Towards a Geography of Peace: Whither Gaza?

In Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, a man sits next to a wall that reads in Arabic, “No to internal fighting. Yes to fighting the occupation.” 16 June 2007. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

The Gaza Strip is a little bit more than two percent of Palestine. This small detail is never mentioned whenever the Strip is in the news nor has it been mentioned in the present Western media coverage of the dramatic events unfolding in Gaza in the last few weeks. Indeed it is such a small part of the country that it never existed as a separate region in the past. Gaza’s history before the Zionization of Palestine was not unique and it was always connected administratively and politically to the rest of Palestine. It was until 1948 for all intents and purposes an integral and natural part of the country. As one of Palestine�s principal land and sea gates to the world, it tended to develop a more flexible and cosmopolitan way of life; not dissimilar to other gateways societies in the Eastern Mediterranean in the modern era. This location near the sea and on the Via Maris to Egypt and Lebanon brought with it prosperity and stability until this life was disrupted and nearly destroyed by the Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

In between 1948 and 1967, Gaza became a huge refugee camp restricted severely by the respective Israeli and Egyptian policies: both states disallowed any movement out of the Strip. Living conditions were already harsh then as the victims of the 1948 Israeli politics of dispossession doubled the number of the inhabitants who lived there for centuries. On the eve of the Israeli occupation in 1967, the catastrophic nature of this enforced demographic transformation was evident all over the Strip. This once pastoral coastal part of southern Palesine became within two decades one of the world’s densest areas of habitation; without any adequate economic infrastructure to support it.

The first twenty years of Israeli occupation at least allowed some movement outside an area that was closed off as a war zone in the years 1948 to 1967. Tens of thousand of Palestinians were permitted to join the Israeli labor market as unskilled and underpaid workers. The price Israel demanded for this slavery market was a total surrender of any national struggle or agenda. When this was not complied with — the ‘gift’ of laborers’ movement was denied and abolished. All these years leading to the Oslo accord in 1993 were marked by an Israeli attempt to construct the Strip as an enclave, which the Peace Camp hoped would be either autonomous or part of Egypt and the Nationalist camp wished to include in the Greater Eretz Israel they dreamed of establishing instead of Palestine.

The Oslo agreement enabled the Israelis to reaffirm the Strip’s status as a separate geo-political entity — not just outside of Palestine as a whole, but also cut apart from the West Bank. Ostensibly, both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were under the Palestinian Authority but any human movement between them depended on Israel’s good will; a rare Israeli trait and which almost disappeared when Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in 1996. Moreover, Israel held, as it still does today, the water and electricity infrastructure. Since 1993 it used, or rather abused, this possession in order to ensure on the one hand the well-being of the Jewish settler community there and on the other in order to blackmail the Palestinian population into submission and surrender. The people of the Gaza Strip thus vacillated in the last sixty years between being internees, hostages or prisoners in an impossible human space.

It is within this historical context that we should view the violence raging today in Gaza and reject the reference to the events there as a campaign in the ‘war against terror,’ an instance of Islamic revivalism, a further proof for al-Qadia�s expansionism, a seditious Iranian penetration into this part of the world or another arena in the dreaded Clash of Civilizations (I picked here only few out of many frequent adjectives used in the Western media for describing the present crisis in Gaza). The origins of the mini civil war in Gaza lie elsewhere. The recent history of the Strip, 60 years of dispossession, occupation and imprisonment produced inevitably internal violence such as we are witnessing today as it produced other unpleasant features of life lived under such impossible conditions. In fact, it would be fair to say that the violence, and in particular the internal violence, is far less than one would have expected given the economic and social conditions created by the genocidal Israeli policies in the last six years.

Power struggles among politicians, who enjoy the support of military outfits, is indeed a nasty business that victimizes the society as a whole. Part of what goes on in Gaza is such a struggle between politicians who were democratically elected and those who still find it hard to accept the verdict of the public. But this is hardly the main struggle. What unfolds in Gaza is a battleground between America’s and Israel’s local proxies — most of whom are unintentionally such proxies but none the less they dance to Israel’s tune — and those who oppose it. The opposition that now took over Gaza did it alas in a way that one would find very hard to condone or cheer. It is not the Hamas’ Palestinian vision that is worrying, but rather the means it has chosen to achieve it that we hope would not be rooted or repeated. To its credit one should openly say that the means used by Hamas are part of an arsenal that enabled it in the past to be the only active force that at least tried to stop the total destruction of Palestine; the way it is used now is less credible and hopefully temporary.

But one cannot condemn the means if one does not offer an alternative. Standing idle while the American-Israeli vision of strangling the Strip to death, cleansing half of the West bank from its indigenous population and threatening the rest of the Palestinians — inside Israel and in the other parts of the West Bank — with transfer, is not an option. It is tantamount to “decent” people�s silence during the Holocaust.

We should not tire from mentioning the alternative in the 21st century: BDS — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — as an emergency measure — far more effective and far less violent — in opposing the present destruction of Palestine. And at the same time talk openly, convincingly and efficiently, of creating the geography of peace. A geography in which abnormal phenomena such as the imprisonment of small portion of the land would disappear. There will be no more, in the vision we should push forward, a human prison camp called the Gaza strip where some armed inmates are easily pitted against each other by a callous warden. Instead that area would return to be an organic part of an Eastern Mediterranean country that has always offered the best as a meeting point between East and West.

Never before, in the light of the Gaza tragedy, has the twofold strategy of BDS and a one state solution, shined so clearly as the only alternative forward. If any of us are members in Palestine solidarity groups, Arab-Jewish dialogue circles or part of civil society’s effort to bring peace and reconciliation to Palestine — this is a time to put aside all the false strategies of coexistence, road maps and two states solutions. They have been and still are sweet music to the ears of the Israeli demolition team that threatens to destroy what is left of Palestine. Beware especially of Diet Zionists or Cloest Zionists, who recently joined the campaign, in Britain and elsewhere against the BDS effort. Like those enlightened pundits who used liberal organs in the United Kingdom, such as The Guardian, to explain to us at length how dangerous is the proposed academic boycott on Israel. They have never expended so much time, energy or words on the occupation itself as they did in the service of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. UNISON, Britain�s large public service trade union, must not be deterred by this backlash and it should follow these brave academics who endorsed the debate on the boycott, as should Europe as a whole: not only for the sake of Palestine and Israel, but also if it wishes to bring a closure to the Holocaust chapter in its history.

And a final small portion of food for thought. There are quite a few Jewish mothers and wives in the Gaza Strip — some sources within Gaza say up to 2000 — married to local Palestinians and parents to their children. There are many more Jewish women who married Palestinians in the Palestine countryside. An act of desegregation that both political elites find difficult to admit, digest or acknowledge. If despite the colonization, occupation, genocidal policies and dispossession such harmonies of love and affection were possible, imagine what could happen if these criminal policies and ideologies would disappear. When the Wall of Apartheid is removed and the electric fences of Zionism dismantled — Gaza will become once more a symbol of Fernand Braudel’s coastal society, able to fuse different cultural horizons and offer a space for new life instead of the war zone it has become in the last sixty years.

Ilan Pappe is senior lecturer in the University of Haifa Department of political Science and Chair of the Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian Studies in Haifa. His books include, among others, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (London and New York 1992), The Israel/Palestine Question (London and New York 1999), A History of Modern Palestine (Cambridge 2003), The Modern Middle East (London and New York 2005) and his latest, Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006).

Related Links

  • Looking for alternatives to failure: An answer to Uri Avnery, Ilan Pappe (26 April 2007)
  • Palestine 2007: Genocide in Gaza, Ethnic Cleansing in the West Bank, Ilan Pappe (11 January 2007)