The Middle East Channel

Is Avigdor Lieberman onto something in Gaza?

Prime Minister David Cameron during his recent visit to Turkey warned that the Gaza Strip "cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp." Britain, however, along with the rest of the European community, and of course, Washington, are ambivalent guardians of the self-described prison camp run by Israel, with Egyptian assistance. The ...

Getty Images
Getty Images

Prime Minister David Cameron during his recent visit to Turkey warned that the Gaza Strip "cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp." Britain, however, along with the rest of the European community, and of course, Washington, are ambivalent guardians of the self-described prison camp run by Israel, with Egyptian assistance. The prisoners, of course, want their freedom. And so too it seems does Israel’s right-wing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has emerged as an unlikely proponent of  ending Israel’s status as an occupying power in the Gaza Strip.

Cameron’s prison camp description gave voice among critics to uncomfortable associations with some of the worst excesses of Nazi Germany. Some apologists for Gaza’s strangulation have, certainly unintentionally, evoked similar associations. The shameful press attention paid to the appearance of a new shopping mall in Gaza and the fine fare on offer at one of the Strip’s restaurants by those anxious to give lie to the pain and suffering caused by the siege is a particularly evocative case in point. The efforts by Gaza’s besieged population to create a semblance of normality, like the orchestra of the Warsaw ghetto, is a lasting testament to the triumph of the best instincts of human spirit over those who would crush it. Did the reaffirmation of humanity by Jews staring into the abyss negate the gruesome, bestial reality of the ghetto? And so it is with Gaza.

The casualties of the "freedom flotilla" sailing out of Turkey highlighted the malign neglect of the international diplomatic community in this engineered calamity and roused Washington to demand welcome, if minor, changes in the draconian border regime. These less than half measures, however, do not offer even the hint of an end to the regime of collective punishment that Gazans are being forced to endure.

Lieberman of all people has recently suggested a win-win solution — the establishment of open borders between Gaza and the outside world and an end to Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power in Gaza. Perhaps because the author of this idea is politically radioactive outside of Israel and his former abode behind the once-Iron Curtain, everyone from Lady Ashton to Hosni Mubarak has lined up in opposition. But the patent on this option actually belongs to Ariel Sharon, whose decision to evacuate all settlements and permanently stationed Israeli troops from Gaza has created the conditions for Palestinians, for the first time in their history, to taste the possibility of exercising sovereign power in at least part of Palestine.

Certainly neither Sharon nor Lieberman can be expected to act out of a concern for Palestinian interests. To borrow from today’s diplomatic lexicon, they have no interest in "strengthening" Gaza or the Palestinians. Nor is it surprising that few in the international community are prepared to bless a concept so at odds with its view of what is right and good. For them, PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Ramallah-based cohorts are the Palestinian sun around which their diplomacy revolves. Israel and Hamas are engaged in another dance altogether in Gaza, a Copernican revolution which these giants of realpolitik prefer to ignore. But the serial misapprehensions of the international community should not obscure the real advantages both political and practical that an end to effective Israeli control over Gaza — the internationally accepted standard that Israel will have to meet — promises.

Sharon removed all civilian Israeli settlements and settlers from the Gaza Strip and evacuated all permanently stationed Israeli military forces. He wanted to seize the diplomatic initiative from Washington and to confront Gaza as an enemy state, rather than its ward. To establish this new model he was prepared to pay a steep price — evacuating Gaza to the nascent Palestinian "army" of Hamas and to replace occupation with deterrence — and not significantly, demilitarization — as Israel’s defense doctrine. The Hamas leadership to its credit saw opportunity in Sharon’s decision, in contrast to the ruling Fateh establishment, which could not believe that Sharon of all people would abandon Gaza and his beloved settlers.

Sharon’s disengagement, however, was far less than complete. As his own foreign ministry counseled, as long as Israel remained in effective control of Gaza’s links with the world, Israel could not claim an end to occupation and its internationally mandated responsibilities.

Lieberman is now suggesting that Israel is prepared to take this next step and he has challenged the international community to assist Israel, and the Palestinians, to achieve this end. The challenge is to fashion a border regime that removes Israel from effective control over Gaza’s economic lifelines and meets internationally accepted standards for importing, exporting, and movement and access while satisfying legitimate Israeli security requirements. This challenge can be met. International support for this option will establish the minimum conditions for a revival of the Palestinian economy and the rejuvenation of a society that has little memory of anything but deprivation and the absence of opportunity.

The principals of an end to occupation, the removal of settlements and permanently stationed Israeli soldiers, and the creation of a territorially contiguous area under sovereign Palestinian control with sovereign access to the world, should be enshrined throughout the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza alike. If Israel and the Palestinians, with international assistance, are unable to achieve this objective, that is no reason to prevent its realization, in Gaza, or anywhere else where such an opportunity exists.

The PLO in 1974 committed itself "to establish the independent combatant national authority for the people over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated" — that is, to establish a sovereign Palestinian address wherever circumstances permitted. Today, ironically, its current leadership opposes any diminution of Israeli responsibility in Gaza, because it only sees Hamas benefiting — a prospect which Israel it seems is more than prepared to accept. Hamas, for its part, is not prepared to be a cheerleader for any Israeli idea. The regime based in Gaza, however, exercises power of a kind that those in Ramallah can only dream about. If the disengagement experience is any guide, the Hamas leadership will take advantage of any Israeli move to consolidate and expand the attributes of sovereignty it now possesses.

For most of the international community, Hamas’ readiness to profit from such an Israeli move is enough to oppose it. Yet there is no reason to believe that a free and independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip will compromise the prospect for an expansion of the very same principles to the West Bank and East Jerusalem or undermine the changes for Palestinian reconciliation. Indeed, the example of the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state cannot but positively transform both the internal Palestinian and the international diplomatic landscape.

Geoffrey Aronson is the Director of Research and Publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace and editor of the Foundation’s report on Israeli Settlement Activities in the Occupied Territories. He is a consultant to the EUPOLCOPPS security mission in the West Bank and was a member of the World Bank team during Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2004-2005.

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