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The Disengagement and the Palestinians

Settlers in Gaza find themselves suddenly on the wrong side of Sharon. It's a place Palestinians have long been used to being.
PHOTO BY: Nir Elias/Reuters
Opponents to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan (L) dance in front of Israeli soldiers (R) as they secure the fence of Kfar Maimon July 20, 2005. Many of the thousands of rightist protesters massed at a village in southern Israel will head home after police blocked them from marching on Gaza settlements, a settler leader said on July 20.

by Gershon Baskin
Courtesy of Arabic Media Internet Network

There is no doubt that the Israeli disengagement has created some serious dilemmas and problems for the Palestinians. First, this is a unilateral step by Israel designed at a time when Israel declared that there was no partner. It was launched by Sharon to take attention away from Geneva and a much wider internationally supported campaign for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Sharon has claimed a space in the international community as a political hero, previously perceived there as a demon. Now leaders from the entire world are waiting on line to meet him.

Despite the international support that Sharon has received, the disengagement is perceived by most people as an attempt by Sharon to give away Gaza in order to tighten his grip on the West Bank. It is not clear if Gaza will really be detached from Israel – whether Palestinians will be able to move freely between Gaza and the West Bank – between the two parts of Palestine which are legally perceived to be one integrative territory. It is not clear if Israel will withdraw from the Gaza-Egypt border, whether a seaport will be allowed to function, whether the Gaza airport will be allowed to work, and many other open questions.

In the north of the West Bank it is unclear if Israel will turn over the vacated territory, roughly 2.5 times the size of Gaza, to the Palestinian Authority, transforming it into area “a” and under full Palestinian control, or if Israel will continue to hold full control and prevent Palestinians from moving freely in the area.

For the sake of argument, or for strategic game-playing, let us assume for a moment that Israel will completely withdraw from Gaza and that they will relinquish all control over Gaza, its international borders, its airspace, its land and it natural resources. If that is the case, Israel will claim that the occupation over Gaza has ended. At that point, a vacuum of sovereignty will exist, and while Israel was never sovereign in Gaza, the question must be raised of whether or not the Palestinian Authority becomes the sovereign power and if that sovereignty is translated into statehood.

There is no need to declare a Palestinian State, that was done on November 15, 1988 and more than 100 countries recognized that state. Of those who did not recognize the State were all of the original 13 EU countries, the United States, Canada and Israel. The Palestinians could re-issue their Declaration of Independence, adding a chapter on borders indicating that the borders of the State are the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as the Capital of Palestine. A declaration as such would in fact be helpful to any future peace process. It sets in stone, so to speak, the price of peace that Israel must pay and it removes any doubts about Palestinian plans for expanding the State into Israeli territory.

Palestine must then gain full membership in the United Nations and Mahmoud Abbas should call on Israel to recognize the State of Palestine and even co-sponsor the resolution for UN Membership. If Israel did recognize the new State, there is no doubt that the United States would as well. Even without Israeli recognition, there is a chance that the United States would, and even without US recognition, the rest of the world would recognize Palestine and establish embassies in a provisional capital.

In the Twelfth Session of the Palestine National Council in Cairo in 1974, a resolution was passed stating that the Palestinians would establish their state in any part of Palestine liberated from Israel. After 1974 this became the policy of the mainstream of the Palestinian National Movement. If Gaza is to become completed liberated from Israeli occupation, it is incumbent on the Palestinians to claim sovereignty there and to create real statehood as the first stage of enacting the Palestinian state in all of the declared territories within its borders. In the absence of Israeli control over Gaza, Palestinians must claim sovereignty and must rule there as a State. This is not the end of the struggle and a Palestinian State established first in Gaza does not in any way prevent the Palestinians from working towards the complete fulfillment of their sovereignty in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Many Palestinians fears that if they adopt this strategy they will end up with a State in Gaza only. They fear that the international community will forget about the Palestinian issue and that the occupation by Israel of the West Bank will be strengthened. This, in my opinion is highly unlikely. If the sides do not get back to the negotiating table in the framework of the Road Map or in the framework of permanent status negotiations, we are likely to see additional Israeli unilateral disengagements.

If Israel is wise it will return to the negotiating table, however due to the complete absence of trust between the parties, this is unlikely. A peaceful disengagement and a successful Palestinian take over of Gaza will help to build trust between the sides. Perhaps not enough trust to return to permanent status negotiations, but enough to bring about a second, but coordinated disengagement.

It is quite clear that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians –perceive the first disengagement as a reward of violence and that Hamas is presenting itself to the public as the party that secured the Israeli evacuation. This was a real lost opportunity by Israel to strengthen the leadership of Abu Mazen. Had Sharon announced the disengagement after meeting with Abu Mazen, it would be perceived as a victory for moderation and negotiations.

A second disengagement must be done in coordination with Abu Mazen directly in the picture. If not, a second disengagement could lead to a third intifada. The next disengagement will likely be from all of the settlements east of the Israeli separation barrier – walls and fences. Here we are speaking about a minimum of 80,000 settlers in some 60 settlements. This falls short of what Palestinians want and it will be a clear attempt by Israeli to cement the separation barriers as a permanent border. Nonetheless, the second disengagement should be embraced by the Palestinians and supported in any way possible. The Israeli taboo on removing settlements has been broken by the first disengagement and the Palestinians must encourage the Israelis to continue dismantling more and more settlements.

The best chances for moving forward and for ensuring additional further Israeli withdrawals and disengagements is for the Palestinians to claim statehood and sovereignty and to behave like a state. As a responsible member of the international community, backed by UN Membership, Palestine will be free to enter into international treaties and conventions. Palestine will be free to call upon the United Nations to dispatch United Nations peace keepers to its borders in order to prevent an Israeli incursion into its territory. Palestine can be a free agent and can work on behalf of all of its citizens and territories, even if it still does not have full control over all of the areas of the State. This is all completely feasible and possible if Palestine behaves like a responsible State. This means that Palestine must enforce law and order. It means that there cannot be any militia or unauthorized weapons being used by groups of citizens. It means that stopping the armed struggle or the armed resistance becomes a Palestinian imperative and a supreme matter of Palestinian national strategic interests.

The surest way to advance the process of creating the Palestinian State in all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is for the State of Palestine to exist as a state dedicated to providing security, prosperity and peace for its own citizens. Even if the State of Palestine is not created as part of a negotiated process, a process of coordinated unilateralism is completely possible. In fact, this might be the fastest and surest way to advance the cause of freedom and liberation for Palestine and for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Gershon Baskin is the founder and the Israeli co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem.