Israel is preparing to 'disengage' from Gaza and four settlements in northern West Bank in mid-August this year. About 8,500 Jewish settlers control 40 per cent of Gaza, a 139-square-mile strip along the Mediterranean Sea that is home to more than 1.3 million Palestinians. The departure of the settlers will mean a new freedom for Gazans ' from arduous checkpoints that have for long restricted their movement. It means more than lifting physical limits. The departure of the settlers offers a chance for Gazans to reclaim property and establish a government that could form the foundation of a future state. But this new independence comes with risks, including potential factional fights to control Gaza as well as further isolation from fellow Palestinians in the West Bank. Doubts have been raised over whether the Palestinian Authority can run Gaza and prevent it from becoming a sanctuary for militant groups targeting Israel. Many opponents of the withdrawal say it would be a reward to Palestinian militants fighting Israel.
The Gaza disengagement will be 'successful', especially in terms of having a positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and improvement of Palestinian condition only if it leads to an end of occupation and cessation of violence. As an exclusive step, divorced from meaningful processes, would only escalate the conflict between the two peoples due to both sides' failed expectations. Several developments must take place.
To begin with, the present ceasefire should persist and become more stable and more comprehensive. This means that the Islamic militant groups must halt attacks on Israel to preclude the latter's 'disproportionate' retaliation and 'target killings' of their leaders. They must also have a role in the withdrawal process and political processes in its aftermath. The recent round of violence between Palestinian militants and Israeli security forces in Gaza Strip and West Bank, and the rounding up of 50 Islamic Jihad activists by the IDF in the West Bank, has considerably strained the restive four-month-old truce. Though President Mahmoud Abbas had earlier reached an agreement with Islamic militants granting them a role in preparations for the withdrawal, any further violence on their part would force the Palestinian leader to adopt even tougher 'preventive action' to address Israel's lingering security concerns.
Further, the Jerusalem summit of June 21 meant to serve as an opportunity for the two leaders to better coordinate security and economic preparations for the Israeli withdrawal ended in gloom over issues such as Abbas' efforts to confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the release of additional prisoners from Israeli jails. Agreement on those issues could have taken the talks further into evolving a list of operational activities, essential for an orderly and coherent handover of the vacated areas. Abbas accused Sharon of weakening him politically by failing to fulfill agreements (release of political prisoners, withdrawal from West Bank towns under Palestinian Authority before the Al-Aqsa intifada, and halting of settlement activity in the West Bank) or ease security measures that complicate the life of many Palestinians. Sharon, meanwhile, said fulfilling those agreements depended upon Abbas' progress in fighting and disarming militant groups that the Israeli leader said, he believed, also posed a long-term threat to the Palestinian government.
This acrimony is made even more acerbic in the absence of a description of the geographic scope of withdrawal from the Israeli side. Under discussion still is the military presence on the 10-km Philadelphi Route between the Gaza Strip and Egypt ' described by one Israeli commentator as being 'as porous as Swiss cheese' ' which some fear will become a conduit for arms smugglers. The Israeli Cabinet's resolution on the disengagement says the narrow Philadelphi Route is an 'essential security requirement', and Sharon has hinted against Palestinian wishes that Israeli soldiers will remain there if Israel is dissatisfied with Egyptian and Palestinian border security. The recent spate of violence only bolsters Israeli claim that the Palestinian Authority security organs are not in real control and are not capable of operating effectively against the various armed factions. In such a scenario, the Israeli security forces are likely to continue their operations in the Palestinian areas.
Both the sides are also divided over the issue of the reopening of the Gaza airport closed since December 2001, when Israeli jets bombed the radar center and pile drivers ripped up the runway in retaliation for the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000. Palestinians view the building of an airport as a key to the future of the local economy after the pullout whereas Israel believes that such an act would endanger its security. Palestinian forces will be in charge on the ground, but Israel will continue to control the perimeter of the Strip and Gaza airspace, as well as patrolling the Gaza coast.
Thus the withdrawal from Gaza Strip is wrought with numerous perils. Israeli troops will continue to control movement into and out of the territory. They also will stay along Gaza's southern border until Israeli officials are convinced Egypt is serious about stopping arms smuggling there. The territory has no airport. Israel also destroyed early work on a seaport. The IDF will continue to deploy along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, and this will cause continuous friction with Palestinian population living nearby. It will be difficult to normalize the movement of goods and people as long as Israel continues to retain control of the outer envelope of the Gaza Strip and there is no real change in the West Bank other than removal of four settlements. And the instability of the ceasefire will also not allow Israel to substantially ease restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement.
Without knowing where any border will lie, it is impossible to coordinate what kind of border regime will be in place and what restrictions on the movement of goods and people Israel has in mind. This is especially important because most of the industrial and agricultural assets that Israel might leave in the settlements are intended to produce goods for export. Not knowing what kind of border regime will regulate the movement of products from Gaza to the outside world through Israel very negatively affects Palestinian preparations for post-disengagement. Palestinian Foreign minister Naser Al-Qidwa says that potential investors are doubtful because they're not sure of Israel's intentions. 'Is (the disengagement) the beginning of something good with regard to the whole occupied territory and the peace between the two sides, or is this an attempt on the Israeli side to get rid of a burden that is suffocating this area?' he commented.
International financial assistance is a necessary condition for a Palestinian economic revival, but also for rebuilding the capabilities and institutions of the Palestinian Authority after the destruction they endured during the intifada. It is especially important to reform the security services, decrease the number of competing services, and create unity of command. The international calendar is focused in part on fixing a donors' conference to pledge support to the Palestinian Authority pursuant to progress on World Bank and Ad Hoc Liaison Committee recommendations. The economy of Gaza is not viable on its own, it is only viable as part of the overall Palestinian economy. In this context, it is essential that Israel permit the establishment of a seaport in Gaza and the reopening of the airport, to create an environment that might attract some investment and thus create jobs and ensure at least the minimum level of economic and consequently political stability.
Nearly two-thirds of Gaza's Arab population lives below the poverty line, according to the International Labor Organization. With the extra farmland and the removal of restrictions placed on them by the Israeli occupation, many will be optimistic about an improvement in their quality of life. A crucial factor in the development of Gaza will be its links with Palestinian territory in the West Bank, and the outside world. According to the landmark 1993 Oslo peace deal, Israel must ensure a 'safe passage' between the two territories that is subject to Palestinian control. Two leading plans currently call for the construction of a sunken road between the two zones, and a railway, could be expeditiously embarked upon.
The two sides also have divergent positions on the post-disengagement political process. Mahmoud Abbas wishes to skip the second interim stage of the roadmap, namely the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders, while Israeli PM Ariel Sharon insists on another interim stage and refuses to enter negotiations on a permanent status agreement. This divergence of positions most crucially causes the two parties to refrain from real cooperation and coordination on implementation of the disengagement plan. The Palestinian Authority line on this issue is both hot and cold: it has welcomed the disengagement as 'the beginning of the implementation of the roadmap leading to an independent Palestinian state', but equally it is 'a blueprint for Sharon's vision of an emasculated Palestinian state'. The Palestinian leadership has said clearly that Israel will not be given any political concessions as a result of the disengagement, while many Palestinians fear the disengagement is a smokescreen, giving Israel more time to tighten its grip on occupied East Jerusalem and its settlements in the West Bank.
Israel and the US have insisted that the disengagement from Gaza will not replace progress on the US-sponsored roadmap for peace in the region. The entire disengagement process will ultimately be judged from the point of view of Gaza's Palestinian population; the disengagement itself is a successful step towards regaining complete control of their land after decades of occupation. From the Israeli point of view, the success of Sharon's plan, proposed independently of the US-sponsored roadmap, will be judged by whether it causes a drop in the number of people killed in violence in the region, not just in and around Gaza, but throughout Israel and also the West Bank. If, however, attacks launched from Gaza on Israeli targets continue, or suspicion grows that militant groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad are being allowed to rearm in the Gaza Strip, the plan may be viewed as a risk that the Israeli premier should not have taken. If, however, the plan is successful in reducing deaths in the conflict and increasing trust between the two sides, its long-term impact could be immeasurable.