Israel + 1 more

OPT: Officials see better economy, security as keys to Gaza withdrawal

Special Envoy Wolfensohn, Assistant Secretary Welch address Senate hearing

By David Shelby, Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Improved economic circumstances for the Palestinians and improved security for Israelis are the keys to the success of Israel's upcoming disengagement from Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank, according to the Quartet's Special Envoy for Disengagement James Wolfensohn.

"Palestinians must feel that the day after disengagement they have hope for increased prosperity and opportunity, not that they are living in a prison," Wolfensohn told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing June 30. "The Israelis must believe they will be able to live securely beside a Gaza and West Bank controlled by strong Palestinian institutions."

The Quartet for Middle East peace, which includes the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, appointed Wolfensohn to coordinate efforts between the Palestinians and the Israelis in preparation for Israel's planned mid-August withdrawal.

Speaking at the same hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch agreed that the security situation and Palestinian economic growth are the "main challenges to be addressed between now and mid-August."

Welch welcomed recent steps by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to reform the Palestinian security forces, including his decision to replace some senior security officials and consolidate the forces under the authority of Interior Minister Nasser Yussif. He said, however, that the forces still lack a unified command structure and do not respond appropriately to the official chain of command. He mentioned that the forces have not been entirely effective in addressing a recent increase in violence in Gaza and the West bank.

Welch said that the Palestinians must experience a tangible improvement in their economic situation after the withdrawal for the measure to be successful.

"Part of our definition of success is that Gaza function as an economic entity. And that means that there has to be access in and out, in a way that helps the economy, not just keeps it where it is. There has to be some economic interaction with the West Bank as well, and there has to be connectivity with Egypt," he said.

Wolfensohn identified six issues that he said would "make or break" the process: smoothly functioning border crossings between Gaza and Israel and Gaza and Egypt; the free movement of goods and people between Gaza and the West Bank; the free movement of people within the West Bank; the development of Palestinian air and sea ports with direct access to third countries; the disposition of houses in the Israeli settlements; and the disposition of greenhouses in the Israeli settlements.

Wolfensohn said the free flow of goods and people between Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and surrounding countries is important for the development of the Palestinian economy. He said the Israelis have agreed that the Gaza airport should be rebuilt and that a seaport should be constructed.

He said that both parties have agreed that the settlers' houses should be destroyed because they are not appropriate for Gaza's high population density. "[T]he Palestinians will be best served by a land development strategy of their own design, tailored to meet their specific needs," he said. However, the settlers' greenhouses could have economic value for the Palestinians, he said.

Welch said that the Palestinians and the Israelis alone would not be able to return the Palestinian economy to a stable footing. "Four years of intifada-induced economic decline have left over two-thirds of Gazans in poverty," he said. "Declining revenue has left the Palestinian Authority with a $660 million shortfall in its budget this year, according to IMF estimates." Welch said that Palestinian economic development would require the support of the entire international community.

Wolfensohn listed three key areas in which the international community should help the Palestinian Authority rehabilitate its economy. First, he said, international donors should help the Palestinians bridge their current budgetary shortfall. Second, he said, the Palestinian Authority should develop a medium-term development plan that international donors could use to target and coordinate their assistance.

Finally, he said, the international community should invest in quick-impact economic programs. "Disengagement needs to be accompanied by an immediate, demonstrable change in living conditions if it is to resonate with the Palestinian people. A sharp increase in job opportunities would provide this sense of change and hope," he said.

Welch said a successful Gaza disengagement is a crucial step toward the final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"[A] successful Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and an orderly Palestinian takeover there will help to re-energize the road map and bring us closer to realizing the president's two-state vision," he said.

Wolfensohn also underscored the importance of success and the need for the international community to show its complete political and financial commitment to the process.

"If ever there was a time in the self-interest of the world to try and put this right, it is my judgment that it is now," he said. "And that's where we have to try and convince the wealthy countries and the Arab nations that now is the time to do it, because if you don't, we're going to have a constant problem in the area."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: