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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - July 18, 2005

Q. ...what are the PA's plans for consolidating control over the areas abandoned by Israel? Q. Where does Abbas stand on the right of return?

Q. The current internal Palestinian crisis in Gaza, and particularly the violent clashes between Hamas and forces loyal to PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, poses the question whether Abbas will indeed end up in control of Gaza after disengagement. Assuming he does, what are the Palestinian Authority's plans for consolidating its control over the areas abandoned by Israel?

A. The PA has established two committees for dealing with post-disengagement Gaza: a ministerial oversight committee headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), and a technical committee headed by Mohammed Dahlan. The latter, according to a senior Palestinian official, has divided its concerns into four key issue areas.

First, it has updated the Gaza regional plan to include the settlement- and IDF-controlled lands about to be abandoned, which constitute about 30 percent of the Strip. Decisions have been made as to which lands will be allocated for urban expansion and which for agriculture.

Secondly, preparations have been made to retain the Israeli infrastructure: roads and sewage, electricity and water networks. In this regard, the Palestinians are waiting for detailed infrastructure maps. But these have not been turned over by Israel due to security concerns (e.g., terrorists using the maps to introduce explosives through sewage tunnels). Israel has given the maps to American officials, but has not yet permitted them to deliver the maps to the Palestinian planners.

The senior Palestinian official affirms, incidentally, that the PA wants the settlers' homes to be destroyed by Israel. The main reason is that they are not useful for Palestinian mass housing needs. But the official adds that the PA also sees benefit in the removal of the "political linkage" to the occupation represented by the homes. On the other hand, the question of who disposes of the rubble after the homes are demolished, and who foots the bill for disposal, remains unresolved. One key sticking point is the environmental effects of burying so much building waste, which comprises asbestos. The most recent solution being looked at is to obtain Egyptian agreement to bury the rubble in the (largely empty) Sinai desert. Meanwhile, Israel refuses to pay the $40 million or so rubble removal bill; so does the international community, citing the illegality of the settlements as grounds for refusal.

Third, in principle the Palestinians would like Israel to leave productive assets, such as hothouses, intact. The Sharon government has agreed, but most of the settler farmers are already dismantling their hothouses and moving them into Israel. This is because the settlers receive only 60 percent of the value of the hothouses in government compensation, thereby leading them to calculate that they are better off moving used hothouses back into Israel than buying new ones; had they received 100 percent compensation, they would be leaving the hothouses behind. Here again, the international community refuses--citing international legal prohibitions--to complete the compensation, buy the hothouses, and turn them over to the Palestinians, while the PA also refuses to have any direct financial dealings with the settlers.

The outcome is liable to be the collapse of the Qatif Bloc's impressive hothouse vegetable and flower export industry. It will take at least a year for the Israeli farmers, once relocated into Israel, to reestablish it there, while Palestinians will lack the wherewithal to maintain the industry in Gaza, and 5,000 Palestinians who work there will lose their livelihood. Accordingly, Palestinian planners are now assuming that Israel will either remove or destroy all productive assets. If, however, this proves not to be the case, the intention is to privatize the assets.

Finally, there are legal and legislative issues to be dealt with. Most of the settlers' land in the Gaza Strip is state land, but individuals are already filing claims of private ownership. The PA intends to legislate state custodianship of all the land and establish a special court to examine private claims.

These are the issue areas that Palestinian planners are dealing with at the professional level. The official also cites a series of critical problems or constraints on Palestinian planning capabilities. One, already mentioned, is the lack of funding that might enable the transfer of productive assets and the financing of rubble disposal without compromising Palestinian principles. A second, also noted above, is the lack of information from Israel regarding infrastructure left behind.

A third problem concerns water. The Qatif Bloc sits on an aquifer containing the best water in Gaza (Qatif settlers use water piped in from Israel). Palestinian environmentalists are arguing with Palestinian economists about the use of the water. If used for agriculture, as the economists advocate, the water could provide vital jobs for 10,000 people. But the environmentalists point to the extreme over-pumping of Gaza's aquifers--of 4,200 known wells, half have been drilled illegally--and insist the aquifer should be used for drinking water only, and/or be allowed to refill from precipitation for a few years. In the long term, all the planners recognize that Gaza will have to desalinate water (US financial support has been assured) and possibly also purchase water from the large desalination plant Israel is completing at nearby Ashkelon.

A fourth planning problem is the future of Gaza's transport links with Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian planners place great emphasis on these links for fear that, if Gaza remains isolated from the West Bank, disengagement will bring about the collapse of Palestinian territorial unity. Israel, inevitably, cites security concerns for constraining the links. Long term discussion of solutions, with the active participation of Quartet representative James Wolfensohn, focuses on "safe passage" between Gaza and the West Bank by means of a railroad and/or a sunken road. But in the short term, Palestinian planners want to persuade Israel to drop the time-consuming "back-to-back" technique of transporting goods that has been mandated by security inspection needs, in favor of new technologies that enable entire trucks to be "sealed". PM Sharon is reportedly amenable to this solution.

Attempts to solve transport problems also involve Egypt's attitude. Not only is the PA not directly involved (as it would like to be) in the Israeli-Egyptian discussions of security along the Gaza-Sinai border. The Egyptians have also made clear their position that, once Israel leaves the philadelphi strip, few Gazans will be allowed into Sinai, mainly for security reasons. In other words, the border crossing at Rafah, which could soon be the PA's first direct link to the surrounding Arab countries, will not be very active.

There remain, of course, internal Palestinian security and corruption problems. None of this planning, which seems quite professional, will be worth very much if the PA/PLO fails to ensure its control over Gaza, either by persuading Hamas to cooperate or by forcibly compelling its acquiescence. Nor will the process of exploiting the land abandoned by the settlers win over hearts and minds if it is perceived as reflecting the widespread corruption already attributed by the Palestinian public to its autonomous government.

As for Israel, the Sharon government, which is spending billions of dollars on disengagement, would do well to acknowledge, at least implicitly, its responsibilities regarding what Israel has done in Gaza for the past 25 years. It should offer to pay 100 percent compensation to farmers so that the hothouse equipment can be left behind. And it should offer to pay the Palestinians a fair fee for disposing of the rubble.

Q. Palestinian President Abbas recently caused something of an uproar when he stated that he had no objection to Arab host states offering their citizenship to Palestinian refugees. This was interpreted as a weakening of the traditional demand that Israel accept the right of return. Where does Abbas stand?

A. Abbas made the statement in an interview with Abu Dhabi TV on July 9, saying there was nothing to prevent the Arab states from granting citizenship to the Palestinians who live there "if they want to". "This does not amount to resettlement", he added. "Palestinians who desire to return will do so regardless of whether they have Arab or foreign citizenship". Abbas recalled an Arab League "recommendation" from the 1950s to the effect that the Arab states not grant citizenship to their Palestinian residents: "this should not be used as an excuse", he said.

This statement caused Arab commentators to speculate that Abbas (Abu Mazen) was heading toward some sort of concession regarding the demand for the right of return--a concession that, in turn, would be welcomed by many Israelis as a step toward a successful peace process. The reality appears to be less encouraging.

For one, the director general of the PLO Refugee Affairs Department, Saji Salameh, hastened to clarify in a July 13 interview with Palestine Report Online that, by holding Arab citizenship, Palestinian refugees have never been considered to have conceded their right of return. Neither the 1.5 million refugees who are citizens of the Palestinian Authority, nor the two million or so refugees who hold Jordanian citizenship have forfeited the right of return. Abu Mazen, stated the official, was simply looking for ways to make life more tolerable for Palestinian refugees, especially in Lebanon where they remain stateless and devoid of most rights after 57 years.

Indeed, Abu Mazen himself, when visiting Lebanon a few weeks ago, stated publicly that the Palestinian refugee presence there was "temporary" and that Palestinians were "guests", thereby seemingly contradicting his later suggestion regarding citizenship. Perhaps most significantly, when Abu Mazen persuaded Hamas to accept a "pause" or ceasefire last March in Cairo, he signed an agreement undertaking to "guarantee the refugees' right of return to their homes and plots of land." Israeli experts on Palestinian ideology see this statement as a hardening of the PLO's traditional stand on refugees in favor of the Hamas position: if millions of refugees can return to the land they abandoned in 1948 even though there is no empty house there waiting for them, this can only be seen as a formula for dismembering the State of Israel.

Conceivably, Abbas had tactical reasons back in March for moving toward the Hamas position on refugees and the right of return. But, at a minimum, he can hardly be considered to have softened his stance, which has traditionally demanded that Israel accept the right of return, i.e., acknowledge the "original sin" of its creation, and that at least some refugees be able to return. Indeed, his position on refugees continues to constitute a clear obstacle to any conceivable final status agreement with Israel.