WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's high-stakes plan to unilaterally pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip is based on the premise that disengagement will improve relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
So far, it has done just the opposite, prompting a series of hostile actions and reactions by both sides - and suggesting the long-term result of the plan will be less security for Israel.
The pullout, which faces a crucial and apparently close vote Sunday in Sharon's Likud party, is supported by a majority of Israelis, polls show. But a surprisingly large turnout of nearly 70,000 Israeli protesters descended on Gaza Tuesday to support the 7,500 Jewish settlers there.
Israel's assassinations of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdel Aziz Rantisi, as well as Mr. Sharon's threat against the life of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, were intended to show that Israel would continue combating terrorism despite withdrawing from Gaza. Hamas responded by threatening "100 unique reprisals" against Israel, and its supporters shouted "revenge, revenge" in Gaza's streets. (Hamas claimed responsibility for a car bombing in
Gaza Wednesday that injured four Israeli soldiers who prevented the driver from reaching his target in the settlement of Kfar Darom.)
Sharon's death threat against Arafat last Friday prompted the Palestinian chairman to tell a crowd of 4,000 supporters in the West Bank that "all of us are martyrs-in-the-waiting," and members of the crowd responded by chanting they would sacrifice their "blood and souls" for Arafat.
Moreover, President Bush's acceptance of Sharon's request to retain some Israeli settlements in the West Bank and reject the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, prompted heated opposition from Palestinians and more threats of violence. Arafat's office said that Sharon's plan "means clearly the complete end of the peace process."
At first glance, it would seem that Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza would be welcomed by Palestinians. After all, withdrawal will remove Israeli military checkpoints, soldiers in Gaza's streets, and such settlements as the Gush Katif bloc. Sharon said during his trip earlier this month to Washington: "The exit from the Gaza Strip ... will reduce friction with the Palestinian population and has the potential to improve the fabric of Palestinian life and the Palestinian economy."
But Palestinians have focused less on what the Gaza pullout does than what it will not do. The plan includes what amounts to annexation of some West Bank settlements, which infuriates Palestinians demanding a return to the 1967 borders. It fails to deal with Palestinian demands for a capital in Jerusalem. It does not resolve the controversy over Israel's construction of a separation barrier. It also does not remove Israeli checkpoints, soldiers, or settlers from the West Bank - an even greater scene of Palestinian-Israeli violence than Gaza.
Even after an Israeli withdrawal, terrorist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad will still be active in the Gaza Strip, and the absence of a broader settlement will not diminish their desire to attack Israel. Disengagement could even increase the ability of Palestinian terrorists to plan and execute attacks in the short run because Israeli Defense Forces would not be able to respond as quickly or effectively as before.
Continued Palestinian attacks would give Israel an excuse to renege on its disengagement promise, triggering Israeli military responses against Gaza targets.
In some cases, Israeli forces might be able to target Palestinian terrorists with attack helicopters, as happened when Israel killed both Yassin and Rantisi in Gaza. In other cases, the Israelis would need to deploy military units to kill or capture terrorists, forcing the soldiers to set up roadblocks, cordon off territory, and increase the likelihood of friction.
Even after disengagement, Israel would continue to monitor Palestinian terrorists via sensors and cameras in the Gaza Strip, satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles overhead, and the vast Shin Bet (internal security service) and military intelligence network that will remain in Gaza. The Israeli military would probably retain control of the strategic Philadelphia Corridor along the Gaza-Egyptian border, as well as control Gaza's land, sea, and air entry points.
As with the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, disengagement would encourage the view that repeated attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians are a successful tactic to get the government to cede territory.
For all these reasons, adoption by the Likud party of Sharon's unilateral withdrawal plan, which makes an end-run around bilateral negotiations and a comprehensive settlement, is more likely to throw gasoline than water on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Christian Science Monitor on April 29, 2004.