TOPICS > Politics

Gaza Strip Challenges

July 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: In the southern Israeli town of Netivot, thousands of protesters gathered in opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Jewish settlements in Gaza. The demonstrators had called for a three-day march into Gaza, but the Israeli government deployed 20,000 soldiers and police to stop them.

Israel has announced plans to evacuate 21 settlements, some 8,500 settlers and the soldiers who protect them, from Gaza by mid-August. Israel is also committed to abandon four settlements in the West Bank.

So far today, there’s been no violence in the confrontation between the government and supporters of the settlers. But there were clashes last night, when demonstrators tried to board buses heading for the border. At the same time, the five-month-old ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians seems in danger of breaking down.

Militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been launching since last week suicide attacks and mortar and rocket assaults that killed half a dozen Israelis. Israeli forces have responded with air strikes and targeted assassinations that have killed at least eight Hamas leaders and gunmen. Israeli tanks are massed at the Gaza frontier, ready to move in if the violence continues.

ARIEL SHARON (Translated): I have instructed the security forces already last week to take all necessary measures with no restrictions, to stop this wave of terror and to hurt the heads of the terrorist organizations and the active terrorists.

TERENCE SMITH: On Friday, a gun battle erupted between Hamas fighters and Palestinian Authority police during a security sweep designed to stop the rocket attacks on Israel. Two Palestinian teenagers were killed in the crossfire; more than a dozen people were wounded in the fighting.

In a televised address Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appealed to the militants to stop the violence and honor the truce, but Abbas also blamed Israel for the recent tensions.

MAHMOUD ABBAS (Translated): We hold the Israeli government fully responsible for the consequences of its policy, which reflects a step backward from what we had achieved, and sabotaged any chance to maintain the truce. No one could expect the continuation of the truce from one side.

TERENCE SMITH: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit the Mideast this week, to urge both sides to implement the Gaza withdrawal and end the violence.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on the violence and the politics involved in the Gaza withdrawal, we turn to our team of Middle East analysts: David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, he’s a former editor and diplomatic correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and at Ha’aretz Newspapers and Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. He also hosts a weekly program on the Arab satellite channel al-Arabiya. Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

David Makovsky, obviously as we just saw there’s a very tense situation there right along the border with Gaza, with Israeli troops there and demonstrators in effect face-to-face. What’s your assessment of that situation?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think it’s a very unstable situation. I don’t think anyone can guarantee that violence is not going to erupt there in the next 48 hours. There’s a stand-off of understanding what the police — where they’re staying overnight, which is just a few miles outside of Gaza, but there are 30,000 people; the Esha Council, the settler council has said no violence against soldiers, but it’s not a disciplined group.

And you cannot be guaranteed that in this face-off pushing will begin and spontaneously violence will erupt. I would go as far as to say that this period we’re up to which is over the next month until the pullout on August 15 begins is probably one of the biggest tests for Israeli democracy since 1948, the founding of the state of Israel, because basically the question is: Can a majority, which has had its decisions approved by the Knesset and the Israeli cabinet, can they impose them on a determined minority that believes that this withdrawal is either religiously impermissible or politically misguided or both? And I think there could be blood spilled this summer.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s the answer to the question? Can the majority in fact impose its will?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, it’s a big question. I mean, you have the polls show that 55 percent or so support Sharon. But there’s also sympathy with the settlers when they see 8,000 people being dragged from their homes and babies and then all things like that. And it’s unclear even if it’s successful it could be done in a way where there will be cabinet ministers in Sharon’s coalition who will want to stop it in the middle because basically his party is divided.

There’s no — there’s a movement under foot to replace him — usually 100,000 demonstrators against him. The Shin Bet said there’s 200 Israeli Jews that want to assassinate this prime minister. And there’s plans already foiled to blow up the Alaksa Mosque at the Temple Mount. It’s a very — it’s going to be a very hot summer and it’s just going to get worse over the next month.

TERENCE SMITH: Hisham Melhem, there’s also Palestinian on Palestinian violence as we just showed. There was conflict between groups. What’s going on there? And what is the risk of that getting out of hand?

HISHAM MELHEM: President Mahmoud Abbas is fighting for his political viability, probably for his political survival. He is also going through a tense, very tough period for him to maintain his credibility as a leader, to maintain the notion that the Palestinian Authority should have one law, one gun, one centralized authority and not paramilitary groups who carry on certain actions that would undermine the whole project of the Palestinian Authority to take over Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal assuming that the withdrawal will take place as scheduled.

Nobody wants to see a Palestinian civil war. The challenge for Abbas now is to rein in these groups and at the same time not allow them or other forces to drag the Palestinians to civil war. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge. And you have groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad who may receive support from countries in the region, particularly Iran who may do things on their own and undermine the authority of Mahmoud Abbas. They would like to show the Israelis that they are fleeing as under fire as what happened to them in Lebanon in the year 2000 when they withdrew from south Lebanon. And they are preparing the population to inherit power, if you will, after the Israelis leave and Mahmoud Abbas cannot tolerate that and should not tolerate that.

TERENCE SMITH: Is that the explanation then for these incidents, these mortars being fired into the settlement, the notion that you want to create at least the impression of Israelis leaving under fire?

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. Most Palestinians believe that the Israelis anyway are leaving under fire and not because of negotiations because the Israelis have said that we are making a unilateral declaration of withdrawal and we’re going to carry it out. I think the problem that was committed by the Israeli prime minister is that he wanted to show his own right wing, if you will, he’s already on the right wing himself that this is a unilateral approach, we are not negotiating with the Palestinians, we’re not coordinating with Palestinians.

Still the Palestinians are not allowed to build their own seaport and airport. They don’t know whether they’re going to be in control with the crossing points with Egypt. They are now being asked to clear up the rubble that the Israelis will leave behind when they destroy the homes of the Israeli settlers. There’s no coordination. Mahmoud Abbas also inherited a structure, a Palestinian Authority structure, that is rife with corruption and cronyism. And that’s one of the reasons why the Hamas is gaining popularity, why the Islamists are gaining popularity at his expense.

If Mahmoud Abbas fails, it will not be a Palestinian failure. It will be a Palestinian-Israeli failure and an American failure. It will be disastrous. And I think this should be the first thing on the mind of Condoleezza Rice when she arrives at the end of the week to the region.

TERENCE SMITH: The latest reports today were that the Israeli troops lined up along the borders or frontier with Gaza were holding back for a period of time to see what happens, in effect to give Abbas more time to try to impose. What is your judgment on that? Is this whole thing threatened? Is the pullout itself in jeopardy?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, Sharon has bet the political ranch on this. He’s going to want to go through with this. One Likud member said I liked him more when he was a bulldozer against the Palestinians, but he’s become a bulldozer against his own party. He’s committed. But a lot of people in his own government are not as committed as he is. I don’t see Sharon now trying to invade Gaza at the time he’s trying to pull out. Israel has been careful all during the intifada not to do that. That’s urban warfare. They don’t want it. But he’s in – there’s like a pincer movement essentially against Sharon in a certain way.

And I’m not here to make moral equivalencies, but between the rejectionists on the Israeli side many of them are coming from the West Bank and not even from the homegrown Gaza settlers because they think this is coming to a theater near you. They don’t like this movie of pullouts, and if it works here, they’ll come to the West Bank. So they want to make this as traumatic as possible and, you know, have mayhem this summer.

Then there’s the Hamas people that Hisham mentioned correctly that they want to take credit for the Israeli pullout. So Sharon’s in the middle of this. And he’s got this shaky political base and he doesn’t want to look weak because his people at home — and like I said he’s still over the 50 percent mark but not by that much — which says you said this pullout will make Israel more secure but maybe it’s going to make Israel more vulnerable because look these at these constant rockets going off. So he’s stuck in this vice between these two different groups who obviously, you know, want to have nothing to do with each other, but have put him between a rock and a hard place.

TERENCE SMITH: Are there in fact those Palestinians who don’t want to see this Israeli withdrawal? It would seem to be in their interest. But are there groups, rejectionists, to use David’s phrase?

HISHAM MELHEM: No, no. I think all Palestinians would like to see the Israelis withdrawing. They may bicker among themselves as to who to credit for it and who should be in control after the Israeli withdrawal. Definitely, Hamas, which is gaining in popularity, this is according to every opinion poll we’ve taken recently, also the Islamic Jihad but mainly Hamas is gaining in popularity at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas. And it’s going to be extremely difficult for Mahmoud Abbas to maintain control over the West Bank especially of the Gaza Strip, especially if there is no movement after.

I mean, if you end up with Gaza first and Gaza last, Mahmoud Abbas will be finished politically and that’s with a great deal of consternation among the Palestinians including Mahmoud Abbas and others in the leadership as to what will happen afterwards.

And every time Sharon says this is a unilateral decision we’re not talking anything beyond that he weakens Mahmoud Abbas just as he weakens Mahmoud Abbas by continuing to build a wall, continuing settlement activities, and the cease-fire collapsed not only because of the recklessness of groups like the Islamic Jihad but also because the Israeli government did not respect it 100 percent.

TERENCE SMITH: You say collapsed. Do you consider it collapsed?

HISHAM MELHEM: I think now it is in deep trouble. I’m not sure whether it is going to be collapsed or not, but in the last five months we’ve seen a qualitative reduction in violence, which was good because both sides refrained from the usual ways but the ceasefire was not watertight. It was not respected by both, the Sharon government as well as Islamic Jihad.

This is going to make life miserable for Mahmoud Abbas if he appears in the eyes of his own people as irrelevant. Every time Sharon says publicly or leaks to the Israeli press that Mahmoud Abbas is weak, he’s ineffective, he’s marginalized, he’s undermining him, whether he means it or not. The end result is he is undermining him. And by continuing the settlement activities and the wall and not coordinating with the Palestinians notwithstanding the American pressure — and there is American pressure on the Israelis to coordinate — he weakens Mahmoud Abbas.

Sharon in the end – the Israelis who want to get out of Gaza in an honorable way — if you want to call it that way – need Mahmoud Abbas. And they need to provide him with a political horizon that Gaza will be followed by something meaningful, i.e., a roadmap to move on the West Bank too.

TERENCE SMITH: Final word, David, do you see it that way?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: No. Basically, look, Condoleezza Rice is going there now. There’s three things she’s got to do: She has to restore the ceasefire. Without that ceasefire being restored everything is going to be much harder this summer. And I think we should grade the Condoleezza Rice visit on whether she’s successful on that front, number one.

Number two she has to incentivize the parties and bolster the moderates to tell them they gain at the expense of the extremists. That means giving an economic horizon to the Palestinians – now there’s all this G-8 money that’s supposed to be going in. What’s it going to be going for? The Israelis also trying to shift their development funds away from the territories into Netivot and to Galilee, that’s good, and the Arab oil countries that have had the price of oil double, that’s done very little to help the Palestinians.

And finally there’s all these loose ends on Gaza that Hisham pointed to that need to be resolved in the next month. There’s much to be done. This is a critical trip. And we should look at the Rice trip very closely.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. We’ll watch it. David, Hisham, thank you both very much.