Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Deciphering Disengagement

A lot of people have asked me in recent weeks what I think about the Gaza disengagement. Will it work? Is it a real peace initiative? I am always surprised, because honestly, I don't know much more about Gaza than most of you. I only ever spent two days there. I recommend to everyone: "Behind The Smoke Screen Of The Gaza Pullout," (April 2005, http://www.countercurrents.org/pa-reinhart150405.htm) by Tanya Reinhart, "What May Come After the Evacuation of Jewish Settlers from the Gaza Strip: A Warning from Israel," by Uri Davis, Ilan Pappe and Tamar Yaron (http://www.counterpunch.com/davis07162005.html, July 15, 2005), and the Gaza Disengagement section of www.electronicintifada.net.

I offer this perspective, as someone who over the last three years got used to thinking about how the Israeli government thinks about the Palestinians, and how the Palestinians are likely to respond.

No one who wants to see peace and freedom for the Palestinian people could not support the pullout of settlers from Gaza. First, the 24 settlements and the security infrastructure built by the Israeli government to support them have been occupying 40% of the land in the most densely populated place on earth, and using over 80% of the water, stifling one of the most fertile agricultural economies in the region. About 40% of fruits and vegetables currently sold in Israel, and 70% of organic produce, is grown in the Gaza settlements. If the Gaza Palestinians were able to gain control of that market, the sprawling green lawns and swimming pools for their children, the spacious houses, it would significantly increase the quality of life of the people who since 1948 have been crammed into ever tighter, inadequately served refugee camps.

Second, the presence of the settlements, and the vast difference between the lifestyle enjoyed by the settlers and that endured by the Palestinians has been a constant irritant to the people of Gaza. The security of the settlements has been an excuse for construction of Jewish-only roads and checkpoints which have carved the small strip into three virtual prisons. Travel within the Strip has been almost impossible, and for most Palestinians living in Gaza, travel outside has been completely impossible. People like my friend Fatima, who come from Gaza and now live in the West Bank, have been unable to visit their families for over four years.

Israeli tanks and watchtowers, guarded by some of the most notoriously brutal army units, are omnipresent on the borders, shooting at anything Palestinian which moves. The deadliest instances of Israeli army violence have taken place there, including the two massacres in Rafah one year ago, killing 73 civilians, including 11 children; the missile attack which leveled a building to kill Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, his bodyguards and 6 members of his family; and the 10 shots fired into the body of 13-year-old Iman al-Hams, on her way to school, by an officer who said he would have killed her if she had been three years old (UK Guardian, November 2004). Thousands of homes in Rafah Camp have been demolished by the army for the creation of a "security zone." All of this is justified by the need to protect "Israeli citizens" living in Gaza.

So in theory, the removal of the settlements will make life in Gaza much more livable for the Palestinians there.

The big issue in determining whether that happens is how much control the Palestinian Authority is able to get over the borders. Israel retains complete control over all its own borders with Gaza. Supposedly, it is taking steps to ease passage of workers and goods from Gaza into Israel, and to make a "safe passage" from Gaza to the West Bank. But this supposing has been going on for a long time, and Israel always finds reasons not to do it.

A few weeks ago, Reuters reported, "Israel will not seal off the Gaza Strip but is instead looking to invest millions of dollars in border crossings to help the Palestinian workforce and business thrive after its pullout from the territory, Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Thursday." The report talked about new lanes opened for pedestrian workers and new terminals for transport of goods between Gaza and Israel. "Peres, who is in charge of coordinating the economic aspects of the disengagement plan with the Palestinians, said the Israelis understood that both sides would benefit from the territory's economic viability."

Last Friday, "Democracy Now!" reported that "The Israeli army … is increasing its military and security system near the Gaza Strip in anticipation of next month's so-called withdrawal. The army describes a high-tech complex to ring the coastal strip with what Israel hopes will be the world's most impenetrable barrier. … The Israeli military says that the plan includes new army bases and 22-foot concrete walls around nearby Israeli settlements. Watchtowers armed with remote-controlled machine guns are to be built every 1.2 miles and within a year, remote-controlled, unmanned vehicles will begin patrolling the area."

Does this not sound to you like the kind of wall you build around a prison? And we do not think of prisons as fertile seed grounds for vibrant economies and democratic institutions.

The international border with Egypt is a much bigger issue for the Palestinians. Israel wants to retain total control over the border, preserving a narrow sliver of land as a wedge between Gaza and Egypt. But, according to a UPI article in June, "there are other pressures on Israel to pull out completely. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday demanded the pullback include the crossing points to Egypt." The UPI article quoted a report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information released a report saying that "creating a new customs barrier, between Israel and Gaza, would be 'Next to a death blow,' to Gaza's economy."

Is it the goal of the Israeli government which has committed itself to the pullout to make life anywhere in Palestine more livable for Palestinians? The more able the Palestinians are to survive, or heaven forbid, to thrive, in their land, the less likely they are to give up and go somewhere else -- assuming they have or could find somewhere else to go. Is this what the Israeli government wants?

Certainly there are individuals in the Israeli government who want that. But the man behind the Gaza pullout is Ariel Sharon, and the world knows who Ariel Sharon is.

Molly Ivins, in her wonderful sardonic book about "W" Bush, mentioned that in journalism school she was taught, "one, look at the record, two, look at the record, three, look at the record." If you try to understand politicians by their rhetoric, you are asking to be lied to. You look at their actions, and the actions of Sharon have always been those of someone whose one and only goal is to take all the land of the Palestinians for a "greater Israel." Most of the time, his rhetoric has also articulated this goal. But if suddenly, his rhetoric is one of peace, we cannot assume suddenly that he has become a man of peace. Someone like Sharon -- or anyone, actually -- does not wake up one day and decide that today, peace with the Palestinians seems like a good idea.

Politicians change their minds because events or trends convince them that their former strategies will likely cause them to lose their power. That's why Nixon pulled out of Vietnam. It's why Barak pulled out of Lebanon. What has occurred in the last five years to convince Sharon that the strategy of taking the land from Palestinians will lose power? Nothing. A 2004 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute (www.idi.org.il), found that 59% of Jewish Israeli adults and 66% of Jewish Israeli youth "wanted their government to encourage the emigration of Arabs out of Israel."

The strategy of starving and isolating and humiliating the Palestinians in order to drive them out of their lands has worked very well in the last five years. At least 200,000 middle-class Palestinians have emigrated in the last three years, out of a total population of 5.5 million (the right-wing Israeli party Modelet, whose goal is the transfer of all Palestinian Arabs from their homeland, claims it is 380,000). One quarter of the population of Qalqilya, once one of the wealthiest market towns in the West Bank, has left the city since the completion of the 25-foot concrete wall which now surrounds it.

The recent actions of Sharon's government continue the policy of trying to drive the Palestinians out of Palestine. The Israeli government in the last six months began construction of 3,500 new homes in Maale Adumim, the largest illegal settlement in the Jerusalem area, and began expanding 31 other West Bank settlements (Peace Now, http://www.peacenow.org/updates.asp?rid=0&cid=873). They began construction of the "Ariel Loop" of the Segregation Wall, 25 kilometers inside the Green Line, in the area where I lived almost half of the last three years. They issued demolition orders for 6,000 Palestinian homes in the outskirts of Jerusalem, and cut or uprooted hundreds of Palestinian trees in the villages of Mas'ha, Marda, Kufr Thulth, Kufr Qadum and Belain, to name only a few. These are not the actions of a government that is interested in trading land for peace.

Moreover, as the statement by Davis, Pappe and Yaron points out, the presence of the 7,500 Israeli settlers in Gaza has been the one thing limiting the use of extreme force against the camps and cities in Gaza. With no Israeli civilians in the line of fire, there is nothing to stop Sharon's government from using intensified air attacks against large population centers. The statement quotes a comment by General (Res.) Eival Giladi, head of the Coordination and Strategy team of the Prime Minister's Office, in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "If pinpoint response proves insufficient, we may have to use weaponry that causes major collateral damage, including helicopters and planes, with mounting danger to surrounding people." Is it alarmist to suggest that Sharon might be simply clearing his way for clearing the land? Ariel Sharon has shown himself willing to use such methods before against Palestinians. He authorized and masterminded the massacres in 1982 in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, where 3,500 people, mostly women and children, were slaughtered.

The Gaza disengagement plan is a clever move by Sharon, a very clever politician. Suddenly, against almost all evidence, he is the embattled "man of peace." This means that the Palestinian leadership is under enormous pressure from the international community, especially the US government, not to do anything that might undermine him. While the disengagement plan is being implemented, President Abbas and his Cabinet will be expected to keep virtually silent about the settlement expansions in the West Bank, the failure to carry out promised prisoner releases, and especially the curfews and closures being imposed all over the West Bank and Gaza to facilitate the removal of the settlers from Gaza. It is really possible that by the time the pullout is completed, if it ever is, the Palestinians will have lost more land and freedom than anyone imagined could be accomplished in such a short time.

There is nothing to say, of course, that the Gaza disengagement, if it happens, will have exactly the result the Israeli government intends. They are smart, but they are not all-powerful (contrary to what some of my Palestinian neighbors believed), and they hold most of the cards but not all of them.

To the international capitalist establishment, for instance, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, this is not a time for building the most impenetrable borders the world has ever seen. This is a time for easing the flow of cheap goods and labor -- both of which are plentiful in Gaza -- to the markets of the West. The IPCRI report, for instance, is quoted as saying that, "The international community, donors and professional agencies suggested a foreign company with international expertise and practice take over customs collection, verification of documents, and inspection of standards to make sure they conform to Israel's demands." One imagines that that could be a lucrative contract for one of the U.S. companies currently operating only two countries away in Iraq. Israel has objected to this plan, saying there is no one they can trust. Possibly the U.S. government, its benefactor of $14 million a day and rising, would find this lack of confidence insulting.

The South African apartheid regime found out about ten years ago that settler colonialism had gone out of vogue. They also found out that there are subtler, more acceptable means of holding onto most of the resources of the land when you have had 50 years to accumulate them. Possibly, the Israelis are about the find out the same. Or possibly, the only European-led government suppressing an Arab Muslim population in the Middle East will make the most of the newly reenergized "war on terror" in the wake of the bizarre incidents in London.

If so, then infallibly, as the IPCRI report concludes, "economic despair will bring about the next round of [Palestinian] violence and Israel may find itself returning to Gaza, not as tourists or investors, but as military conquerors once again."

For more of my ramblings and some more cogent thinking about Palestine, Israel, apartheid, Israeli immigration prison and other stuff, see my blog at http://www.iwps-pal.org/en/articles/article.php?id=702

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