The Israeli plan to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip has created a lot of controversy, but most of the parties involved in one way or another in the conflict have been excited about the project, with the notable ex! ception of the Palestinians. The different countries that have played roles in the past either directly or indirectly in the conflict are now trying to find new roles in what has become the only game in town as far as the conflict is concerned, i.e., disengagement.
With all this, the main feature of the disengagement project, namely its unilateralism, has been neglected. Israel has already determined the details of disengagement and there is very little role for either second or third parties to play.
The basic plan, which Israeli legislators voted for in the Knesset, includes the evacuation of settlements and army bases and the withdrawal of settlers and soldiers. Overall, however, the Gaza Strip will remain under Israeli control, with access to and from the Strip subject to direct Israeli restrictions.
While the evacuation of settlements is always a positive step, maintaining restrictions on the movement in and out of Gaza will, according to the Palestinian side as well as international agencies, cause further economic deterioration. It is because this is well known by all the countries interested in playing a third party role, and because of the unilateral nature of the project, that most of these countries and parties are having difficulty in finding a role to play.
The Palestinians have been encouraging third party countries to try to convince the Israelis to modify the disengagement plan to make it part of the roadmap. They have met with no success. The US and other major donors, meanwhile, have pledged financial support to the project to improve it, but also with very little success. Finally, third parties have been trying to play a role in both encouraging "coordination" and mediating between the two sides for coordination purposes. These efforts too have met with very little success.
The Palestinian side has asked more than one of these parties to try to ask Israel to clarify some uncertain aspects of this withdrawal. For instance, it is not yet clear what are the positions to which Israel will withdraw. Without knowing where any border will lie, it is impossible to coordinate what kind of border regime will be in place and what restrictions on the movement of goods and people Israel has in mind. This is especially important because most of the industrial and agricultural assets that Israel might leave in the settlements are intended to produce goods for export. Not knowing what kind of border regime will regulate the movement of products from Gaza to the outside world through Israel very negatively affects Palestinian preparations for post-disengagement. In addition, of course, the Palestinian side still doesn’t know exactly what assets, if any, will be left behind, and thus cannot prepare for their management with any success.
But criticism directed at Israel for not negotiating the withdrawal with the Palestinian side has fallen on deaf ears. One Israeli politician responded that the project is intended as a punishment rather than a reward and that’s why it is being done unilaterally.
In general, by insisting on the unilateral nature of this project, Israel has been making it very difficult, not only for the Palestinian side but also for those trying to help both sides.
There are two ways in which the international community can contribute to make the disengagement a constructive step toward reviving the peace process and thus help both Palestinians and Israelis. The first is to arrange for an increase in financial and technical aid to Palestinians. Without it, the Gaza Strip’s current levels of unemployment and poverty will leave the PA with great difficulty in maintaining political and security stability.
The second and most important way, however, is if, through individual third countries’ bilateral relations with Israel, third parties were to pressure and convince Israel to cooperate with the Palestinian side, particularly by adding new elements to the project, including a linkage between the West Bank and Gaza. The economy of Gaza is not viable on its own, it is only viable as part of the overall Palestinian economy. In this context third parties can also help by convincing Israel to allow the establishment of a seaport in Gaza and the reopening of the airport to create an environment that might attract some investment and thus create jobs and ensure at least the minimum level of economic and consequently political stability.
The Quartet has appointed James Wolfensohn as its Gaza withdrawal envoy. The Quartet could have been more constructive if it had appointed Wolfensohn as the envoy to move the parties back to the roadmap, and part of that could be achieved by developing this Gaza withdrawal project as part of the roadmap. The roadmap is a process that aims at making peace. The unilateral steps Israel has declared in Gaza and is practicing unannounced in the West Bank do not contribute to moving the parties in this direction.