Why Does Gaza Matter?

How come so many groups are wary of a plan that seems like a step in the right direction?

Last week, the Israeli Cabinet voted to approve Ariel Sharon’s U.S.-backed plan to withdraw from Gaza but rebuked him by deferring a decision on dismantling the settlements there. To engineer even this tepid support, Sharon had to fire two far-right Cabinet members who had threatened to vote against his plan. The Israeli public, exhausted by the intifada, supports the withdrawal, but the Israeli left is conflicted and the Palestinians are wary. Why are so many people apprehensive about a plan that seems like a step in the right direction? And in a conflict that’s always on the verge of catastrophe but never really seems to change, why does Gaza matter?

Gaza is perhaps the least desirable piece of land in the Middle East: small, crowded, poverty-stricken, and of relatively little religious importance to anyone. But each part of the Israeli and Palestinian political spectrum has its own reasons to wrangle over Gaza all the same. The far right in Israel is ideologically opposed to Palestinian autonomy, both because it regards everything west of the Jordan River as rightfully Jewish and because it sees the occupied territories as a security buffer against the Arab states. They fear that dismantling the settlements in Gaza (and a few isolated ones in the West Bank) will be the beginning of the end for the whole settlement project of which Sharon was a founding father and that to leave Gaza at this point is to hand it to terrorists. In addition, they see the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 as having emboldened Arabs to believe that resistance is effective and worry that a withdrawal from Gaza will confirm this belief.

The broader Israeli right (of which Sharon is a part) shares this view, but it is focused on demographics: Due to higher Arab birth rates, Jews will become a minority in the lands currently under Israeli control in the next decade or so. This, they fear, will make conspicuous the undemocratic nature of privileging one religious group over another and make minority rule untenable. Here, too, Lebanon is a worrisome precedent, but in this case the lesson comes from the Lebanese civil war that ran from 1975 to 1990. The French crafted modern Lebanon from the remains of the Ottoman Empire in order to create a Christian-majority state in a predominantly Muslim region, a privilege later enshrined in the division of power delineated in the amendments to the 1926 constitution. But higher Muslim—particularly Shiite—birthrates and greater Christian emigration meant Lebanon had a substantial Muslim majority by the 1970s. The Christians’ unwillingness to relinquish power was one of several triggers for the vicious, bloody civil war that ended with the Ta’if Agreement in 1989 and the de facto transfer of power from the Christian president to the Muslim prime minister.

The Israelis, facing a similar demographic shift, have three options to ensure a Jewish majority: They can hope that vast numbers of diaspora Jews move to Israel, they can move the Palestinians, or they can move the lines of Israeli control. The Jewish majority in Israel was created by waves of immigration from the diaspora, but as almost every Jew who might want to move to Israel is already free to do so, substantial migration in the future is unlikely. The mass expulsion of Palestinians would not be politically tenable unless an exceptional event (such as a Sept. 11-scale terrorist attack within Israel) could be used as a pretext. So, the only near-term option for the right is to cede the areas in which the most Palestinians live on the least territory and allow them to call it a state. This is Sharon’s plan. Gaza is the first stage—it has 1.3 million Palestinians living in just 140 square miles—and the contours of the second stage, if it proves necessary, are being mapped in the West Bank with the security wall.

The Israeli left organized a rally in support of the Gaza withdrawal that drew 150,000 to Tel Aviv’s main square hoping that it could trigger a return to the negotiating table. But the left is conflicted in its support because it understands that Sharon’s newfound enthusiasm for a Palestinian state after a long career fighting to prevent its emergence represents a change of tactics and not a change of heart. The left’s vision of a two-state solution is not an act of charity; rather, it is that Israeli control over Palestinian lives is, itself, a radicalizing force that endangers Israeli security. It is the control, more than the flag and other trappings of a state, that is the important part, and Sharon is using withdrawal from Gaza to justify expanding Israeli control in the West Bank. The left’s Oslo-era slogan was “Gaza First,” but its fear at the time, along with that of most Palestinians, was ” … and Last.” Gaza, in itself, does not have the potential to become a viable Palestinian state: It is too small, poor, densely populated, devoid of resources, and vulnerable to control by Israel and Egypt. For the Israeli left, then, a withdrawal from Gaza alone is a cynical half-measure that relieves the pressure to negotiate a comprehensive solution and therefore will do little to address Palestinian concerns or strengthen Israel’s security.

The Palestinians, too, recognize that a Gaza withdrawal is a poisoned chalice. From their perspective, any ceding of land is welcome, but Sharon’s plan calls for unilateral withdrawal engineered with no cooperation or involvement from the Palestinian side over what will fill the vacuum created by the departure of the Israelis. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, despite its name, has very little authority in Gaza: It has been destroyed by administrative incompetence during Oslo, the discrediting of the path of negotiated resolution by the collapse of the peace process, and the gutting of civic and government institutions by the Israelis during the second intifada. The PA knows that a unilateral withdrawal will in effect hand power in Gaza to its rival, Hamas, which has more local credibility and a much greater presence on the ground.

The Palestinian left, for its part, fears both the PA and Hamas; the former because the corruption and mismanagement that characterized its rule during the Oslo peace process made an embarrassing display of what an independent Palestinian government might look like and the latter because it is inimical to democratic, secular values. More than that, the Palestinian left fears chaos in Gaza. Where the Israelis look to Lebanon for their precedents, the Palestinians look to South Africa: To them, the Israeli policy of laying siege to the PA, on the one hand, and assassinating Hamas leaders, on the other, seems designed to ensure that no effective Palestinian administration of any type can emerge, much as the South African apartheid government covertly fuelled civil wars in Mozambique and Angola and then told scared South African whites that that was the brutal chaos they would get if they opted for black rule. What’s more, Palestinians see the rump state Sharon seems prepared to give them as similar to the South African Bantustan policy, which established superficially independent black homelands on undesirable terrain in order to forestall genuine independence.

Indeed, the only group that might be expected to wholeheartedly welcome a Gaza withdrawal is Hamas itself, because they are best positioned to take control in the territory and can present the withdrawal as vindication of their policy of armed resistance. But there are two reasons for them to be fearful as well. For one thing, Gazan autonomy is a sham: The Israelis will still control Gaza’s external borders and thus its economy and stability, and with no settlers in the territory vulnerable to retaliation, the Israelis will have a freer hand in responding with force to any future Hamas actions. Second, Gazan autonomy, no matter how constrained, poses an existential question for Hamas similar to the one the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon posed for Hezbollah: Can it now evolve from a militant resistance group into a legitimate and effective regional administration? Like Hezbollah, Hamas has a long history of running social welfare, health, and other quasi-governmental organizations in its territory. But there is a longer history—that of the 50 years of dictatorship in the Arab world that has followed colonial rule—that shows just how difficult the transition to governance can be.

The Gaza plan calls for withdrawal from the territory by the end of 2005. Peace is a more distant prospect.