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An observer’s notes: After Gaza

COM’s Bob Zelnick writes

Bob Zelnick

This story was published on BU Today October 14, 2005.

An award-winning former ABC News correspondent, College of Communication journalism professor and department chair Bob Zelnick spent most of August in the Middle East, where he witnessed the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He is writing a book on the withdrawal and its political fallout. The author of several books, his writing is widely published in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. During his 21 years at ABC News, he was the network’s correspondent in Moscow and Tel Aviv.

Any conceivable purpose Ariel Sharon may have had in withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip has been more than met. With the removal of 1.4 million Palestinians from Israeli rule, demographic trends no longer appear so threatening. U.S. pressure on Israel has dissipated, leaving Sharon free to locate parts of his security fence in the heart of the West Bank, put new barriers in the way of Palestinian access to Jerusalem, and tinker with larger settlements in ways that suggest permanence.

To the consternation of those like Hanan Ashwari, a familiar female voice of Palestinian travail, this means no discernible end to the intrusive occupation. “You are building walls surrounding whole communities and villages,” she complained. “You’re imprisoning people. You’re stealing our horizon. You’re turning the West Bank into a prison. It’s horrible! It’s ugly!”


Meanwhile, Israel’s international standing has improved, with successful diplomatic forays to France, Pakistan, and the United Nations. If not quite in the “formaldehyde” predicted by Sharon advisor Dov Weisglass, the unloved Road Map plan for peace, with its three-stage plan for Palestinian statehood, remains on hold while Abu Mazen and his Palestinian Authority mates grope for answers to the political and military threats posed by the terrorist Hamas movement.

One can understand Sharon’s deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, calling the pullout “the most significant and meaningful political development in 40 years.” Analysts who said Intifada II had destroyed Israel’s political center were wrong, he continued. “By pulling out and dismantling settlements, we signal what the direction of this choice is, which is to give up the greater Israel for the sake of keeping a Jewish democratic state.”

Meanwhile, centrist Palestinian leaders are increasingly frustrated and bitter. After virtually destroying PA security forces during the fighting, Israel now refuses to permit those forces to rearm, making it nearly impossible for Abu Mazen to tackle Hamas, even were he so inclined. “They are tying my hands,” complained top PA negotiator Saeb Erakat. “They are tying my legs. They are throwing me into the ocean. ‘Hey Congress, look at them! They’re not swimming! They are no partner!’ ”

Had Hamas chosen this moment to renounce terrorism and to commit itself exclusively to political competition, Israel might have responded positively. Instead, its leaders chose to interpret the pullout as vindication of their armed struggle, pledging to renew efforts to eradicate the Jewish state. Hence, no breakthroughs appear imminent.

Unilateral disengagement, together with the security fence, was a plan initially proposed by left-of-center Laborites and opposed by Sharon. Now former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, defeated by Sharon after the collapse of Camp David, has a new idea: “I would invite the international community to take a mandate over the collapsing Palestinian Authority to help them prepare themselves for proper statehood. They can’t do it alone.”

The Barak plan would, of course, require Palestinian consent. And it could not be implemented without a substantial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. This would worry many military strategists who argue that a strong ground presence is needed to acquire counterterrorism intelligence. But with keen rewards to date from the Gaza pullout, Sharon, or his successor, might just find it tempting.