On August 18 Israeli troops are scheduled to pull out of Ghazzah, taking 8,000 settlers with them. Following the Israeli retreat from southern Lebanon in 2000, it will be only the second time in the history of the zionist state that it is being forced to give up territory that it has conquered and claimed. Although Ariel Sharon promotes the withdrawal as a unilateral decision on his part, as part of a strategy to end the continuing and costly confrontation with the Palestinian resistance, few doubt that he has been forced into it by the refusal of the Palestinians in Ghazzah to accept Israeli rule, and the cost imposed on Israel by the Palestinian resistance in Ghazzah, led by the Hamas Islamic movement. Despite the attempts of Israel and its allies to disguise the fact, it is undoubtedly a victory for the Palestinians and a defeat for the zionist state, and no one should be fooled into seeing it as anything else.
It has been interesting in recent weeks to watch the growing confrontation between Israeli troops and Israeli settlers who are angry about Sharon’s decision to retreat from Ghazzah. Having promised that Israel would never vacate any land it settled, Sharon now has to use Israel’s military against settlers who are angry that he is breaking that promise. In the next few weeks, this confrontation is likely to become increasingly fraught. Local Palestinians are likely to be the innocent victims, as settlers forment trouble in Ghazzah to make it difficult for Israel to withdraw, and Israel launches attacks on Palestinian movements to try to support the fiction that it is withdrawing from a position of strength, rather than with its tail between its legs. Although it has far greater military firepower than the Palestinians, the Israeli military has simply not been able to defeat or even suppress the Palestinian resistance. Many Palestinians are hoping that the settlers will cause so much trouble for the authorities that they decide not to invite trouble from the Palestinians at the same time.
Attention within Ghazzah is turning to what will happen after the Israelis leave. The Israelis are determined to weaken the area’s infrastructure and institutions before leaving, in order to ensure that Palestinians get the least possible benefit from their withdrawal. They are also determined that power in Ghazzah should be retained by the Palestinian Authority bodies, led by Mahmoud Abbas, rather than passing into the hands of Hamas, which scored overwhelming victories in elections in Ghazzah earlier this year. In July, there was a brief period of confrontation between the PA forces and Hamas militiamen, as the PA tried to assert itself as the only legitimate Palestinian force in the territory, to show Israel that it was in control. This was resisted by some Hamas forces, straining the traditional Hamas position that it would avoid internecine fighting with other Palestinian groups, a position it has largely managed to maintain despite periods of tension with PA authorities and forces.
Late in July, PA and Hamas leaders met and agreed to work together, on the basis of the Cairo Agreement reached in March, which Hamas has since accused the PA of largely ignoring. How long this will last remains to be seen, particularly once the Israelis actually leave. Political tension between the PA and Hamas is bound to increase at that time, as the PA continues to try to protect its established position in Palestinian politics and institutions from the popularity of Hamas, with the Israelis, for their part, demanding that the PA take action against Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas’s success in the local elections prompted Abbas to postpone parliamentary elections, which were due in July, for fear that Hamas’s successes would be reflected at the national level. No new date has yet been set, a fact that has also angered Hamas and many Palestinians.
The Israelis, meanwhile, are pressing ahead with their plans to tighten the noose on Jerusalem and the West Bank while attention is on Ghazzah. Despite their defeat in Ghazzah, they remain determined to secure what they regard as their key objectives, namely the Judaisation, de-Arabization and eventual annexation of the whole of al-Quds (Jerusalem), and with it control of the Haram al-Sharif. They are also working on the redrawing of the borders of theWest Bank, partly through the building of the “security wall”, and the establishment of a Palestinian state on their own terms. As has happened in the past, they hope that the PA will become an ally against the Palestinians in order to protect the political advantages it gains from working with the Israelis. The main Palestinian obstacle to this programme is the rise of Hamas, which many Palestinians see as expressing the ideals of the two intifadas, models of resistance that Palestinians may well have to turn to again if they are to prevent the Israelis from securing their objectives in the future.