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Date posted: August 20, 2005
By Khalil Shikaki

The Israeli unilateral disengagement policy represents a major turning point in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But it is not without a precedent.

In May 2000, the Israeli government ordered its forces out of south Lebanon without an agreement with Lebanon or Syria. The Lebanese government, public and Hizbullah celebrated victory: forcing Israel to disengage from occupied Lebanese territory, unilaterally, at no cost to Lebanon. Hizbullah did not have to disarm even though the occupation was fully ended; a weak Lebanese government had to acquiesce to its continued armed presence at the country's most sensitive borders.

While conditions may not necessarily be the same in the case of the Gaza disengagement, the net outcome could be the same, or worse.

Let us first look at the only crucial difference between the two disengagements: in the south Lebanon case, none of the Lebanese actors - government, public, or Hizbullah - wanted to coordinate, let alone negotiate, the Israeli withdrawal. In the case of Gaza, while Hamas is delighted with Sharon's unilateralism and views it as a victory for armed struggle, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and public are decidedly against Israeli unilateralism and insist on negotiations, or at least coordination.

If Israel fails to negotiate or coordinate the aftermath of its withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas will most likely own Sharon's disengagement. Such a victory for violence, as seen by almost three quarters of the Palestinian public, could assure Hamas of a respectable achievement at the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006.

Polling findings of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah show that if conducted today, elections could give nationalist Fatah 44% of the seats, Hamas 33%, others 15%, while 8% remain undecided. If Hamas succeeds in writing the narrative of disengagement, a sure thing if it remains unilateral, the balance will shift, favoring the Islamists.

In the context of such a Hamas victory a PA attempt to disarm Hamas, and indeed to turn Gaza into a success story after elections, is doomed to fail. In this case the Palestinians will fail to address the one issue that has proven most impossible to resolve during the last four years of Yasser Arafat's era: to effectively deal, once and for all, with the question of the role of violence in their relationship with Israel.

The alternative is full coordination of the withdrawal's aftermath with the PA - including addressing vital Palestinian needs such as control over the Rafah crossing, renewal of West Bank-Gaza links, a functioning airport and sea port, and Gaza trade relations with Israel and the West Bank.

In this case the PA, not Hamas, would own disengagement and write its narrative.

Such a PA victory, if accompanied by a freeze in West Bank settlement building, could have highly positive consequences for Palestinians and Israelis. Two in particular are worth mentioning: It could have a positive impact on the outcome of the next Palestinian parliamentary elections, allowing nationalist and moderate forces to win a majority, and it could make it possible for the PA to collect arms from armed groups, a PA commitment in the first phase of the road map.

The Palestinian public not only supports negotiating the disengagement but, more importantly, it is fully supportive of the current cease- fire with Israel and would fully support total cessation of violence from the Gaza Strip once a full Israeli withdrawal is carried out.

In fact a majority of Hamas supporters favors the ending of hostilities between Israel and Gaza in the context of a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But the demand clearly rejected by a Palestinian majority is the collection of arms from the various militias now operating in the Palestinian territories.

Given the clear weaknesses of the Palestinian security services, as recently exposed by the report issued by the Strategic Assessment Initiative, it would be suicidal for the PA leadership to order the disarming of the militias without first ensuring clear public support.

A freeze in West Bank settlement construction could play a central role in facilitating collection of arms by generating public support for such a step. Findings of a June 2005 joint PSR-Hebrew University survey clearly show that those Palestinians who expect West Bank settlements to expand in the post-disengagement period tend to be highly opposed to the collection of arms. But a clear majority of those who expect to see no growth in West Bank settlements fully supports collection of arms by the PA.

In order to ensure that such disarming is done peacefully, the PA must do its best to minimize miscalculation on the part of its potential domestic rivals; the PA must be seen as a credible threat. Israel's stubborn refusal to allow the rearming of the PA forces, as recommended by Egypt and US envoy General William Ward, reduces the motivation of security forces while emboldening the militias.

Recent Israeli political developments seem to preclude the possibility of a positive Israeli response to Palestinian needs, even if such a response could prove highly beneficial to Israeli well being. With Sharon's rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, starting his election campaign by pressing Israel's nightmarish fear buttons, Sharon may become even tougher on his definition of Israel's security needs in the context of disengagement.

Palestinian-Israeli coordination of economic, civil and security matters may become untenable. Following disengagement, Sharon's electoral imperatives may force him to turn to the right, advocating more settlement construction in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank in an attempt to justify his disengagement gamble.

This would be a shame, because successful coordination might not only facilitate the dismantling of the infrastructure of violence, but as importantly, a return to meaningful negotiations. Moreover, for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, successful coordination promises stronger hands in defeating their domestic foes by delivering economic prosperity and improved security.

Khalil Shikaki is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

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Source: Jerusalem Post, 16 August. 2005
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