Unilateralism, which is inspired from the Hebrew saying, ayn breira, "no choice but to take matters into one's own hands," is a most controversial policy. It was the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip that raised perplexing questions regarding the Israeli unilateral approach, most notably: will the policy of unilateralism offer a rare opportunity for peace in the area, or is it a deliberate attempt by the Israelis to obstruct any future progress towards an acceptable solution? Will it bring security to the region or rather anarchy, with growing disintegration within Palestinian society? Will the benefits and opportunities of such an approach outweigh its risks and disadvantages? And, naturally, will unilateralism become the framework for future strategies?
The answers to these questions depend to a large degree on what took place the day after. It has now become generally accepted that the 1993 Oslo process is dead and the Oslo vision of a territorially contiguous Palestinian state is not on the Israeli agenda. In an interview with Haaretz on October 8, 2004, senior advisor to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Dov Weissglas, stated: "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process... Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda." He went on to add: "When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion of the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem...disengagement supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections raised false hopes

Such statements fuel Palestinian resolve to liberate the homeland, egged on by the militant Islamic groups. Rocket attacks and Israeli reprisals continue. It is not only the radical movements such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees who claim that terrorism brought results, but also the hard-liners within Fatah. The contention is that armed struggle paid off, and suicide bombers, missiles, mortar, and Qassam rockets are what eventually forced the Israelis out of the Gaza Strip, ending 38 years of military occupation. The Hamas leadership, in an open challenge to the then-Fateh-led Palestinian Authority (PA), claimed it was their armed struggle that had led Israel to evacuate the settlements, and vowed not to lay down their weapons until the Israeli occupation ended. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fateh, jumped on the bandwagon declaring that "the arms of resistance are legitimate, and that the Gaza withdrawal was achieved through resistance and steadfastness." Pursuing this logic, they argue that what worked for Gaza would work for the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and may eventually work for the rest of Palestine. As a result, violence continues, especially in the Gaza Strip, and it is paralyzing its economy and development, eroding international support, and demoralizing the public.
This situation has invited Israeli reprisals, and the Gaza Strip is presently besieged by Israeli troops making it the world's largest open air prison. This is very easy to implement since Israel still maintains full control over the Strip's border crossings, airspace and sea. For each rocket attack, Israeli forces retaliate by shelling Gaza as a form of collective punishment.
During the decades of occupation, the various Israeli prime ministers have contemplated dropping this "hot potato" called Gaza, and offered it on a silver platter first to Egypt and later to Jordan. Both countries declined through their diplomatic channels. Benny Morris, author of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, and professor of history at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, pointed out that "the embattled settlers may have screamed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was expelling Jews from part of Eretz Yisrael, 'the land of Israel,' but the Gaza Strip was never part of the Jewish state."
A report prepared by Mark Heller and Shalom Harari, entitled The Effects of Disengagement on Palestinian Politics and Society, published by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies of Tel Aviv University, predicted that the disengagement is highly likely to lead to an eruption of terrorism in the West Bank and to exacerbate political, economic and social chaos among the Palestinians. They maintained that it may also provide Hamas with a favorable environment in which to build a larger militia. Their strategic assessment was that Gaza would serve as a training ground for terrorists and a support base for weapon smuggling and local arms production, and will offer a safe haven for wanted terrorists and their senior commanders. The report also predicted that the current Palestinian leadership would ultimately "fail the test" of running their Israel-free Gaza Strip effectively and responsibly, and would squander any international aid they may receive. Heller and Harari proved to be right in their assessment that the disengagement would exacerbate political, economic and social chaos among the Palestinians, basically because it was based on unilateralism.

A Measure of Optimism

Viewed from an optimistic perspective, the unilateral Gaza disengagement can, to a certain measure, be considered successful. The dismantling of the Jewish settlements and military installations may be perceived as a courageous step forward on the road to peace, and a historic turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As such, it constitutes a precedent for further Israeli withdrawals from the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In this context, Israeli unilateralism is viewed as a historic precedent in which the average Israeli crossed the psychological barrier that settlements won't ever be dismantled because, as the settlers argued, "this land is God's gift to the Jewish people," and is "the land of the Fathers," in what is considered Eretz Israel.
Optimists are hoping that Israel would not limit the process to the disengagement from the Gaza Strip but may continue along the path of peace by withdrawing from other parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. When polled, a slim majority of Israelis (52 percent) expressed the view that Israel should unilaterally vacate at least portions of the West Bank conquered in the June 1967 war, and the United States reiterated its policy that the withdrawal should not stop at Gaza.
For its part, the Hamas-led government is expected to reciprocate by moving forward in the peace process. PA President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed Fatah position declaring: "We want peace and security; we want security for the Israelis and peace and independence for the Palestinians." On the last day of the disengagement, he called Sharon to praise him for a "brave and historic decision." He suggested to him the resumption of negotiations assuring him, "We are your partners for peace." Although Sharon agreed to meet with him, that meeting never took place.
Hamas's victory in the legislative elections of January 2006 raised the false hope that it would recognize Israel, reject violence and resume peace negotiations. In the present hostile environment, outstanding conflictual issues between Israelis and Palestinians remain unresolved, such as the Gaza airport and seaport and the linkage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in addition to all the other outstanding permanent-status issues. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from Israel unilateral disengagement.

Lessons Learned

* Unilateralism works. It managed to speed the disengagement process. However, it worked because the PA cooperated to make it work. The expectation that the unilateral withdrawal would be chaotic, messy and would, at the last moment, be called off did not materialize. A decision was made and implemented. Thus, unilateralism works; coordinated unilateralism works better, but negotiated unilateralism works best.
* Unilateralism undermined the position of the moderate Palestinian forces while strengthening the radical militant and religious organizations, such as Hamas who claimed victory for the armed struggle.
* Unilateralism is a policy that only serves short term interests. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was elected on a pledge to unilaterally set new borders for an expanded Israeli state, by annexing large portions of Palestinian territories believing that this would create a de facto situation. However, on the long term, such policies would prove a stumbling bloc in future peace negotiations.
* Unilateralism embodies concessions without reciprocity. Israel left Gaza without getting in return, quid pro quo, any commitment to peace or security from the Palestinians.
* The Gaza unilateral disengagement policy placed the issue of settlements on the negotiating table.
* The power of the religious groups and the settlers in Israel is overrated. In the confrontation between the secular state and the religious state, the secular state won. In the confrontation between the democratic state and the settler state, the democratic state won.
* U.S. leverage on Israel continues to remain high. Sharon held to his position despite strong pressure from his Likud Party largely because President George W. Bush, who was having low approval ratings at home, needed the disengagement to succeed to help boost his image.
* Financial incentives, enticing compensation packages, coupled with acceptable alternatives worked well with Gaza's 8,500 settlers. This sets a useful precedent to follow, not only for most of the settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but also for the Palestinian refugees in Palestine and the diaspora.
* The disengagement represented a painful experience for the Israeli people, yet they realized that this was a necessary step to ensure the security and stability of their country. Sharon defended his decision to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank by saying that it's for the good of Israel, and that Israel would emerge from it a stronger country, since the disengagement plan would shorten Israel's lines of defense on its southern border.
* Unilateralism is a game two can play. The Palestinians may learn from the Israeli unilateralism and move toward taking their own unilateral decision to declare their Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.
* Unilateralism will not achieve a comprehensive sustainable peace. It takes both sides on a winding and potentially treacherous road.

In conclusion, should we then view Israel's unilateralism with optimism or should we approach it with skepticism? In my view, we need to wait and see before we are able to judge definitively. Will what happened in Yamit and Gaza be repeated in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as part of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace settlement? If unilateralism proves that it is a step forward towards the realization of hope for peaceful coexistence and the creation of an independent, sovereign, and democratic Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, then we should regard it with optimism. However, if it turns out to be a denial of the right of the other side to its national aspirations and self-determination, then we should be very wary of such an approach. Only the future can tell.