ISRAELI AND PALESTINIAN PERSPECTIVES ON THE GAZA WITHDRAWAL
Amram Mitzna, Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, Naomi Chazan, & Eyad El Sarraj

We watched last month’s withdrawal from Gaza unfold with a mixture of hope and trepidation: hope that the pullout represents new opportunities for peace; fear that unanswered concerns may create new difficulties or deepen existing problems. The speed and relative ease with which the settler evacuations took place was inspiring, and it was with great relief that we watched Israeli soldiers and police officers acting with restraint and respect as they carried out difficult orders.

Yet it’s hard for those who don’t live there to get a full sense of the impact of the disengagement on Israeli and Palestinian societies. How did it feel to see it happen? What might it mean for the future? Were there failures that we don’t perceive from this distance, successes that we didn’t understand? How can Israelis and Palestinians use the present situation to work towards a negotiated peace? Moreover, it is important to remember that while the settlers have been removed, there are still many unresolved economic, political, and security issues.

To gain a local perspective on these questions, Brit Tzedek interviewed leading figures in Palestinian and Israeli politics and civil society, people who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for peace, justice, and a better understanding of the sources and solutions to the conflict. They include:

  • Amram Mitzna, decorated general, Member of Knesset and former candidate for Prime Minister
  • Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, woman’s rights and peace activist, director of the Jerusalem-based Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling and board member of the Jerusalem Center for Women
  • Naomi Chazan, former member of Knesset and Professor of political science
  • Eyad El Sarraj, psychiatrist and civil society leader, founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen’s Rights

We hope these conversations will provide an intimate view of the events in Gaza as they have unfolded to date as well as offering insight into their significance.


AMRAM MITZNA [bio] Member of Knesset and former candidate for Prime Minister Amram Mitzna responded to Brit Tzedek’s questions with a letter discussing his assessment of the withdrawal, and his thoughts for the future.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan has been carried out, and while the most sensitive, complicated part – settler evacuation – is now completed, this process is just the beginning of a longer course of action: Leaving the occupied territories altogether, and establishing a long-term agreement with the Palestinians.

Within Israel, we are witnessing the birth of a more mature social understanding, a realization that military force has a very narrow effect when it comes to political issues. There are a few who still question the pullout, but the successful disengagement can truly be seen as not only a sign of maturity – the willingness to give up strategic territories for a Palestinian promise to stop terrorism – but also of the strength of Israeli democracy – being able to accept hard, controversial decisions and carry them out. Now it is time to strengthen the settlers, and give them a hand in building their new life.

When I ran for Prime Minister in 2003, I introduced the idea of a unilateral withdrawal, an idea initially rejected by Sharon and the Likud. Many things have changed since then, and the Prime Minister understood that the political deadlock with the Palestinians must be addressed, lest he find himself forced, by international pressure, to adopt a plan with which he didn’t agree.

When disengagement was announced, Sharon gained warm responses from the international community and the Israeli public. In a day and age when Islamic terrorism has hit the West time and again, the restraint and forbearance demonstrated by the Israeli government and people have won it international appreciation.

After Arafat passed away, it became clear that the withdrawal must be coordinated with the new Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian people now face another window of opportunity to demonstrate their ability to distinguish themselves from the extreme fundamentalist Islamic organizations, and gain international acceptance and assistance in reconstructing their nation. This is a real challenge for the Palestinians, as well as for the Israelis.

It is in Israel’s best interest that an independent Palestinian state be created as soon as possible. Once the Palestinian people have valuable assets to lose, the appeal of fundamentalist Islamic organizations and terrorism will weaken. The Palestinian nation has the potential to become one of the most educated and developed nations in the Arab world. Such a nation could draw its strength from intellectual and technological assets, and check the fundamental, extremist voices within it.

In spite of its obvious advantages, Ariel Sharon’s strategy of dismantling the settlements was rejected by his party, creating strong opposition to his leadership within the Likud, while public opinion supported the move overwhelmingly. For the next few months, Israeli public attentions will be occupied with coming elections; I predict that the outcome of these elections will support the continuation of the disengagement from the Palestinians.

  MAHA ABU-DAYYEH SHAMAS  [bio] Maha Abu Dayyeh Shamas is the director of the Jerusalem-based Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, established in 1991 to assist in the creation of a democratic Palestinian society. She also sits on the board of the Jerusalem Center for Women, founded in 1994 alongside its Israeli counterpart, Bat Shalom; the two organizations coordinate shared peace initiatives through an umbrella body known as the Jerusalem Link.

Though she is a strong supporter of a negotiated, bilateral solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Abu Dayyeh Shamas is unequivocally unenthusiastic about Israel’s recent unilateral disengagement from Gaza, both in terms of how it was carried out and what it might mean in the future for Palestinians.

 “The rest of the world is celebrating the Gaza withdrawal,” she says, “but Israelis know better, and Palestinians know better. They know this is just the beginning, and that so far, there are no negotiations.”

It is her opinion that the current Israeli government “would like Gaza to go back to the pre-1967 arrangement and have Egypt be [held] responsible.” This, she believes, is why there has been so much attention paid to the question of the Philadelphia Route and the border crossing into Egypt.

Moreover, she feels the Israeli authorities were happy to leave so many of the details of the withdrawal unresolved until after the pullout had been completed. “The existing government wants to buy time,” she says.

“While the attention was on Gaza, things were happening in the West Bank,” Abu-Dayyeh Shamas says, referring to the on-going settlement expansion there. “Everyday you have more construction.”

Speaking specifically of the government’s plan for an “envelope” of settlements linking Jerusalem to the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, she says that “for Jerusalemites like myself, this is suffocation. And it’s touching everybody.”

Asked how friends and loved ones in Gaza are reacting in the wake of the evacuations, she says “the people in Gaza might feel the pressure is off a little" but they are very tense, very scared, very uncertain. They are afraid of a power struggle that will erupt into open armed struggle. They are afraid of poverty.”

Abu-Dayyeh Shamas is particularly frustrated by the restrictions on freedom of movement within the West Bank, and points out that Israel retains control of all movement in and out of Gaza. Living in the territories right now, she says, “feels like walking into a prison. This feeling is more visceral in Gaza, but it is true on the West Bank, too.”

“It’s emotionally very difficult to take.”  

NAOMI CHAZAN  [bio] Former member of Knesset and Professor of Political Science Naomi Chazan has long called for an end to the occupation and negotiations with the Palestinians. From this vantage point, she couldn’t help but see the government’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza as a two-edged sword.

 “An evacuation of the settlements creates a precedent,” she said in conversation with Brit Tzedek, “and it’s a partial end to the occupation... Bottom line, it was easy.”

“But there are also flawed elements.”

“The domination of unilateralism is very dangerous,” Chazan says. “The places where [the withdrawal] was most successful were those places where there was coordination. When you’re not negotiating, you’re not ending the conflict – you’re just managing it.”

“As soon as it wasn’t negotiated, there was no transfer of power,” she goes on, adding that among Israelis there’s a general attitude that can best be summed up as: “‘we did our side; now let’s see what they can produce.’ I don’t like that kind of thinking... You can’t hold the other side to something you’ve decided on and are carrying out.”

She reports that people on all sides of Israel’s political map are concerned about the trouble this may lead to: “Segments on both the left and right say ‘we would have no problem doing this if there had been negotiations, but what are we getting out of it?"

Chazan says that the reactions to the withdrawal have been “very diverse. There was an amazing amount of exposure to the human aspect of expulsion. I don’t think anyone can watch that and be untouched by it,” she says.

But at the same time, she is critical of the amount of exposure. “The media was really stacked, in that 90% of all coverage for 10 days was [the evacuations]... People have focused, very incorrectly, on the removal of the settlers.”

“There are a tremendous number of outstanding issues. Until there’s a real and full withdrawal,” she says, referring to the dismantling of the military infrastructure, “it will take maybe a few months. The agreement with the Egyptians still has to be approved, too.”

Moreover, she says, “anybody who was sitting in Israel for those ten days – you weren’t even sure this involved Palestinians in any way. They weren’t there! It was amazing. And outrageous.” She expressed deep frustration over a tendency in Israeli politics to talk about the Palestinians, rather than with them.

In terms of Israeli society’s response to the withdrawal, Chazan has the impression that people’s opinions were largely unchanged by the events. “There’s been everything from ‘This is the worst thing that ever happened,’ to ‘How can they use children and call Israeli soldiers Nazis?’” she says, referring to the heavy use of Holocaust imagery on the part of some extremist settlers. “There’s been a big argument on the left about the degree of empathy [for the settlers] and I think on the right, they found the Nazi references very disturbing. Also, I think people weren’t aware of the extent to which [the anti-withdrawal movement] was identified with the religious right.” There is concern, she says about “the power of settler messianism.”

She mentions one social division that got very little coverage: the fact that many Israelis were largely disinterested. “You know, they’d talk to people in Tel Aviv and ask why they’d gone to the beach and they’d say ‘Well, it’s a nice day!’”

“All the ingredients are there for a very serious schism,” she goes on, “and it cuts across all of [society’s] cleavages, and pits one against the other.” She is wary, however, of the attempts being made now to bridge the gaps.

“People are saying ‘let’s all sit down together and start talking to each other, to see if we can heal the wounds and get a conversation going,’ but the question is who dictates the terms of the conversation? Calls to create a new consensus have in the past proven quite dangerous.”

“If Gaza was the formative experience of the new narrative, then you’re closing the door on new developments.”

Chazan is also “very deeply worried” about the continuing expansion of settlement on the West Bank. “The [Security Barrier] will cut off the possibility of contiguous Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank. You’re precluding the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, and so you’re precluding the possibility of settling the conflict.”

“Unilateralism,” she says “works against Israel’s interest.”

 EYAD EL SARRAJ  [bio] Dr. Eyad El Sarraj is a Palestinian psychiatrist and civil society leader in Gaza. Among his many activities, he is the founder and medical director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and founder of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights. He is well-known for his criticism of both Palestinian and Israeli human rights abuses, and speaks frequently with the Western press about Palestinian society.

Dr. El Sarraj takes a very nuanced view toward the Gaza disengagement, recognizing both the benefits and potential pitfalls the evacuation entails. For many Palestinians, he says “it’s been good to feel that some parts of our land are free from settlers, and that this could lead to serious moves toward peace and independence.”

He also mentions that for many Palestinians, “it was joyful, watching the soldiers leave, but watching these mothers and children leaving their homes, there was a strange and ironic sympathy with the enemy. Because [the Gazans] have their own traumas.”

On the other hand, he says, “People are saying ‘What sort off evacuation is this, if Israel continues to keep control of our sea, our sky, our land, and our borders? Is this really freedom?’ ”

“It’s been a very confusing situation, emotionally.”

El Sarraj also discusses several concerns he has about the future, both short- and long-term, saying he’s worried about the future of the peace process in general.

He views the terms of the withdrawal themselves with some alarm. “If the Gaza Disengagement Plan is followed to the letter,” El Sarraj says, “it would turn Gaza into a closed area.”

“They claim they’ve ended the occupation, but they are still in control of every aspect of life in Gaza,” he goes on, saying that in addition to border and airspace issues, the question of transporting goods and people in and out of Gaza is highly contentious. “The Israelis even control the goods that we eat, because all our food stuffs come from Israel, and they have absolute control over what comes in.”

His biggest frustration lies in the fact that the pullout was not the result of negotiation. “The logic of unilateralism can only lead to mistrust on both sides... From the Palestinian side, people are saying ‘[Sharon] didn’t trust us, how can we trust him?”

Even when some level of coordination has been absolutely necessary, he points out, the Israelis “negotiate not with the Palestinians, but sometimes with the Americans, sometimes with the Egyptians.”

This, he believes, compounds an already difficult situation within the Palestinian Authority. “Usually, the Israelis do things without telling the Palestinian Authority, which doesn’t give them any chance to plan any details, and this creates a power vacuum. The tension rises and can lead to violence.”

“The Palestinian Authority itself is so dangerous,” El Sarraj continues, “because of the question of vision and leadership. If there had been serious coordination, part of the tension and energy could have been directed toward better things.” As it is, he says, Gazans have not only to recover from past Israeli violence, but to deal with current internecine bloodshed. “There are so many guns in Gaza,” he says, “you wouldn’t believe it.”

“There’s a big question as to whether the Palestinian Authority will be able to control things; so far, the indication is that the answer is no,” he says. “It would have been much better if there had been any coordination.” He adds that people often forget that the pullout was a military operation – “it has nothing to do with the political dimension [of settling the conflict].”

And yet, “I want to keep a kind of optimism,” he says. “It cannot get worse than it has been for the past four years.”     

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

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