Less than three months before the Gaza disengagement begins, the Israeli government‘s point man in the process spoke this week of the quandary for the administration as it faces resistance from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and settlers who have been ordered to leave their homes.
Eval Giladi, in his first interview since he was appointed to head coordination and strategy in the Prime Minister‘s Office, talked about the government‘s vision for the future and how it is wrestling with the relocation of synagogue buildings from the Gaza Strip, the risks that may be encountered should settlers‘ homes be destroyed and a Palestinian leader who refuses to act against terrorists.
"He believes he is not strong enough to act," Giladi said of Abbas, noting that Abbas had the same fear when he served as prime minister under Yasir Arafat. But with or without help from Abbas, Giladi said, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is determined to forge ahead with the disengagement of 1,700 families from all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and from four settlements in the northern West Bank beginning in mid-August.
The government claims some 400 families have signed up to relocate but the rest insist on staying.
Although the Israeli government had decided initially to destroy the settlers‘ homes, Sharon would like them saved if possible, said Giladi, who was interviewed Monday at the Palace Hotel where Sharon and his delegation were staying while here. But for that to happen, he said, there must be a "Palestinian partner" with whom to work.
Leaving the homes standing, Giladi said, should create "support for peace and stability, and create a positive dynamic once we are out. Also, these houses left behind can support the Palestinian economy. But if we don’t achieve that, there is a big question of whether the houses should be left."
Giladi, a former brigadier general who handled strategic planning in the Israel Defense Forces, said Israelis did not want to see "Hamas [terrorists] dancing on the roofs waving their green flag." He said some Gaza settlers have told Sharon that they did not want to see the terrorists who killed their loved ones living in their vacated homes.
If the homes are left intact, Giladi said, there are other concerns.
"Who is going to guard them once we are out?" he asked. "Let’s assume we evacuate the settlers and 15- and 16-year-old Palestinian kids come to take whatever they can find in the houses. Who is going to shoot the kids for going in? The IDF [Israeli troops]? Forget it. The Palestinian [police]? The problem is a lack of a reliable [partner if the evacuation] is done unilaterally."
If the decision is made to raze the buildings, Giladi said that aside from the time it would take and the debris it would create, there is a danger of infrastructure damage from the bulldozers themselves.
"We could find ourselves fixing the sewage system," he said, stressing that no final decision has been made.Regarding plans to move synagogues from the Gaza Strip, Giladi said the Israeli government is working with "international companies that are experienced in moving large buildings."
"It‘s very expensive, but we should invest the money," he said. "Synagogues are an important symbol."
Asked when the synagogues might be moved, Giladi replied: "It is not as important when but what will be done and how. I prefer to do it the right way later than the wrong way earlier."
Once disengagement is complete, Sharon wants to begin implementing the international "road map" for peace, Giladi said, but Abbas has other ideas.
"[Abbas] is trying to bring a new plan to the table instead of the road map," he said. "He wants to see the disengagement plan implemented in order to bypass the road map because its first phase is tough on the Palestinian side … they must arrest people, collect illegal weapons and stop the production of Kassam rockets."
"Abu Mazen says it is very difficult for him to follow that," Giladi said, using Abbas’ nickname. "He wants to turn the terror groups into part of the Palestinian structure. … He wants to start final status negotiations" immediately.
Giladi insisted that if Abbas and Sharon were to try to negotiate those issues now … such as the status of Palestinian refugees, the borders of a Palestinian state and the future of Jerusalem … there is "no way" the two could reach an agreement. He said the best way to achieve an agreement is through the phased implementation of the road map.
Giladi‘s comments were in contrast to the statements last October attributed to Dov Weisglass, then Sharon’s chief of staff, who reportedly told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process." But they are consistent with Sharon‘s public assertions that the peace process cannot continue until the Palestinian terror infrastructure is destroyed.
"I truly believe Abu Mazen is against the use of terror," Giladi said. "But he has not taken the right decisions to deal with it. I met with Palestinian ministers and told them that they are losing the momentum created at [the Arab-Israeli summit meeting at] Sharm el-Sheik, that he could have done more two months ago. The situation was better then. Abu Mazen had been elected [on his promise] of no more violence, but nothing happened. What the Palestinian in the street sees is no change."
"Why not order that there must be no guns in Gaza except those of security forces? I know they can‘t go house to house to collect weapons, but what if the first day five guns were confiscated and then 10 guns the next. People would say, ‘Why take my gun out, I‘m going to lose it.‘ Abu Mazen ordered it, but nothing was implemented."
Similarly, Giladi said, Abbas did not order an investigation after last week‘s spate of mortar attacks against Israeli Jews by Hamas and other terror groups.
"They were not testing Sharon, they were testing Abu Mazen," he said. "They were trying to see what was legitimate, trying to push the line."
Giladi stressed that the disengagement plan must be seen as part of a strategic shift that has taken place in Israeli thinking since the collapse of peace talks in January 2002.
"There was a belief during [the Oslo peace accords] that peace would bring security," he said. "We used to think that peace was the best tool to defeat terrorism. But we understand today that it is security that will enable the peace process [to continue]. This is the logic of the road map; I wrote the Israeli version."
Giladi said the relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians also has undergone fundamental changes. Instead of having the "interactive relationship" that existed before the second intifada erupted in September 2000 … when 120,000 legal and 80,000 illegal Palestinians worked in Israel, Israelis freely traveled to Palestinian cities to shop and socialize, and "we used to think that the borders were only on a map" … there will "now be a fence and we will be on one side and they on the other."
"The number of Palestinians getting into Israel will be a lot lower and we will decide who comes in and for what purpose," he said. "Every sovereign country makes that decision. … There will not be an interactive relationship but separation."
Asked about those who say that at the end of the day Sharon will be doing some of the same things former President Bill Clinton and former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak advocated, Giladi said there is one important difference: "Barak wanted a marriage between two parties. We are trying to get a divorce."