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MIDDLE EAST: The Disengagement Plan

Author: Sharon Otterman
March 1, 2004
This publication is now archived.

What is Israel's disengagement plan?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says Israel may move on its own to evacuate most of the Jewish settlements in Gaza and some in the West Bank while simultaneously strengthening its hold on other West Bank settlements. This move toward disengagement, implemented along with the construction of Israel's so-called security barrier, would hasten the separation of Palestinians and Israelis outside the context of a negotiated agreement. U.S. officials have hinted they may be willing to back the disengagement effort if some modifications to the plan are made and Israel does not rule out an eventual return to two-sided peace talks. Three senior U.S. envoys traveled to Israel in mid-February to discuss the plan.

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What motivated Sharon to put this plan forward?

The prime minister says Israel is being forced to take unilateral steps to reduce terror attacks on its civilians because the peace process with the Palestinians has reached a dead end. Sharon says Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is untrustworthy and that there is no credible negotiating partner among other Palestinian officials. He faults the Palestinians for not cracking down on terror as required in the U.S.-sponsored, internationally endorsed peace plan, the so-called road map. Palestinian authorities counter that Israel has not fulfilled its commitments contained in the road map, especially its pledge to end settlement expansion.

How does the disengagement plan compare to the road map?

The road map, announced by President George W. Bush in April 2003, outlines a process for a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. It consists of a series of confidence-building measures on both sides that lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders and, eventually, discussions on the final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state. By contrast, Sharon's disengagement plan calls for steps to be taken by Israel alone, without input from the Palestinians. It will unilaterally determine short-term boundaries between Israeli and Palestinian areas. Sharon says these security lines, which in some cases will encompass lands inhabited or claimed by Palestinians, will not establish final borders; many Palestinians fear they will. Negotiations, Sharon says, can resume if the road map process is revived.

What are the areas in dispute?

The West Bank, slightly smaller than the state of Delaware, was captured from Jordan in the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967. It is home to some 230,000 Israeli settlers and 2.2 million Palestinians. Gaza is a seven-mile wide, 25-mile long strip of land in the southwest corner of Israel adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. Captured from Egypt in the 1967 war, it is home to some 7,500 Israeli settlers and more than 1.2 million Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority, led by Arafat, says its political goal is to form an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. So-called Palestinian rejectionist organizations, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, say they want to destroy Israel entirely and create a Palestine that would extend from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

How much is known about the Israeli disengagement plan?

Many of the details remain unclear. In a December 18 speechin Herzliya, Israel, Sharon gave the basic outlines of the plan. He later expanded on some of its details in a February 2 interview inHaaretz, an Israeli newspaper. Sharon has said he would support a referendum on a withdrawal from Gaza. And last month Sharon assured Israeli lawmakers that he would seek their approval for any new boundary with the West Bank.

What does the plan say about West Bank settlements?

Sharon announced February 2 that at least three of the approximately 130 West Bank settlements would be evacuated in the first phase of the disengagement plan if the proposal moves forward. He did not specify which settlements--or say how many settlers would be affected--but said they would be those "in the heart of the Palestinian population." Sharon has also pledged to evacuate all unauthorized settlement "outposts"--settlements that have been built without Israeli government permission. Peace Now, an Israeli peace advocacy organization, estimates that there are some 100 outposts. Many of them consist of only a few trailers or other temporary lodgings that are often home to some of the most committed settlers.

What would happen to the West Bank settlements that remain?

Israeli security would be tightened to protect them, according to press reports. One aspect of this increased security, Sharon said in his Herzliya speech, would be to accelerate work on a controversial Israeli security barrier being built to separate Israel from the West Bank and place some of its largest settlements on the Israeli side of the barrier. "Israel will strengthen its control over those same areas in the Land of Israel which will constitute an inseparable part of the State of Israel in any future agreement," Sharon said. While new security lines "will not constitute the permanent border of the state of Israel," he added, "obviously, through the disengagement plan, the Palestinians will receive much less than they would have received through direct negotiations as set out in the road map."

Why has the fence been criticized?

Largely because the 400-mile-long barrier, which is about one-third complete, does not follow the pre-1967 war demarcation between the West Bank and Israel known as the "Green Line." Instead, some of its sections run through Palestinian-inhabited towns and fields. When it is completed, it will isolate an estimated 250,000 Palestinians from the bulk of the West Bank, according to B' Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization; Israeli officials say the number is lower and that access for movement through the fence will be made available. The barrier's projected course has heightened Palestinian concerns that Israel will use the fence to lay permanent claim to territory on the east side of the Green Line. The fence is popular among many Israelis, who consider it an effective defensive deterrent against terror attacks.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Green Line does not have any official legal status. In what is itself a controversial move to determine the legality of the security barrier, the International Court of Justice in The Hague has begun non-binding deliberations on the subject. Meanwhile, Sharon's government has said it is considering some changes to the fence's course to ease its impact on Palestinians and has recently announced plans to take down a section surrounding a Palestinian town. U.S. officials have reportedly been pressing for such changes.

Did Sharon give a timeline for the disengagement plan?

No, though Ehud Olmert, Israel's deputy prime minister, has said that the withdrawal from Gaza settlements could begin as early as this summer if peace talks remain stalled. Sharon has given a tentative timetable of one or two years for most of the Gaza settlements to be evacuated.

Which Gaza settlements will be evacuated?

In the February 2 interview, Sharon said that 17 of the 20 settlements in Gaza will be "relocated." He did not say which ones would be affected, nor did he say where they would be moved. But in a statement that stunned many Israeli settlers, Sharon said, "I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza." Sharon is one of the primary architects of Israel's settlement policy and has long cited the settlements as a vital security buffer.

What is the status of the settlements in the Gaza Strip?

The settlers live on approximately 20 percent of the land, and their communities and roads are separated from the rest of Gaza by multiple fences and military checkpoints. According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), there have been 11,369 "terror attacks" on soldiers and civilians in Gaza since September 2000, making it by far the most dangerous place for Israelis in the disputed territories.

A total of 653 Israeli civilians have been killed in terror attacks in the disputed territories and pre-1967 Israel since September 2000, according to the IDF. A closely guarded Israeli fence runs the length of the land border between Gaza and Israel; since its construction, no suicide bombers have successfully entered Israel from Gaza.

What is the situation for Palestinians in Gaza?

Tightened Israeli security measures since September 2000--the start of the ongoing Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel--have created hardships in both Gaza and the West Bank. Closures of the entry point between Gaza and Israel and of roads inside Gaza have prevented many Palestinians from working; 75 percent of people in Gaza now live below the poverty line, according to statistics kept by the World Bank. The unemployment rate in the West Bank and Gaza, according to the World Bank, stands at 53 percent. In addition, restrictions on population movements hinder the delivery of health care services and food and prevent some children from attending school, according to information complied by the United Nations. Hamas, the radical Islamist organization classified by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, is especially powerful in Gaza, where it provides alternative sources of education, health care, and social welfare. Of the 2,678 Palestinians killed in Israeli-Palestinian violence since September 2000, 1,073 of them have been in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

What is the argument for withdrawing settlers from Gaza?

Those in favor of the evacuation say that conditions for Palestinians--especially their ability to move freely--would improve once the Israeli military checkpoints and security measures were removed. As for the Israelis, settlers would no longer be targets of attacks, and Israeli soldiers would no longer have to patrol in Gaza. A majority of Israelis--59 percent, according to a recent poll in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot--support a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. "It may not be the be all and end all, not peace in our time, but then again, the [Israeli] army will be out of Gaza, and there will be a million Palestinians spared that daily, grinding friction in their lives," says David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Which Israelis support unilateral withdrawal?

Increasing numbers of Israelis who could be classified as moderate-right or center-right and vote for Sharon's Likud Party, as well as many on the political center-left in Israel, traditionally represented by the Labor Party. Some see unilateral action as the only option in the face of persistent Palestinian attacks on Israelis and the absence of concerted anti-terrorist efforts by the Palestinian Authority. Some are also concerned that, by holding on to the territories, Israel will eventually become a state in which Palestinians outnumber Jews. As that demographic shift approaches, Israel will face a stark choice: either give Palestinians voting rights, which would mean the loss of Israel's identity as a Jewish state, or withhold the vote, and sacrifice Israel's commitment to democracy. "Sharon's plan is a unilateral step that's meant to solve the demographic question," says Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.

What is the anti-withdrawal argument?

On both the right and left in Israel, there are some who oppose unilateral withdrawal on the grounds that Israel would be making a tactical error by giving up the settlements without anything in return from the Palestinians. "In the rough-and-tumble world of Arab-Israeli politics, withdrawal without reciprocity is an unmistakable sign of weakness that could easily diminish, not enhance, Israeli deterrence and security," argued Aaron Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator, in a recent International Herald Tribune op-ed. A unilateral pull-out could also weaken the long-term prospects for a negotiated permanent agreement by benefiting Hamas and other terror groups. "The greatest risk underlying unilateral action is the strengthening of extremists," wrote Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister and one of the architects of the Geneva Accord, an unofficial peace plan. In addition, if the new security lines become permanent, some opponents fear they will leave the Palestinians with too little land to create a viable state.

Which Israelis oppose unilateral withdrawal?

On the political right, some members of Sharon's own Likud Party, as well as settler groups and deeply religious Israeli conservatives. In some cases, they argue that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank make up an integral part of the land of Israel given to Jews in the Bible. "We are fleeing, pure and simple," settler Avner Shimoni, head of the Gaza Strip Regional Council, told the New York Post. On the political left, they include some who favor a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Some veteran peace negotiators warn that the Palestinians will never accept borders decided unilaterally by Israelis.

How have Palestinians reacted?

In general, Palestinians have opposed the plan, arguing that it will leave them with far less land than they believe they are entitled to. On the other hand, some Palestinian leaders are reluctant to take a stand against a plan that could lead to the rapid withdrawal of many settlements. This conundrum has led to a range of responses from Palestinians: Arafat harshly condemned the plan, but Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said he would welcome the removal of Gaza settlements, if it were followed by the removal of those in the West Bank. On February 9, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee and a cosponsor of the Geneva Accord, told reporters in Ramallah that the Palestinians are considering declaring an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem if Sharon tries to impose boundaries. In response, Israeli leaders said they could annex disputed territories. These moves could set the stage for an intensification of violence between the two sides. Alternatively, disengagement could provide another way to achieve the road map's phase two objective of a Palestinian state with provisional boundaries, says Robert Satloff, director of policy and strategic planning at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

How does Sharon's plan affect long-term hopes for peace?

Some experts say it is difficult to know without more information about what Israeli steps are planned. If the withdrawal from Gaza can be leveraged into progress toward a negotiated settlement, it "holds forth hope. It's a big breakthrough," Makovsky says. But other experts warn that if Sharon's plan amounts to a unilateral attempt to impose a solution on the Palestinians, it could lead to more bloodshed. "I think that the real danger is that we may in fact be witnessing the beginning of the end of a conventional diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The reality is that the facts that are being created on the ground by both sides are not good," Miller says.

How important is the U.S. role in all this?

Pivotal, most experts say. Only the United States, they say, has the leverage over Israel to make sure that its potential evacuation of Gaza would be the first--and not the final--move toward solving the conflict. "It's an opportunity that should be seized. The United States should try to broker this concerted unilateralism" to facilitate progress toward peace, Makovsky says. Henry Siegman, the director of the U.S.-Middle East project at the Council on Foreign Relations, warns that "if the United States does not make it very clear "that permanent changes must be the subject of negotiations, the Gaza move, in my view, could be a nail in the coffin of the Palestinian state."

What is Washington doing on the issue?

It has sent three senior envoys to Israel to discuss the plan--Stephen Hadley, the U.S. deputy national security advisor, Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council's Middle East affairs director, and William Burns, head of the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs Bureau. According to press reports, the administration may support a modified version of the withdrawal plan. Possible changes could include a guarantee that West Bank settlements will not be expanded or a modification to the planned course of Israel's West Bank security barrier. On February 20, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said an Israeli pullback "could reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians, improve Palestinian freedom of movement, and address some of Israel's responsibilities in moving ahead." But he added that a final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians "must be achieved through negotiations, and neither side should impose final conditions on the other."

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