The last round of violence between Israel and Hamas, which ended with yet another cease-fire, took place on a backdrop of stormy internal discussions in Israel regarding a permanent solution to the conflict with the Palestinian side. Israeli and Palestinian politicians and thinkers who supported the two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders have concluded that the Oslo process has reached the end of its usefulness and that other solutions must be found. Prominent leftists and the liberal right propose the application of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and the transformation of Israel from a Jewish state to a bi-national one.
In the wake of the 2010 Gaza Marmara flotilla affair, Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote that Israel must exploit the crisis in order to complete the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and "leave Hamastan to its own devices." According to Ben's plan, Israel should inform the international community that it divests itself of all responsibility for the Gaza residents and their welfare, hermetically seal the border crossings between Israel and the Strip and ensure that Gaza receives supplies and medical services via the Egyptian border.
The new leader of the extreme right, Naftali Bennett, wrote in his political program that "Gaza is gradually becoming annexed to Egypt. That is already happening. Let us not take responsibility for it." According to his plan, more than two million Palestinians living in Areas A and B would enjoy autonomy — analogous to the status of the bantustans (black homelands) in South Africa. Meanwhile, Area C — stretching over 60% of the West Bank and populated by approximately 100,000 Palestinians — would be annexed to Israel.
When Israel dismantled the settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005, and unilaterally removed the last of its soldiers from the territory, it severed Gaza and its residents from the West Bank as well, and from the rest of the Palestinian communities. Ever since the disengagement, Israel has not allowed the exportation of merchandise from Gaza to the West Bank and restricts the movement of human beings to strictly defined humanitarian cases only.
Hamas' victory in the 2006 elections, its seizure of the region by force and the intensification of rocket fire on the residents of southern Israel gave Israel the opportunity to enlarge the disengagement plan between it and Gaza and to sever Gaza from the West Bank as well. The failure of the Hamas-Fatah conciliation effort reduced diplomatic discourse to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In the absence of physical and political control of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas could not even pretend to represent the Gaza residents. The Hamas leadership expressed strong opposition to the PLO's appeal to the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, living peacefully side by side with the State of Israel. Thus, Hamas joined the large Israeli camp that removed the Gaza Strip from the equation of the conflict with the Palestinians — the camp that hopes for Gaza's annexation to Egypt.
However, so long as there is no other sovereign state in this region, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza did not change its occupied status. According to international humanitarian law, the "effective control" of territory that a country acquires beyond its sovereign boundaries as a result of an armed conflict does not mandate a permanent military presence throughout all sections of the occupied regions. Israel continues its absolute rule over the continental borders of the Strip, its airspace, coasts and marine space. This control has direct implications on the ability of the Gaza Strip inhabitants to conduct their lives. Therefore, Israel continues to bear responsibility for the residents of the Gaza Strip and for any of its failures that adversely affect the human rights of these residents. In addition, the State of Israel proclaims its right to carry out military actions on the Gaza Strip territory, not only in response to attack but also as part of "preventive measures."
According to the Oslo Agreement, Israel is not allowed to unilaterally sever Gaza from the West Bank. The agreement explicitly says that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip constitute one entity, an entity whose two components should not be severed. The Wye River Memorandum was signed in October 1998 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority's then-chairman Yasser Arafat and then-president of the United States Bill Clinton. The Memorandum indicated that the sides would immediately renew negotiations over safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. It was also stated that the sides recognize the great importance of the Gaza port for economic development and for the expansion of Palestinian trade. Therefore, the parties would commit themselves to work toward an agreement that would facilitate the beginning of its construction within 60 days.
The important role assumed by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in attaining the limited cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas strengthened hopes that Egypt will also agree to solve the basic problem of Gaza. It is hard to believe that a country that has difficulties feeding its own tens of millions of hungry mouths will volunteer to take responsibility for another million and a half Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. At a time when Morsi's position is hanging by a thread, any cooperation on his part with Israel's transparent moves to sever Gaza from the West Bank is likely to accelerate his fall from power.
Luckily for the proponents of the physical disengagement between Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas and Fatah are unable to abolish the political disengagement between the Gaza government and the West Bank. The failure of the reconciliation agreement between the two organizations deepens the Israeli illusion that Gaza may be cast into the sea, and it drowns Palestinian residents in the quagmire of violence, poverty and despair.
Akiva Eldar is a political analyst and the author of bestselling books on Israel, the Palestinians, Israel's settlement policies and US-Israeli relations.
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