The Reconfigured Occupation

In mid-August, Israel is scheduled to begin its “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip, which it has occupied for 38 years. Under the plan, Israeli settlers and soldiers will be removed from Gaza and from four isolated West Bank settlements. Disengagement is being hailed as an historic breakthrough. But while the evacuation of Israeli settlers and soldiers from any part of the occupied territories is a welcome development, it represents only an initial step towards ending occupation. In fact, the stranglehold that Israel maintains over Gaza and the West Bank may only be strengthened after disengagement.

Doesn’t disengagement mean an end to the occupation of Gaza?

  • After disengagement, Israel’s military will still surround the Gaza Strip, with the self-proclaimed “right” to invade at any time. Israel will still control Gaza’s borders, coastline, airspace, telecommunications, water, and electricity. And Israel will maintain its hold over Gaza’s economy by controlling the flow of people and goods in and out of the Strip.
  • Israel claims that disengagement will free it of any responsibility for the civilian population of Gaza.1 But under international law, military occupation will continue because the Israeli army will still surround and control Gaza.
  • Israel is trying to “disengage” from its obligations to the population under its military occupation-to control Palestinian land with no accountability to Palestinian people.

What will disengagement mean for the people of Gaza?

  • Military violence: Since the plan was announced in early 2004, Israel has carried out intensified military incursions into Gaza-a show of force intended to negate Palestinian claims of having defeated Israel militarily. In the course of these attacks, Israeli forces have killed over 700 Palestinians in Gaza2 and destroyed homes, roads, and electricity, sewage, and water lines.
  • Economic misery: Under an economic siege imposed in 2000, Israel cut off Gazans’ access to jobs and trade, causing unemployment rates to soar to nearly 50 percent3 and doubling the ranks of the poor to 77 percent of the population.4 Israel has threatened to make this siege permanent after disengagement, which will only worsen Palestinian suffering.
  • “Strangulation”: Palestinians often refer to Gaza-which is the world’s most densely populated area-as a huge prison because of Israel’s policy of sealing the borders, which prevents people from traveling freely within the occupied territories. Israeli human rights organizations have dubbed the policy “strangulation” and warn that economic hardship, denial of freedom of movement, and the separation of Palestinian families is likely to continue, and even worsen, after disengagement.5

Isn’t disengagement a necessary security precaution for Israel?

  • Israel is, in fact, obligated to protect its citizens from attack by Palestinian militants based in Gaza, or by anyone else who threatens its citizens. The right to self-defense is a legitimate right. However, this right does not include violating the human rights of Palestinians by imposing severe restrictions on movement for an entire population.
  • According to Israeli human rights organizations, these restrictions are “based on sweeping criteria, without checking if the individual poses a security risk, and without weighing the harm the person will suffer, or if less harmful alternatives are available. In most cases, where Israel denies a permit and human rights organizations intervene, Israel reverses its decision to avoid an embarrassing legal challenge.”6
  • Ensuring human rights-including the right to physical security-for Israeli civilians is critical. Unfortunately, Sharon’s disengagement plan reflects a narrow understanding of “national security,” that does not prioritize the safety and well being of Israeli families who would benefit from a lasting peace settlement.

What does disengagement mean for Palestinians in the West Bank?

  • Disengagement from Gaza is actually part of a two-pronged strategy aimed at consolidating Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. As the disengagement plan states, “In any future final status arrangement, there will be no Israeli settlement activity in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, it is clear that there will be areas in [the West Bank] that will be part of the State of Israel.”7
  • Indeed, Israel intends to annex 58 percent of the West Bank, which would leave Palestinian communities cut off from one another by a network of Israeli-controlled roads, tunnels, military checkpoints, and the mammoth “Separation Wall,” which Israel is building deep within the West Bank in violation of a 2004 International Court of Justice ruling.8
  • Israeli government officials are candid about the fact that disengagement is meant to supplant talks with the Palestinian leadership. Sharon prefers a unilateral disengagement from Gaza to negotiations that might obligate Israel to make even greater “concessions” in the more-coveted West Bank. As Dov Weissglass, a top Sharon aide, stated, “The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians. …[W]hen you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.”9

What is the role of the United States?

  • Bush has given strong backing to Sharon’s plan, including the annexation of West Bank land. By supporting the construction of Israel’s “Separation Wall,” Bush has even implicitly condoned Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements, which have been characterized as an obstacle to peace by every US Administration since 1967. These positions constitute the most extreme reversal of US Middle East policy in history.
  • By supporting Israel’s military occupation, Bush effectively renounced the UN Charter, which forbids the acquisition of territory by force; and renounced UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands in return for security guarantees from its neighbors. These resolutions have long stood as the best hope for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
  • Bush has marginalized Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by allowing Sharon to negotiate his disengagement plan with Bush himself instead of with his Palestinian counterpart. As a result, Abbas, who has long called for direct negotiations with Israel, has been unable to portray the evacuation of settlers and soldiers from Gaza as the fruit of his diplomatic efforts. By undermining Abbas, Bush has strengthened the hand of Hamas and other Palestinian groups who favor the use of violence over negotiations as a means of ending the occupation.

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