Published on Thursday, August 17, 2006 by the Baltimore Sun (Maryland)
by George Bisharat
SAN FRANCISCO – With the spotlight on Lebanon, another Middle East milestone is passing largely unnoticed. However, its lessons are just as important. A year ago this week, Israel began implementing its unilateral Gaza disengagement plan — yet the region is beset by violence. Why did withdrawal of 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza lead to more conflict? Can Israel withdraw from Arab territories without inviting attack?
Last August, Gaza Palestinians greeted disengagement with both cautious hope and cynicism. They relished freedom from the daily humiliations of military occupation. Students longed to study, children to frolic on the beach, and entrepreneurs to build businesses. Yet many also saw disengagement as an expression of racial preference for Jews. Israel could not annex the Gaza Strip without absorbing 1.4 million Palestinians, thus jeopardizing its status as a Jewish state.
Israel marketed disengagement to Americans as a step toward peace, but Palestinians remembered the October 2004 comment of Dov Weisglass, adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.”
Why would Israeli politicians subvert negotiations with Palestinians? Perhaps because no Palestinian leader could agree to Israel’s planned takeover of Jerusalem and much of the West Bank.
Thus, the Gaza “disengagement” plan is also the Jerusalem and West Bank “expansion” plan. The number of Israelis settling in the West Bank this year exceeds the number withdrawn from Gaza.
Further conflict, therefore, was inevitable.
Moreover, while Israel decolonized Gaza, its military occupation continues. Israel still controls the entry and exit of people and goods into the region, patrols its coast and airspace, oversees its water, fuel, electric utilities, and sewage, and enters it with military forces at will. Under international law, “effective control” determines whether a territory is occupied.
Since the January Palestinian elections, hailed as the fairest in the Arab world, Israel has strived to undermine the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, withholding $50 million to $60 million monthly in tax revenues owed to the authority. The U.S. and European Union have followed, halting aid to the Palestinians until the Hamas government renounces violence, recognizes Israel and pledges to honor prior agreements of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has not yet bowed but has repeatedly signaled willingness to negotiate.
Of course Hamas should not just halt violence — it had suspended military operations for 17 months, until June — it should also renounce it. But shouldn’t the same standard apply to both parties? Shouldn’t recognition and respect for prior agreements be reciprocally required of Israel, which denies Palestinian national rights and regularly violates the Oslo accords?
Palestinian civil servants have gone without salaries since January. Gazans have suffered serious deterioration in nutrition and health. The special U.N. rapporteur on conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories warned in June of an impending humanitarian crisis, saying, “In effect, the Palestinian people have been subjected to economic sanctions — the first time that an occupied people have been so treated.”
On June 24, Israeli troops entered Gaza and abducted Dr. Osama Muantar and his brother, Mustafa, alleging they were members of Hamas. The two joined some 9,000 Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails. Many have not been charged with a crime and more than 100 are minors.
The following day, Palestinian groups attacked an Israeli army post, killing two soldiers and capturing a third.
Since then, Israel has laid siege to the Gaza Strip, closing it to travel and trade and abducting 64 Hamas officials, including Cabinet ministers and parliamentary representatives. Its jets have bombed roads, bridges, government buildings, Gaza’s main electrical generating plant, homes, fields, orchards, workshops, and offices. To date, 184 Palestinians have been killed, including 42 children, while another 650 have been wounded.
In 1982, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula as part of a comprehensive peace agreement with Egypt. Twenty-four years of peace on that border followed. But unilateral redeployments that only shift the character of Israeli control over Palestinian lives will never yield such results. Unilateralism — wherein the legitimate interests of the other party are ignored — is the flaw, not withdrawal.
Would Americans remain quiescent if a neighboring power sealed our borders and airspace, suffocated our economy, expanded into our most desirable lands and attempted to throttle our democratically elected government?
We should counsel Israel to abandon unilateralism and unremitting violence against civilians. Negotiations based on respect for international law and equal rights offer the only way to lasting peace.
George Bisharat, a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, writes frequently on the Middle East.