democracy in Gaza, though of course only one that produces results acceptable to the United States and Israel, which will mean in practice more rigged elections and security service thuggery to deprive Hamas and other parties of democratic representation.
It is bizarre to see another chapter of the history of this conflict written with so much distortion and betrayal of the truth. The bare truth is that it is an intransigent, hostile and aggressive Israel, not the Palestinians who stand to benefit from a dubious plan which is fraught with ill-intent and danger. The Israelis tried a similar trick in Lebanon before they were forced to cut and run from the south. Israel wanted to enter into negotiations with Lebanon to transform a forced withdrawal into a mutual agreement with benefits for themselves. The Lebanese refused to engage in such negotiations and Israel had finally to give up. The Palestinians should do the same. They should have the resolve to prevent Israel from transforming a burden into an asset. It will be a punishment for the Israelis, not the Palestinians, if the withdrawal is delayed. The Palestinian leadership should not involve itself in a project designed only to rescue Israel at their expense. Neither should Egypt or other states collaborate in this venture and contribute to a new phase in the Israeli occupation and siege of Gaza.
EI contributor Hasan Abu Nimah is former Permanent Representative of Jordan at the United Nations and lives in Amman.