Rolling On Backwards

Gershon Baskin*

 

July 21, 2004

 

The continued demise of Palestinian governance in Gaza and in the West Bank is not occurring in a vacuum. It is a result of determined Israeli policies that have destroyed Palestinian ability to govern and a continuation of the “let the street control” policy adopted by Arafat at the onset of the intifada almost 4 years ago. With growing chaos in Gaza amidst rapidly advancing plans of Israel to disengage, withdraw and redeploy, we can expect more internal Palestinian strife and power struggles.  The present outlook under these circumstances seems to be only negative, but there are possibilities for positive developments as well.

 

The determination of Sharon to finally leave Gaza, I assess, is real and sincere. This is a very important positive development and carries with it several possibilities for positive outcomes. The fact that Sharon, the father of the settler movement over the past decades will be the Israeli Prime Minister to dismantle and remove settlements in Palestine is one of the best things that could happen to Israeli society.  Imagine the multiplication of the internal turmoil in Israel had it been Shimon Peres who was dismantling and removing settlements. On the down side, the fact that it is Sharon who will be implementing the disengagement lessens the possibilities and chances that there may be some kind of political re-engagement between the parties that could lead to an orderly transfer to the Palestinians of governance and security in Gaza. This now must become the primary challenge facing anyone in the region or in the international community who is interested in enabling Israeli disengagement from Gaza to turn into some kind of renewed peace making efforts.

 

Palestinians must overcome their all too typical analysis that this is just another Israeli-American conspiracy plan aimed at reshaping the Israeli occupation in order to sustain it for several more decades. Palestinians must face the present straight on while learning from the recent past and make determined decisions that political and security reforms are not simply a Bush-Sharon plot or dictate, but truly in their own interests.

 

Israel must come to understand that the only way to really enable Palestinians to bring about the reforms that Palestinians really want to initiate is to allow their leader and symbol of their national heritage to regain his dignity. The continued Israeli imprisonment of Arafat in the Muqata’a in Ramallah serves no purpose and will not bring about any positive developments for Israel. If Arafat dies a prisoner of Israel it will not serve the interests of Israel in seeking peace with the Palestinian people.  It will remain an open wound in the soul of the Palestinian people – one of many, but this one is completely counterproductive and unnecessary to real Israeli interests. In my assessment, Palestinian voices and actions of dissent and real attempts to create moderate political alternatives cannot emerge and succeed as long as Arafat is humiliated everyday by Israel.

 

The Israeli plans of making Arafat irrelevant have gone as far as possible.  For periods immediately after the creation of this folly of a policy we witnessed the sky-rocketing of Palestinian public support for their incarcerated leader.  Now, although extremely weakened and apparently far from the best of health – both physically and mentally, Arafat continues to wield just enough power and control to prevent real political and security reforms. He apparently does not exert enough power to directly control events outside of the Muqata’a, but he does have enough loyalty of a majority of his people to manipulate events in his own favor. The demand to release Arafat from the gun sights of Israeli soldiers is perhaps the one issue on which every single Palestinian agrees. It is a grave mistake of Israel not to allow the Palestinian people to achieve their own political freedom by allowing the father of their political/national struggle to stand tall with dignity so that the reformists can become empowered and lead the way towards the next generation of leaders.

 

On the Israeli front, if the Labour party does join the Sharon government, as it seems that most of its leaders are anxious to do; voices of Israeli public dissent in the peace camp will also be silenced to a great extent.  The Labour party will ensure Sharon the support to move ahead with his disengagement plans, but it will probably not apply the necessary pressure to ensure that there is a re-engagement of a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian internationally assisted political process. An uncoordinated, non-negotiated Israeli disengagement from Gaza and from the northern West Bank will ensure a continued and growing lack of stability which will most probably lead to the Palestinian prophecy to fulfill itself – disengagement will not the beginning of the end of the Israeli occupation but rather a reshaping of it under conditions that may prove much harsher to the Palestinian people. Chaos and lack of security in Gaza will mean the strangulation of Gaza and its people. Gaza will be closed to the world.  Israel has already declared that Palestinian labor movement into Israel is coming to an end. Israel will continue to control the border outlet to Egypt, the Gaza International Airport will remain closed and there will be no advances made on the construction of the Gaza seaport. Some Palestinian economic leaders have begun to explore the Al-Arish option of utilizing the seaport and airport outlets in northern Sinai to allow Gaza to breathe. But without Palestinian-Israeli security coordination and cooperation, this option will not be a realistic one.

 

In the framework of IPCRI’s Strategic Affairs Unit, we have two (of twelve) joint Israeli-Palestinian teams working on various aspects of security coordination and cooperation. It has become quite clear through the work of these teams that without some form of renewed security engagement on a formal level, improvement of the security situation, for Palestinians and for Israelis alike, is unlikely. Palestinians will not cooperate with third parties who may be brought in or who are already on the ground working on issues of security without their direct participation in whatever arrangements and apparatuses are established. It is only wishful thinking to believe that without their direct participation Palestinians will openly and sincerely cooperate with Egyptian security officials or any other third party troops that are to be brought to Gaza. It won’t take long before even those people become targets that will lead to their swift exit from the arena. Probably the only way to ensure successful third party involvement in the Israeli exit from Gaza is to build what we call a “tri-lateral rationale”. Israeli-Palestinian political and security re-engagement can be reconstructed and rehabilitated through the good offices of agreed upon third parties. This is probably best done gradually, in a step-by-step strategy planned in detail. There are even possibilities for rebuilding certain aspects of security coordination between the parties without third parties as well.

 

One example of this was suggested by Palestinian members of the IPCRI Economics-Security strategy team. They presented the well known problem of Palestinian citizens who must wait for hours and sometimes for days in front of Israeli military bases where offices of what used to be the “Joint District Coordination Liaison Offices” are located (DCL’s according to the Oslo dictionary) in order to get permits to enter Israel or to move from one region of the West Bank to another, or to get Israeli issued magnetic cards that enable them to get work permits inside of Israel, or for a number of other “services” that Israel “offers” them.  The encounter between the Palestinian citizens and the Israeli army is never pleasant.  In this case it is completely unnecessary. As long as the system of Israeli permits exists and Palestinians are so dependent on these permits, there is almost no reason not to re-establish the Palestinian side of the DCL’s. In practice, Palestinian citizens would submit their applications for permits and then receive their permits from Palestinian officials in offices located in the Palestinian cities.  The contact and friction between the Israeli army and the Palestinians would be limited to the Israeli DCL officers and officials and those of the Palestinian officials and offices.

 

One could criticize this suggestion as merely an improvement of the Israeli occupation, and if the process of political and security re-engagement remained limited to this, they would be correct in saying so. But the basic idea behind this suggestion is to begin a process of rebuilding of trust and confidence at field levels in order to move to the next phase of political, security and economic re-engagement.  The overall aim of this approach is rebuild enough confidence and trust to enable a formal re-engagement between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority that would get the parties back to the negotiations table.

 

The international community must become refocused on Israeli-Palestinian peace making and must also view the Israeli disengagement plans as an opportunity that must not be lost. Through the Quartet or through other bilateral Israeli-3rd Party and Palestinian-3rd Party relationships, a process of international political activism must begin now. Responsible and acceptable third parties should begin to re-establish mechanisms for Israeli-Palestinian coordination that could lead to Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and negotiations. In the same way that the United States took responsibility at the outset of the intifada for issues concerning water – a tri-lateral water committee was established that has now led to the reestablishment of the bilateral water committee, similar mechanisms could be established in other fields.  IPCRI has suggested that the British Government undertake the task of establishing a tri-lateral Economic Coordination committee. We have also suggested to the Government of Canada to undertake the re-establishment of coordination on issues concerning incitement. It is unlikely that prior to US elections in November that the US Government would undertake any additional Israeli-Palestinian initiatives, but after elections, the US should initiate the creation of a tri-lateral security coordination committee with the focus on Israeli disengagement.

 

The most crucial element for ensuring possible success for the Israeli disengagement is for Palestinians to decide and to implement a policy of stopping all violence from wherever Israel withdraws. If when Israel leaves Gaza and the Northern West Bank all Palestinian violence in and from those areas ceases, international and local Israeli public opinion pressure will increase on the Government of Israel to continue to roll-back the occupation. This is the process that could develop. Successful Palestinian governance and control from areas evacuated by Israel has the potential to create a “snow-ball” effect, much in the same way that the snow ball of violence has been so difficult to stop. The international community and those in the Israeli public who wish to see the end of the occupation must understand that there is a real potential to end the violence and to end the Israeli occupation. The current focus and attention of the Palestinians and of the international community on the illegal Israeli separation barriers is quite understandable, but greater attention must now be placed on maximizing the potentials of the disengagement plans and to minimize the risks and potential dangers.

 

 

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

 

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