The recent withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza was a momentous event in history. For the first time, an Israeli government insisted that Jews evacuate territory which it encouraged them to populate in the first place. It even forcibly assisted them to do so: Jewish soldiers dragged Jews from what many have considered Jewish land. Though Gaza shares little of the religious significance of the West Bank, the importance of transferring land Israel occupied in 1967 back to Palestinians should not be underestimated.
How difficult it must have been for well established Jewish families to uproot themselves from their homes, synagogues and farms. This after all was their dream that they worked hard to achieve over nearly four decades. I got a glimpse of some settlements in Gaza: they looked like safe havens: red roofed houses, spacious, well paved streets and paths, beautifully kept and watered lawns; surrounded by golden fields of ripened corn and wheat; and greenhouses of tomatoes, cucumbers and green herbs that we in the UK buy regularly from the major supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s. Close-knit, productive farming communities, of people who shared a vision of growing the Jewish community on land they believed was theirs by right; protected tightly by the Israeli army. That an Israeli Prime Minister made the decision to destroy this dream must seem brutal in deed, and perhaps beyond understanding.
Sharon, acutely aware of the cruelty of his decision, honoured them as “pioneers” in a conciliatory televised address to the nation: “Residents of Gaza, today we end a glorious chapter in Israel’s history, a central episode in your lives as pioneers, as realisers of the dream of those who bore the security and settlement burden for all of us. Your pain and your tears are an inextricable part of the history of our country.” (15 August 2005)
Paradox or Paradise?
So why has Sharon just risked alienating one of the strongest, most well-organised elements in Israeli society? Herein lies the paradox. The dream of settlement and expansion, which in many ways defined Zionist Israel, could not be sustained there. Israel could not have hung on to Gaza for ever. It could not afford to either militarily, financially or strategically. Yet, the moral reasons for getting out, which have not featured large in Sharon’s reasoning, speak the loudest to me and many other observers.
Jewish presence on this tiny strip of land, a mere 5 miles by 25 miles, was fiercely resented. The 8000 settlers occupied 40% of that strip, whilst 1.3 million Palestinians shared the rest, making them one of the most densely populated and miserable communities in the world. Over half the Palestinians in Gaza have been packed into refugee camps, since the 1948 or 1967 wars. Overhanging each other with small mud alleyways in between them and no proper sewage system, the small crowded shelters are a shocking and sorry sight, and of course a breeding ground for hatred. It could not fail to prick any observer’s conscience to see the disparity between the relative luxury of the settlers and the poverty of the Palestinians who have lived in squalor at their expense.
Yet, the settlers we have seen on TV shouting their anger and despair at Israeli soldiers who have come to remove them, some clutching at the Torah scrolls as they are dragged from their synagogues, seemed oblivious to the living conditions of their neighbours, who lived just meters away from their own homes on the ‘other side’. The settlers’ dream stopped at the limits of the security fences protecting their properties. They spoke of the sacrifice that they and the young Israeli soldiers who protected them - particularly Ethiopian Jews - had made in the face of Palestinian hatred and violence. But they showed no knowledge of the hundreds Palestinians who were shot dead because of their presence in Gaza.
I recall seeing the fresh red blood of a young man called Ayman in his thirties, father of five children, hours after he was shot dead by an Israeli sniper. He had merely poked his head around the corner of a bullet-ridden alleyway in Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, to locate an Israeli tank that he could hear approaching. The infra-red cameras which tower over the security fence protecting the Gush Katif settlement, had picked up his movement and he’d been shot dead instantly. No threat had been posed. Ayman was on his land in his refugee home. No warning had been given. He was merely trying to protect his family.
Prior to Monday 15th August 2005 - the first day of the withdrawal from Gaza, 3247 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army and settlers since the start of the Palestinian uprising on 29 September 2000, whilst 444 settlers and soldiers were killed by Palestinians during the same period1. Over 1700 of the Palestinians were killed in Gaza: the majority were unarmed, and not involved in military attacks against Israeli targets, just like Ayman.
Caught up in the drama of the withdrawal, some UK Reporters forgot to mention that Gaza is territory occupied illegally by Israel, and that Israel’s withdrawal is actually an obligation under international law. A graphic map flashed up briefly on TV labelled the Palestinian areas as ‘Palestinian settlements’ - making it seem that there is a conflict between Jewish and Palestinian ‘settlements’ and that neither side are the natural residents. Occupation is a difficult concept to keep alive in the media. Yet the settlements are the bastion of occupation: they have been the main reason for tragic blood loss for both sides. It is time they went.
Sharon states he has made his move, and that it is now the turn of the Palestinians to “show sincere intentions for peace”. Yet as is often the case in this conflict, words deceive. The Gaza withdrawal masks other developments by Israel that do not make for peace: whilst the world watched the withdrawal of 8000 settlers from Gaza, Israel has been expanding the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem where 400,000 settlers live. Sharon hinted long ago, that as part of the bargain, if Israel gets out of Gaza (just 3% of Palestinian territory), Israel will regard the five major settlement blocs in the West Bank as a permanent part of Israel, a move which defies all international norms and laws. Hundreds of new apartments are being built in the settlements which run a ring around Jerusalem, and penetrate deep - sometimes 20 km - into the West Bank.
These settlements already carve up the land with a web of ‘Jew-only’ roads and hundreds of checkpoints, confining 2.5 million Palestinians to physical enclaves from which they are unable to escape and in which they cannot make a living. The new addition of the ‘Security Barrier’, sometimes a fence and sometimes an 8m high concrete wall that Israel has been building for the last three years which protects these settlements, and cuts through prime Palestinian land, is further ruining the economy of towns such as Bethlehem, and the lives of countless Palestinian communities. If Sharon does not withdraw settlers from the West Bank, it will be impossible to build a Palestinian State, which for so long has been promised by the international community.
It is a sad fact that the significance of such a momentous move by Israel in getting out of Gaza is greatly lessened by the situation it has created for itself in the West Bank. What is more, the withdrawal does not end Israel’s occupation of Gaza. It leaves it as a vast open-air prison where Israel still controls borders, water, airspace and ports. Whilst living conditions will hopefully improve within the Strip, the Palestinians have no airport, sea ports or right of entry into Israel or passage to the West Bank. They remain trapped.
The Gaza withdrawal is a momentous event in history. Israel has challenged its own dream. But there is a slim chance that it will lead to peace.
Katharine von Schubert has recently published Checkpoints and Chances, a book of eyewitness accounts during her time as an observer in Israel and the Territories, July 2005.