The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza two years ago was part of a comprehensive Israeli strategy that had different dimensions. Some of these are still operative.
This Israeli strategy was first announced by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Herzliya conference in 2003. Fundamentally, the strategy aims at undermining the peace process and the Oslo agreements by undermining the basic tenet of that process, namely bilateralism. The underlying rationale of the peace process was to end the Israeli occupation by negotiating an agreement to establish a Palestinian state in return for an end to hostilities and peace not only between Israel and the Palestinians but between Israel and the Arab world.
The peace process failed partly when the right wing in Israel took over responsibility for it. The final nail in its coffin was hammered down when Sharon and his Likud party embarked on their unilateral way. The unilateral strategy does not aim at a two-state solution; rather it is primarily concerned with solving Israel’s demographic "problem" by placing Palestinians in different areas under different levels of Israeli control. As an adjunct, it undermined the Palestinian peace camp, which came under severe domestic criticism for failing to deliver on promises to negotiate an end to occupation.
The logic of Israeli unilateralism foresaw different futures for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The latter was evacuated of Israelis, civilian as well as military, but placed under a tight siege. In the West Bank, meanwhile, the opposite happened. Direct Israeli control intensified and the number of settlers there increased by more than the number of settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s unilateralism has had an extremely detrimental effect on Palestinians in both areas of occupied Palestinian territory, whether in political or economic terms. Politically, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, together with the increased settlement expansion and systems of control in the West Bank, has left the PA and the peace camp in Palestine irrelevant and unable to deliver the end of occupation and independence that the public demands.
Economically, the effects of the separation of the West Bank from Gaza, the siege imposed on the latter and the fragmentation of the different parts of the West Bank–which is divided up by checkpoints, settlements and settlement roads, leaving more than half of West Bank territory off-limits to Palestinians–have been devastating. It is these factors that, according to the last three annual reports of the World Bank, are the primary causes of the unprecedented economic deterioration of the Palestinian economy, including the dramatic increases in poverty and unemployment.
It is this unilateralism that has also been a primary cause in the rise in popularity of the parties opposed to the peace process and in particular Hamas, a process of radicalization that culminated in Hamas’ victory in the last parliamentary elections. It is important here to remember that at the core of Hamas’ election campaign was the message that Israel left Gaza because of the armed resistance and only a similar strategy will see Israel leave the West Bank.
This is of course a fairly convincing argument. Israel did not end its presence in Gaza after reaching a negotiated agreement with the Palestinian peace camp. If it had done so, it could have strengthened those who maintain that negotiations are the only way forward. Instead, Israel left Gaza unilaterally, leaving the opposition to take the credit.
What has further complicated the situation is the total Israeli isolation of Gaza and the international, especially American, tolerance for this siege. Washington appears remarkably happy to go along with the siege in spite of the fact that it directly contradicts the Agreement on Movement and Access that was brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and which, among other things, should have ensured the movement of goods and people from Gaza to the world, either through Rafah and Egypt or through Karni, Israel and the West Bank.
The AMA also included detailed arrangements to guarantee movement between the West Bank and Gaza and a gradual reduction in the restrictions on the movement of Palestinians within the West Bank. None of this has been implemented. In fact, some of the articles, like those on the creation of convoys between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, were not even attempted. The US in particular has allowed Israel to completely escape any of its obligations under the AMA. The number of goods allowed out from Gaza to the outside world was kept to a minimum even before the clashes between Hamas and PA security services, clashes that themselves resulted from the siege and the consequent growing poverty and frustration. Now, those clashes have been used by Israel as a pretext to justify its retreat from the agreement.
At the end of the day, Israeli unilateralism is to a large degree responsible for the dramatic deterioration in both the prospects for peace between the two sides as well as the internal Palestinian situation. This will be the case for as long as Israel continues with this strategy.