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Beware of the Gaza trap

By Dr. Rand H. Fishbein. From Israel Insider, April 11, 2004.

In the coming days Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to meet with President George Bush to finalize arrangements for a unilateral Israeli pull out from the Gaza Strip. Under the Sharon plan, Israel would withdraw its military forces from Gaza, remove all Jewish settlements and permit the Palestinians to administer the area as they see fit. The suggestion that Egypt might assume responsibility for Gaza has been rejected by the Mubarak Government.

Is a Gaza withdrawal a good idea? Well it may be for the Prime Minister and for some of his close supporters, but it most certainly is not for the U.S. President and the war on terrorism. More to the point, President Bush's cooperation in this plan may put him in jeopardy of violating the very anti-terrorism statutes he is sworn to uphold. As a consequence, U.S. national security could be significantly undermined. The political cost to the President could be enormous.

The problem is this. An Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will leave the territory effectively under the control of the most radical elements in Palestinian society. Given the growing strength of Hamas, Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad, it is likely that one or more of these groups would emerge as the de facto authority in this lawless land.

The trouble is that all three organizations are included on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. This means that no U.S. citizen, business or agency of government may engage in any activity which directly or indirectly supports or sustains a relationship with these organizations. This includes the President of the United States.

Such activity effectively promotes terrorism, thereby giving aid and comfort to an enemy of the United States. It might even be the case that the use of U.S. appropriated funds to support the Bush-Sharon diplomatic initiative falls within the prohibition.

The U.S. has designated Hamas a Foreign Terrorist Organization (66 Fed. Reg. 51088) and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order 13224, "Blocking Property and Prohibiting Transactions with Persons who Commit, or Support Terrorism."

By acceding to Sharon's withdrawal plan, and with no legal safeguards in place, President Bush could be seen as assisting in the establishment of a terrorist haven in the heart of the Middle East. For without the President's agreement and promises of aid, it is unlikely that Sharon would be willing to go forward with his initiative. In effect, the U.S. President becomes the necessary and essential catalyst that allows terrorist forces to seize control of Gaza.

President Bush may find it difficult to explain to a skeptical public why it was important to destroy the terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan and Iraq while at the same time he is permitting it to flourish in Gaza.

President Bush's critics are sure to charge that his endorsement of the Sharon plan for Gaza does little but give a green light to terrorism. A large body of legal experts is likely to agree. For it is not simply a question of intent, but rather a matter of what the practical effects of the new policy would be. And those effects are both clear and foreseeable.

Sharon's plan is likely to facilitate the ascendancy and political cohesion of Gaza's terrorist organizations, enhancing their prestige, bolstering their recruitment and reinforcing their belief that future gains are possible in their war against Israel and the U.S. Gains of this sort would leave the Administration open to the accusation that it violated U.S. law knowing full well the likely consequences of its actions.

This is particularly true since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would take place outside of any legal or international framework. By making the U.S. President a party to his plan, Sharon is helping to create the perception, albeit unwittingly, that the U.S. is an accessory to terrorism, not its fiercest opponent.

Moreover, it also is difficult to see how the empowerment of terrorist organizations like Hamas would advance the President's own Roadmap to Peace initiative. A unilateral action by the Israelis runs contrary to the negotiated process and timetables set forth in the initiative.

Understandably, many Palestinians are concerned that a sudden Israeli pull out from Gaza will plunge the area into anarchy, leading only to a weakening of the economy and a further deterioration in an already crippled service infrastructure.

If he agrees to back Sharon, President Bush could find himself in a situation remarkably similar to that faced by President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal. Though it was U.S. policy not to deal with terrorist states or their surrogates, Reagan and his aides found themselves doing just that when they sold American weapons to the Iranian Government.

It may have been the Administration's purpose to open relations with Teheran and to raise funds for the Contras, but these goals could not obscure the fact that it had engaged in a transaction with a state sponsor of terrorism. This at least was the judgment of the bi-partisan committee investigating the actions of the President and his aides in 1987. The committee concluded that the Administration did just what it swore it would not do and that was to enhance the power and prestige of an avowedly terrorist state through its misguided actions.

Adding to Bush's concerns should be the fact that the Government of Egypt actively supports, or at least acquiesces, in the smuggling of weapons and other contraband to Palestinian terrorist cells operating in Gaza. Egypt permits this activity even though it has a peace treaty with Israel and receives a hefty foreign aid package from the United States totaling roughly $2.3 billion per year.

Today, Israel maintains a security buffer between the Egyptian controlled Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. For years Israel's military has worked to staunch the flow of contraband into Gaza. Their success has been limited in large part due to the lack of cooperation they receive from the Egyptians. Any hope of ending the smuggling will be lost should Israel reduce or abandon its security position along the border with Egypt.

To date the Bush Administration has done little to pressure Egypt to halt its nefarious activities. In fact, it has done just the opposite. The White House recently disclosed that it intends to provide the Mubarak Government with an additional $2 billion in loan guarantees as well as $300 million in special grant aid, amounts in excess of Egypt's annual aid package.

If the Administration believes this latest cash infusion will elicit greater cooperation from Cairo it is sorely mistaken. With Israel out of Gaza, Egypt will be able to act with impunity, escalating its support for the very terrorist forces that both the U.S. and Israel are now fighting.

The message being received in Cairo is clear. America is unwilling to hold Egypt to account. And though the actions of the Mubarak Government are avowedly antagonistic to America's broader interests in the region they nonetheless have the tacit, if not overt, blessing of the U.S. Government.

Before endorsing the Sharon plan, the White House should consider how its actions would contribute to the growth of the very terrorist forces that American soldiers are now fighting against throughout the Middle East. It is not enough for the President to oppose terrorism when it's convenient. His administration must fight the battle consistently and forcefully even if it means opposing the policies of a friendly government. In this case it means saying "No" to Sharon and his Gaza withdrawal plan before it's too late.

Rand H. Fishbein, Ph.D. is President of Fishbein Associates, Inc., a public policy consulting firm based in Potomac, Maryland. He is a former Professional Staff Member (Majority) of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and a former Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to Senator Daniel K. Inouye.