A unique opportunity

The Gaza disengagement will have a positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship only if it is a stage in a process aimed at bringing about the end of occupation and the creation of a stable, non-violent Israeli-Palestinian relationship. As an independent step divorced from any meaningful process it may only escalate the conflict between the two peoples due to both sides’ failed expectations.

To make disengagement a success story, several developments must take place:

* The present ceasefire should persist and become more stable and more comprehensive;

* there should be a rapid improvement and normalization of the living conditions of the Palestinians;

* the parties will have to reach understandings on the post-disengagement political process;

* the disengagement should be implemented in a coordinated and cooperative way.

Each of these goals faces serious obstacles. It is difficult to maintain the ceasefire as long as violent friction continues between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority security organs are not in real control and are not capable of operating effectively against the various armed factions; the Israeli security forces must continue their operations in the Palestinian areas.

The withdrawal from Gaza will not be complete. The IDF will continue to deploy along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip (the philadelphi road), and this will cause continuous friction with smugglers and the 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.

The two sides have divergent positions on the post-disengagement political process. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) 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 also causes the two parties to refrain from real cooperation and coordination on implementation of the disengagement plan.

It seems there is a need for deeper third party involvement to open these logjams. Third party involvement is essential in several key areas:

* Establishing an effective monitoring system that strengthens the ceasefire.

* Suggesting a mechanism that allows Israel to withdraw from the philadelphi road and allows the Palestinians to operate their own airport and seaport in Gaza.

* Increasing financial assistance to the PA to jumpstart the Palestinian economy, then continuing assistance in building the institutions needed for economic revival.

* Assisting in rebuilding and reforming the Palestinian security services.

* Reaching an understanding with Israel and the Palestinian leadership regarding the day after.

The present ceasefire is very fragile and vulnerable. The two parties should operate according to rules of conduct that reduce unnecessary friction between them. The presence of international monitors would strengthen compliance on the part of both parties.

The PA and Israel do not seem capable of negotiating by themselves arrangements that prevent use of the philadelphi corridor for smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip–arrangements that could enable Israeli withdrawal from this area and prevent continuous Israeli-Palestinian friction. The international community can devise a system that allows Israel to withdraw from this area. It has to include the following elements:

* An Egyptian commitment to prevent the operation of smuggling rings on the Egyptian side and to deploy the necessary military and internal security forces for this purpose.

* MFO (Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai) monitoring of the above forces’ deployment and performance.

* A PA commitment to prevent smuggling and to deploy security forces for this purpose.

* Establishment of an international mechanism that deploys in the corridor, and monitors and assists Palestinian counter-smuggling operations.

* Establishment of an international monitoring mechanism at the Rafah crossing to enable Israeli withdrawal from the crossing point. This mechanism will prevent smuggling and maintain the common customs envelope. It may be combined with a system of remote Israeli inspection through video. This could make it easier for Israel to accept the replacement of its own forces by an international mechanism.

* The same mechanism can be implemented later in the airport and seaport in Gaza, thereby enabling their opening to the external world.

International financial assistance is a necessary condition for a Palestinian economic revival, but also for rebuilding the capabilities and institutions of the PA after the destruction they endured during the intifada and as a result of Yasser Arafat’s leadership. It is especially important to reform the security services, decrease the number of competing services, and create unity of command. Abu Mazen needs third party support, assistance and advice for this purpose.

The international community should not miss this unique opportunity to change the course of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and put the political process back on track.