Editor’s Notes: Overtures to the deaf

By David Horovitz April 15, 2005

Months of efforts by Israeli officials to foster concrete elements of a partnership with the PA have led absolutely nowhere

At the turn of the year, as Mahmoud Abbas was securing election to the chairmanship of the Palestinian Authority, there was considerable optimism in government circles that this would facilitate greater coordination between Israel and the PA on the disengagement from Gaza, with a unilateral departure instead becoming a partnership.

Lately, there has been rather less such talk of cooperation. Indeed, it was striking that the notion of a coordinated pullout was nowhere on the agenda of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s talks with the Bush Administration this week.

The reason for that shift is simple and bleak: months of efforts by Israeli officials to foster concrete elements of a partnership with the PA have, they say, led absolutely nowhere. In fact, behind the scenes in the US this week, Sharon’s entourage detailed a whole list of proposals for cooperation, floated in recent weeks with the PA, that have either been rebuffed or ignored.

A list of these proposals reached me a few days ago, and makes for depressing reading. No fewer than eight highly specific ‘economic overtures’ have been made to the PA. All have been either ignored or rejected, as follows:

*Israel has offered to build a rail link between the West Bank and Gaza, enabling the uninterrupted flow of people and goods between the two areas. The PA has yet to respond to the idea.

*Israel has offered to build a rail link from Erez to Ashdod, enabling quick and efficient transfer of Gaza export items to the port of Ashdod for exports to Europe and elsewhere. The PA has yet to respond to the idea.

*Israel has offered to coordinate the running of the Erez crossing with the PA in order to facilitate the passage of Palestinians and their merchandise from Gaza to Israel. The PA has yet to respond to the idea.

*Israel has offered to discuss with the PA the resumption of the operation of the Erez industrial park, which, prior to the intifada, provided jobs to thousands of Gaza Palestinians and a livelihood to tens of thousands of their family members. The PA has yet to respond to the idea.

*Israel has offered to discuss the completion and operation of the Gaza seaport – admittedly a project of little economic benefit to the Palestinians given the minimal distance from Gaza to the very modern Port of Ashdod, but one of great symbolic importance to the Palestinians. The PA has yet to respond to the idea.

*Israel has offered to discuss with the PA the admission to Israel on a daily basis of tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from Gaza and the West Bank after the completion of the disengagement. The PA has yet to respond to the idea.

*Israel has offered to discuss with the PA the construction of new roads for the use of the Palestinians in the West Bank, where the road infrastructure is antiquated and woefully inadequate. Although Israel has made clear that it would allow the PA to designate the locations and routes of the new roads, the PA has described Israel’s offer as a scheme for consolidating its hold over the West Bank and has refused to discuss it.

*Israel has offered to coordinate with the PA the economic aspects of the disengagement. Such coordination would ensure that the Palestinians would get the hothouses and other agricultural and industrial assets left behind by the Gaza settlers intact and ready to operate, to the great benefit of the Palestinian economy. The PA has thus far refused to discuss such coordination, thereby endangering the integrity of those assets after the Israeli withdrawal.

Why the refusal to cooperate? The Israeli assessment, as communicated by Sharon’s people to Washington, is that the PA is deliberately eschewing the overtures because it accurately recognizes that Israel is pulling out anyway and feels it has little to gain in overtly facilitating a calm departure.

The wider Israeli assessment is more depressing still, running as follows: While Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have determined that their interests are not served by concertedly attacking Israelis in the pre- disengagement period, to avoid delaying the pullout, no such constraints will apply once the troops and settlers have gone. The current relative lull, therefore, is unlikely to extend beyond the Israeli pullout.

On the Palestinian side, chaos rather than hostility is advanced as the root cause of the failure to respond to the various Israeli initiatives. Where Israel sees rejection and antipathy, Palestinian sources say, the reality is one of near-anarchy and weakness – Abbas’s.

However well-intentioned, Abbas is preoccupied with mere survival, conscious of public dissatisfaction over the absence of reforms, worried by Hamas’s potential to threaten Fatah at the ballot box, and battling against his Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei’s relentless efforts to undermine him. Far from a strategy of refusal to cooperate, the sources say, there is no clear strategy whatsoever over how to interact with Israel over disengagement or, for that matter, over how to deal with the post-disengagement reality.

ONE ISSUE on which the PA is prepared to respond, however, is over whether Israeli Jews might be able to stay on in Gaza after the government formally pulls out. And the answer is a ‘yes, but’ that amounts to a ‘no.’

Avi Farhan, who calls himself a three-time refugee (from Libya; from Yamit; and now, if all else fails, from Elei Sinai, the settlement he founded in northern Gaza), is begging to be allowed to remain with as many fellow Jewish residents as feel the same attachment, even at the price of relinquishing Israeli and taking Palestinian citizenship if necessary.

At first, Saeb Erekat, the onetime chief PA negotiator, seems open to the idea – ‘if they want to take Palestinian citizenship and be like Palestinians,’ he says magnanimously.

Then he elaborates. By ‘being like Palestinians,’ it transpires, he means not only ‘having respect for our sovereignty and legal system, using the same roads at the rest of us,’ and so on, but also ‘not living in 600-square- meter homes when the Palestinians have an average of six square meters.

‘Look, David,’ he goes on, in those chummily earnest tones we’ve come to know from his countless CNN interviews, ‘Jews, Muslims and Christians should be able to live wherever. But I think, in Gaza, the whole idea is not going to work. It shows a lack of consideration. You should have your state and we should have ours.’

Farhan is unimpressed. Years ago, he says, he sat on the Elei Sinai beachfront with Muhammad Dahlan and suggested that Gaza’s Jews could be ‘a bridge’ to a better future. ‘I talked to him about a riviera, running from Ashkelon to El-Arish. We have the beautiful seas, the labor, the climate,’ he recalls saying. ‘We just need the goodwill.’

Dahlan, now Abbas’s minister of civil affairs, retorted, says Farhan, to the effect that ‘I’d have to be a Palestinian citizen if I wanted to stay here. I told him, fine, provided I’m allowed to stand for election to the Palestinian parliament – because I have lot of Palestinian friends, and I’d get elected before you.’

The fact is, Farhan goes on, ‘that if we want to live together we have to really do so, on the ground, not via meaningless pieces of paper.’

As for Erekat’s comments, he protests the ‘wild exaggeration’ about the size of settler homes, and suggests that Erekat take a stroll through Gaza City’s Rimal and Sheikh Radwan neighborhoods. ‘He’ll find houses bigger than ours. It’s unfair that same Palestinians live that well compared to the conditions in the Shati and Jebalya refugee camps. So let’s just leave world justice to the communists, who failed.’

Farhan argues that in the same way as Israeli Arabs can live in Israel, Jews should be allowed to stay in Gaza – ‘as equal citizens of Palestine. If someone like Ahmed Tibi can live peacefully in Israel, be an adviser to Yasser Arafat, sit in the Israeli parliament, then why can’t Avi Farhan stay in Gaza, with dual citizenship or even Palestinian citizenship only?’

Because, says the only Israeli government official who would answer that question, off the record, ‘we don’t want to be responsible for a massacre of Jews there.’

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