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A DULL DISENGAGEMENT
Contrary to most predictions, Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last August was a dull affair, accomplished ahead of schedule and with little violence. Since then, as the Palestinian Authority (PA) has assumed control of the area, a relative calm has persisted.
The United States and the other members of the Quartet (the group, which also includes the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia, that sponsored the "road map" for Middle East peace three years ago) have used the time to follow up on the withdrawal by focusing on two secondary projects: helping the PA build a functioning government in Gaza and pushing Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to disarm Hamas, the militant organization that has spent the last decade entrenching itself as the dominant force in the territory.
American policymakers and their colleagues in Europe and at the UN see securing Gaza as a key step toward achieving Palestinian sovereignty. As President George W. Bush said on August 23, 2005, "There must be confidence -- confidence that the Palestinian people will have in their own government to perform, confidence with the Israelis that they'll see a peaceful state emerging." If Gaza becomes a viable political and economic entity ruled by Palestinian moderates, the thinking goes, Israel and the PA will soon return to the negotiating table and extend the self-rule experiment to the West Bank -- and a full-fledged Palestinian state will then quickly take shape.
This logic, however, rests on misguided optimism. The orderliness of the transition from Israeli rule in Gaza seems to have convinced Washington and its allies that the PA, if pushed hard enough, could fairly easily solidify its rule there, supplanting Hamas. Indeed, the withdrawal has made Gaza the new focus of the Middle East peace process, with the Quartet deciding that this area should get the PA's undivided attention and the lion's share of a new, multibillion-dollar aid package that is scheduled to be disbursed in early 2006.
To focus attention and money exclusively on Gaza, however, is a dangerous mistake for one simple reason: the West Bank, an area far larger and more populous, is in increasingly desperate straits. As in Gaza, in the West Bank the economy has been shattered by the second intifada, and Islamist extremism is on the rise. Political reform is thus desperately needed. Were the PA to concentrate all its energy on Gaza while ignoring the West Bank, this area -- with its 2.3 million residents -- could spin out of control.
Should the West Bank succumb to anarchy, any gains made in the Gaza Strip would be irrelevant. Instability and violence in the West Bank would discourage Israel from pulling out of the territory, prolonging the occupation. Worse yet, allowing the West Bank to slip into chaos would undermine Israel's plan to withdraw from East Jerusalem -- the chunk of territory that is most important to most Palestinians, that is the likely capital of a future Palestinian state, and the question of whose status has derailed similarly promising peace initiatives in the past.
By most accounts, the PA has never had it so good. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza last summer, a host of foreign governments, nongovermental organizations, and international institutions have pledged to help the Palestinians build a functioning government there. Most of this help is being directed through the Office of the Special Envoy for Disengagement, a team created prior to the withdrawal by the Quartet and charged with coordinating the delivery of outside aid to the PA.
According to William Taylor, a U.S. diplomat in the Office of the Special Envoy, the central tasks of the office are to rebuild Gaza's airport and seaport and to negotiate a short-term agreement with Israel to allow convoys of goods and people to travel regularly between Gaza and the West Bank (over Israeli territory and with Israeli inspections). The office is also working to help the PA reform its security structure. If security improves sufficiently, according to Taylor, his office will then allow the $9 billion in aid pledged in July 2005 by the G-8 (the group of leading industrialized nations) to start flowing to the PA.
Although this aid would be a tremendous windfall, the cash will come with conditions that might actually undermine the PA's long-term authority and ability to build a state. Consider, for example, the stipulation that the PA chase down Hamas' members, disarm them, and prevent them from participating in the upcoming legislative elections scheduled for January 25, 2006. On its face, this condition seems reasonable enough; after all, the G-8, which is supplying the aid, considers Hamas to be an active terrorist organization with no right to play a role in Gaza's politics.
But this view overlooks the fact that in addition to committing acts of violence, Hamas also functions as a sort of welfare organization in Gaza, running many charitable institutions that provide social services and public goods neglected by the PA. Although, as Matthew Levitt and Jamie Chosak of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have found, Hamas actually provides services and welfare to only a small slice of Gaza's population, at an annual expense of $40 million to $75 million, these activities have earned the group widespread support and legitimacy. If Abbas were to neutralize Hamas entirely, he would be eliminating the only Palestinian political authority that most Gazans have ever known.
THE WEST BANK SINKS
Unlike Gaza, where the PA is now in charge of both civil administration and security, the great majority of the West Bank remains under either partial or full Israeli control. PA sovereignty in the West Bank is generally confined to large urban areas. In many ways, the territory is like a patchwork of a dozen unruly Gaza Strips, some secular, others religious, some rich, others dirt poor. Making things even more difficult, the enclaves are separated from one another by Israeli settlements and a network of restricted roads that serve settlers and the Israel Defense Forces. This means that although Ramallah (the PA's de facto West Bank capital) is in theory less than an hour's drive from most other West Bank towns, in practice roadblocks and checkpoints mean circuitous detours and long waits even for Palestinian officials. A short road trip makes it painfully clear that the unity of the area suggested by maps is a fiction. Driving from Ramallah to Bethlehem is now like going from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore by way of Pittsburgh.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in August, it also evacuated four settlements in the northern West Bank. According to Eival Giladi, the architect of the disengagement plan and a close adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, these four settlements -- Ganim, Homesh, Kadim, and Sa-Nur -- were evacuated to signal the fact that Israel's disengagement would not be limited to Gaza. The withdrawal from these settlements went well for Israel, with relatively little resistance from the settlers. The handover to the PA, however, was not well coordinated, and the Israelis did not keep the Palestinians well informed of their plans. Although the withdrawal could have eased communication and movement between Nablus, Tulkarm, and Jenin, Israeli security forces have remained stationed in the settlements and have denied Palestinian security forces unfettered access. The PA is thus still hamstrung in its ability to provide security for the local population and to sustain the isolated economies. Palestinian villagers in and around the Israeli enclaves complain that they have been forgotten; indeed, the only visible traces of government that now exist there are roadside billboards featuring portraits of a smiling Abbas. Many of these signs have been defaced.
The rest of the West Bank, meanwhile, continues to struggle. Diplomats and the media often recite dramatic figures about Gaza's unemployment level. But the economic situation in the West Bank is nearly as bad. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in the West Bank now hovers around 17 percent. This sounds far lower than the estimated 30 percent unemployment rate in Gaza. But the actual economic status of the West Bank is much worse than such official numbers suggest. This is because, in part, unemployment rates vary dramatically across the West Bank. Ramallah enjoys a booming economy, thanks to the high level of remittances coming in and the growing PA bureaucracy there. But in areas such as Salfit, Qalqilya, and Hebron, official unemployment is well over 20 percent and may actually be much higher. According to recent assessments by the World Bank and the UN Development Program, up to 60 percent of Palestinians now live under the poverty line, which suggests that even those who are employed are barely subsisting.
According to diplomats, the Gaza Strip's unemployment rate has begun to drop since Israel's withdrawal allowed the freer movement of goods and people there and brought in externally funded infrastructure projects. But unemployment in the West Bank is unlikely to decrease anytime soon, and if Gaza's recent history is any guide, the territory will suffer an epidemic of crime and the proliferation of extremist groups and armed gangs. Already, areas in the West Bank such as Hebron are experiencing high levels of criminal and militant activity.
Indeed, West Bank security has only gotten worse over the past few months. Palestinian officials, aid groups, and diplomats quietly confirm this trend and cite many examples of spiraling violence in the West Bank: paramilitary forces from the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Islamic Jihad have run amuck in Jenin, and Fatah militants destroyed PA offices in Nablus last summer. Even Ramallah, the center of gravity for PA rule, has seen its share of violence. According to the Greek consul general, just prior to the disengagement last summer, armed men from Fatah shot up a restaurant in the town center the day before it was to hold a reception for foreign envoys.
Brigadier General Raji Najami is currently the chief adviser on security to the Palestinian Ministry of Interior. In a recent interview in his Ramallah offices, he described the PA's strategy for securing the West Bank. Under the slogan "One authority, one gun," Abbas' government is attempting to integrate armed militants and paramilitary forces into its security forces. Najami also hopes to replace local gunmen with PA soldiers rotated in from other parts of the West Bank, to ensure evenhandedness.
The general praised the help he has received from the U.S. State Department's Middle East envoy John Wolf and dismissed concerns about the haphazard integration of militants into the PA's security services. "I can hire them all," he boasted. When asked about the prudence of creating a bloated security apparatus, he assured me that "it's only temporary. When the economy recovers, these people will leave the service for better-paying jobs."
But there is no guarantee that such a transition will ever occur, and Najami's tactics, although well meaning, are typical of the PA's approach in the entire West Bank. Instead of drafting a plan to deal with security, a plan to address unemployment, and a plan to resolve administrative problems, Abbas hopes to take care of them all simultaneously by handing a paycheck to anyone in the West Bank who owns a gun. The international community has encouraged this dangerously simplistic strategy by focusing on Gaza without providing incentives or aid for reform in the West Bank.
Such inattention, however, will only benefit militant groups, especially Hamas. According to Israeli and Palestinian security officials, Hamas plans to expand its political base in the West Bank and to use the area as a staging ground for operations against Israel and Jewish settlements. Israel's Shin Bet security service recently uncovered several Hamas networks already operating in the West Bank -- including one in Ramallah, at the PA's doorstep.
Hamas' desire to turn up the heat in the West Bank should come as no surprise. Having successfully taken credit, as reflected in the opinions of a large segment of the Palestinian population, for forcing Israel to leave Gaza, Hamas now intends to use the same tactics to push Israel out of the West Bank. Thus the group's activities in the area, both violent and nonviolent, are likely to grow unless the PA figures out how to deter them.
In a television appearance immediately before the withdrawal from Gaza, Sharon announced, "There will be no more disengagement." Such statements have been cited often by Palestinian elites who believe that Israel pulled out of Gaza in order to tighten its hold on the West Bank. Yet the very logic of the disengagement demands a sequel. Israel's withdrawal plan is based on the idea that Israel must effectively separate from the Palestinians to ensure its survival. According to many Israelis, withdrawal is the best response to the failure of the peace process and to the rapid population growth of the Palestinians in Israel and the territories, who will soon outnumber Jewish Israelis.
Recent polls by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research show that a majority of the Israeli public believes that more withdrawals will soon follow, despite Sharon's promise. Indeed, most Israelis support the essential principles behind the disengagement: ethnic partition and a two-state solution to the conflict. Sharon's declaration took place at the moment of the greatest number of protests in Israel against the Gaza withdrawal, and so it may have been meant only to defuse further opposition. Both Eival Giladi and Dan Schueftan, part of the original team of disengagement advisers, have told me that more evacuations are being planned.
The matter of where future withdrawals will occur, however, is complicated. Officials close to Israel's security organizations and government hint that a major evacuation from the northern West Bank will take place within two years, depending on the outcome of elections in Israel. This step would make sense given the precedent established in August and September by the evacuation of four settlements in the same area. A visit to the settlements in the north that are beyond the West Bank barrier reveals that they are depopulated and withering, and their remaining residents are pessimistic about their future.
An even more important development, however, would be a major disengagement from East Jerusalem -- a development that, to the surprise of many, seems increasingly possible unless thwarted by chaos in Gaza. For now, the greater Jerusalem area has been enclosed and attached to Israel's territory by the nearly complete "security envelope" (as the West Bank barrier there is called). This includes East Jerusalem, an area with a Palestinian majority and which the PA claims as the future capital of a Palestinian state. But in the summer of 2005, the Israeli National Security Council commissioned a study to explore the feasibility of partitioning the city. The study proposes an alternative route for the current security barrier in the area, which would mean moving the fence so that it ran through the heart of the city. The study includes detailed maps of Jerusalem featuring color-coded schemes to distinguish Jewish neighborhoods from Palestinian ones and lists the Palestinian population statistics for each neighborhood. It proposes effectively partitioning Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem from the western (Jewish) portion of the city and recommends creating highways, bridges, and defensive barriers to ensure the inclusion on the Israeli side of the barrier of the Jewish megasettlements to the east; these settlements, which are effectively suburbs of Jerusalem, include Maale Adumim, the population of which is expected to approach 70,000 in the next five years. Most of these settlements would be included in Israel, while the neighborhoods of nearly 170,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites would be jettisoned.
Israel Kimchi, author of the report and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, says that the project was recommended to Sharon the day after it was completed. Analysts close to the government have not mentioned the study but do report that Sharon is now quietly contemplating the partition of Jerusalem, to be implemented unilaterally between 2008 and 2010. Such a plan, which would have to pass the scrutiny of Israel's Supreme Court and win the support of both the Knesset and the cabinet, could potentially go a long way toward resolving one of the key sticking points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel is unlikely to partition its capital city, however, if the security situation in the West Bank deteriorates. Until now, a primary determinant of the current route of the barrier around Jerusalem has been the desire of Israeli military officials to keep Jerusalem's Jewish neighborhoods as far away from PA territory as possible. Moving the barrier toward the center of Jerusalem would place many urban areas within range of Palestinian extremists' mortars and Qassam rockets.
The Qassams, despite their short range and weak explosive power, are particularly threatening; in the past two years, militants have displayed a growing ability to use them to hit targets inside Israel. Recent Qassam strikes on small Israeli towns just outside the borders of Gaza, such as Sderot, have caused growing concern among Israel's security establishment. Israeli officials will not place central portions of their capital near Palestinian-controlled territory unless they are guaranteed that militants can be prevented from launching rocket attacks.
OFF THE ROAD MAP
The Quartet, especially the United States, must push the PA to redirect its efforts toward building up its authority in the West Bank. Unfortunately, at the moment, the main diplomatic players seem resolutely committed to remaking Gaza alone, in the hope that this will resuscitate the road map and quickly restart peace negotiations.
Such an approach seems destined to fail. Although high-profile peace negotiations might make Middle East envoys and diplomats look good, realistically, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis will be ready anytime soon to return to the negotiating table to discuss final-status issues such as Palestinian borders or statehood. Instead of pushing them to do so prematurely, the international community should stick to a coordinating role, which served all parties well during the disengagement, allowing the Gaza withdrawal to proceed smoothly and without surprises. The international effort also gave the PA much-needed support and confidence when it assumed control.
Future efforts must now be refocused on the West Bank. Several things need to happen in the coming months. First, James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president who is now the Quartet's special envoy for disengagement, should sponsor a road-building project in the West Bank as a way to provide jobs and improve conditions there. Existing roads should be repaired, and new roads should be built to link Palestinian enclaves. Such a road-building project, organized by the PA and funded by the G-8, could employ tens of thousands of Palestinians, flooding the local consumer economy with much-needed cash. This process would greatly improve the PA's legitimacy among ordinary Palestinians. It would also diminish the appeal of extremism and thus improve security, as well as strengthen the ability of PA officials to actually get to and govern remote Palestinian areas.
The United States and its allies should also push PA officials to return to Ramallah. Many PA bureaucrats moved to Gaza shortly before the disengagement in order to deal with the long-term aspects of the handover. But this move has deprived the West Bank of its government, and at least some of these individuals must return.
Next, the Quartet should push Israel to remove barriers and checkpoints inside the West Bank and should help the PA negotiate permission to build roads and bypass routes near remaining West Bank settlements. Although Wolfensohn recently urged Israel to reduce the number of internal checkpoints in the West Bank in order to ease the movement of goods and people, such a step remains a low priority for the Quartet relative to the opening of Gaza's borders, seaport, and airport and the negotiation of free-passage rights for Palestinian convoys between the West Bank and Gaza. In a recent and rare public display of frustration, Wolfensohn admitted that it has been difficult to get Israeli officials to permit and then coordinate the opening of Gaza's border with Egypt and that doing so required a special visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Similar frustrations may now prompt Wolfensohn and other envoys to drop the issue of free Palestinian movement within the West Bank from the agenda. Yet getting even some of the West Bank's internal checkpoints removed is essential to improving the area's economy and would open the way for greater foreign investment.
Finally, the Quartet should sponsor the construction of an airport in the West Bank. A strategically placed commercial airport, no matter how small, would give the landlocked West Bank a lifeline to the rest of the world. Although Gaza may soon have such an airport, it will be difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank (officials and civilians alike) to access it, since they will have to cross Israeli territory to get there. Giving the West Bank its own airport would have both commercial and security benefits. The PA currently lacks a rapid-reaction security force in the West Bank and has a hard time reaching remote enclaves; using part of the new airport as a helicopter base would let the PA deploy its security teams quickly in case of emergencies. Convincing Israel to give up enough land in the West Bank for an airport, let alone convincing it to give the PA control over flights and access to airspace, will not be easy. Yet the pending opening of Gaza's airport could establish a positive precedent for the West Bank.
Diverting some resources from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank would not benefit Hamas, as some have argued. With G-8 support, the PA has more than enough money and people to focus on both territories. Moreover, it simply cannot afford to ignore the majority of its territory. Encouraging the PA to refocus some of its energy and resources on the West Bank is the only way to limit the spread of Hamas and curtail its ability to conduct terror operations. Failing to do so will prolong Israel's occupation, provoke intervention by the Israel Defense Forces to deter militant activity, and derail future settlement evacuations. Israel will remain in control of East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians' ultimate goal -- a sovereign state, with East Jerusalem as its capital -- will go unrealized for the foreseeable future.