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Boxing In Palestinians

A unilateral Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip would cut off thousands of inhabitants.

August 04, 2004|David Newman | David Newman is a professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University in Israel and editor of the journal Geopolitics.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza has begun to seem inevitable. Settlement evacuation, including the compensation packages to be received by each family, has been meticulously worked out. The fallback lines for the army on the Israeli side of the Gaza border have been determined. As each new detail emerges, the Israeli public becomes a little more convinced that Sharon, despite fierce opposition from within his own party, means business.

Ironically, Sharon is now being branded a traitor by those who were his closest allies. The right-wing hero has turned renegade, so much so that Avi Dichter, the head of Shin Bet, the domestic security agency, recently warned that radical elements in the settler movement might do to Sharon what their compatriot, Yigal Amir, did to left-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated after he signed the Oslo peace accords.

Clearly, if Sharon does withdraw all of Israel's troops in Gaza and if he does evacuate the settlements there, it will be an important first step. Credit would be due to him for taking bold, long-overdue action after his predecessors had failed. But even then, to suggest that this amounts to a true disengagement, a transfer of control and sovereignty to the local Palestinian authorities, would be far from the truth.

In the first place, Israel intends to retain control of all the borders -- the land border between Gaza and Israel, the maritime boundary in the Mediterranean Sea and the Philadelphi line separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt. Gaza would become little more than a densely populated enclosure, cut off from the outside world, making it even harder for the beleaguered Palestinians to carry out basic activities.

Nor does Israel plan to let the Palestinian Authority construct its own airport or seaport facilities in Gaza; the absence of such facilities makes contact with the outside world totally dependent on the Israelis. Acts of terrorism or violence would be met with total closure of the region, causing further economic and social hardships.

And let's not forget that much of the physical infrastructure in Gaza is entirely dependent on the Israeli system. The electricity and phone services, part of the water supply and other basic needs can be cut off at a whim. Perhaps the residents of Gaza would benefit from the roads that served the Israeli settlements, but a road system that leads nowhere -- to an armed guard at a sealed border -- is not of much use.

After much debate, the government has also decided that the evacuated settlements in Gaza, which currently house 7,000 people, will be destroyed, rather than being left intact for Palestinian use. Settlers have let it be known that although they will be required to uproot their lives, they are not psychologically prepared to see jubilant Palestinians living in their homes or -- and this is the argument that won the day -- turning their synagogues into mosques.

For their part, the Palestinian leaders are aware that the disengagement would, in the short term, make the situation much worse. They are torn between the desire to see the backs of departing Israelis and the need to lay the foundation for a new system of governance to create a semblance of order.

This can be done only through negotiations with the Israeli government, through a bilateral rather than unilateral process. But Sharon, with his mantra of "there is no partner on the other side," is not prepared to enter into negotiations. "Disengagement" from Gaza is his plan, and it will be imposed upon the Palestinians according to his dictates.

At first glance, disengagement sounds good, and if it works, it can be used as a model for future withdrawal in the even more contentious West Bank. But for it to succeed, Israel must undertake bilateral discussions. And Israel should not expect the transformation of the whole Gaza Strip into a large, densely populated territorial enclosure to create a situation of greater stability than exists at present.

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