It is rather curious how the Palestinian Authority opted to get engaged in a process that was solely aimed at excluding it, and how the debate has completely shifted from Israel’s real motives to internal Palestinian quarrels over post-withdrawal details and definitions.
When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his plans to ‘disengage’ from Gaza and a tiny West Bank enclave, he maintained that his unilateral move was principally compelled by the fact that Palestinians were no partners in peace. They never were, his right wing officials parroted, a reality, they contested, and that most likely will not change in the near future.
Thus ‘disengagement’, for the sake of Israel’s security, boils down to demographic supremacy, not Palestinian rights. The Israeli narrative was always clear, albeit iniquitous. “Israel was leaving Gaza in order to retain large chunks of the West Bank,” the Jerusalem Post summarized the declared positions of Israel’s top officials. This concept was originally initiated by the ever-blunt Chief of Staff Dov Weisglass last year, then Israel’s top military strategist, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, and, according to the Post, Sharon himself.
Those unfamiliar with the situation on the ground held their breath for the ground shaking disengagement. Those familiar with Israel’s military and political maneuvers however, must have understood; Sharon is once again toying with land, politics and demographics, yet the same sorry ending is awaiting Palestinians: the lock, the key, the prison guard and the ever familiar scene of Palestinians being held captive at checkpoints.
True, the settlements were and remain more or less the core issue. Removing 21 settlements from Gaza, 4 from the West Bank and evacuating over 8,000 Jewish settlers is a good thing, it was assumed. But blindly accepting the aforementioned conclusion is forfeiting a very valuable lesson that should’ve been deduced from the botched Oslo experiment: Israel is very keen on details.
The odd part is that the Israeli government labored little to give false impressions regarding the real meaning of its army and settlers deployment. Israel did not wish to hide the fact that it would retain control over the borders of Gaza, its land, its air and its water. Equally there were no real efforts made to hide the fact that Israel maintains the right to strike the impoverished and utterly crowded strip at the time of its choosing or that it wished to have total control over anything or anybody that enters or leaves the area. Gaza’s ‘open air prison’ status, gained since the Israeli occupation in 1967, will hardly be affected.
Nonetheless much is gained. For one, Israel can comfortably subtract Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants from its demographic nightmare, maintaining, for a while longer perhaps, the Jewish majority. The move will also end Israel’s futile military quest to subdue a strategically inconsequential enclave, scrapping with such a decision the unfavorable international attention given to its Gaza occupation, the demoralization of its armed forces and the unavoidable loss of life as a result of Palestinian attacks on its settlements.
So while journalists and commentators engagingly debated the fate of the rubble of the Jewish settlements following the limited Israeli withdrawal, whether the extremists will claim control over Gaza or if Mahmoud Abbas has what it takes to ‘reign in the militants,’ a more relevant debate was almost completely cast aside: will Israel become less of an occupier after a few thousand settlers are relocated to a less vulnerable spot with their pockets full of cash (nearly a million dollars per family, a cost that will eventually be paid by American tax payers)?
It’s important to recall that Sharon’s disengagement was Israel’s response to George W. Bush’s road map, which was hypothetically approved by both Israel and the PA in June 2003. As ‘painful’ as the disengagement was, it was Sharon’s only dramatic escape from being bogged down by any kind of mutual commitment, by deadlines, by reciprocity and ultimately a dynamic political process. Israel does what Israel sees best. That’s the bottom line.
Meanwhile the Hamas is painted as the bogeyman, ready to strike and strangle Palestinian secularists, the men for not wearing beards and women for not covering their hair. The fact that Israel intended to maintain ‘security control’ over Gaza and the evacuated parts of the West Bank changes nothing, apparently. Meanwhile, the Separation Wall carries on consuming West Bank land, snaking in to include the illegal settlements, disfiguring the topography, the demographics, everything. As for the occupied East Jerusalem, well, it’s effectively not a part of any Palestinian territorial continuity anymore.
It’s unfortunate that Palestinians are dignifying the Israeli move by willingly ‘cooperating’ regarding the post-disengagement fate of Gaza, rather than drawing international attention to the foreseeable reality of the Occupied Territories. The fear of a Hamas takeover has in some ironic way unified Israeli and PA concerns.
Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat told foreign journalists in Jerusalem of a visit he paid to Sharon a year and a half ago, according to UPI. “We want to be your partner in this,” Erakat appealed to Sharon. “Please. Weigh the consequences of what you call unilateral steps. We don’t want Palestinian extremists to stand up in Gaza and say this is the result of suicide bombers and Qassam (rocket attacks).”
What Erekat had seemingly forgotten is that the legacy of blood espoused by successive Israeli governments in Gaza should’ve been of a greater, more urgent concern than the fear of an inflated Palestinian interpretation regarding driving the Israeli military out of the wretched enclave.
What has also been conveniently omitted by the official Palestinian account is that had it not been for their people’s steadfastness and all acts of resistance and sacrifice since the first hours of the Israeli occupation some thirty eight years ago, Israel would’ve never for a moment pondered leaving the cheap, yet scenic and marvelous Gaza settlement resorts.
So what if the Palestinians march in victory and inscribe the names of fallen fighters on the decaying walls of Gaza, celebrating their sacrifices and courage? Is it the fear that the popularity of Hamas might win it a few extra seats in the upcoming elections? Is it because the PA can claim no credit, not for its persistence nor for its political achievements?
Regardless of what Israel has aimed to achieve by disengaging from Gaza, and regardless of how Palestinians wish to interpret such a move, Gaza is still an occupied land, constituting barely 4.5 per cent of the overall Occupied Territories of 1967. Gaza’s fight for freedom is still intrinsically linked to the Palestinian suffering and struggle in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, and the fight of millions of Palestinian refugees demanding recognition of their right to return.
So, while the disengagement has successfully engaged international media and has created quite a stir within internal Israeli and Palestinian politics, it is poised to change little on the ground. Only within the framework of a complete military withdrawal from Gaza and the rest of the Occupied Territories, in accordance with international law and based on mutual agreements by both parties, shall a real solution evolve. Other than that, it’s politics as usual.
RAMZY BAROUD, a veteran Arab American journalist, teaches mass communication at Curtin University of Technology. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Writings on the Second Palestinian Uprising (Pluto Press, London.)