The Gaza challenge

DAMOUR, before the Lebanese civil war, was a pleasant little town on the Lebanese coast situated about half way between Beirut and Sidon. It was known as a pit stop for travellers heading to or from Beirut, a quiet place where they could pick up sandwiches, bananas and lemonade. After the war it became known as a favourite stomping ground of the Israeli air force out to retaliate for Palestinian attacks against its positions in northern Israel.

By Claude Salhani

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Published: Fri 19 Aug 2005, 11:21 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:11 PM

Damour had the unfortunate destiny of being populated by mostly Christians, and the even greater misfortune of having former President Camille Chamoun’s residence in nearby Saadiyat. Those two factors would play a big role in the town’s misfortune.

When the Christian militias attacked Qarantina, a mega-slum in east Beirut inhabited by Palestinian refugees, stateless Arabs, Kurds and other rejects of Lebanon’s society, massacring hundreds of its inhabitants, and then bulldozed the ruins to the ground, the Muslim-Palestinian alliance felt they needed to retaliate.

Damour became the preferred target. After the slaughter of humans and animals was completed, the Palestinians went through the town systematically destroying every house, burning, looting, stealing electric cables off the walls and faucets out of their fixtures. They then set about defecating in the empty houses, after a final touch of adding graffiti to the walls. Oh, one very last touch; the city’s name, Damour, which appeared on a blue road sign delimiting the entrances to the town was crossed over with big X in black paint, and the word "Mudamara" or Destroyed, was painted over Damour.

Only then, did the Palestinians bring the refugees from Qarantina to re-settle them in the filth that had become Damour. Had the Palestinians saved the city they could have housed their refugees in ease and comfort, rather that grime, garbage and debris.

This story of Damour is now ancient history but it is important to point it out at this juncture because with the departure of some 8,000 Israeli settlers from 21 settlements, the Palestinians will have the opportunity to demonstrate to themselves first, and to the Israelis and the outside world that they have matured since Damour.

As Dennis Ross, a former US Middle East negotiator points out in the San Mercury News: "If they (the Palestinians) can show the world and the Israeli public that they can govern Gaza effectively and fulfil their security obligations, they will be in a strong position to argue that the Gaza model should also be applied to the West Bank. If they cannot, if Gaza devolves into chaos and violence, who is going to argue for Israel’s turning over more territory for an eventual Palestinian state?"

In other words, please, not another Damour. In fact, the ones who are going to demolish the Israeli settlements this time are the Israeli themselves.

"The real story is how the Palestinians will handle this," Edward Walker Jr. president of the Middle East Institute, a former US Ambassador who served in Israel and Egypt, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told me. What Walker means is if the Palestinians will try to show they are able to adequately manage territory handed back to them, and in what manner will they govern those areas? Will the transition be smooth, or will the extremists get away with fomenting trouble and inciting violence?

In fact, there is much more at stake for the Palestinians in this withdrawal than there was in Damour.

One pertinent question is if Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza after 38 years of military occupation be claimed as a unilateral victory by Hamas?

Will the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza offer the region a new chance for peace? Or will it instead, plunge the Middle East into greater turmoil and violence if Palestinian Islamist groups perceive this as a sign of weakness from Israel?

"Thus far Abu Mazen has done a fabulous job getting the (Palestinian) security forces into consultations with the Israelis. So far he has been able to meet the test," said Walker.

But tests in the Middle East have a habit of being tricky at the best of times.

Following Israel’s evacuation of south Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah claimed it was their unrelenting harassment of Israeli troops that forced out Israel. The Shia paramilitary group claimed it was the first real military victory by Arab forces over Israel.

Now Israel fears the same could happen with the Gaza pullout.

"I think that Hamas are smart and have smart people who will try to paint it (the withdrawal) as a victory. Just because you get rid of settlers does not mean you get rid of the occupation. The Israelis have the capacity to run back in," said Walker.

If all goes well with the withdrawal — and the Gaza pullout is "Gaza First, not Gaza Last," it could re-ignite the stalled peace talks. "If the pull out is successful, and people see it’s quieter, it could embolden moderates on both sides," said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The world will be looking at the Palestinians to see how they react. This could be the chance they have been waiting for to prove themselves.

Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington

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