Media reports on Iraq's mounting insurgency, growing U.S. casualties, and President Bush's pledge to "stay the course" have overshadowed a brewing second crisis in the Middle East: the impending Israeli withdrawal of nearly 9,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, with military force if necessary.
This is a momentous move for the Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The settlements, carved out of Palestinian lands in Gaza along the Mediterranean coast, were built by Israel following its victory over the Egyptian army in the 1967 Middle East war.
These twenty-one Israeli enclaves are armed camps surrounded by an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians who hate these Jews who live on their land and are protected by Israeli troops. Most settlers prefer to remain in Gaza, even though the government offers up to $300,000 per family to move to new locations within Israel. Radical elements have already demonstrated resistance to the army's effort to evict them from Gaza..
The irony is that for thirty years Sharon was a leader of Israeli plans to build protected Jewish settlements throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza territories. Some say he expanded settlements in Gaza for tactical political reasons, to trade them eventually for a peace treaty that permits Israel to keep most West Bank settlements where some 300,000 Israelis receive subsidized housing and protection by Israeli soldiers.
Sharon reportedly told President Bush in 2002 that he would not evacuate Gaza and West Bank settlements unless the danger to Israel posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime was ended. For twenty-five years Saddam's nuclear ambitions were viewed by all Israeli governments as a major threat to the country's defense.
In June 2002, as the Bush administration prepared for a showdown with Saddam's government, the president promised the Palestinians that he would support an independent Palestinian state if they elected new leaders and stopped terrorist attacks against Israel. Following Yasser Arafat's death last November, Palestinians elected Malmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, and the violence has subsided. Now Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are pressing Sharon to fulfill his pledge to evacuate Gaza and finish the job of negotiating peace with the Palestinians.
The stakes for George Bush in the Gaza withdrawal are nearly as great as those for Ariel Sharon.
First, the entire Muslim world, stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic to Indonesia on the Pacific, waits to see if Israel under U.S. prodding will complete the process of trading land for peace, as President Reagan urged twenty-three years ago. In particular, key Arab countries--Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan--are more likely to support U.S. policy in Iraq if the Palestinians are rid of Israeli oxccupation and granted independence, within internationally defined borders.
A second reason is America's current strained relations with Europe, where public opinion and government leaders want Washington to exert more political pressure on Israel to negotiate with the new Palestinian leadership. Helping bring peace to Palestine may not persuade Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder to support Bush's policies in Iraq, but it should improve their cooperation with his other Middle East objectives.
The danger now is that Sharon will be confronted with vivid scenes of violence when Israeli soldiers try to remove forcibly hundreds of die-hard settlers from their homes in Gaza. His own Likud Party is sharply divided over the pullout action, and his government remains in power only though the cooperation of the Labour Party which has long favored the Gaza withdrawal. Widespread violence, especially if casualties result, could force Sharon's resignation.
The specter of civil war cited recently by Sharon as his way to warn Israelis of dangers inherent in permitting settlers to defy Israeli laws. The situation is not likely to deteriorate that far, but many Israelis who currently support the Gaza withdrawal could switch sides if widespread violence occurs and sympathy grows for those who refuse who to leave Gaza.
Regardless of the outcome, Sharon will be less likely than Bush desires to agree on a withdrawal from key West Bank settlements, or to permit Palestinians to have a sector of Arab Jerusalem as their capital. And if the peace process stalls, Palestinian militants vow that they will renew their attacks on Israeli settlements.
Some experts say the White House must take a direct role in negotiations in order to ensure security in Gaza after Israel's withdrawal. A former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, has proposed that the United States organize an international peace-keeping force for Gaza, to prevent the area from becoming a terrorist camp. With American forces fully occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan, that proposal is not realistic. But Bush may have to consider some variation of the idea if Israel's withdrawal from Gaza results in chaos there and eventually leads to a renewal of massive violence in Israel and Palestine.
File last modified on Tuesday, 13-JULY-2005 12:23 AM EST