It’s been four years since Israel evacuated its settlers and army from the Gaza Strip. Since then, Israel has kept Gaza under a tight siege that has undermined the economy of the already impoverished Strip. Now there seems to be consensus among most Palestinians and Israelis, though for different reasons, that the withdrawal was not constructive as far as peacemaking and ending the conflict are concerned.
In Israel, the right wing has disavowed any similar withdrawals from the West Bank, while the Israeli left maintains that a withdrawal outside the context of a negotiated process will not serve peace objectives.
On the Palestinian side, the PLO camp was very critical of the move from the outset. It was interpreted by the mainstream as an attempt to consolidate Israeli control over the West Bank, including continued expansion of settlements, rather than a step toward ending the occupation, as it was being promoted at the time by Israel.
Indeed, and in order to put that dramatic event into perspective, it is useful to remember that the Gaza withdrawal was one component of a package that was presented by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Herzliya Conference in early 2005 and was described as a new unilateral approach to relations with the Palestinians.
That approach was based on two assumptions. The first was that there was no Palestinian partner to negotiate with. This assumption aimed at discrediting the Palestinian leadership and escaping Israeli obligations to engage it. The second was the notion that by force rather than negotiations, Israel would better achieve its objectives.
The intended policy of the right-wing Israeli government at the time was actually responsible for rendering the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas irrelevant. Abbas’ position in Palestinian politics is based on pursuing negotiations to secure a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and he is perceived by the Palestinian public as fulfilling mainly that role. If Israel has no intention to talk to him and will even withdraw from parts of occupied territory without doing so, then, from a Palestinian perspective, why is he needed?
In parallel, Hamas, which consolidated its popular position by pursuing a strategy of armed attacks against Israel and Israelis while criticizing the failure of Abbas’ approach as fruitless, found in the Israeli withdrawal a golden opportunity to further strengthen its public support.
Hamas argued that continued armed resistance, as led by Hamas, had been ultimately responsible for Israel’s decision to leave Gaza. Maintaining this strategy, the movement argued, would eventually bring the same result in the West Bank. Indeed that line of argument was at the core of Hamas’ election campaign six months after the withdrawal that ultimately brought it a historic victory in legislative council elections.
The unilateral Israeli strategy begun then persists to this day, even if it marks a departure from the prescribed formula for reaching a two-state solution that was adopted by the international community and accepted by the Israeli leadership, at least under Yitzhak Rabin. The strategy ultimately aims at fragmenting the Palestinian territories and linking the different parts to other states. Pushing Gaza toward Egypt is one such example.
The unilateral track also tries to shift the economic dependence of the different parts of occupied Palestinian territory from Israel to other parties, whether the international community through foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority or neighboring states like Egypt.
Finally, Israeli unilateralism also seeks to cement a functional division between the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority in running the daily affairs of the West Bank.
In all aspects, the unilateral approach goes against the grain of finding a negotiated and peaceful settlement to the conflict.