The Israeli disengagement plan poses the first real serious chance of breaking the cycle of violence and despair since it began four years ago next month. The plan, at the same time, also poses the possibility of greatly increased violence and destruction and a complete and total loss of any hope for peace in the coming years. The stakes are that high and everyone involved in this tragic conflict must calculate the risks and possible gains with extreme caution and seriousness.
Israel’s military offensive in Gaza today is not solely being launched against the Qassam missiles being fired with increased frequency targeting innocent Israeli civilian populations inside of the “green line”. It has been reported that the Israeli army has requested that the offensive end after so much damage has already been caused to the innocent Palestinian population of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza. Instead of acting on the advice and requests of the army, Mofaz and Sharon have ordered the army to increase the offensive and to head further south towards the outskirts of the Jabalya refugee camp.
From seeing the scope of damage – uprooting of orange groves, the plowing of agricultural cultivated fields by tanks, the destruction of green houses for strawberries, the demolition of a modern agricultural packing plant that serves some 1000 farmers, and the destruction of homes and other physical structures, one can only but come to the conclusion that we are witnessing the beginning of the “scorched earth” policy. This is apparently Phase I of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza.
The biggest worry of some of the Israeli political and military “thinkers” is that the Palestinians will interpret the Israeli decision to disengage and withdraw as surrender to Palestinian aggression. This interpretation has been vocalized over and over again by people like Dr. Minister Uzi Landau. The natural conclusion from this thinking is that following any Israeli withdrawal from any Palestinian area will come an immediate increase in Palestinian attacks. This wisdom is correct, if the withdrawal will be unilateral, and if there is no exploitation of the bold decision of Sharon to undo the damage done by the 37 years of occupation and to rebuild a peace process.
The wisdom of peacemakers would be that the formula of land for peace is a magical notion that works under all circumstances. However, if withdrawal is to take place without any bi-lateral political process and facts continue to be created unilaterally, the end result will be an increase in violence, not only from the area withdrawn from, but also throughout the Palestinian territories. The clear message being broadcasted is that violence pays. As many Palestinians have asserted for many years, and as they repeat today: “the Israelis make us understand the only language that the Israelis understand is the language of force”, or as some Israelis put is: Israeli withdrawal will be a victory for terror.
Israeli withdrawal and physical disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank without political engagement in a renewed peace process will lead to an increase in violence and may, in fact, lead to an Israeli decision not to leave at all. Without a bilateral political engagement, Palestinians will seek to increase the impression that they are forcing the Israelis to leave under fire. Israel’s response to leaving under fire will be to increase their fire power and implement a scorched earth policy, or to decide midway not to leave at all because the price is too high. In the face of increased violence, another possible scenario is that Israel will evacuate the settlements and the civilian population, but will turn them over the army and the military presence in Gaza will not decrease at all. With only Israeli civilian withdrawal there is absolutely no chance at all for a peace scenario.
The disengagement plan clearly brings with it great dangers and risks but it also contains great opportunities. The disengagement plan could be the first step towards the renewal of the peace process and a return to the implementation of the Road Map. In order for this to happen there must be Palestinian cooperation and there must be Palestinian-Israeli coordination and cooperation. Palestinian cooperation is first and foremost dependent on the Israeli willingness to view the Palestinian Authority as a partner. Without political re-engagement with the Palestinian Authority, there will be no one to turn the governance of Gaza over to. No Palestinian leader in Gaza will emerge independent of the Palestinian Authority. No one will be able to fill any security functions in Gaza without the Palestinian Authority behind it. Israel might withdraw, but it will not be leaving a vacuum behind. As the unilateral process moves forward without any explicit coordination and cooperation of the Palestinian Authority, the extremists and spoilers on both sides will grow in strength, but first and mainly in Gaza.
So what Israel must do is make a decision to re-engage. The party to re-engage with is the Palestinian Authority. The address in the Palestinian Authority is the Prime Minister, Abu Al’a. In the past Abu Al’a refused to meet with Sharon unless Arafat was freed from his imprisonment in the Muqat’a. It is time for that to happen. Israel’s attempts in making Arafat irrelevant are bankrupted. Let him become irrelevant with dignity and the reformists in Palestine will be free to move forward with greater chances of success. That is what Israel must do.
The Palestinians have a whole list of tasks too that they must undertake in order for the disengagement to lead to a political process. First the Palestinian Authority must declare that they intend to govern all areas that Israel withdraws from and that once the process of withdrawal begins, all violence against the Israelis in Gaza and against Israelis from Gaza will cease. This policy should be adopted and enforced from whatever Palestinian territory Israel withdraws from. This is the best way of ensuring that Israel’s withdrawal will not be temporary. The Palestinians should develop an operational plan to taking control of security affairs in Gaza. This plan should be shared with the Israelis, either directly, which is the preferred way, or through a third party, like Egypt. The plan should include a detailed program and time table for Palestinian security deployment in Gaza. The first part of the plan should include Palestinian security deployment in the northern Gaza strip in order to put an end to the Qassem missiles, that Israel has been unable to stop.
The Palestinian plan should also include a detailed working operational directive for securing the security and safety of the Palestinian sides of the crossing to Israel and the international crossing in Rafah. In coordination with Israeli security personnel, Palestinian security redeployment should commence as soon as the Palestinian Authority has completed the institutional reforms and reorganization of the security forces under the Authority of the Prime Minister. Israeli declarations of good intent would help speed up that process.
Palestinians must urgently and without delay convene their own planners and economics people and have a full plan ready for what to do with the physical assets that will be transferred to them. The most urgent of these tasks are the assets of economic production, such as the Erez industrial zone, the agricultural assets of Gush Katif, etc. The more serious the Palestinians become in their planning, the greater will be the indications that there are reasons to re-engage and ensure that this process leads to the re-adoption of the Road Map and the assurance that Gaza first does not become Gaza only.
There is a chance here for breaking the deadlock. There is a chance to end the violence, the bloodshed and the suffering. This process can be used to rebuild trust and confidence. It is time for Palestinians to declare that if the occupation ends, the violence against the occupation will also end. But there is also a chance that the Palestinian demands will be too high. Palestinians have said that if Israel remains in control of the airspace and of the international outlets –” the airport, the crossing to Egypt and the future seaport, then the disengagement is not the end of the occupation, but simply and Israeli redeployment of the occupation. This is completely understandable. The Palestinians will not agree for Gaza to become a sovereign cage.
On the other hand, Israeli redeployment could be coupled with plans to enable the international outlets to be open and not only under direct Israeli control. It is time to be bold and to propose specific and limited tasks for third parties. The Gaza airport could be supervised by US Military personnel who would be mandated to confiscate immediately any illegal materials or weapons being smuggled into Gaza. The US personnel would work directly with Palestinian aviation authorities but would work according to Israeli security standards and would report to the Israeli security in real time at any time that weapons are caught. Israel would have the right to demand the closure of the airport when events of smuggling take place.
Until changes are agreed to, the border between Gaza and Egypt should be run in accordance with the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt and with the Agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Until the security situation changes, the arrangements that worked prior to September 28, 2000 should be the model to return to, this would enable the Palestinian Authority security to return to their positions at the Rafah crossing once they have reorganized and are ready to function in security roles.
The Israeli National Security Council is rapidly progressing with its detailed plans for disengagement. Various professional committees in Israel are working almost around the clock preparing every aspect of the disengagement. Almost everything possible to do to ensure success of the disengagement is taking place –” except the most important thing –” coordinating and negotiating with the Palestinians, without this, the plan is doomed to fail and we will all continue to pay the price.