International Papers

Leaving Gaza

The Middle East press looks at Israel’s withdrawal.

As Israel’s government began emptying the Gaza Strip of its Jewish settlers on Wednesday, Israeli newspapers offered a blow-by-blow account of the evacuation itself and of its impact on Israeli society. In contrast, the Arab press highlighted the longer-term consequences of the disengagement and what it might mean for the future of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Ha’aretz described the removal of settlers from the largest Gaza outpost, Neveh Dekalim, where there were reports of violence: “Police scuffled with a large crowd, as the smoke from burning garbage rose into the air. Protesters fought with police officers and threw eggs and water bottles at them.” However, the paper also reported that 832 families out of the 1,550 registered as residents in Gaza had left their homes by midnight Tuesday, the deadline for their voluntary departure, though many nonresident protesters had infiltrated the area. Some 15,000 police were deployed to deal with the settlers, and the paper quoted an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as saying opposition to the disengagement had failed and that nearly all the 21 Gaza settlements could be evacuated within 48 hours. On its Web site, the Jerusalem Post offered a detailed breakdown of the developing situation in each settlement.

In an editorial, the Jerusalem Post, which leans politically to the right, said that the settlers’ removal was “painful” and that police and soldiers would “knock on the doors of … citizens who have withstood almost five years of terrorism only to be evicted by their own government.” The editors were agnostic on the merits of the withdrawal, expressed sympathy for the settlers, but also insisted they not resort to violence: “Indeed, though our enemies are rejoicing at the suffering of the settlers, they will rejoice even more if we decide to tear ourselves apart.” Columnist Rami Khouri, writing in Beirut’s Daily Star, was unmoved by the settlers’ plight. Describing them as “dangerous predators,” he noted, “[P]ress depictions of the Gaza settlers’ ‘emotional pain’ at being sent back to … Israel lack both credibility and relevance. Forcing a thief to stop stealing is not an act that should be depicted as inflicting pain on the criminal, but rather as forcing the criminal to abide by the law.”

The Arabic press mostly looked beyond the details to measure the disengagement’s implications. A commentary in Bahrain’s Al-Wasat (via Mideastwire; free registration required) described Israelis as divided into two groups on the issue: one eager to be rid of the demographic burden of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, the other regarding disengagement as “a symbolic defeat of the Zionist project.”

Indeed, the real story of Gaza is how each side interprets disengagement and what it means in the coming months. A Hamas spokesman summed up his organization’s take on the settlers’ departure in an interview with Al-Manar, the TV station of Lebanon’s Hezbollah: “It’s a victory for the resistance, and for the Palestinians.” Senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahhar told the London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat: “The resistance must move to the West Bank to drive out the occupation. We will not take the Gaza Strip and flee to a state of calm and tranquility while the Zionist enemy continues to detain thousands of our sons, and while it occupies the West Bank.”

Another London-based Arabic-language paper, Al-Hayat, quoted the head of Israeli Military Intelligence as saying he expected a resurgence next spring of terrorist attacks in the West Bank, which he described as a “time bomb.” The paper also described the banners put up in Gaza City, reflecting the different moods of their political sponsors. Whereas the Hamas banners stressed militancy, those put up by the Palestinian Authority, which is engaged in a struggle for power with Islamist groups for control of liberated Gaza, pointed in another direction: “The people liberate; the people build,” one banner read, in an obvious effort to downplay Hamas’ taking sole credit for Israel’s pullout.

The PA-Hamas rivalry will likely play itself out in elections, and Palestinians are keen to avoid internecine fighting that may undermine their credibility in anticipation of possible future Israeli withdrawals. The Palestinian daily Al-Quds reported that Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei set Sept. 29 as the date for the third round of Palestinian municipal elections. He also announced that teams had been set up to deal with the property left behind by Israeli settlers. Both issues are tricky for the PA: In order to avoid expected losses against Hamas, the authority brazenly postponed legislative elections planned for this summer until early next year. The municipal elections will partly make up for this. There is also a fear among Palestinians that the corrupt PA will distribute the settlers’ land to its own leading members. Qurei’s effort was designed to show that the leadership was dealing with the matter responsibly. He surely knows that abuse of the property will damage the PA’s electoral fortunes.