In May of 2000, the Lebanese-based Hezbollah terrorist group faced an unexpected challenge. Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon has threatened to pull the raison d'etre for its existence out from under its feet. After all, what can an organization that dedicated its life to fighting the "Israeli occupation of Lebanon" do after the last Israeli solider shut the border gate and the UN announced that Israel is in full compliance with Security Council resolution 425, recognizing the Israeli-Lebanese permanent border in the north? How about fighting for Jerusalem?
Organizations have a life of their own – and certainly "vision" driven groups like Hezbollah will not falter on technicalities. Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, was quick to announce that the group will not lay down its arms until Israel leaves the Shaba farms, Syrian land that is located at the Golan Heights under Israeli control. Since then, Hezbollah, a group responsible for the killing of more than 800 people in the Middle East, Europe and South America, has only increased its activities. It did so not only in Lebanon, but also in the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas and in Iraq.
Likewise, many Palestinians have found themselves baffled facing the successful completion of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. Although much of this move was coordinated with the Palestinian Authority (PA), the reality of Israeli-free Gaza appeared to have taken many by surprise. The fact that the Israelis are no longer there was evident by the launch of a week of "festivities" that included the burning of synagogues, factories and other public buildings that could otherwise have been put to use for the emerging Palestinian state. But again, the fact that the last Israeli solider shut the Gaza gate for the very last time is nothing but a technicality. As in Lebanon, this should not mean that the occupation is over.
The occupation is something that many Palestinians are unwilling to see as over. Civil Affairs Minister Mohammad Dahlan stated "Israel is deceiving itself if it believes that occupying Gaza Strip has now ended." PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas added that "the legal status of the areas slated for evacuation has not changed."
More importantly, Hamas, whose latest action was the launch of over 30 rockets toward Israeli communities surrounding Gaza, was quick to announce that the occupation is not yet over. Hamas, which is looking to participate in the upcoming Palestinian elections, equates the end of the occupation with the end of Israel.
As long as Palestinians cling to the notion of being "occupied," and Israel remains the "oppressor," we are destined to see more of the dynamics of the past and less of the possibilities of the future.
President Bush is considering calling for a "provisional" Palestinian State, a term that will grant official stature to the Palestinian Control over Gaza. It will also help push the Roadmap for Peace, a plan that calls for the Establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the majority of Judea and Samaria. Palestinian leaders have expressed reservations that can be better understood on the background of the above-described dynamic. Provisional State status means an added layer of responsibility – one that the PA may still not be ready to take. On the other hand, the occupation offers a greater degree of flexibility, since if (and when) things go wrong, there is always Israel to blame.
The "occupation" will end only when the Palestinians have more to look forward to than sending their children to become suicide bombers. Moreover, the PLO covenant still calls for the destruction of Israel. This only underscores how insincere the Abbas leadership is when it comes to taking serious steps towards reform.
In a moment of frustration, following a deadly terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister once called his co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, Yasir Arafat, in an attempt to convince him to act against the network of terror that was growing under his control. The conversation did not go well. Then Peres asked a question that the Palestinians have not answered until this very day. "Mr. Arafat", he asked, "what do you want more: a Palestinian State or a Palestinian struggle?" As long as the Palestinian choice remains one of struggle, the occupation will continue forever regardless of the location of border passes. The occupation in Gaza is over. It is now time to end the self-imposed occupation of the Palestinian mind as well.
Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Asaf Romirowsky is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.