Violence Forced Sharon to Withdraw From Gaza, Palestinians Say

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - A large majority of Palestinians credit Palestinian violence for forcing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to come up with the plan to evacuate Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip, a leading Palestinian pollster and analyst said.

Sharon first announced his disengagement plan to uproot 21 Jewish communities from the Gaza Strip and four from the northern West Bank more than a year ago when former Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was alive.

Sharon said at the time that as long as Arafat was alive Israel would have no negotiating partner on the Palestinian side and therefore he had decided to "disengage" unilaterally - pulling out without negotiating a settlement - from the Gaza Strip and leave the Palestinians to themselves.

Critics of the plan - including many who favored an eventual withdrawal from Gaza -said that withdrawing without a negotiated settlement after more than three years of Palestinian violence and terrorism would be like giving a reward for terrorism.

Initially, most Palestinians rejected the idea of the disengagement because they believed it was a trick, but according to Dr. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah, Palestinians now welcome the disengagement and believe that it is a victory for their armed struggle.

"There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians welcome the disengagement," Shikaki told reporters at a briefing sponsored by Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Israel Newsmakers Forum in Jerusalem.

"They welcome it essentially for two reasons - one, because Israel says it wants to pull out to the lines of 1967," Shikaki said. This sets a "very important precedent" in the minds of Palestinians that could be applied to the West Bank, he said.

Palestinians want to establish a state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, where hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in Jewish communities, established since the 1967 Six-Day war on land that many Israelis believe the Bible promises them as an eternal inheritance.

"The second [reason] is because Israel says it wants to evacuate all the settlements in the Gaza Strip, and that too, in the minds of the Palestinians, is setting a precedent for the future in the West Bank as well," Shikaki said, emphasizing the word "all."

"But when we asked them why is Israel doing it ... the unequivocal answer of the Palestinian public is because Israel is forced to. Sharon has been forced by violence to pull out from Gaza. Three-quarters of the public believe this is a victory for armed struggle against occupation," said Shikaki.

Despite their support, Shikaki said, Palestinians would prefer to see that the disengagement was a negotiated settlement and not a unilateral move in order to ensure their interests such as access to the West Bank, access through the crossing points into Israel, a functioning airport, and first and foremost, the release of prisoners.

"They assume that any of this is not likely to be achieved without negotiations," Shikaki said. "For Gazans, the second most important need [after prisoner release] is to work inside Israel, and they want that access to [the] labor market inside Israel to continue after the Israelis pull out."

Prior to the Palestinian uprising, as many as 200,000 Palestinians crossed into Israel for employment each day. But since September 2000, when Israel began to shut the crossings for security reasons, unemployment soared to more than 60 percent.

Who Will Own the Disengagement?

According to Shikaki, who has carried out more than 100 polls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1993, how the disengagement is carried out will have a big impact on Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Palestinians are most concerned about the issues of corruption in the P.A., the economy, the peace process and law and order, in that order, Shikaki said.

Hamas won big victories in recent municipal elections, and there have been concerns that they might make similar gains in parliamentary elections, throwing into question the possibility of ever returning to the U.S.-backed road map peace process.

Hamas, on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, is opposed to any negotiated settlement with Israel. Its stated goal is the establishment of an Islamic State from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, i.e. including all of the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

The legislative elections, which were scheduled to take place in mid-July, were postponed indefinitely earlier this month by P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Shikaki predicted they will probably take place in January.

It will be important in campaigning then who "owns" the disengagement, he said. If Abbas has benefits to show his people from negotiations with Israel, then he will gain more support.

Right now, the people believe that violence has forced Sharon's withdrawal plan, so Hamas is claiming the victory. Since Abbas has spoken out against the militarization of the intifadah, he cannot claim the victory since the people are linking it to violence. But Hamas can.

However, two-thirds of Palestinians say that if the Israeli withdrawal will be complete and the passages to Israel open, then there would be no violence coming from the Gaza Strip. This would help Abbas to maintain a ceasefire there, said Shikaki.

(Quiet is a necessary element in gaining concessions from Israel and leading to a return to the road map peace process.)

But Abbas (Abu Mazen) would need to offer even more to his people. He would have to be able to show more than having an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines.

Abbas would, for example, need to show that as a result of negotiations a passage had been opened between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians were in control of their own border crossings, the airport was soon to be reopened or the seaport was being built, Shikaki said.

"If the Palestinian Authority [and Abbas' Fatah party] does not present the disengagement as part of or aspects of disengagement as part of its diplomatic activity, then it will not be able to own the disengagement, and Hamas will own the disengagement, and it will be victory for Hamas," said Shikaki.

Hamas could say to the people that it was violence and not negotiating that brought success in effecting a pullout from Gaza.

"That would be a very critical attack on Fatah's credibility as a negotiating partner because if negotiations fail and violence succeeds, then certainly this is not going to work for the advantage of Fatah," he said.

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