Israel has created a media spectacle out of a tactical maneuver. This simple fact can be easily forgotten when one is daily bombarded by images of anguished and tearful settlers, their ‘painful’ evacuation, and their children’s ‘youthful’ (and fanatical) devotion to an illegally held land, a land they believe is theirs for eternity. One thing is clear: Israel is not relinquishing its control of Gaza, and Palestinian sovereignty is still as far away as ever. Talk of the End of Greater Israel (like the euphoric reporting of al-Quds newspaper) or ‘historical moments’ (Abu Mazen) is empty sloganeering which only adds insult to the daily injuries of continued Israeli colonialism. A national victory necessarily implies improvement and freedom (and none will be had from the Disengagement), and the notion of Greater Israel is much more resilient than evacuating 8000 settlers out of the most densely populated place on earth. Land annexation is an ongoing process in the West Bank, and the draconian restrictions on land use enforced by the Wall clearly mean that more land will be annexed in the future.
It is also important to recognize that there is no peace after the Disengagement and no end to Palestinian suffering and dispossession. As the Disengagement Plan clearly states, Israel maintains the right to conduct military operations in the Gaza Strip, and will continue to control its access to the outside world. Nothing will come in or out of Gaza without Israeli permission. This basically means that Israel will continue to dominate and strangulate Palestinian life, only now it will do so from a safer and cheaper distance, that’s all. It is hardly unreasonable to think that as far as the Palestinians are concerned the Israeli Disengagement is a cosmetic rather than a structural change: Israel is merely rearranging the walls of the Gaza prison camp.
Gaza’s future is therefore as bleak as ever. For the majority of Palestinians, the Disengagement will have little positive impact on their daily lives: their freedom of movement will still be denied; their right to economic development will still be subject to Israeli diktat; and their political institutions will still be fundamentally constrained by robust and life-denying Israeli ‘security’ considerations. As B’tselem and the World Bank predict, the situation in Gaza will get worse after the departure of the settlers: poverty and unemployment will rise, as will Palestinian suffering and deprivation. Already 77.3% of Gazans live under the poverty line (more than 1 million people), with more than 300,000 of them experiencing ‘deep poverty’: i.e. barely surviving (see B’tselem, One Big Prison, March 2005, p. 75). While Abu Mazen and his people dream up high rises and big projects for the evacuated land, ordinary Palestinians continue to feel stifled, denied, and hopeless, their horizons shrunk and their humanity reduced. How can anyone talk of liberation when today Palestinians are living their worst period since their dispossession in 1948, and when there is little hope for improvement in the future?
Sharon’s unilateral Disengagement was never intended to be good for the Palestinians. If the Disengagement is more bad news for the majority of Palestinians, it is certainly good news for the Israeli political and military elite. (It is doubtful whether it is good news for the majority of Israelis, however. Occupying another people does have its serious moral and political domestic costs: more militarism, more racism, and more accepting national brutality as norm, not to mention Palestinian retaliation and Suicide Bombing). For the last couple of years, the Israeli elite has been acutely aware that their war against the Palestinians has failed: it has neither ended resistance and terror nor delivered Palestinian submission and total capitulation. Killing, destroying, humiliating, and demolishing hasn’t pacified the Palestinians nor made them easier or cheaper to control. In this sense, Palestinian resilience and steadfastness have been effective, and Palestinian terror has rubbished the notion of Israeli security-with-occupation. Israel has also failed in continuing to coordinate the occupation with a local Palestinian ‘partner’: the Oslo days are very much over. So the question for Sharon has been quite straightforward: how to realize the Oslo outcome (a version of the Allon Plan: strategic settlements, security for Israel, and no sovereignty for the Palestinians) without a political, negotiated settlement?  His answer has been clear and resounding: Israel will proceed unilaterally and by force, and impose the outcome on the Palestinians.
The Disengagement can only make sense in this context: No more Gaza; more of the West Bank (where the expanding of settlements continues and the Wall acts as an instrument of forced land expropriation and control); full control of borders, airspace, and territorial waters; and total Palestinian dependency on Israel. According to Sharon’s Plan, settlement expansion in the West Bank is clearly an intrinsic part of the process of separating from Gaza. By creating facts on the ground (that old, tried, and incredibly successful Zionist tactic), Israel will make any notion of Palestinian statehood a ludicrous suggestion. As far as Sharon is concerned, a little bit more than municipal autonomy is all that the Palestinians may hope for in the future.
So the real import of the Disengagement Plan is political. It is Israel’s response to a growing crisis both at home and abroad. By disengaging, Sharon kills several birds with one stone.
Let me start with the domestic function of the Plan. Since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada dissent at home has been slowly but surely growing. Politically, it was reflected in the Geneva Initiative, and militarily (with potentially strong systemic reverberations) it was expressed in the Refusnik movement. The domestic objective of the Plan was, therefore, to kill off both of these initiatives in one go. No more worrying about elite reserve pilots refusing to serve and to obey orders, and no more active political alternatives to government policy: Sharon’s Plan would be only game in town. And the Israeli government would finally be seen to be implementing a successful policy (it hopes). For a decade it has been promising its citizens security while on Israeli streets one Suicide Bomber has exploded after another. Even Sharon’s many savage military operations have failed on this front. Losing more popular credibility wasn’t an option, nor was allowing elite dissent to grow: even the army’s head of Military Strategy, it was reported last week, had called for a military withdrawal from Gaza several years ago. Something, therefore, had to be done in order to regain political control and momentum, and avert a brewing internal crisis at home.
There were also signs of external pressure: world opinion once again weighed even more heavily on Israel. The Palestinian position against the occupation became the commonsensical one in Europe. Boycott was on many people’s minds. Most of the world came to see Israel for what it really is: a permanent and brutal offender and executioner. The notion that Israel doesn’t want peace was also reaffirmed by the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002, which again flaunted the readiness of the Arab world to normalize relations with Israel if it withdraws to the 1967 borders. The Road Map was also launched to rebuild the Oslo ‘partnership’. And even though the US stood solidly behind its strategic ally and continued to affirm its rejection of the right of Palestinian self-determination (with Bush officially accepting the permanent existence of settlements in the West Bank), the US continued to publicly call for the negotiated (albeit unjust) political settlement outlined by the Road Map. This Sharon couldn’t really accept. A negotiated peace settlement, however advantageous to Israel, simply wasn’t on Sharon’s agenda. So something had to be done on the diplomatic front to regain political initiative and, as his advisor Dov Weisglass put it, ‘freeze’ the peace process.
The third reason for Sharon’s Disengagement Plan is directly related to the settlers. Here as well control had to be reaffirmed, and Dalia Sasson’s report on Illegal Outposts was an early warning shot to the settlers: the settlement project had to be managed more strategically, it concluded. The power of Messianic Zionism had, therefore, to be tackled and reduced. The objective here has been to weaken and control it, subsuming it again under the wider strategic considerations of the Israeli state. As much was even admitted by the head of the Disengagement Administration himself, Yonatan Bassi, in an interview to Haaretz (8 July 2005):
“I think one of the most important results of the disengagement is that it will force the religious Zionist movement to go back to making rational considerations…. I see my role in the Disengagement Administration as a mission. The mission is to reduce the trauma [sic], but also to call on my friends to diminish the metaphysical component in our worldview and to expand the realistic component.”
Realism here is defined by the Israeli state; to be rational is to accept state authority. And that is another crucial component of the Plan. The settlers will have to learn and internalize this important lesson about their relationship to the state and their role and place in Israeli society. As far as the state is concerned, General Allon’s strategic colonialism has to take precedence over Rabbi Kook’s messianic colonialism in order for Israel to continue to be effective domestically and internationally. The settlers have to come to understand that they are a function of state interest not the reverse: they neither hold state power nor does the state exist to cater for their every need. Among the scuffles, screams, and shouts of the evacuation, state primacy was gradually but surely being reaffirmed. The settlers were being tamed by their masters.
So for Sharon the consolidated achievement of the Disengagement Plan is fourfold: deny both Palestinian national rights and any peace partnership with the Oslo-created Palestinian Authority; curb internal dissent and fragmentation; sideline international diplomacy and restore Israel’s reputation as a strong, cohesive, and effective state; and weaken the pressure of messianic Zionism on Israeli state and society.
Whether Sharon succeeds in all of his policy objectives is not a predetermined outcome. It depends on what the Palestinians will do. The Israeli left does of course have a role to play in all this, but it remains (with the significant exception of Ta’ayush and other small leftist groups) in a state of collective paralysis and has, even worse, come to see Sharon as a redeemer: so nothing serious as yet can be expected from their complicit quarters. It remains up to the Palestinians to forge ahead on their own (with international solidarity as support). As a people, Palestinians have proven to be exceptionally capable of withstanding the most oppressive and life-denying conditions. They have exhibited a powerful collective will and a strong capacity to mobilize in order to achieve their national goals of independence and justice. The first intifada is still our most cherished historical resource in this regard.
But mistakes and failings have also been abundant. I will mention two in particular which have been especially disastrous for the liberation struggle: Suicide Bombing and the collaboration of the Palestinian Authority with the occupation regime. Suicide Bombing has been very counterproductive politically. Though a military nuisance to Israel, puncturing Israel’s security logic, it has been very costly for Palestinian society itself. As a symptom of popular political de-mobilization and desperation, it has also reinforced people’s disengagement from collective struggle. If liberation is the main aim of the resistance, then Suicide Bombing needs to be totally abandoned. As the Disengagement shows, it can only lead to tactical withdrawals not strategic reversals. Another important reason for ceasing to target Israeli civilians has to do with the potential role that Israeli society can play in ending the occupation. The Israelis will never be able to come to actively support decolonization if they continue to live in fear and insecurity. Abandoning Suicide Bombing and communicating with Israeli society directly and clearly about the legitimate and just aims of the Palestinian struggle may very well help in awakening it from its cruel apathy and political passivity. Considering their strategic weaknesses, this is not an option that the Palestinians can afford to ignore.
The second major failing has been with the PA. Palestinians have been far too tolerant of the PA’s political capitulation. As a comprador leadership, which has effectively surrendered its political will to the Americans, the PA has proven to be a national catastrophe for the Palestinians. It has been singularly incapable of even stopping one inch of the annexationist Wall in the West Bank let alone of formulating an independent political programme for decolonization. The PA has, therefore, either to be restructured as a tool for fighting the occupation or go. Political and economic opportunism should have no place in a society struggling to be free from the longest occupation in recent history. The Palestinian future will very much depend on making their elite’s surrender a thing of the past. Only then can we begin to hope that the Israeli Colonial Disengagement may be overcome.
1. In all versions of the Allon Plan, Gaza is always relinquished because of its lack of strategic value for Israel.
Bashir Abu-Manneh teaches English at Barnard College, New York.