It’s Time to Get Out of Gaza
Israel should not wait for the Palestinians to decide when and under what conditions they would resume the negotiations. The time has come for Israel to take the initiative and dramatically alter the negotiating equation.
The stabbings and shootings of Israelis by Palestinian fundamentalists and Israel's retaliatory measures have done nothing but further deteriorate Israeli-Palestinian relations and thoroughly erode any chance for real reconciliation in the near future.
The Rabin government must heed the call of several of his ministers and pull out of Gaza as soon as basic arrangements for orderly transfer of authority are made within the framework of self-rule.
It is folly to think, as Rabin does, that unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will create a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize Israel's rights to the West Bank. Though most Israelis identify strongly with the West Bank, they have no affinity for the Gaza Strip whatsoever.
Gaza is an impoverished, overcrowded strip of land populated by over 750,000 Palestinians among whom anti-Israeli sentiments run extremely high. It is the hub of Hamas and a source of grief for Israel's security personnel. The Jewish population in Gaza is less than 0.2 percent and is stagnant at best.
Other than a small die-hard right-wing group of people who wants to retain every inch of territory, most Israelis share the position of Health Minister Haim Ramon who advocates an early Gaza pull-out. He insists that "our presence there is a disaster from any point of view … we have nothing to keep us there and we do not want to annex Gaza, that's for sure."
No one is suggesting that Israel should simply pull out and leave the Palestinians to their fate. Israel should allow at least one full year for orderly transition. The decision to withdraw should be made in consultation with Egypt and Jordan and in conjunction with opening a direct dialogue with the PLO – the only viable alternative to Hamas.
It would be in the best national interest of the oil-rich Arab countries to provide the capital for a new infrastructure for Gaza, including permanent housing and other community projects such as schools and hospitals. Israel could offer technical assistance.
These projects would enhance political stability and provide badly needed jobs, alleviating the miserable conditions that breed violence in the first place. Israel could also permit Palestinian laborers to seek jobs in Israel provided they adhere to certain tough security procedures.
Other than small arms left in the hands of security personnel, the entire Gaza district would remain demilitarized. Israel will maintain external security while leaving internal security to the Palestinians themselves, perhaps with some Egyptian and Jordanian contingency to assure continuity and political stability.
Although the main function of any military power is to deter potential enemies from undertaking hostile activity and to defend against such hostilities should deterrence fail, a third function of the military is to be used directly to support political initiative.
Israel can afford to take a unilateral action such as partial or complete withdrawal from Gaza, create a fait accompli, and challenge the Palestinians to deal with a new reality. With its military might, Israel could always restore the status quo ante with a minimum risk should the Palestinians fail to grasp the new opportunity and respond in kind. Otherwise, what is the use of Israel's formidable military machine if it cannot be utilized to support political initiative that could offer new prospects for peace?
The Egyptians have expressed serious reservations regarding a unilateral Israeli pull-out, and some Palestinians might reject the idea arguing against partial solutions. In the end, however, Israel, and Israel alone must make the hard decision. If the Palestinians cannot make up their minds, Israel with the support of the US must create the condition to change the reality on the ground.
Israel has lost the initiative, and Hamas, Jihad and Hizbullah are calling the shots. These Islamic fundamentalists are not likely to reconcile themselves with the existence of Israel and will always seek to undermine American interests. Their backs must be broken through effective counter-terrorism measures that will force them to be constantly on the run.
Free from the day-to-day administration of Gaza, Israel will be in a much better position to deal with terrorism. Only then will there be an end to the wanton killing and bombings.
Israel stands to gain nothing by holding on to a territory that consumes its resources, deepens mutual hatred and poisons the atmosphere. Gaza is not an asset, Gaza is a liability.
It has been nine months since Rabin came to power promising peace within this time frame. The Palestinians have succeeded in frustrating Rabin's agenda. After nine months, however, Rabin can no longer hide behind the Palestinians' vacillations and inability to decide. Now is the time for Rabin to take the initiative, and present a new and daring agenda. An agenda on which Israel can act unilaterally, leaving the Palestinians no choice but to grasp the moment or forfeit yet another historic opportunity.