In a small piece, only one paragraph long, on an inner page of the March 4th edition of the Ha’aretz newspaper, it was stated that the Governments of Israel and the United States were evaluating whether or not the Israeli unilateral detachment from Gaza could bring about a Palestinian leadership change. In his speech from June 24, 2002, President Bush said: “I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror”. But I don’t think that this piece of news was referring to some new decision to hold free and democratic elections in Palestine.
In Israel, more and more security officials and politicians are speaking quietly about the possible take over of Gaza by the former Head of Palestinian Preventive Security Forces Mohammad Dahlan. Dahlan is referred to as the “strong man of Gaza”. Many people suggest that Dahlan and his supporters may have been behind the latest killing of an Arafat ally in Gaza this last week. Several weeks ago there was a shooting incident at the headquarters of the Palestinian police in Gaza where, people say, there was an attempt to kill the head of the Police – Ghazi Jabali. Many people suggest that Dahlan and his supporters may have been behind that incident as well.
Last week it was reported that Dahlan and Arafat held a reconciliation meeting between them after many months of not speaking. Some analysts have written that this reconciliation between the two is part of a renewed alliance aimed at pre-empting any possible revolt by Dahlan and his supporters against Arafat in a Gaza disengagement move by Israel. At the same time, Dahlan was firmly behind and in support of new democracy challenges within in the ranks of Fatah at the meetings last week of the Fatah Revolutionary Council in Ramallah. It has been reported that Arafat caved in to the demands for new elections in Fatah and has promised them within a year, although most people do not believe that they will be held.
How do we piece all of this news together? It is always difficult to understand internal Palestinian politics. But there are a few truths or axioms that seem to hold real to the test of time:
1. As long as Arafat is alive and is functioning, there will be no real challenge to his leadership.
2. Israel has tried many times to create an alternative leadership to the PLO and to Arafat but has always failed. This time will be no different.
3. Mohammad Dahlan will not go against Arafat and “take over” Gaza on behalf of the Americans or the Israelis. Dahlan will not “cut” a separate deal with Israel that will further isolate Arafat and leave the West Bank out of the process. There will be no “Dahlanistan” in Gaza.
The Israeli proposal for disengagement from Gaza is not a bad idea. If the disengagement includes a full withdrawal from all settlements this should be supported. If it also includes a new security arrangement with Egypt so that the Philadelphi Road running on the Egypt-Gaza border is controlled by the Egyptian army instead of Israel and the Egyptians are willing to do their utmost (which they know well to do) in order to prevent the smuggling of weapons, then it is even better. But one thing is clear, without suitable arrangements for some kind of governance inside of Gaza and some form of reasonable enforcers of law and order, the people of Gaza will die of starvation and the streets, towns, villages and refugee camps will run rampant with gangs of wild uncontrollable militia and violence. In the end the Islamic forces will take over.
Gaza is fully dependent on its few exit and entry points to Egypt and to Israel. If these points of passage are closed, the economy of Gaza dies.
Last year’s economic figures for Gaza show clearly a drop of some 80% in imports and exports when the Karni transportation zone was closed by Israel due to Palestinian gun fire in the area. Gaza has no sea port. Its airport has been closed since the beginning of the Intifada. There is a passage for workers into Israel in the north and into the Erez industrial zone. There is a passage at Karni for goods to move in both directions – into and out of Gaza from Israel. There is a passage further south for building aggregates and fuel and there is the international border crossing to Egypt.
At the present time Israel controls all of the passages. In the present situation, Gaza is strangled by the lack of ability to move sufficient amounts of goods in and out. Today there is a real need for expanding existing facilities and even allowing competition to them in order to bring prices down and to allow for greater movement. There are real plans being drawn up in the Ministry of Defence in Israel, in the Office of the Coordinator, to support such ideas. But these plans are being drawn up at the same time that other planners in the army and in the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office are creating that are aimed at closing Gaza off completely from Israel. There is little doubt that there will be a direct correlation between the level of chaos in Gaza and the extent to which Gaza will be completely closed off to the world by Israel.
According to reports in Israel, Sharon’s disengagement plan will take some two years to implement. Now is the time to begin planning for what kind of administration will exist in Gaza. Israel recognizes that there is a need for some kind of international presence or involvement. This, however, goes strongly against the traditional Israeli position rejecting the possible internationalization of the conflict. There are more and more voices in Israel speaking softly, but firmly, about the need for foreign troops on the ground in Gaza. Israel clearly speaks about US troops. Some Palestinians speak about a UN led force of “blue helmets”. Israel will certainly reject any UN led presence. The US is probably too bogged down in Iraq and too close to elections to even suggest the idea of more US forces being sent to the Middle East.
There is another possibility – NATO. NATO is searching for a role and an identity since the end of the Cold War. NATO should begin to see its role as an effective peace keeping force with wide responsibilities for working with civilian governments and administrations for limited periods of transition. NATO led forces would be trusted by Israel and by Washington.
In planning for some kind of international presence, it is essential that any introduction of any foreign international forces be linked to a clear and well planned exit strategy. The Palestinian people must understand and know that the Israeli occupation is not being replaced by a NATO or some other occupation. This must be a transitional administration that leads to democratic Palestinian rule in Gaza. The NATO forces would have to take control of the Palestinian side of the crossing points. They would have to ensure that there is no smuggling of weapons across those borders.
Effective NATO presence would allow for the completion of the construction of the Gaza seaport and the reopening of the Gaza International Airport.
Only this kind of international presence would allow for economic openness between Gaza and Israel and between Gaza and Egypt – without this Gaza dies.
The successful transition in Gaza must also be linked to Israeli withdrawals and redeployments in the West Bank and NATO presence could be useful there as well, even if more complicated. The main thing is to get the process moving in the right direction by planning for it now in parallel with any Israeli planning for disengagement and redeployment. The US-Israeli talks on Israeli disengagement should be coupled with US-Palestinian talks on how the Palestinian Authority should plan for the transition. NATO should also launch a series of talks with the parties and with the US on its possible role in a transitional administration.
NATO would not replace Israeli presence on the Israeli side of the border.
The Israelis would still regulate and determine what and who enters its sovereign territory. Israel would still control its borders and would work closely with the NATO forces command in sharing of intelligence information and in other administrative and technical tasks.
A plan for Palestinian elections must be included and should be held shortly after Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is completed. People like Mohammad Dahlan and many others can compete in those elections for the public’s support, but he, nor anyone else should be imposed on the Palestinian people by outside meddlers.
One real question of many remains open – will Sharon disengage from Gaza before the Knesset disengages from him?
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.