Another round in the war:

Few situations in human history can be defined in clear-cut terms as victory or defeat. Even wars that are ended by crushing military defeats and the unconditional surrender of one side do not necessarily constitute political or economic victory for the other.

Victory and defeat are very relative terms. Further, they are concepts applicable only to the end of wars. One should be very careful not to use them for interim situations. Since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip cannot even by the most fertile imagination be perceived as an end to the protracted 100 year war between Israel and the Arabs, any utilization of these concepts would be completely misplaced. At best, one can regard the most recent Israeli step as a partial and limited Palestinian Arab achievement.

This achievement was foreseeable and could have been predicted from the very first moment when Israel commenced its folly of building settlements in the Gaza Strip. This poor stretch of land with hardly any natural resources, with little rainfall and hardly any springs, is one of the most densely populated areas of the world. Even if Israel had millions of reserve inhabitants and were ready and able to settle there and to transform Gaza’s national character into Jewish-Israeli, there would have been no room for them, either physically or economically.

>From the outset it was completely clear that by establishing small agricultural settlements, no more than a few thousand Israeli settlers could be implanted there, and only at enormous cost. Each settlement necessarily became the target of violent Palestinian reaction; each settlement had to be defended day and night against military incursions; each vehicle going or coming between the settlements and Israel proper or traveling among the settlements had to be defended by the army at high cost.

Only a mystical-messianic belief in divine intervention in human destinies can explain why various Israeli governments and parties initiated this folly. The Israeli government decision to evacuate the Gaza Strip results principally from the realization that this situation could not be maintained forever. Yet a Likud-led government cannot admit publicly that the policy of establishing settlements was a profound mistake. Therefore the process of dismantling the settlements had to be perceived as part of a general withdrawal from the Strip. Otherwise, the government would not have had the parliamentary majority to sustain this step.

Thus far, one can assert that the Palestinian Arabs have gained an achievement: an Israeli dream of laying the ground for possible annexation of the Gaza Strip to Israel has been foiled. However, history does not stop here. Under international pressure, Israel had to acquiesce in the future construction of maritime and air ports and transfer to other hands control over land access from Egypt into Gaza. Even if we erroneously assume that Egypt will make a bigger effort than in the recent past, the smuggling of rocket-launchers, heavy mortars, and artillery from Sinai into Gaza will continue. Once the Gaza ports are functional, a steady flow of these arms will enter the Strip by sea and air.

To date, Israel has only consented to the establishment of these ports and not to their actual functioning. But I doubt Israel will be in a position to resist international (mainly European) pressure to let the ports open, once so much foreign money has been invested in their construction and the economic needs are presented as paramount. One could argue that the Israel Navy would be able to control the goods imported to Gaza’s sea port, and that God’s angels would do a similar job as far as the airport is concerned. But let us speak frankly: no power, human or divine, will be in a position to prevent a huge stockpiling of arms in the Gaza Strip within a few years. The government of Israel understands this; hence it has until now rejected any demand for safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The possibility that these arms will flow to Abu Dis, Tulkarm, or Qalqilya, which would place the majority of the Israeli population between Haifa and Jerusalem under daily threat of bombardment and the economy of Israel under threat of near total standstill, is real enough to create very strong Israeli resistance on this point.

As for the arms stockpiled in the Strip, they will not be used for display only, but rather to bring Israel to concede the most central Palestinian-Arab demand: the right of the 1948 refugees “to return to their homes and lands”. Consequently, within a few months or years after completion of the ports (if not earlier, by means of locally produced Qassam rockets), the Palestinians will launch a static war of bombardment from the Gaza Strip against southwest Israel (Sderot, Ashdod, Ashkelon). The exact range of these probable attacks will be decided by the quality of the rockets, artillery, and mortars supplied to the Palestinian Authority and the more extreme Islamic organizations. No Palestinian leadership will have the authority or even the will to prevent these attacks as long as the Palestinian population of the Strip, mostly composed of the descendants of the 1948 refugees, continues to nourish the vision of turning back the hands of the clock to the pre-1948 situation.

And Israel? No Israeli government would let such a situation continue. I assume that, following a short period of devastating blows, and despite international pressure to concede more and more to the “poor” Palestinians and absorb more and more blows, Israel would react by re-conquering the Gaza Strip. Thus would the circle be closed. The only change that might occur would concern the question of the possible reestablishing of Israeli settlements. It is almost certain that this folly would not be repeated.

Returning to the question of victory or defeat, what is the answer? Certainly not a Palestinian victory, but neither is it an Israeli victory. Simply put, another round in the generations-long war between Israel and its neighboring enemies.-

Published 29/8/2005 (c)
Yehoshua Porath is emeritus professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
This article appeared on on September 2nd, 2005