Is Gaza withdrawal a step towards liberation?

The agony and violence associated with the process of withdrawal from Gaza illustrate how Israelis and Palestinians continue to fulfill each other's worst dreams. Israel plans to terminate occupation of Gaza on August 17. Some Palestinians see this move as a 'diabolical' scheme to justify further annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But regardless of the motivation for withdrawal, by attacking settlements during the process of disengagement, militant Palestinians are not serving their people's interests. Jihadists are giving Israelis reasons to resist future withdrawals and to empathize with settlers' demonstrations in Gaza.

Gaza is the most populated and economically deprived area of the Palestinian Territories. This narrow seacoast area is inhabited by 1.4 million Palestinians and about eight thousand Jewish settlers. Israel's occupation of Gaza has been very costly, in money and lives. Economically, the settlers have a much higher standard of living than almost all Gazans. The settlers are separated from the Palestinian community by barbed wires and heavy fortification; military security is intense, yet often unreliable.

Currently, most Palestinians, including their official leadership, the Palestinian Authority, are exhausted from the counterproductive results of the previous disordered and bloody intifada. It is not strange that they tolerate Israeli disengagement from Gaza, and anticipate negotiating total withdrawal from the West Bank in the future.

In Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, the crucial question is whether Gaza is being liberated from occupation or is it is merely being cleared of settlers?

Israel demands strict control of Gazan borders and air space after its withdrawal. To what extent will travel, export, defense and industry also be regulated? Will the settlers leave the rubble of their deliberately destroyed houses for the Gazans to clear with no compensation? Will the Israelis, for instance, hand over settlers' greenhouses intact for future employment of youth? And on a broader scale, will exit from Gaza lead to exit from the West Bank? (Four smaller West Bank communities are also included in the current disengagement plan.)

If Israel does not withdraw from the West Bank in the near future it risks becoming a de-facto military state. Within a military regime, a growing Palestinian population would ultimately make Israelis a ruling minority. Increasingly Israelis are becoming aware of this reality.

At a moment of Palestinian vulnerability (especially with the new leadership confronting radical elements), it may sound harsh to say that the key to their liberation is largely in their own hands. To effectively counter the Israeli occupation, the Palestinians need to adopt a comprehensive peace strategy of liberation.

Suicidal violence has changed the rules and values of combat to justify indiscriminate killing. A more creative alternative for political struggle would be to change the "medium" of combat, not the rules of combat, from violence to peace, from chaos to organization, from covert to overt, and from despair to hope.

By choosing to liberate their homeland by force through suicide bombings, Palestinians have opted for the weakest weapon at their disposal in their struggle. Since the Palestinians have a peace-oriented leadership, a formidable sense of self-determination, a recognized right for statehood, a strong demography and a wealth of intellect, why do they tolerate violence as a strategy of liberation?

(It's also worthwhile noting that suicide bombing and settlement expansion have something in common. Of all the forms of fighting between the Palestinians and the Israelis, over the past several decades, suicide bombing and settlement expansion have proven to be the two most effective reciprocal tactics of sabotage of conflict resolution.)

Palestinian leaders have learned that the creation of a state requires planning free elections, crafting government transparent institutions and organizing civic society. Such effective state building can only occur within a culture of nonviolence, teamwork, and an absolute respect for life, be it Arab or Jewish.

A positive shift from one side would cause a similar helpful shift on the other side. When Palestinians focus their energy to organize a new democratic society, they may provide Israelis the security they need to facilitate the formation of a viable Palestinian state. Reciprocally, when Israelis withdraw from occupied territories and close settlements they give Palestinians confidence that negotiating for peace is more fruitful than exploding bombs.

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