Lessons from the Gaza Disengagement ?>

Lessons from the Gaza Disengagement

The most commonly heard argument against the two state solution in the current political discourse is based on the failure of the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip to attain peace or even improve Israel’s situation vis-à-vis Gaza. Israeli politicians and political commentators across the right wing political spectrum constantly invoke the failure of the 2005 Disengagement as incontrovertible proof that territorial concessions to the Palestinians will inevitably lead to further death and suffering and may even endanger the existence of the State of Israel since Hamas will take over the West Bank like it did in Gaza. This argument is widely invoked but hardly ever challenged by competent voices on the left who prefer to focus on other issues. This is a shame in my view since the argument really is a weak one and can be easily dispelled.

To start, it should be noted that the Disengagement was not a concession. It was not part of a final status peace agreement or even an interim peace agreement. The Disengagement was a tactical decision made by one of the most outspoken hawks in the history of Israeli politics, the father of the settlement movement and a chief opponent of the two-state solution. Ariel Sharon conceived of the Disengagement Plan not as a bold step towards jump-starting the peace process but rather as a way to freeze the peace process. He dismantled the settlements in Gaza in order to divert international pressure away from Israel so that he would never have to dismantle another settlement again. The fact that this is not how the Disengagement was viewed at the time by many, on the left and on the right, should not detract from this fact which was stated explicitly by Ariel Sharon’s chief advisor, Dov Weisglass, in an interview given to Ari Shavit in 2004.

In this fascinating and in depth interview, Weisglass is remarkably open as to Sharon’s true intentions and motivations for the Disengagement Plan. Weisglass describes the Disengagement Plan as a brilliant unilateral maneuver designed to put the peace process on ice for good and to ensure that Israel would not have to evacuate further settlements in the West Bank. He notes that if the Disengagement plan is not adopted, Israel will likely be forced to evacuate a much larger number of settlements in the West Bank. But if the Disengagement Plan is carried out, the international pressure on Israel will dissipate and Israel will be able to hold on to the rest of the settlements in the West Bank indefinitely. According to Weisglass, the settlers “should have danced around and around the Prime Minister’s Office” in support of the Disengagement Plan. Logically then, those who oppose the settlement enterprise and support a two state solution should have opposed the Disengagement Plan which was designed to prevent that which they sought to accomplish.

In order for Sharon’s Disengagement Plan to effectively freeze the peace process and prevent further evacuation of settlements it couldn’t be seen domestically and internationally as a success. If the withdrawal from Gaza was seen as a success it would only increase pressure on Israel to evacuate further settlements. This would be the exact opposite of what Sharon sought to achieve according to Weisglass. It’s no wonder then upon further investigation it seems that in so many aspects of the planning and the implementation of the Disengagement Plan were disastrous for Gaza.

To start, the Disengagement was done unilaterally, at a time when the Palestinians had just elected Mahmoud Abbas to succeed Arafat. Abbas was by far the most moderate of all the potential Palestinian replacements for Arafat who was outspoken in his support for continuing negotiations and pursuing a two state solution. For more on just how uniquely suited Abbas is to be  a peace partner with Israel I recommend reading what Elhanan Miller has published on Abbas after having thoroughly researched Abbas’ speeches and publications in Arabic throughout his career. By acting unilaterally and refusing to engage with Abbas diplomatically, Sharon essentially threw Abbas under the bus. It’s important to note that the Gaza Strip was the most violent and Hamas-dominated of all the Palestinian territories during the second Intifada. By withdrawing specifically from there Sharon sent a clear message to the Palestinians – violence pays, diplomacy will get you nowhere.

The other aspect of the Disengagement that was disastrous for Gaza was the economic consequences of the Israeli withdrawal. the Gaza Strip is extremely densely populated by a population who are mostly descended from refugees from 1948. It was widely believed that in order for the Israeli withdrawal to succeed the moribund Gazan economy would have to improve following the Disengagement. Billions of dollars in international funding was pledged to ensure the improvement of the Gazan economy and hundreds of millions were deployed for fast-impact projects. These funds were used to purchase export-oriented agro-business infrastructure, including hundreds of high-tech greenhouses, from the departing Israeli settlers. Yet Israeli policies following the disengagement prevented these initiatives from being successfully implemented.

Particularly illustrative of Israel’s detrimental policies affecting the recovery of the Gazan economy is the experience of James Wolfensohn. Wolfensohn, the Jewish Australian-American former Head of the World Bank who was appointed to oversee international efforts to revitalize Gaza’s economy. At the head of the a special Quartet Envoy, Wolfensohn raised billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Gaza and worked tirelessly with Israeli and Palestinian leadership in order to ensure the economic success of the Disengagement. Wolfensohn found that Israel was deliberately trying to derail his efforts. Wolfensohn knew that in order for Gaza’s economy to succeed he needed to ensure free movement of Palestinian workers and goods to markets in Israel, the West Bank and to international marketplaces.

It’s worth reading the following excerpt from Wolfensohn’s memoir quoted by Peter Beinart in his article about Gaza myths and facts about how excruciatingly painful it was for him to see Palestinian crops rotting on trucks waiting to cross the border. “In early December [2005], the much-awaited first harvest of quality cash crops — strawberries, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and flowers — began. These crops were intended for export via Israel for Europe. But their success relied upon the Karni crossing [between Gaza and Israel], which, beginning in mid-January 2006, was closed more than not. The Palestine Economic Development Corporation, which was managing the greenhouses taken over from the settlers, said that it was experiencing losses in excess of $120,000 per day. It was excruciating. This lost harvest was the most recognizable sign of Gaza’s declining fortunes and the biggest personal disappointment during my mandate.”

According to Wolfensohn, Israel’s border policies following the withdrawal were a major cause of the failure of the Disengagement. Israel had completely halted the flow of thousands of workers who had crossed the border daily prior to the withdrawal and all but stopped the passage of trucks carrying goods out of the Gaza Strip for export purposes. In order to fully grasp the extent of the damage Israeli policies caused to the already fragile Gazan economy following the disengagement I recommend reading Dr. Mohammad Samhouri’s Gaza Economic Predicament One Year After Disengagement: What Went Wrong?  and Joel Peters’ The Gaza Disengagement: Five Years Later

But where does this all leave us today? Israel withdrew from Gaza like Ariel Sharon wanted and Hamas took over. What will prevent the same thing from happening today if we withdraw from the West Bank?

This question is asked by many Israelis and Israel supporters around the world who are rightfully concerned for Israel’s security.

Perhaps doubts about the viability of a peace agreement with the Palestinians involving a withdrawal from the West Bank can be best allayed by pointing to the fact that Israel already did withdraw from an entire region in the West Bank as part of the Disengagement Plan and it has been a resounding success.

This often overlooked part of the Disengagement Plan was the withdrawal from the Northern Samaria region of the West Bank. At the same time that Israel evacuated the settlements in the Gaza Strip it also evacuated all the settlements in Northern Samaria around the Palestinian city of Jenin. However, since Northern Samaria is contiguous with the rest of the West Bank where Israel continues to maintain its settlement presence, it could not enforce the same kind of restrictive policies that it did when it withdrew from Gaza. The result has been rapid economic growth in and around Jenin coupled with a sharp decline of violence in the region. The success has come despite the fact that Disengagement was carried out unilaterally which played into the hands of the extremists. The Jenin model is a better example of what a future withdrawal from other parts of the West Bank could look like.

The transformation of Jenin since the evacuation of the settlements surrounding the city has been truly astounding. The removal of the settlements has eliminated much of the daily friction that Palestinians living near settlements experience with IDF forces stationed around those settlements. The removal of the settlements has also freed up open space around Jenin allowing for the development of the only Palestinian industrial zones in the West Bank and the only Palestinian power plant. Jenin is also home to the most prestigious university in the West Bank and is home to a booming restaurant scene and bustling vegetable markets. Much of this economic progress is possible to foreign investment which has been effective since, unlike with Gaza, Jenin has not been cut off from the surrounding geographic area and the markets its economy are dependent on.

Most importantly for Israelis, Jenin has gone from the suicide-bomber capital of the second intifada to a thriving economic hub and the quietest city in thew West Bank in terms of violence. The economic transformation of Jenin has directly resulted in the decline in violence originating from the city. That’s not to say that terrorist groups have been completely eradicated from the city and its environs. Still, Jenin went from spearheading the violence against Israel during the intifada to remaining almost entirely uninvolved in recent rounds of violence. Eliyor Levy has written extensively about the recent developments in Jenin and how economic prosperity has precipitated the decline in violence

The story of Jenin is the story of what could have been in Gaza, and the disengagement from both areas constitute two models for how Israel can evacuate settlements. When talking about the removal of settlements as part of the process towards a two-state solution leaders on Israel’s left should be more vocal in emphasizing this point. The removal of settlements is a necessary but not sufficient condition for peace. Any “divorce” from the Palestinians that does not entail creating workable economic conditions for the future Palestinian state is destined to fail. However, an evacuation of the settlements that is accompanied by continued economic cooperation ideally carried out through a bi-lateral agreement has a track record of success. The Jenin model is what the Israeli left should be pushing for and is a more likely indicator of what the West Bank will look like if a withdrawal of settlements is carried out properly.

There are certainly many lessons to be learned from the experience of the Gaza Disengagement but the claim that territorial concessions don’t work isn’t once of them. The territorial “concession” of evacuating the settlements during the Gaza Disengagement was the only positive aspect of the plan. Practically every other aspect of the Disengagement served to undermine the possibility of it attaining peace and security for Israel. However, the remarkable success of the often over-looked withdrawal of settlements from Northern Samaria demonstrates what a two-state solution with steps taken to ensure economic cooperation and sustainability would look like.

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