Thirty-eight years after Israeli troops rumbled into the Gaza Strip, Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, real change on the ground is taking place. Israel is adding the Gaza Strip to Sinai (as well as south Lebanon) on the list of occupied areas that it has decided to abandon. But unlike the Sinai withdrawal, which was completed as part of a peace agreement with Egypt, or the one from south Lebanon, quitting Gaza is different. Much as Palestinian militants would like to attribute Israel's withdrawal to their acts of resistance, most Palestinians concede that local, regional and international issues, as well as military and political considerations, contributed to the Israeli decision.
Now is the time to take stock of the lessons learned from the years of occupation and resistance in order to understand what Israelis and Palestinians should do next.
The Israeli occupiers, as well as their sidekick settlement movement, should by now clearly understand the limits of military power, even when that power is overwhelming. This understanding, however, has not translated into genuine Israeli attempts to negotiate solutions rather than dictate them. Ariel Sharon's use of unilateralism has produced confusion on all fronts, Israeli, Palestinian and international. Long-term political success and real peace will not result from one-sided acts.
For a while, a couple of years ago, Ariel Sharon convinced many people that he was interested in negotiations. Israel had no difficulty in persuading Washington to accept its position that it would not negotiate until quiet prevailed over all the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Repeated Palestinian calls for a cease-fire were rejected as Israel, the strong party in this equation, insisted on a total cessation of hostilities. Yasser Arafat also proved a convenient scapegoat. In the post-9/11 era, President Bush was easily persuaded to shun the Palestinian leader, giving the blessing of the world's only super power to Sharon's unilateralist policies.
To short-sighted politicians, unilateralism is attractive because it obviates the need to engage in negotiations, which are messy, human and unpredictable. Going it alone also has political appeal, especially domestically, because leaders can decide how much and how far they want to carry out a particular policy.
Sharon has steadfastly refused to negotiate, coordinate or reveal plans for the disengagement and what is to follow. In the months leading up to this week's withdrawal, a commonly heard observation in the West Bank and Gaza was that Israelis were negotiating among themselves about the future of the Palestinians.
Israel's unilateral decision to disengage from Gaza, independent of any larger bilateral or international framework, is unlike any in modern history. Even the Israeli decision to leave southern Lebanon in 2000, while taken unilaterally, at least tacitly involved the United Nations. That withdrawal was in keeping with Security Council Resolution 425, and it was the international body that demarcated the Blue Line (the de facto border between Israel and Lebanon) and verified Israeli withdrawal to positions behind it.
To be fair, unilateralism has been convenient not only for a reluctant Israeli prime minister who does not wish to make substantial compromises during negotiations, but is also attractive to hard-line Palestinians who regard bilateralism as a means of pressing them to make unpopular concessions.
In any case, the day after the completion of the Gaza withdrawal, Israelis and Palestinians will be confronted with important unresolved questions. There is no doubt that the evacuation of Jewish settlers in areas some religious Israelis consider part of their God-given territory represents a huge ideological reversal. But after years in which the settlement of Palestinian land formed one of Zionism's main tenets, encouraged by religious leaders and the state alike, will the removal of settlements continue in the West Bank, or will this be a one-time exception?
The withdrawal and the ambiguity surrounding it have left Palestinians in a state of political confusion and uncertainty. In more than 25 years as a journalist, I have never witnessed more confusion in the Palestinian national (and Islamic) movement than I have seen during the past few months. Nowhere in any of the Palestinian literature, past or present, can one find any discussion of a scenario that reflects what has been happening in Gaza. All analysis of regaining occupied lands has focused on either a clear-cut military success or a negotiated settlement. The current half-baked partial withdrawal, without any negotiated agreement, real dialogue or a clear road map for the future, has stunned the Palestinian body politic. Israel's refusal to reveal even the most mundane details of its plans (even to its American allies), has been the main reason for this state of confusion.
One would have expected the Palestinians to be happy about the turn of events in Gaza. After all, the Israeli decision to withdraw from Gaza (even if they use the term "disengagement") is what the Palestinians have always wanted. Politically, the unilateral Israeli action doesn't cost the Palestinians anything. There are no agreements to be signed, no commitments to be made. But the Israeli decision was initially faced with skepticism. Many doubted that it would ever take place. Then they argued that it would result in Israel's taking a harder line in the West Bank and Jerusalem (which is probably true but doesn't mean the Palestinians should not welcome the withdrawal).
Then other issues came up. Should Palestinians celebrate this Israeli decision? Again, the arguments varied. Some wanted to celebrate, while others urged a much more muted response because the withdrawal is partial and doesn't include the bulk of Palestinian land, even though it will include a major portion of Palestinians living under occupation.
Hamas was the first to argue publicly for the need to celebrate. The group even announced a prize for the best poster depicting the success of the resistance in forcing the Israelis to leave. But Palestinian leaders feared that the celebrations could get out of control, leading to chaos. A more organized series of events was suggested.
On one occasion, even public utterances reflected this contradiction. On one day President Mahmoud Abbas and civil affairs minister Mohammed Dahlan spoke about the need to keep the celebrations low key, while the very next day the local Palestinian press reported that Marwan Barghouthi sent a message from his Israeli jail cell saying that Palestinians should organize loud and popular activities to celebrate the success of the resistance in kicking out the occupiers. The different viewpoints were broadcast on several Arab satellite stations. Speaking on the Hezbollah-Lebanese station Al Manar, a Hamas spokesman said the Israelis were leaving because of the success of the Qassam rockets. Responding angrily, a Fatah representative said this statement belittled all the other Palestinian sacrifices over the years, a point that Barghouthi has made. He has argued that Israel's decision was taken for multiple reasons, including the military and political efforts of Palestinians in and outside Palestine.
The issue of what the Israelis are going to leave behind has also been a source of confusion. Will they or will they not leave the houses intact? (They will destroy them.) Who will pick up the debris? (It looks as though Palestinian and Egyptian companies paid by Israel will do that.) What about the agricultural greenhouses -- will they be left intact? Will the Palestinians have to pay for what was built on illegally occupied areas? Will it be acceptable to get them through the USAID mission so as to allow the Americans to pay for them?
The confusion, of course, is due to the absence of answers to major and minor questions. Are the Israelis planning to sleep on any further withdrawals, as some Israeli politicians have suggested, or is quitting Gaza part of the road map, as the Quartet (Russia, the European Union, the United States and the United Nations) is insisting? The issue of what happens the day after the withdrawal has also been left unanswered. Will electricity and telephone services, as well as wheat and rice that come exclusively from (or through) Israel, continue coming uninterrupted?
And what kind of state, or precursor to a state, will Gaza be? Will Gazans be allowed to move freely to and from the West Bank? Will the borders with Egypt, the airport and the future port be free? What kind of taxes and customs regulations will be applied? Will Palestinian airspace be liberated? (The Israeli army tore up the airport runway that President Clinton had inaugurated, and all attempts since to rebuild the runway have been rejected.) Will Palestinians be allowed to leave and return to Gaza without Israeli approval? Will others be allowed to enter Gaza without Israeli visas?
Confused or not, Palestinians, for their part, will be expected to answer questions -- in deeds, not just in words -- about their ability to build a modern, pluralistic state. How will the Palestinian body politic deal with the growing power of the Islamic movements, which undoubtedly will expect a significant share of power in post-withdrawal Gaza?
The international community also will have to answer some key questions. According to the Palestinian Economic Council for Reconstruction and Development (PECDAR), annual per capita income in Gaza continues to average roughly $700, compared to the $16,000 per capita income enjoyed by Israelis. In the absence of relatively well-paying jobs, what will happen to the lines of unemployed Gazans? The potential flight of employment seekers -- a formidable phenomenon worldwide -- is only one problem. More immediately, if Gazans cannot feed their families, the recurrence of cross-border violence, if not a third intifada, will only be a matter of time.
While the economic situation in Gaza is a critical issue, the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be determined mainly by the next steps in the peace process. Permanent-status issues concerning borders, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and refugees must be dealt with bilaterally. Any serious observer of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must acknowledge that there can be no unilateral solution to these issues.
As for the peace process's multilateral guarantors, the United States and its Quartet partners, they have failed to provide even the most basic facts regarding Israel's withdrawal or how it relates to the "road map" agreed upon in 2003. They cannot continue to sit on the sidelines. Washington's quixotic decision to call Israel's unilateral move part of the road map has failed to convince many Palestinians. The prevailing opinion among Palestinians is that the road map will be put into deep freeze once the Israelis complete their Gaza withdrawal.
But the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, their leaders, and the international community must all respond to the challenges that will follow. Most important, the future of the conflict and the chances for genuine peace in the region will depend on understanding the limits of offensive military power, of defensive resistance, and the limits of unilateralism. Serious face-to-face talks, in accordance with international law and with the help of the international community, are the only way forward.