For months the Israeli government has been planning its unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Ariel Sharon appointed a team to plan for the big disengagement – aka `convergence` -from most of the West Bank settlements that are east of the separation barrier.
The team has been trying to learn the lessons from the Gaza withdrawal. Those lessons concerning the settlers are mostly understood. Far less is known about what has transpired on the other side.
What lessons should be learned from the impact of disengagement on the Palestinians?
The most important effect for the Palestinians was the sharp increase in the popularity of Hamas. Their narrative of disengagement shows that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are convinced that what led Sharon to withdraw from Gaza was what they call resistance (and what we call terrorism).
Palestinians deeply believe that Israel was chased out of Gaza, mainly by Hamas. Most Palestinians believe that Israel lost a golden opportunity to strengthen the cause of peace by not turning Gaza over to Mahmoud Abbas as part of a process of dialogue and negotiations.
They believe, wrongly, that the Gazan settlers were resettled in West Bank settlements. The perception of most Palestinians is that nothing was gained, and almost nothing has changed. Gaza was evacuated by Israel, but – they believe – Israel has strengthened its hold on Gaza and further entrenched itself in the West Bank. Most Palestinians also believe that Gaza was the main burden of the occupation and that by getting rid of its responsibilities for Gaza, Israel is finding it easier for Israel to continue the occupation over the West Bank.
FOR MOST Gazans life is much more difficult after disengagement. There were high hopes that the disengagement would lead to development and prosperity. The Quartet`s former special envoy, James Wolfensohn, had drawn up detailed plans for the development of Gaza.
Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a plan for movement and access that was negotiated with the help of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Wolfensohn even spent $500,000 of his own money and raised another $13.5 million to buy the settlers` greenhouses.
Despite reports about the destruction of those greenhouses, more than 3,500 of them had a very fruitful season; but almost none of the produce made it to the markets. The movement and access agreement was never implemented, and with the exception of the Rafah crossing giving some Palestinians a sense of some freedom, Gaza has been virtually closed to the world.
The main artery of economic life for Gaza is the Karni crossing. In the past three months Karni has been closed 50% of the time. During times when it has been opened, it has not even come close to reaching the level planned of 150 trucks per day; instead some 20 trucks move on any given day. There has been no progress on building the Gaza seaport and no talks have begun on the Gaza airport.
IN LIGHT of this situation in Gaza it is easier to understand the extremely emotional negative responses of most Palestinians to the convergence plans.
Israel would like to claim that by withdrawing from the territories it is ending its responsibility for the Palestinians by essentially ending the occupation. From the Palestinian perspective, however, the unilateral Israeli withdrawals not only strengthen Hamas and Islamic Jihad, they also create a greater entrenchment of the occupation.
Palestinians believe that if tens of thousands of settlers are removed from settlements east of the separation barriers to settlements that are west of the barrier – but east of the Green Line – nothing will have changed, except for the fact that Israel will be cheating the world in creating an illusion that it is withdrawing from occupied territories.
Most Palestinians, including those closest to Mahmoud Abbas, believe that should Israel actually implement its unilateral plans of convergence, the feasibility of the two-state solution will come to an end and there will be no viability for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
From their perspective, convergence means not only the removal of Jerusalem from the table, but the placing of a noose around the neck of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley will remain under Israel`s control, including the crossings into Jordan. The West Bank will be completely sealed off on the west. There will be no territorial link between the two Palestinian territories and no policy of enabling people and goods to move between Gaza and the West Bank through Israel.
Gaza will be strangled except for a tiny air tube in Rafah; and, according to Palestinians, Israel has placed a veto on talks with Egypt to enable Palestinians to develop a cargo transport in Rafah. With this kind of picture in mind, how could any Palestinian support the convergence plan?
THE ALTERNATIVE is to renew the bilateral political process with the PLO represented by Mahmoud Abbas. While there are no guarantees of an agreement, there is little to lose. And Israel could anyway move ahead with planning for convergence.
Another unilateral process in the West Bank carries far more risks to Israel than a possible re-engagement with Mahmoud Abbas.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
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