The US government, the Palestinians, and indeed most Israelis are delighted that the Sharon Government has finally stood up to some settler extremists, and is still on track to pull out of the Gaza Strip by mid-August.
However, we should all pay closer attention to the precise way that the Israelis are leaving. There appear to be several missed opportunities to leave a much healthier economic base for Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians when the Israelis leave-- a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for eventual peace.
In particular, Israel is now on a path to dismantle or destroy over 1500 homes and 1000 acres of greenhouses, which already provide thousands of jobs for Palestinians, and might provide thousands more....
At current course and speed, Israel may be missing a huge opportunity to help Gaza become something more than – in the words of Muhammad Dahlan, the Palestinian disengagement coordinator – "a giant prison camp," with 35 percent unemployment, 77 percent poverty, a youthful population whose median age is 16, no seaport, a unusable airport, and few visible means of support other than foreign aid, rock-throwing, and amateur rocket-building.
No wonder that Hamas has been able to recruit a huge base of supporters there. It won seven out of ten local council seats in Gaza's municipal elections last December, and would likely have soundly defeated Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party in the Palestinian parliamentary elections that were originally scheduled for July 17th, but were postponed by Abbas indefinitely in June.
One missed opportunity is housing. At a recent press conference, Secretary of State Rice stated that 1,600 Israeli settler’s houses will be destroyed. The official rationale is that such single-family homes are not economically viable for the Palestinians in Gaza.
In reality, however, that rationale was just for public consumption, insisted upon by the Sharon Government for PR purposes. With more than 1 million Gazans to consider, surely there are of course quite a few elderly couples, young couples, and smaller families who might have used the houses. They also have other potential uses -- business and government offices, clinics, even guest houses for visiting tourists, if the area ever stabilized.
The truth is that the houses will be destroyed for much less defensible reasons. First, it is widely viewed as one of the easiest ways to insure that the 8,500 Israeli settlers actually leave once and for all.
Only 284 families had signed up for compensation under the Evacuation Compensation Law, and officials are expecting more violence between Israelis and Palestinians as the August 15th disengagement approaches.
From Israeli's standpoint, the destruction also prevents the politically dangerous image of victorious Palestinians waving Hamas flags on the roofs of former settler's homes, celebrating another Lebanon-like eviction.
Greenhouses could be an even more important missed opportunity. Currently, there are about 1000 acres of Israeli-owned state-of-the-art greenhouses in Gaza. They are worth up to $80 million and employ about 3,500 Palestinians. The fruits and vegetables that they produce account for 15% of Israel’s agricultural exports, mainly to Europe. According to agricultural experts, they might potentially provide as many as 7,000 regular jobs, supporting, in turn, up to 30,000, and perhaps stimulating the growth of related industries.
In short, figuring out a way to keep the greenhouses going could provide stable jobs and incomes for tens of thousands of Gazans, continued good business for Israel, and also offer an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to show a little badly-needed cooperative spirit.
However, while the fate of these greenhouses is still being negotiated, and the idea of preserving them has some advocates, the outlook for them at this late date is grim.
According to two Israeli sources in a position to know, the most likely scenario is for the greenhouses to be dismantled and relocated elsewhere, or just demolished and replaced with new greenhouses at new settlements in Nitzanim, just 12 miles from Gaza.
These sources mentioned several key obstacles to a Gaza greenhouse idea.
First, with no seaport and Israel unwilling to permit Gaza to have air rights, and no highway to the West Bank, the perishable goods produced in these greenhouses could not reach the international market unless other transport arrangements are made.
Second, Israel's settler certainly have no good will toward the Gazans, and Israel's agro-businesses don't want to, in effect, put the Palestinians into business to compete with them. A deal would have to be worked out for joint marketing and profit sharing, as well as compensation for the value of the greenhouses. Presumably the World Bank or USAID might be willing to finance such a solution, as they've indicated. Indeed, James Wolfensohn, former World Bank President and Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement, has evidently been trying to work out such a solution. The Dutch Government has also offered to buy them for the Palestinians.
More generally, there is no question that Israelis and Palestinians have little love lost for each other. Right now the Israeli Government is focused on leaving as quickly and safely as possible, and the Palestinians are focused on just having them go. Left to their own devices, there will be no "win-win" solution.