Hong Kong? Singapore? Don’t hold your breath

Gazans still awaiting world's promises.

boo hoo 311 (photo credit: AP)
boo hoo 311
(photo credit: AP)
Five years after Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians living there are still waiting for the housing projects and factories the international community promised them.
The areas where most of the settlements once stood have yet to be transformed into apartments and working places for thousands of unemployed Palestinians who used to work in the Jewish communities.
Promises that the Gaza Strip would be turned into the Middle East’s Hong Kong or Singapore sound today like a joke to many Palestinians.
These promises were made on the eve of the disengagement by many governments and leaders all around the world, including Israel.
It’s hard today to find one Palestinian who would point to anything positive that has come out of the pullout. In fact, Palestinians across the political spectrum agree that the situation inside the Gaza Strip is not much better than it was before the disengagement.
The Palestinian Authority continues to argue that the unilateral disengagement was one of the reasons why Hamas is in power today. Not that the PA didn’t want Israel to leave the Gaza Strip.
“The idea of an Israeli withdrawal [from the Gaza Strip] was good,” said a PA official in Ramallah.
“But the way it was carried out – unilaterally – was a mistake because it strengthened Hamas.” Indeed, Hamas continues to take credit for “driving” Israel out. Leaders and spokesmen of the Islamist movement insist that the suicide bombing campaign and the Kassam rockets were the main reason behind Israel’s decision to “run away” from Gaza.
Many Palestinians and Arabs seem to share the view that Israel fled because of the suicide and rocket attacks. This is perhaps one of the reasons why a majority of them voted for Hamas a few months later.
The January 2006 parliamentary election which brought Hamas to power was not only about internal reforms and financial corruption, but also about the conflict with Israel. Taking credit for the Israeli pullout, Hamas argued that violence was the only language it understood. The peace talks, Hamas explained to the Palestinians, did not bring them as much as the suicide bombings and rockets have.
“Unilateral disengagement sent a message to Palestinians that if you negotiate with Israel, you don’t get as much as you do as when you kill Jews,” said another PA official. “Ariel Sharon made a huge mistake when he refused to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority or any other party.” The PA official, who served as a close adviser to Mahmoud Abbas at the time, says that many Palestinians are still convinced that Sharon’s real intention was to undermine the PA.
"Sharon did not want the Palestinian Authority to succeed in the Gaza Strip and that’s why he refused to deal with us before the withdrawal,” the official claimed. “Sharon wanted to see Hamas in power so that he could tell the world that the Palestinians are not interested in a state and that their only intention is to destroy Israel.”
ACCORDING TO the PA and various sources in the Gaza Strip, Hamas is today much stronger than it was five years ago. If disengagement was regarded a moral victory for the movement, Israel’s departure from the Philadelphi Corridor along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt has enabled Hamas to smuggle in large amounts of weapons of various types.
Hamas became so strong that in the summer of 2007, exactly three years ago, its militias and gangs managed to kick the PA out of the Gaza Strip. PA and Fatah officials say that were it not for Israel’s hasty and unilateral withdrawal, Hamas would have never been able to build such a huge military force.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s new plan for a further disengagement, where Israel would stop supplying the Gaza Strip with water and electricity, has left both Hamas and the PA wondering about Israel’s true intentions.
The Palestinians’ biggest fear is that “disengagement 2” would solidify the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and make it permanent. They see the new plan as an Israeli attempt to create a separate Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip that would be completely cut off from the West Bank.
“Israel wants to turn the Gaza Strip into a small Palestinian state,” charged Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel. “This is a dangerous plan because it’s also designed to absolve Israel of its responsibilities as an occupation force.”
As far as the PA is concerned, the first disengagement was a disaster because it boosted Hamas’s popularity and paved the way for the movement’s victory in the 2006 election and its subsequent violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.
For Hamas, “disengagement 2” is bad because it would further isolate the Islamist regime. Hamas is worried that a complete disengagement would prompt the international community to stop holding Israel responsible for the miseries of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. It’s as if Hamas is saying, “Please Israel, stay here in one form or another because we need to hold you responsible; otherwise, the people will start asking us difficult questions.”