Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 February 2004
Issue No. 677
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Another dead end

Palestinians are discovering that Ariel Sharon's announcement of "unilateral disengagement" from Gaza is a cleverly constructed trap, writes Jonathan Cook

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announcement that most of the 7,500 Jewish settlers living in the Gaza Strip would be soon evacuated came as Palestinians were celebrating Eid Al-Adha. That coincident, and the understandable caution which nowadays greets every "painful concession" Sharon makes for his neighbours' benefit, may explain why it took so long for the Palestinian leadership to digest the news.

The announcement was met first with incredulity. Then, as the magnitude of Sharon's policy reversal sank in, it was seized on as a breakthrough. Only by the weekend did the Palestinian Authority (PA) sense a trap. A statement issued on Friday -- following a meeting of the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation chaired by Arafat -- rejected the "unilateral disengagement" plan.

"The plan is a recipe for a takeover of most of the territories of the West Bank," the statement read.

Such fears are not an over-reaction. On the heels of Sharon's announcement, the prime minister's office revealed that the plan involved transferring the Gaza evacuees to the West Bank to "consolidate" settlement blocs such as Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, Ariel near Nablus, and Gush Etzion south of Bethlehem. Israeli media soon became rife with rumour that Sharon would suggest to the White House that the price of evacuation would be the annexation of several large settlement blocs in the West Bank.

One source in the prime minister's office was quoted in Ma'ariv as saying, "We are putting out feelers, to see what the Americans will agree to."

Although the White House has publicly voiced opposition to transferring Gaza settlers to the West Bank, the language being used in private suggests the idea is not being rejected out of hand. If Washington gives the green light, it will be a triumph for Sharon. The "consolidation" of West Bank settlements would be a violation of the terms of the US-sponsored roadmap, which freezes all further settlement growth. The death knell of the roadmap would finally lift from Sharon's shoulders the burden of the plan's ultimate goal: the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Sensing a slippage in the American position, on Monday Yasser Abed Rabbo, an Arafat aide, warned that the PA might respond to Sharon's unilateral disengagement by declaring a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The Gaza pullout, whether Sharon means to implement it or not, represents a small revolution. In the words of Sharon, "These settlements are situated in a region where Jews will not be living in any future agreement." So what has led Sharon -- one of the most settler-friendly prime ministers in Israel's history -- to this apparent U-turn?

It should be underlined that Sharon's statement that "I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza" is far from the whole truth. Only 17 of the Strip's 20 settlements will be dismantled. Three communities in the northeast corner, according to reports, will be annexed to Israel. Nor should an evacuation of settlers be confused with an evacuation of soldiers. Amir Oren, senior analyst with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz warned that many of the Strip's army bases would not be removed under the "disengagement". Nor would the plan disengage the Israeli navy that blockades the coast off Gaza.

Also unstated so far are the provisions Israel will make for the Palestinians after the settlers have left. One source close to Sharon told Ma'ariv that officials would enforce a scorched earth policy. "The whole idea of disengagement is that the Palestinians should not profit by the process. Accordingly the current tendency is to leave nothing intact, not a greenhouse, not a house and not even the grass." Much more pressing, apparently, is the issue of financial compensation for those Jews who will be evacuated. Basing calculations on the financial dividend offered to settlers removed from Yamit during the Sinai withdrawal in 1982, economists quoted figures of $10 billion for the Gaza plan. Various Israeli commentators have suggested that either the Americans or Europe should stump up the cash.

The damaging effects of Israel withdrawing from Gaza unilaterally -- without a final peace deal establishing a sovereign Palestinian state -- are not hard to predict. Even if the army does pull back, it will simply be withdrawing to a new line around Gaza. The Strip would be effectively besieged, with no Palestinian control over entry or exit, either by land or sea. It would be a settler- less occupation, but a continuing occupation nonetheless. That is hardly likely to dampen the flames of anger sweeping through Gaza's refugee camps.

Counter-intuitively, here perhaps lies some of the appeal of a Gaza evacuation for Sharon. The plan is soaking up headlines that should be reminding readers of the corruption scandal ensnaring Sharon. It also takes the wind out of the sails of the Geneva Accord, and turns the hostile gaze of the world away from the apartheid wall under construction in the West Bank. But watching from the sidelines as Palestinian political factions, along with the population of Gaza, descend into civil war may be the biggest prize of all.

The first signs of where Gaza is heading may have appeared last Thursday when a half-hour gun battle raged outside the headquarters of Razi Jabali, supreme commander of the police in Gaza. Amid rumours of treachery, betrayal and assassination attempts by the Preventive Security Organisation, one policeman was killed and 11 others wounded.

Hatem Abdul-Qader, a senior Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, warned, "A withdrawal based on bad intentions and without coordination with the PA will transform Gaza into a living hell."

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