Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel, deserves praise for forcing the settlers in Gaza off the land and out of the homes that he encouraged them to settle and to build over 35 years ago. As he admitted in his televised address to Israel on Monday evening, he ‘hoped we could forever hold on’ to the settlements in Gaza — and he certainly encouraged the unfortunate settlers he sent there to share his hope.
Until very recently, Mr Sharon was one of the leading advocates of the policy of settling Jews in the areas occupied by Israel after its victory over its Arab neighbours in the 1967 Six Day War. In Gaza, however, the costs of defending an archipelago of 8,500 settlers in a sea of over a million hostile Palestinians have proved to be too great. Mr Sharon has now recognised that — in Gaza at least — the settlement policy was an unsustainable mistake. An army of 50,000 Israeli soldiers and policemen is on hand to ensure that the rump of unrepentant settlers and their supporters, who believe the land was given to them by God, are removed from Gaza. By Wednesday, according to the army, more than half the settlers had left.
The Gaza pull-out should be only the start of Israel’s ‘reassessment’ — as Mr Sharon has put it — of its policy towards the Palestinians. Most observers insist, however, that Mr Sharon has started the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza without the least intention of making any further concessions. If that is indeed Mr Sharon’s position, it is quite understandable. Behind Mahmood Abbas, the reasonable-sounding leader of the Palestinian Authority, lies Hamas. Hamas does not recognise the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Its stated policy is ‘to push Israel and the Jews into the sea’, and it is responsible for most of the suicide bombings which have killed so many Israeli men, women and children. Hamas is already celebrating the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as a ‘victory’ for its policy of indiscriminate murder. Its supporters state openly that the withdrawal from Gaza has been achieved through their use of violence. They draw only one lesson from the Israeli pull-out: terrorism works, and if we want to achieve our goal of eliminating Israel altogether, we need more suicide bombings.
Given that context of Hamas terrorism, it is unsurprising that Mr Sharon regards any further concessions to the Palestinian Authority as a mistake. Further concessions there will have to be, though, if Israel’s long-term future is to be assured. Eventually there has to be an autonomous Palestinian state which is capable of living peacefully alongside Israel. Mahmood Abbas says he is committed to achieving that goal, and by peaceful means. Mr Sharon has replied that before there can be any further gestures from him, Mahmood Abbas will have to disarm Hamas. But Mr Abbas cannot disarm Hamas, because he does not control it: this is a condition with which Mr Abbas cannot comply. If Mr Sharon insists on it, he will only ensure continued deadlock — which will mean more suicide bombings, and more violent replies from Israel’s security forces.
The best hope of diminishing the power of Hamas lies in isolating it. The only way of doing that is to demonstrate to ordinary Palestinians that Mr Abbas can achieve significant gains through peaceful methods. As Mr Sharon himself noted in last Monday’s television address, the living conditions of the Palestinians in Gaza have been atrocious: ‘incredibly cramped refugee camps, in poverty and squalor, in hotbeds of ever-increasing hatred, with no hope whatsoever on the horizon’. Those conditions have been one of the factors which have helped push some of the Gaza Palestinians in the direction of supporting Hamas and terrorism. Once the Israelis have withdrawn, it ought to be within Mahmood Abbas’s power to ensure that the conditions for a flourishing Palestinian society in the Gaza Strip — the first of which is uncorrupt government and the rule of law — obtain there. That would be a significant step towards isolating Hamas and achieving peace.
But it would only be a step. The Israeli settlements in Gaza were the least numerous and significant of its colonies in the Occupied Territories. After the pull-out in Gaza, Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas have jointly to find some way of compromising on the issue of over 400,000 Israelis settled on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Achieving a compromise on that issue will, of course, require as much in the way of courage from the Palestinian leadership as it will from the Israelis. The test of a great leader is whether he can betray those who trusted him, when that is necessary to achieve the more important goal of peace and stability for the whole nation. Mr Sharon has already taken the first steps on that road. If there is to be peace in the Middle East, Mr Abbas will have to follow him.