Israel/Palestine: Gaza withdrawal – will Sharon’s pull-out bring ‘peace’?

The Israeli government has now demolished all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip, with four more in the West Bank to follow. This is the first time that Israel has removed settlements in Palestinian territory seized in the 1967 war.

The forced evacuations have not been without protests and violence, including the killing of eight Palestinians by two far-right Jewish settlers. But with Israeli public opinion overwhelmingly in favour of the disengagement and with the strength of the Israeli army, the Gaza withdrawal has been implemented.

There are predictions of greater resistance to come, in two of the West Bank settlements that are to be removed, but the army has the power to evacuate these too.

Street celebrations have begun in the poverty stricken Palestinian refugee camps of Gaza and a larger ‘liberation’ festival is planned. Internationally, illusions in the prospects now for ‘peace’ in the region have been fuelled by comments such as those of James Wolfensohn, an envoy from the international ‘quartet’ (the US, EU, UN and Russia). He called the pullout “a strategic moment that has all the elements of a future settlement” and added: “They are addressing all the issues they would need to address in a final settlement”. These remarks are far from the truth.

In the Palestinian territories, the disengagement is viewed as a welcome product of the Palestinian intifada (uprising), but there is rightly scepticism on what benefits it will bring. The entire Gaza strip with its 1.3m inhabitants is still fenced off like a huge prison, with the Israeli army able to re-enter at any time. Despite several months of negotiation, the Israeli regime has not yet agreed to cede any control over Gaza’s borders, throwing into question whether there will be any freedom of trade and movement of people, including travel between Gaza and the West Bank. Faced with this, Palestinians recognise that colonisation of Gaza may have ended, but a ‘de facto’ occupation still exists.

For Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, disengagement has always been a unilateral step designed partly to forestall any pressure towards a ‘peace’ settlement. His senior advisor, Dov Weiglass, made this clear last October when he said: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent discussion on the refugee issue.. there will not be a negotiation process with the Palestinians.”

However, the root causes of Sharon’s decision were the continuing inability of the Israeli army to quell the intifada, to end the economic and security consequences for Israel that go with it, and also the future demographic situation in the area. The Israeli ruling class can see that without separation from the Palestinian territories, there will eventually be a Palestinian majority in the area they control between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean sea.

Sharon wants to fence off the Palestinian territories into enclaves, a strategy that has meant resorting to the dismantling of Jewish settlements which were hard to defend. Although these abandoned settlements are a small minority of the total, they were set up in period when the Israeli capitalist class had aspirations for a greater Israel encompassing all the land in the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas, and therefore represent a significant reversal of that aim.

However, only 8,000 Jewish settlers have been moved, less than 2% of the 440,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And Sharon intends to continue to expand the settlements nearest to Israel. While Palestinians face only house demolitions, construction of Jewish homes in the West Bank rose 83% in the first quarter of 2005 compared with the same period a year before.

In particular, 3,500 houses are planned on the edge of the settlement of Maale Adumim, three miles east of Jerusalem, with the idea of filling the gap between the settlement and the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem. Also, while attention has focused on Gaza, the building of the separation wall has continued deep inside the West Bank, causing destruction of Palestinians’ livelihoods and cutting off 55,000 Jerusalem Palestinians from their own city.

International aid and investment have been promised to Gaza after the Israeli pull-out, but for this to fully materialise and be of use, Gazans need trade access to the outside world which the Israeli regime is presently resisting, and the overall situation would be need to be stable. Even if these conditions were met, the Palestinian masses have their own aspiring capitalist elite, with a history of corruption and nepotism, so would not see much benefit themselves from aid.

However, the internal situation in the Gaza strip is presently very unstable, with infighting between gangs and militias. A major flare-up of violence in July was triggered by events following an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in Israel on 12 July. PA police fired on a car carrying Hamas militiamen, wounding five, which then led to armed clashes between Hamas and PA police. “Relations between Hamas and the PA have not been this fraught in years”, said Ghazi Hamad, editor of the Islamist newspaper al-Risala.

The right-wing Islamic party, Hamas, made major gains in local elections earlier this year, and stands to win similar or maybe greater support in legislative elections planned for January 2006. President Mahmood Abbas postponed these elections from July 2005, fearing increased disillusionment towards the PA’s ruling Fatah party, and Hamas gaining as a result.

Fatah leaders are therefore hoping that the aftermath of the Israeli disengagement will increase their popularity, but given all the above factors, the opposite is more likely.

The disengagement will also have major consequences for Israel’s political parties, with the ruling Likud-led right-wing coalition already in turmoil. Benjamin Netanyahu resigned his post as Foreign Minister in order to prepare to oppose Sharon for the Likud leadership, and presently has a 20% lead over Sharon within the party.

However, Netanyahu’s policies have caused untold misery to the mass of the population. He has recently spearheaded further cuts in welfare and social services and the biggest privatisation drive since the late 1990s, including Israel Telecom and parts of the national airline, a bank and a shipping company.

For now, Sharon is resting on the majority support for his disengagement plan; 59% in a recent poll backed the pullout and 89% said the security forces had handled it well. But he has alienated right-wing religious settlers and their supporters who, rather than taking his right-wing pragmatic position, believe that Jews have a divine right to the occupied territories.

Sharon may well fail to hold out until the November 2006 deadline for elections, and in any case could be forced to try to cobble together a new bloc without the most right-wing parties and possibly without a section of Likud.

For Israeli workers, none of the Israeli capitalist politicians can offer a decent future. The disengagement plan will not bring national and democratic rights, and improved living standards, to the Palestinians, so will not end the national conflict which brings constant insecurity to all Israelis. It will only be by organising themselves, creating a new Israeli workers’ party based on socialist ideas, that a programme to solve the economic and national problems will be put forward.

And for Palestinian workers, the same holds true, as capitalism worldwide is completely unable to come to their aid with any solution. Only through building a democratic and independent workers’ movement which can lead the way with mass actions to further their cause, can their aspirations be met and a socialist Palestine established alongside a socialist Israel.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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August 2005