A Palestinian demonstrator reacts as others take cover from Israeli gunfire and tear gas during a protest marking Land Day and the first anniversary of a surge of border protests, at the Israel-Gaza border fence east of Gaza City March 30, 2019..
(photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
On October 12, 2003, a group of former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, including former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, completed a 50-page comprehensive draft permanent-status agreement for peace and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. That December 1, the Swiss government hosted the formal launching of the “Geneva Initiative” in the Swiss city, with hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian public officials and citizens in attendance, including this author.
These were the darkest, bleakest days of the Second Intifada, and operation “Defensive Shield” aimed at crushing the Palestinian uprising and the Palestinian Authority. This was a period that had witnessed the very bloody end of the Oslo peace process and the hope that one day peace could be a reality.
Ariel Sharon was prime minister, and the bellicose words and actions of Israel’s best-known general were felt with great pain by the Palestinians throughout the territories. Israelis were living in fear during this period of the most horrific acts of terrorism, led by suicide murderers who were blowing themselves up and killing hundreds in buses, cafes and shopping malls across the country. Every Saturday evening during this period, a very small group gathered in Paris Square near the prime minister’s house, calling to keep the hope of peace alive. I was one of those at the square. It was a very depressive time.
In the months prior to October 2003, I heard from my friend, the late Ron Pundak – who led the Geneva Initiative – that great progress had been made and that soon, a full agreement would be reached. As non-officials who no longer held positions of responsibility, these brave people, who were all previously official negotiators, wanted to demonstrate that a partner for peace existed on both sides of the conflict and that there were solutions to every single issue in conflict – including borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees.
As the details of the draft agreement became known around the world and in Israel and Palestine, statements of support came pouring in. In November 2003, US secretary of state Colin Powell responded to the Geneva Initiative: “The US remains committed to the President’s two-state vision and to the road map, but we also believe that projects such as yours are important in helping to sustain an atmosphere of hope, in which Israelis and Palestinians can discuss mutually acceptable resolutions to the difficult issues that confront them.”
In December, president Bush said: “[The Geneva Accord] is productive, so long as they adhere to the principles [to] fight off terror; that there must be security; and there must be the emergence of a Palestinian state that is democratic and free.” While international and local support for the Geneva Initiative was increasing, prime minister Sharon’s opposition to the accord became more resolved, understanding that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on Geneva would mean a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Sharon had to stop the support behind the initiative.
On December 18, Sharon dropped the bombshell at the annual Herzliya Conference. Completely unexpected and out of character, Sharon – who just a year before had compared Netzarim, a small Israeli settlement in Gaza, to Tel Aviv – suddenly announced that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip, removing every Israeli citizen from there, including some 9,000 settlers and IDF personnel. Suddenly, the entire world was caught up in the new Israeli initiative to disengage from Gaza. Geneva was now forgotten.
The international community, led by US president Bush, took the disengagement very seriously. Together with the other three Quartet partners (the UN, EU and Russia), the US created a Disengagement Authority and brought in former World Bank president James Wolfensohn to head it. The primary basis for the international community’s engagement in the disengagement was that through coordination and cooperation between Israel and the PA, the successful transference of Gaza from Israel to the Palestinians would lead to similar developments in the West Bank. But this is not at all what Sharon had in mind.
Sharon refused to coordinate and cooperate with the Palestinian disengagement coordinating mechanism headed by Mohammed Dahlan, with more than 12 committees formed for that purpose. Sharon made it very clear that he was not going to cooperate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or Dahlan, and stated that Abbas is not a partner. In fact, he said, “He is a chick with no feathers.” Sharon’s plan was coherent and fully developed, even if it remained outside of public knowledge – locally or internationally.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Israel demolished all of the settlements, not leaving anything that could have been used, for example, to resettle Palestinian refugees. Israel shut the gate out of Gaza and sealed it hermetically. Prior to the disengagement, Israel shut down the Erez Industrial Zone on the Israeli side of the border and also essentially stopped the work that was being developing in the Karni industrial zone – on the Gaza side of the border.
With the closure of Gaza, the coastal enclave’s economy came to a standstill. Gush Katif’s recently-transferred 4,000 square meters of hothouses went bankrupt quickly as their produce aimed for the Israeli market was left to rot on the border. Israel froze the transfer of taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The PA’s ability to govern Gaza was severely compromised.
Sharon suffered from a stroke on January 4, 2006. Then 24 days later, Hamas won the PA parliamentary elections. Sharon would not have been surprised, as was most of the world. Hamas was credited with ousting Israel, and Abbas was punished for negotiating with Israel without achievements. The following year, Hamas kicked the PA out of Gaza in a bloody coup d’état. The Gaza disengagement would now become the first step toward Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. The Gaza disengagement was perceived as a dramatic failure from the point of view of Israel.
Now we are witnessing the final stages of the implementation of the plan devised by Sharon, and likely to be completed if Netanyahu wins the elections on April 9. Gaza will be recognized as a Palestinian state and Hamas will be transformed from a terror organization into a state with a no-war, no-peace relationship with Israel. Hamas will gain international recognition, and any possible international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank or east Jerusalem will be removed.
Netanyahu and his right-wing government will begin their plan for the annexation of the West Bank. Sooner, not later, Israeli control and annexation over the West Bank will become officially a new form of apartheid – a state with two separate legal structures: one for citizens and one for several million non-citizens. These steps will mark the beginning of the next stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will not end, and the Palestinian demand for full equality will be formally launched as the two-state solution is abandoned – either seen as already implemented with Gaza being the Palestinian state, or seen as irrelevant with the occupation and Israeli control continuing over the West Bank and east Jerusalem – and Gaza still under almost full Israeli control and domination.
The author is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine was published by Vanderbilt University Press.