Give Gaza to the Palestinians Now
Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1993
Israeli Minister of Health Haim Ramon startled some of his colleagues earlier this month by suggesting that Israel unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promptly rejected the proposal, noting that unilateral withdrawal runs counter to the very idea of negotiating a settlement. Yet, even for Rabin, indefinite retention of Gaza has few charms; not long ago he voiced his wish that Gaza would just somehow “disappear into the sea.”
For most Israelis, Gaza has little of the military, religious or historic significance that makes giving up the West Bank such a difficult notion. Gaza is where the intifada started, and for most Israelis it is just a problem.
Yet Gaza may also be a solution. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are debilitated by Palestinian fears that an interim autonomy agreement will become their final status. These fears are not irrational. They are grounded in:
- The likelihood that during the autonomy period spoiler groups like Hamas will generate considerable violence, and as a result Israelis will be less willing to grant Palestinian statehood.
- The chance that the right wing will return to power in Israel well before the long, drawn-out negotiation process ever reaches a final status agreement.
- The possibility that the issues to be resolved in final status talks, such as borders and the future of Jerusalem, will prove so difficult that negotiations will go on interminably.
- The risk that if the Palestinians accept interim arrangements, then the Arab states will enter peace agreements with Israel, and Israel, the Arabs and the United States will lose significant interest in the problem of the Palestinians.
These are not merely difficulties that the Palestinians have to work through; if a way is not found to give them greater control over their own destiny, the negotiations will flounder, bringing to a halt promising negotiations between Israel and the Arab states as well.
By taking the one step that everyone knows will ultimately have to be taken—by getting rid of Gaza—Israel can cut the Gordian knot.
Whenever Israel abandons Gaza, there will be a Palestinian state. Even those who favor returning the West Bank to Jordanian control have not explained how Jordan might control Gaza, with which it lacks territorial congruity. So if the Palestinians are to have full control of Gaza sooner or later, give them sovereignty now.
Immediate sovereignty in Gaza would not itself be risk-free for the Palestinians. They may yet be abandoned by the Arab states. The issues of Jerusalem, the West Bank and refugees may prove too much for final status negotiations. And Hamas will no doubt continue to foment violence and seek to thwart the peace process. But it is hard to see how the Palestinians could turn down an interim proposal that granted them a state now and a chance to negotiate territorial extension later.
One advantage of this proposal is that for Israelis, it would be an opportunity to test the reality of living beside a demilitarized Palestinian state before making the big decisions on what they consider most important: the West Bank. The planned five-year interim autonomy period will test nothing except the stability of an unstable framework.
As a sovereign entity, the Palestinians would have the chance to shape their socioeconomic development and demonstrate that even the terrible problems of Gaza can be overcome. And many in the rest of the world would offer them ample assistance in that venture.
Secondly, within the state framework, Palestinians could resolve their deepening problem of legitimate authority and representation. The state could extend citizenship to all Palestinians, whether they reside in Gaza, in the West Bank or in the Palestinian diaspora. All would be eligible to vote in U.N.-supervised elections for a single government that would exercise sovereign control in Gaza and administer autonomy in the West Bank.
The new government would replace the Palestine Liberation Organization in authority, and it would have the means and the motivation to compel compliance by groups like Hamas. And, however difficult the subsequent negotiations with Israel proved to be, the Palestinians would be able to conduct them on an equal footing.
The “Gaza Now” option is not devoid of risks for both Israelis and Palestinians. But they are risks well worth accepting. What is needed is a new initiative to put the idea on the table. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has said that from now on, the United States will be a “full partner” in the negotiations. What better way for us to begin that partnership?