After the party
While preparations are underway in Gaza to claim victory once Israel withdraws, much work will be required to rebuild the shattered Strip, writes Erica Silverman in Gaza
Israel has de-developed the Gaza Strip for 57 years but as their mid-August scheduled date for withdrawal approaches, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continues to complain about the chaos the Israeli occupation is leaving behind.
Israel's unilateral strategy for withdrawal has created a collective fog for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestinians alike. The uncertainty emanates from Israel's refusal to disclose their logistical plan for the month-long procedure, which has hindered the PA's ability to prepare and has generated a sense of fear amongst Palestinians in Gaza concerning conditions both during and after disengagement. Sabha Abu Rabea, who lives with her paralysed mother opposite the slated for evacuation Netzarim settlement, has had her home levelled once without warning by the Israelis. She has real cause to fear an outbreak of violence.
What will Gaza look like the day after disengagement? Will the checkpoints be closed? Will Israel allow for the movement of goods and people between the West Bank and Gaza? Will Palestinians issue their own identity cards (an important question for a population living under the confines of over 900 barriers and checkpoints)? Will Israel seal off Gaza from the rest of the world? In short, the PA has no idea.
Diana Buttu, legal adviser to Mohamed Dahlan, PA Minister of Civil Affairs, suggested that Israel might be concealing the details of which they themselves are unsure. "After 38 years, Israel as a state must reassess their mentality of control," she explained. By withholding information Israel creates the chaotic situation of which hence it complains, leaving the field wide open to Hamas and other factions to insinuate weakness and disorganisation on the part of the PA.
Further, Israel's policy of state-sanctioned assassinations -- killing eight Hamas members in recent weeks -- also increases the vulnerability of the PA. Cutting out the leadership creates a power vacuum and increases instability until the faction regroups. Meanwhile, the Islamic Resistance Movement is struggling to refrain from acts of vengeance. "If Israel continues a policy of aggression towards Hamas, we will respond at any time, even during the disengagement," asserted Hamas spokesperson Mushier Masri.
However much detail remains to be revealed, no one is betting high that anyone but Israel will hold control over Gaza's territorial waters, airspace and border crossings. Certainly it has not forfeited its self-appointed right to militarily invade at will. To what extent, then, will the occupation be over? As to settlement assets, there are 2,586 homes slated for evacuation, covering approximately 20 per cent of the land in Gaza. Israel has offered to finance Palestinian labour to demolish the houses, from which an estimated 60-80,000 truckloads of rubble will emerge, contaminated with asbestos and mixed with gas pipelines. Israel claims it cannot absorb the refuge due to environmental concerns, while Buttu reiterates the Palestinian position: "It is not our trash."
Who will own the land after the settlers depart? 95 per cent of the settlement land in Gaza is state land, to be returned to the public domain through a regional plan for Gaza that includes housing projects, rebuilding schools and hospitals, and places of tourism and investment. The remaining five per cent is privately owned and will be returned to individual Palestinians. While Palestinians welcome the removal of the Jewish settlements, most believe that Israel is deepening the occupation of the West Bank in exchange for leaving Gaza. Settlements in the West Bank city of Qalqiliya illustrate Palestinian concerns. Already slated for expansion, they will house three times the total number of settlers evacuating Gaza once completed.
As for what Israel is leaving behind, the occupation devastated the economy and the agricultural sector, severely damaged the infrastructure and security apparatus, and shattered Palestinian national identity. Donor nations are trying to fill the gaps. The Japanese government is investing millions, teaming up with the UNDP, NGOs and relevant PA ministries to rehabilitate Gaza's infrastructure. As soon as they have the green light, Japan is ready to invest in Gaza's airport, and Japanese and UNDP flags stand fluttering next to the Palestinian checkpoint to the south of Gaza City, marking the location of a new seaport which is already under construction. The adjacent Netzarim settlement will become part of the harbour.
The best-case scenario post-withdrawal would be complete freedom of movement for Palestinians at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt -- connecting Gaza to the rest of the Arab world -- and a safe, fixed means of passage between Gaza and the West Bank. A sunken road or carefully routed railways are the most favoured options. Gaza could be self-sustaining were it not for Israel's ruthless policy of dumping cheap Israeli products on local markets while inflating the price of Palestinian products through arbitrary, unregulated import and export procedures. It is nearly the same, in terms of expense, to import Chinese produce into Gaza as to import Palestinian produce from the West Bank into Gaza.
As to the psychological impact of the occupation, it is staggering. "Israel could have instituted security measures while preserving human dignity," declares Eyad Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme that operates nine clinics that have treated 15 per cent of the total Gazan population. Al-Sarraj estimates 32 per cent of the Gazan population suffers from eight or more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as panic attacks and flashbacks.
"Mental disorders are caused by violence, and the number one cause is torture," explained Al-Sarraj. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been imprisoned by Israel, and 70 per cent of prisoners are tortured. Al-Sarraj himself suffered solitary confinement in an Israeli prison, requiring treatment to recover. Many of the Gazan women Al-Sarraj treats for depression suffer from two common symptoms: the feeling that their throat is closing, and that ants are crawling in their hair. It is common among middle-aged women from refugee camps that were sprayed with DDT as children, supposedly due to lice and flea infestation.
On the internal security front, Israel is reluctant to provide assistance or arms to PA security forces, although a comprehensive review of the Palestinian security sector released by the Strategic Assessment Initiative (an independent non-profit organisation headquartered in Washington, DC) this week indicates that one in four officers are armed, with those lacking transportation often resorting to taxis. There have been four incidents of kidnappings in Gaza within the past three weeks. I myself witnessed the third incident, executed by a family in response to an earlier kidnapping of their son, a PA police officer, by an armed group. The son was soon released, making it a seemingly successful tactic.
Aside from the threat of lawlessness, PA security services also must ensure public safety from threats such as landmines left behind by the settlements. Dahlan assured Al-Ahram Weekly that "there are Palestinian preparations in place for the withdrawal to succeed." A strong central PA, many argue, could mend this fragmented society, facilitating economic redevelopment and job creation. Yet there is a widespread lack of trust in the PA and in Fatah, despite faith that Gazans express in President Abbas who is trying to facilitate a "national unity leadership conference" that would aim at reaching a consensus among all 13 Palestinian factions.
While Dahlan claims "Hamas wants to control the government," Mahmoud Al-Zahar, Hamas's senior leader in Gaza, claims the faction will "seek power legitimately through democratic means and not by force". Possibly both are aware that an internal power struggle between Palestinian factions at this time would not only benefit Israel, but also make the Gaza withdrawal its last. While the PA may prefer not to comment, Al-Zahar insists that the withdrawal is "a victory for the resistance", which Israel is seeking to undermine through its silent, unilateral strategy.