August 16, 2005

The Gaza Withdrawal

I'd be remiss if I didn't blog the historic events underway in the Gaza Strip at this hour. After almost forty years of occupation, Israel is withdrawing from Gaza. This is an act of not inconsiderable political courage by Arik Sharon, particularly given the opportunistic shenanigans of Bibi Netanyahu taking place at a time that instead begs for national unity. Indeed, I can't say it better than Arik himself (if a touch hyperbolically): "I don't know why he quit. He backed the disengagement plan once or twice...One thing I can say: Quitting a week before the most complex, most difficult move in the State of Israel's history--the disengagement plan--I would not say this evasion warrants a medal of honor." That said, political opportunism has its benefits and occurs for a reason, of course. The latest polling data shows that in a Likud leadership primary run-off, Netanyahu would poll well ahead of Sharon in a three-way race (with ultra-rightist Uzi Landau in the mix too). Yet these polls are being taken in the midst of the hugely emotional and difficult scenes currently underway in Gaza with the settler evacuations. No one can take away from these settlers their evident passion and deep love of the land. But to cede the ground to such religious maximalists is to all but beg eternal conflict in the Holy Land. Painful compromises must be pursued in the interests of potential peace. There is no other viable way.

With this major Israeli concession now comes the need for real Palestinian leadership and seriousness of purpose. Mahmoud Abbas cannot allow a vacuum to result post IDF withdrawal in Gaza that facilitates in any way the military wings of Hamas and Jihad Islami mounting attacks against Israel. In this, the Americans and Egyptians will be playing key roles in assisting the Palestinian Authority (both out front and behind the scenes) in cracking down on unauthorized terrorist activity. This is critical because a relatively peaceful transition (though 100% success is likely impossible) will bolster Sharon's argument that Israel withdrew from a position of strength rather than one of weakness. The compelling need for Abbas' important security crack-downs aside, however, Sharon's position was the only rationalist one that could seriously be contemplated. It was always the height of folly, after all, to expend IDF resources to protect a relative handful of a few thousand settlers in a veritable sea of a million plus Palestinians. It was also morally not a viable position in the long run. This said, however, the Palestinians must now be told in no uncertain terms that something akin to a Hezbollah/Shaba Farms rationale for continued attacks into Israel from Gaza will not be tolerated in any respect. Recall that despite Israel's withdrawal from most of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah argues that it remains entitled to attack targets in northern Israel because Israel continues to occupy the Shaba Farms. There will be many in Hamas that see the situations as roughly analagous, as of course Israel still controls the West Bank. This argument is disingenuous and unacceptable, and cannot be countenanced in the least. Negotiations on the West Bank are the way forward, not violent attacks out of a new Gaza beach-head. As for Jihad Islami and irredentist swaths of Hamas, they will see attacks on Israel as warranted until all the Jews (including those dwelling in '48 Israel) are pushed into the proverbial sea. Those actors must be steadily marginalized and, to the extent they are carrying on terrorist attacks, captured or killed before they can do their evil deeds.

To repeat, Sharon has made a very painful compromise this week. He now deserves real help from the other side. It perhaps bears noting, too, that B.D. is not one of those terribly concerned that the Gaza withdrawal was but a Sharon 'Gaza First, Gaza Last' gambit. In this, the roughly contemporaneous withdrawal from four West Bank settlements transcends mere symbolism. If (and this a big if) the Palestinian Authority can exert sufficient control over Gaza so that it is not used as a base for attacks against Israel, it is not hugely implausible to see the Gaza withdrawal as helping resucitate the moribund road map a few months hence. This, of course, would involve further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and, ultimately it is hoped, mutually acceptable resolution of the so-called 'final status' issues. This is but a hope, for now, but one that becomes a more serious prospect if the Gaza pull-out goes relatively well in the main. Another reason Abbas must step up to the plate, with critical assistance from Cairo and Washington, and ensure that Hamas and Jihad Islami are not militarily active. In this, I suspect, economic aid will be critical. When unemployment is near 50%, after all, people will do horrific, odious things. Gaza's economy is a horrific shambles, and the international community must help in making it better. Quickly.

Finally, I'd like to say a brief word about those lap-top nay-sayers who poo-poo Abbas and Israeli appeasers (Sharon!) for, alternately, hiding the ugly true face of the Palestinians through faked moderation (Abbas, the story-line goes) or weak-kneed, terror-friendly policies (quite incredibly, such charges are now being lobbed at Sharon from his Right). What I've found in life is that those who actually dwell in the conflict zones, rather than sunny California say, better realize that painful compromises must be made in the interests of a frustratingly elusive peace. After all, those living in the Holy Land are the ones who must deal directly with the ramifications of maximalist policies that lead to abject hatred and seemingly endless cycles of violence. So it is often wise old warriors (men like Yitzhak Rabin or Moshe Dayan) who best understand this. In this vein, this Haaretz analysis of Sharon's speech to the Israeli nation is of interest:

Sharon displayed understanding for the suffering of the Palestinians crowded in the refugee camps in Gaza "in greenhouses of growing hatred." His statements were reminiscent of Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan's eulogy to Ro'i Rotberg, the security officer of Kibbutz Nahal Oz who was murdered in 1956 in a field bordering the Gaza Strip.

"How can we complain of their intense hatred of us?" Dayan said. "For eight years now, they have been sitting in the refugee camps of Gaza, while before their very eyes we are expropriating their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled... Let us not flinch from seeing the animosity inflaming and filling the lives of hundreds of thousands Arabs living around us... That is the bane of our generation." [emphasis added]

This is a painful appraisal, but it has the benefit of being unflichingly accurate. Despite the de-humanization of the Palestinian 'other', their aspirations and hopes are not that different than those of their Israeli neighbors--namely, to raise families and lead productive lives in conditions of dignity and peace. This is why solid majorities of both Palestinians and Israelis supported the Madrid and Oslo processes at various junctures--read: a two-state solution with an independent Palestine living side by side an independent Israel.

Don't miss this moving part from Sharon's speech either:

Residents of Gaza, today we end a glorious chapter in Israel's history, a central episode in your lives as pioneers, as realisers of the dream of those who bore the security and settlement burden for all of us.

Your pain and your tears are an inextricable part of the history of our country.

Whatever differences we have, we shall not abandon you and after the evacuation we will do everything to rebuild your lives and communities anew.

I want to tell the soldiers and police, you face a difficult mission. You do not face an enemy, but brothers and sisters. Sensitivity and patience are the order of the hour. I am sure that is how you will act. I want you to know the people stand behind you and are proud of you.

Citizens of Israel, the responsibility for Israel's future is mine. I initiated the plan because I reached the conclusion that this action is essential for Israel. Believe me, the pain I feel with this act is the same as the full realisation that we must do it.

We are taking a new path that also has no small number of risks, but which also contains a ray of hope for us all. With God's help this path shall be one of unity and not division, and not animosity between brothers, of unconditional love and not hatred. I will do my utmost to ensure that it will be so.

These are strong and good and wise words. Make no mistake, Sharon's move was the right one. The calculated risks were and are worth taking. And holding on to Gaza forever was simply not tenable. Let us now hope the handover is handled by all parties, especially the Palestinian side, with utmost professionalism and seriousness of purpose. The entire world is watching, and success now can lead to more progress in reaching a viable two state solution later. There is really no other way forward that would avoid condemning the region to permanent war.

Posted by Gregory at August 16, 2005 03:30 PM | TrackBack (0)

I've been a supporter of the disengagement the whole way through (and before), and hope it is followed by a removal of the more strategically tenuous and/or wacko-infested settlements in the West Bank -- for both moral and security reasons.

That said, I'm very pessimistic about its effects on the peace process. I don't think the Palestinians are institutionally capable of signing a peace treaty any time soon, much less actually adhering to it. Since it's almost certain that Palestinian rockets will continue to be fired from the Strip and will probably lead to continued military incursions by Israel, I'm guessing that Bibi will be Prime Minister within 18 months. I really hope I'm wrong.

Posted by: Guy at August 16, 2005 05:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

i too support the disengagement - I dont see anymore unilateral withdrawls in the future, though. And i dont know a comprehensive peace in the next few months would be a good thing. Whats needed now is progress in asserting PA control over Gaza, defanging Hamas as far as possible, and economic development in Gaza. Possibly some progress on prisoner release and west bank checkpoints in return for demonstrable PA progress in cracking down on terror.

Posted by: liberalhawk at August 16, 2005 06:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This is the right move by Israel as BD points out: it removes the need of the IDF to have to protect the settlers in the sea of Palestinians. It was not a tenable position. However, to think that the Palestinians will modify their demands or behavior is absolutely nothing more than wishful thinking. This goes for the West Bank as well. Once Israel has the wall set up they will be in a good, easily defensible position without the burden of keeping order in the Gaza or West Bank. Then they can deal with terrorist attacks from a foreign country as any nation (at least any nation with a backbone) would.

Posted by: Mark at August 16, 2005 09:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I will be extremely surprised if there is any movement from the Palestinians or the other Arab nations after this. I think Abbas would be willing to work for real peace, but Arafat's leadership left the Palestinians in a huge mess politically, economically, and from a security standpoint (with the terrorist organizations ruling the day there). And the rest of the Arab world will lose a big part of their Israel-as-an-external-whipping-boy-so-that-we-don't-have-to-face-our-own-troubles paradigm if the Palestinians are successful in creating something good out of this. So it is going to take an incredible string of good luck for anything significant to happen in the next 5-10 years.

But this will be somewhat beneficial in the "big picture", as it will end up being more ammunition in the case against the Islamo-Fascists.

Posted by: exhelodrvr at August 17, 2005 12:19 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

One problem with the settlements is that they feed the creation of extremist Jews, a la the "Hilltop Youth" -- a huge threat to Israel's continued existence. Hence removing the Gaza settlements, to the degree that it deflates this pressure, is a good thing.

Posted by: Guy at August 17, 2005 03:06 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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