Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan has recently been the subject of all kinds of debates within Israeli and Palestinian circles, and between Israelis and Palestinians. The main problem facing all parties to these debates, however, is that the plan has so far been, first vague, offering little detail to allow proper analysis, and second it has changed over time as a result of Israeli government infighting between supporters of the plan and those who oppose it. For example, the text that was recently approved in the Knesset was not exactly the text that was presented to US President George W. Bush and as a result of which the latter gave his famous assurances to Sharon.
Notwithstanding this, the reaction of most significant international players, including the US, to the disengagement plan has been diplomatic. Most countries have tried to avoid being negative by focusing on the need for this plan to be a step toward implementing the roadmap.
But is that possible? Palestinians in these ongoing debates have been basing their objections to the plan specifically on the argument that it contradicts the roadmap, for example on the issue of settlements. While the disengagement plan involves, in principle, a withdrawal from settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank, which is encouraging, the continued expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the vast majority of the rest of the occupied territories, as well as repeated statements from many Israeli leaders on the subject, are evidence that the disengagement plan is really about the preservation and expansion of settlements and not vice versa. The roadmap, of course, calls for a complete cessation of all kinds of settlement activity in any part of occupied territory. It is hard, therefore, to see how the two can go hand in hand.
The Athens Plan seems to be falling into the same trap that most previous attempts to mediate between the two sides have fallen into. The plan again confuses cause and effect, because it implicitly expects the Palestinian side to fulfill certain security responsibilities "to combat subversion and terrorism and keep law and order" in order that "subject to implementation of all Palestinian commitments Israel should end all targeted assassinations and military incursions into Gaza and the West Bank."
It seems to me that the security situation the Palestinian side suffers from, especially in the Gaza Strip as well as in certain places in the West Bank, specifically Jenin and Nablus, is a result of two things: First are the continuous incursions, assassinations, arrest campaigns, house demolitions, confiscation of land, settlement expansions and the rest of the Israeli practices against the Palestinian people, practices, it is well to bear in mind, that have been imposed throughout the history of the occupation. Second is the increase in poverty and the dire economic situation that has arisen in the occupied territories as a result of the collective punishments Israel has meted out, including the restrictions on movement and closures of towns and cities, etc.
Another general observation is that the Athens Plan neglects the fact that Gaza is not a different country from the West Bank. Both areas are part of the same homeland for the same people. It is futile to expect that the continuing Israeli practices, specifically the consolidation of the occupation in the West Bank, will not be perceived as a provocation that would require all kinds of reactions by Palestinians whether they are in Gaza or elsewhere.
The heart of the matter is that the current Israeli government has a problem with the roadmap because the roadmap is about ending the occupation. This government, on the contrary, is trying in many ways, including through the so-called disengagement plan, to consolidate the occupation. Until an Israeli government is willing to accept, at least to start with in principle, that lasting and comprehensive peace with Palestinians will require a commitment to completely end the occupation, it is difficult to be optimistic that any significant improvements in the situation will occur.
The most immediate, practical (since it carries no security aspect to it) and significant signal that an Israeli government can send that it is serious about improving the situation, is to halt settlement activity in all its forms and in all the occupied territories.