While most Israeli leaders are resistant to fully lifting the blockade of Gaza, Avigdor Lieberman, the right-wing foreign minister, is advocating that Israel abandon the Strip to international monitoring and economic rehabilitation.
If implemented, it will permanently sever the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, transforming the Strip into an internationally supervised ghetto – with the dual purpose of ensuring Israeli security and reigning in the Palestinian population.
The isolation of Gaza would further undermine the vision of a contiguous Palestinian state or any form of equitable coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis. It would also divide those families with members in the West Bank, creating a permanent schism in Palestinian society and deepening the sense of fragmentation.
Hamas would effectively be ruling a development project with no meaningful ties to the rest of the Palestinian people.
The Gaza burden
While Israel has always firmly held on to its direct occupation of the West Bank – and sought to annex parts of it – in contrast, many Israeli leaders consider – and have treated – the Gaza Strip as a burden. In Israel, the West Bank and Jerusalem are presented and perceived as part of the historic homeland of Israel, with many Israelis calling the West Bank by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria. Israeli leaders have always wanted to reach a deal with the Palestinians over the West Bank and Jerusalem – partly to legitimate the annexation of East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.
But Gaza presents a demographic nightmare for Israel. As one of the most densely populated areas in the world – about 1.6 million people in 360 square kilometres – it is almost impossible for Israel to transfer enough settlers to the Strip to ensure a Jewish majority.
In 1992, during the first intifada, Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister, expressed his wish that Gaza would just “sink into the sea”. A year later, convinced that Israel could not continue to control the Palestinian people, he signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat, the late Palestine Liberation Organisation leader.
But Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister who remains in a persistent vegetative state after suffering a stroke in 2006, found a way of transforming Gaza from an Israeli burden into a Palestinian problem. In 2005, he ordered a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and the evacuation of 7,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, without giving up Israeli control of Gaza’s sea and land crossings.
Fuelling the rift
The former general, who did not believe in dealing with the Palestinians, did not coordinate this with the Palestinian Authority (PA), thus successfully widening the already growing rift between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas, who five months earlier had won parliamentary elections, hailed the “liberation” of the Strip as “a victory for armed resistance”, contrasting its “success” in freeing Gaza with the “failure” of Fatah’s negotiations with Israel.
But Gaza has, in effect, remained under Israeli occupation, enabling Israel to impose a sea and land blockade for the past three years and to further weaken the ties between the Strip and the West Bank.
Israel would not have been able to achieve this without Palestinian assistance – for while Israel fuelled the division, Hamas and Fatah failed dismally to maintain national unity.
Hamas’ military takeover of Gaza in 2007 – motivated in part by its fear that Fatah would try to overrun it with American help – effectively turned the West Bank and Gaza Strip into two separate entities with different governments.
Seen in this context Lieberman’s plan would be the completion of what Sharon started and Palestinian divisions helped to augment – the physical and political severing of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian entity.
Lieberman’s proposal includes several elements, which together or separately pose a serious threat to the Palestinians and the cause of peace. The plan proposes that Israel seal its border with Gaza and leave it to the European Union (EU) to check Gaza-bound vessels for weapons in Cyprus or Greece. It also calls for a European military force to be stationed on the Israel-Gaza border and for European military assistance in preventing weapon smuggling.
It also calls for the EU to finance the building of a new power plant, a seawater desalination plant and a wastewater purification plant to end Gaza’s dependence on Israel for electricity and water. The international community, according to the plan, will be required to support the construction of homes for Gazans, presumably including those destroyed by Israel during its war on the Gaza Strip in 2009.
So while Gaza might become more prosperous under such a plan, it would essentially be transformed into a European protectorate and placed under the military and financial control of a European monitoring body that would guarantee Israeli “security needs” are met while keeping Gazans caged in their small strip of land.
Breaking Palestinian will
This proposal not only limits the vision of Palestinian statehood, but is also designed to break the will of the Palestinian people – reducing them to a population consumed by the immediate needs of living at the expense of their freedoms and aspirations.
While it might provide a deceptive sense of peace and calm for Israelis in the short-term, and temporarily subdue the Gazan population, it will ultimately obstruct chances for a viable, long-term peace and lead to further hostilities in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Gazans may witness an improvement in their economic status, but this will be at the expense of their freedoms and aspirations, which cannot be satisfied by prosperity alone. Gazans are part of a larger nation and any attempt to deny this will only further radicalise Palestinians. The proposal may serve Lieberman’s right-wing, racist agenda, in which Palestinians are viewed not as people with human rights and national aspirations but as an obstacle to be either marginalised, or better still, removed. But it will permanently submit Palestinians to the mercy of others and irreversibly alter any vision for peace.
But the Palestinians are not guiltless or powerless in this – it is in their hands to achieve the Palestinian national reconciliation that would make such proposals meaningless.
Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.