(HOST) Israel’s removal of settlers from Gaza and four small settlements on the West Bank has created a new situation in the region. Commentator Barrie Dunsmore says whether for good or ill – depends on what each side does next.
(DUNSMORE) In terms of reducing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, the removal of settlers from Gaza should be a posi- tive development. Having nine thousand Israeli settlers living in the midst of well over a million Palestinians was a recipe for constant conflict. The settlements were a major drain on the Israeli military and an impediment to any future peace deal. And while there are religious ties between the West Bank and biblical Israel, Gaza’s only real biblical claim to fame is that it’s where the Bible says Samson pulled down the temple upon himself and his Phillistine enemies.
Still, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was taking a calculated political risk by deciding to withdraw from Gaza. Fortunately, there weren’t major casualties involved in the removal operations. But the spec- tacle of crying soldiers being ordered to root out weeping women and children from their homes was a painful one for many Israelis
– even among the majority that does not generally support the settlers. Some analysts are now predicting this could preclude future large withdrawals from the West Bank, where as many as 250,000 Israelis are living in disputed territory. As a return of a substantial part of that land is a central feature of every Mid-East peace plan – this may not bode well for future negotiations.
Meantime, while Palestinians are of course happy to have Gaza back – the new situation presents a serious dilemma for Palestin- ian President Mahmoud Abbas. After nearly four decades of mili- tary occupation, the people of Gaza are going to want things to get better quickly. But to produce the thousands of jobs needed to repair the impoverished economy, Gaza must have access to mar- kets in the West Bank and elsewhere – and that will require Israel to lift current restrictions on the movement of people and goods through the Gaza-Israeli border. However, that will happen only when Israel is satisfied with security arrangements to prevent terrorist infiltration and weapons smuggling. Such arrangements could prove difficult because the militant Islamic movement Hamas has a significant following in Gaza, and Hamas refuses to fore- swear the use of violence.
Thus, President Abbas’ challenge is to show the people of Gaza that his policy of non-violence has an economic payoff – while per- suading skeptical Israelis that it’s in their interests not to keep Gaza isolated. If Abbas fails, Gazans are likely to turn to Hamas in elections early next year – and if that happens we could well see a return to the cycle of terrorism and reprisal – and the Gaza with- drawal would become another dead end on the road to peace. To prevent such an outcome, Dennis Ross, a senior American Mid-East negotiator under both Clinton and Bush One, is calling on Bush Two to become forcefully involved as a mediator. Ross concludes his analysis in Monday’s Boston Globe: “The Gaza disengagement creates an opening, (but) it will close unless the US recognizes where we are and what is now necessary.”
This is Barrie Dunsmore.
Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.