Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Shadow of Hostilities

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The day before disengagement

By Ehud Yaari

The countdown to disengagement began after Ariel Sharon’s victories in two decisive Knesset votes in early April - the passing of the budget and the dumping of the referendum bill. However, since then, too many people are behaving as if the last hurdles have already been overcome, and that the morning after is already here. They simply ignore the obstacles that could yet stop the countdown before zero hour on July 25.

Things are different on the Palestinian side. There the chief item shaping the political agenda isn’t the Israeli withdrawal, but the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, slated for July 17. They see the disengagement as an important event but secondary to the upcoming domestic face-off. All of their energies are being poured into campaigning, and so far no attempt has been made to seriously prepare for Israel’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip, and even less to tackling the issue of what will be done with the vacated lands.

Sources in the top echelon of the Palestinian leadership have in recent days offered two alternative scenarios to that which Sharon is spinning in the Israeli media.

In the first script, oddly enough, activists of the Fatah realise that they are about to sustain a defeat at the hands of the Islamists at the polls, and so try to cancel the elections, or at least have them postponed. There’s no need for all of the many factions inside Fatah to come to this conclusion; it is enough for just a few groups to decide to refrain from political suicide by means of the democratic process.

And then, my sources explained, they’ll start shooting - but not, perish the thought, at their rivals in Hamas, because fitna, or civil war, is the last thing they want. No, Israelis would be their targets, as they breach the cease-fire and perhaps even declare the outbreak of Intifada 3. If such warnings were not being sounded by serious and usually reliable people, we wouldn’t even be bothering to repeat them here. But this is now a major part of the discourse among certain groups within Fatah, and certainly among the various armed groups that make up the al-Aqsa Brigades.

These people mockingly refer to PA Head Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as the "Palestinian Shadhli Ben Jedid," a reference to the unlucky Algerian president who called the elections that ended up in a landslide victory for the fundamentalist Islamic FIS, the equivalent of Hamas in the territories. There are those in Fatah who accuse Abu Mazen of applying a policy of appeasement toward Hamas, holding the doors of government open for them both by co-opting them to the institutions of the PLO and by changing the election law in a way that guarantees their success.

A renewed outbreak of violence sometime in June, initiated by the Fatah, is being considered, at least on the Palestinian side, as a reasonable development that must be seriously taken into account.

This is just as true of the second, opposite scenario sketched by senior Palestinian politicians: If the Hamas leadership reaches the conclusion that the gains promised the movement by Abu Mazen and the Egyptians in the "Cairo Agreement" are not actually materialising, it will see itself as released from its undertaking to maintain the current quiet. The heads of Hamas explained in advance that there is a direct link between the fulfillment of the promise that they be given a share of the political power in the Palestinian Authority and their own observance of the cease-fire. This is precisely the reason why Hamas leader Khaled Mashal has refused to sign a cease-fire in the full sense of the word.

Hamas will punish Abu Mazen if he fails to push through the amended elections law (in which half the legislators are chosen nationally, by a proportional vote, and half representing districts) or if he postpones the voting. The penalty will take the form of a renewal of terror against Israel - the firing of Qassam rockets and other attacks, which are now being diligently prepared.

According to both of these alternative scenarios, the disengagement will be carried out under the shadow of hostilities, even if a reasonable level of calm is maintained around the Katif Bloc and the other settlements slated for evacuation. What is more, the disengagement will take place although it is clear that Abu Mazen is not succeeding in forcing his policies on the armed groups.

It’s not only the morning after the disengagement that will look very different from what Sharon is promising, but the day before may also be very different from what is being contemplated.

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