Gaza Disengagement: The Practical Dimensions and Implications of Potential Settlement Evacuation
As sure as such things can be in an uncertain political environment, the Gaza disengagement is going ahead - perhaps even sooner than later. The recent election of the new Palestinian leadership seems to have paved the way for the implementation of a partial political solution. With Yasser Arafat's passing the "no partner" excuse has been put to rest, while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent meeting with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) at Sharm el-Sheikh has raised the possibility of increased bilateralism in the run up to the Gaza withdrawal itself. Sharon has a clear interest in moving ahead with the speedy implementation of the plan, both in terms of his domestic constituency and the recently established Likud-Labor coalition government, and the expectations of the Bush administration following the Palestinian elections.

There have been blips along the way. The No vote in the Likud Party's central committee was spearheaded not so much by the traditional Likud Party faithful as by the settler movement and its supporters. Spurred on by what they considered a threat against their homes and families, it was the settlers, and their immediate supporters and allies within the Likud Party, who undertook the No-vote campaign in the days leading up to the party referendum. Their grassroots activism among party members, their enthusiasm for their cause - an enthusiasm that is not matched by the pro-peace left-wing movements or by the hard core Likud establishment members - was the key factor that won the day and defeated the prime minister. However, their fanaticism, their attempt to infiltrate the party, their public calls for soldiers to refuse to obey the evacuation orders, and their equation of the evacuation with the deportation of Jews by the Nazi regime has brought the ruling party to its senses as it begins to comprehend the essential threat to the democratic process that is represented by these extreme and vociferous elements.

The disengagement plan proposed by the Sharon government has, for the first time in 30 years, made the specter of settlement evacuation a real possibility, beyond the removal of a few huts on isolated hilltops in the West Bank, constructed during the past few years and then removed as part of a media campaign aimed at showing the world that action is being taken. If implemented, the disengagement plan would necessitate the evacuation of real settlements, whole communities, including families, some of whom have been living in the Gaza Strip, have built their houses and brought up children and even grandchildren, over a period of three decades.

It is easy to reiterate the slogan that, for a peace agreement to be implemented, settlements must be removed and evacuated. It is much more difficult to actually implement it on the ground. The expected opposition to the first evacuations is likely to be a rallying point for the right wing throughout Israel, drawing on tens of thousands of supporters who will attempt to prevent the evacuation. We are likely to witness intense activity and lobbying on the part of the settler activists to prevent evacuation. Based on the evidence of the past 20 years, Sharon's promise that there will not be any Jews residing in the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005 seems impractical at this stage, unless the political constellation undergoes significant change.

Practical Evacuation Questions

Beyond the political polemics, there are a series of practical questions concerning settlement evacuation that have not been adequately addressed by the policy-makers. How will settlement evacuation take place? Will it be imposed by the Israeli government via the agency of the army, or will it be carried out as a cooperative project with the settlers themselves if, and when, they finally realize there is no alternative? What sort of opposition can be expected and will it reach the levels of physical violence that many commentators fear? What will happen to the houses left behind? Will they be destroyed or will they be left for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to use for its own population? And will there be plans for settlement relocation for the evacuated settlers in new communities in the Negev, or will they simply receive compensation and return to their previous places of residence, mostly in the center of the country? This paper attempts to address some of these questions from a practical and planning perspective, in contrast to the political polemics that have accompanied the public discourse surrounding settlement evacuation.

Planning for Settlement Evacuation

Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza have been established and supported by all Israeli governments since 1967, and it is the responsibility of the Israeli government to oversee the orderly and safe evacuation of the settler population. While the right-wing governments actively promoted settlement activity as part of their attempt to retain control over the West Bank, the left-wing governments (including those of Rabin and Barak) enabled the expansion and consolidation of existing settlements, and even saw the settlements as territorial pawns that should remain until the final stages of negotiations so that they could be bartered for concessions from the Palestinians. While this may be in direct contrast with the public position of the Labor Party on the issue of settlements - that they are an obstacle to peace and must be removed - Labor is equally responsible, no less than any right-wing government, for dealing with the issue of orderly settlement evacuation. The option of simply leaving and announcing ahead of time that all settlers must go by a certain date is not an acceptable option to the vast majority of the Israeli public.

The options for settlement evacuation are varied but must include some, or all, of the following factors:

1. Sufficient lead time between the details of the final agreement and the eventual evacuation for settlers who are prepared to go peacefully to arrange their own affairs. Sharon has made it clear that the process of evacuation will be carried out over a period of 18 months with full dialogue and coordination between the government and the settlers as far as possible. While much of the Israeli public has been cynical about the eventuality of settlement evacuation, particularly after the cabinet decision that took the issue off the agenda until March 2005, the government nevertheless announced that it was preparing all the necessary relocation and financial plans for that date, enabling the process to be undertaken in an orderly fashion. Compensation packages are in place, and these packages have become even more generous in order to persuade more settlers to leave of their own accord prior to the evacuation -anything to avoid, or limit, the degree of civil strife that is expected to take place.

2. Israeli government planning for alternative residential solutions inside Israel through the construction of new settlements or new neighborhoods in existing towns, to absorb the evacuees in permanent housing conditions. One option for the Gaza settlements is to construct new communities in close proximity to the Gaza Strip or in other parts of the Negev region, similar to the construction of the Shalom Salient settlements following the evacuation of the Yamit region in the early 1980s. In the lead up to the disengagement vote, heads of local government authorities and development towns in the Negev region proposed the relocation of settler communities as complete neighborhoods to their towns, thus injecting a new, challenge-oriented population group to communities that are presently experiencing socioeconomic and developmental problems. Following the cabinet approval of the disengagement plan, the government announced its intention of immediately preparing blueprints and plans for settlement relocation, including the financing of infrastructure and the freeing up of lands, so that the alternative residential proposals would be in place by March 2005.

3. The establishment of a public agency to deal with the wide range of relocation problems, especially those relating to housing, education and employment for the many settlers who work in the public and municipal networks in the West Bank and Gaza, enabling the efficient administration of these settlements. This is more relevant for the residents of the Katif region in the Gaza Strip, where the majority of the settlers are employed within the settlement network itself, than for the settlers of the South Hebron region, where the majority of settlers commute to Be'er Sheva and other places of employment in the northern Negev. As with all settlement relocation projects, the actual construction of houses and other physical infrastructure is a relatively easy problem compared with the creation of adequate employment opportunities that will induce an evacuated population to move to a new region and stay there in the long term. The experience of mass immigration absorption in the Negev during the early 1990s demonstrated just what a difficult problem this is.

4. The establishment of consultant and psychological services for those settlers who are traumatically affected by their forced evacuation, especially those who perceive such evacuation as being the shattering of their political and religious aspirations. The need for this became all the more apparent in the wake of the evacuation of the settlements in northern Sinai which took place as part of the implementation of the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt in the early 1980s. During the period leading up to the disengagement vote, many of the Gush Katif settlers, who had relocated to the area following their evacuation from the Yamit region 20 years earlier, played a major role in trying to persuade the Likud Party members to vote against the agreement, reliving the pain and anguish of the settlement evacuation they had already experienced.

5. Adequate financial compensation for settler families to help them get a new life in order. Unlike the Sinai experience, this should be worked out in advance and not be subjected to a long period of negotiation between settler leaders and government officials. In the Sinai case, this only served to cheapen the process in the public eye and it made the settlers out as a group of economic opportunists who were prepared to eventually sacrifice all their political beliefs for the sake of an inflated compensation package. There is a catch-22 situation here. On the one hand, the settlers wish to protect their future and to receive adequate compensation to start a new life; on the other, the formal rejection of the disengagement agreement means the settlers cannot enter into any form of official negotiations with government officials concerning the terms of their evacuation. The social pressure on individual settlers to demonstrate rejectionist solidarity was enhanced by the public declaration of the settlement community's religious leaders (rabbis) that such an act would be contrary to their religious teachings, and would be a betrayal of the religious-political cause of settling the Land of Israel. Residents of the Gaza settlements have been asked to sign a document stating they will not enter into any negotiations concerning financial compensation.

6. As far as possible, settler leaders and activists should be involved, either publicly or privately, in the detailed stages of planned evacuation, especially in cases where relocation will be to new settlements that will be constructed for them inside Israel. While many of the settler leaders will refuse to undertake what they see as an act of "collaboration," it is reasonable to assume that, once the reality sinks in, there will be second-level leaders and activists who will be prepared to become involved (even with the secret blessing of the political leaders, and as far away from the eye of the media as possible) so as to ensure the least-possible long-term disruption to the normal life pattern of the average family. The presence of some settler activists and leaders at private, off-the-record, track II discussions would indicate that this possibility has been taken into account. Statements on the extreme right-wing Kahane websites to the effect that settlers are "allowed" to physically resist the efforts of soldiers sent to evacuate them, goes against the grain of the wider settler population which wishes to disassociate from what it sees as its more radical and violent elements.

7. As much settlement relocation as possible should occur during the summer months when children are on vacation, so that they can be in place for the start of the new school year, and so that no school will be disrupted by sudden closure or a gradual loss of students over an extended time period. Depending on whether Gaza communities decide to be relocated in toto or are absorbed within existing towns and communities, it is preferable for school-age children to be absorbed within existing institutions rather than to create entirely new institutions where the common history of evacuation will remain a painful theme for a disaffected population.

8. No settlements should be destroyed or razed as happened in Sinai, especially in the Yamit region. As of the time of writing, the government has decided that all settlements will be physically destroyed. This is partially due to the settlers' request - they do not want to see Palestinians living in their houses or using their synagogues. The Palestinians, too, are divided on this issue: some see the maintenance of the settlement infrastructure as constituting the ultimate victory over colonialism, as well as a partial means of providing housing solutions to Palestinians. Others, however, see the retention of the settlements as an act that will ensure luxury housing for the elite while the masses remain in the refugee camps, thus enhancing the political frustrations on the part of much of the population.

The settlements can either be sold or handed over to the Palestinian Authority/state and can serve as potential housing solutions for some of the refugee population. It will be for the Palestinian state to decide whether, for political and emotional reasons, to destroy these settlements because they remind them of the occupation era. Outside powers (especially the United States) should bring pressure to bear on the Palestinian side that this not happen, if only because of the short-term economic implications of erasing a potential housing stock that can serve an important objective in the resettling of Palestinian refugees. In the lead up to the disengagement vote, it was suggested that the settlements be handed over to third-party forces who, in turn, would hand them over to the PA. But at the end of the day, there is nothing to prevent the public scenes of Palestinians entering the former houses of the Katif settlers with the accompanying jubilation of the perceived victor. This will be painful for the Israeli public, particularly for the settler families. But given the nature of contemporary media, nothing can be done to prevent these scenes from taking place and being broadcast around the world.

The challenges facing the committed settler population need to be emphasized so that they do not feel completely isolated from the rest of the Israeli population. The State of Israel will face many new challenges in a post-conflict era - in the fields of education, welfare and health policies, and in developing the country's peripheral regions, especially the Negev, in south of the country - and the settler population is ideally suited to meet them due to their ideological fervor and commitment to the state, for the benefit of the entire Israeli society. Groups of young committed religious students, those who normally act as the political vanguard for the right wing in demonstrations and the construction of new settlement outposts, have a role to play in doing precisely the opposite, namely assisting families in their move and bridging the gaps between different sectors of society that are in favor of, or opposed to, settlement activity.

Can Gaza be a Precedent?

Should disengagement take place, it would constitute an important precedent for any future settlement evacuation in parts of the West Bank. Currently, there is stronger support among the Israeli public for a withdrawal from Gaza than from the West Bank, given the demographic disparities between Israelis and Palestinians in the region, and the fact that few Israelis believe holding on to the Gaza Strip enhances the country's security profile. Should settlements successfully be evacuated from this region, there is a chance that those segments of the Israeli public that support a Gaza withdrawal but are not clear about their position with respect to the West Bank could shift their attitudes in favor of further withdrawals. It is to be expected that a real disengagement from Gaza will change the terms of the public discourse within Israel; as such, predictions today - prior to any disengagement or settlement evacuation actually taking place - concerning the future of the rest of the Occupied Territories are futile. Success can be measured in two main areas: a significant decrease in the amount of violence against the Israeli population, and a relative ease of settlement evacuation. For the Israeli on the street to be convinced that the withdrawal from Gaza could be repeated throughout the West Bank, he/she would expect suicide bombings to cease or, at the very least, undergo a significant reduction. Equally, an excessive use of violence on the part of Gaza settlers against the troops sent to evacuate them could turn large sectors of the Israeli public against them - with little differentiation being made between Gaza and West Bank settlers, not least as it is assumed that the latter will come to Gaza to support their fellow settlers if, and when, the first evacuations are implemented. However scenes of successful relocations of families and communities could convince these same sectors that, however bitter a pill to swallow, relocation and evacuation is achievable in the long term, including in those areas of the West Bank that have until now been perceived as irreversible.