Half hearted and incomplete

There is little to celebrate in the withdrawal of Israel from Gaza. True, this is the first time since the Sinai pullout of 1982 that Israel is vacating territory that it has forcibly occupied. Whether this is a positive step towards a just, two-state settlement of the Palestinian question is an entirely different matter. Israel is pulling out of this narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean coast not because occupation is morally wrong or because it is a blatant violation of international law. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made no secret of the reasons behind his decision to remove Israeli civilian settlements and troops from Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank, and they are clearly linked to Zionist interests rather than Palestinian aspirations. From Israel's point of view, Gaza is only a small fraction of the land it occupied in the 1967 war, but with increasingly high maintenance in terms of the money and soldiers brought in to subdue the Palestinian resistance. The territory itself is of little strategic value for Israel. On the other hand, with a population of 1.4 million Palestinians, Gaza threatened to change Israel's definition of itself as a Jewish-majority state. The move was resisted by the settlers, many of whom had to be removed by Israeli soldiers, and has upset a section of Prime Minister Sharon's right-wing Likud and the orthodox Jews who see it as giving away precious biblical territory to the Palestinians. But in reality, it helps the Zionist project by excising a problematic piece of land from Israel, so that it can concentrate resources on other occupied territories.

For the Palestinians, Gaza is nothing without Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Jersualem — the capital of the putative state of Palestine — and without the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. If Prime Minister Sharon is honestly committed to the creation of a Palestinian state, the next step should be a withdrawal from these territories, both of which are vital to Palestinian statehood. This, Mr. Sharon says, will happen only if the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas can demonstrate that it can govern Gaza and control the extremists on its side. But already Israel has built a wall in the West Bank fencing off Jewish settlements from Palestinian ones, and is in the final stages of enclosing East Jerusalem. The de facto boundary mocks at the idea of a Palestine state, and at the Palestinian offer to Israel — made during the 1990 peace negotiations — of small amounts of West Bank land in exchange for lands of equal extent and quality elsewhere. Even the withdrawal from Gaza is laced with conditions. Israel will maintain a military presence on the border of Gaza and Egypt. The PA will not yet control the seaport, airport or Customs in the territory. Israeli forces will control the movement of Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank. Unless Israel can guarantee a withdrawal from other occupied territories, the Gaza pullout, with all its conditionalities, will remain meaningless for Palestinians, and may even sow the seeds of more violent discontent in the region.

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