Why Gaza Remains a Quagmire for Israel

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The Palestinian death toll — and international outrage — continued to mount Thursday in response to Israel's offensive in the Rafah refugee camp along the Egypt-Gaza border. Eight Palestinians were killed Wednesday when Israeli forces fired on a crowd marching in protest toward a section of the camp where Israeli soldiers battled Palestinian fighters. Forty Palestinians have been killed since Tuesday in the course of Israel's campaign to clear the area of militants in preparation for a possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza some time next year.

Even the U.S., perhaps mindful now of the extent to which events in Gaza can imperil its own goals in Iraq, refrained from its customary veto of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli action. But the Israelis showed no sign of letting up on an offensive they say is essential to prepare the way for the pullout plan currently under consideration. The plan enthusiastically backed by President Bush involves Israel leaving all of Gaza and abandoning four isolated settlements in the West Bank, in exchange for U.S. endorsement of Israel's claim to hang on to the broad swathes of occupied territory on which its major West Bank settlement blocs are built. The plan hit a snag last month when Sharon's own Likud Party turned it down in a referendum, but it is expected to be resubmitted in the near future in revised form, probably extending the time-frame for withdrawal.

The idea of withdrawing first from Gaza was originally put forth by former Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who envisaged such an arrangement emerging in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority as a first step toward a comprehensive peace deal based on the 1967 borders. Sharon, however, developed his own version that cut the Palestinians out the equation altogether, and envisaged the Gaza withdrawal as an alternative to proceeding with the U.S.-backed "roadmap" toward a comprehensive settlement. Sharon has insisted that the Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat, is not an acceptable interlocutor, and therefore that there is no Palestinian partner with whom Israel can negotiate agreements — a position to which has been partially endorsed by the Bush administration.

Sharon's plan was adopted by Israel and the U.S. outside of any of the established negotiating mechanisms or processes from the Oslo Accord to the U.S.-backed "Roadmap," with no involvement from the Palestinian side. The Bush administration sought to spin it as a first step toward implementing the "Roadmap," which could turn out to be true but could just as easily be wishful thinking, because nothing in the plan requires or even references any of the steps envisaged in the roadmap. Indeed, while the U.S. was painting the plan as a bold first step, Sharon was telling Israelis that his plan was a great defeat for Palestinian national aspirations. And that's certainly how the Palestinians saw it, particularly after Sharon had maneuvered the White House into preemptively rejecting any discussion of a right of return for Palestinian refugees, and also reversing decades of U.S. policy by endorsing Israel's claim to annex the main West Bank settlement blocs.

Having sidelined the Palestinians, who have been given little incentive to support the plan, the toughest test for Sharon has come in meeting the security establishment's requirement that Israel avoid at all costs being seen to evacuate under fire. It has become conventional wisdom for Israeli strategists today that Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 1999 was a dangerous mistake, because it was proclaimed throughout the Arab world as an epic victory for Hezbollah's armed struggle, and led Palestinian militants to launch the September 2000 intifada in the belief that violence could drive Israel out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, too.

Israel's previous withdrawals from parts of the West Bank and Gaza, under Oslo, had been undertaken on the basis of painstakingly detailed security agreements reached with the Palestinian Authority. But Sharon's plan envisaged no such deal, partly because of his reluctance to resume negotiations with a body led by Yasser Arafat, and partly because there are good reasons to doubt whether the PA today has capability, much less the political will, to rein in those who would fire on Israelis. The leadership under Arafat is unlikely to see much to be gained in helping implement a plan designed explicitly to sideline them, and U.S. and Israeli officials had begun to worry in the months preceding the plan's endorsement by the White House that its implementation, would, in effect, hand Gaza over to Hamas. The radical Islamist movement today commands far greater political support and moral authority on the streets of Gaza today than does Arafat's moribund Palestinian Authority. Withdrawal from Gaza would leave the green and white flags of Hamas fluttering from the rooftops of the vacated settlements as thousands of supporters fired Kalashnikovs in to the air to celebrate their "victory" over the Israelis, while their leaders made speeches vowing to fight on in Gaza and the West Bank.

In order to forestall that possibility, Israel has stepped up its campaign of assassination of top Hamas leaders and military actions to suppress the organization's capability to launch strikes inside Israel or indeed in Gaza itself. The result, however, has been an escalating cycle of violence in Gaza that shows no sign of abating. And absent any political incentive for making the plan work, it's unlikely that the Palestinian leadership will do much to tamp it down, even if they could. Absent a Palestinian structure taking charge of security in the wake of an Israeli withdrawal, the Israelis are trying to do the job themselves before they leave by eliminating known enemies. That, however, draws them in more deeply and continually runs the risk of killing civilians, because the known militants are deeply rooted in the civilian community in an area with some of the world's highest levels of population density. And military actions produce their own logic of escalation. When Palestinians inflict losses on the IDF — such as last week's ambushes in which Israel lost 13 men in two APCs blown up by roadside bombs — the Israeli military's own doctrines of deterrence demand that it hit back even harder.

The basic security flaw in Sharon's plan is unlikely to be eliminated, even if Israel picks a brief lull in fighting as an opportunity to withdraw. That's because Sharon's plan requires the Israeli military to maintain control of a strip between Gaza and Egypt it calls the "Philadelphi Road." That would mean that like the Hezbollah gunners that target Israeli outposts in the disputed Shebaa Farms on the border, Palestinian gunners will continue have an immediate and accessible Israeli target in their sights even when the last settlers are gone.

Having embraced Sharon as a bold steward of his own "peace vision," President Bush is caught in an even deeper bind by Gaza because of the impact of Israeli actions there on perceptions of the U.S. elsewhere in the Arab world, particularly Iraq. The Rafah killings, twinned as they were in Thursday's news reports with unconfirmed claims that U.S. missiles had killed forty Iraqis at a wedding party in western Iraq, has undercut the Bush administration's best efforts to recover from the Arab-world PR disaster of Abu Ghraib. Ironically, part of the Bush administration's emergency PR salvage operation in the wake of the prison-abuse revelations was to hastily send Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to hold talks with Palestinian Authority prime minister Ahmed Qurei, to signal Arab leaders that Washington still sought to restart a negotiation process. But unless such dialogue evolves into a substantial new negotiation process that includes the Palestinian leadership — an unlikely eventuality in a U.S. election year — there's little hope of ending the bloodletting in Gaza any time soon.