Four years ago, when Ariel Sharon agreed to support the withdrawal from Lebanon, he proposed a prior condition: to deliver a powerful strike against the country, so the might of the Israel Defense Forces would be engraved on the collective memory and no one would try to operate against Israel after the IDF pullout. The recent spate of IDF actions in the Gaza Strip, and the large number of Palestinian casualties they have caused, are liable to create the impression that this is the realization of Sharon's "Lebanese" proposal: When withdrawal from Gaza is announced, accompany it by burning into the Palestinian consciousness the terrifying power of the IDF.
However, national memory, as everyone knows, is selective. The history of the 18 years of Israeli occupation in Lebanon ended with a Hezbollah "victory album," which demonstrates its ability to bend Israel's hand, and worse, is portrayed as a deterrent force equivalent to the IDF. The recent prisoner exchange deal certainly did nothing to detract from that image.
South Lebanon became the Hezbollah state, and a similar situation is liable to develop in the Gaza Strip. The point is that Israel is in the process of creating two Palestinian states, one in Gaza and the other in the West Bank. In Gaza, it is conducting its major military campaign against one organization, Hamas; it is proposing to withdraw from that organization's territory, evacuate settlements and demarcate a perfect boundary line with an enemy state. At the end of the process, Gaza is liable to become an entity cut off from the main Palestinian system, the autonomous province of an organization and not a separate section of the Palestinian state.
The signs that this is happening are already discernible on the ground. Hamas is presenting Israel's declaration of withdrawal from Gaza as its military and political victory, and not that of the Palestinian Authority or of the organizations associated with Fatah. Islamic Jihad has been shunted aside by Hamas, which is unwilling, for the time being, to incorporate it into one organizational framework. Hamas is blocking every Egyptian-sponsored initiative for a cease-fire, despite the declarations by its spokesmen, according to which the organization is ready to be part of any initiative that will serve the Palestinian interest. At the moment, Hamas does not consider a hudna (cease-fire) to be a Palestinian interest - meaning a Hamas interest - and its representatives are explaining that the organization is in a state of momentum that must not be broken off by a cease-fire.
The formulations being used by Hamas leaders to describe their "victory" are amazingly like the ones we heard from the heads of Hezbollah after the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon. But that is as far as the resemblance extends. Because even if there is a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, its 1.25 million inhabitants will continue to be under Israeli responsibility. In contrast to South Lebanon, Gaza will have no economic hinterland, not in the territories, not in Israel and not in Egypt. Equally important, the more time that passes between the withdrawal and any sort of political solution that will be achieved between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the more difficult it will be for the PA to take renewed responsibility for the administration of the Gaza Strip. The result is liable to be another huge Palestinian diaspora, like the one in Lebanon, but without its civilian infrastructure.
There is no dispute that Israel needs to withdraw from Gaza, and fast; but it also has to find a new landlord for Gaza, just as fast. That can only be the Palestinian Authority, which in the meantime is not enthusiastic about the idea of the unilateral withdrawal. "Gaza and Jericho first" was a good proposal for another period, when an economic infrastructure still existed in the Gaza Strip and Hamas was a limited organization, fighting for its status. For the PA to be able to accept control of Gaza now, it will have to wage a tremendous struggle with Hamas. However, Israel's continued war against Hamas, and the showcase manner in which it is being waged, with the large number of Palestinian casualties it is exacting, is only enhancing the organization's status and will make it even more difficult for the PA to rehabilitate its status in the Gaza Strip.
If Israel seriously intends to leave the Gaza Strip, it would do well to calm things down there, and even to declare a unilateral cease-fire. That will make possible an intelligent withdrawal and the transfer of power to the Palestinian Authority without founding a Hamas state there.
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