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Gaza Lessons Harden Israeli Views on Security, Ahead of Peace Talks

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As Israelis and Palestinians head into U.S.-brokered negotiations, both sides are drawing lessons from Israel's unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip, five years ago.  By removing thousands of Jewish settlers and Israeli troops, Israel hoped to ease tensions.   Israelis wanted security.  The Palestinians hoped greater autonomy would bring peace and prosperity.  Since the withdrawal, neither side has achieved its goals.  For Israelis, the violence of the last five years gave a lesson that has hardened their reluctance to agree to a total pullout from the West Bank - a key issue in the talks.


Hopes dashed

Aziz Aziz owns a clothing factory in the northern Gaza Strip.  Five years ago, he was full of hope that the end of the Israeli occupation was going to mean more business opportunity.

Aziz says that five years after the Jews left Gaza, he expected his situation to be better than it is.  He believed that life would be better and that the economy would grow.  But he says he has seen the opposite happen.  He says that, for the last five years, everything has gone backward.

Aziz had secured lucrative export contracts, but his dreams faded when fighting erupted between rival factions -- President Mahmoud Abbas' moderate Fatah and the militant Islamist group, Hamas.

Gaza descended into chaos, with members of both factions fighting in the streets.



What happened?


Israel imposed a tight embargo when Hamas seized control of Gaza and militants who oppose the existence of a Jewish state stepped up their rocket attacks at southern Israel.

Israel responded in late 2007 with a 22-day attack that leveled much of Gaza's industrial infrastructure.

Even before the Israeli assault, the embargo had already choked fuel imports.  The isolation made exporting to world markets nearly impossible.  

Who is to blame?

With electricity off for up to six hours at a time, Aziz's factory sits idle for much of the day.  He formerly had 70 employees. Now, he struggles to keep eight.

He says he blames the Palestinians' own leadership, be it Fatah or Hamas.  He says both of them should agree and not cause harm to ordinary people.  He says the two groups have destroyed themselves and they are destroying the people.

Israeli viewpoint

Israelis also blame themselves for the way the pullout was carried out.  Their goal was to guarantee their own security, following the failure of negotiations in 2000 and a bloody Palestinian uprising that followed.

Giora Eiland - former head of Israel's National Security Council - was in charge of planning the pullout from Gaza five years ago, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  

He says the pullout was an expression of frustration.

"Prior to this decision, nothing clearly worked with the Palestinians," Eiland said.  "We tried to reach an agreement with them.  It didn't work out.  We tried to fight them.  It didn't succeed, as well, so the prime minister made a decision to try to divorce the Palestinians.  We thought, in quite a shallow way:  Let's evacuate the area. Let's build a fence around this area, and at the end of the day, they will be there and we will be here and this is the solution to the problem.  Obviously, it is not as simple as we thought."

Lessons learned

Israeli leaders perceive the 2005 pullout as a lesson that any kind of unilateral withdrawal will be viewed by the enemy as a sign of weakness that encourages extremists to attack.

"If Israel, as a result of a potential peace agreement with the Palestinians, will have to withdraw from a major part of the West Bank, I guess a lot of importance will be given to the security arrangements to make sure that this new vacated area would not turn out to be an area in which so many rockets and missiles and other advanced weapons are produced," Eiland said.

Security concerns

Going into the negotiations, Israel has made security its top priority.  It is demanding a demilitarized future Palestinian state and a continued Israeli presence on the border between the West Bank and Jordan -- two conditions that the Palestinians say amount to continued occupation.

Gaza's Hamas rulers have condemned the negotiations and are not taking part.

Aziz Aziz says he is placing some hope on Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, that they will draw lessons from what he says is the tragedy of Gaza.  He hopes they will find a way to end the Israeli occupation while, at the same time, safeguarding the interests of all Palestinians.  

Aziz says that, if the Israelis pull out of the West Bank, he hopes it will not happen like it did in Gaza.  If it does, he says it means that the Palestinians will be destroyed.  

He says he has hope that President Mahmoud Abbas can negotiate and reach an agreement for the good of all people in Gaza and the West Bank.

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