Reflections on the Disengagement from Gaza
Sara Roy, MIFTAH, August 20, 2005
Israel’s disengagement plan is widely hailed by the international community, led by the United States, as a first step toward the final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. This essay is a refutation of that view. After presenting the current situation of Gaza as the result of deliberate Israeli policies of economic integration, deinstitutionalization, and closure, the author demonstrates how provisions of the plan itself preclude the establishment of a viable economy in the Strip. Examining the plan’s implications for the West Bank, the author argues that the occupation, far from ending, will actually be consolidated. She concludes with a look at the disengagement within the context of previous agreements, particularly Oslo—all shaped by Israel’s overwhelming power—and the steadily shrinking possibilities offered to the Palestinians.
When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, we had the Bible in our hand, and they had the land.
—Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya
On 9 June 2005, the last legal hurdle to implementing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza was cleared when the Israeli High Court approved the plan and its removal of all the Jewish settlements there. The settlers, though angered by the decision, were not surprised and vowed to oppose their coerced departure with all means possible. Considerable media attention in the United States has been devoted to the suffering of the Jewish settlers and the personal costs for them of the disengagement. This attention has served to thaw and then humanize the often violent and zealous settler population, and in so doing, to illustrate and amplify the sacrifices Israel is making for peace.
By now a great deal has been written about the disengagement plan by both supporters and opponents. Many of the arguments in favor focus on the redeployment as an opportunity to break the near five-year-old political impasse between Palestinians and Israelis and usher in a new era of stability and peace. In April 2005, for example, President Bush stated that Israel’s withdrawal will allow the establishment of “a democratic state in the Gaza” and open the door for democracy in the Middle East. Tom Friedman was more explicit, arguing that “[t]he issue for Palestinians is no longer about how they resist the Israeli occupation in Gaza, but whether they build a decent mini-state there—a Dubai on the Mediterranean. Because if they do, it will fundamentally reshape the Israeli debate about whether the Palestinians can be handed most of the West Bank.”
Embedded in both statements are a set of assumptions: that Palestinians will be free to build their own democracy, that Israel will eventually cede the West Bank (or even consider the possibility), that Israel’s “withdrawal” will strengthen the Palestinian position in negotiations over the West Bank, that the occupation will end or become increasingly irrelevant, that the gross asymmetries between the two protagonists will be redressed. Hence, the Gaza disengagement plan—if implemented “properly”—will provide a real (perhaps the only) opportunity for resolving the conflict and creating a Palestinian state. It follows that Palestinians will be responsible for their success, and that if they fail to build a “democratic” or “decent mini-state” in Gaza, the fault will be theirs and theirs alone.
Dubai on the Mediterranean?
It would be useful to consider what the Palestinians in Gaza have to work with to achieve success.
Today, there are over 1.4 million Palestinians living in the Strip. By 2010 this number will reach close to two million. The Gaza Strip has the highest level of fertility in the region—5.5–6.0 children per woman—and the population grows at a very high rate of 3–5 percent annually. Fifty years ago, 80 percent of the population had not yet been born. Fifty percent of Gazans are 15 years old or younger, with rapidly declining access to health care and education. The half of the territory in which the population is concentrated has one of the highest population densities in the world. In the Jabalya refugee camp alone, there are 74,000 persons per square kilometer, compared with 25,000 persons per square kilometer in Manhattan.
Palestinians are currently experiencing the worst economic depression in modern history, according to the World Bank, primarily caused by long-standing Israeli restrictions (especially closure) that have dramatically reduced Gaza’s trade levels (especially exports) and virtually cut off Gaza’s labor force from their jobs inside Israel. This has resulted in unprecedented levels of unemployment ranging from 35 to 40 percent. Some 65 to 75 percent of Gazans are impoverished (compared to 30 percent in 2000), and many are hungry.
In 2004, a Harvard study concluded that the increase in Gaza’s population by 2010 will require the “creation of some 250,000 new jobs . . . to maintain current employment rates at 60 percent and the establishment of an additional 2,000 classrooms and 100 primary healthcare clinics annually to bring access to education and public health services at par with the West Bank.” Yet, the disengagement plan states that Israel will further reduce and eventually bar Palestinians from working in Israel. Researchers on the same Harvard study also stated that in a few years, Gaza’s labor force will be “entirely unskilled and increasingly illiterate.” As for educational services, between 1997 and 2004, student-teacher ratios declined by 30 percent, with 80 students per class in government schools and 40 per class in UNRWA schools. Test scores for Palestinian children are well below passing, currently under 50 percent, and the majority of 4th graders fail to advance to the next grade.
About 41 percent of Gazans are now assessed by the World Food Programme (WFP) to be “food insecure,” defined as lacking secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development; in five areas of Gaza, the figure exceeds 50 percent. An additional 30 percent of the population is “food vulnerable,” which places them under threat of becoming food insecure or malnourished.
Since 2000, the economy of the Gaza Strip and West Bank has lost potential income of approximately $6.3 billion. In addition, the economy has suffered over $2.2 billion worth of physical damage by the Israeli army, which means, in effect, that the “occupied Palestinian territory has lost at least one fifth of its economic base over the last four years as a consequence of war and occupation.”
Yet, despite these conditions, the plan states: “The process of disengagement will serve to dispel claims regarding Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” This idea rests on another powerful assumption of the Gaza plan and the discourse surrounding it: that Gaza’s agony is a recent phenomenon borne of the last five years of intifada, and that the return of the land taken up by military installations and settlements—anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the territory—will easily redress the situation. Under this widely held notion, the context for understanding the disengagement begins in 2000, not in 1967. Israel’s primary role in creating Palestine’s misery and decline over nearly four decades is quite simply expunged from the narrative.
There is no doubt that the destruction wrought by Israel over the last five years has been ruinous for Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip—the demolition of homes (some 4,600 between 2000 and 2004), schools, roads, factories and workshops, hospitals, mosques, and greenhouses, the razing of agricultural fields and the uprooting of trees, the further undermining of the economy, the spatial imprisonment of the population and denial of access to education and health services resulting from near total closure. But one need only look at the devastated economy of Gaza on the eve of the uprising to realize that the devastation of Gaza is not recent. By the time the second uprising broke out, Israel’s closure policy had been in force for seven years, leading to levels of unemployment and poverty that were, until then, unprecedented. Yet the closure policy proved so destructive only because of the near 30-year process of integrating Gaza’s economy into Israel’s, which undermined the local economic base by making it deeply dependent on Israel. As a result, when Gaza was severed from Israel through closure, the means for self-sustenance no longer existed. Thus, closure and the destruction caused by the intifada occurred on a foundation already undermined by thirty-eight years of deliberate Israeli policies of expropriation, integration, and deinstitutionalization that had long ago robbed Palestine of its developmental potential, insuring that no viable economic (and hence, political) structure could emerge.
The destruction of Palestine’s present (and any strategy for addressing it) can only be understood as part of its destroyed past. The damage—the de-development of Palestine—cannot be undone by simply “returning” Gaza’s lands and by allowing Palestinians freedom of movement and the right to build factories and industrial estates. Enlarging Gaza’s sliver of land—or Palestinian access to it—cannot solve Gaza’s myriad problems when its burgeoning population is confined within it. Density is not just a problem of people but of access to resources, especially labor markets. Without porous boundaries allowing for the migration of workers to job markets, which the disengagement plan does not address and in effect denies, the Strip will remain an imprisoned enclave, precluding any viable economic solution. Yet, it is the opposite idea—that with disengagement development is possible—that Israel is striving to instill, since it will absolve it of any responsibility for Gaza’s desolation, past and present.
The Terms of Disengagement