That other occupation
Celebrations abound, but the future of Gaza will ride on pressuring Israel to end its practice of economic strangulation, writes Erica Silverman
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An Egyptian boy from the Egyptian side of the divided town of Rafah (right) and a Palestinian youth holds a banner during a protest against Israel's settlement policy ; Palestinians plant trees as they celebrate Israel's pullout from Gaza
A crowd of Palestinian women rushed towards Palestinian Authority (PA) Civil Affairs Minister Mohamed Dahlan, desperately raising framed pictures of family members, calling for their release from Israeli jails, as he spoke before community leaders on Sunday at the newly opened Press Centre in Gaza City on the eve of Israel's withdrawal.
In the sweltering heat, hundreds patiently listened to Minister Dahlan's message of "unity in resistance and unity in rebuilding". Speaking in classical Arabic, Dahlan reassured Gazans that the PA would not let chaos erupt after the withdrawal.
Flanked by an immense Palestinian flag, Dahlan promised: "The land now belongs to the PA, and will never be taken back," adding, "The sacrifice of our martyrs has paid for the land."
Ninety five per cent of the settlement land in Gaza is state land and will be returned to the public domain, the remaining five per cent being privately owned and to be returned to individual Palestinians. Some 2,000 flats will be built in Rafah, especially for the families of the martyrs and the thousands who are homeless after Israeli army house demolitions.
To try and ensure a smooth transfer of power, and the ability of Palestinians to effectively challenge the occupation, Dahlan called on all factions, including Fatah, Jihad and Hamas, to share in the rebuilding process and to prevent the looting of settler homes before their erasure.
"We suffered a lot to reach this moment," Dahlan underlined, encouraging people to go and see the land after the withdrawal. Further, Dahlan promised to keep pushing for the release of prisoners -- he himself was once incarcerated in an Israeli jail -- and reiterated the PA's message of Gaza first, then Jerusalem and the West Bank. The leadership of Gazan clerics called for security and the rehabilitation of Gaza's crumbling infrastructure and economy, and assured Dahlan they would present a good image of Palestinians to Israel and the world.
Over the weekend in Gaza City, Palestinian factions held continuous celebrations. "Today we begin the process of freedom and democracy," declared President Mahmoud Abbas at an animated withdrawal celebration on the city's waterfront; part of a mass campaign instituted by the PA, including banners, t- shirts and thousands of fluttering Palestinian flags. Fishermen long since denied access to Palestinian waters set sail before a boisterous crowd of over 10,000 to mark the new era. Abbas asked Palestinians, including all political parties, to rebuild Gaza and continue on the path of democracy together.
Just a few hours earlier 5,000 Islamic Jihad supporters engaged in a more somber six-kilometre victory march through Jabaliya refugee camp, firing weapons and acknowledging their martyrs. Exposed to abject poverty and frequent Israeli incursions, Jabaliya -- a hotbed of support for forcible resistance to the occupation -- embodies a painful history the PA is trying to move beyond, illustrated by Dahlan's repeated calls for unity and hope, affirming that, "this withdrawal came from the struggle of all our people."
Hamas held a midnight prayer session on Sunday, while 500 Jihad fighters marched through Gaza City; both factions flexing their muscles in an effort to take credit for the withdrawal. Hamas's recent display of solidarity at press conferences has underscored prospects for internal strife, despite Hamas's assertion that they are "not above the (Palestinian) Authority and not above the law".
Meanwhile, Israel and the international community have stipulated that Palestinians are responsible for maintaining security and improving their post-withdrawal economy. The degree to which the latter is achieved will be closely watched by many, doubtless becoming an index of a continued -- if less visible -- occupation. Currently, Israel acts as an intermediary for all Palestinian trade, with goods subject to Israeli taxes. There is no competitive advantage to trading with Egypt due to much higher production costs in Gaza. If the PA is to demonstrate that "disengagement" means a new future for Gaza, it will have to normalise trade relations, allowing Palestinians to regulate their own market.
Just as Israel declines to forfeit the "right" to militarily invade at will, it will retain ultimate control over the rehabilitation of Gaza's shattered infrastructure. The seaport must be rebuilt and territorial waters returned to Palestinian control, although Israel has only approved initial reconstruction plans. Also, the airport must be rebuilt and airspace returned to Palestinian control, though on this Israel has yet to agree.
Other questions remain unanswered. Will Rafah and Kari checkpoints -- where the majority of goods come into Gaza -- be opened? Israel practises a ruthless policy of dumping cheap Israeli products while inflating the price of Palestinian products through arbitrary, unregulated import and export procedures. Another question is whether normal security procedures will be instituted at these crossings so that goods need not pass carton by carton, loaded and unloaded as many as seven times along their way, but rather scanned inside trucks and thereafter allowed to pass. The price of Palestinian goods hinges upon checkpoints; when they are closed, it automatically drives prices up, especially in the case of food products.
"Unless these four major outlets are open and the procedures changed, there will be no long-term effect on the economy," opines Basil Nasser, programme officer from the UNDP in Gaza. Economic stability requires the free movement of goods and people internally and externally, particularly safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. The measures of occupation have brought the Palestinian economy to a grinding halt; these barriers must be removed to facilitate economic growth and the rehabilitation of industrial zones.
There will be two phases of economic growth, the first lasting two to three years including job creation projects such as the removal of settlement rubble, the construction of the airport and the seaport, and rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by Israeli incursions. The second phase will be realised when a stable job market emerges and private investment projects come to fruition. Seventy per cent of the Palestinian national budget comes from the donor community with prescribed directives. A higher degree of autonomy will be necessary, the barriers of the occupation removed, to ensure economic stability and to woo private investment.
The payback for Israel is obvious. If Israel facilitates an improved Palestinian economy it will benefit from increased security. A healthy, prosperous neighbour will bring stability, while an unemployed, impoverished one will foster the opposite. The Israeli and the Palestinian economies have already improved since the announcement of the withdrawal. Perhaps on the fate of the future Gazan economy analysts will chart not only the degree of the continuance, or otherwise, of the occupation, but the degree or otherwise that Israel is serious about pursuing peace with the Palestinians.