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Adjournment Debate

Gaza Strip: Withdrawal of Jewish Settlers

Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth) (9.14 p.m.)—Yesterday the Israeli defence forces began supervising the final withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Many of these settlements have been home to Jews for more than 30 years. It came as no surprise that there is enormous sadness about this withdrawal on the part of the Israeli people, nor can it come as a surprise that many Israelis have opposed the withdrawal—vigorously, but so far without violence. Long may that be so. Traditionally, victors do not surrender land to those they have defeated. Israel occupied the Gaza Strip from Egypt after its successful defence against attack from its neighbours in 1967. Now it is withdrawing from those last parts of the Gaza Strip upon which it built settlements. It is not receiving anything in return; this is a unilateral withdrawal.

The pragmatic justification made by Ariel Sharon is simply that Israel cannot maintain settlements in areas which are overwhelmingly populated by Arabs. There are about 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza and just 8,500 Jews. The cost of defending the settlements is $US560 million each year. It is better to consolidate in those areas where the Jews are a majority. This is an about-face for Sharon, often known as the father of the settlement movement, and a reminder of the wisdom of Moshe Dayan’s reproach to those Israelis flushed with victory after 1967 who thought of a greater Israel from Jordan to the Sea: ‘You want the dowry,’ he said, ‘but you do not want to marry the bride.’

But the opponents of the withdrawal say that this is a capitulation to terror. It will be seen as a victory for the violent, a win for Hamas and a confirmation that Israel will continue to retreat in the face of a terror campaign that has been waged against it. They cite Sharon’s earlier claims that a withdrawal is not a recipe for peace but a recipe for war. Many observers watching the demonstrations with thousands of Jews flying their orange flags of protest will conclude that it is Sharon and Israel that have most at risk. I beg to differ. If the withdrawal results in no diminution of terrorism, if it results in a Hamas controlled Gaza being the source of further attacks against Israel, then the Israeli defence forces have the capacity to respond decisively. Sharon said yesterday, in a nationwide address, ‘If they choose fire, we will respond with fire, more severe than ever.’

But, most importantly, if this unilateral withdrawal is rewarded with violence, Israel’s complaint that there is no partner for peace will be confirmed. The world will have seen Israel go through the most agonising and demoralising internal struggle as it withdrew from Gaza. It will have seen how difficult—nearly impossible—it was even for a leader like Sharon to complete that withdrawal. Then, if after all that, the critics of withdrawal are confirmed—if, after all that, withdrawal is a recipe for more violence, not peace—how can the world continue to pressure the Israelis to cede more territory? On the other hand, if all our prayers are fulfilled and the withdrawal does succeed in creating a new level of trust and the end, or perhaps the beginning of the end, of violence, then all the people of Israel and the Palestinian territories will be winners, as we will all be.

Prime Minister Sharon is as tough and as shrewd as they come. He knows what he is playing for. One outcome least sought but most likely is that the withdrawal does nothing to diminish the level of terror, but it will certainly make Israel’s borders somewhat easier and much cheaper to defend. It will give Israel a powerful moral argument to use to resist further concessions. The other outcome most sought but less likely is that it will be the beginning of peace. Abu Mazen and the Palestinians have the most at risk in this game. It can be the renewal of a peace process or it can be the loss of considerable moral capital in the eyes of the free world. So while the world focuses on Sharon and Israel, it is the player on the other side of the chessboard who has the most challenging moves to make and the most to win or lose. Sharon is putting the ball in Abu Mazen’s court—he cannot afford to drop it.

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