Gaza Withdrawal Backgrounder

The Gaza withdrawal, while a positive step forward in some ways, signifies the perpetuation of Israeli control over Palestinians albeit in a different form. The US must maintain pressure on Israel to continue to vacate settlements and outposts in the West Bank.

*What and where is Gaza? * The Gaza Strip lies southwest of Israel. It is bordered on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and on the south by Egypt. To the north and east is Israel, and all of the land borders are surrounded by wire or concrete barriers erected by Israel. Its only major natural resource is its coastline.

In the 1967 war, Israel captured Gaza along with the West Bank, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. In the intervening years, 17 settlements have been built there, housing between 7000 and 8000 settlers. There are nearly 1.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza, but approximately 20% of the territory is devoted to the settlements, bypass roads and military installations.

Israel has done nothing to encourage economic growth in Gaza, and international and Arab efforts to improve the economy there have often been frustrated by the difficulty of getting goods and services in and out of Gaza. As a result, unemployment rates of around 50% have been the norm.

*What is the “Gaza Withdrawal Plan”? *The withdrawal plan is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s version of a peace plan. Put simply, Sharon plans to withdraw Israeli troops, military outposts and equipment, settlements and settlers from within all of the Gaza Strip. The plan also involves evacuating four small settlements on the West Bank.

*So isn’t this ending at least part of the Occupation?* No, it is not an end to the occupation of Gaza. Rather, it signifies the continuation of Israeli domination of the Palestinians albeit under a different form. While it is a positive step that Israel will dismantle some settlements and move its forces out of Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip will remain sealed off from the rest of the world by a barrier and Israeli forces. Gaza residents will have no more control over their borders after the withdrawal than before.

Plans for a connecting passage to the West Bank are still just talk. While Egypt, rather than Israel, will be in control of the southern border of Gaza, movement there will still be very difficult. Further, over 60% of the population of Gaza lives below the poverty line. Unemployment is endemic. Gazans will be unable to engage in commerce with Israel and the West Bank, so they will have a difficult time resuscitating their economy.

In sum, the residents of Gaza, already bereft of resources and with a completely shattered economy, have little hope of building their infrastructure. Also, according to the terms of the plan Sharon has laid out, Israel will retain the right to conduct military operations inside Gaza to search for terrorists. The guidelines for these incursions are very vague and there are no specific limitations on these operations or what the Israeli military can do during these operations. In other words, there is no guarantee that there won’t be a repeat of military incursions like those in Rafah from May 12-24, 2004 which were responsible for the death of 59 Palestinians and the demolition of 254 homes, leaving some 3800 people homeless.

*Why is Ariel Sharon, of all people, doing this? * A key aide to Sharon, Dov Weisglass, was kind enough to spell this out for us. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, on October 8, 2004, Weisglass explained that the withdrawal plan allows Israel to “… park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians. There is a decision here to do the minimum possible in order to maintain our political situation. The decision is proving itself. It is making it possible for the Americans to go to the seething and simmering international community and say to them, `What do you want.’ It also transfers the initiative to our hands. It compels the world to deal with our idea, with the scenario we wrote. It places the Palestinians under tremendous pressure. It forces them into a corner that they hate to be in. It thrusts them into a situation in which they have to prove their seriousness. There are no more excuses. There are no more Israeli soldiers spoiling their day. And for the first time they have a slice of land with total continuity on which they can race from one end to the other in their Ferrari. And the whole world is watching them – them, not us. The whole world is asking what they intend to do with this slice of land.”

Weisglass tells us that, although Sharon felt the United States had accepted his position of not negotiating with the Palestinian Authority under Yasir Arafat, he believed that pressure, both from outside and from within Israel, would de-stabilize this situation. Therefore, he decided on the Withdrawal Plan.

Because Gaza is not an area which holds significant Jewish historical places, nor does it have valuable resources, it is not much of a loss to Israel, as compared to the West Bank. Sharon hopes that by withdrawing from Gaza international attention and pressure to withdraw from the West Bank will diminish. This is what Weisglass means when he talks about the Gaza withdrawal “freezing the peace process” regarding the West Bank.

The unilateral nature of the withdrawal will also make it much more difficult for the Palestinian Authority to assume control over Gaza and stabilize the situation there. The possibility that attacks on Israel from Gaza as well as the sort of fighting among Palestinians that has been seen in recent weeks will increase after the withdrawal is much stronger because the PA has, as Mahmoud Abbas recently said, been kept “in the dark” about Israel’s plans. They have therefore been unable to prepare and coordinate their role in the post-withdrawal era of Gaza. More than that, the unilateral Israeli decision to withdraw has made Abbas and the PA look even weaker than they appeared before in the eyes of the Palestinian public.

Sharon also could have moved at least a portion of the settlers out of Gaza much earlier. Polls indicated that a significant percentage of the settlers in Gaza were willing to move if compensated (which Israel has long since agreed to do). That Sharon did not take advantage of this opportunity supports the idea that he is hoping that the withdrawal is difficult so that he can make the case that abandoning settlements in the West bank would cause an Israeli civil war.

*How has the United States responded to the plan? * In an exchange of letters between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon in April of 2004, the US welcomed the plan. In response to its presentation, President Bush stated two points regarding the American stance on a final status agreement: that Israel would never have to return to the borders as they existed before the 1967 war, and that any resolution of the Palestinian refugee question would not include the return of any refugees to Israel proper. While it has been generally understood that this has been the American position for years (and such positions were certainly reflected in the Camp David and subsequent talks of 2000 and 2001), an American statement of such positions effectively removes them from the negotiating table. For Palestinians, this means, in essence, that the US has made these concessions for them, while they get nothing in return. * I’ve heard that Israel wants more money from the US for the withdrawal. Is this so? * Israel is in talks with the United States aimed at securing an additional $2.2 billion for development in the Negev and to relocate military bases that had been in Gaza. This is over and above the approximately $3 billion Israel already gets in annual military aid, and other kinds of aid, such as loan guarantees, that the US regularly provides Israel. An unscientific CNN viewer poll, conducted on July 11, 2005, had 94% of respondents opposing such additional aid, and only 6% supporting it. As of this writing (July 14, 2005), Israel remained confident that they would get the additional aid, though the exact amount was being negotiated.

*Is this part of the “unilateral disengagement” that has been talked about for the past few years? * Yes, and this is one of the biggest problems with the plan. Although lately, as the date for the withdrawal draws closer, Israel has coordinated some aspects of the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority, this has been essentially a unilateral move by Israel. This has increased the perception of the Palestinian Authority as weak in the eyes of many Palestinians, and will make it much more difficult for the PA to assert authority in Gaza after the withdrawal. In many ways, the unilateral nature of this plan is simply another reflection of the massive gap in power between Israel and the Palestinians, between the occupier and the occupied.

*What will happen in Gaza after the withdrawal? *When Israel withdraws, it will be seen by many around the world, and especially in the US, as a sort of “test” for the Palestinian Authority of their ability to govern. But given the instability that already exists in Gaza, and the limits that will still be imposed on Gaza (explained above), it will be a very difficult challenge for the Palestinian Authority. As the withdrawal was decided and begun with no coordination or even conversation with the PA, it will be even more difficult.

Hamas is much stronger in Gaza than they are in the West Bank, but it remains to be seen if they really wish to challenge the PA for control of Gaza or, as seems more likely, simply operate with their popular support as the most influential group in the Strip. Hamas is an Islamic Palestinian movement. It has military and political wings and works at both violently opposing Israel and providing social services to many needy Palestinians. Support for Hamas has grown a great deal in recent years. This is much more due to the services Hamas provides for the Palestinian people than their violent attacks on Israelis, including suicide bombings. Years of providing services to the residents of Gaza and the accurate perception that they are much more free of corruption than the PA have built Hamas’ popularity and this is a reality Israel, the US and the international community will have to come to grips with.

*Who is opposing the withdrawal plan?* By far, the plan’s most ardent opponents are the settlers. For them, giving up any land currently under Israeli control is absolutely intolerable. That Sharon, a major architect of settler expansion, is the one behind the plan means that, to the settlers, he is a traitor. While both the Palestinians and the Israeli left have criticized the unilateral nature of the plan and are wary of this leading to Israel exercising even more control over the West Bank, they cannot seriously oppose the withdrawal of settlements, settlers and troops from Palestinian territory.

*Is the withdrawal going to lead to civil war in Israel? *This seems unlikely. The withdrawal has a solid, although not overwhelming, majority of support in Israel. Many of those who are not supporting the plan are questioning it on tactical, rather than ideological grounds. If the settlers, many of whom came into Gaza in recent weeks from the West Bank expressly to fight the withdrawal, do turn to violence to resist the withdrawal, they are going to face the anger of an overwhelming majority of Israelis who would not support such extreme actions. More than two decades ago, there were similar fears when Israel abandoned the settlement of Yamit in the Sinai Peninsula, and that withdrawal went very quietly for the most part. Today’s settlers are better organized and even more fanatical than they were then, but even so, the chances of this flaring up into anything more than a minor skirmish at the very worst are slim.

Useful links:

Full interview with Dov Weisglass

Letters exchanged between George Bush and Ariel Sharon, April, 2004

Map of settlements to be dismantled under the Withdrawal plan

Map of Gaza

JVP article on the April, 2004 exchange of letters

Human Rights Watch on Gaza Withdrawal

Official Palestinian critique of the withdrawal plan

Wrong Analysis, Wrong Initiative: A response to “Raising the Alarm”

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