All Writings
July 25, 2005

The Gaza Withdrawal: Two Scenarios and Then Some

It is only three short weeks from now that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is scheduled to begin. The effect on Israeli-Palestinian conflict will depend largely on how peaceful and orderly the withdrawal and transfer of power are. Other than the disposition of the settlers’ houses and hothouses, over which there seems to be a near agreement, a host of issues remains to be resolved, including the travel of Palestinians and goods between Gaza and the West Bank, the removal of roadblocks in the West Bank, and the openings of the Gaza airport and seaport. From the Israeli perspective, these and many other issues are security-related and how they are resolved depends on how events unfold between now and the end of the withdrawal process.

A few scenarios are possible. The most positive and optimistic is perhaps the least likely to occur: despite experiencing some difficulties in handling demonstrations by the settlers’ supporters that lead to minor scuffles with security forces, Israel is able to withdraw both settlers and military installations without any major incident. According to this scenario, Hamas and Islamic Jihad also fully cooperate with the Palestinian Authority, the transfer of power is orderly, and Israelis and Palestinians cheer their leaders for a job well done. Surely, this would be the most ideal scenario, ushering in a new period of calm and cooperation. In such an atmosphere, the Israelis would be encouraged to offer more concessions, and even some of the Palestinian militant groups would conclude that it’s possible to achieve a great deal more through peaceful discourse than through violence.

Unfortunately, what is ideal is often not practical, especially in the Middle East and even more so when it comes to the Israelis and the Palestinians. A more likely script is that Islamic militants like Hamas, Jihad, and Hizbullah will continue to insist that violent resistence (in Arabic, muqawamah) is the only language Israel understands and thus Israel will withdraw only under the gun. True to their character, and also to their detriment, they may not be able to withstand the temptation to fire on Israeli targets during the withdrawal. Certainly, the Palestinians have made many mistakes, but such a miscalculation would be among their worst. In preparing this article, I spoke to a top Israeli official and asked him what would be the Israeli reaction to this type of provocation. Without hesitation, and on condition that he remain anonymous, he said: “It all boils down to security; either we withdraw peacefully, which we hope for and are seeking and toward this end are ready to make further concessions to the Palestinians, or we’ll withdraw with a big bang. . . . we won’t pull out our forces and settlers with our tail between our legs. If we’re attacked, our attackers will suffer a most devastating and humiliating blow. . . . We’ll never give them the satisfaction of saying that we withdrew under the gun.” Of course, in such a scenario, the Palestinian militants will not only sustain tremendous losses; they will become the target of the Palestinian Authority, which will feel, rightfully, betrayed by them. Mr Abbas knows that however legitimate Palestinian demands may be, neither Sharon nor any other Israeli prime minister, can deliver the goods under coercion. As it is, Sharon is facing a restive opposition to his withdrawal plan and any future Israeli cooperation will largely depend on what happens during the withdrawal. If this opportunity is squandered by Islamic militants it could be Mr. Abbas’ fateful hour. He cannot afford to lose the battle with Hamas or d Jihad and survive politically. The question is, will he be prepared to act against them immediately if it becomes necessary?

The third scenario, which is the most likely to happen, is more in tune with the Middle East’s unpredictability and the instinct of its peoples for self-inflicted wounds. Although the leadership of Hamas and Jihad have committed themselves to the newest cease fire, and have instructed their military wings to keep calm during the withdrawal, some radicals will simply refuse to obey. They will attack Israel on the run and Israel will retaliate in kind. How quickly the Palestinian Authority acts, how efficiently and forthrightly it deals with the culprits, will determine how this scenario will ultimately unfold. “There may be a little room for a small mishap,” another Israeli official told me, “but Hamas and Jihad had better not test our patience.” Husni Abd al Rahman, the former Palestinian ambassador to Washington, with whom I also spoke, expressed a weariness provoked by recent clashes between Israeli forces and Hamas and Jihad fighters and between Palestinian militants and the Authority. Although blaming Israel for the plight of the Palestinians, he also agreed that “The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is a critical step forward,” and hoped “neither Israeli nor Palestinian extreme militants spoil it.” He worried that violence occurring during the withdrawal “could destroy what could otherwise mark a watershed in Israeli-Palestinian relations.” Regardless of which of the scenario is played out, Hamas and Jihad will claim that Israel withdrew under the gun and Sharon will cite political and demographic reality insisting that peace with the Palestinians ultimately requires territorial concessions regardless of the conditions on the ground.

The Bush administration, more than ever before, must raise the stakes for the Israelis and the Palestinians and warn them that there will be consequences for actions that undermine the peace process. This is one phase in which the administration cannot afford to falter, even if it means stationing American monitors in Gaza during the withdrawal. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza could provide a microcosm, or blueprint for its withdrawal from territories in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The Palestinians must understand that future progress depends on the degree to which they rally the Israeli public to their side. That can happen only if the violence ends and a peaceful means to resolving the conflict becomes the strategic choice. That is, the goal of peaceful resolution must sanctify the nonviolent means.