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Issue Date:  September 16, 2005

Is Gaza exit Israel's first and last?


It all looks good on the surface. Sharon has removed the 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza and four small outposts in the West Bank. Israel has taken the first step toward compliance with international law and the Geneva Conventions. Around 1.3 million Palestinians have freedom of movement within Gaza. Relieved of the economic burden of protecting 8,000 settlers, Israel is freed from the moral burden of subjugating another people. Or is it? Questions remain.

  • Will the Israeli control of Gaza land, sea and air continue? Does the Israeli disengagement from Gaza mean that Palestinians will get one big prison in exchange for the three smaller prisons created by the roads for settlers only, which cut Gaza into three distinct areas? Palestinians cannot be bottled up in solitary confinement. They need freedom of movement within Gaza, yes, but they also need access to the West Bank for movement of goods, services and for social and cultural reasons. They must have an airport and a seaport for access to the outside world. Palestinian fishermen must be in control of their fishing banks. In short, will Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza lead to self-determination for Palestinians, or will it be control and occupation at a distance?
  • Is the Gaza disengagement a smoke screen for further colonization of the West Bank? While international attention has focused on the Gaza pullout, the frantic settlement expansion around Jerusalem threatens to cut the West Bank in two, precluding territorial integrity for a future Palestinian state that would be viable. Sharon announced 3,500 new housing units for Maale Adumim near Jerusalem, currently taking more land from Izzariyah (biblical Bethany); 72 new homes in Bitar Ilit; and a new Jewish settlement in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Israeli peace advocates report a hundred new Israeli outposts on the West Bank. On Aug. 22, Sharon told The Jerusalem Post, “There will be building in the settlement blocs.”
  • Will the construction of the 25-foot-high concrete wall deep into Palestinian lands continue? Condemned as “illegal under international law” by the International Court of Justice in The Hague last year, the wall is carving the West Bank into disconnected islands for Palestinians -- apartheid bantustans. For 200,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the present situation is critical. The wall will cut them off from their economic, social and political livelihood, while the Maale Adumim settlement will be annexed to Jerusalem. Demographics seem to be the operative norm: Arabs out, Jews in. The wall must be seen for what it is -- a land grab, an adjunct, an extension of the expansion of settlements, resulting in increased “Judaization” of Jerusalem and the West Bank, and further fragmentation of Palestinian society.

This is a critical time for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. He must immediately engage the international community to address the humanitarian needs of Gazans. Up to 80 percent unemployment exists. Removal of the settlements has had a negative effect on thousands of Palestinians who lost their jobs doing menial labor in the settlements. Thousands more will not be allowed to work in Israel. Malnourishment among children is rampant.

Israeli settler families who left Gaza will each receive up to $400,000, having lived on Palestinian land rent-free for three decades. Impoverished Palestinians in Gaza must now be helped. The world media cameras caught the pathos of Israeli settlers uprooted from their homes. Few photos of the thousands of Palestinians whose homes were demolished at Rafah have appeared in the mainstream Western media. Nor was the media around when in the early 1980s I visited families in Gaza who had just been told their land was no longer theirs, and they would not be allowed to harvest their crops. Settlers would be moving in.

On the political front, Abbas has a formidable task. Firmly committed to peaceful negotiation and adamantly opposed to militant methods, he must convince extremist Palestinian groups that negotiations can and will work, that renewal of talks with the Israelis will bring about further compliance with international law by decolonizing the West Bank. To convince them, Abbas must have concrete evidence -- a freeze on settlements; a freeze on wall construction, especially around Jerusalem; an end to humiliating checkpoints, roadblocks and ubiquitous Israeli soldiers.

Concerns of both Israelis and Palestinians must be addressed together, not in isolation. Last October, Mr. Sharon’s chief adviser, Dov Weisglass, spoke frankly about the goal of the Gaza disengagement plan. “The Gaza plan supplies the formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians,” Mr. Weisglass said. If true, if Mr. Sharon’s intent is to make Gaza first and last, there will be no peace.

Miriam Ward, Sister of Mercy, is a founding member of Pax Christi Burlington and Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. She has conducted 27 pilgrimage/study tours to biblical lands.

National Catholic Reporter, September 16, 2005

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