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With attendance from Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab experts and specialists besides others concerned with the Palestinian issue, Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations arranged a one day roundtable under the title of “Gaza Strip after the Israeli Withdrawal: A Reading into the Future” at the Crown Plaza Hotel, Beirut, Thursday 17/11/2005.

The roundtable started with a brief speech-note from the general director of the Al-Zaytouna Centre, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh. Saleh welcomed the guests declaring that “the Israeli withdrawal holds within its implications the victory of resistance and its ability to compel the Israeli Zionist entity to change its agenda whether by unconditional withdrawal or hiding behind the walls of fear and seclusion. This state of victory, however, should not be emptied from its substance, since the Zionist enemy owns many tools as well as personal and international potentials that enable it to empty our victories of their substance and probably turn it into a state of defeat and withdrawal if the Palestinian powers do not deal smartly with this decisive incident in contemporary Palestinian history.”

After the opening speech was the first session: “The Israeli Vision for the Future of the Gaza Strip”. The session was moderated by Major General Yassin Suwaid, and the discussion paper was presented by Ahmad Khalifa, a senior editor at the Institute of Palestine Studies (IPS); and followed by commentary from Helmy Moussa, the specialist in Israeli affairs. In his paper, Khalifa said that it is necessary to explain the motives behind the withdrawal plan as it reflects the Israeli future view. The withdrawal, as he explains, came as a result of Israeli fear of the demographic imbalance caused by the Palestinian overpopulation. It was also caused by the disturbance and security fears brought up by the Palestinian resistance in addition to changes in the general military and political environment surrounding Israel; and the international environment in the region. Hence, the withdrawal is part of the Israeli general view of the future of Israel, that hide, behind the withdrawal claims, a planned vision of Sharon that draws the borders of the future Israeli state in the West Bank.

In his commentary, Moussa said that Sharon doesn’t want one Palestinian authority but several Palestinian willpowers. Thus, through the withdrawal plans, Sharon wished to divide Gaza and the West Bank into cantons disputed between conflicting Palestinian wills under the authority of Egypt and Jordan. The withdrawal plan, therefore, is a punishment plan aimed at fuelling a civil war.

The second session considered the Palestinian vision for the future of Gaza strip, from two viewpoints: the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the resistance.  The session’s moderator was Dr. Bayan Nuwayhed Al-Hout, and its first paper on the “Palestinian Vision for the Future of Gaza Strip from the PA view” was presented by Dr. Ahmed Said Nofal; and followed by a commentary by Dr. Ahmed Anwar Abu Taha. Nofal articulated that the Palestinian official vision for the future of Gaza Strip is crystallized in three main dimensions; the political, the security, and the economic. Concerning the political, the PA focuses on its commitment to the unconditional settlement with Israel thus appearing as “the more moderate” side for solving disagreement issues with Israel. Taking into account its inability to solve such issues alone, the PA always seeks to involve Arab and international partners in the peace process with Israel. Being unable to stick to the national Palestinian viewpoint, the PA might submit to the Israeli and American pressures to avoid appearing as the side that hinders settlement. On the security level, the PA is trying its best at solving the dilemma of the Palestinian factions and the Israeli practices; and the whole future of the Strip will depend on the PA’s ability to bring order and security to the Strip through peaceful coordination in harmony with all Palestinian streams even if at the expense of what Israel could view as “unacceptable PA behaviour”. As for the economic level, the PA will give utmost care to remove obstacles on the way to improving the living conditions for Palestinians in the Strip by establishing effective, counter-corruption economic institutions. Needless to say, their success will depend on the nature of economic relations that Israel wants in the Gaza Strip, and on Israel’s agreement to open the Palestinian crossings with Egypt, and the safe passageway between the West Bank and the Strip.

In his commentary, Dr. Anwar Abu Taha said that Israel deals with the PA as a secondary assistant in implementing the Israeli plans and preserving a minimum level of security. Thus, the relation between the PA and the occupation has been shaped as no more than “the assigned tasks of the engagement committees”, that is concern with the routinely management of basic issues, devoid of action or will. Thus, the PA no longer represents an active political partner with a significant role in decision making and strategy/plan formulation. Rather, it has become more like a work schedule that falls within three directions: an administrative direction that drowns the PA in the details of issues that were obscured in the Gaza pullout plan, another marginalizing direction that prevents the PA from discussing or negotiating what the occupation imposes in the West Bank, and a third executive direction that crystallises in pressuring the PA to ‘liquidise’ what Israelis call the infrastructure of Palestinian resistance movements and demolishing them according to the Israeli plan.

The following paper in this session was “The Palestinian Vision for the Future of Gaza Strip from the Viewpoint of the Resistance”, presented by Maged Abu Diak, analyst and senior editor at Al-Jazeera Net. Maged said that the resistance vision for the post withdrawal era is to hold on to resistance as a strategic choice as long as occupation remains; and to face likely Israeli assaults. All other resistance operations in the Strip will stop except in terms of responding to Israeli aggressions. Abu Diak added that future challenges lie in the necessity of balancing of the efforts regarding both the resistance against the existing occupation on the boundaries of the Strip, and the civil work required in the post-withdrawal stage. He also stressed the need to support the resistance program by all means, and to involve all the political factions in the national decision-making, as well as engaging the Resistance in managing the daily Palestinian issues (civil life).

Commentary on this paper was provided by Refaat Shenaa. Shenaa said that all Palestinian people and all Palestinian powers contributed to confronting occupation. Therefore, this stage requires making Gaza a region where Palestinians coexist in a way that enables them to build an enduring society. It is no one’s right, he affirmed, to give up the resistance choice as it should continue as long as occupation exists. There are no political solutions that parallel the fixed facts including the withdrawal from the 1967 lands. Until the state is established, a complete withdrawal must be achieved, Jerusalem must be liberated and Palestinian refugees should return.

The third session of the roundtable was moderated by Dr. Ali Fayyad. And the fourth working paper was entitled “The Arab Vision for the Future of Gaza Strip, Especially Egypt”. It was presented by Dr. Waheed Abdul-Majeed and followed by commentary from Waleed Mohamed Ali. Abdul-Majeed argued that the general direction in the visions of countries like Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia for the future of Gaza is defined by each country’s own calculations for likely risks threatening them in the first place; then in the perspective of the Palestinian issue. In this sense, Egypt has worked on evading three threats. The first is the threat of transforming Gaza into a large prison in a way that pressures Egypt since their borders would be the only escape. The second threat would loom if any military wing or another of any Palestinian faction succeeds in smuggling weapons and ammunition through its borders. The third threat stems from a Hamas control over the Strip whether separately or in a coalition of factions. With Hamas being the extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, that represents a challenge for the regimes in Egypt, Syria and Jordan in different degrees and forms. Yet Egypt, Abdul-Majeed added, is the Arab country with the most precise view in this regard that is not limited to being aware of the threat but includes active planning to evade it or reduce its risk, in more than one aspect.

In the commentary, Dr. Waleed Mohamed Ali said that it is an illusion for any Arab regime to think that they can grow away from the Zionist-Palestinian conflict since the Zionist entity doesn’t only target Palestine but the entire region. He stated that Egypt is directly affected by the developments of the situation in Gaza and that Palestine has been a strategic depth to Egypt along history, Gaza being its gate. Hence, Egypt and its nation will suffer the greatest harm by the establishment of a Jewish state on Palestinian land. He called on all parties in the Arab world to review their calculations and delay their disagreements on ideology and tools because all regimes eventually change and only the people and their interests remain. Mohamed Ali also advised study centres in Egypt to avoid being engrossed with the political dynamics and shed light on the strategic depth of the conflict between the Zionist project that aims at controlling and fragmenting the whole region on one side and the people of our nations on the other side.

Then was “The International Vision for the Future of Gaza Strip”, and the last paper, that was presented by Dr. Kamal Naji. Naji referred first to the partiality of the international view on the peaceful solution to the conflict and the bias in favour of the Israeli vision. This bias is evident especially while Israel dismisses many international resolutions and places aside the final status issues to be negotiated under unfair power scales in favour of Israel with no clear legal basis. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, he explained, is a solitary act with the purpose of creating a reality that suits the strategic interests of Israel. Thus, it is merely a process of redeployment in a legal and practical sense, which means that Israel’s legal responsibility as an occupation force toward Gaza remains according to international law. He concluded saying that the Palestinians’ ability to keep on dialogue, understanding and commitment to what they agree on, could relieve them of some pressures.

Mounir Shafiq commented on Naji’s paper, saying that the Road Map Initiative no longer exists, except to put pressure on the PA to dissolve resistance factions. He saw that Europe and America have made Sharon’s agreement a condition for everything concerning the conflict, what shows the international situation in an unprecedented state of fragility and accommodation to Israeli policies. The future of the Strip, however, is to be decided in the West Bank not the Strip, said Shafiq; In the West Bank where also the fate of the Wall, the settlements, the Occupation and Judaizing Jerusalem, because choosing to surrender regarding these issues will turn Gaza into brackish waters doomed to corruption. He disagreed with views that Arab countries have no strategy as their current strategy is based on unwillingness to oppose the US and unwillingness to stand by Palestinian people. He concluded saying that the conflict can be summed up to the issue of resisting the Zionist colonial project in the region – at least at the present stage and within foreseeable future – to be achieved not through economy or technological supremacy but through political resistance and national struggle.

Noteworthy is that the discussions of the working papers sparked broad discussions, thoughtful commentaries and questions, and critical readings of the contemporary Palestinian, Arab and International situation.