Israel Leaves, but Gaza is Hardly Free
(Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 21 August 2005)
PALESTINIANS CELEBRATED as Israel redeployed its soldiers and settlers
from the Gaza Strip last week. The move offers some relief to the
people of Gaza after 38 years of brutal military occupation.
But, given its unilateral disconnection from any framework for a
genuine peace, the withdrawal does nothing to address Palestinian
aspirations. Palestinians will gain greater freedom of movement within
Gaza's borders, but it seems inevitable that the territory will remain
as isolated from the outside world (not to mention the West Bank and
Jerusalem) and as subject to Israeli domination as before.
Quite apart from the question of Palestinian self-determination —
which hinges on ties between Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem — the
withdrawal also will do nothing to alleviate the social and economic
crisis produced by the Israeli occupation.
A 2004 World Bank study revealed that, since the intensification of
the occupation in 2000, average Palestinian incomes have declined by
more than one-third. Nearly half of all Palestinians live below the
poverty line of $2 a day. The World Bank's assessment of the cause of
this dramatic deterioration in Palestinian living standards is
unequivocal. "The precipitator of this economic crisis has been
'closure,' a multifaceted system of restrictions on the movement of
Palestinian people and goods, which the government of Israel argues is
essential to protect Israelis in Israel and the settlements. 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."
Until the Israeli use of closure as a form of collective punishment
became routine in the 1990s, it was possible for Palestinians living
under Israeli occupation to move among the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem
and Israel. Israeli policy then was to use the Palestinians as a source
of cheap labor and the occupied territories as a captive market.
Between a third and a half of the Palestinian workforce supported their
families by working in Israel.
All this ended with the elaborate calculus of occupation devised at
Oslo between 1993 and 1995, which severely restricted Palestinian
movement. Today, only 15,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories
are allowed to work in Israel. Unemployment in the territories is
between 25% and 30%; some estimates place unemployment in Gaza at about
Obviously, for Palestinians to have a chance at creating and
sustaining an economy, Gaza must be able to connect freely with the
outside world. Israel, citing the usual security concerns, does not
want that to happen.
Gaza is a narrow strip, bounded by the sea, Egypt and Israel. Even
after the withdrawal, Israel wants to control land access to the
territory; and, by virtue of its military power, it also will control
approaches to Gaza by air and sea.
Now the only crack in the wall that Israel effectively forms around
Gaza is the crossing at Rafah, which straddles the border with Egypt.
Israel long ago asserted its control there by clearing away Palestinian
homes close to the border. Two-thirds of the 2,500 homes wantonly
demolished by the Israeli army in Gaza since 2000 (leaving about 25,000
Palestinians, many already refugees twice over, homeless once again)
were in Rafah. Most were destroyed to clear lines of sight and space
for patrols on either side of the dismal border terminal that allows
passage between Egypt and Gaza.
Because Rafah has no point of contact with Israel, Israeli forces are
supposed to leave it as part of the withdrawal. But Israel now says it
will redeploy its army away from the Egypt-Gaza border — later, not now
— only if it is satisfied with the way that Egypt secures its side of
the border. This is a major loophole in the disengagement plan.
Moreover, shortly before the Gaza withdrawal got underway, the Israeli
government announced that if it does withdraw from Rafah, it ultimately
wants the point of entry there closed so that it can instead open — and
control — a new three-way crossing, where the borders of Egypt, Israel
and Gaza meet. If Egypt doesn't agree to this plan, and instead decides
to maintain its own border crossing, Israel has threatened to suspend
agreements with Gaza that allow for goods to pass to and through Israel
without fees. That would throttle what remains of Gaza's economy and
further isolate the territory.
So long as Israel can control all access to Gaza, it cannot be said to
have truly disengaged. It will still be an occupying power there, as in
the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Which means that Gaza must be
recognized for what it is: the world's largest prison.