The American, Israeli and even Palestinian media have been raving this week about Israel’s “move toward peace” with their plan of “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip.  Look a bit more closely, however, and you will see that disengagement is in fact a distraction, a magician’s trick, to keep the world looking at one hand while the magician makes the rabbit disappear from the other.  In this case the magician’s rabbit is the West Bank and Jerusalem, the OTHER part of the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the part where “disengagement” is NOT taking place. 

In fact, the exact opposite is happening – while 6,000 Israeli settlers living in the Palestinian Gaza Strip are being forcibly removed in a big publicity show this week (and being highly compensated and put up in expensive Israeli hotels I might add – great treatment for people whose actions in invading and settling Palestinian land were, are and have always been highly illegal)…….while this great show by the Israelis is being performed this week, behind the curtain of the illusion of “disengagement” lies a very different reality.

Settlements being moved, not removed

The first thing I need to point out about the so-called “disengagement plan” is that there are approximately 6,000 Israeli settlers being removed from the Palestinian Gaza Strip in the plan.  Meanwhile, a much greater number of settlers — over 200,000—who are living illegally in the Palestinian West Bank are not “disengaging” in the least.  So while a small number of settlers ARE being removed from one section of Palestinian land, the vast majority of the colonizing settlers remain untouched, deeply entrenched and rapidly expanding their land base in the other. 

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in 2002 that “the present National Unity Government, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has officially declared that it will not build any new settlements”, but on 21 March 2005, Israel approved plans to build 3,500 new housing units between the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem (E-1 Plan). The new units will consolidate Israel’s control over East Jerusalem and divide the West Bank in half.  Since January of 2005, the Israeli government has issued nearly 200 tenders for new settlements in the Palestinian West Bank. 

According to a 2004 report by the Israeli group Peace Now, approximately 51 new outposts were established between March 2001 and November 2004. Altogether, approximately 100 new settlements have been established since 1996 in the Palestinian West Bank.

In Jerusalem, where 200,000 Palestinians live, the Israeli annexation wall is being constructed even as the so-called “disengagement” plan is being carried out.  About 175,000 Israeli settlers live on illegally seized land in Palestinian East Jerusalem (and this is in addition to the 200,000 illegally living in the West Bank).  The Israeli cabinet recently approved a decision to complete Israel’s wall in East Jerusalem by the end of August, while the world is focusing on the Gaza disengagement.

  On 20 February 2005, the Israeli government approved a ‘new’ Wall route. However, 80 percent of the Wall’s route remains inside the Occupied Palestinian Territory, thereby annexing about 10 percent of the West Bank and leaving 240,000 Palestinians outside the Wall. Moreover, the new route leaves intact most Wall sections deep inside the northern and central West Bank, while making only minor changes in the northwest Jerusalem area. The revised route would circle the Ariel settlement and several other settlements known as the ‘Ariel Finger.’ The Ariel settlement of some 20,000 settlers is 17 km (10.5 mi) inside the West Bank.

For Sharon , withdrawing from Gaza is merely a tactical sacrifice that Israel must make in order to gain its strategic goal of control of the West Bank.  Sharon’s adviser Dov Weisglass stated last year, “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,” and enables Israel “to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure.”

So while the world focuses on the magician’s left hand, where a few thousand settlers are moved from the Gaza Strip (and given huge compensation packages of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for their relocation), the magician’s right hand is seizing control of the West Bank and Jerusalem, building Walls around towns and villages, expanding settlements and maintaining hundreds of military checkpoints in every part of the West Bank.  Poof!  Blink your eyes, and there will be nothing left of the land of Palestine.

A Prison Called “The Gaza Strip”

Even in the area where the so-called “disengagement” is taking place, the magician (in this case the state of Israel) has managed to trick the world audience, and even the Palestinian leadership, that they are somehow doing something beneficial for the Palestinian people.  And surely there is some merit to this claim, for it will be of some benefit to be rid of the few thousand settlers whose presence in the Gaza Strip has justified the restriction of movement and constant military attacks on the 1.2 million Palestinians living on 80% of a land mass just twice the size of Washington, DC.

But the relocation of these settlers will not significantly change the lives of the Palestinians living in Gaza.  Most Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees from what is now Israel – many of them second and third generation refugees.  Palestinians constitute the largest refugee population in the world — fully one third of the world’s refugees are Palestinian.  The Gaza Strip is the most crowded place on earth, and under Israeli occupation, unemployment has reached levels near 90% in many areas.  Malnutrition has risen tremendously, with nearly 40% of children now suffering from it, and other diseases are rampant in the crowded refugee camps.

What relief will the so-called “disengagement” bring to these conditions?  Very very little, I’m afraid.  The Israeli military will control the borders, even the shoreline, and have been constructing a wall around the Gaza Strip.  On the Gaza border with Egypt, the Israeli military has been constructing a trench several hundred meters wide, and demolishing hundreds of homes in the southern part of Rafah refugee camp to build it.  The trench, the wall, and the ongoing military presence will make Gaza even more of a prison than it is right now.  For now ALL the inmates will be Palestinian, there can be no mistaking them for the occasional Israeli settler. 

The borders, the air space, the sea will all be tightly controlled by the Israeli military (well, no chance of Palestinians using the airspace anyway, since the Israeli military destroyed their airport several years ago).  No jobs will be available to the Palestinians, many of whom used to go to work in Israel (as a cheap labor pool for Israelis, but they have now been replaced by Thai and other east Asian immigrant imports), and very little agricultural space is available in a land base so small and so crowded. 

The Gaza Strip, completely separated from the other section of Palestinian land known as the West Bank, will become (and in many ways already is) the world’s largest prison.  The Israeli military has guardposts throughout the territory, and will not remove these when “disengagement” is through.  From these guardposts and military bases, hundreds of children have been killed in their neighborhoods, playgrounds and even inside their homes as soldiers fire randomly or take pot-shots at groups of children playing. 

This will not end when a few thousand settlers leave the area.  As Palestinian journalist Laila al-Haddad stated in a recent Washington Post article: “The Gaza disengagement will simply restructure Israel’s occupation. Instead of controlling our lives from within, Israel will control Gaza from without.”  The guards will still be watching over the prison, surrounding the prisoners and preventing escape – from birth til death, three generations of Palestinians in the camps of Gaza have known no other fate than this wretched misery.  The prison walls are just now becoming concrete.

The real reason for “disengagement”

Israeli intellectuals Yehudith Harel and Yaakov Manor developed an articulate and well-thought out statement for the reasons behind Israeli disengagement in the Gaza Strip.  Unfortunately for the hopeful among Palestinians and others, the withdrawal from Gaza will NOT likely lead to a future withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem.  In fact, the exact opposite is a much more likely scenario.  The main reasons Harel and Manor determined for “disengagement” were as follows:

1)To improve Israeli positions and shorten the border […] i.e. a tactical military redeployment;

2) To weaken international pressure, and to obtain international green light for the perpetuation of the Israeli control of the settlements blocs, and the lands which are on western side of the wall;

3) To strengthen among the Israeli public the idea that there is no partner for negotiation […].

4) To make a joke of the Palestinian Authority institutions;

5) To create a trauma among the Israeli public, by pretending that the redeployment from Gaza is the maximum of compromise possible with the Palestinians, and that any additional compromise will provoke a terrible civil war;

6) […] To continue the construction of the wall and settlements in the West Bank […]’

These are objectives that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has clearly stated in the past are his, and the Israeli National Unity Government’s objectives.  Let us not be fooled by the magician’s ruse.  Let us remember who we are dealing with here: Ariel Sharon, a former general who oversaw the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the war against Lebanon in the 1980s.

  A man who stated in a speech just this past December that Israeli settlers must “take the hills, and then the rest”.  This is not a man, nor is his a government, that desires peace with the Palestinians. 

No, not in the least.  “Disengagement” is a magician’s trick.  Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted by this facile and time-worn ruse.  Let us look through the illusions and trickery to find the real way to a lasting peace – not in Sharon’s smiles and handshakes, but in real dialogue and the implementation of international human rights standards in Gaza and the rest of the Palestinian land.