There are striking similarities between Israel’s departure from southern Lebanon in May 2000 and the events in Gaza over the past two weeks. This is no surprise, as events in the Arab-Israeli conflict have been seemingly moving in circles for years.
The peace process industry of EU, American and UN officials, donor agencies, government-funded think tanks and NGOs, supported by the media, have created euphoria and false optimism following the passing away of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last November, which has done much to pollute the political climate. Arafat’s death supposedly opened a “window of opportunity” because, as Israeli and American propaganda claimed, he was not a “partner” and, alone, constituted the main “obstacle to peace”.
Propaganda efforts have also built up the Gaza “disengagement”, surrounding it with the same kind of euphoria, complete with the claims that there is new “momentum” for restarting the dead peace process. All this lofty talk is proceeding with few people looking back to see what actually happened the previous time we were told that peace was knocking at the door.
In the late 1990s, resistance to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon generated a clamour within Israel for a withdrawal, because the price of maintaining the occupation had become too high. Despite decades of trying to defeat the resistance, each week Israeli troops were suffering losses to roadside bombs which could be neither detected nor prevented, just as American forces are discovering now in occupied Iraq.
In 1999, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak assumed office, promising to extract Israel from the quagmire it had created. But the withdrawal did not take place on Israel’s terms. Israel wanted to leave months later than it did, having first assured the survival of its local collaborator militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), to continue the dirty work of occupation without risk to precious Israeli lives. Once it became clear that Israel was going to leave, the SLA collapsed and Israeli forces fled Lebanon humiliated, sparking joyful celebrations throughout the country and the region.
The debacle became exactly what Israel had sought to avoid: proof that Israel was defeated and had to flee in the face of determined armed resistance which Israel and the United States call “terrorism”. The Israelis sought, instead, to shroud their withdrawal decision in Security Council Resolution 425, calling for their immediate and total departure from Lebanon, which they had in fact been rejecting and defying for over two decades.
Following their disorderly withdrawal, the Israelis focused their attention on disarming Hizbollah and expanding the authority of the Lebanese state, and the Lebanese army, over the entire south, to prevent any possibility of continued Hizbollah harassment of northern Israel. Israel truly feared that “Hizbollah-controlled territory” would become a haven for “terrorists”, and the only way to prevent that from happening was to replace Hizbollah with an official Lebanese military and political presence which would be subject to international pressure.
Five years on, the argument is the same. Hizbollah was not disarmed because Lebanese governments could not enforce such a move while some Lebanese territory was still under occupation. Officially, Lebanon argued the resistance was legitimate until all Lebanese soil was liberated. There have been serious practical difficulties, and probably the only way out is the current process of including Hizbollah in the Lebanese political system.
In 2005, and after a lot of procrastination, the Israeli government realised that the stubborn insistence to keep fewer than 8,000 of its settlers amongst 1.3 million devastated, impoverished and mostly displaced Palestinians, in the most densely populated area in the world, has become a huge burden. Israel decided to withdraw the settlers and has now completed the move. As was the case in Lebanon, Israel sought to present its decision as a gesture for peace, rather than a security necessity, or, worse, rather than have it be seen as a defeat imposed upon them by Hamas and the other resistance factions.
Following the “disengagement” (a term Israel invented in order to avoid the term “withdrawal” and the obligations it implies has been mindlessly accepted by the entire world), the focus turned to disarming Hamas and to spreading the authority of the Palestinian Authority to the areas which Hamas may step forward to control. And to avoid the possibility of Gaza becoming an uncontrollable haven for “terrorists”, Israel is insisting on keeping its control on all land, sea and air borders, with Egyptian help. It does not seem possible that the PA could disarm Hamas, and the argument in favour of continued resistance remains valid as long as the rest of the Palestinian territories — the West Bank, including East Jerusalem — remain occupied.
It is hard for the PA to deny for long that the resistance was a factor, if not the only factor, in forcing Israel out. If Israel insists on keeping Gaza militarily occupied from without after ending the occupation, it will inevitably contribute to making the strip a base for intensified armed resistance.
The lesson of Lebanon adds to the validity of the argument that the only safe option to follow is to let a democratic process determine if Hamas and other resistance factions should be included in a yet to emerge new political system for Gaza.
The repeated promotion of peace euphoria has become a tranquilliser which seems to be helping the region live on false hopes in the absence of real ones. The post-Arafat euphoria did not last long, for the very simple fact that he was not the obstacle in the way of any peace. The bet that Abbas would be able to do what his predecessor either declined or failed to do is equally wrong and shortsighted. The Palestinian leadership has been begging for any settlement and accepted whatever was offered, and later was sabotaged by Israel. Now, in order to hide the failure of the peace process, its sponsors, along with the PA, eagerly adopted Sharon’s “Gaza disengagement” plan, and the false promise it provided.
Many, for their own purpose, jumped on the idea as a new window of opportunity. They hastily attached it to the roadmap, in total disregard of Sharon government’s declarations that the disengagement plan was specifically intended to kill the peace process and the roadmap, the Palestinian state-to-be and any settlement of the historic conflict. Political convenience required the contrary and the contrary became the rule.
The EU’s well-travelled foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, for example, rushed to be the first on the scene after the “disengagement”, to promote the euphoria, while saying nothing to challenge Israel’s tightening grip on the West Bank. The EU cannot buy its way out of its obligations to the Palestinians, and to international law, including the International Court of Justice decision requiring dismantling of the apartheid wall, by slapping Sharon on the back and throwing aid money at the PA.
How many months or years will have to be wasted before the reality hits us right in the face and we realise that the Gaza disengagement, if Israel continues to control the Middle East agenda, is a recipe for more violence and deadlock rather than an opening for peace, is hard to tell. It all depends on how much tendency there remains to run after the mirage rather than look for real water.
Ambassdor Hasan Abu Nimah is the former Permanent Representative of Jordan at the United Nations.