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Out of Uniform and into the Conflict

By Akiva Eldar; Ha'aretz, 14.05.06

Just a few weeks ago, after 28 years of military service, seven years of which were spent handling the West Bank, Brigadier General Ilan Paz, also known as "Pitzi," turned in his boots. On a Saturday morning, he left his home in Kerem Maharal for a meeting with Palestinians at the Ambassador Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem.

Since he began his pre-release furlough nine months ago, he has regularly taken part in sessions organized by the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information in an almost desperate attempt to maintain contact between the two sides. In previous meetings, he spent most of his time quietly listening to the complaints of Palestinian activists and making do with a muted comment when one of the Israelis said something in favor of the disengagement or convergence plans. Now no longer constrained by the khaki uniform, the man who headed the civil administration in the territories and before that served as a brigade commander in Jenin and Ramallah, can release his brakes to express himself fully.

Fatah's return? What a joke

"The convergence plan will not be implemented even 20 years from now," says the lean officer, who once served as deputy commander of the naval commandos. "The perilous combination of humanitarian crisis, domestic chaos, massacres and Qassams will force Israel to go back into the West Bank and maybe also into Gaza. This means warfare, including the call-up of reservists, loss of life and an enormous economic cost."

According to the Oslo accords, Israel bears overall responsibility for the territories, he says. "If the Palestinian Authority collapses, we will not be able simply to stand there and look on. Approximately 3 million people are already on the brink of starvation, with anarchy and violence all around."

Two days later, in his first interview following his release from the army, Paz says that based on an assessment made two years ago by the office of the coordinator of IDF activities in the territories, renewing the military administration would cost NIS 12 billion a year. He cannot understand what interest Israel might have in bringing down the Palestinian Authority. Bringing Fatah back into power? He finds the thought laughable.

"Experience shows that domestic crises and shortages do not induce a population in distress to start a dialogue with an enemy it considers the very reason for its distress; it will only intensify the struggle against that enemy," Paz says. "If there is no money for the Palestinian Authority's school system, where we have had some success in filtering out provocative material from the syllabi, the pupils will enter the Hamas school system, which continues to receive funds from Islamic sources." Moreover, if experts claimed that Abu Mazen and Fatah had been incapable of fighting Hamas while they were still in power, then how would they now be able to gain control with Hamas in power and Fatah disintegrated?

Maintaining the hudna

Even if it necessitates compromise with rejectionist policies, Israel ought to enter into a dialogue with Hamas on matters of daily life, and maintain the hudna [truce].

However, even a status quo with Hamas will not enhance the chances of the unilateral convergence plan. "Unless we transfer the territory to a group that shares our interest in reaching a two-state settlement based on the 1967 borders, the situation will spin out of control. Who can promise us that Qassams will not fall on Kfar Sava? No wall is going to move the Palestinians in the West Bank, or even in the Gaza Strip, to the other side of the planet. Even an 80-meter high fence would not stop a high-trajectory missile," he continues.

Paz is familiar with the West Bank settlers and their strength. He was on the receiving end of the hatred of the political figures, and the fanatics among them. "The evacuation of places like Kiryat Arba, Elon Moreh, Shilo and Eli would not at all be like the Gush Katif evacuation," he says. "You cannot compare the religious and historical connection to the lands of Judea and Samaria to the settlers' connection to Gaza. Evacuation of these ideological settlements is liable to bring us to the brink of civil war."

The problem, he explains, is not in the ability to execute such a mission. He has no doubt that if the army and police are given the order, they will stand up to the task. "But we have to ask ourselves if it is worth taking the risk of creating a deep social rift and paying a colossal economic price, and all that without improving the security situation, and maybe even aggravating it, without international support and without improving the chances for a settlement with the Palestinians."

What settlement are you talking about? With whom? After all, there is no partner, no one to talk with.

"The time has come to reexamine the statement that Abu Mazen is a weak leader and that he is therefore not a partner. We played a key role in creating this picture. I can quote the former chief of staff, who deeply regretted that we had not made gestures that might have strengthened him. We had the opportunity to strengthen him, if we had only given him the keys to Gaza instead of throwing them into the street, or if we had transferred to him at least civil control of the territories we evacuated in northern Samaria."

Two to tango

"In that way we would have prevented the Palestinian public from seeing the disengagement as a Hamas victory, and the results of the elections in the territories might have been different. It takes two to tango. So long as we continue to say that Abu Mazen and Fatah are not partners, what good reason does the Palestinian public have to vote for them? If we built him up as our partner, it would strengthen him in the eyes of his people, the vast majority of whom are interested in ending the conflict."

Paz relates that after Abu Mazen was elected prime minister, a senior member of his bureau told Paz that one of the great successes claimed by Abu Mazen was the opening of the Surda checkpoint in Ramallah. "You have no idea how much that built him up in the public's eyes," he said. "I'm not saying there is no need for checkpoints, or at times for closures, too, but this activity should be balanced and should also take into account the cultural and psychological aspects of the other side. Nothing good can come from degrading a neighboring people.

"It is true that Abu Mazen is not a charismatic leader and that he is reluctant to be part of internal struggles. We wanted him to fight Hamas, but he understood the limitations of his power. He understood that no good would come from a head-on struggle, and he preferred to achieve calm by other means. We may have found the hudna unacceptable, but it has been more than a year since Hamas has taken part in terrorist attacks."

Didn't Fatah pay the price for its corruption?

"I'm not ignoring the fact that corruption also played a part in the fall of Fatah, but the key factor was its inability to move ahead on a settlement with Israel. The diplomatic process is the only advantage it has over the rival parties. Fatah could have made a greater effort to enforce order, but I can tell you that in the past few years Palestinian Authority forces practically cannot take a single step without our aid and approval. This is often the case for Area A, as well, which is ostensibly subject to their full control. We do not permit the system to operate, and for a lengthy period we did not allow armed Palestinian policemen to guard courts, prisons or banks, or even enter villages in cases of family feuds."

Do you believe it is still possible to reach a permanent settlement in the foreseeable future?

"There is a Palestinian partner for an agreement that could be acceptable to a majority of the Israeli public ? without realization of the right of return, but also without realization of the entire settlement bloc plan, which includes, for example, the E-1 territory. For years, we Arafatized the conflict, and now Arafat is dead and the problems still remain. Eventually we will have to arrive at a solution, and it will be more or less identical to the Clinton outline and the Geneva Accords. The question is how much blood will be spilled until then.

"And if, after we make a serious effort to negotiate with Abu Mazen, we realize that he cannot deliver the goods, then we can converge behind defensible borders. But before any other unilateral step is taken, we owe it to ourselves to make a real attempt to put an end to the conflict."

When Paz watched the settlers on television, barricading themselves in the Shapira building in Hebron, he was reminded of a visit there by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz.

"We laid out all sorts of problems to him, such as that of children being unwilling to identify themselves or give fingerprints. But it is unacceptable that a year later a solution has still not been found to these people's hideouts, where they can do whatever they want. I believe there is no choice but to remove the settlers from there, but what do you do tomorrow morning? For a year and a half, the settlers at the Maon Farm have not allowed children from Umm Tuba to go to school, and they attack them even when the army escorts the children. How many residents are there at Maon Farm? Can't they be stopped?"