Ariel Sharon's plan of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip triggered loud protests by Israel's right-wing circles, who see it as a repetition of the hasty retreat from Southern Lebanon and as a reward to terrorism. They also fear that it would serve as a dangerous precedence, followed by the evacuation of most or all territories, and the foundation of a Palestinian State.
Let me state clearly that I do not share the glee, expressed by left-wing activists every time Israel declares its readiness to withdraw from territories captured during the Six Day War. On the contrary - I share the worries voiced by the right-wing camp. However, I do not think that a limited withdrawal from certain territories necessarily poses a threat to Israel's security. Only a total evacuation of these regions would endanger Israel. A balanced view of reality, free of ideological considerations and party politics, requires a clear distinction between the various types of territories, as well as the extent of Israeli involvement needed in these areas.
We got so used to painting all the territories captured by Israel in 1967 in the same colour, that we are unable to distinguish between the various shades and tones of each area. This is why we regard any step taken in one of the regions as a dangerous precedence for other areas. The evacuation of the Sinai desert was perceived as a model for the future of the Golan Heights, just as the retreat from Gaza seems to suggest the same design for the West Bank. Moreover, any evacuation is seen not only as a removal of military and / or civilian Israeli presence, but also as a concession of Israeli sovereignty. This shallow perception does not allow for serious examination of more alternatives and thus narrows Israel's options.
In this article, I would like to put aside the current withdrawal plan and discuss the conceptual framework within which it was accepted, then propose an alternative, multidimensional perception. In my view, we need to look separately at each part of the territories held by Israel since 1967 and set the desirable scope of its links to Israel, in light of several criteria, such as its status in Jewish history, security needs, demographic interests, legal considerations etc. Isolating the discussion on each of the various regions and departing from common thinking habits may be more important than the physical disengagement proposed by Sharon.
Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Desert is often seen as precedence to all other territories. There is no greater mistake. Israel was able to give up the Sinai because of several unique reasons: (a) This region has no significance in Jewish history; (b) The total demilitarisation of the Sinai from any Egyptian military presence created a security belt of hundreds of kilometres that enhanced Israel's safety; (c) Demographically, the region was nearly uninhabited; (d) Legally, the region was officially under Egyptian sovereignty, thus its continued occupation was regarded as a violation of international law (although its capture could be justified in the context of a defensive war, which is not necessarily prohibited.) Except for the oil fields that could have contributed to its economy, Israel had no real interest in this territory and its legal right to keep it was questionable.
The other territories are entirely different. They are historically significant to Israel, even if the strength of these ties vary from one region to another. In addition, Israeli control of these territories is vital for its security, although each region carries a different geopolitical weight. They are also more inhabited, although not all areas are populated with the same density. And finally, from a legal perspective, the sovereignty over these regions has been long disputed and Israel has strong arguments to support its claim. There is no solid basis for the common assertion that these territories are under occupation and that Israeli control and settlement activity is illegal. Therefore, the case of the Sinai is unique and cannot serve as an example for other territories.
Of all the areas currently held by Israel, the Gaza District is the most problematic. Jewish traditional ties to Gaza are the weakest, while it is the most densely populated, the poorest and the most hostile of all regions. It hardly serves any security purpose, except, perhaps, as part of the security fence between Egypt and Israel. Therefore, the decision to locate land intensive Israeli settlements in the heart of a large, hostile population may have been unwise in the first place. A minimal military presence for security reasons may have been sufficient in Gaza.
At the present situation, Israel should weigh its security needs against the demographic aspect. It may be in Israel's best interests to withdraw from Gaza, giving up a small area in return for separating from a large population, providing that Israel retains its claim for sovereignty and insists on demilitarising the region from heavy weaponry. Most importantly, Israel should stress that any decision about the Gaza Strip would apply only to Gaza and have no bearing on the future of the Golan Heights and the West Bank, where the same considerations should strengthen Israel's civilian and military presence. Therefore, Gaza should not be the beginning of an evacuation process, but rather the end of it!
Elon Jarden, 8/April/2004
Advocate Elon Jarden has published 5 books on law and policy.
Visit the (Hebrew) site of The Zedec Movement, founded by Elon Jarden.