Edition 34 Volume 5 - August 30, 2024

Israelís Gaza withdrawal: two years later

A negative balance sheet -   Yossi Alpher

Only one of Sharon's four justifications for unilateral withdrawal--demography--stands up fully to retrospective scrutiny.

Worst-case scenario for Egypt -   Mohamed Abdel Salam

Egypt is adopting a strategy based on recognition of the dangers but without aggravating the problem.

Worse than ever -   Safwat Kahlout

The Israeli "withdrawal" should more accurately be understood as no more than a redeployment of troops.

Unilateral disaster -   Ghassan Khatib

The logic of Israeli unilateralism foresaw different futures for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

A negative balance sheet
 Yossi Alpher

Back in 2024-4, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained to his public why he was dismantling Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdrawing the Israel Defense Forces, he cited four rationales: security, economics, "politics"--meaning Israel's international relations--and demography. Today, two years later, only one of these four justifications for unilateral withdrawal--demography--stands up fully to retrospective scrutiny. This is one reason why the unilateral approach has been so badly discredited among the Israeli public: it was marketed wrong. The other is the withdrawal's major contribution to the perception that Israel's deterrent capacity against low-level warfare had been weakened, thereby inviting last summer's war and wreaking serious security damage.

In assessing the withdrawal from Israel's standpoint, it is not always easy to distinguish the fallout generated by the IDF redeployment from the consequences of the subsequent Hamas electoral victory and violent takeover of the Strip. In this connection, the argument that Hamas won the elections of January 2024 because of the withdrawal is problematic; a heavier influence on the Palestinian electorate appears to have been Fateh's corruption and inefficiency. In any event, in assessing the withdrawal two years later we should keep in mind that not everything bad (from Israel's standpoint) that has happened in and around Gaza since then can be traced to that event.

One area where Israeli security has improved since the redeployment from Gaza is the vast reduction in IDF troops needed to secure the fenced-in Gaza Strip, coupled with reduced Israeli casualties now that there are no settlements there. By most indicators-- terrorist attacks, suicide bombings and Israelis killed and wounded--the Gaza withdrawal generated a safer day-to-day environment for Israelis. Indeed, Israel has lost only six soldiers and six civilians in Gaza-related incidents since the withdrawal. On the other hand, Qassam rocket fire into Israel from Gaza increased in 2024--nearly fourfold. This relates to the deterrence factor: the Gaza withdrawal emboldened Hamas and Hizballah to abduct IDF soldiers from Israeli territory in June and July 2024, leading to last summer's war.

At the economic level, the withdrawal produced only losses. A destitute Gaza buys far less from Israel and the siege of Gaza denies Israel over two million dollars per day in revenues from facilitating imports, exports and joint production of textiles. However, here in particular the main negative economic fallout has to be attributed to the Hamas takeover, not the withdrawal per se.

Turning to Israel's international and regional relations, the withdrawal was popular with the West and boosted support for Israel. But only in the short run; international attitudes are today molded far more by Hamas' electoral victory and subsequent takeover of Gaza than by memories of the disengagement, which is generally seen as having been counterproductive to the cause of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the regional level, Israel successfully used the withdrawal and subsequent negative events in Gaza to enhance its bilateral border security cooperation with Egypt, beginning with Sharon's invitation to Cairo effectively to replace Israel at the Sinai-Gaza "philadelphi" border.

Finally, at the demographic level, even those critics who argue that Israel is still somehow responsible for the Palestinian population in Gaza, acknowledge that the removal of the settlements and the withdrawal of the IDF from a finite Palestinian territory have radically reduced the number of Palestinians under direct Israeli control and thereby improved Israel's Jewish-Arab demographic balance. Here it behooves us to recall that the concerted grassroots campaign in favor of unilateral withdrawal that began in earnest in Israel shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada derived its primary impetus from widespread popular alarm concerning the threat posed by occupation-linked "Palestinization" to Israel's character as a Jewish and democratic state.

At the time, moderate right-wingers like Ehud Olmert and a variety of civil society activists rarely promoted disengagement for its economic or diplomatic advantages. They described security benefits strictly in terms of manpower and resources saved by abandoning the impossible task of protecting the Gaza settlements, and of improving national morale by reducing the scope of occupation. Had disengagement been "marketed" to the public strictly along these lines and had the response to the first rocket attacks from Gaza following the withdrawal been far more resolute, Israeli public attitudes to the events of August-September 2024 might be more positive today.

Additional Israeli government mistakes surrounding disengagement have compounded the sense of failure. The Sharon government should at least have attempted to coordinate the withdrawal with the Fateh-led Palestinian government of the day. In retrospect, given Fateh corruption and the rise of Hamas, it might not have mattered, but it was worth a try. Domestically, first Sharon and then Olmert made serious mistakes in dealing with the evacuated settlers and their supporters. Resettlement and re-absorption have been mishandled, leaving a large proportion of the former Gazans (many of whom have been deliberately uncooperative) in temporary housing two years later.

On the other hand, those who used force against Israeli security personnel to try to thwart the evacuation have for the most part, in the spirit of national unity, been forgiven rather than punished even as they challenge "police brutality" in the courts. The settlers in the West Bank now argue that the failure to properly resettle 8,000 of their Gazan brethren negates any possibility of removing any more settlers. To make sure, they have staged mass displays of violence to thwart the few meager attempts the Olmert government has made to dismantle West Bank outposts--in the certainty that they can deter security forces from dealing harshly with them and will in any case be pardoned for their patriotic excesses.

When Sharon carried out the Gaza disengagement in 2024, he was clearly motivated by additional, more personal and political needs that he did not cite publicly: rebuffing criticism from the left and the security community over his lack of a program for accommodation with the Palestinians, neutralizing Bush administration pressure over the roadmap and creating for himself a "flak jacket" of popular support against the day when the attorney general would charge him and his family with electoral funding and other abuses. Then too, unilateralism suited him because he never believed Israel had a serious Arab peace partner.

None of these was a viable rationale for the Gaza withdrawal. Demography and ending occupation was. It's a pity the post-disengagement phase was so badly handled that it discredited the entire idea. The West Bank is still occupied and the settlements continue to expand. Last summer, we saw just how badly 40 years of occupation have degraded Israel's national and military capabilities.- Published 30/8/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Worst-case scenario for Egypt
 Mohamed Abdel Salam

Two years ago, no one anticipated the current situation in the Gaza Strip. What is happening now is approaching a worst-case scenario for Egypt; Egyptian officials do not conceal their assessments in this regard. In its editorials, the semi-official newspaper al-Ahram has begun referring to "the fanatic current" inside Hamas. Repeated statements confirm that the trend toward separating Gaza from the West Bank or establishing an Islamic emirate in Gaza threatens Egyptian national security. Egyptian officials hope Hamas will understand that its actions in the Strip are being watched and that there are red lines that could dictate harsh policies if Egypt's interests are negatively affected. Yet nobody wants the situation in Gaza to shift from "danger" to catastrophe.

The prevailing viewpoint in Egypt is that what happened was not an inevitable outcome of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza Strip. Some analysts think that withdrawals that are carried out without sufficient political arrangements or elections that are conducted without paying attention to political realities can produce negative ramifications even though they are good steps per se. But Egypt could not oppose an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories. On the contrary, it thought that disciplined management of Gaza's affairs after the withdrawal could make it a model for withdrawal from additional Palestinian territories. Egypt played a direct role in managing security arrangements before and after the withdrawal. Security was the key.

What happened in Gaza after the withdrawal was the outcome of a series of problems that seemed uncontrollable: the performance of the Fateh movement was dreadful; Hamas thought it had a chance to govern Gaza; Israel did not provide enough support for Abu Mazen, while he himself played dangerous games; regional players' influence began to penetrate the Gaza Strip. The siege imposed on the Palestinian government after the elections of January 2024 confused everyone. All roads were leading to catastrophe.

Some say that Egypt could have intervened in a harsher way to control the situation and that it was more flexible than the situation required. But the Palestinians are not an easy player, the behavior of partner countries was not helpful and Egypt was reluctant to adopt pressure tactics lest it seem as if the old "Gaza governor" had come back. No one knows whether the situation would have taken another direction had Egypt applied a different policy.

Throughout, it was understood in Egypt that its policies toward the Gaza Strip were connected not only to its commitments to the Palestinian cause and its sense of responsibility toward Gaza's population but also to its own security. No country in the world would be willing to live beside a potential bomb--whether Fateh's "failed Strip" or a radical emirate under Hamas' rule--especially when the bomb lies directly across the border from Sinai, whose sensitive status stems from its strategic location, tourist investments and the nature of its population. The challenges facing Egypt's security escalated immediately after the Israeli withdrawal.

The border area was the first challenge. The issue is not so much about a corridor of land stretching no more than 14 kilometers as about the presence of around 1.5 million people living on 350 square kilometers directly across that corridor. Their only real exit to the outside world is Egypt. The border divides a city, Rafah. Egyptian-Israeli security arrangements restrict armed personnel at the border to insufficient numbers. There are intensive movements of people driven by humanitarian needs and huge price differentials across the border. There is no stable authority on the other side to reliably and regularly coordinate with. There is also an illegal underground movement of commodities, narcotics, weapons and individuals through tunnels that represent a security threat to Egypt and Israel and economic profit for those who dig them.

From the start, Egypt had to deal with the problem of administering the crossings and closing the tunnels; this caused friction with both Palestinians and Israelis. Immediately after the Israeli withdrawal, Egypt was taken by surprise when 250,000 Palestinians rushed toward the city of al-Arish. More problems followed. Sinai has witnessed three large terrorist operations whose perpetrators had proven links to radicals in Gaza. The closure of the crossings has given rise to refugee camps for enraged Palestinians on the Egyptian side. Attempts to demolish the homes of Rafah residents along the border in order to curb tunnel digging have provoked protests, demonstrations and deaths. More recent problems have been caused by attempts by Sudanese refugees to infiltrate through the borders.

Egypt's problems with the Gaza Strip were further aggravated after Hamas seized the Strip in mid-2007. A new stage ensued in relations between the two parties. Cairo had dealt with Hamas as a main Palestinian actor that could not be disregarded, and believed it could manage a serious working relationship based on a degree of trust with some of its leaders, along with peaceful coexistence and a good neighborly attitude. But Cairo also realized that Hamas was engaging in deceit as, in the period that preceded Gaza's civil war, it came increasingly under the control of its exile leaders and military wing. Hamas' external alliances with Iran, Syria and perhaps Qatar began to push it to change the rules of engagement with Egypt.

Egypt did not unconditionally accept either Hamas' coup in Gaza or the explanations that were given as to what had happened. But this did not mean that it would adopt unusual measures such as imposing a siege on the Strip. It was clear that Egypt would distinguish the political from the humanitarian aspect and would in time launch a dialogue between Fateh and Hamas. Ultimately Hamas, surrounded by Israel, the sea and Egypt, cannot go far. Therefore, Egypt is adopting a strategy based on recognition of the dangers resulting from Hamas' control over the Strip but without aggravating or preventing solution of the problem. Already pragmatic issues have resurfaced. Yet throughout, no opportunity has been wasted to make Hamas understand that there are Egyptian red lines.

But will Hamas realize this? And if it doesn't, what will Egypt decide to do? These are questions that Egyptian officials hope they will not have to look for answers to in the near future, lest there emerge a truly worst-case scenario.- Published 30/8/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mohamed Abdel Salam heads the Regional Security Program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Worse than ever
 Safwat Kahlout

August 2024 was supposed to have been one of the biggest celebrations in the history of the Palestinian people, especially Gazans. Israel was, for the first time ever, withdrawing its soldiers and settlers from Palestinian areas, allowing Gazans to reclaim almost a third of their land.

When Israel announced its plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip there was much local, regional and international hype about creating a new Gaza. In addition, promises came in from many countries to develop the impoverished and overpopulated strip of land and Gazans were filled with hope.

Never mind that Israel destroyed the houses of the settlements and only left greenhouses intact after it was paid to do so. Palestinians stood ready to construct a future.

But two years later, dreams of freedom and prosperity have turned to dust. First, Palestinians learned that in actual fact, the Israeli "withdrawal" should more accurately be understood as no more than a redeployment of troops. The occupation of Gaza did not end. Rather, if before Israeli jailers lived in Gaza's midst, now the prison guards have left but not before closing and locking the door and throwing away the key.

In the first flush of excitement, a special company was established to take charge of the abandoned Israeli greenhouses. Agricultural projects flourished. Thousands of farmers were employed to plant high quality strawberries, beans, sweet pepper and other fruits and vegetables for export to European markets. But the door was closed. US-brokered agreements on movement and access were broken by Israel with not even the tiniest tinge of shame. The luckiest Gazans turned out to be our animals who have dined on some of the highest quality produce ever to have been grown in Gaza. Animal rights organizations would do well to take notice.

There have been some tangible improvements to our lives here. In the central area of Gaza, specifically the area between Deir al-Balah and Khan Younis, there was once a notorious checkpoint, the so-called Abu Holi checkpoint, which divided the Gaza Strip into two parts and where Gazans used to wait for hours and sometimes days to cross from one side to the other. Many people lost their lives senselessly here, with twitchy Israeli soldiers opening fire at random at people on both sides. Many houses were destroyed, because they were either near settlements there or because they obstructed the line of vision of the watching Israeli soldiers.

In the south, the people of Rafah and Khan Younis can now again freely enjoy their beaches, something they were prohibited from doing when the settlements were in place. Thousands of people now stream to the sea at all times of day. Meanwhile, the people of al-Muwasi, an area that was sandwiched between the sea and some settlements, are now free to move again. Before, they were neither allowed into the rest of Gaza nor into the sea. Their hell, at least, has passed.

At the sites of the evacuated settlements, the rubble is a reminder of those bad old days, but also a reminder of agreements breached and opportunities lost. Israel was supposed to have removed the rubble to Egypt to make room for new projects, but the rubble remains as an obstacle to such development. Nevertheless, amid the rubble of the former Neve Dekalim settlement, a couple of nice new buildings have sprung up. These belong to the Aqsa University and more than 1,000 students from southern Gaza are now attending. The buildings were built after special efforts by the head of Aqsa University ensured the necessary donations from Arab countries.

These few bright spots notwithstanding, Gaza today is in worse shape than ever. The siege on Gaza is complete. Israel only allows humanitarian goods such as food and medicine to enter this little strip of land. Businesses are closing, factories are shutting down, construction is grinding to a halt and even the United Nations cannot properly fulfill its mission here. More than 75 percent of Gazans are unemployed and 80 percent are now dependent on international aid just in order to eat.

The closure of Gaza, always draconian, reached its current peak after Hamas and the security services of the Palestinian Authority affiliated to President Mahmoud Abbas engaged in bloody clashes that resulted in the complete takeover of Gaza by the Islamist movement. This in turn provided Israel with all the excuse it needed to seal Gaza from the world. It has done so with the open acceptance of the international community.

The international community allowed itself to be trapped by the same logic that led it to boycott Hamas after the Islamist movement won parliamentary elections in January 2024 and formed a government in line with its parliamentary majority. These elections were encouraged and monitored by the international community, yet the results were never respected.

Hamas has refused to bow to international conditions for it to be allowed back in from the cold, but it did enter into a unity government with Fateh, which enjoys general international acceptance. This was not enough for the international community and what can only be described as collective punishment was imposed on Palestinians generally and Gazans in particular.

Two years from what should have been a day marking the beginning of liberation, Palestinians find themselves ever more dramatically imprisoned. Over these two years, they have exercised democracy and they have exercised restraint. They have only been answered with greater isolation, opprobrium and sanction. More than ever before, they suffer under occupation.- Published 30/8/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safwat Kahlout is a Gaza-based journalist.

Unilateral disaster
 Ghassan Khatib

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza two years ago was part of a comprehensive Israeli strategy that had different dimensions. Some of these are still operative.

This Israeli strategy was first announced by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Herzliya conference in 2024. Fundamentally, the strategy aims at undermining the peace process and the Oslo agreements by undermining the basic tenet of that process, namely bilateralism. The underlying rationale of the peace process was to end the Israeli occupation by negotiating an agreement to establish a Palestinian state in return for an end to hostilities and peace not only between Israel and the Palestinians but between Israel and the Arab world.

The peace process failed partly when the right wing in Israel took over responsibility for it. The final nail in its coffin was hammered down when Sharon and his Likud party embarked on their unilateral way. The unilateral strategy does not aim at a two-state solution; rather it is primarily concerned with solving Israel's demographic "problem" by placing Palestinians in different areas under different levels of Israeli control. As an adjunct, it undermined the Palestinian peace camp, which came under severe domestic criticism for failing to deliver on promises to negotiate an end to occupation.

The logic of Israeli unilateralism foresaw different futures for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The latter was evacuated of Israelis, civilian as well as military, but placed under a tight siege. In the West Bank, meanwhile, the opposite happened. Direct Israeli control intensified and the number of settlers there increased by more than the number of settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip.

Israel's unilateralism has had an extremely detrimental effect on Palestinians in both areas of occupied Palestinian territory, whether in political or economic terms. Politically, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, together with the increased settlement expansion and systems of control in the West Bank, has left the PA and the peace camp in Palestine irrelevant and unable to deliver the end of occupation and independence that the public demands.

Economically, the effects of the separation of the West Bank from Gaza, the siege imposed on the latter and the fragmentation of the different parts of the West Bank--which is divided up by checkpoints, settlements and settlement roads, leaving more than half of West Bank territory off-limits to Palestinians--have been devastating. It is these factors that, according to the last three annual reports of the World Bank, are the primary causes of the unprecedented economic deterioration of the Palestinian economy, including the dramatic increases in poverty and unemployment.

It is this unilateralism that has also been a primary cause in the rise in popularity of the parties opposed to the peace process and in particular Hamas, a process of radicalization that culminated in Hamas' victory in the last parliamentary elections. It is important here to remember that at the core of Hamas' election campaign was the message that Israel left Gaza because of the armed resistance and only a similar strategy will see Israel leave the West Bank.

This is of course a fairly convincing argument. Israel did not end its presence in Gaza after reaching a negotiated agreement with the Palestinian peace camp. If it had done so, it could have strengthened those who maintain that negotiations are the only way forward. Instead, Israel left Gaza unilaterally, leaving the opposition to take the credit.

What has further complicated the situation is the total Israeli isolation of Gaza and the international, especially American, tolerance for this siege. Washington appears remarkably happy to go along with the siege in spite of the fact that it directly contradicts the Agreement on Movement and Access that was brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and which, among other things, should have ensured the movement of goods and people from Gaza to the world, either through Rafah and Egypt or through Karni, Israel and the West Bank.

The AMA also included detailed arrangements to guarantee movement between the West Bank and Gaza and a gradual reduction in the restrictions on the movement of Palestinians within the West Bank. None of this has been implemented. In fact, some of the articles, like those on the creation of convoys between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, were not even attempted. The US in particular has allowed Israel to completely escape any of its obligations under the AMA. The number of goods allowed out from Gaza to the outside world was kept to a minimum even before the clashes between Hamas and PA security services, clashes that themselves resulted from the siege and the consequent growing poverty and frustration. Now, those clashes have been used by Israel as a pretext to justify its retreat from the agreement.

At the end of the day, Israeli unilateralism is to a large degree responsible for the dramatic deterioration in both the prospects for peace between the two sides as well as the internal Palestinian situation. This will be the case for as long as Israel continues with this strategy.- Published 30/8/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

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