Is the sun rising again on the Middle East?

This is a republication of an original article written by David Manchester in the Eagle on Wednesday, September 21, 2005.

The stagnant political situation in the Middle East was given new life September 12th when Israel completed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. On that day, all Israeli security personnel completed the removal all the Israeli settlers living in the Gaza Strip, some of whom had been there for over 30 years. Now, Gaza is entirely absent of Israeli police and soldiers. Along with the withdrawal from all 21 settlements in Gaza, the disengagement included four small West Bank settlements. Because of this, the Disengagement sets a historic precedent for the withdrawal of settlements which foreshadow future West Bank withdraws during final status negotiations. As leaders around the world have recognized, the disengagement represents a dramatic step to create new hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Disengagement has not been easy on Israelis. Though polls have consistently shown that the majority of Israelis support the plan, there is a sizeable segment of the population that has vehemently opposed it. These groups and individuals argue that the disengagement will be seen as a victory for terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and they worry that Gaza will become a haven for terrorists committed to Israel’s destruction. They have made their views heard during regular rallies and protests – themselves a testament to the strength of Israel’s democracy.

While tensions were high, with emotions unchecked at times, not a single shot was fired by police enforcing eviction notices or by settlers toward the police removing them from their houses. The dynamic polarization of the country because of disengagement has made it difficult for Sharon to win approval for his plan over the past two years, particularly as he has faced strenuous resistance from within his own Likud party. The Prime Minister nonetheless succeeded in shepherding the disengagement plan through Israel’s parliament, and its implementation is now nearly complete.

What does Israel hope to achieve in disengaging from the Gaza Strip, as well as a large section of the West Bank? —- secure boundary and opportunity for Palestinians to show commitment to building peaceful society

Ariel Sharon first introduced his unilateral disengagement plan on December 18, 2003, one year before the death of Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat and amidst countless suicide bombings in the heart of Israel. Since the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership, however, there has been considerable coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). These discussions have culminated in many decisions about the implementation of the disengagement, including the future of settler homes and the monitoring of the Egypt-Gaza border. It is already clear that disengagement has increased constructive contact between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

With Israel entirely absent from Gaza, the Palestinians must now show that they are committed to building a peaceful society. The Palestinian Authority has total control of the municipal and security needs of Gazans. In many ways, it is a small-scale test of the PA’s ability to lead a nation. The Palestinian Authority must make their control of the area evident both verbally and on the ground, because there are other groups who are also interested in taking over control; most notably the US recognized terrorist organization Hamas. Hamas already has strong support in Gaza, and it is hoping that with the withdrawal of the Israeli security apparatus, it will be able to take total control of Gaza.

Prime Minister Abbas must recognize the threat posed by Hamas. Stable governments throughout the world are stable, because they have a monopoly on power and authority. Where this is not the case, paramilitary armed groups, like Hamas, are able to threaten their governments with force. Because of this, Hamas is a hazard to Prime Minister Abbas for several reasons. Hamas is trying to have the best of every situation; running in the upcoming PA elections while still trying to negotiate as an equal partner to the PA and using their arms as threats to Prime Minister Abbas. Hamas is also continuing its incitement among the Palestinians they have contact with, encouraging them to attack Israel. It is evident that terrorist attacks against Israel are not ending with the disengagement as seen by the attack August 28th in Beersheba, one of Israel’s major cities.

By continuing the attacks, Hamas is undermining Abbas and threatening the progress that has already been made. Prime Minister Abbas must make it clear that Hamas has a decision to make, and if they choose to continue terrorism they will be faced with force.

Since the pullout, the PA has not shown its commitment to stability. While Abbas has made several statements against terror organizations, he has done nothing to stop them. Palestinian militants have burned four temples to the ground. These temples were clearly labeled as holy places in English and Arabic and the Israeli government requested the PA to protect them. This lack of respect for holy places was a stike against the prospect of peace. Militants are still freely driving around with weapons. The border between Gaza and Egypt has been opened at times and this freedom of movement has been abused by terrorists freely entering Gaza with additional weapons. Abbas recently made a statement that he will dispatch security forces to the boarder but will he follow through with his internationally recognized requirements in the Road Map?

Will the Palestinian security forces act to stop terror attacks against Israel and dismantle terrorist groups as required by the Road Map peace plan? Will international aid money be used to help the people of Gaza, or will it be embezzled as it was during the Arafat era? These are among the many questions to which the entire international community is still looking for answers to.

The sun may be rising in the Middle East. Israel has demonstrated its commitment to peace and its willingness to make unprecedented sacrifices toward that end. Now it is time for the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to reverse the damage of the last 5 years and do the same.

About the Author

David Manchester is a junior in the School of International Service.