By ignoring all parties other than Israel, Olmert’s convergence plan suffers from the conceptual flaw of assuming that Israel is the only non-static actor in the region. An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, while nominally unilateral, in fact constitutes a de facto handover of the area to the Palestinian Authority. Olmert has stated his hope that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will spur the Authority to act in a moderate fashion and use the opportunity afforded it by Israel’s retreat to build a sovereign, responsible state. Yet the outcome of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza indicates that such hope is misplaced and that basing Israel’s entire strategy on such a hope is ill-considered. In the wake of Israel’s “unilateral” withdrawal from Gaza, Gaza has descended into anarchy. Institutions of self-government have been weakened as have forces of moderation in Palestinian society; leadership of the Authority has been taken over by Hamas; and terrorist groups in Gaza have been strengthened.
Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dubbed his Gaza and northern Samaria withdrawal plan “disengagement.” His notion was that by retreating from Gaza and northern Samaria, Israel would be able to disengage from the Palestinians living within Gaza. As a result, the Palestinians would no longer be able garner support for their attempts to hold Israel responsible for their welfare or to claim that Israel’s presence in Gaza justify their terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens.
Sharon and his advisors argued that, in the aftermath of the withdrawal, the international community led by Washington would hold the Palestinians alone responsible for their behavior. Partially as a result of this accountability and partially as a result of their own presumed desire to build a state, Sharon and his advisors contended that the Israeli retreat from Gaza would induce the Palestinians to moderate their behavior and use the opportunity afforded them by the Israeli withdrawal to transform Gaza into a modern and ordered territory that would form the basis of the future Palestinian state.
Sadly, Sharon’s assumptions regarding Gaza were wrong on all points. Israel has not been able to disengage from Gaza. The Gazan economy remains dependent on Israel and the international community led by the U.S. State Department has forced Israel to act on its responsibility for the economic welfare of Gaza. This it has accomplished by forcing Israel to open the land borders between Gaza and Israel for Gazan trade to Israel, the West Bank and through Israeli ports to the rest of the world. The United States has further pressured Israel to allow Gazans to work inside of Israel. It also forced Israel to relinquish all security control over the international terminal at Rafah – the official border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
Israel is constrained in its military operations against terrorist forces due to international pressure for it to protect the lives of Gazans, just as was the case when Israel retained its military control over Gaza. Because Israel remains the party that the Palestinian Authority and the U.S.-led international community views as responsible for the welfare of Gaza’s population, it has failed to disengage.
Israel’s retreat from Gaza did not strengthen forces of moderation in Palestinian society. To the contrary, it radicalized Palestinian society and strengthened the most fanatical sectors of that society. Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s terror organization in Gaza and the West Bank was swept into power in the Palestinian elections on January 25, 2006. Its victory was in large part due to the pervasive Palestinian perception of Hamas as a competent, ideologically driven and professional organization that, like Hizbullah before it, effectively uses terrorism against Israel to drive Israel from “occupied” land. In opinion polls taken since Sharon first announced his pullout plan in December 2003, some 80 percent of Palestinians have consistently maintained that Israel’s decision to retreat from Gaza was due to Palestinian terrorism, and that the only way to get Israel to give up more land is to continue to attack Israel and Israeli citizens.