About two weeks ago, Israel started its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip after an occupation that lasted for 38 years. The withdrawal was not only limited to military personnel, but also a pullout of about 5,000 Jewish settlers who used to live there in well guarded settlements.
The pullout itself is definitely a remarkable step toward making peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis if it is to be followed by a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, which is an occupied Palestinian territory as well.
Nevertheless, the pullout is a joyous event for the Gaza residents. It is the first time they’ve seen a visible light at the end of the tunnel since 1993, when the Palestinians and the Israelis signed the Declaration of Principles on Self Government Arrangements. It gives them hope to live a decent life away from the restrictions and the difficulties of the occupation.
It is going to be the first time many Gazans to go to their farms and fields that were taken from them by Israel in order to build settlements and military bases. In addition, it would be the first time for the 1,400,000 residents of Gaza to travel within their territory, which is about twice the size of Washington, D.C., freely without getting stuck on checkpoints for hours in order to complete a journey that would normally take about 20 minutes.
Moreover, the Israeli withdrawal will open the door for the Palestinians of Gaza to start focusing more on solving their domestic problems, which worsened under the occupation rather, than dealing with the occupation itself. One of the more pressing problem is the high unemployment rate that reaches 50 percent and the fact that 81 percent of the residents of Gaza Strip are below the poverty line.
Although the pullout from Gaza is such a courageous and pragmatic step done by Israel, we all need to realize that it is not enough to make peace between the Israelis on one side and the Palestinians and the Arabs on the other. There are still Arab occupied lands such as the Palestinian West Bank, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Lebanese Sheb’a Farms that Israel needs to withdraw from.
On this occasion, let me focus on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, giving the fact that they are the most crucial at this time.
The West Bank, which was occupied along with East Jerusalem by Israel in 1967, is far larger than the Gaza Strip and is more populated. It is slightly smaller than the state of Delaware with a population of about 2,400,000.
I hope that the pullout from Gaza will be followed by a similar one from the West Bank. Without establishing a sovereign and well-functioning Palestinian state on Palestinian lands that were occupied by Israel in 1967 and that include Gaza Strip and the West Bank, there will be no peace in the Middle East. Not to mention the fact that it would also affect our interests as Americans in that region.
Having a Palestinian state is becoming more vital to serve our interests in the Middle East. The people of the Middle East are thirsty for democracy and human rights, and promoting those goals will do a lot to fix the image of the United States in that region.
And who knows: Promoting democracy through Palestine could be an easier task than doing it through troubled Iraq!
Furthermore, I want to explain the importance of founding a Palestinian state. Let me share with you my views about the current situation. Having been raised and lived so many years in the Middle East I learned to be cautious towards politics and not to be too optimistic, and what I have been witnessing for the past few years support my feelings.
Since the Israeli government declared its plan to withdraw from Gaza a year and a half ago it has built more settlements in the West Bank and expanded the existing ones especially those surrounding East Jerusalem.
Since then 18,000 Israeli settlers moved into the West Bank to live there illegally on Palestinian lands and to destroy the remaining hope of peace.
The Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced many times that his country would keep the West Bank forever and would never withdraw from it. The international community and the United States specifically have a great obligation to help the two sides to create a peace that would be a great profit for the Middle East and the United States as well.
With the new Palestinian leadership that is committed to making peace now more than ever before, what we need is a new Israeli leadership that truly wants to share the land and security with its neighbors. We don’t need to be playing more games of withdrawing from Gaza while planning to keep the West Bank.
Omar Mudallal is a senior biology major.