What to make of Ariel Sharon’s plan to evacuate the Gaza settlements?

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Ariel Sharon would seem the least likely of Israeli prime ministers to end to more than three decades of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. After all, as the Israeli paper Ha’aretz reminds, Sharon was “the man who drew the settlement map in the Gaza Strip during the ’70s, in the form of five fingers, with the intention of joining them.” But Sharon on Monday announced plans to evacuate most or all settlers from the Gaza Strip as well as a small number from the West Bank. The day will probably come, he said, when “there will be no Jews in Gaza.”

What gives? James Bennet, of the New York Times, writes that the plans imply that Sharon “does not foresee any end to the conflict with Arabs that, one way or another, he has fought his whole life.” He is determined, though, to prevent a withdrawal to Israel’s pre-June 1967 borders, which he calls militarily indefensible, and, says Bennett, “he appears willing to give up almost all of Gaza to hold onto as much of the West Bank as he can.”

According to Sharon allies who spoke to Bennet, the prime minister wants to avoid having a solution imposed from outside. By acting on his own initiative and sacrificing some territory unilaterally, he hopes to avoid more substantial concessions.

The announcement, made as Muslims observed the major holiday, Eid al-Adha, to uproot 17 of 24 Jewish communities in Gaza, went over badly with large segments of the Israeli public. More than 100,000 marched against Sharon’s plan in Tel Aviv last weekend, ahead of the announcement, and 11 members of parliament staged a walkout on Monday. Two ultranationalist parties threatened to abandon his governing coalition if Sharon went ahead.

On the other hand, leaders of the opposition Labor party offered to support him, and Israeli moderates welcomed the proposal. A poll in the daily Yediot Ahronot showed 59 percent support for Sharon’s plan.

No action has been taken since the announcement. Sharon says he will move only when he judges that the Bush administration’s “road map” peace initiative has failed. Sharon, says Bennet “has been careful not to offend the Bush administration by giving up on its peace initiative … with its commitment to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.” Analysts speculate that he will hold off at least until after U.S. presidential election in November.

Sharon will present the plan to President Bush later this month. First it must pass in Sharon’s cabinet and the Knesset, no sure thing. The White House stopped short of endorsing Sharon’s plan but vaguely praised it as an attempt “to reduce tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Sharon wants American help with the plan. This from the Globe and Mail:

“Mr. Sharon acknowledged that Israel might have difficulty justifying a request for American aid, but said that in the end it would be in Washington’s interest to help with the dismantling of settlements.

They [the Americans] were opposed to the establishment of settlements,” Sharon said. “Now they can say ‘we warned you,’ but the Americans rely on us in the region and what will develop here as part of the president’s vision.

Mr. Sharon was referring to the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, whose centrepiece is the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by 2005.”

Meanwhile, some settlers are playing their own Washington angle. They aim to block the re-settlement efforts by lobbying far-right, Christian allies in Congress, to influence Bush. (Fundamentalist Christian groups that want Jews to reclaim ancestral lands in accordance with Biblical prophecies have reportedly influenced many of the president’s approach to Israel.) Jewish settlers in Gaza claim hereditary right to the territory and are pushing an image of their barbed-wire-encircled villages as tame, suburban subdivisions.

The BBC reports:

“The settler representatives took to the airwaves in the wake of his announcement to denounce the plan as madness, a betrayal, a capitulation in the face of terrorism.

Others said the evacuation would never happen, that Mr. Sharon was simply doing a bit of political manoeuvring for the benefit of the international community.

And they have a point. Ariel Sharon agreed to freeze settlements and remove smaller outposts as part of the US-backed peace roadmap.

He has only dismantled a handful of outposts.”

Sharon defended moving the residents as “evacuation”

for their own safety.

“In December Ariel Sharon announced that unless the Palestinians clamped down on violence, he would abandon the roadmap and instead begin the unilateral disengagement of Israel from Palestinian territory. In other words, Israel would impose its own borders with the Palestinians, without negotiation.

And that would involve withdrawing from Gaza and the West Bank those settlements which Israel can least afford to protect.”

This might mean eventually swapping one-third of the Gaza Strip for West Bank territory, re-drawing the Israel-Palestine border and excluding tens of thousands of Arabs from Israel. This would guarantee an 80 percent Jewish majority among the 6.6 million Israelis, which now includes a lower-income Arab minority of 16 percent.

Squeezing more Arabs into a separate state with borders sketched by Israel would also mean

less land for Palestine.
Whether the Jewish settlements in Gaza stay or go, construction of what some call an “apartheid wall” in the West Bank is proceeding despite international condemnation.

“The Palestinians say they will not allow Israel to dictate which land they can keep.

They see the construction of Israel’s new barrier as an attempt to impose a border that in many places goes far into Palestinian territory, diminishing the size of any future Palestinian state.

What Ariel Sharon sees as a possible solution, they see as a reason to continue the intifada.”

Some view Sharon’s plan as a mere land grab and continued exploitation by Israel. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia applauded Sharon’s recent move but called for Israelis to leave both Gaza and the West Bank.


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