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The `Withdrawal' Hoax in Gaza

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

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Wafaa al-Bahri, a two-year-old Palestinian child, sleeps among the rubble of her home, destroyed by Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip on September 11, 2004.-MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Wafaa al-Bahri, a two-year-old Palestinian child, sleeps among the rubble of her home, destroyed by Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip on September 11, 2004.-MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

IF Bush Jr is a champion of democracy, Ariel Sharon is surely a peacenik. Bush "liberates" the Iraqi people by colonising their country, fanning the flames of a communal civil war and preparing the ground for a client theocratic regime; Sharon "withdraws" from Gaza by turning it into a vast prison and setting the stage for annexation of more than half of the West Bank while dividing the rest into a cluster of emasculated Bantustans.

Some 3,000 journalists from across the world converged on the tiny Gaza Strip to report on the "withdrawal" and, led by CNN and BBC, television viewers across the world were treated to hours upon hours of heart-rending footage of entire settler families evacuating their beloved homes, their tearful children begging to remain in place, youthful Israeli demonstrators being dragged on the streets by Israeli police and army, old men and women congregating on rooftops and in synagogues to refuse evacuation, distraught young women being consoled by sympathetic soldiers, and so on. It was the most carefully orchestrated TV show since the "Shock and Awe" spectacle of the American sack of Baghdad.

No one in this show dared mention that each evacuating Israeli family was to receive between $140,000 and $400,000 for the pain of departing from this illegal occupation to the greener pastures of Israel itself, with the Israeli state spending an average of $1.1 million per family. And as Uri Avnery, a veteran writer who fought for the state of Israel in the war of 1948, which founded the Jewish state, was to point out: "Almost every day, the payoff extorted by the evacuees goes up. A plot of land. A new villa.

Until then, a `mobile villa' that will remain their property. Compensation for lost livelihood. Participation in the costs of the move. More land for agriculturists, two or three times larger than the plot they are leaving."

Nor was this media willing to inform the world about the real disposition of these "settlers". Great reservoirs of sympathy could be generated precisely because there was no historical context for what one was witnessing on the TV screen. As Gideon Levy, another veteran Israeli commentator, was to put it:

"If the media had exposed the full scope of the settlers' deeds over the years - the dubious ways in which they took over land, the huge budgets they received, their violent behaviour - perhaps they would have been denounced long ago, as should be done by a healthy society. If their full story had been told, perhaps we would not have blindly subscribed to the distinction between `moderate' and `extreme' settlers... and we journalists lent a hand to this. For several months, the media has devoted inflated coverage to the suffering of the evacuees, and we are subject to heartrending and senseless descriptions. Every teenage girl from Gush Katif who pours out her heart in a diary is awarded a tear-jerking column, every rabbi becomes a profound philosopher and every housewife an angry prophet. Every piece of land cultivated by Palestinian and Thai workers employed under disgraceful conditions becomes part of the sacred homeland, and the relocation of inhabitants under deluxe terms is presented as uprooting and rending."

This contrasts sharply with what the Palestinians have suffered in that same Gaza Strip. In a piece published in The Guardian and reprinted in The Hindu, Jonathan Steele stated the contrast thus: "As many as 13,350 Palestinians were made homeless in the Gaza Strip in the first 10 months of last year by Israel's giant armour-plated Caterpillar bulldozers - a total that easily exceeds the 8,500 leaving Israeli settlements this week. In Rafah alone, according to figures from the U.N. relief agency UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency], the rate of house demolitions rose from 15 per month in 2002 to 77 per month between January and October 2004." Nor is it just a matter of becoming homeless. In the first ten months after Sharon announced his decision to dismantle the colonial settlements, Israeli forces killed 563 Palestinians in Gaza, whereas during the previous ten months 264 were killed. For the occupied, death itself is routine.

These routines of death are also described by Uri Avnery, in a column on July 2, some six weeks before the "withdrawal":

"All the world saw the horror on TV: a Palestinian boy lying on the ground, unconscious. An Israeli soldier bending over him, not knowing what to do. A settler coming up from behind and throwing a stone at the head of the injured Palestinian. Another settler dropping a big stone on him at point-blank range. A bearded medic, also a settler, approaches the wounded boy, hesitates, and then goes away without treating him, pursued by the chants of a chorus of settler boys and girls: `Let him die! Let him die!' Before that, the settlers occupied a Palestinian house on the Gaza Strip seashore and established an `outpost' there. It was a pretty, new three-story building, whose owners had not yet moved in. On the outer wall a huge [sacrilegious and highly provocative] slogan was painted."

Horrors of this kind are not aberrations but settled official policy. Sharon became Prime Minister in 2001 and said in a famous speech on March 5, 2002: "It won't be possible to reach an agreement with them before the Palestinians are hit hard. If they aren't badly beaten, there won't be any negotiations. Only after they are beaten will we be able to conduct talks. I want an agreement, but first they have to be beaten so they get the thought out of their minds that they can impose an agreement on Israel that Israel does not want."

Well, the "beatings" have been going on since the very inception of the state of Israel, more punctually since Israel occupied the rest of the Palestinian territories in 1967, and with particular intensity since Sharon became Prime Minister but with the full connivance of the Labour Party which in fact joined the previous Sharon government. This is the same Sharon who made an alliance with Gush Emunim (in Hebrew, Bloc of the Faithful), the settler movement led by the religious right, while he was still a General in the Israeli Army and who proudly said in a 1973 newspaper interview: "I confess that I am the initiator of the idea of establishing Jewish settlements in the (Gaza) Strip." That infamous career had already begun while he was still in uniform. Then, as Neve Gordon points out in his insightful essay, "The Militarist and Messianic Ideologies", Sharon initiated a massive settlement enterprise in the Occupied Territories when he became Agriculture Minister in the Menachim Begin government. Whereas Israel had erected 20 settlements in the West Bank between 1967 and 1976 (in addition to those built on confiscated Palestinian land around East Jerusalem), within less than four years Sharon managed to build 62 new settlements. Needless to add, this is also the Sharon who, as Defence Minister, led Israel into the invasion of Lebanon - which led to the destruction of central Beirut and 17 years of occupation of southern Lebanon - and the same Sharon who masterminded the massacre of over 2,000 people in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, for which he was indicted by a commission of inquiry appointed by the Israeli government itself, after which he had to leave government and spend some 18 years out of power.

This same Sharon is being celebrated today by Washington, the European Union and the giant media conglomerates of the West as a heroic peacemaker who has had the wisdom and the courage to offer a stunning peace initiative unilaterally, take on the settler movement and the religious right in his own country, defy the majority of his own party, and actually dismantle the settlements and returning the territory of the Gaza Strip back to the Palestinians, for them to lay the foundations of their state. Has there been a change of heart? To answer that question, one has to look more closely at what Gaza is (and is not) in the history, politics, geography and demography of Palestine as a whole; at the modalities of this "withdrawal"; at what Sharon and his advisers have themselves said about their motives and future projections; and at what is happening in the rest (the bulk) of the Occupied Territories, namely Jerusalem and the West Bank.

LET us begin with the Strip itself. Documentation on the area and Israeli occupation of it is voluminous and no one can pretend to have looked for the facts and not found them. Basic facts are as follows: Gaza is comprised of 365 square kilometres and is a coastal region in the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean, which borders it on the west, while Egypt borders it on the south (11 km) and Israel on the north and east (51 km). All of the Gaza's land borders are surrounded by wire or concrete barriers erected by Israel and only narrow gateways are allowed by the Israeli Army for movement of peoples and goods, through a labyrinth of checkposts, permit systems, searches and so on. Gaza was administered by Egypt after 1949 and was then captured by Israel in 1967 along with the West Bank (part of historic Palestine and bulk of today's Occupied Territories), Golan Heights (part of Syria, which Israel still occupies) and Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt in the late 1970s. Since 1994, the Palestine Authority (P.A.) has been nominally in charge but without any authority to in any way alter the terms of Israeli occupation. Israel's recent "withdrawal" has been unilateral and without any negotiation or agreement with any Palestinian force, and it is therefore unclear who, other than the Israelis, have what authority.

During the 38 years of occupation, Israel built 17 settlements in the Strip, housing close to 8,000 settlers. Estimates of the Palestinian population in Gaza range between 1.1 and 1.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza, while approximately 20 per cent of the territory was taken up by Israeli settlements, bypass roads and military installations. All in all, Gaza is comprised of less than 2 per cent of the territory of historic Palestine, less than 6 per cent of the territories occupied in 1967, but is home to roughly 20 per cent of the Palestinian population, making it the world's most densely populated area. Poverty levels have been rising since the occupation began and then rose sharply when Israel tightened its siege of Gaza in response to the Al-Aqsa Intifada of the past five years, so that more than 77 per cent of Gazans (10,33,500 people) now live below the poverty line - almost double the number before the Intifada. Some 23 per cent of Gazans (over 3,23,000 people) are said to be in "deep poverty", meaning that they do not reach the subsistence poverty line even after receiving aid from international agencies.

Unlike the much larger Occupied Territories of the West Bank, and particularly Jerusalem, Gaza has neither any significant sites of Jewish religious history nor any natural resources other than a coastline. Israel's essential interest in Gaza has been two-fold: Gaza has been historically a hotbed of resistance, with notable presence of Islamic resistance, and it has been a source of cheap labour for the settlers, the Israeli Army itself and the neighbouring areas of Israel itself; paradoxically, of course, the intensity of the resistance itself makes the cheap labour quite unreliable in Israeli eyes. Yitzak Rabin, the late Israeli Prime Minister who was Yasser Arafat's partner in the Oslo Accords, used to say, "Let's throw Gaza into the sea." That is more or less what Sharon is now doing, through the terms of the unilateral "withdrawal", all claims of a `peace initiative' notwithstanding.

The "withdrawal" is "unilateral" because, on the surface, it gives to Bush and Blair the opportunity to claim that they are doing something for the Palestinians, and for Sharon to portray himself as a peacenik while he strengthens his grip on Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank; Palestinians are now expected to reciprocate - make some concessions in response to - this "withdrawal" that has come 38 years too late and is much less than what it is made out to be, as we shall see. But it is also "unilateral" because any negotiation or agreement with a Palestinian body would have meant that Israel too would have to accept some terms laid out by the other side. Now, Israel is just free to do as it wishes.

Politically, Israel hopes that in the vacuum it has created and in which it has handed over authority to no one, there would be fratricidal combat among the Palestinians themselves - notably Hamas, the Islamicist group, and Mahmoud Abbas' own P.A. - for control of whatever Israel has given up. Indeed, P.A. begged to be made a partner in this "withdrawal" and the request was turned down by Sharon. United Press International recently reported a press conference held by Saeb Erekat, a very senior official of the P.A. He told journalists of a visit he paid to Sharon a year and a half ago, in which he claimed to have said to Sharon: "We want to be your partner in this. Please. Weigh the consequences of what you call unilateral steps. We don't want Palestinian extremists to stand up in Gaza and say this is the result of suicide bombers and Qassam (rocket attacks)." Sharon did not listen to such pleading, and the irony of it is that on the day after the "withdrawal" Abbas addressed his supporters in Gaza and himself said that the "withdrawal" was an achievement of the "martyrs". Further irony of course is that having given the credit for the "liberation" of Gaza to those who died in armed combat, he has also committed himself to use full powers of the P.A. to curb all armed combat against Israel. No wonder Abbas is Israel's - and Washington's favourite Palestinian.

That is part of the political side. In other matters, the same meeting of the Israeli Cabinet which accepted the "withdrawal" proposal also stipulated that Israel would maintain troops on the border between Gaza and Egypt for the foreseeable future, that Israel must continue to control who enters and exits Gaza through Egypt and proposed a new border crossing at Kerem Shalom where Israel, Gaza and Egypt meet, and that Israel would allow Gaza to have three miles of territorial waters, after which Israel would control the sea. In addition, Israel will continue to control Gaza's airspace. In short, Gaza will be completely encircled by an Israeli fence, as well as Israeli troops who will control all entry and exit to and from Gaza. Israel will similarly control Gaza's skies and seas, and Gazans will need Israeli permission to build or operate any port or airport facilities, to move in or out of the territory, to import or export goods, and so on. Furthermore, Israel has declared that it retains the "right" to reoccupy Gaza at any time it sees fit. Even the World Bank reported in December 2004 that both poverty and unemployment will rise following the "withdrawal" because Israel will retain not only full control over the movement of goods in and out of Gaza but will also maintain an enforced separation of the West Bank and Gaza, preventing free exchange of people and goods between these zones and thus blocking the rise of complementary economies in the two areas.

We can have some sense of how much of a hoax this withdrawal is from the fencing activity that has been under way. Thus, the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) has begun to erect a three-line-fence equipped with barbed wire along the Israeli border with Gaza and plans to build a water barrier along the borders with Egypt. The plan is to erect two more fences parallel to the already existing fence on one side of Gaza Strip, while seven-metres-high cement walls will be built in some areas behind the fence, and this whole complex will be equipped with watchtowers and remotely controlled guns, sensor devices and reconnaissance cameras will be erected at a distance of 70 to 150 metres from the east of the already existing fence.

In view of all these plans and activities, the International Committee of the Red Cross sent a confidential position paper to the Israeli government earlier this year, making clear that the removal of the Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza will not end the occupation, and went on to say that "Israel will retain significant control over the Gaza Strip, which will enable it to exercise key elements of authority. Thus... it seems at this stage the Gaza Strip will remain occupied for the purposes of international humanitarian law." This view is shared among a wide variety of agencies involved in the workings of international law.

WHY, then, did Sharon come up with this hoax. Some of the reasons we have indicated already. Having become completely mired and discredited in Iraq, Bush and Blair were clamouring for some progress in their "peace and democracy" project in West Asia, and, with handsome backing from the corporate global media, they, as well as Sharon, could now claim a "peace initiative". Gaza was in any case of no religious significance or economic interest for Israel and, as Sharon said explicitly, the demographic ratio between some 8,000 settlers and over a million Palestinians there was such that no number of Jewish settler colonies could create a Jewish majority there - and, of course, without a Jewish majority, Gaza just did not qualify for eventual annexation by Israel itself. Israel's only interest in Gaza was in crushing the resistance, which was becoming costlier despite all the brutalities exercised by the IOF. It was best to turn Gaza into a fenced prison, control all movements in and out of it, and share the job of controlling the armed resistance with the P.A. itself. The G-8 Summit committed itself to invest roughly $3 billion in the post-withdrawal Gaza, thus coaxing the P.A. of Mahmoud Abbas into taking up the assigned task of controlling the resistance all the more willingly, in pursuit of the spoils of power.

Inside Israel, Sharon played a masterly game of brinksmanship. He assured his Cabinet that the settlements in Gaza and four insignificant ones in the West Bank would be the only ones that would be dismantled in any foreseeable future. For the rest, all the projects of peace talks with the Palestinians, any notions of a future Palestinian state, any ideas of a full withdrawal from the Occupied Territories shall all be shelved indefinitely while the iron grip on the West Bank shall be speedily strengthened. In a major policy speech in June 2005, he said: "We concluded that we are going to leave Gaza, where there is no chance of establishing a Jewish majority. It is clear to everyone that Gaza will never be part of Israel in any final agreement. At the same time, we are turning our resources to the most important areas, which we need to safeguard for our existence: the Galilee, the Negev, Greater Jerusalem, the settlement blocs, and security areas." The Galilee and Negev are of course already in Israel, so the implication is that Israel gives up Gaza (which can never be part of Israel) and concentrates its resources on "Greater Jerusalem, the settlement blocs, and security areas" in the West Bank (which can be, and if Sharon has his way, will be a part of Israel, through as much annexation as possible).

That Gaza was being given up in order to destroy the negotiation process and the very idea of a Palestinian state on the territories that Israel occupied in 1967, was spelled out in a now famous interview given by Dov Weisglass, Sharon's confidant and personal lawyer who is said to be an architect of the "withdrawal" plan. Weisglass said: "The meaning of what we did is to freeze the negotiation process. And when you freeze the negotiation process, you prevent the creation of a Palestinian state and you prevent discussion on the refugee issue.... The disengagement offers the right amount of formalin needed so that there will not be a negotiation process with the Palestinians." In other words, Sharon announced and implemented what the Western powers and their media portrayed as a great peace initiative in order to win for himself a more or less prolonged period of time in which he has to make no more gestures toward peace while he concentrates on preparing the ground for annexing large chunks of the territory on the West Bank and on strangling the Palestinian part of East Jerusalem.

We shall have to save for a future article any discussion of the much more complicated matter of what the Sharon government is planning and executing with regard to those future annexations on the West Bank and the socio-economic strangulation of the population centres there. Suffice it to say here that getting his Cabinet and his political bloc to agree to dismantle settlements in Gaza with the promise of concentrating all the more assiduously on "Greater Jerusalem, the settlement blocs, and the security zones" for purposes of annexation and strangulation was one part of Sharon's brinksmanship. The other part was to allow the ultra-fanatical religious right to unleash a savage country-wide campaign against the "withdrawal" plan, to the extent that people began to wonder quite seriously whether or not there shall be "civil war" in Israel on the question, and whether or not the Israeli Army itself shall split, the way the French Army split over the question of evacuating Algeria. In other words, he demonstrated to the world, and to those Israelis who are in favour of full withdrawal from all Occupied Territories, how much power the religious right commands, how close Israeli state and society came to wholesale strife on the question even of the Gaza evacuations, and how very difficult it would be to contain this religious right, with its armed settler movement, if and when it came to evacuate not the 8,000 from Gaza but some 400,000 from the West Bank. And, he lavished so much money on the Gaza settlers, making the cost of evacuation so exorbitant, that the question could now be asked: if evacuation of mere 8,000 could cost roughly $9,000 million, who was going to pay for the evacuation of 400,000? In other words, he demonstrated how very impossible - in financial terms, and in terms of peace and stability of Israeli society itself - any evacuation of the settlers in the West Bank would be.

In the end, Sharon cut a deal with the settlers movement. They would get to intimidate Israeli society for some months, they would get their money, and they would get their couple of days on global television, but, at the end, they would leave peacefully, with the promise that their many more numerous cohorts in the West Bank shall never be moved. He was able to pull this off because he has had close ties with the religious right for well over 30 years, not because Sharon himself is a man of this religious right but because his particular variant of the territorially expansionist zionism coincides, in its practical implications, with the messianic zionism of the religious right; both want, for their own reasons, a Jewish state established on as much of the historic territory of Palestine as possible, with as few Palestinian human beings in it as possible. Thanks to this symbiosis between the secular expansionist variety of zionism and the religiously driven variety of it, the overwhelming majority of today's Israelis - in the two major parties, Likud and Labour; in parties of the religious right; and many even in such dovish organisations as Peace Now - sing to the same tune, of Zion and "Next Year in Jerusalem". Those who do not partake of this overwhelming consensus and still carry on the grand tradition of the Jewish anti-zionist Left are few and live their political lives very much on the margins of their own society. Men like Sharon, by contrast, define the mainstream of their society.

A final word about Gaza. Israel has been an expansionist state since its very inception, and it has twice withdrawn from territories that it occupied; from Sinai when Anwar Sadat accepted U.S.-Israeli diktat and took Egypt out of the Arab struggle against zionism; and, when Israeli forces were eventually driven out of Southern Lebanon through the tenacious struggle that they encountered.

But never in its entire history has Israel ever withdrawn from a Palestinian territory, dismantling its colonies and military installations on that territory. This is the first time, and, regardless of Sharon's compulsions and calculations, this is much to be celebrated. His calculations were many, and those may yet have their devastating effects, but the pressures exerted by the Palestinian armed struggle undoubtedly became a big factor in his compulsions. For the rest, as we used to say in days of my youth: La Luta Continua. Or, in English: The Struggle Continues.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 09, 2005.)

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