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September 5, 2005

Palestinian Strategies Post Disengagement

By: Gershon Baskin*

Special to AMIN

This piece is directed to the Palestinian public and the Palestinian Authority. 

It seems that the current political disarray in Israel might actually present an opportunity to move the peace process forward.  As opposed to what has been suggested in the past weeks that in the post-disengagement period, Sharon will now dig in and seek to regain right-wing support by advancing settlement building, Sharon may actually be turning his attention to consolidating his support within the center of Israeli society. This sector of the Israeli public has little sympathy for the “hill-top” youths who took Sharon seriously when he called on them to “capture every hilltop”. Sharon undertook a commitment to President Bush that following disengagement he would dismantle the “unauthorized” outposts. Some commentators have suggested that the Americans will not apply pressure on Sharon now because of his situation within the Likud, but Under-Secretary of State David Welsh reminded Israeli leaders last week that the President has not forgotten Sharon’s commitment.

Whether or not Sharon takes action now will be largely dependent on the successful takeover of Gaza by the Palestinian Authority. This, in fact, is a pre-requisite to any progress. If Gaza blows up, Netanyahu will once again ride the waves of violence into the seat of the Prime Minister. There is now an unusual situation where Palestinian Authority interests and Sharon’s interests run hand-in-hand. The Palestinian Authority should use this opportunity to advance the agenda of bringing about further Israeli withdrawals and future dismantlement of settlements.  The myth that settlements cannot be dismantled has been broken and the settlers clearly lost the battle in the first stage of the struggle. Attention must now be turned to the West Bank. But resorting to violence or the continuation of the armed struggle in the West Bank would be counter-productive to the interests of the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority and to Sharon.  Violence from the West Bank will be met with Israeli resolve to match violence with violence, and will deter Israel from any further steps of withdrawal.

Palestinian violence will also strengthen the Hamas’ struggle to “own” the narrative of the disengagement, which will strengthen Hamas’ position in the Parliamentary elections in January. Hamas is committed to the ceasefire for now, as it facilitates its own campaign to be integrated into legitimate Palestinian politics, but Hamas is also successfully waging a campaign for ownership of the narrative of armed struggle as the driving force that led to the Israeli disengagement.  This does not bode well for the future of diplomacy and peacemaking that the Palestinian Authority wishes to advance. In order for the Palestinian Authority to claim a legitimate share of the narrative, it must take over Gaza successfully and that success must be translated into immediately felt benefits for the Palestinian people. The jubilation of the Israeli withdrawal and the dismantlement of the settlements will fade away quickly if the disengagement does not also produce a positive change on the ground for Palestinians. Palestinian public opinion polls clearly show that the main concern of the majority of the Palestinian public is their economic welfare. In the words of President Clinton “it’s the economy….stupid!” Never has this been truer in Palestine.

This is the time for the Palestinian Authority to demonstrate responsible leadership and determination to succeed. The decision of the Palestinian cabinet to place different former settlement areas in Gaza under the responsibility of specific ministers is a good step. This will place direct responsibility on specific individuals for achieving success. The PA decision to privatize the management of the crossing points in Gaza is also a good decision, as long as there is a high degree of transparency and accountability in selecting the companies that will win the tenders. The green houses of Gush Katif have been turned over to Paltrade to manage them over the next months. This too could be a good decision if Paltrade understands the very positive role that the agricultural cooperatives in Gaza could play as they already have experience and expertise in exporting to Europe and to Israel. The willingness of the international community to spend a lot of money immediately for economic and infrastructure projects in Gaza and the West Bank that will create thousands of jobs is also very positive, but it is dependent on continuing and strengthening the ceasefire, the stability and the rule of law in Gaza.

The Government of Israel is interested in declaring an end to the occupation in Gaza. Assuming that acceptable agreements are reached concerning the control over the passages – into Israel, Egypt and the link between Gaza and the West Bank, and agreements are reached concerning the seaport in Gaza and the Gaza International airport, the Palestinian Authority must be ready to claim sovereignty over Gaza. At the current moment, there is great reluctance by the Palestinian leadership to step in that direction. The leadership views this as a trap in laying the ground for implementing Phase II of the Road Map which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. The leadership views this as a trap because it may be understood and presented by Israel and the international community as a long-term interim agreement that would only prolong the occupation and the conflict, and would necessarily lead to another round of violence. However, if the Israeli occupation in Gaza will in fact come to an end in the coming weeks or months, there is a legitimate question regarding who holds sovereignty over Gaza. This is not only a trap for Palestinians but also an opportunity. Effective Palestinian control and good governance over Gaza will facilitate the process of further movement of rolling back the occupation in the West Bank.

Success in Gaza will strengthen the Palestinian call for Israel to turn over the northern West Bank to full Palestinian control.  It will also strengthen the call to dismantle the two remaining settlements in the Jenin area – Hermesh and Mevo Dotan – which will open an area more than three times larger than Gaza. Furthermore, it would also strengthen the US and Quartet pressure on Israel to dismantle the “unauthorized” outposts, further breaking the myth of the irreversibility of the settlements.

This can be done prior to elections in Israel.  If violence does not return, Sharon will be directing his attention to the center of the political map. This segment of the Israeli population wants to see further progress in incremental steps towards peace.  These Israelis want to see the State of Israel guided by the rule of law and the “unauthorized” outposts are a direct challenge to the rule of law.  

Sharon has lost the support of the settlers and the religious right in Israel.  Nothing he can do will bring these voters back into his camp. It is unlikely that he will engage in a new and bold settlement drive in the West Bank in order to appease them. Deputy Prime Minister Olmert already announced last week that Israel would not construct the E1 project near Maaleh Adumim for the time being. This is a result of clear and effective US pressure, but also as part of the understanding that Sharon wishes to avoid explosions in the Palestinian territories now. He needs calm and quiet as much as the Palestinian Authority does.

Now is not the time for Palestinian provocations. The recent attempt of the Palestinian Authority to claim that the Erez border in Gaza is not the official border is such as provocation.  The PA is claiming that in the Rhodes armistice agreements of 1949 the “green line” was demarcated north of Erez at Nahal Shikma.  This is true, but in January 1950, at the request of Egypt, a land swap was made to the benefit of Gaza, widening the strip in the A’basan area between Khan Yunis and Rafah and moving the northern border slightly south to Erez. Israel is now constructing a new terminal north of the present one which was south of the border the official.  The northern border of Gaza that was demarcated on the maps of June 4, 1967 is where Israel is constructing the new terminal and not north of it. Israel is fully withdrawing to the border as required by UN Security Council Resolution 242 and this is an important step for the Palestinian claims of international legitimacy.

This claim by the Palestinian Authority is not only a factual error; it is a tactical error vis-à-vis Sharon.  It most definitely scores points for Netanyahu. Strengthening Netanyahu’s standing in the Israeli public’s eye should be likened to strengthening the position of Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinian public, as far as the Palestinian Authority is concerned. Moreover, it also appears to be a tactic aimed at deferring any decision to effectively become the sovereign power over Gaza. In the longer-term view, claiming sovereignty over Gaza should be a direct Palestinian interest.   Palestinians and Israelis need to work hand-in-hand in bringing about an end to the occupation and not in prolonging it. Palestinian reluctance to claim sovereignty over areas that Israel withdraws from should be re-evaluated in light of the interpretation of that decision by the international community. 

Palestinians fear that the creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders will remove the Palestinian issue from the international agenda and will reduce the conflict to an unresolved border dispute.  However, the international community has already exhibited a firm commitment to Palestine, if the conflict moves towards resolution (and that commitment with wither if the conflict re-erupts in violence). International commitments to Palestine will be quite substantial, politically and financially, if the Palestinian Authority and Israel work together, even through incremental steps, towards improvement and stability.  Sure, the Palestinians and the international community would prefer moving directly into permanent status negotiations, but we must all be conscious of the real possibility that new permanent status negotiations at this time would most surely fail. The Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are not ready, at this point in time, to make the kind of concessions necessary to bring about successful negotiations. Failed negotiations would lead to another round of violence, and with that a strengthening of the forces against peace in Israel and in Palestine, thereby prolonging the occupations for years to come.

It would also be a mistake to think that progress cannot occur during the pre-election period in Israel and in Palestine.  In fact, progress is mandatory in order to strengthen the moderates against the extremist forces in both societies. There must now be a re-evaluation of the positions of the Palestinian Authority regarding steps in the post-disengagement period. The re-evaluation must lead to the decision to create the two-state reality on the ground. If not, the Palestinian Authority may end up delaying the process of establishing the Palestinian state and by that lead us to the next round of intifada.

*  Gershon Baskin,  is the founder and the Israeli Co-Director of IPCRI - Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information- Jerusalem.