It is a remarkable feat of illusionary politics to present the 8,000 or so illegal Israeli settlers of Gaza as “victims” during the recent process of disengagement. Mainly lost in the media shuffle was the fact that Israel defied United Nations Security Council decisions and world opinion by establishing settlements in occupied Palestinian territory after the 1967 war. The establishment of such settlements for the civilian population of an occupying power is clearly prohibited by international law as set forth in Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In addition to the illegality, it was a bizarre idea to impose an Israeli civilian presence on the already crowded Gaza Strip, which has long been one of the most densely populated places on earth. The twenty-five-mile strip now contains 1.3 million Palestinians, well more than half living in miserable refugee camps, with some estimates running as high as 85 percent. It was extremely costly for Israel to protect the twenty-one settlements in Gaza, it was unpopular with most Israelis, it was a demoralizing duty for the Israel Defense Forces and it was a constant source of grisly photos exhibiting the daily cruelties of the occupation.

Despite the moving TV scenes of Jews being forcibly evacuated by Jewish soldiers, Israel’s motives all along were essentially cynical: using expendable settlements, and now disengagement, to create a bargaining chip intended to solidify Israel’s hold on the West Bank. The Gaza settlers were indeed dupes of the larger Israeli vision of occupation, at least to the extent that they were led by the government to believe that the settlements would never be relinquished. Ariel Sharon fed such expectations a few years back when he proclaimed that the isolated and embattled settlement of Netzarim was as integral to the Israeli state as was Tel Aviv itself. But this weak form of victimization (remember that the settlers are being generously compensated and evicted with a maximum reliance on persuasion, compassion and tact) must be contrasted with the super-strong victimization of the Palestinians over the course of decades (including mass expulsions by force; repeated house demolitions without compensation or alternate housing; years of unpunished and provocative settler violence against Palestinian civilians; and an array of hardships arising from IDF protection of these long-beleaguered settlements).

Whether this is truly “disengagement” can also be questioned: Israel will retain complete control of Gaza’s borders, as well as of its entire airspace and coastal waters. In crucial respects, the prisonlike character of Gaza will reflect a shift in the security arrangements inside the region, nothing more. Henceforth, the supervision of the Palestinian prison in Gaza will be the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, with the prison walls and guard towers under the jurisdiction of the Israelis, who may also retain control of a security strip in the south separating Gaza from Egypt. And Gaza is to be permanently demilitarized and without weaponry, except light arms in the hands of authorized Palestinian security forces. Israel claims a continuing right to use force within Gaza either preventively or reactively at any time and place of its choosing. Under these conditions neither international law nor common sense would treat the Gaza disengagement as the end of Israeli occupation. It is a shift to a less oppressive form of occupation, allowing greater Palestinian mobility, eliminating internal checkpoints and easing the ordeal of daily life in the impoverished circumstances of the Gazans, but in the end Israel retains control.

Worse than all this, and more consequential for the future, is the deal that Israel has struck to proceed with its Gaza plan. This was not a result of negotiations with the Palestinians but a bargain struck over their heads, with Washington. The initiative was shaped unilaterally by the Israelis, for their own purposes. From its outset the Gaza disengagement was a gigantic exercise in diversionary politics: It removed the critical international gaze from the illegal Israeli separation wall in the West Bank, which is designed to join the bulk of the settler population irreversibly to pre-1967 Israel while imposing major new hardships on tens of thousands of Palestinians. At the same time, Israel brazenly continues with the expansion of West Bank/East Jerusalem settlements and their populations, already now numbering about 400,000.

More than this, George W. Bush wrote a letter to Sharon on April 14, 2004, approving Israeli retention of West Bank settlement blocs while praising Sharon’s courage, giving Israel a huge political victory. It represents a fundamental scaling back of what the Palestinians can reasonably expect from an eventual peace agreement, and even makes it appear unrealistic to demand the removal of these settlements as integral to the success of a revived bilateral peace process. It stretches reason to the breaking point to argue that the removal of a small number of illegal and dysfunctional settlements will provide the political foundation for the normalization of several hundred West Bank settlements. That this was allowed to happen also displays both the weakness of Palestinian diplomacy and the one-sidedness of the American approach. In addition, Israel is treated by much of the world’s media as having regained the moral and peace initiative by these much-publicized Gaza moves, perversely putting pressure on the Palestinians to make a concession to the Israelis in response.

The settler resistance to the Gaza disengagement was intended to inhibit any future plan to dislodge settlers from the main West Bank settlements. The settler movement undoubtedly wanted to drive home the point by creating a spectacle of resistance in Gaza of such magnitude that any Israeli leader who attempted a future disengagement on a bigger scale would be finished, at least politically, if not physically. In this sense the Gaza disengagement appears inseparable from de facto annexation of a significant portion of the West Bank and the end, not the beginning, of the Palestinian dream of a viable sovereign state. If this occurs Palestinians will be pushed even further toward Hamas. As Marwan Bishara suggests (see “Disengagement From Peace?”, such a development is sure to ignite a third intifada, which will exhibit total Palestinian disillusionment with the phony allures of a “peace process” and the “road map.” It is deeply ironic that Israeli religious extremists are unwittingly strengthening extremist elements on the Palestinian side, and vice versa. An overly attentive world media helps to further inflame young minds on both sides, muting moderate voices.

For all this, the Gaza disengagement can still be welcomed, even celebrated, for the temporary and partial relief that it brings to the long-tormented Gazan population. But more fully considered, this disengagement represents a dangerous step backward in the struggle to find a just peace for these two peoples based on sovereign equality, respect for international law and fair solutions to the status of Jerusalem and the claims of Palestinian refugees. The sooner these core issues are addressed, the better the prospects for avoiding new cycles of violence, extremism and despair, especially on the Palestinian side. Sadly, the Gaza disengagement makes such clarity even less likely than it was during the dismal decades of Israeli settlement and brutal administrative control.