A Palestinian Island

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the ideological controversy which, at the end of the day, will determine whether Israel will leave the settlements or continue to be bogged down in them.

Slowly but surely the flow of "foreign workers" from the Gaza Strip into Israel will diminish until it ceases entirely, says Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as he tries to persuade Likud members to vote for the disengagement plan in today's referendum. Israel will be cleansed of Gazans.

That's a great temptation for those who believe in the equation that says unilateral withdrawal in return for security. However, the other part of the equation is that 1.3 million Palestinians will then have to find alternative places of employment and provide for their large, poor families in the largest and most densely crowded lockup in the world, with three emergency exits, a water pipe and a few electricity lines.

Not only will Israel disengage from Gaza, but Gaza will disengage from Israel and will have to provide for itself with its own resources. Thus, while the Israeli viewpoint looks for security, from the Gazan viewpoint the disengagement looks like a collective administrative detention whose only way out is in the direction of Egypt.

The population of Gaza has an annual rate of natural increase of 4.3 percent and an official unemployment rate of 39 percent. The average number of persons supported by a working individual now stands at 7.7 (up from 5.9 in 2000). Only about 170,000 Gazans have found work in Gaza, and once the disengagement plan is implemented, they will no longer be able to look forward to any meaningful change in the wake of some sort of peace process that will make it possible for them to work in Israel or the West Bank.

If the disengagement plan is approved today - its implementation will likely be accompanied by a series of "high-prestige strikes" on Gaza so that no one will be able to say that Israel is running away - it will be impossible to expect the development of infrastructure and industry there on a scale that will be able to offset the effect of the act of severance.

The donor states are assisting with the budget of the Palestinian Authority to the tune of nearly 60 percent of its size, but that money is earmarked largely for salaries; only a small amount of it reaches development industries. This year only about $84 million is slated for such projects - a minuscule amount as compared with the needs. The assumption has to be that the donor states, most of which oppose the disengagement plan, will not help Israel cultivate Gaza. The Palestinian Authority, which in any case is incapable of bridging the gap between its revenues and its expenses (its debts to banks alone total a quarter of a billion dollars) will not be able to become the Gaza Strip's food provider even if it wants to. That is a financial burden that Israel will have to deal with if it wants to turn Gaza into a model.

It follows that in the absence of an agreement between Israel and the PA, Israel will have to devote the coming year to forging agreements with rich countries, which will be able to pad the Gaza Strip with means of subsistence as soon as Israel pulls out. Responsibility for this will devolve on Israel because it will continue to be the occupying power in Gaza even if its forces group around Gaza rather than within it.

Formally, Israel will be able to release itself from the status of occupier only if it transfers power elsewhere in an orderly manner. However, Israel is unwilling to take that step because it would mean conducting negotiations with the present Palestinian Authority, and more specifically with Yasser Arafat. On the other hand, without such negotiations, Gaza is liable to become an autonomous district, a prosthesis of the Palestinian state, and to be caught up in a violent struggle for bread and not only for a national solution.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the ideological controversy which, at the end of the day, will determine whether Israel will leave the settlements or continue to be bogged down in them. But the members of the Likud who vote today have to understand that their vote must be for a realistic and relevant ideology, for the removal of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and the end of the settlement project in Gaza in return for a great deal of the Land of Israel in the West Bank.

It's important to see clearly the new burden that the disengagement will bring in its wake: a crowded Palestinian island with no owner. Therefore, those who support the disengagement plan must demand an additional explanation from the prime minister: How will Gaza maintain itself? Because in the absence of negotiations with the Palestinians, even a vote in favor of evacuating the settlements - which is vital and historic in itself - is liable to turn out to be a tactical vote on the form of the Israeli army's deployment around the Gaza Strip. That is something that should have been decided long ago, and not by the members of the Likud.