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Turning Words Into Concrete Actions

By Brigadier General (Ret.) Ilan Paz, former head of the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank (2002-2005), The Middle East Bulletin, 26.03.08

By Brigadier General (Ret.) Ilan Paz, former head of the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank (2002-2005)
Interview with Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Ilan Paz in the Middle East Bulletin
"For decades, we have used only military pressure and haven’t achieved anything. We have never tried pursuing another way at the same time and it’s about time we do."
Q: What is your current assessment of the Israel-Palestinian track since the Annapolis conference?
A: The Annapolis conference was a positive development. Meeting, talking and negotiating, even without immediate results, are better than no interaction at all, and indeed the parties are meeting frequently. However, only the participants in the meetings know what is actually taking place. In my opinion, unless there is a thorough change in the attitudes and actions of Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the international community led by the United States, we have little reason to be optimistic. As an Israeli, it is my duty to criticize Israel but the other two players have a lot they can do on their side as well.
Q: What specifically should Israel be doing to move the process forward?
A: Israel should realize that military actions may lower the flames but not put the fire out; in other words, these military actions will not provide a long-term solution. To move the process forward we must first improve the situation on the ground, particularly with respect to access and movement. Removal of checkpoints and roadblocks would have a positive effect on the Palestinians first by virtue of the fact that they will no longer be there and second, by improving the economy. The Israeli leadership says strengthening the Palestinian economy is a primary objective but nothing is being done on the ground. Former Prime Minister Rabin famously said "We shall fight terrorism as if there is no peace process, and pursue the peace process as if there is no terrorism," but this not what we are currently doing. Checkpoints and roadblocks do have value in terms of security, but not under the current system. In my opinion, there is no substantial added value in internal West Bank checkpoints and in particular, permanent ones. To make things easier for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), it can remove those checkpoints and roadblocks gradually. The security forces’ argument that removal of one or another checkpoint would result in terror attacks is incorrect. We’ve witnessed two attacks recently – in Dimona and Jerusalem – while all the checkpoints and roadblocks remained intact. Completion of the separation barrier could be more efficient but due to its political implications, construction is being stalled. The High Court of Justice has been waiting for the defense minister’s response regarding the barrier near Ma’ale Edumin for fourteen months.
A simple cost-benefit analysis demonstrates that, at the moment, the costs of maintaining the current grid of checkpoints and roadblocks exceed the benefits. The atmosphere created by the checkpoints and roadblocks might not lead to tomorrow’s attack but to one next year. When young kids see their mothers and grandmothers being humiliated and their fathers unemployed because they cannot pass through a checkpoint, they are bound to develop hatred and aspirations of revenge. In addition, there is no way to improve the Palestinian economy under the current system. International investors and donors will not put their money in unless it is clear that goods can be delivered on time. Social factors, the economic situation and support of the peace process among the Palestinians all affect Israel’s security. Finally, guarding checkpoints has an enormous negative impact on our soldiers. There is a clear connection between what soldiers are dealing with at checkpoints and the escalating internal violence in Israeli society and the loss of ideology and values.
Q: Last month, you joined a group of Israeli security experts to propose an alternative system that would replace the current system of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. Can you tell us a little about the group and the plan? Has it attracted attention from the current Israeli security authorities, and what are the prospects for moving forward with it?
A: Our group consisted of more than 30 former senior IDF officers with ranks of brigadier general and major general who were released from service within the last few years – those who witnessed the reasons for the intifadah and its consequences firsthand. We offered an alternative system that would not compromise the security of Israel by gradual removal of existing checkpoints and roadblocks and a shift toward a mobile system dependent on specific security alerts. We were supposed to meet with Minister Ehud Barak but he keeps postponing the meeting. We are also set to present the plan to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
As for the prospect of implementing the plan, the security establishment seems to want to maintain the status quo. The relatively low security threat coming from the West Bank is mistakenly being perceived as resulting from the current system of checkpoints and roadblocks. In practice however, if Palestinian frustration grows, Hamas strengthens in the West Bank and Gaza, and the peace process loses its last supporters, the security threats will grow.
The IDF’s view of checkpoints and roadblocks through the narrow lens of the immediate security needs is wrong both tactically and strategically. Moreover, it contradicts the stated policy of the government. For example, after one of his first meetings with Abbas, Olmert said publicly that Israel would remove, I believe, five checkpoints. A day after, the Head of the Central Command Yair Naveh, told the press he opposes such a move yet would carry it out if is ordered to do so. However, he warned Olmert that he – the prime minister - would be held responsible for every attack following the removal of checkpoints. Olmert, instead of dismissing him, never fulfilled his commitment to Abbas and the world.
I do not think this situation is irreversible. The IDF objected to the 2000 withdrawal from South Lebanon. Yet, once the defense minister gave the order, troops were out. It is the same minister now, but only then he was also prime minister.
Q: What can the Palestinians do to advance the process?
A: First, the Palestinians should follow through on their Road Map commitments and work more seriously to curb terrorism and reform institutions. Indeed, Mahmoud Abbas is a weak leader but he is the best partner we have to work with. We have to help him help himself. I wouldn’t want us to find ourselves in the same situation as we were in after he resigned from his position as prime minister and Israel’s former Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon said regrettably that we did not do enough to strengthen him. It is the same person now, but only now he is the president. Thus, for example, the Palestinian security forces in Nablus were seemingly doing a good job. However, after only a few days the IDF went into the city – perhaps for a justified reason – and made Abbas and his security forces look like collaborators with the Israeli occupation. We need to think more on how we work together and not undermine our partner. Second, Abbas has to renew the dialogue with Hamas and bring them back in to governing, not necessarily in a unity government. Hamas is far from being an ideal partner but it is a part of our reality. We can still work to weaken it and strengthen Fatah and the pragmatists while Hamas is part of the system. I prefer Hamas in the government to Hamas as an ousted terror organization which can hinder the peace process easily with a major suicide attack or a few Grad [katyusha] missiles on Ashkelon. In my opinion, one of the reasons Abbas still hasn’t reconciled with Hamas is Israeli and American pressure.
Q: Do you have a prescription of how to rescue the Annapolis process?
A: I think three processes need to take place simultaneously: reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank and intensified negotiations between Israel and the PA. How can we pursue that without undermining Abbas? We make sure every benefit to the Palestinians is provided – through negotiations - only to Abbas even when Hamas is part of the governing system. For example, a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas should be signed with Abbas, removal of checkpoints and roadblocks should be agreed upon with Abbas, release of prisoners would be part of negotiations with Abbas and would be given to him, and negotiations on final status issues should continue but only with Abbas. Ordinary Palestinians just want to live normally and if we can help Abbas be the one that delivers, that would eventually strengthen him and weaken Hamas. A poll conducted recently showed that killing 120 Palestinians in Gaza in one week only does the opposite. For decades, we have used only military pressure and haven’t achieved anything. We have never tried pursuing another way at the same time and it’s about time we do.