Forced to do so
A withdrawal from Gaza means Israel has been defeated. Emad Gad explains why this might be good for Tel Aviv
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon succeeded in winning Knesset approval for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and dismantle Jewish settlements in Gaza, along with four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank. This must be considered a victory for Sharon over rejectionist forces made up of Likud elements and extreme right-wing parties, both religious and secular.
Sharon presented his plan as a unilateral disengagement, in light of the absence of any Palestinian partner for negotiations on an agreement to implement the plan. At the same time, he presented the plan to the Israeli public as one being imposed by the victor on the defeated, after he managed to crush the ability of armed Palestinian groups to resist. Thus, the withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was presented as part of the fruits of this victory.
Israeli political parties supportive of the peace process, a regional compromise, and the principle of land for peace welcomed Sharon's plan and asked him to continue to implement it as a step on the way to a final political resolution. Extremist right-wing parties and certain militant elements in the Likud Party, however, viewed Sharon's plan as an attempt to "renounce" part of the "the land of Israel", believing that implementing the plan at the current time would mean surrendering to what they term Palestinian terrorism.
Against this background, extremist Jewish groups threatened Sharon with assassination and a climate of incitement returned to Israel once more. The Israeli public well remembers this climate as leading up to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on 5 November 1995 following incitement by the Israeli right, in which Sharon himself participated. In a calculated step, Sharon attended the annual commemoration of Rabin's death and apologised for any incendiary statements he made against the late prime minister.
The split between supporters and opponents of the plan is evident in Israeli society. Although a majority in the Likud oppose the plan, a majority of Israelis support it, as revealed by an opinion poll that found that 65 per cent of Israelis support disengagement.
Even as Sharon is taking care to present the disengagement plan as "a gift" from the victor to the vanquished, many in Israel have begun to say that the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is a natural consequence of the impossibility of Israel maintaining its control over another people. In turn, a withdrawal from Gaza will naturally be followed by a withdrawal from the occupied West Bank. These Israeli voices have clearly stated that the withdrawal comes under the pressure of resistance operations by the Palestinian people, and these writers are thus calling for a return to a real peace process that would end with Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian territories. They warn that ignoring the peace process and claiming that the withdrawal from Gaza has nothing to do with the resistance will only increase the spiral of violence in both Israeli and Palestinian territories.
This view was expressed by Yaron London in an article published on 28 October in Yediot Aharonot, entitled "The real reason for disengagement". "Neither the prime minister nor any other minister who supported the disengagement plan has explained the true motives behind it," London wrote. "Ariel Sharon discussed the need to reconcile with the Palestinians and admitted, with some hesitation, the limits of force. He has tortured the settlers by clinging to this madness and proffered several explanations, more suitable to the architects of the Geneva Initiative than to someone who intends to withdraw from the country, while strengthening his authority in the remainder of the occupied territories. Sharon did not offer a good explanation for why, suddenly, he changed his opinion that Kfar Darom and Netzarim were like the Negev and Tel Aviv, or why he believes that disengagement will strengthen our security position."
London added, "although I believe that we must evacuate the majority of the occupied territories, I find it difficult to understand how the prime minister's feeble explanations successfully convinced many people in his political camp.
"We cannot search for the answer in Sharon's stated formulations, but only by comprehending the silent assumption that has seeped into the consciousness of most Israelis that we have lost the military battle. The Palestinians understand this and boast that their endless war has expelled us from Gaza. As for us, we refuse to admit the truth of this. We want to appear to ourselves to be withdrawing out of our own free will and due to our disgust with the idea of controlling another people, or our fears of losing a Jewish majority in Israel and to strengthen our hold on other, more vital areas, or as part of a brilliant diplomatic trap that aims to forestall the demands of the world's nations, open the way to a peace agreement, and improve our terrible image in the global media. But it was for none of these reasons, no matter how valid, that Israeli governments have ever taken one step backwards.
"We have never given up any territory except when forced to do so, if they had not forced us to do so. And we would not do so now. Our occupations have ended only when our strength gives out or when the great powers force us to obey. Our forces stopped their march in the Sinai during the war of independence only because of government fears of a British reaction. After Operation Kadesh in 1956 and after Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the Third Temple, we left the Sinai only because of Soviet and American warnings...
"We gave up the Sinai a second time only after the Egyptians inflicted extreme losses on us in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, and we left Lebanon only because we could no longer bear the damage inflicted on us by Hizbullah. In the future, we will withdraw from Gaza only because we did not succeed in impressing the significance of our absolute superiority on the Palestinian consciousness. Indeed, on the contrary, the Palestinians have impressed on our consciousness our aspirations to bite off more than we can chew. A withdrawal from an area that Israeli governments swore would be ours forever, an area in which enormous sums were invested and will be invested for the withdrawal, an area in which hundreds of soldiers and civilians have died to occupy and defend -- no, such a withdrawal can only be a bitter defeat.
"But our solace is found in our defeat. If we had won -- that is, if we had forced Palestinian fighters to renounce their weapons -- the consequences of our victory would have been catastrophic for us. If we had won, we would not withdraw from Gaza or the northern West Bank, and if we had continued to control these Palestinian territories, the loss of a democratic Jewish state would have only been a matter of time. Our defeat in Gaza gives us a respite, but if we continue to cling to the foolish notion that our flight from Gaza was not the consequence of a defeat, we may continue to believe that we can control the rest of the occupied territories forever. Our defeat in Gaza is both a warning and a life boat."
Ofer Shelah expressed the same sentiment in an article for Yediot Aharonot on 2 November entitled "There is no connection". "Some 50 months after the outbreak of the Intifada, it still has no connection to Israeli actions, accepting the foolish belief that our force and the strength of our grip have proved victorious," Shelah wrote. "With our force we shall prevent the firing of Al-Qassam rockets; with our force, we shall stop every Palestinian with an explosive belt trying to penetrate some hole in the wall; with our force we shall change reality by withdrawing (and God forbid the Palestinians were partners in this process because that would mean that the change was not a consequence of our might). The "no connection theory" has been planted so deeply in the Israeli consciousness that we have even stopped asking that our actions be accompanied with a potential or immediate benefit. Clearly, this will change nothing. That's clear. That's the way it is.
"So what is left? It is left for us to count the trees in the forest, like our chief forest observer does -- Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet. Yesterday Dichter gave us the good news that there has been a tangible decline in the number of attacks that the Shin Bet has not been able to thwart. He said the number of unthwarted attacks declined from 38 per cent last year to 26 per cent this year. For Dichter, whose organisation has shown over the last two years a wondrous ability to collect information and turn it into action, this statistic is a huge accomplishment and a real saving of lives. In fact, however, in the lives of Israelis, there is no connection between this success and citizens' sense of security. That's the way it is."
To read more about this issue, please visit the website of Arabs Against Discrimination www.aad-online.org.