Gaza Disengagement: Palestinian concerns ignored

Photo: Johannes Abeling

Right-wing Israelis and many Palestinians have at least one thing in common: Both fear the disastrous ramifications of Sharon’s Disengagement Plan. Of course, one viewpoint is an expansionist one that seeks to drive Palestinians from their land, while the other one comes from the very real fear that Sharon will show flexibility on Gaza only in order to entrench the occupation in the West Bank.

Many members of the Likud party regard the withdrawal of settlements and certain military installations as a “reward for terrorism” that will only result in further attacks from Gaza. As a result, Sharon has attempted to minimize these concerns by vigorously pursuing the West Bank barrier. The fear of the Palestinians is that Sharon will move on Gaza and then stop prior to a full West Bank withdrawal. Many Palestinians objecting to Sharon’s plan point out the obvious and troublesome flaws, which may prove to be detrimental to not only the Palestinians but the path towards peace:

To date, the Bush administration has failed to grapple meaningfully with the Gaza Disengagement Plan in the context of its being a first step within the scenario of a full withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. From the Bush-Sharon Press Conference on April 14, 2004 about the Gaza Disengagement Plan, President Bush expressed his approval, “Success will require the active efforts of many nations…These steps can open the door to progress toward a peaceful, democratic, viable Palestinian state. Working together, we can help build democratic Palestinian institutions…”

President Bush mentions many nations and organizations that will “work together” to make a Palestinian state, including the U.S., Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the EU, Russia, and the United Nations. Leaders from around the world are cited except the Palestinians. It is a telling omission as the Disengagement Plan obviously bears most directly on Palestinians.

A unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip will:

  1. undermine the Palestinian Authority in present and future negotiations, and
  2. allow Israel to build itself an obstacle in its “progress toward a peaceful, democratic, viable Palestinian state” by refusing to address or even acknowledge the legitimate concerns of its counterparts.

In order to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians, Israel has consulted Egypt to help with security issues in Gaza after the withdrawal. Egypt, however, sensibly refuses to put troops into Gaza to mop up the mess Sharon is creating or to participate as a middle man in any Israeli hand over of power to an impotent Palestinian entity.

Egypt prefers that the Israelis deal directly with the Palestinians. Israel, for its part, has clearly forsaken the bilateral peace process that is necessary to establish any progress towards reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. The Bush and Sharon administrations appear oblivious to the fact that real peace must include the Palestinians and not simply be a series of negotiations between Israeli and American officials.

From the General Outline of the Disengagment Plan that was communicated by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office on April 18, 2004, Sharon sketches the provisions under which the disengagement will occur.

1) “The assumption [is] that, in any future permanent status arrangement, there will be no Israeli towns and villages in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, it is clear that in the West Bank, there are areas which will be part of the State of Israel, including cities, towns and villages, security areas and installations, and other places of special interest to Israel.”

The second part of this provision explicitly conveys Israel’s continued desire to occupy land in the West Bank even after a withdrawal from Gaza. But it is rather vague in its language about exactly what these “other places of special interest to Israel” are. Such open-ended phrases regarding the West Bank in the General Outline and Sharon’s unveiling of the Disengagement Plan in the face of international criticism of the West Bank barrier lead many critics to conclude that Sharon’s ulterior motive is to deflect attention away from the barrier and expansion into West Bank territory.

2) “Initially, Israel will continue to maintain a military presence along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt (Philadelphi route). This presence is an essential security requirement. At certain locations security considerations may require some widening of the area in which the military activity is conducted.”

The passage of Palestinians through the border of the Gaza Strip and Egypt will remain heavily restricted, and the “buffer zone” will be enlarged at the expense of Palestinians who will continue to lose their homes. This “buffer zone” has already resulted in the demolition of 2,500 homes and has left more than 17,000 Palestinians homeless. One can excuse Palestinians dispossessed in recent weeks of being less than sanguine about Sharon’s intentions.

3) “Israel will guard and monitor the external land perimeter of the Gaza Strip, will continue to maintain exclusive authority in Gaza air space, and will continue to exercise security activity in the sea off the coast of the Gaza Strip.”

One of the main concerns of the critics of the plan is ongoing Israeli authority over Palestinian territorial waters, airspace, and borders. This arrangement is not conducive to President Bush’s hope for “the Palestinian people to build a modern economy that will lift millions out of poverty”. This failure is striking as Bush has time and again reduced the Palestinian cause to an economic/humanitarian one. He fails to grasp that, at root, it is about territory and self-determination rather than simply a bigger economy and good governance.

From an economist’s standpoint, the restrictive Israeli disengagement plan may lead to a total collapse of Gaza’s economy. By controlling Palestinian coastal waters, Israel prohibits Palestinian access to natural resources offshore (natural gas and fish stocks). By removing Palestinians from their natural gas resources, Israel has effectively prevented Palestinians from building their own electricity infrastructure or exporting the newly found resource. The Israeli control of airspace will prevent the Palestinians from importing and exporting goods and the development of mobile phone service and satellite technology.

The control of the Gaza Strip borders will continue to restrict Palestinian movement into and out of their own territory, further separating Palestinians in Gaza from Palestinians in the West Bank - not to mention separating them from the rest of the world. In addition, the continued restrictions on Palestinian imports and exports will reduce the growth of the Gaza Strip’s economy to Israeli discretion. For example, Israel has already ensured that Palestinians can only buy fuel from Israel. Under the Paris Protocol, Palestinians are entitled to buy fuel from other countries, but Israel’s fuel quality standards make it too expensive for Palestinians to purchase fuel from others. Sharon’s Disengagement Plan will continue these arrangements, thus preserving Israel’s economy while suppressing the growth of the Palestinian economy.

The Israeli government does provide for some potential economic growth by “leaving the immovable property relating to Israeli towns and villages intact” but with possible monetary compensations made to Israel. Even so, without access to global markets, Gaza’s chances for economic prosperity are greatly diminished. Furthermore, Sharon mentions in his outline the “possibility of establishment of a seaport and airport in the Gaza Strip only when conditions permit it”. The current conditions will turn the Gaza Strip into an enormous open-air prison by maintaining strong control of its external borders. These conditions will not be conducive to economic prosperity in the region and may instigate a new level of border tension.

In order to improve the conditions in the Gaza Strip to the point where Israel will again begin negotiations with the Palestinians, Sharon’s Gaza Disengagement Plan must be full and complete in that it will lead to Palestinian control over its territory and international borders. In addition, Israel cannot claim to ease Palestinians into economic independence while continuing to demolish their homes and further expand into West Bank territory. The plan needs to be an integral part of a bigger vision for peace between Israel and Palestine. Otherwise, as Ha’aretz columnist Amir Oren described in his article “Occupation Without Presence” on July 14, 2004, the Gaza Plan will merely become “occupation by remote control” with Sharon attempting to escape responsibility for the occupation while continuing its negative consequences.

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General Terje Roed-Larsen exclaimed, “If such a withdrawal was implemented in the wrong way, it would lead to more violence, possibly bringing the situation to a new low in the dismal annals of the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy.”

In the words of President Bush about the work towards a Palestinian state, “I believe a Palestinian state, when properly done, will provide enough hope for people, [and] provide a peaceful avenue for those who aspire for a better future.” His words are exactly right, but his current actions will not produce these desired results. Under the current provisions of Sharon’s Gaza Disengagement Plan, the prospect of a better future for Palestinians remains bleak.

Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Sharon’s “Gaza Disengagement Plan” (early February 2004)

    Linh Truong is a summer intern for Partners for Peace.