Gaza Evacuation Transforms Israeli Landscape

Withdrawal’s Unilateralism Belied by P.A. Coordination

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 19, 2005, issue of August 19, 2005.

As Israel carries out its historic pullout from Gaza, Israeli and Palestinian officials are reporting the highest levels of trust and cooperation between the two sides since before the outbreak of the current violence five years ago.

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon originally billed the pullout — including the dismantling of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank — as a unilateral maneuver, brought on by the failure of responsible Palestinian negotiating partners to emerge and by Jerusalem’s need to blunt international pressure for an imposed final settlement. But now that the pullout has begun, Israeli and Palestinian officials say they are working together on several levels to ensure a smooth transition of power.

“The decision itself was unilateral, but now that it is happening we are talking about a much more bilateral policy,” said Elias Zananiri, media adviser to P.A.’s minister of state for security, Mohammed Dahlan.

A spokesman with the Israeli Defense Ministry said that cooperation on disengagement has taken place on three levels: between ministers, army officers and soldiers in the field. “Those things that were only in the heyday of Oslo are now coming back,” Ranaan Gissin, adviser to Prime Minister Sharon, said about the cooperation on security matters.

Perhaps the most evident example of the cooperation is an operations room that was opened on Sunday in Gaza, where three Israeli army officers are working with three Palestinian security officials to deal with security problems as they come up — the type of security cooperation employed during the days of the Oslo Peace Process.

For all involved, the improved working relationship is significant because of what it may mean for the

peace process after the Gaza pullout. Critics on both sides of the Israeli spectrum have warned that a unilateral pullout could trigger a new round of violence. Right-wing opponents saying that such a move without a complete crackdown on terrorism would encourage Palestinian militants and left-wing opponents who say that a pullout without political talks would undercut any Palestinian hope for a negotiated final settlement.

Israeli and Palestinian officials emphasized that the cooperation thus far has involved technical issues only. Palestinian officials said they have not seen any Israeli willingness to open political discussions about the long-term peace process. On the Israeli side, officials said that they will not entertain political discussions until the Palestinians crack down on terrorist groups. Still, political insiders who have contacts with both sides said that the current cooperation already has generated a change in the tenor of discourse between some Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Yossi Beilin, a left-wing Israeli politician who has criticized the disengagement plan in the past, said, “Although they are only dealing with technical issues, people trust each other more and more. They are getting used to talking with each other again.”

The formal cooperation began a few months ago, according to a Defense Ministry spokesperson, but has increased in recent weeks. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has met with Dahlan about security matters a number of times — most recently last week. Mofaz also met with Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Youssef on Sunday to discuss the deployment of Palestinian troops. Thousands of Palestinian troops have been deployed to prevent Palestinians from attacking Jewish settlements as Israeli forces evacuate them.

People close to the negotiations said that international pressure, particularly from the United States, has been crucial in pushing the Israelis to work with Palestinians during the disengagement. A Defense Ministry official said that former World Bank president James Wolfensohn attended a number of the meetings between Mofaz and Palestinian ministers in his new capacity envoy for the U.S.-led international coalition known as the Quartet.

Some long-time Israeli critics of the P.A. are not happy with the increased coordination.

“I don’t think cooperation is necessary or desirable at this point,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based center-right think tank. “I’m concerned that we will be drawn into another false peace process.”

Much of the closest cooperation so far has been at lower levels. Two joint Palestinian-Israeli teams were formed a week-and-a-half ago to develop a plan for the movement of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank — to deal, respectively, with short-term and long-term issues. And on Sunday, a joint operations room was opened at the Erez crossing in the Gaza strip.

Zananiri, Dahlan’s adviser, also said that Palestinian security officials in Gaza have been having regular consultations with Israeli soldiers on the ground. A Palestinian official who has sat in on some of these meetings said, “It’s amazing when you put soldiers together how much they can get done. It was good to see.”

It was unclear to what degree the lower-level contacts were filtering up to the highest levels. In recent days, both Sharon and P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas offered some conciliatory words. But Abbas also declared that the Palestinians would press on to Jerusalem, and Sharon warned that Israel would respond to any Palestinian violence “with fire more severe than ever.”

Palestinian officials told the Forward that the cooperation and good will that have occurred at the lower levels have not filtered through to the discussions at the ministerial level.

Zananiri said the majority of Palestinians believe that Israel is exiting Gaza to strengthen its hold on the West Bank, and that this perception will be changed through open political discussions only.

“What we need is more of a readiness on the part of the Israeli government to be more forward in terms of saying exactly what will happen the day after Gaza,” Zananiri said.

Israeli officials said that political discussion would begin only after the P.A. cracks down more forcefully on Hamas and on other terrorist organizations. But Gissin said that the cooperation occurring right now could help the situation move in that direction.

“You have to start building trust from the lowest level, on a day-to-day basis,” the Sharon adviser said. “If we see progress, we’ll continue from there.”

The disengagement also has spurred some coming together outside official circles. Wolfensohn, for instance, put together a group of liberal American Jewish donors to help broker a deal to transfer to Palestinians greenhouses owned by Gazan settlers. Through several organizational intermediaries, the donors paid the settlers $14 million for the greenhouses, with Wolfensohn himself donating $500,000 to the cause.

The deal was initially prompted by the distrust between the two sides — Palestinians did not want to see any international aid going to the Jewish settlers in Gaza — and the negotiations were conducted through an intermediary. But Stephen P. Cohen, an American fellow at the Brookings Institution, who was one of the intermediaries, said that over the course of negotiations the two sides began to see each other as human again.

“There were a lot of trust issues to get started,” Cohen said. “But they began to see that people were giving them accurate information about the nature of the agricultural products and machinery. I saw a change in the conversation.”

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