Gaza’s withdrawal symptoms
Israel's unilateralism during the disengagement doomed the Strip
Abu Salach's little café barely qualified for the title. With a couple of plastic tables shaded from the fierce Gaza sun by a grapevine trellis, the only goods on sale were minibar-sized bottles of soda, lemonade, and plates of near-inedible hummus. But he had big plans. His neighbours in the nearby settlement of Shirat Hayam were being turfed out - hence the boost in custom from journalists and IDF spokesmen - and he was going to get back access to the stunning beach, just two minutes away.
A fish restaurant was what he planned, right on the shore. His brother, working in the Gulf, had already saved several thousand dollars to fund it.
"Come back in a year," he boasted in near-perfect Hebrew. "No, less than that. Nine months. Come back and see what we have built here."
That conversation, almost exactly three years ago, seems ludicrously naïve now. It is doubtful that Abu Salach managed to fulfil his dream, although his life might be quieter, at least. Abu Salach claimed settlers had set fire to his previous restaurant, and indeed, in between building rather pointless roadblocks to deter the IDF, teenagers amused themselves by torching their Palestinian neighbours' palm trees.
And yet, the disengagement saw Israel at its best. The army's performance was impeccable. Thousands of conscripts calmly dealt with crowds of organised settler youth barraging them with insults and worse. Female settlers were carried out by women soldiers who solicitously rearranged long skirts dislodged by screaming and thrashing. In the midst of apparent chaos, the task was done and everyone went home safely after a lot of tears - many from the soldiers doing the evicting.
But it also saw Israel at its worst. Not in its treatment of the settler-protestors, who so blithely exploited Holocaust imagery with their anti-disengagement orange Star of David patches. Not in its hasbarah - journalists were allowed unfettered access to this very human story.
No, the disengagement saw Israeli decision-making at its most arrogant and short-sighted. Like its architect, Ariel Sharon, it combined brilliant tactics with an utter lack of strategy. Infatuated with unilateralism, Israel thought it could go it alone. Yasser Arafat had been isolated - and inconveniently died. The faultlessly moderate Mahmoud Abbas then won faultlessly fair elections. Having worked so hard to solidify the "there is no one to talk to" mantra - partly justifying the whole disengagement anyway - Jerusalem then had to follow it through.
If bilateralism was allowed to sneak in, the Palestinians might have demanded concessions and negotiations. So there were none. Gaza was not handed over to the PA. Nothing was done to legitimise, let alone strengthen, the elected authority in the Strip. Could an orderly handover have helped the transition, kept Gaza working, derailed first the Hamas election success and then the putsch of June 2006?
We will never know. Three years on, Israel still controls Gaza's borders and the passage of people and goods, and Gaza continues to be a thorn in Israel's side. No amount of forward planning could have placated the more fanatical settlers, some still living in caravillas as they demand the government build special box-fresh communities for them, despite the pleas of city planners and environmentalists. Even this week, a group of die-hards insisted they would return to Gaza, still imbued by "a national mission and divine commandment", as they put it - or perhaps the intense nostalgia for the sprawling villas, subsidised industries, and cheap Palestinian labour they once enjoyed. And so near the beach too!
The IDF's targeted killings, incursions and raids did not succeed in stopping or slowing the hail of Kassam rockets beleaguering the citizens of the Negev. Only a negotiated ceasefire with Hamas stopped the missiles. Unilateralism, in other words, failed again.
Who knows what has happened to Abu Salach, the kind of small businessman that Tony Blair and the World Bank fall over themselves to support. Gaza is now mostly too dangerous to enter and three years on, his invitation remains unfulfilled.