Palestinians Ambivalent About Failure of Disengagement Referendum

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Palestinians on Monday were calling on Washington to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party rejected his disengagement plan in a referendum on Sunday.

The Palestinians never liked the plan, which called for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, including uprooting some 8,000 Israeli settlers who live in communities there. Several Israeli communities in the West Bank would be removed as well.

Nevertheless, the plan's defeat in the Likud referendum did not necessarily excite Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority Minister Saeb Erekat said he was "astonished and frustrated" as he watched Likud members vote on the future of the Palestinians. He described the vote as a no-win situation.

If the referendum had passed, the Israeli government would have dictated the future of the Palestinians by setting the terms for settlers leaving Gaza; and its failure only means that more settlement-building can be expected, Erekat said in a telephone interview.

The main issue, he said, was not that the Israelis were leaving the land but that the decision was taken unilaterally by Sharon and not negotiated with the Palestinians.

"Gaza [would be] geographically isolated," Erekat said. "It's not a question of being opportunistic [and taking the land offered].

"Who will take over what - the schools, health, public order [after Israel leaves]? They are going to leave Gaza in chaos," he charged.

Israel appealed both to the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for help in managing the transfer of assets Israel would leave behind but both have initially backed away from the request, reports said.

Why Palestinians reject the plan

Palestinians deemed Sharon's plan the worst disaster that had overtaken them since the 1948 creation of the state of Israel -- even though they would theoretically be gaining land and control over it.

Dr. Mahdi F. Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs said there are several reasons why the Palestinians are upset over the disengagement plan.

First of all, Sharon said that the reason he is doing this is because there is "no Palestinian partner" so he decided to make this plan unilaterally, Hadi said in a telephone interview.

Gaza, where more than 1.2 million Palestinians live, will be kept like a prison with no access to the West Bank and Israel would be guarding all the borders, he said.

According to Hadi, Sharon plans to move the settlers to the West Bank.

There has been talk of moving the settlers to the Israeli Negev Desert but public talk about moving the settlers to the West Bank was quashed early on. Hadi disagreed.

"It has nothing to do with the peace process," Hadi argued. "[It is] at the expense of the West Bank. It's putting a Palestinian name and face on the Gaza Strip." As proof, he cited reports that Sharon had considered deporting Arafat from his Ramallah headquarters to the Gaza Strip.

He also charged that while Israel would move thousands of settlers out of their homes and communities where many have lived for decades, Israel would not move its military presence out of the Gaza Strip and therefore would not really be giving the land over.

Marwan Kanafani, chairman of the External Affairs Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said earlier that the Palestinians weren't angry about the idea of Israelis giving up land but they believed it was part of a conspiracy to give up Gaza and keep the West Bank under siege.

Sharon, in fact, tried - and failed - to use the Palestinian hatred of the disengagement plan as a selling point for it among his Likud members.

He has said that he would not complete his withdrawal plan until the security fence between Israel and the West Bank is completed.

The barrier cuts into West Bank to surround large Jewish settlement blocs and to provide strategic depth for Israel in a number of places. A separate part - called the Jerusalem envelope - will encompass Jerusalem cutting Palestinians off from most of eastern Jerusalem, including the walled Old City.

According to Israeli analyst Yossi Klein Halevi, the Palestinians hate the plan because it imposes a border on them that would prevent them from claiming part of Jerusalem.

"Palestinians hate that border because it denies them sovereignty over East Jerusalem," said Halevi, associate fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

The Palestinians hope that eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City where the Temple Mount with its Islamic shrines is, would become the capital of a future Palestinian state, which would encompass all of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where hundreds of thousands of Israelis live.

'Bring back Road Map'

Erekat said that now that the referendum has failed, he hopes that President Bush will withdraw his assurances he gave Sharon three weeks ago in Washington.

Bush angered the Palestinians and much of the rest of the Arab world by indicating that the U.S. would back Israel's claim to several large settlement blocs in the West Bank as part of a final settlement.

He also said that the issue of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would have to be resolved in the context of resettling them in a future Palestinian state instead of Israel.

Nevertheless, Bush said he considered the disengagement plan as part of the road map.

"I hope he will declare [the assurances] off the table now and road map is the way to peace," Erekat said. "I hope now the US will stand to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table in order to begin implementation of the road map."

PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia also said that the international community should work on reviving peace talks. Qureia said the Palestinians were concerned about their national rights, the implementation of international resolutions and the road map.

He said he hoped the failure of the referendum would be "an incentive to go back to the right path so we can find a just and permanent solution that will ensure the establishment of a Palestinian state."

The road map, penned by the Quartet - the U.S., European Union, Russia and United Nations - called for a cessation of terrorism and some Israeli dismantling of outposts as a first step in the plan, which foresees the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005.

It basically never got off the ground, with both sides accusing each other of non-compliance, although Washington backed Israel's position that the terrorism had to stop first.

In its first response to the disengagement plan's defeat, Washington said it still backed the plan and would consult with Sharon about how to move forward.

Nevertheless, Sharon did not appear ready to abandon his disengagement plan on Monday despite the defeat. In a speech to his Likud party faction on Monday Sharon indicated he would consult with coalition partners and Likud Knesset members in an effort to retool the plan.

Earlier, Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert, who spearheaded support for the plan, said those involved would make a "supreme effort" to continue in the direction of the plan because "that direction is unstoppable.""