Closed off, Walled in

Saree Makdisi

Palestinians celebrated as Israel began to withdraw its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip (and from a handful of small and isolated colonies in the northern West Bank). The withdrawal will, it’s true, offer some immediate relief after 38 years of military occupation. At the same time, however, it’s clear that it is designed to serve Israel’s interests, not those of the Palestinians. It will allow the Palestinians of Gaza greater freedom to move about internally, but it will do nothing to resolve their long-term problems; on the contrary, it will leave the territory just as isolated from the outside world – including the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which, with Gaza, were supposed to form the basis of a Palestinian state – and just as much subject to Israeli power.

The Gaza Strip is the unnatural product of the destruction of Palestine in 1948. Most of its inhabitants are descendants of people driven from their homes during the creation of Israel. Most of the Israeli settlers cleared from Gaza will move to the coastal plain south of Jaffa, which is where the refugees of Gaza came from in the first place. Not one Palestinian village there survived the destruction of 1948. The Jewish settlers lived their lives in Gaza in contempt and ignorance of the people at whose expense their fantasy of frontier settlement and biblical prophecy was being played out, and they will be blind to the fact that they will now be living amid the ruins of the homes of their former neighbours.

The Jewish settlers who lived illegally in Gaza will be handsomely compensated (an average family will receive around $350,000, as well as $500 or so as a monthly housing allowance for up to two years). In 1948 Jews took over the homes of some of the 750,000 Palestinians who were driven out of Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, but Palestinians won’t be able to take over the houses in the former settlements in Gaza. Many settlers have destroyed their own homes to stop Palestinians having them, though they will all in any case be reduced to rubble by the army. Palestinians won’t be allowed even to stand on the rubble until a month after the Israelis have rolled up their razor wire and taken their concrete blocks and prefab observation towers to the West Bank, from which they have no intention of withdrawing.

The current withdrawal will, however, end some of the disruptions of life for the Palestinians of Gaza (and for those in the area of Jenin, whose lives were held hostage to the whims of four tiny Jewish settlements in the West Bank that have also been dismantled). For the first time in years, they will be free from constant Israeli supervision and harassment: they will be able to go for an evening stroll; to swim in the sea or to fish (indeed, they will be able to use the beaches for bathing, rather than as secondary roads); or to visit friends without having to run the gauntlet of checkpoints and patrols.

The Jewish settlers of Gaza had access to five times as much water and 700 times more land per capita than the local Palestinians. By the end of the so-called peace process in 2000, 0.5 per cent of the territory’s population controlled about 40 per cent of its surface area. Israeli rule, and the Oslo Accords which cemented the occupation, broke the Gaza Strip into four discontinuous chunks separated by Israeli roads, military installations and settlements. A network of Israeli checkpoints, open at haphazard times, severely limited the movement of Palestinians. A student from Gaza City attending classes in nearby Rafah would have to start walking to school at 3 a.m. in order to have any hope of getting to class on time – and to leave by 4 p.m. to be home by midnight. Ambulances were routinely held up at checkpoints. Since 2000, more than eighty Palestinians have died because they were not allowed through. According to the UN Population Fund, 56 Palestinian babies were born at Israeli checkpoints between late 2000 and summer 2003. Almost half of them died, and 19 women died in childbirth at checkpoints.

Such scenes may now be avoided, but even under optimal circumstances – and it remains to be seen how comprehensive the withdrawal will actually be – there are vast obstacles facing the Palestinians. The most recent World Bank assessment of the Palestinian economy, for example, found that average incomes have declined by more than a third since 2000. Nearly half of all Palestinians live below the poverty line of two dollars a day (and the proportion in Gaza is worse than in the West Bank, at 75 per cent). Recent studies have documented alarming rates of malnutrition in the Occupied Territories, especially among children. ‘The precipitator of this economic crisis,’ according to the World Bank, ‘has been “closure” … Closures, including the Separation Barrier, prevent the free flow of Palestinian economic transactions; they raise the cost of doing business and disrupt the predictability needed for orderly economic life.’

Before the Oslo peace process started, it was possible for Palestinians to move between the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel. Israel used the Palestinians as a source of cheap labour and the Occupied Territories as a captive market. A quarter of a million Palestinians – between a third and a half of the workforce – used to support their families by working in Israel. Today, only 15,000 Palestinians are legally allowed to work in Israel. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who were once able to work in the Gulf and send money home have had to move back (250,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait after the first Gulf War). Unemployment in the Occupied Territories is now around 30 per cent, and again, the situation in Gaza is worse than in the West Bank.

The future of Gaza – and the reality of Israel’s ‘disengagement’ – depends on what happens in the city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. Apart from the two or three crossings that allow access to Israel for the relatively small number of permit-holding Palestinians, Rafah is the only link between the 1.4 million people of Gaza and the outside world. It has also been one of the focal points of Israel’s systematic programme of house demolition. Two thirds of the 2500 houses that the Israeli army has demolished in Gaza since 2000 – leaving 25,000 Palestinians homeless once again, and uncompensated once again – were in Rafah. Some of them were destroyed as collective punishment; many others in order to provide soldiers with clear sight lines or to make space for border patrols.

Until 2000, almost half a million people passed through the Rafah border post each year. That number has dropped by half as Israel has tightened its grip on Gaza. In 2004, the crossing was closed for one stretch of almost three weeks and another of more than a month. Men between the ages of 15 and 35 are routinely denied permission to cross; so, often, are women of the same age. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 480,278 Gazans, a third of the population, are aged between 15 and 35.

One of the key features of disengagement was to have been the handover of the Rafah border post to the Palestinian authorities, who would – according to the terms of an Israeli plan – have been supervised by international inspectors. However, Israel is now insisting on closing the Rafah terminal altogether and opening a new three-way crossing, under its control, where the borders of Israel, Egypt and Gaza meet. If the Egyptians don’t agree to this plan, Israel is threatening to seal off Gaza from the east and make the Karni and Erez crossings into Israel the only ways out. Such behaviour would make clear that Israel has not disengaged from Gaza after all, and should still be regarded as an occupying power there, as in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Gaza would then have to be recognised for what it is: an enormous open-air prison.

The suggestion that the withdrawal from Gaza is a sign of hope for the peace process – or even the beginning of the end of the occupation – is absurd. The Israelis have, for once, been brutally honest about this. ‘The understandings between the US president and me protect Israel’s most essential interests,’ Sharon said in December 2004: ‘first and foremost, not demanding a return to the ’67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.’ As the withdrawal from Gaza got underway, Israel’s minister of defence, Shaul Mofaz, announced bluntly that Israel intended to hold on to the core of the settlements in the West Bank – about half the territory. Withdrawal from Gaza will allow Israel to concentrate on fulfilling the Allon Plan of 1967, its original scheme for disposing of the West Bank by annexing most of the land and handing back the leftovers to Jordan or Palestinian self-rule. The Palestinians will now be dispersed between an isolated Gaza, bits and pieces of the West Bank and an isolated east Jerusalem. Oslo and Camp David repackaged this basic idea. Sharon is just less subtle than Rabin, Peres and Barak.

The strategic thinking underlying disengagement has been spelled out by one of Sharon’s advisers, Arnon Soffer of Haifa University. ‘When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,’ Soffer told an interviewer from the Jerusalem Post recently. ‘Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.’ Soffer has one worry. ‘The only thing that concerns me,’ he says, ‘is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.’ The ultimate purpose of all this is not merely separation, but what the Israelis call transfer, the completion of the ethnic cleansing project begun in 1948. ‘Unilateral separation doesn’t guarantee “peace”,’ Soffer says. ‘It guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews; it guarantees the kind of safety that will return tourists to the country; and it guarantees one other important thing. Between 1948 and 1967, the [border] fence was a fence, and 400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come into Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait, or London. I believe that there will be movement out of the area.’ ‘Voluntary transfer?’ the interviewer asked. ‘Yes,’ Soffer replied.

Israel’s so-called disengagement from the Palestinians – whatever its short-term benefits for the people of Gaza – is not designed to bring peace to anyone. It is designed to cement Israel’s grip on the core of the West Bank around an artificially expanded and systematically de-Arabised Jerusalem. Like the scrappy settlements abandoned near Jenin, Gaza is to be given up so that Israel can consolidate its hold over the much more valuable land and aquifers of the West Bank; Palestinians will be confined to walled-in ghettoes. Genuine peace – beginning with a genuine end to the occupation – is a distant prospect.