Earlier this month Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke of evacuating 17 of the 20 Jewish settlements in Gaza. In an interview with the Ha’aretz newspaper he said: “I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza.” This statement follows previous ones about “painful concessions” and the need to end the occupation. However, Mr. Sharon’s announcement comes as he faces a corruption scandal at home and as construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank continues unabated. VOA’s Serena Parker reports on the situation.
In early February, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sat down with a journalist at his country’s leading daily, Ha’aretz. During the interview, Mr. Sharon said: “It is my intention to carry out an evacuation – sorry, a relocation – of settlements that cause us problems and of places that we will not hold onto anyway in a final settlement, like the Gaza settlements.” Pro-settler parties in Mr. Sharon’s coalition angrily reacted to his words and threatened to abandon the coalition if even one Jewish settlement was dismantled. But Akiva Eldar, senior columnist for Ha’aretz, says a strong majority of Israelis favor a withdrawal from Gaza.
“If you’re looking at Israeli public opinion, you can see that the majority would of course support this move,” he says. “The question these days is whether the Israelis believe that this is actually going to happen or whether they think this is going to be another spin that is coming from the Prime Minister’s office or another maneuver to avoid a collision with the United States and the international community. So at the end of the day, if the government decides to withdraw from Gaza – and there is a lot of speculation about the possibility of a referendum - there is no doubt that there will be a vast majority of Israelis supporting disengagement from Gaza.”
In fact, a recent poll suggests a national referendum on the issue of withdrawing from Gaza would pass with overwhelming support. Gaza is home to more than a million Palestinians. Some 7,500 Israeli settlers live there in heavily fortified enclaves under the protection of Israeli forces. There is no religious significance to Gaza, unlike much of Israel and the West Bank, and many Israelis have long felt it is more trouble than it is worth. Mr. Sharon has made remarks in the past about removing settlements and outposts and nothing has happened. But Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations, says this time there may be reason to believe he is serious.
“If he had his druthers, I think he would have wanted to hold on to the settlements in Gaza,” he says. “But I think that he has come to the conclusion that it’s best to withdraw for a number of reasons, including the problem of what they refer to as the ‘demographic threat’. By which they mean that the Arabs in the West Bank and in Gaza, if they do not become part of a separate political entity, will constitute the majority in the area that is not controlled by Israel. And its Jewish population will become a minority.”
The “demographic threat” is a serious problem for Israel. If Israel cannot reach a negotiated peace with the Palestinians and doesn’t withdraw from Palestinian cities, Arabs will outnumber Jews in 15 years. If Israel remains a democracy, it will lose its Jewish nature. The other option, setting up an apartheid system with Palestinians as the permanent underclass, clashes with Israeli social ideals. This challenge is what is spurring Mr. Sharon to take unilateral action and disengage from Gaza.
Mr. Siegman says if the Sharon government is serious about pulling out of Gaza, it will have to follow a coherent plan. Even a unilateral withdrawal needs cooperation with the Palestinians and the United States, Israel’s main backer and ally.
“The question is how do they pull out?” he says. “And by that I mean do they pull out without making any provision to Palestinian governance in this area? To make that kind of provision requires that Sharon’s government deal with the Palestinian Authority in order to prevent the dominant political force in Gaza today, namely Hamas, from taking over and establishing a classic Islamic regime in Gaza.”
Israel last withdrew settlers from occupied territory in 1979 after signing a peace accord that returned the Sinai to Egypt. In the process, Israel dismantled its settlements. Nubar Hovsepian, associate professor of political science at Chapman University in California, says a similar act today would enrage Palestinians and strengthen the extremist group Hamas. He says let the buildings and infrastructure serve as payment for the 30-year occupation.
“Ideally, the settlements should remain there,” he says. “After all, they have benefited from using the land without having paid for the land. In other words, on the market if you want to lease something, you pay for it. The Israelis didn’t pay for it. They benefited. So maybe this should be the equivalent of their lease for having stayed illegally in that land.”
Mr. Hovsepian says even if the Israeli government moves ahead with the Gaza transfer, Palestinians are wary about Mr. Sharon’s future plans. He is considered the architect of the Israeli settlement movement. Will a withdrawal from Gaza be used to justify maintaining or expanding the extensive Israeli settlements in the West Bank?
“On the Palestinian side the Gaza offer was looked at in a welcoming but lukewarm fashion,” he says. “And for good reason. They are anticipating that this is a way to maneuver out of a difficult situation, but to keep hold of the West Bank settlements, which have changed the topography and have affected the daily lives of Palestinians there in an incredible fashion. So they say, ‘Fine, let’s see what follows. But we want to see the whole picture.’ Because the settlements in the West Bank are clearly dividing up the West Bank to the equivalent of Swiss cheese – where the Israelis have the cheese and the Palestinians have the holes.”
More than 200,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, and much of the land is under Israeli control. There are press reports of continuing construction of settlements in the area, particularly around Jerusalem, despite protests from Palestinians and much of the international community.
David Makovsky, director of the project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Palestinians have a legitimate cause for concern about the future of the West Bank. However, the transfer of Gaza is an important first step.
“Gaza should be seen somewhat as a pilot project to show the Palestinians can govern themselves and have a state,” he says, “and then transfer it to the West Bank, once they demonstrate in Gaza that they are capable of running a state and minimizing the role of terrorists there. So this is Gaza first, but I don’t think it is Gaza last.”
Prime Minister Sharon is expected in Washington for talks with President Bush in late February or early March. David Makovsky says if Mr. Sharon is able to flesh out the details of an orderly withdrawal from Gaza and transfer of power to the Palestinian Authority, he may win U.S. backing. The United States is sending a top-level delegation to Israel to study the issue.