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Planning considerations for international involvement in an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory

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Amjad Atallah, Jarat Chopra, Yaser M. Dajani, Orit Gal, Joel Peters and Mark Walsh

On 6-7 May 2004 - in the wake of Likud's rejection of Sharon's disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank - a group of Israelis, Palestinians and international officials and experts convened to address operational aspects of third party involvement in a withdrawal process. Chaired by Jarat Chopra and Mark Walsh, the meeting was hosted in Noordwijk aan Zee by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sponsored by the Programme for Security in International Society at the University of Cambridge Centre of International Studies and organized with Strategic Assessments Initiative. The aim of the discussions was to consider what can and cannot work from a functional perspective, within the context of social and political realities. The meeting explored a range of issues affecting the design of any third party role during the period of an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. The participants combined local and regional expertise, direct knowledge of the parties' positions and experience in complex peace operations, with humanitarian, military and transitional political elements. This mixture of individuals allowed the synthesis of area-specific information and lessons of multi-dimensional missions to produce comprehensive planning considerations. The following report is a reflection of the issues discussed, and incorporates many of the ideas contributed by the participants. The content is the responsibility of the authors alone.

The results of this meeting extend the work of earlier "Planning Considerations" reports that are available on-line at the U.S. Army War College website ( These initial documents gleaned some principles for intervening effectively and sustainably in the Israeli-Palestinian context, and they were circulated widely in international planning circles, amongst the parties and their respective communities, as well as to a diverse range of experts and interested observers. The report below identifies current strategic aspects of an Israeli withdrawal; describes the operating environment for a third party; outlines the potential nature of international involvement in the border regime, in Palestinian governance and in the transfer of assets in the Gaza Strip; and concludes with general planning factors and considerations.

The conclusion reached by the authors is that third party involvement is critical and inevitably required if the withdrawal is to serve the interests of all sides involved.

I. Strategic Aspects of Withdrawal

Current Context: On 18 December 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his government's intention to "unilaterally disengage" - ultimately from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank by the end of 2005. On 14 April 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush endorsed Sharon's plan after months of discussions. Bush also endorsed Israeli interpretations of two permanent status issues - the return of refugees and the borders of a future Palestinian state. In addition, Bush reversed U.S. policy on Israel's "separation barrier," supporting its continued construction through the West Bank instead of on the Green Line.

The Unilateral Disengagement Plan: Sharon's original, publicly-issued plan states that "Israel will evacuate the Gaza Strip, including all the Israeli settlements currently existing there, and will redeploy outside the territory of the Strip." The plan further expresses Israel's intention to evacuate four settlements and permanent military installations in the northern part of the West Bank. The expectation is to create "territorial contiguity" in the northern West Bank as well as "transportation contiguity" throughout the West Bank. The plan affirms that the disengagement will not detract from "existing agreements" and notes that "existing arrangements" will continue to prevail. However, according to the plan, upon conclusion of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, "there will be no basis for the claim that the Gaza Strip is occupied territory."

"Unilateral Disengagement": Israel claims that this plan will be implemented unilaterally because "there is no Palestinian partner with whom it is possible to make progress on a bilateral agreement." Nevertheless, disengagement principles call for existing arrangements to be maintained, therefore acknowledging that the intimate level of interdependency between Palestinians and Israelis will continue. There are relationships between Palestinian actors and Israeli armed forces, Israeli firms and service providers, and the Israeli government. Such interactions entail a certain amount of coordination and a number of understandings that, without bilateral negotiations, will need to be facilitated through other means.

Responses to Unilateral Disengagement

International Response: Subsequently, on 4 May 2004, Quartet members (the United Nations, the European Union, the Russian Federation, and the United States) endorsed Sharon's plan for withdrawal from Gaza as a positive step towards fulfilling some of the requirements of last year's Road Map - accepted at the time by both the Israeli government (with 14 reservations) and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Quartet announced that it would "act on an urgent basis, in conjunction with the World Bank, UNSCO [United Nations Special Coordinator's Office for the Middle East Peace Process] and the AHLC [Ad Hoc Liaison Committee], on the basis of a World Bank/UNSCO rapid-assessment study, to ensure Palestinian humanitarian needs are met, Palestinian infrastructure is restored and developed, and economic activity is reinvigorated."

Palestinian Response: The Palestinian Authority responded with dismay to both Israel's announcement of the plan and U.S. support for it. The PA continues to argue that any withdrawal should occur within the context of bilateral negotiations. It also asserts that it will only be able to guarantee the internal security of areas vacated by Israel if withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is complete, if it is a negotiated process, and if President Yasser Arafat is allowed full freedom of movement.

Hamas, the Islamist-nationalist opposition movement, has declared that it will cease all military operations against Israelis upon a full withdrawal from Gaza. However, it has warned that it will continue to launch attacks against Israelis from the West Bank. Various Fatah cells and loosely affiliated organizations have similarly expressed their willingness to halt all operations in and from the Gaza Strip under comparable conditions.

Israeli Response: On 2 May 2004, Sharon submitted the unilateral disengagement plan to a referendum of Likud Party members. Following an intense lobbying and public campaign by the settler movement, the plan was rejected. Thereafter, Sharon asserted that he would persist in preparing for a unilateral disengagement and that he would present a revised plan to the Israeli cabinet for approval. Polls would seem to indicate that the plan still has support among a majority of the Israeli public, as well as among a majority of Likud voters. The leading Likud coalition partner, Shinui, has announced that it continues to support the plan and expects it to be brought before the government, approved and implemented. The Labor Party has affirmed that it would vote in favour of the withdrawal plan if presented to the Knesset.

Needs and Concerns of Disengagement

Israeli Needs and Concerns: Israel's main objectives of disengagement are to minimize the friction points between Israelis and Palestinians, and to redeploy along more easily managed security lines. In the medium and long terms, Israel hopes such a move will help decrease Palestinian public support for extremist militants, and promote what it perceives as a responsible partner for bilateral peace negotiations. Following disengagement, Israel's principal concern remains the security dimension (i.e., preventing terrorist activities, the reconstitution of terrorist infrastructure or rocket firing into Israel). Chaos, it is feared, will strengthen extremist movements. Consequently, Israel has a vested interest in social, political and economic stabilization and further development in the Gaza Strip. In terms of international involvement in reconstruction and rehabilitation, Israel prefers a U.S.-led effort.

Israel also wants to use its disengagement and removal of settlements to improve its international stature. However, the relocation of settlers entails internal political risks of a public perception of defeat, which will be magnified if evacuated settlement homes are taken over or destroyed by Palestinian militants. Such events are expected to adversely affect Israeli public support for later withdrawals in the West Bank. Therefore, Israel has an interest in the orderly transfer of all evacuated assets to parties that could better aid the cause of peace.

Palestinian Needs and Concerns: The primary interest of Palestinians is an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent state. They fear that Israel will evacuate only from the Gaza Strip and consolidate its hold on the West Bank - a concern amplified by Bush's statements regarding the borders and the "separation barrier." Palestinians need to utilize the withdrawal as a step towards permanent status negotiations and resolution of the conflict.

Other Palestinian concerns vary according to specific actors. The Palestinian Authority has become the de facto negotiating partner with Israel and the United States, despite lacking a popular mandate. It fears becoming irrelevant to Palestinians if it is unable to fulfil its promise of negotiating an end to occupation. Hamas wants to translate the withdrawal of Israeli forces into a political victory for itself and to play a future role in governing Gaza, without compromising its final status views. A number of Palestinians are seeking that any governing body created in the Gaza Strip respond to demands for democracy and good governance.

Palestinian concerns also include an increasing distrust of United States goals and practices, which might affect the acceptability of specific compositions of third party forces.

International Needs and Concerns: International interests vested in the Israeli- Palestinian peace process arise from both the levels of national governments and international bureaucracy. From a national leadership perspective, increased third party involvement towards resolving the conflict, if successful, could provide significant political rewards domestically and internationally. However, such involvement also entails great personal political risks that might be alleviated by some guarantees from Palestinians and Israelis. Moreover, resources of a number of nations are already overstretched in other conflict areas, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation may not rank as the highest priority for on-the-ground deployment.

At the bureaucratic level, the international community has created a number of institutions, organizations, and relationships with the Palestinian Authority and Israel linked to the peace process. These include, but are not limited to: the AHLC, composed of capital level decision makers from key donors; the Local Aid Coordination Committee (LACC), with the participation of all donors active on the ground; the Task Force on Project Implementation, that facilitates, amongst other needs, access for assistance; the Humanitarian and Emergency Policy Group, which monitors the humanitarian crisis and proposes policy approaches; the Task Force on Palestinian Reform, engaged in promoting institutional reform efforts; programs of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, UNSCO, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); activities of the United Nations Development Programme and World Food Programme; responsibilities of the International Committee of the Red Cross; plus international non-governmental organizations and projects directly funded by various countries. Given institutional inertia, this bureaucratic landscape would be difficult to change or dissolve in the event of new circumstances.

In some respects, the organizational infrastructure necessary for third party involvement is already in place, including more than one thousand international personnel active in-theatre. However, this system has largely aimed to assist the PA administer limited areas and it is unclear, and perhaps unlikely, that it alone could provide an umbrella for the qualitative leap in the nature of international action, and conflict management and resolution, required in a withdrawal.

Disengagement as an Opportunity

Expectations and Fears: Palestinians and Israelis acknowledge that the unilateral disengagement plan reflects the failure of both parties' political establishments to successfully negotiate an agreement to end the conflict. Nevertheless, a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and areas of the northern West Bank offers an opportunity for altering the ground situation and initiating new and constructive dynamics.

From an Israeli perspective, the first significant removal of Israeli settlements from Palestinian territory is of great symbolic importance. Its political ramifications are enhanced by the fact that evacuation is proposed by a right wing-led government.

For Palestinians, there is hope for and trepidation over the prospective withdrawal. A clear majority of Palestinians, especially in areas they expect Israel to relinquish, look forward to the removal of settlements and military personnel. However, there is great fear of the political consequences and the danger of fatally fracturing the Palestinian national aspiration for independent statehood.

While the plan itself is unilateral, all parties affected (both local and international) bear the burden of maximizing its potential and applying it as a trust-building measure capable of channelling both Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace process. The international community can play a positive role in helping to manage and shape the expectations of both sides in this regard, ensuring the realization of potential benefits.

Third Party Involvement: Israeli insistence on a unilateral approach leaves many issues of interdependency to be resolved, if disengagement is to promote peace, security, and freedom for all concerned. Lacking direct bilateral arrangements, a need arises for a third party to facilitate common understandings and assume some specific tasks on the ground which could serve the converging interests of both Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, the disengagement plan publicly affirms - for the first time since the establishment in 1994 of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron - Israel's willingness to consider a third party role in various capacities. The plan states "Israel agrees that, in coordination with it, advice, aid and instruction will be given to Palestinian security forces for the purpose of fighting terror and maintaining public order by American, British, Egyptian, Jordanian or other experts, as will be agreed upon by Israel." The plan also refers to the possibility of a foreign security presence, to be coordinated with and agreed on by Israel. It also calls for "the presence of an international body that will accept proprietorship" of the real estate assets of the settlements.

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