What to Do with the Gaza Settlements

by Saad Eddin Ibrahim
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Washington DC - If all goes well, the Israelis will soon be disengaging from the Gaza Strip. But what will happen with the settlements they leave behind is still undecided. Initially, the plan was to destroy all of the buildings left behind. But now it is seems more likely that the buildings will not be destroyed. It is essential that we carefully consider all of the available options and do what is most likely to help enlarge the current window of opportunity.

Proponents of destroying the Gaza properties note that these large and luxurious houses are no help to Gaza’s overcrowded population. What are needed are high-occupancy apartments. If the homes were left standing, it would be a nightmare to decide who would get to occupy them. Perhaps the rich or corrupt would get to live in the houses, increasing social tensions. Or perhaps Hamas would take over the settlements, claiming that they forced Israel to withdraw.

However, destroying the settlements would cause other problems. Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute has recently (Spare a House, Save the Peace; NYT, Feb. 18, 2005) expressed concern over the planned bulldozing of homes, greenhouses, and other assets built by Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip, as part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement initiative. Among the reasons given by Isaacson is the prohibitive cost of dismantling many fortified structures-removing the rubble, razing and levelling the ground—to no side’s benefit. It is estimated that this would cost about $18 million. Destroying the buildings also might very well bring negative public opinion from around the world toward Israel, as did the sight of dynamiting Yamit in the Sinai before handing it over to Egypt a quarter of a century ago. In addition, there is the issue of destroying the infrastructure around the bulldozed buildings, which would make redeveloping the area difficult.

Mr. Isaacson hopes that the buildings of evacuated settlements could be spared and turned to some constructive and/or symbolic use to enhance the fledgling peace being born between Palestinians and Israelis. For example, the greenhouses in Gaza currently take up about 1,000 acres. If, instead of being destroyed, they were left to be used by the Palestinians, they could provide work and support for many people. Or, a symbolic peace garden and park could be created out of some of the existing structures.

Whether the buildings are destroyed or saved, the essential ingredient for success is Palestinian involvement and an open and transparent process to determine what is best to help improve the sordid living conditions of the Palestinian people. But this has not been the case, so far. The lack of coordination between Palestinians and Israelis has made planning for post-disengagement Gaza almost impossible. What may be needed is the help of a third party, in the form of an NGO, another country, the World Bank or the broader international community.

A third party may be useful in helping coordinate between the Israelis and the Palestinians, possibly using shuttle diplomacy, and may further be helpful in facilitating an open discussion, maybe through forums, among Palestinians on what to do with the settlements after disengagement. A third party may also be able to help financially. For example, if a third party were to buy the Gaza greenhouses, not only would Palestinians be able to work in the greenhouses to support themselves, but the former owners would receive compensation, as well. (If the greenhouses were destroyed, the former owners would only be entitled to 66% of their value, according to the settler compensation law passed by the Knesset.) The inclusion of a third party can also help create positive energy and public opinion around the process, and can help mitigate negative responses if problems arise.

But the most important role a third party can play is in helping facilitate an open decision-making process that will make the best decisions for the welfare of the Palestinian people. So many decisions will need to be made after the disengagement, such as how much land to use for agriculture, housing, tourism, and other needs. Using much of the land for agriculture may help to dramatically improve Gaza's economy, but water issues need to be carefully considered in this dry region. It will need to be decided whether to turn the large, luxurious homes into homes for low-income families, which would be structurally very different, or to use the large homes for governmental and non-governmental institutes, research centres, business centres, a University, social or sport clubs, or even hotels to encourage tourism. Or, another option would be to sell the properties to those who can afford them, with the understanding that they would be used for tourism development, and then to use the income generated from these sales to build low-income housing in another part of Gaza. A third party could be extremely useful in facilitating such a process.

There are several appropriate organizations that may be able to facilitate a transition. For example, there is the Maine-based Seeds Of Peace. This courageous program has been in operation for several years, bringing young Israelis and Palestinians to joint summer camps in which they learn the difficult art of co-existence. By now the graduates of this visionary undertaking are in the hundreds, many of whom are young professionals on both sides of the Green line. With the help of other organizations and the international community, I can't think of a more qualified party to take joint charge of the soon to be former settlements.

There are several other UN and nongovernmental international organizations which are genuinely keen on nurturing the peace process that could be engaged in the transfer and/or transformation of these assets instead of destroying them.

Now that the march of events is positive again, we need to swiftly move forward before the hardliners on both sides have a chance to derail the peace process, as they have so frequently done in the past. Let us revive and implement Isaacson's excellent proposal. I am sure there are international organizations that are more than ready. Let's give them an over-due chance.

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* Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an Egyptian pro-democracy and peace activist. He is a Professor at the American University in Cairo and heads the Ibn Khaldun Centre; currently he is on leave with the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in DC, writing his prison memoirs.

Source: Common Ground News Service, May 13, 2005.

Visit the Common Ground News Service Online: www.commongroundnews.org

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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OTHER ARTICLES IN SERIES
Actions Are Needed To Make Peace A Reality
A Simple Plan
Urgent Steps Needed To Sustain The Fragile Window Of Opportunity
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Palestinians and Israelis Should Talk Amongst Themselves
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Religion and the Issue of Jerusalem
Religion Must be Part of the Solution
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