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MIDDLE EAST: The Gaza Withdrawal

Author: Esther Pan
August 18, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Is Israel’s withdrawal of settlers complete?

Nearly. Israeli soldiers removed the last Jewish settlers and protesters from the Gaza Strip August 22 and have moved on to the final stages of the withdrawal: clearing out four small settlements in the West Bank. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party-led government proceeded with the unilateral withdrawal throughout a week of emotional protests and mostly nonviolent confrontations between settlers and soldiers. Israel has controlled the Gaza Strip and the West Bank since it won the territory during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, also known as the Six-Day War. Some parts of Gaza and the West Bank were under Palestinian control before the withdrawal; after the Israelis leave, the area formerly occupied by the settlements will fall under Palestinian control. About 1.3 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip.

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Which settlements are being evacuated?

In all, about 9,000 settlers have been moved, says Geoffrey Aronson, director of research and publications and an expert on Israeli settlements at the Foundation for Middle East Peace inWashington. The 500 or so residents of the last Gaza settlement to be evacuated, Netzarim, left their homes August 22.

What kind of force was needed to carry out the withdrawal?

About 50,000 soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are being deployed to enforce the withdrawal, the Israeli army's largest-ever non-combat military operation. The IDF allotted four soldiers to carry each person and seventeen soldiers to clear each house, says Michael Herzog, currently a brigadier general in the Israeli army and a visiting military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In addition, over 7,000 policemen were deployed to deal with protesters trying to interfere with the withdrawal. Another 5,000 were sent to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, whose Islamic holy sites were threatened by Jewish extremists attempting to disrupt the disengagement process. The Israeli police force has a total of some 20,000 police officers.

Have there been protests against the withdrawal?

Yes. Thousands of Israeli protesters amassed near the Gaza settlements to show solidarity with the settlers. Many of them, wearing orange--the color adopted to show opposition to the withdrawal--snuck into settlements after being urged by settler rabbis to complicate the withdrawal; they were removed along with the settlers by IDF forces. "The entire Gaza area is now a closed military zone," says Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Were the protests violent?

Overall, the removals were contentious and difficult, but not violent. Protesters inGazathrew eggs, bottles, and paint at policemen and soldiers--about a dozen of whom were hurt--but there were no reports of serious injuries. Angry settlers and supporters in two Gaza settlements--Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom--barricaded themselves into synagogues and town meeting halls and had to be dragged out one by one. A West Bank settler set herself on fire to protest the removals, and another settler in theWest Bankshot and killed four Palestinian workers there. But most of the settlers renounced violence. Officials said the roughly 5,000 nonresidents who illicitly entered Gaza in the last few weeks--many of them young people brought up in religious settlements in the West Bank-- were the least compromising and most willing to use violence. These protesters say God gave the land of Israel to the Jews and consider it against divine will to leave any piece of it to the Palestinians. IDF forces, who were unarmed as they approached settlers' houses and made every effort not to use violence while removing people, were able to deal capably with the resistance while completing the withdrawal sooner than expected.

Does the Israeli public support the demonstrators or the government?

Sixty-five percent to 70 percent of the Israeli public has consistently supported the disengagement policy in polls, Herzog says. Lately, that figure has dropped to around 50 percent, he says. Experts say many Israelis, while sympathetic to settlers forced from their homes, are losing patience with the more extreme methods some of the settlers and their supporters are using, including blocking roads, disrupting traffic, threatening to assassinate politicians, and attacking soldiers. "The tactics they've chosen are polarizing," Aronson says. But Herzog says, for the settlers, this is a life-or-death fight. "They are trying to prevent [Gazadisengagement], but if they fail, they want to make it so traumatic that any future government will think twice about removing more settlements," Herzog says. "They're fighting the next war."

Is there a risk of violence from Palestinian militants?

Yes, experts say, although Israeli and Palestinian security forces have successfully prevented any militant attacks thus far. The IDF prepared for potential terror attacks on the masses of settlers, soldiers, and protesters gathered in southern Israelfor the withdrawal, but so far none have occurred. Sharon said in a televised statement August 15 the IDF will retaliate with force if its soldiers or the settlers are attacked by Palestinian militants.

How much will the withdrawal cost?

An estimated $2 billion. Each of the families being moved from Gaza were eligible for average compensation of between $200,000 to $300,000, Herzog says--if they left before the deadline. Families that chose to defy government eviction orders and stay after August 17 forfeited up to a third of the compensation money. In addition, the IDF will remove military bases and equipment from Gaza that were used to protect settlers there over the last several decades. However, "the cost [of withdrawal] has to be weighed against the cost of staying there," Indyk says. Israel had maintained a full division of soldiers in Gaza to protect the settlers there from near-constant attack.

Who will pay for it?

Israel, with U.S. assistance. Israel recently asked theUnited Statesfor $2 billion to help cover the cost of new developments for settlers and others in the northern region of Galilee and the Negev, in the south. Some experts say helping to fund these developments, which are not on disputed territory, is in the U.S. interest because it will further peace in the Middle East. Others say the request, which would be in addition to the $3 billion in foreign aid per year Israel already receives from theUnited States, is inappropriately large. Washington sent some $250 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority last year, and has pledged $350 million for next year.

Who’s involved in managing the process?

Sharon made the decision to disengage unilaterally, but after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was elected in January, replacing the late Yasir Arafat,Israel began consulting with the Palestinians on its plan. Leaders from both sides, including Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yusuf and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, have met since June to coordinate the withdrawal, focusing particularly on security arrangements. The two sides also have strong support from international observers. James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president, is serving as the "disengagement envoy" for the Quartet, a group--Russia, the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States--backing the road map plan for Middle East peace.

What will happen to the physical infrastructure built by Israelis after they leave?

The houses built by and for the Gazasettlers are being destroyed, both so settlers cannot return and so Palestinians cannot use them. Herzog says Palestinians prefer different housing anyway: not the villas favored by Israelis, but high-rises with room for their large, extended families. One proposal put forward by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is for Israel to demolish the structures and then pay Palestinian contractors to cart away the rubble. Other reports say deals have been made to preserve the greenhouses where settlers grew food; they have been bought with international funds and will be given to the Palestinians to use.

What economic challenges will the Palestinians face in Gaza after the withdrawal?

The Palestinian economy is in bad shape, wracked by corruption, violence, and security restrictions. Per capita income in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was $1,800 annually in 2000; it has since fallen to $1,000, wrote Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, in a Washington Post op-ed May 25. Wolfensohn is working with the Palestinians to develop a new social safety-net program, job-creation initiatives, and a three-year plan to improve the Palestinian economy. In early July, the leaders of the world's richest countries pledged $3 billion for Palestinian development at the Group of Eight summit inScotland.

What security concerns will there be after the Israelis leave?

Some experts fear the area will be overrun with Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, who could use it as a base to amass weapons and fighters. Disarming the militants was one of the Palestinians' main obligations under the road map; Abbas has made some progress on this--and is trying to co-opt militants by bringing them into the Palestinian Authority security forces--but Israeli officials say more needs to be done. U.S. Middle East special envoy Lieutenant General William Ward is working with the Palestinians to help reform their security forces and gain control over the militias.

Will the Gaza withdrawal help restart the peace process?

Rice has expressed hope that it will. "We really want the Gaza withdrawal to be a beginning for the process of coming to a final conclusion of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians," she said in a June 19 interview on Jordanian television. If the withdrawal is successful, Rice said, "it does lead one to believe…the road map, which is the most reliable guide to a two-state solution, could be reengaged…with vigor." Sharon's government, however, has downplayed any link between the Gaza withdrawal and the terms of the road map, or withdrawal from any other settlements. "It's too early to tell whether this will be a precursor [to further settlement withdrawal] or the exception that proves the rule that settlements will be abandoned," Aronson says.

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