TOPICS > Politics

The Next Step for Gaza

August 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: As one of the last groups of hardcore settlers and protesters was forcibly removed Friday from the Gaza Strip, the settlements they had so zealously protected were in the first stages of demolition, before their eventual devolution to the Palestinians of Gaza.

The 21 settlements scattered over Gaza’s 139 square miles will be largely destroyed over the next two months. Israelis will begin the demolitions; Palestinian and Egyptian companies will complete it. For the most part, the Israelis will be demolishing empty shells. Some settlers carried off nearly all the usable or reusable parts of their houses. That which they could not carry, they destroyed, many in anger.

But the full picture of what comes next in Gaza remains open. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth, grinding poverty abounds, and the unemployment rate approaches a staggering 60 percent. One reliable employer in Gaza: Greenhouses that dot the arid seaside strip. A group of wealthy Americans has donated $14 million, under the leadership of former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, to save the greenhouses and the jobs they provide.

Also at issue, the future of Gaza’s air and sea ports. Rebuilding the airport will be a primary task. On its tarmac today, President Mahmoud Abbas said the work would be but one part of a larger job.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS: Now we have work ahead of us. We have to build our homeland, build a new homeland, a new economy for our homeland so we can live a good life with dignity and with security and with stability.

TERENCE SMITH: The thorny issue of who will control the airspace remains unresolved. Rebuilding Gaza’s main port is another looming project. Until now, all imports and exports to and from Gaza have been required to pass through Israeli ports and checkpoints.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on the fate of the land and infrastructure left in and around Gaza by the Israeli settlers we’re joined by Omar Dajani, a former senior legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority. He’s now an assistant professor of law at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific. And Tamara Wittes, a research fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, part of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Welcome to you both.

Omar Dajani, what is the logic behind destroying the houses of the Israeli settlers and the Palestinian view of it?

OMAR DAJANI: I think that there is a logic coming both from an Israeli perspective and a Palestinian perspective. I think that for a lot of Israelis, the idea that Palestinians would take over homes that they had built and assets that they had developed over time would have sort of been an even more painful circumstance from their perspective. I think for the Palestinians, the view was that this is land that is desperately needed for Palestinian development interests. We’re talking about the Gaza Strip, an area just a little bigger than twice the size of the District of Columbia. And the sort of large suburban-style homes that the Israelis built there and Palestinians would point out, built there illegally, simply do not match the development plan that Palestinians had in mind for their own future.

TERENCE SMITH: And what, Omar Dajani, happens to the land that will be turned over? And who decides what will be done with it?

OMAR DAJANI: The land will, for the most part, revert to the Palestinian Authority. Most of the land on which the settlements were built was not privately held land but land that was held communally before 1948, and that the Palestinian Authority, as the government, will take over. The Palestinian prime minister has just announced a plan whereby a number of ministers in the current government will oversee the supervision of the distribution of assets of the former settlements and the development of those areas residentially and agriculturally, and also industrially.

TERENCE SMITH: Tamara Wittes, what’s going to happen to the Israeli military presence there, the infrastructure, and the checkpoints that they have maintained at the northern end of the Gaza Strip? What happens to all of that?

TAMARA WITTES: Well, over the next couple of weeks, the Israelis are going to be, first of all, demolishing those buildings inside the settlements and also dismantling their military installations that held soldiers that defended those settlements. They are going to be slowly pulling people out of the strip, military officers and soldiers, as they go about that process, and then as they withdraw from different areas, they will also remove the checkpoints that they had built up. Over the last five years, these checkpoints had basically split Gaza into three distinct pieces, and you couldn’t pass between them. So once the military is gone, the Palestinians will have full freedom of movement within the strip.

TERENCE SMITH: What about the Erez and Karni crossings that — in other words – that are the checkpoint between Gaza and Israel proper?

TAMARA WITTES: Well, this is a very important issue. If the Palestinians are going to be able to get their goods to the world market, if they’re going to be able to have workers working inside Israel– which is very contentious– then those crossing points need to function well and efficiently, and from an Israeli perspective they need to be set up in a way that will protect Israeli security.

Israel has already begun to invest money in upgrading the technology at those crossing points, and I believe there are plans to otherwise revamp the crossing points to make them smoother; however, whether Palestinians will be allowed to work in Israel and how many of them, that’s still to be decided.

TERENCE SMITH: Still undecided. Omar Dajani, are we likely to see a competition between the Palestinian Authority and, say, the other groups like Hamas, as to who gets to rebuild Gaza?

OMAR DAJANI: I think that we may see a competition between the PA and the Islamists with respect to the future of Gaza. I think that to a certain extent the lines have been drawn. There is an effort by the Palestinian Authority that is under way, as we were able to tell from Abu Mazen’s speech today, to claim credit for the Gaza withdrawal, and at the same time to point out that a peaceful transition is in the interest of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I think that Hamas has made very clear that it regards the reason for the withdrawal to be its own armed attacks on Israelis.

I think that for those interested in ensuring that what we see is a peaceful transition toward negotiations between Palestinian and Israelis over the big things over peace, over refugees and the West Bank, I think it’s going to be really critical to strengthen the moderates within the Palestinian government and to strengthen them by ensuring that there is not just freedom of movement in and out of the Gaza Strip of goods and persons, but also that there’s political movement. Palestinians need to see the peace process move, and they’re going to be watching very carefully to see what Israel does in the coming months.

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you both, Tamara, starting with you, the economic viability of Gaza, obviously crucial, 1.3 million Palestinians living there, what are the prospects?

TAMARA WITTES: Right now the situation is dire indeed. We have to start with the fact that half of the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza are children. So that’s already a burden, so to speak, in terms of having enough working people to support the population. The unemployment rate in Gaza hovers around 60 percent right now, and unless industries can be built and really efficient means can be found to get the product out to the world market, Palestinians are not going to be able to get the kind of jobs they need to make Gaza viable.

Another crucial issue is how Gaza will be linked economically to the West Bank, and Israelis and Palestinians are still negotiating the potential for a passage of some kind, a safe passage, as it’s often called, between the West Bank and Gaza, so that they can function as they should, as one economy.

TERENCE SMITH: So those sound, Omar Dajani, like pretty important points– the movement of people and goods, and as you say, the access to the West Bank — sound very crucial.

OMAR DAJANI: Absolutely crucial. I think that although the political future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and of Jerusalem as part of that is going to affect attitudes on both sides. In order for the Gaza Strip to survive, in order for it to be a viable economic unit, as the World Bank said in a report just a few months ago, it’s going to need to have a working seaport. It’s going to need to have a working airport. Palestinians are going to need to be able to move from the Gaza Strip to Egypt.

There’s been a lot of discussion of the greenhouses that have just been conveyed by the Israelis over to this foundation which will transfer them to the Palestinians. It’s important to keep in mind that those greenhouses keep perishables. Primarily, they produce cut flowers and perishable vegetables. Palestinians, unless they’re able to access international markets, are not going to be able to do anything with those greenhouses, are not going to be able to turn them into the economic asset that we hope that they will be.

TERENCE SMITH: But it’s in Israel’s interest, is it not, that it be economically viable, Gaza?

TAMARA WITTES: Absolutely. There’s no incentive for the Israelis to see Gaza become a den of misery and suffering that will give the citizens there no incentive to work cooperatively with the Israelis on other issues. However, Israel has always had a number of security concerns related to the transfer and movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, and there have often been economic concerns as well: What will be the impact on the Israeli economy, for example, which also exports produce to the European market, if Gaza begins to develop in that area. So these are legitimate issues. They’re issues that the two sides need to work out cooperatively, and have so far remained quite contentious.

TERENCE SMITH: And there are several areas, I gather, where agreement has not been reached. One is the airport, the issue of rebuilding the airport. Is that not correct?

TAMARA WITTES: That’s right.

TERENCE SMITH: And the question of control of the airspace.

TAMARA WITTES: That’s right. And of course control over the airspace means little if there’s no place to set your craft down. But that is a symbol, an important symbol of sovereignty. Now no one is saying that the Gaza Strip will be a Palestinian state or will be recognized as a Palestinian state in the wake of the completion of this withdrawal. But there are certain symbols of Palestinian control over the territory that I think are meaningful. They suggest something about Israel’s willingness to proceed toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

TERENCE SMITH: Omar Dajani, do you agree with that, and what would be, in your mind, the most important steps to take to resolve some of these unresolved issues, and make the whole operation viable?

OMAR DAJANI: I think that what’s going to be really critical are four things: Number one, the issue of movement in and out of the Gaza Strip has to be addressed, and addressed seriously. The negotiations have gone nowhere on that point. Number two, I think that what we need to see is a settlement freeze in the West Bank so that Palestinians have confidence that the road map is actually going to be implemented and that their political future is not going to be limited to just the Gaza Strip. Number three, although I think Palestinians aren’t keen for handouts, they want to rebuild their own economy, I think that there will need to be a profusion of aid into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to keep the process moving. And finally, there has to be a return to negotiations and the peace process.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, Omar Dajani, Tamara Wittes, thank you both very much.

OMAR DAJANI: Thank you.