Gaza: Pullout or Consolidation?
Gaza: Pullout or Consolidation?
This week marks a turning point for Israel and its settlements in the Palestinian territories it occupies-a cardinal issue in this crisis-ridden, turbulent, unhappy land. Will Israel "disengage" from the Gaza Strip in keeping with a plan drawn up by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and backed by President George Bush? Or will its Byzantine politics kill even conservative proposals which eventually strengthen the occupation?
The referendum held yesterday within Mr Sharon's Right-wing Likud Party will provide a first, tentative answer. Going by opinion polls, the dice seem loaded against the pullout. But whatever the verdict, and however Mr Sharon acts on it, the Palestinian crisis will worsen.
Gaza has only 7,500 Israeli settlers (who, however, control 40 percent of its land and water, while 1.5 million Palestinians have to do with the rest). Other parts of Palestine have 400,000 illegal settlers.
Even if Israel evacuates the settlements and its troops, Gaza will not be free of Israel's suzerainty or colonial-style "paramountcy". Israel will control Gaza's air-space, sea-coast and land approaches.
The Israeli plan is to trade "disengagement" for the indefinite preservation of most of the 120 settlements in the West Bank. Indeed, Finance Minister Beinyamin Netanyahu says Israel will pump tens of millions of dollars into these, signalling their perpetuation. On April 14, President Bush gave the green light to the principle of maintaining the settlements-under the guise of "realism".
One of the main objectives of "disengagement" is to avoid and bypass a political process or negotiated settlement of the Palestinian question. As Mr Sharon himself put it, the withdrawal would "severely harm Palestinians" and end their dream of a Palestinian state.
"After disengagement, Gaza will become a prison republic or a mini-Bantustan ", says Azmi Bishara, a distinguished Israeli-Palestinian philosopher and social scientist, and Member of the Knesset (parliament). "This won't be a step towards a resolution of the Palestinian question based upon ending Israel's occupation and creating a sovereign, viable Palestinian state. Yet, Sharon and Bush will tom-tom it as 'progress' and a 'historic' breakthrough..."
Writes Israeli scholar Meron Benvenisti: "[T]he goal of disengagement is to improve the demographic situation by removing 1? million Palestinians from Israeli control and thereby reducing the danger that the country will cease to be a Jewish state".
Ultra-conservative Israelis see "disengagement" as "betrayal" and a retreat from the Zionist ideal of annexing Jewish territories mentioned in the scriptures to create a "Greater Israel". They see it as violating Mr Sharon's established strategy: the best response to pressure to give up occupied territories is to further expand the settlements!
By contrast, most Palestinians are livid at the plan and its uncritical approval by Mr Bush, itself linked to the declaration that the Palestinian refugees displaced during Israel's creation in 1948 cannot return to their homes. Instead, they should go to a (future) Palestine state. More Palestinians live outside the borders of their country than within.
"It's outrageous that Bush and Sharon cancel our right of return", says Johnny Odeh, a young Western-educated sound engineer in Jerusalem. "This is a fundamental right of individuals under international law. No one, not even Mr Yasser Arafat, can annul or abridge it on our behalf... The absurdity, the obscenity, is that any Jew living anywhere can 'return' to Israel as a citizen, but Palestinians born here cannot come here."
The Sharon-Bush declaration has deeply offended the Palestinians and strengthened Far-Right forces in the government. Isarael's first major act after Mr Sharon's return from Washington was to assassinate Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi.
Mr Sharon has since renewed his threat to eliminate Palestinian Authority chairperson Arafat and declared he is no longer bound by the undertaking given to Mr Bush three years ago not to harm him. The threat came despite Mr Arafat's expulsion of 21 members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade from the Muqaata, the devastated compound in Ramallah which is his headquarters. The expulsion provoked charges of "betrayal" and "capitulation" to Israeli pressure from militant Palestinians.
This hardline policy goes hand in hand with tightening controls on the movement of Palestinians and their encirclement. Indeed, since the Oslo agreements of 1994-95, Israel has followed strategies to reconfigure the entire territory of Palestine and make a genuine two-state solution virtually impossible. These include:
Says Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions: "Disengagement from Gaza concludes the process, pursued by all Israeli governments over 36 years and by Sharon himself since 1977, of creating a cantonised Palestinian entity". He holds that disengagement will get the Palestinians "off our hands" while leaving Israel firmly in control, "its sovereignty extended over 85-90% of the entire country. What is set to emerge is a mini-state without sovereignty or contiguous territory-a Bantustan".
Copyright 2004 The Hindu