The dismantling of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip is neither a cunning plan by Israel nor a victory for the Palestinians.
As Israeli troops set about removing Jewish settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip, there are two different interpretations of events.
The first says that this is an Israeli victory: Gaza was never really worth much to Israel anyway, and by withdrawing it can concentrate on the real prize of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Apparently, the Gaza pullout is simply a smokescreen, allowing Israel to pursue its plan to continue dominating the Palestinian people.
The second interpretation says this is a Palestinian victory. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority and various resistance groups have planned heady celebrations, which are estimated to cost up to £10million. T-shirts have been printed saying ‘Today Gaza, tomorrow Jerusalem’, and Hamas banners refer to ‘the happiness of liberation’.
More sober observers will admit that, in fact, neither side is winning here. The Gaza pullout shows that the conflict is becoming more entrenched and messy by the day. What was once a battle between Israeli Zionism and Palestinian nationalism has been emptied out, and turned into a bitter standoff. In part, this is the legacy of the past decade of international peace deals, where the two sides became more concerned with appeasing Washington than appealing to their own people. The result is an internationally monitored sectarianism, and increasing demoralisation on both sides.
Israel’s pullout is certainly not some cunning plan to extend control. The sight of Israeli soldiers manhandling settlers from their homes doesn’t suggest a victory for Zionism. After all, Zionists once argued that Israel had a God-given right to all of this territory – including not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also land east of the river Jordan (ie, in present-day Jordan). The settlers were encouraged to go to Gaza by past Israeli leaders -including Ariel Sharon – and were hailed as pioneers. Even in the 1990s, Israeli governments insisted on their right to continue developing settlements.
Today, Israel is hunkering down. By putting up walls to separate itself from the Palestinians, it seems to hope that the problem will just go away. A wall is being built around the West Bank, and Gaza will be encircled by an electric fence. It seems that Israel wants to forget about the Palestinians and leave them to fester behind barbed wire. ‘Keep them away from us’, is the sentiment here.
The ostensible justification offered for the pullout is demography: apparently Palestinian numbers are growing fast, so Israel can no longer justify occupying territory for the sake of small numbers of settlers. In truth, this is about Israel’s lack of political will, not population stats. A recent article in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper captured this sense of Israeli demoralisation: it predicted ‘days of mourning for all Israelis. Mourning for the personal and ideological pain of the settlers whose dreams have been shattered… mourning for the abyss that is being created inside our home, and for the disaster that could befall us very soon; mourning for the situation in which we are trapped, Jew against Jew, with a foreign, naked hostility that stands in complete, existential contradiction to our own interests’ (1).
The pullout is no victory for the Palestinians, either. Gaza is a squalid patch of land, which hardly has the makings of a nation state. The Palestinians won’t even have much control over Gaza. Egypt will police its southern border, and Israel retains the right to veto who goes in and out (2).
The Palestinian Authority (PA) might promise ‘tomorrow Jerusalem’, but it’s difficult to see how these pullouts add up to an independent and viable state. Palestinian institutions are in a state of crisis, with a discredited PA engaging in pitched battles on the streets with armed groups. The lavish celebrations over Gaza are perhaps a sign of desperation – a last-ditch attempt to get Palestinians behind the PA, lest Gaza descend into chaos.
This is the bitter fruit of the past decade of international intervention in the Middle East. From the Oslo Accords of 1993 to the Camp David negotiations in 2000, the US-supervised peace process has ossified divisions and taken matters out of the hands of the Israelis and Palestinians. The assumption behind these negotiations was that the two sides should be kept apart, and their separate interests brokered through international negotiators. Israeli and Palestinian leaders became accountable to the ‘Roadmap to Peace’ rather than to their own supporters.
Now, both sides direct their appeals to the international authorities. Israel hopes that disengagement from Gaza will buy it favour with the Americans and the United Nations. Israel’s UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, said today: ‘It is time for the UN to acknowledge Israel’s actions…. We hope we will see a more positive and a less combative General Assembly, recognising that something dramatic, historic has happened.’ (3)
Meanwhile, one radical Palestinian commentator claimed that the Gaza pullout was an attempt by Israel to ‘evade a genuine peaceful settlement based on international law and legitimacy’, and that the future of Gaza was in Western hands. ‘You see, it all depends on the world community: if the world exerts real pressure on Israel, the Gaza withdrawal will be proven a step in the right direction, but if it doesn’t, then we will face a deadlock and a lot of violence.’ (4)
The motor for these events is in New York and Washington, not Gaza or Tel Aviv. That is why Israel can carry on with its ‘unilateral’ disengagement plan while insisting that there is nobody on the Palestinian side worth talking to. The international negotiators wrote the script, and Israel can carry on reading its lines to an audience of international diplomats even while the Palestinians remain in the wings.
Both sides seem to be in a state of collapse, and their divisions become more entrenched by the day. It is the peace process that exacerbated this divide: the Roadmap calls for a ‘Permanent Two-State Solution’ and for Palestinians and Israelis to live separately (in ‘peace and security’) as soon as possible. Arguably, the first withdrawal should be that of assorted international diplomats and agencies from the Middle East. This might give the people of the region space to breathe, and allow them to decide how they want to proceed.
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