Thursday, September 15, 2005

Half full or half empty?

PV Vivekanand

ISRAEL has completed its much-heralded withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and sent out a message that its government had taken a major political risk by dragging out many of the Jewish settlers who were living there. The next logical step is for Israel to relax its stranglehold on life in Gaza and also follow up with similar measures in the West Bank. However, Israel itself has created realities on the ground as well as political conditions designed to create deadlocks and forestall any meaningful moves towards ending its occupation of the West Bank. This is in line with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's deceptive designs aimed at freezing the "peace process" with the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
The scenes that erupted in the Gaza Strip after the last Israeli soldier left the area on Monday after 38 years of brutal occupation were described as chaotic by the Israeli and international media while the Arab and Third World media called them celebrations.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, thousands of people crossed the Israel-free crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Again, the Israeli media raised concerns that the people coming in were "terrorists carrying arms and explosives" whereas most of them they were actually using their first opportunity to cross into Gaza and vice-versa to meet their family members for the first time in five years, and taste the air of freedom.
Indeed, for many of them it would have been their first visit to Gaza since 1967, when Israel occupied the area; and many Egyptians also crossed into the Gaza Strip to voice their solidarity with the Palestinians.
This kind of contrasting depictions of developments in Palestine will only continue, with Israel trying to highlight "failures" of the Palestinian leadership to administer the Gaza Strip. These "failures" will be cited in the future as a key Israeli argument against returning the West Bank to the Palestinians if negotiations would ever reach that crucial point — a prospect which remains doubtful at this juncture.
Egypt is not spared either. For weeks, the Israeli media had been steadily referring to the July 2005 and October 2004 bombings in Sharm Al Sheikh and Taba and suggesting that Egyptian forces were not capable of ensuring the security of the border with Gaza. Again, that was a build-up that culminated in Israeli accusations that the Egyptian government failed to live up to delivering on its "obligations" under accords worked out by American mediators for co-ordination on post-evacuation security in the area.
The Israeli build-up also included assertions that the Al Qaeda group had set up presence in the region and it was planning Iraq-style attacks in Israel as well as against Palestinians involved in efforts to find a negotiated settlement with the Jewish state.
Most notable was an Israeli suggestion on Wednesday that the spontaneity of Palestinian celebrations "was exploited if not generated by the Hamas and Jihad Islami... groups...
"With the help of Egyptian troops, they used the tide of people to cover the illegal transfer from northern Sinai into the Gaza Strip of hundreds of terrorists with sidearms, Qassam missiles, long-range rockets, and anti-tank and ground-air missiles," it said.
There are two ways of looking at Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which had always been a source of troubles for Israel.
It was good riddance for Israel to quit Gaza and evacuate the 8,000 and plus settlers from the strip since it no longer has to maintain an army presence there at a high cost. It was also an opportunity for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to tell the world that he was unilaterally withdrawing from an area which was seized in war and it was a gesture that highlighted his "commitment to work out peace" with the Palestinians.
It was known that all Israeli governments since the 70s wanted to quit the Gaza Strip because they had no advantages in continuing to occupy it. Nor did Gaza have any "nationalist" or "religious" importance that prompted Israel not to let it go whereas most Israelis consider the West Bank is part of the "promised land" and would not want to return it to the Palestinians.