Contrast the world’s overwhelming coverage, especially on television, of the departure of Israeli settlers from Gaza with the minimal reporting of larger and more brutal evictions in previous months.
There was no “sensitivity training” for Israeli troops, no buses to drive the expellees away, no generous deadlines to get ready, no compensation packages for their homes, and no promise of government-subsidised alternative housing when the bulldozers went into Rafah.
Within sight of the Gush Katif settlements that have been handled with such kid gloves this week, families in Rafah were usually given a maximum of five minutes’ warning before their houses, and life savings, were crushed. Many people did not even have time to go upstairs to collect belongings when the barking of loudspeakers ordered them out, sometimes before dawn. Fleeing with their children in the night, they risked being shot if they turned round or delayed.
As many as 13,350 Palestinians were made homeless in the Gaza Strip in the first 10 months of last year by Israel’s giant armour-plated Caterpillar bulldozers – a total that easily exceeds the 8,500 leaving Israeli settlements this week. In Rafah alone, according to figures from the UN relief agency Unrwa, the rate of house demolitions rose from 15 per month in 2002 to 77 per month between January and October 2004.
Parts of Rafah now resemble areas of Kabul or Grozny. Facing Israeli army watchtowers and the concrete wall that runs close to the Gaza Strip’s boundary, rows of rubble and ruined homes stretch for hundreds of yards.
The house where I stayed three years ago, which was then one row back from the frontline, has gone. So have three more lines of houses behind it, thanks to Israel’s remorseless policy of clearing the zone for “security” reasons even after Ariel Sharon announced his plan to leave Gaza.
Palestinians who visit the ruins or try to use one or two rooms that survived the onslaught risk their lives from Israeli bullets. A warning shot rang out as one homeowner took me on to his roof in broad daylight last month to survey the miserable scene. We quickly came down.
These cruel evictions have of course been reported, and some foreigners who tried to block or record them, such as Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall and James Miller, paid with their lives alongside scores of murdered local Palestinians. But coverage was never as comprehensive or intense as this week’s removals of Israelis. Sharon wanted the world’s media to see the protracted agony of the settlers, so as to make the (spurious) point that if it is hard to get 8,500 to leave Gaza, getting 400,000 to withdraw from the West Bank and east Jerusalem will be impossible. However sincere the settlers’ grief is at leaving their homes, for the organisers of the retreat it was theatre of the cynical.
The exaggerated focus on the settlement evictions has some benefits. Those who claim, genuinely or dishonestly, that the world’s media are biased in favour of Palestinians had their argument collapse this week. TV viewers around the world have also been exposed to the ugly sight of rampant religious fundamentalism.
As they were dragged off, some Israeli zealots had no shame in minimising the Holocaust, absurdly comparing unarmed Israeli police to the Gestapo. Others used racist insults. “Jews do not expel Jews,” they shouted, presumably wanting to imply that only non-Jews do it. They apparently did not realise that most people will see the irony in terms of contemporary rather than historical events – “Jews do not expel Jews … Jews expel Arabs.”
Perhaps the ugliest part of the Israeli settlers’ behaviour was their corruption of youth, with parents instigating their children to wrap themselves in prayer shawls and sob or shriek defiance.
No one who spends time in Gaza’s Palestinian communities can avoid being saddened by the ubiquitous focus on the gun, which also diverts children from normal growing up. It appears on graffiti everywhere alongside the names and faces of those who died by violence, in suicide attacks or shot down by Israeli fire. Almost every teenage boy aspires to use a Kalashnikov or hand grenade. At a recent wedding, I saw a dancing mother twirl a rifle in both hands above her head like the baton of a majorette.
Trapped in their Israeli-enforced ghetto, Gazans can at least claim that this pervasive and corrupting militarism is the legacy of a decades-long national resistance movement to defend land that belongs to them. Islam is part of the mix, but religion follows the national flag. For many Israeli settlers in Gaza that dynamic was reversed. Religion was their driving force, and they had no individual or national right to the land on which they built their armed camps.
Israel’s worst practices from Gaza are likely to be transferred to the West Bank now. Controls over freedoms in the West Bank have been tightened relentlessly in recent years. More roads were closed. More checkpoints sprang up. Walls and fences were extended, in defiance of the international court of justice’s ruling that they are illegal. However, even with this creeping oppression, life in the West Bank is not yet as constricted as it was for those in Gaza.
That will probably change. Sharon – one of whose nicknames, appropriately, is Bulldozer – wants to expand the West Bank settlements and demolish more Palestinian homes around Jerusalem. Unless his strategy of unilateralism is blocked, evictions may reach Rafah-like proportions.
The break-up of the settlements will give those in Gaza freedom to move within their narrow enclave, but this benefit may be outweighed by the West Bank’s losses. One of the worst places in Gaza used to be the Abu Houli crossing, a tunnel for Palestinian vehicles that went under the road to the Israeli settlements of Gush Katif. At any moment Israeli Land Rovers or tanks would emerge to block the tunnel, leaving Palestinians stranded on what was the only road linking the north and south of Gaza. Pregnant mothers could not get to hospital. Relatives missed weddings. Students failed to reach their colleges to take exams.
Israel intends to build at least 16 gated crossings in the West Bank. It is one thing to have segregated roads – a step that America’s Deep South and apartheid South Africa never reached. But to insist on the right to block even those roads that are allocated to Palestinians is grotesque. The West Bank will be sliced into a series of ghettoes that Israeli forces can isolate at will. Whatever the security justification, the effect is to impose collective punishment on every Palestinian.
No one should be surprised if, in the face of such injustice, Palestinian anger and resistance grow.