The Threat of Disengagement: Can Israel Separate from the Palestinians?

On 6 June 2004 the Israeli cabinet voted in favor of a modified plan for ‘disengagement’ from the Gaza Strip. The plan calls for the staged evacuation of 17 Jewish colonies in Gaza (4 in the West Bank) and the redeployment of Israeli military forces outside evacuated areas. The American administration hailed the plan as “historic and courageous”. The remaining members of the Quartet were more cautious in their response.

Shifting Discourse

What exactly does disengagement mean? Ariel Sharon’s plan speaks neither about ‘redeployment’ (the term used to describe the relocation of Israeli forces under the Oslo agreements) nor ‘withdrawal’ as in south Lebanon. No where does the modified disengagement plan (the Israeli cabinet rejected the first draft) speak about ending Israel’s 37-year-old illegal military occupation. In short, the plan creates the illusion of political momentum while shifting the political discourse to conceal the reality that even if Israel eventually disengages from Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, the occupation will continue.

Speaking before the Security Council on 23 April 2004, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Terje Roed-Larsen identified two criteria to ascertain whether or not Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip would constitute an end of the occupation. First, disengagement should “lead to the consolidation of Palestinian control over its territory and international crossings.” Withdrawal should be “full and complete” and “not merely a military redeployment.” Secondly, disengagement “should be accompanied by the implementation of other Palestinian and Israeli obligations under the Road Map.” The plan provides for neither.

Will the plan revive a political process leading to a negotiated solution of the conflict? Not likely. The plan aims “to bring about a better security, diplomatic, economic and demographic reality” for Israel. There are few tangible benefits for Palestinians. The plan was adopted by the Israeli cabinet (and openly endorsed by the Bush administration) in the absence of negotiations with the elected Palestinian leadership. Israel will retain control over border-crossings, air and sea, and, importantly, the option to carry out military operations in evacuated areas. According to a recent World Bank assessment, disengagement will have “very little impact on the Palestinian economy and Palestinian livelihoods.”

The Paper Trail

Even before the Israeli cabinet had approved the plan, US President George Bush endorsed the idea of disengagement. On 14 April 2004 Bush issued a letter of assurance to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reaffirming the US “commitment to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish state.” Further departing from official policy, the letter states that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949” due to the presence of Jewish colonies in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories. Moreover, Bush proceeded to assure Ariel Sharon that the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes of origin inside Israel was, in the words of the Road Map neither “just, fair [nor] realistic” and that a solution would have to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The paper trail of broken promises and departure from international norms stretches back to the early days of the conflict in Palestine. Many Palestinians condemned the Bush letter as a re-incarnation of 4 June 2004 the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the Zionist movement endorsing the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine against the wishes of the indigenous population of the country.

In 1991 at the beginning of the Madrid-Oslo process the United States issued a letter to the Palestinians clarifying that the US would not support alternative initiatives in the UN Security Council, effectively removing the UN and international law from the peacemaking process. Administration officials and some analysts publicly argue that the Bush letter merely states what everyone acknowledges in private.

The question no one bothers to ask, however, is: Who is ‘everyone’? Despite stated support for democratic reform in the Middle East, Bush failed to consult the democratically elected Palestinian leadership. For certain, no one bothered to consult the Palestinian people themselves, least alone the refugees. For many, the Bush letter harkens back to the days when the PLO was still struggling to gain international recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and their right to selfdetermination in their historic homeland.

A Clean Break?

While the Sharon government claims that Israel will no longer be responsible or be seen as occupying Gaza after disengagement, a review of the plan leads to the opposite conclusion. The occupation will continue. The prospect of a Palestinian state appears even more distant. The facts on the ground - the separation/apartheid wall, the marginalization of the Palestinian leadership - lend evidence to this conclusion.

The situation of Palestinians inside Israel is no better: two-thirds of Jewish Israelis believe that the government should encourage Palestinian citizens to leave the country; nearly half feel that they should be deprived of the basic democratic right to vote. In 1996 a handful of American neo-conservatives (many of whom are connected to the Bush administration) advised former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a clean break, forge a new ‘peace process’ and rebuild Zionism based on “peace through strength.” Recommendations included a change in the nature of Israel’s relations with Palestinians (including the right to “hot pursuit” in all Palestinian areas) and “nurturing alternatives to Arafat’s grip on Palestinian society.” The Sharon disengagement plan fulfills both these requirements.

Disengagement is merely another way of repackaging the occupation and imposing a ‘solution’ on the Palestinian people acceptable to Zionist Israel. In light of Israel’s ongoing military actions in the Gaza Strip, including the massive destruction of refugee shelters in Rafah, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the OPTs called on 19 May for military sanctions against Israel similar to those adopted against South Africa in 1977.

The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food subsequently called on Caterpillar Corporation to re-examine its sale of bull-dozers to Israel. On 9 July 2004 the International Court of Justice is expected to give its ruling on the legal consequences of the separation/apartheid wall. These initiatives provide tools for an alternative way forward based on rule of law. Their effectiveness will depend largely on civil society.

This article was first published as editorial of Al Majdal (Issue No. 22, June 2004) a quarterly magazine published by BADIL Resource Center that aims to raise public awareness and support for a just solution to Palestinian residency and refugee issues. This editorial was reprinted by The Electronic Intifada with permission.

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