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Israel's Second Disengagement from Gaza

Antonia Dimou, August 13, 2010

A Gaza weapons factory destroyed in the attacks last January.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed recently a plan that provides for a second Israeli disengagement from Gaza. The plan works to secure E.U. cooperation to rebuild the Gaza Strip and relinquish all Israeli responsibility for Gaza including the lifting of the naval blockade on it.

The plan came amid pressures from the United States and the European Union reinforced after Israel's recent raid on a Turkish-led Gaza-bound flotilla. The plan envisions to grant Israel international recognition that it has ended its occupation of Gaza. Concurrently, the plan effectively grants legitimacy to the de facto government of Hamas in Gaza, since the international community will have to work with the Islamic organization on Gaza, not Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

Israel also announced the intention to look into an international jurists study that will determine what conditions Israel will have to fulfil so that it is recognized internationally that it no longer occupies Gaza.

The Israeli plan has surfaced the Gaza legal debate that has dominated political discussions over the years. In 2005, under the terms of a unilateral disengagement plan, Israel dismantled all its 21 settlements and withdrew its troops from the Gaza Strip for the first time since 1967, prompting suggestions that the territory was no longer under Israeli belligerent occupation but instead under Palestinian administrative control.

Under the terms of the disengagement plan, however, Israel has retained control over the external perimeter of the Gaza Strip, has retained a military presence along the border of Egypt and Gaza, known as the Philadelphi Route, and has maintained exclusive authority in Gaza airspace and exercised security activity in the sea off the Gaza coast. Moreover, Israel has exercised complete control over the movement of goods into Gaza. Israel continues to control most elements of the taxation system, such as VAT, and customs rates on goods destined for Gaza in accordance with the Paris Agreement of 1994 signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been considered as a single territorial entity for administrative and peace-making purposes. A series of international agreements concluded between Israel and Palestinian representatives like the PLO in pursuit of a peaceful solution since 1967 have shaped international perspectives on the conflict. Following negotiations at Oslo in 1993, Chairman of the PLO Yassar Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements. The terms of the agreement provided "the two Parties view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, the integrity and status of which will be preserved during the interim period."

Arguably, since Gaza and the West Bank are considered a single territorial unit and Israel still exerts control over the West Bank, it is legally profound that the Israeli authority is extended to Gaza regardless of military presence, and thus Gaza will continue to be considered occupied territory under Article 42 of the Hague Regulations. This is the case regardless of any Hamas-Fatah divide, any Hamas victory in future legislative elections and, most importantly, any kind of Israeli disengagement from Gaza alone.

Realistically, there are two major issues that need to be addressed before an Israeli disengagement takes place. The first is the possibility of a humanitarian disaster that may emerge as consequence of Israeli disengagement and that will be attributed directly to Israel. The second is related to steps that have to be taken so that total disengagement from Gaza does not turn into an intractable security problem, given the loss of Israeli control over the flow of weapons into the area.

Egypt's role is central in this regard. The Rafah crossing is the alternate land route for the transfer of goods into Gaza. The transfer of goods by sea is not a serious option since the loading capacity of Gaza's seaport and the existing marina is too small an area and not adequately operative at this stage. The supervision of the flow of goods to prevent possible smuggling of weapons thus falls in the hands of Egypt, which has an interest to prevent weapons smuggling via the Rafah crossing.

For many, this may be a starting point for Egypt to assume full responsibility for Gaza similar to the situation that existed prior to the Six Day War of 1967 where the Egyptian military not only controlled Gaza but was also exclusively responsible for its security. Even scenarios and assumptions of a confederation or a loose kind of federation between Egypt and Gaza are likely to resurface.

However, these assumptions are not as simple as they may suggest. Egypt is worried by the Hamas rule in Gaza and the possible spill-over effects that may cross its borders. In the eyes of the Egyptian government, Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main political challenge to its rule. This worry was recently met with the reveal of a Hezbollah network in Egypt that smuggled weapons into Gaza and allegedly intended to act against the government.

Egypt has legitimate concerns that pressure on Gaza will cause repercussions in Cairo. Because of this, Cairo exerted all its efforts and sponsored the Hamas-Fatah talks to reach an agreement on Palestinian reconciliation.

The split between Fatah and Hamas and Egyptian efforts to bring the two sides together have been critical. By 2009, Hamas was interested in a bilateral dialogue with Fatah, and by February they had a dialogue. Then the Goldstone report erupted and Hamas attacked Abbas for delaying the report. Hamas has expressed three key requirements for reconciliation: restructuring the Palestinian election commission, redesigning the role of the president and guarding the concept of resistance.

However,Hamas–Fatah talks under the aegis of Egypt have failed, and certain political circles in the region are convinced that in the current political climate any such talks will continue to fail, no matter the interlocutor.Right now as the reality on the ground unfolds, the Palestinians need to reorganize and face the four most major issues, namely negotiations, reconciliation, elections and institution building. Priority has to be given to reconciliation so that Palestinians appear with a united internal front and have one "saying."

What has become clear is that it is high time for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to recognize the enormity of the responsibility that they bear, not only for the future security, stability and prosperity of their people, but for the well-being of the entire region. Today, all sides should deal on a regular basis with the same important issues and come up with a meeting of peace partners. Only together they can create a future of inclusion and unity. Good will is not enough. Action is required for Israel and the Palestinians to make sure that the emerging Palestinian state does not become a failed state.

Antonia Dimou is an associate at the Centre for Strategic Studies of the University of Jordan and head of the Middle East and Persian Gulf Unit at the Centre for Security and Defence Analyses based in Athens.

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