The plan to transfer settlers from the Gaza Strip to the Negev region apparently came into being many months before the disengagement plan. Already on November 6, 2002 the Sharon government decided to annex the settlers to the Negev - except that instead of moving them to there, the government decided to move the Negev to them.
Cabinet decision 2695 recounts that on that day (a week after the unity government fell apart over disputed budgets for the settlements) the ministerial committee for developing the Negev and Galilee decided to recommend to the governing body of the Israel Lands Administration that a massive discount (90 percent of the leasing fees) be given to demobilized soldiers who want to settle in the Negev or Galilee. Two months later, on January 21, 2003 - this time in his capacity as chairman of the ILA's governing body - the prime minister signed ILA decision 952 concerning that very matter. The generous initiative, intended to promote settlement in small communities (up to 500 housing units) located in the Negev and Galilee within areas designated national priority areas, was limited to young people who completed their mandatory military service or national service within five years prior to submitting the application.
The requirement of 12 months service as a condition for receiving the benefit is enough to ensure that national lands in sensitive areas do not wind up in Arab hands. However, the list of communities compiled for the purpose of the benefit proves that the definition of a geographic region in Israel can be a highly sensitive and extremely political matter.
Spokespeople for the ILA and the Defense Ministry said this week that they have trouble fathoming the names of communities that appear in the ILA's decision and in documents of the unit entrusted with guidance for newly released soldiers. They say they never noticed that the list of communities in question includes Netzarim, Kfar Darom and Morag in the Gaza Strip; and all of the settlements in the southern Hebron Hills region - including Adora, Ma'on, Carmel, Susya, Ma'ale Hever, Negohot and other settlements dotting the southern West Bank. All of these appear in the list of Negev communities.
The list was updated to November 16, 2003. Only six months earlier, Ariel Sharon made a commitment to George Bush to freeze all benefits intended to tempt settlers to move to the territories, and to limit construction in these areas to expansion necessitated by natural population growth.
The ILA spokeswoman told Haaretz that she does not have data on the extent of lands in the Gaza and Hebron Hills regions that were leased as part of that campaign. An ILA official stated that "all of the communities south of 110 degrees latitude [i.e. the Elei Sinai-Halhul line and southward - A.E.] are commonly viewed as Negev communities." The Interior Ministry said that the ministry defines the Gaza region as separate from the Negev region, which belongs to the Southern District, whereas West Bank communities are part of the Jerusalem District.
The Defense Ministry promised on Sunday to erase the settlements from the list of Negev communities, but never got around to doing so. The explanation they gave for this yesterday: They serve only as a "courier" for the ILA plan and therefore do not have the authority to intervene.
Mofaz looks out for Beilin
According to Sharon, the purpose of his disengagement plan is first and foremost to block the Geneva Initiative, which picked up steam worldwide. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz did not make do with backing disengagement; while that initiative is grounded, the defense minister is helping to slow down the Geneva Initiative: he turned down a request from the Geneva campaign headquarters to allow a 50-member delegation to go to Jericho over the weekend to participate in a convention of the initiative's public committees (Israeli and Palestinian). Among the delegation members who will stay home: Labor MKs Avraham Burg, Amram Mitzna, and Yuli Tamir, Yahad Chairman Yossi Beilin, former minister Gad Yaakobi, former chief of staff Amnon Shahak and former Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom.
Mofaz was unimpressed by a letter from Jibril Rajoub, Arafat's national security adviser, guaranteeing that Palestinian security forces will secure the hotel hosting the convention. A source in Mofaz's office said that his decision is based on a Shin Bet assessment that "there is a threat to the lives of Israelis entering Jericho."
The Shin Bet does not show such concern for the well-being of its former chief, Ami Ayalon, for otherwise it is difficult to explain why the defense minister allowed Ayalon and a group from the People's Voice peace initiative to participate in a convention of activists held in Jericho three weeks ago.
Sharon has been dealing over the past few days with another initiative that threatens to replace the disengagement plan. Representatives of the European Union and the United Nations in the Quartet are pressuring the United States to demand that Sharon release Yasser Arafat from house arrest in his Ramallah compound known as the Muqata. They believe that their road map won't get moving until the Rais does. The Egyptians, too, have concluded that Arafat's mobility is a necessary condition for removing Hakam Balawi from the interior minister's bureau, to make way for an independent and experienced security-minded man.
The initiative born of these insights includes removing the Israeli siege of the Muqata, in return for Arafat removing his objection to unifying the security apparatuses under the command of a new minister. The proposal further includes a stick for Arafat that is a carrot for Sharon: the Quartet members and the Egyptians promised that on the day it becomes clear that Arafat is undermining the reforms, they won't make a peep when Sharon kicks him out of the Muqata for good. The initiative, an alternative to the disengagement plan, is waiting on the desk of President Bush, the only man who scares Sharon more than Netanyahu does.