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How Israel left Gaza Tanya Reinhart

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How Israel left Gaza
Tanya Reinhart

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in Hebrew in Yediot Aharonot, August 18, 2005 and was translated to English by Edeet Ravel

We will never know with certainty what took place in the mind of Ariel Sharon in February 3, 2004, when he first declared, without consulting anyone, that he is ready to evacuate the Jewish settlements in Gaza. But if we try to put together the pieces of the disengagement puzzle, the scenario that makes most sense is that Sharon took a gamble, not knowing exactly how it would end. The plan was cooked up at the peak of international criticism of the construction of the West Bank wall, with the hearing of the Hague International Court of Justice scheduled to begin just a few weeks later, on February 23. The route of the wall was at that time also the center of intense Israeli negotiations with the U.S. Nachum Barnea, one of the most well briefed Israeli journalists, reported that "Israel does not ask for money to finance the evacuation, although it will be glad to get it.  It mainly seeks support of the fence-route"(1). The disengagement plan gave Sharon a year and a half to continue undisturbed with the wall project.  The plan seemed like a calculated risk, which may lead to the loss of the Israeli settlements in Gaza, in return for securing and expanding Israel's grip in the West Bank.

However, there is also ample reason to assume that Sharon hoped that at the end of this pressure-free period of a year and a half, he would find a way of evading the plan, as he managed to do with all his commitments in the past. This would explain, for example, why the Gaza settlers have not yet received compensation money and why, as the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot revealed on August 5, almost no steps have been taken to prepare for their absorption into Israel (2). Since the disengagement plan was approved by the Israeli cabinet in June 2004, many of the Gaza settlers began inquiring, directly or through hired lawyers, how and when they can be compensated.  In mid February 2005, the compensations bill was approved by the Israeli parliament. Both the settlers and the Israeli public believed that compensations would be given immediately.  Special committees have worked with much publicity on every detail of the compensation plan. According to Yonatan Bassi, the director of the disengagement administration, half of the Gaza settlers were willing to receive compensations and leave peacefully already in March 2005 (3).  Still, this did not materialize and no settler was paid until the day of evacuation.  By comparison, in the evacuation of the settlement Yamit, in 1982 (as part of the peace agreement with Egypt) the overwhelming majority of the residents were compensated and left months before the evacuation. The present dragging of the compensations makes sense only if Sharon was hoping to the very last minute that the settlers would eventually stay where they are.

Sharon had good reason to believe that he would succeed in his avoidance tactics. In the previous round, when confronted with the Bush administrations road map, he committed himself to a ceasefire, during which Israel was to freeze settlement construction, remove outposts, and revert to the status quo of pre-September 2000. None of this was carried out. Sharon and the army claimed that Mahmud Abbas, who had been appointed head of the Palestinian cabinet in April 2003, was not trustworthy and had failed to rein in Hamas. The army continued its assassination policy and succeeded in bringing the Occupied Territories to an unprecedented boiling point, followed by the inevitable Palestinian terror attacks that shattered the ceasefire.

During the entire time, the first-term Bush administration stood by Sharons side and dutifully echoed all his complaints against Abbas. It was obvious that the failure of the cease-fire would also be a deathblow to Mahmoud Abbas' new cabinet. But by that time, the Israeli leadership was openly no longer interested in maintaining his rule. Abbas, whose appointment was hailed, just less than four months before, as a victory to Israel's tireless pursuit of peace, has lost his favor with the rulers, and apparently, Israel managed to convince also the U.S. administration that it is time to replace him.  In August 2003, Israeli media reported that "Jerusalem received indications that the White House too is becoming increasingly disappointed with Abbas. The Americans had pinned many hopes on him, believing that his weight and authority would grow with the job, but they learned that his cabinet is not making the necessary changes and is not fighting against terrorism...." (4).

At that time, the U.S. administration also expressed support of Israel's liquidations policy, in violation of the cease fire, which the administration  referred to as "Israel's right to defend itself". Ha'aretz reported that "the Israel Defense Forces's operations in Nablus and Hebron in the West Bank, in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants were killed, have been met with American understanding. The U.S. sees these operations as justified in order to stop 'ticking bombs'..."(5). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that at the time, the U.S. was no more interested in actually implementing even the first phase of the Road Map than Israel was. The U.S. looked the other side even when Sharon avoided fulfilling the easiest commitment he undertook in the road map phase - dismantling the illegal outposts that were erected in the West Bank after September 2000.

The same seemed to be repeating itself during the current period of calm, following the Sharm El-Sheikh summit in February 2005. This time as well, the  Israeli army continued with incursions into towns, arrests and targeted assassinations. It seemed as if the next terrorist attack, in the wake of which the calm would explode, was imminent, and the Israeli press was full of details outlining the Fist of Ironµ operation, which was expected this summer in Gaza. But the Bush administration suddenly changed direction. While Israel continued to declare that Abbas was not fulfilling his task, the Bush administration insisted repeatedly that Abbas must be given a chance. What had changed?

Until this turn-around, there was general agreement in Israel that there had never been a U.S. president who was friendlier towards Israel than George W. Bush. Presumably no one thought that a love of Jews on the part of the evangelical Bush was behind this support. But there was a feeling in Israel that with its superior air force, Israel was a huge asset in the global war that Bush had declared in the Middle East. With the euphoria of the power that was felt at the time, it seemed as if Afghanistan and Iraq were already in our handsµ and now we would proceed together towards Iran and maybe even Syria.

But in early 2005, the wheels began to turn the other way. The United States was sinking in the mire of Iraq  incurring defeats and casualties. Iran, which after the war with Iraq was ready for any terms of surrender, drew encouragement from Iraqs resistance and from its ties with the Shiite militia. The oil agreements with China gave a boost to its economy and its status. Suddenly the possibility of an attack on Iran didnt seem as certain. It turned out that even the most advanced weapons may not suffice to bring to their knees entire regions which the U.S. was eyeing. In the meantime, support for Bush had sunk to under forty percent and after each world terrorist attack, one heard the paired words, Iraq and Palestine. Bush will not give up on Iraq so fast. But the headache of Palestine, he really doesnt need.

Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. steamroller has been moving steadily. First the all-powerful Israeli lobby in the U.S. was quietly neutralized. Two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have been indicted on charges of assisting the transferring of classified information to an Israeli representative. If convicted, this could spell the end of AIPAC and the entire lobby. In the meantime, they will have to sit quietly, regardless of Bushs actions towards Israel.

The next move was to freeze military support in Israel under cover of the China arms sales crisis. It would have been possible to handle this pesky problem with one small blow, as in the past, but the U.S. imposed real sanctions this time. Contracts for the purchase of military arms were frozen, and the U.S. suspended cooperation on development projects.  In Washington, the doors were closed on Israeli military officers.

Under these circumstances, the declared date of the disengagement approached. In light of the open preparations in Israel for a military operation, suspicions grew in the U.S. administration that Sharon would not carry out the plan. According to the New York Times of August 7, the Bush administration exerted pressure to prevent this from happening, and to prohibit the military operation. On July 21, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice arrived in Jerusalem for an unfriendly, hard-line visit.  The New York Times reported remarks made by Middle East Security Coordinator General William Ward:  "General Ward, a careful man, confirmed that two weeks ago, American pressure helped stay the Israeli military when it was poised to go into Gaza... He predicted that there could be similar pressure should the need arise. 'That scenario is a scenario that none of us would like to see,' he said. 'There is a deep realization on the part of the Israeli leadership, including the military, about the consequences of that type of scenario.' " (6).

Over the years we have become accustomed to the idea that US. pressureµ means declarations that have no muscle behind them. But suddenly the words have acquired new meaning. When the U.S. really does exert pressure, no Israeli leader would dare defy its injunctions (and certainly not Netanyahu). And so Israel had to pull out of Gaza.

(1) Yediot Aharonot Saturday supplement, Feb 20, 2004.
 (2) Ronen Bergman and Yuval Karni, Yediot Aharonot Saturday Supplement, August 5, 2005. According to the article, from the very beginning, back in 2004, the Prime Minister rebuffed the recommendation of [Major General Giora] Eiland, [National Security Advisor and Head of the IDFs disengagement Planning Branch] and decided that the government will not build temporary housing.µ
(3) Gideon Alon, Ha'aretz, March 2, 2005
(4) Aluf Benn, Ha'aretz, August 15, 2003
(5) Aluf Benn, Ha'aretz, August 24, 2003
(6)  Steven Erlanger, The New York Times, August 7, 2005

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