- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Will Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation, ironically be claimed as a unilateral victory by Hamas? Will the Israeli withdrawal offer the region another chance for peace? Or will it instead plunge the Middle East into greater turmoil and violence if Palestinian Islamist groups perceive this as a sign of weakness from Israel?

While most of the world — and the media in particular — concentrates on 8,000 Israeli settlers being forced out of 21 Gaza settlements and families forced to give up land, homes and communities, no doubt a tragedy in its own right, a more pertinent question should be: How will the Palestinians react to the evacuation? Will they see it as an opportunity to encourage Israel to make more withdrawals from West Bank settlements, allowing Palestinians to build a viable state? Or will they hinder the withdrawal with Qassam rockets and suicide bombings?

“The real story is how the Palestinians will handle this,” the Middle East Institute’s president, Edward Walker Jr., told United Press International. Mr. Walker is a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.

Mr. Walker is asking if the Palestinians will try to show themselves and the world they adequately can manage returned territory and how they will govern those areas. Will the transition be smooth, or will the extremists get away with fomenting trouble and inciting violence?

“Thus far Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] has done a fabulous job getting the [Palestinian] security forces into consultations with the Israelis. So far he has been able to meet the test,” said Mr. Walker. But tests in the Middle East have a habit of being tricky in the best of times.

When Israel decided to evacuate south Lebanon in May 2000 after 22 years of occupation, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite paramilitary organization, claimed its unrelenting harassment of Israeli troops finally forced them out. Hezbollah claimed it was the first real military victory by Arab forces over Israel.

Israel’s evacuation of south Lebanon may not have really been a military defeat for Israel. But Hezbollah and particularly Palestinian Islamist organizations such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, a k a Hamas, regarded it as a great Arab victory. Now Israel fears the same could happen with the Gaza pullout.

“I think that Hamas are smart and have smart people who will try to paint it [the withdrawal] as a victory. Just because you get rid of settlers does not mean you get rid of the occupation. The Israelis have the capacity to run back in,” said Mr. Walker.

“There is no doubt Hamas will not view the withdrawal as a victory,” David Makovsky, Washington Institute for Near East Policy director of the Project on the Middle East Peace, told UPI.

And that worries Israel. Last year when Israel first toyed with the idea of leaving Gaza, with or without an agreement with the Palestinians, an Israeli official on condition of anonymity told UPI “Israel would never again permit another South Lebanon,” referring to the evacuation that gave Hezbollah its “victory” and hope to Hamas. With the peace process all but dead — Israel remains cognizant it cannot afford a repetition. The Israeli official said Hamas would under no circumstances be allowed to see Israel’s Gaza pullout as a victory.

Shortly after, when Israel assassinated two top Hamas leaders — Abdel Aziz Rantissi and Sheik Ahmad Yassin — there was speculation this was done to avoid Hamas elation when the Gaza evacuation began.

If all goes well with the withdrawal — and the Gaza pullout is “Gaza First, not Gaza Last,” it could reignite the stalled peace talks. “If the pullout is successful, and people see it’s quieter, it could embolden moderates on both sides,” said Mr. Makovsky.

But if the Israelis decide to stop after Gaza, that could be the end of the “road map” and the beginning of trouble. “I think they [the Palestinians] will be cautious. If Israel says no further steps, then there could be more violence,” said Mr. Walker.

As Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator noted in the San Jose Mercury News: “If they [the Palestinians] can show the world and the Israeli public that they can govern Gaza effectively and fulfill their security obligations, they will be in a strong position to argue that the Gaza model should also be applied to the West Bank. If they cannot, if Gaza devolves into chaos and violence, who is going to argue for Israel’s turning over more territory for an eventual Palestinian state?”

For the moment, the onus is entirely on the Palestinians.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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