Disengagement Day 1: Don't Let Gaza Fail!
By Diane Balser, CEO 

Today marks the deadline for Israeli civilians to evacuate the Gaza settlements on their own; on August 17, settlers who have not voluntarily left will be forcibly removed. Though some 60 percent of Israelis and nearly all Palestinians support the withdrawal, the decision to disengage has created turmoil and hardship for those leaving their homes, conflict in Israeli and Palestinian society, and a wide range of hopes and expectations.

When Israel first announced in 2004 that roughly 9,000 settlers would be evacuated from the 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank enclaves, the news was widely greeted as an opportunity for peace and a surprising change of heart for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, known as the "architect of the settlements."  Click here to see the withdrawal maps.

Even a partial end to the occupation seems likely to be a tremendous help in the effort to reach a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Supporters of peace and security for Israel want to believe such a solution may be closer than it has been for years.

Yet the Gaza plan is neither unprecedented nor flawless. The U.S., which has played a key role in nearly every major peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and has its own security interest in seeing the sides achieve a workable peace, will need to play a much more decisive role in negotiating the details of the disengagement. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent trip to the region did produce some positive results--but she is only available for short visits and the two U.S. coordinators, James Wolfensohn and General William Ward, have their hands full with focusing on economic and security matters.

For this reason, Brit Tzedek is calling for the President to appoint a high-level diplomatic envoy to oversee all daily matters that demand the assistance of a powerful third party, and a team of monitors to see that once made, difficult decisions are carried out. Click here to tell the President to appoint an envoy and monitors now. Don't Let Gaza Fail!

What follows is an overview of the plan as it now stands. Click here to read more about the history of the Israel-Gaza relationship. Click here to watch the Gaza disengagement news on Israeli television.

THE OFFICIAL RATIONALE FOR DISENGAGEMENT

During the 2003 elections, Prime Minister Sharon rejected Member of Knesset Amram Mitzna's proposal for a unilateral evacuation from Gaza. But in early 2004, two months after the Geneva Accord, Sharon announced his own Gaza Disengagement Plan.

The timing of this announcement coincided with the international condemnation of the construction of the separation wall, just before the International Court in The Hague was set to begin hearings on the wall.

According to the Prime Minister's office, disengagement has several goals: to break the stalemate and reduce friction with the Palestinians; to provide long-term security; to potentially improve the economic and security situation of the Palestinians in Gaza; and to release Israel from any legal responsibility for Palestinians in Gaza.

BENEFITS

If the outstanding issues can be resolved and the political challenges overcome (see below), the disengagement plan will save lives, enhance Israeli security, enable spending increases for Israel's vital domestic needs, create new jobs for the impoverished Palestinians in Gaza, and hasten the progress toward Palestinian statehood.

Additionally, the plan may set an important precedent for the coordination of Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab State resources in strengthening security and stability in the region.  Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries to have achieved peace agreements with Israel, are already talking with Israeli and Palestinian officials about providing arms and security forces to help the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) crack down on terrorist networks in Gaza and the West Bank. 

Furthermore, at a time when poverty levels in Israel are on the rise--third of Israeli children currently live below the poverty line--the disengagement, in the long run, would enable the Israeli government to reinvest in domestic programs crucial to a healthy society.

Most importantly, however, disengagement has the potential to lead both parties back to the negotiating table. This is why, in early August, the PNA set aside its doubts and began planning a public awareness campaign to educate Palestinians on the benefits of the disengagement. PNA cabinet secretary Samir Huleile stated that, "If [the Gaza disengagement is] successful, we can move toward a second step on the road to peace." Click here to read more about the Palestinian pro-disengagement campaign.

DIFFICULTIES

However, many of the Sharon government's recent actions have raised speculation that the disengagement may have two unofficial, and, if true, troubling aims: to allow expansion of West Bank settlements, and to neutralize the peace process. Critics in Israel point to the fact that, the government has allowed the construction and expansion of settlements and outposts in the West Bank to proceed at an alarming rate, in contravention of the 2003 Road Map to Peace, and that, likewise, thousands of demolition orders have yet to be implemented. The Prime Minister's top advisor added fuel to the fire when he commented to HaAretz last year that the significance of the disengagement plan "is the freezing of the peace process."

As if to counteract this impression, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told HaAretz last week that "Gaza is not a tradeoff for the West Bank... We are prepared to carry on negotiations after the disengagement according to principles of the road map." Click here to read more about current settlement activity.

There are also major concerns about the execution of the plan itself. Discussions between the two sides have been held up by miscommunication, conflicting agendas, and outbreaks of extremist violence. The Palestinians would like to see disengagement lead to economic redevelopment projects, relief from urban density, and fewer movement restrictions to and from Gaza; for their part, the Israelis are focused on ensuring that their security needs will be met.

One issue that remains unresolved is the transfer of goods between Israel, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank. Since 1995, Israel has levied customs tariffs on merchandise imported directly into the Palestinian territories; the funds are then turned over to the PNA Ministry of Finance. There is also a common customs envelope that allows trafficking of goods between Israel and the Palestinian territories without customs tariffs or background checks. The Palestinians want the envelope to remain in place after the disengagement; they do not want any new security measures which would further impede the movement of goods and threaten their already meager finances. Israel, however, is reluctant to maintain these arrangements since it will no longer be patrolling or inspecting customs at the Egyptian-Gaza border.

Furthermore, Sharon and Abbas have both had to deal with mounting political opposition. On the Israeli side, the right-wing Gaza Settler Council has mobilized youth groups to infiltrate the Strip in violation of a court-approved closure order against non-resident Israelis. On August 7, Benjamin Netanyahu resigned his post as Finance Minister to protest the disengagement, and perhaps position himself as a right-wing alternative to Sharon in the next elections.

On the Palestinian side, President Abbas faces a direct challenge by the militant group Hamas, which has refused to disarm on the grounds that Israel has not upheld its end of the ceasefire, and recently launched several rockets attacks into Israel, in part to destabilize Abbas's government. Emboldened by its strong showing in the Gaza municipal elections, Hamas is seeking to win seats in the general legislative elections scheduled for January.

GAZA FIRST

If the withdrawal revives the negotiation process, it will stand as a great achievement. However, if the pullout does not lead to further developments, if it is meant to be an end in and of itself, disengagement will only add to the frustration and doubt of the Palestinians, increasing the likelihood of further armed conflict. 

US, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders alike have taken significant risks in recent months, struggling to move forward on the path towards peace.  If we are truly committed to a peaceful future in the Middle East, we must voice our unequivocal support for both a timely withdrawal from these settlements, and the appointment of a high-level envoy with the influence to resolve the many difficult, outstanding issues; further, we must call on our representatives in Washington to do everything in their power to ensure that the momentum created by disengagement is exploited fully for further peace initiatives. We must remain vigilant and demand that, in the words of Labor Party Vice Premier Shimon Peres, "Gaza first will not be Gaza last."

Don't let Gaza fail!


Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206
info@btvshalom.org
www.btvshalom.org


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