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A tactical retreat

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

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Members of the Palestinian Fatah movement celebrate the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip.-MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Members of the Palestinian Fatah movement celebrate the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip.-MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

The withdrawal of Jewish settlers and occupation forces from the Gaza Strip is meaningless as Israel is an occupier as long as it retains control of Palestinian borders and vital resources.

THE Israeli government's decision to dismantle 21 of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of the 121 settlements in the West Bank has been welcomed cautiously by the Palestinians and the international community. Palestinian Authority (P.A.) President Mahmoud Abbas expressed the hope that the move was a precursor to full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Israeli government had set a deadline for all Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip to leave by August 17. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has been acknowledged as one of the rare victories the Palestinians achieved in recent years. The 8,000 or so Jewish settlers, most of them radical Zionists, have vacated their houses under protest and amidst a haze of global publicity. They were in control of 25 per cent of the territory, 40 per cent of the arable land and most of the scarce water resources in Gaza.

The Israeli and Western media have for weeks been highlighting the "sacrifices" the settlers and the Israeli government have made for the sake of peace. Ironically, most of the homes and farms of the settlers will not be handed over to the Palestinians who were uprooted. They will instead be bulldozed. This is in keeping with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's style. He had preferred to destroy the settler-town of Yamit in Sinai before handing it over to Egypt after the two countries had signed a peace accord. "Sharon's goal is to maximise the chaos and televised scenes of Israeli pain and division, so he can refuse any U.S. or international demands that he withdraw from the West Bank and Jerusalem, claiming that the price Israel is paying is too high to go further," according to Phyllis Bennis of the United States Campaign to End Israeli Occupation.

SHARON in a televised speech on August 15 said that Israel "cannot hold on to Gaza forever". He said that more than a million Palestinians were living in "uniquely crowded conditions in refugee camps, in poverty and despair". Sharon claimed that the pullout was aimed at reducing bloodshed. The Israeli government has paid each settler family $150,000 to $400,000 as compensation. When Palestinians were deprived of their land by the Israeli Army, they were given nothing. Most of them ended up as refugees in miserable camps. The Army is expected to vacate Gaza by the end of September. Security responsibility of Gaza will be taken over by the Palestinian security forces in October.

The extreme right wing in Israel has accused Sharon of betraying Zionist ideals. Sharon had used his influence in government from 1977 to 1992, a period during which he headed the Ministries of Defence, Housing and Agriculture, to subsidise settlement activity. Benjamin Netanyahu quit as Finance Minister from Sharon's Cabinet in protest against the withdrawal. Netanyahu, who was Prime Minster in the late 1990s, said that the unilateral withdrawal "blindly advances towards the establishment of an Islamic terrorist base that threatens the state."

The Bush administration has been supportive of Sharon's unilateral "Disengagement Plan" for the Gaza Strip. But Israeli society is polarised over the issue though the majority of the public is for withdrawal.

The Israeli government is trying its best to portray the withdrawal as a voluntary act done in the interest of furthering peace. The Palestinians think otherwise. The survival of a small settler minority in the Gaza Strip was becoming untenable by the day. The security forces were finding it increasingly difficult to control Palestinian militant groupings. Before the six-month truce between the two sides took effect, Israeli soldiers and settlers were regularly targeted and rockets fired into the settlements and surrounding areas. The attacks were mostly in response to the targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders and unprovoked attacks on Palestinian civilians and their properties.

The militant political group Hamas, which has emerged as the most popular party in the Gaza Strip, has announced that it will not provoke violence during the withdrawal. At the same time, the Hamas leadership, which has started functioning openly, has rejected the Israeli demand to disarm. Hamas, like almost all political parties, has no illusions about Israel's long-term game plan. It knows that Sharon's plan is to retain control of most of the West Bank and Jerusalem.

When the Israeli government was trying to dismantle the comparatively small settlements in the Gaza Strip, it was working overtime to build new settlements and roads in the West Bank in violation of the internationally backed "road map" for peace. Under the so-called road map, Israel has the obligation to dismantle settlements not only in the Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Instead, the construction of the illegal wall continues unabated, gobbling up more Palestinian land and dividing the West Bank into tiny cantons.

U.S. President George W. Bush, in a letter to Sharon in April last year, had signalled that Washington would accept the annexation of large tracts of Palestinian territory as part of a final status agreement. Bush had also rejected the United Nations-mandated "right of return" for Palestinians.

The Gaza Strip has never been of much strategic or military value to Israel. The cost to the Israeli exchequer has also been very high. Maintaining a large military force in a densely populated area for the security of a few thousand settlers was considered a waste of resources. The Gaza Strip does not even figure in the map of Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel). It has no biblical or historical sites. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a move to allow Egypt to incorporate it. Sharon and his advisers are evidently of the opinion that the resources of the Jewish state are better spent on the annexation of "Judea and Samaria", the biblical code words for the West Bank.

The current terms of Israeli disengagement will leave the Palestinians worse off. As it is, the 1.2 million people crammed into the Gaza Strip suffer from one of the highest levels of unemployment and poverty in the world. While announcing its withdrawal, the Israeli government made it clear that it would continue with its draconian control of trade and travel. The only job left for the P.A. is to maintain law and order in the highly volatile region. Palestinian officials and activists say that under the tight restrictions that Israel seeks to impose, the Gaza Strip will turn into a veritable prison.

The Israeli government has not allowed the Gaza Strip to establish direct trade links with neighbouring countries. Outside investment will also not be allowed. Israel has cited security reasons for the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air. It has turned down the Palestinian demand for the reopening of the international airport in the Gaza Strip, which was shut down after the beginning of the current intifada (uprising).

Sharon boasted recently to his right-wing supporters that his "unilateral" withdrawal from the Gaza Strip would be a "fatal blow" to the Palestinians. "There is no Palestinian state in a unilateral move," he told his Israeli audience.

Palestinians stress that the withdrawal of the settlers and the occupation forces will be meaningless because under international law, Israel will still be an occupier as long as it retains control of Palestinian borders. "The problem is that Israeli control will remain on terminals, water and air of the territories to be evacuated. Keeping control on all this would of course restrict the movement of Palestinian people as well as their goods," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa told the media in the second week of August.

According to observers, if Israel remains intransigent on the issue of giving meaningful powers to the P.A. over the Gaza Strip and if it continues with its expansionist policies in the West Bank, then the restive population will not go along with the truce that is currently in place. As things stand, the P.A. seems to have very little control over the Gaza Strip. In the last couple of years, radical elements owing allegiance mainly to Hamas have taken over control. Israel wants the P.A. to use force to rein in Hamas and the forces aligned to it.

In July, Hamas activists got the upper hand against the Palestinian police when the P.A. tried to stop the firing of rockets into Israel. The leadership of the P.A. has now conveyed to Israel that it is not ready to crack down on Hamas as such a move would trigger a civil war among Palestinians. The P.A. would have been in a better position to crack down on militant organisations if Tel Aviv had shown any inclination of implementing the "road map" to peace.

Recently, Mahmoud Abbas offered to share power with Hamas. The offer was rejected by the organisation. Hamas prefers to wait for the results of the general elections scheduled to be held in January 2006. The Hamas leadership has indicated that it would prefer to enter into a coalition arrangement with the Fatah, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, at that time.

In the Gaza Strip, according to reports, the green flag of Hamas flies everywhere. In the municipal elections held earlier this year, Hamas swept the polls. Informally, Hamas has started working like a government within a government in the region, running health clinics, day care centres and Internet cafes. The P.A.'s call for non-violent forms of protest finds very few takers among ordinary Palestinians. They feel that it was the armed struggle led by Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Brigades that forced the Israeli security forces to withdraw. Ismail Haniya, one of the founding members of Hamas, said in the second week of August that the group remained committed to armed resistance. "It is our strategic choice until the end of the occupation of our land. Our land, including Jerusalem, is still occupied, the refugees are still deported, the wall and the settlements are still eating more of our land," he said.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 09, 2005.)

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