Between freedom and fear
With two weeks to go, Gazans are looking ahead to a life free of military occupation -- they hope, writes Khaled Amayreh in Palestine
With its nearly 1.4 million tormented souls -- thanks to decades of institutionalised Israeli repression -- the Gaza Strip is readying itself for the upcoming Israeli withdrawal, slated to begin in two weeks. The public mood is far from euphoric, Gazans navigating between cautious hope for a better tomorrow and nagging apprehension about a future that is increasingly fraught with unpredictability and danger.
For many ordinary Gazans, like Omar Salameh of the Khan Younis refugee camp, freedom from the spectre of death by random Israeli bullets fired by trigger-happy soldiers manning nearby watchtowers, represents the ultimate good riddance. "Reality has taught us the hard way to keep our dreams modest and realistic. We are not dreaming of miracles in this part of the world. All we want is to be able to live our lives quietly and safely," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"And to be able to earn our daily bread and feed our kids. If we achieve this, we will be the happiest people on earth," Salameh added.
Salameh's modest aspirations are in the minds of many. The suffering and pain meted out to most Gazans by a sustained Israeli blitz decimated the psychological health of the bulk of Gaza's citizenry. Hence, most are not entertaining grand dreams about the post- withdrawal period, such as Gaza becoming the Singapore of the Middle East. In fact, ordinary Gazans who talked to the Weekly are merely looking forward to simple, even petty, things which people in the rest of the world take for granted, such as being able to travel to the next town or outside the country freely, and having a job with a stable income.
This is not to say that Gazans are lukewarm about the Israeli withdrawal. The opposite is true. Gazans are preparing for "victory" celebrations and parades all over the heavily populated 370-square kilometre Strip.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) and its ruling Fatah Party is planning a large carnival to celebrate "liberation" from the yoke of occupation. And Hamas, whose sustained and valiant armed resistance against Israel played a key role in getting it to leave Gaza, is also planning to highlight the "landmark event" with visible celebrations.
"This will be the most significant event in annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948," argues the chief spokesman of Hamas in Gaza, Mahmoud Al-Zahar. "This is the first time Zionism retreats from an occupied Palestinian land. The event has both historic and symbolic significance of immense proportions," said Al-Zahar, who lost his eldest son when Israeli warplanes bombed his home two years ago.
Like most Palestinians, Al-Zahar angrily dismisses "those Westerners and some Arabs" who view the Israeli withdrawal as an expression of "good will and magnanimity" on Israel's part. "What good will, what desire for peace? Look, Israel wouldn't have decided to leave Gaza had Gaza not become a heavy burden unto Israel. We became a painful thorn in Israel's side. In short, the price for keeping Gaza under occupation had already become greater and more painful than giving it up, and the reason for that is the resistance."
But is Israel going to leave Gaza alone? This is the main question many Palestinians are trying hard to answer in light of Israel's incessant refusal to reveal the details of its impending withdrawal from Gaza. For example, there is little or no clarity as to whether Israel will permanently withdraw from the Rafah border crossing, Gaza's sole throughway to the outside world. This is a paramount issue for Gazans and the PA since keeping the border crossing under Israeli control would in effect reduce Gaza to a huge concentration camp, rendering the entire withdrawal meaningless and without substance.
Some Israeli officials have hinted that resolving the issue might be postponed for a few months pending an agreement with Egypt over the deployment of some 700 Egyptian security personnel to guard the "Philadelphi passage" along the Rafah-Sinai border. Postponement, however, will be utterly unacceptable to the Palestinians and, most likely, to the Egyptians as well, who would view it as signalling bad faith on Israel's part.
Furthermore, Israel has indicated it will retain control of Gaza's skies and territorial waters, which will effectively prevent any real move from occupation to a semblance of genuine independence.
For their part, Israeli officials and media have consistently refrained from using the term "withdrawal" ( nessiga in Hebrew) in referring to the pullout, instead of using the term "disengagement". This, according to Gaza lawyer Raji Al-Sourani, means that the Gaza Strip will remain under Israeli occupation pursuant international law. "How could the Gaza Strip be independent as long as Israel remains in control of our skies, waters, borders and economy?" Al-Sourani told journalists in Gaza this week.
Al-Sourani's concerns are widespread. In fact, they represent the biggest "catch-22" in the entire withdrawal plan, as Gazan journalist and expert on Israeli affairs Saleh Naami points out. In an interview with the Weekly, Naami warned that unless the international community pressures Israel to make the withdrawal from Gaza "genuine, complete and irreversible", the "smell of blood and powder" would return within a few weeks. "I am not trying to underestimate the significance of this withdrawal. However, what the world and many Palestinians often forget is that Gaza in itself is not an independent variable. We know that Sharon wants to use the withdrawal from Gaza in order to consolidate the occupation of the West Bank. If this is proven true -- and it seems it will be proven true -- then Gaza will become another Southern Lebanon sooner or later," Naami said.
The PA, along with the Quartet (the UN, US, EU and Russia) are well aware of this ominous scenario but are trying to give the "peace process" the benefit of the doubt, working on two main fronts: first, by linking the mid-August withdrawal with the "roadmap" peace plan, hoping that the Gaza withdrawal will generate psychological momentum towards the revival of the "process" in the West Bank; and second, by pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the virtually destroyed Gazan economy, which donors hope would improve the collective mood of Gazans, making them preoccupied with rebuilding their shattered lives rather than with what Ariel Sharon is doing in the West Bank.
This is certainly what the Bush administration plans -- or perhaps hopes. However, it is difficult to give optimism the benefit of the doubt as long the Israeli state continues to narrow Palestinian horizons in the West Bank by caging them inside virtual detention camps surrounded by gigantic concrete walls, and by cutting off East Jerusalem, the Palestinians' religious, cultural and economic capital, from the rest of the West Bank. The overall situation is likely to exacerbate further if Israel reneges on the "safe passage" between the West Bank and Gaza.
In sum, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will undoubtedly give the Palestinians a good dose of temporary psychological equanimity. It will improve their mood for a while. But without real change, the effect will not be long lasting.
Every Palestinian -- including soon-to-be-liberated Gazans -- will sooner or later be reawakened by the heavy reality of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. It is an ugly reality made up of barbed wires, concrete walls, settlements and ever more sinister repression. The difference between disengagement and withdrawal may be significant for Gazans, but the entire conflict will not pivot upon it.