Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conceived the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank as a unilateral step, but it’s increasingly being coordinated by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. The two sides are working on joint military plans to stop Palestinian terrorists from firing on Israeli soldiers and civilians during the pullback, slated to begin in mid-August. They also are putting together a string of ambitious economic projects to provide incentives for the Palestinians to keep the peace long after the withdrawal is complete.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s lightning-quick visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem over the weekend was part of a concerted American effort to encourage coordination, and Sharon’s meeting Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also focused, at least in part, on the coordination effort.
In the two-and-a-half hour meeting, Sharon and Abbas discussed a number of key coordination issues, including deployment of P.A. police during the evacuation, arrangements for control of the “Philadelphia route” on the border between Gaza and Egypt, administration of border-crossing points between Gaza and Israel, and demolition of evacuated settler homes.
Sharon also agreed to transfer the West Bank cities of Kalkilya and Bethlehem to P.A. control within the next two weeks.
But Sharon’s main message to Abbas was that Israeli-Palestinian military and civilian coordination will have little credibility unless the Palestinian Authority starts making good on its pledges to crack down on terrorism.
Israel claims there has been an increase in attacks by groups like Islamic Jihad over the past few days, and that the Palestinian Authority is doing very little to stop it.
On Monday night, Israeli forces arrested more than 50 Islamic Jihad activists after the group claimed responsibility for killing two Israelis in recent days. The message was clear: If the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take action, Israel will.
In her visit to the area, Rice met separately with Palestinian and Israeli leaders and emphasized to both sides the importance the United States attaches to coordinating the withdrawal. She left no doubt that the Americans see in a coordinated, relatively peaceful pullback as the key to creating a favorable climate for renewed peace talks.
Coordination is “absolutely critical,” Rice said.
The military coordination talks are going ahead on three levels: ministerial, top brass and officers in the field.
To strengthen the P.A.’s prestige and policing capacity, Israeli negotiators, headed by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, the army’s deputy chief of staff, are proposing:
Handing over more West Bank cities, such as Jenin and Ramallah, to P.A. control before the withdrawal from Gaza. The Israeli side, though, insists that the Palestinian Authority first fulfill promises to disarm terrorists on Israel’s wanted list.
Transferring P.A. police from the West Bank to Gaza to beef up their presence in key areas.
Setting up joint Israeli-Palestinian operations rooms to coordinate movement of forces on the ground before, during and after the withdrawal.
The Israeli side has provided maps of the settlements and asked the Palestinians to come back with a detailed security plan that would dovetail with Israel’s overall blueprint for protecting the withdrawal.
But some Israeli leaders are skeptical. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that because Israel is not demanding anything from the Palestinians in return for the withdrawal, members of terrorist groups have no motivation to keep the peace.
On the contrary, he says, apart from any agreement Israel reaches with the Palestinian Authority, terrorists almost certainly will fire on the departing troops because they want to create the impression that Israel is being forced to leave.
The civilian coordination talks aim to provide incentives for a more enduring commitment to peace. At least five major projects are under consideration:
a rail link between the Gaza Strip and West Bank;
completing construction of a seaport in Gaza;
reopening the Gaza airport;
streamlining border crossing points between Gaza and Israel; and
a massive housing project for Palestinian refugee resettlement.
In early June talks with the Palestinians, Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon proposed a rail line from Erez on the Gaza border to Tarkumiya, near the West Bank city of Hebron.
“The idea is to show the Palestinians that the planned withdrawal is not a case of ‘Gaza first and last,’ as many of them fear, but rather that it is a first step leading to a full-fledged, unified Palestinian state incorporating both Gaza and the West Bank,” Ramon says.
Even more important for the “economics of peace” are the border crossing points between Gaza and Israel. Israeli officials admit that the way the crossing points operate at present could stifle Palestinian economic development by holding up the transport of goods to ports in Israel for export.
To solve the problem, the Defense Ministry has drawn up plans for rapid, high-tech security checks, and the World Bank has agreed in principle to help meet the cost of building a pilot, state-of-the art crossing point.
Another key issue on the civilian agenda is the fate of evacuated settler homes. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to demolish the houses after the Palestinians said they don’t want them — because what they need in densely populated Gaza are high-rise buildings, not villas.
According to the agreement, Israel will destroy the homes but the Palestinians will remove the debris and use it in the construction of the Gaza seaport.
Another Israeli proposal, that the international community help finance a major high-rise housing project in the evacuated area for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees, also is under consideration.
American economic envoy James Wolfensohn, who until recently was president of the World Bank, is reportedly trying to raise $3 billion for Gaza rehabilitation projects.
“The hope is that if they materialize, these projects will provide work for thousands of Palestinians and help stabilize the security situation,” a senior Israeli official told JTA.
Such actions amount to conflict management, Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. What the United States needs to advance to is conflict prevention, he said, by producing a breakthrough between the sides that would help placate Israeli fears of renewed violence and Palestinian fears that Sharon wants to squeeze them out of a state.
Currently, “the U.S. strategy is to help Mahmoud Abbas to survive — not succeed, but survive,” Klein said. “In my view, conflict management is not enough because we face the renewal of the intifada.”
With the evacuation less than two months away, finalizing these ambitious coordination plans will be a race against both the clock and Palestinian militiamen. Indeed, the degree of coordination could decide the immediate future of Israeli-Palestinian relations: whether or not the ongoing violence finally gives way to economic cooperation and the beginning of a credible peace process.
(JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.)