When Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, long known as the Butcher of Beirut and famous as the champion of Israeli expansionism, first aired the idea of what he called a unilateral disengagement from Ghazzah, many observers were cynical, expecting that it was a ploy that would come to nothing. But there were always good strategic grounds for the decision, and many Palestinians must have drawn grim satisfaction from the sight last month of Israeli troops trying to force Jewish settlers to vacate their luxurious homes in Ghazzah’s zionist settlements. The first and foremost of these grounds was, of course, that the Palestinians of Ghazzah, led by Hamas, had simply made it impossibly difficult and expensive for the Israelis to remain there. But there are others too, which should not be forgotten.
The first of these is that, in return for withdrawing from a territory that it was in any case having trouble holding, the Israelis have presented themselves as magnanimous peacemakers who are willing to make concessions for peace if only there were partners for peace on the Palestinian side. At the same time, although the Israeli withdrawal is described as potentially an opportunity for a return to the roadmap, in fact its significance is rather different. Despite repeated Israeli abuses, and the fact that no international body was able or willing to force the Israelis to meet any of its obligations, the logic of the peace process was nonetheless based on give-and-take. For the process to proceed, both sides theoretically made concessions to the other in return for concessions from the other. But the unilateral model adopted by Sharon in Ghazzah is based on a very different logic: Israel decides the outcome it wants and unilaterally implements it, ensuring that it concedes the bare minimum necessary to create the impression of generosity, and does so in a way that gains the maximum possible advantage for itself. Now there is no basis for the Palestinians to make demands and no basis for them to complain thatIsrael is not meeting its obligations. The Israelis, for their part, impose conditions on the concessions they make and will no doubt interpret these conditions to their own advantage, as and when it suits them to do so. This is a new variation of the well-established Israeli strategy of using its dominant military and political position to create new realities on the ground, and one which it will no doubt use again, probably in pursuit of its long-established objective of annexing Jerusalem.
Another strategic benefit for Israel is demographic. One of the main hopes voiced by many Palestinians is that, in the long run, Israel is facing demographic defeat because of the far faster growth of the Palestinian population than of the Jewish population. Despite the numbers of Palestinians that the Israelis routinely kill, the fact is that the high Palestinian birthrate will restore the Palestinians to a majority in their own land within a matter of decades. This is something of which the Israelis are, of course, well aware. The consolidation of the Jewish population in key areas, again particularly around Jerusalem, is a major strategic factor in their planning. At the same time, they are anxious to shed as much of the Palestinian population under their rule. By withdrawing from Ghazzah – at least in name – they have achieved both of their objectives: the 1.5 million Palestinians in Ghazzah have been written off their books, while most of the 8,000 settlers that have been evacuated from the 21 settlements in Ghazzah (and the four minor ones in the West Bank also vacated) are simply being moved to settlements around Jerusalem, contributing to the creation of new realities in that area, far more important to Israel’s plans than Ghazzah. Few people doubt that the quid pro quo that Israel will claim in return for its “unilateral” withdrawal is international and Palestinian recognition of its rule of Jerusalem. Resisting this agenda, as best they can, is the next great challenge facing the Palestinians.
All this is being achieved in return for minimal concessions. The Ghazzah settlements were prohibitively expensive for Israel to maintain, and the Israeli military had already given up trying to police the Palestinian resistance in the area. However, having transferred the administration of Ghazzah to Palestinian Authority hands, Israel will still maintain control over both its land and sea borders, effectively sealing it as – in what has become the usual phrase – “a vast open-air prison”. There is also no plan for any direct land route from Ghazzah to the West Bank, which also makes Ghazzah very difficult for the Palestinian Authority to develop. Israel is deliberately handing Ghazzah back to the Palestinian administration in an appalling state of social and economic ill-health, with absolutely no cooperation in helping the Palestinians to restore their society. A part of the Israeli objective is no doubt to be able to say to the world that the Palestinians have demonstrated in Ghazzah that they are incapable of ruling themselves. Finally, Israel has reserved for itself the right to strike Ghazzah militarily at will, or to intervene in Ghazzah’s affairs whenever it feels the need. Whatever this maybe, independence and sovereignty it is not.
Nonetheless, the Israeli withdrawal from Ghazzah does place a massive onus on the Palestinians to make something of their increased authority, such as it is, in the area. Ghazzah has long been a Hamas stronghold, and Hamas won an overwhelming victory in the municipal elections held there last year. Israel, however, demands that the Palestinian Authority, which continues to rule the Palestinian territories as a whole, rein Hamas in, prevent it from operating freely in Ghazzah, and in particular prevent it from using Ghazzah as a base for continuing operations against Israel. The potential for conflict is obvious; in the past Hamas and the PA have managed to co-exist, largely because of the political maturity of Hamas leaders, frustrating Israeli attempts to foster internecine war among Palestinians. This co-existence must be maintained, in what are bound to become even more difficult circumstances.
For all that the Palestinians are rightly celebrating the Israeli withdrawal from Ghazzah – for Israel would certainly have held onto it if it could have – they still face massive challenges in the days ahead, confronting as they are an enemy that is both powerful and very cunning.