ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Two scenarios - and then some - for Gaza pullout
Alon Ben-Meir

July 26, 2005

Israel`s withdrawal from Gaza is scheduled to begin only three short weeks from now. The effect on the 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 remain 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: Israel is able to withdraw both settlers and military installations without any major incident, although demonstrations by supporters of settlers may lead to minor scuffles with security forces.

According to this scenario Hamas and Islamic Jihad also fully cooperate with the Palestinian Authority (PA), 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 between Israelis and Palestinians. A more likely script is that Islamic militants like Hamas, Jihad and Hizbullah will continue to insist that muqawamah, in Arabic meaning violent resistance, 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 might 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.

A top Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said how Israel would respond to this type of provocation: `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 PA, which will feel, rightfully, betrayed by them. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas knows that however legitimate Palestinian demands may be, neither Israeli Prime Minister Ariel 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 Abbas` fateful hour. He cannot afford to lose the battle with Hamas or 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 ceasefire, 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 PA 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 said, also on condition of anonymity, `but Hamas and Jihad had better not test our patience`.

Hosni Abdel Rahman, the former Palestinian ambassador to Washington, although blaming Israel for the plight of the Palestinians, 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 scenarios 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 US 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.

Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU and is the Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute, New York