Gaza withdrawal provokes anguish

news: Gaza withdrawal provokes anguish

The incident at Katif was one of many confrontations between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government and Jewish settlers, who emigrated to the occupied territories since their annexation by Israel. Settlers have rejected the evacuation plan, claiming that Gaza is part of the traditional Jewish homeland and that the move only encourages Palestinian militants to extract further concessions.

Early signs were that the unilateral withdrawal would not lead Hamas, the main Palestinian terrorist organisation, to review its tactics. The group honoured a commitment to implement a ceasefire during the withdrawal, but vowed to continue future resistance. “Gaza is not Palestine,” a spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing told a news conference in Gaza City. “As for Jerusalem and the West Bank, we will seek to liberate them by resistance just as the Gaza Strip was liberated.”

Children plead with soldiers

Fierce resistance from some settlers and their supporters marked the evacuations. Television images of children pleading with Israeli soldiers made for uneasy viewing in a country uncomfortable with confrontations between Jews. “Take off your sunglasses and look me in the eye,” a girl shouted through her tears at a soldier evacuating the settlement of Atzmona. “How can you evict a young girl like me?” she demanded of a soldier twice her size.

The sense of anger and betrayal many settlers feel has reminded Israelis of the fevered atmosphere in 1995, leading up to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a young law student, Yigal Amir. The same right-wingers who accused Rabin of betrayal are now turning their fire on Sharon, once considered the settlers’ friend. Ominously, a settler family in Atzmona had set up a symbolic Cemetery of the Oppressors, with tombstones for Hitler and Arafat, among others. The name on the final tombstone was blank. A settler woman at the scene refused to say whom it was for, but some feel it was intended for Sharon.

Palestinian poverty in the Strip

Despite the furore from a vocal minority, opinion polls show most people supported the Gaza withdrawals or at least considered them a price worth paying to relaunch the peace process.

Israel has controlled the Gaza Strip since the 1967 Six Day War. The Strip is a narrow piece of land along the Mediterranean coast between Israel and Egypt. Just 40 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide, it is home to 1.4 million Palestinians and 8,000 Israeli settlers. Most of the Palestinians are refugees or descendants of refugees, who fled or were expelled from Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

The settlers only moved to Gaza following Israel’s occupation of the Strip in 1967. Following the 1993 Oslo Accords, two thirds of the Strip came under Palestinian control and the remaining third was ceded to Israel. Most of the Palestinians live in appalling conditions – half a million alone live in eight crowded refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and 66 per cent live below the UN defined poverty line. Population density averages more than 3,500 per square kilometre and unemployment stood at 41 per cent last year.

Israel’s international prestige was in question

The refugees will feel relieved at the departure of the settlers, the army and their security cordons. Most Palestinians, in particular those who fled or were driven from their homes in 1948, will have little sympathy for the plight of people who moved there by choice. The settlers, often Jews from America, were driven by a Messiah like sense of purpose, convinced that they had had a claim to the lands since Biblical times. But the settlers were also deluded in thinking that Israel could retain sovereignty over conquered territory.

In reality, the sacrifice of such settlements was all but inevitable if Israel ever wanted to come to a deal with the Palestinians. Their retention, in violation of UN resolutions and the international community, lowered Israel’s prestige abroad and opened up the settlers to charges of extremism. By a final irony, it has taken a hard line rightwinger Ariel Sharon, a man who helped to conquer the lands in battle, to begin the process of dismantling them.

By Gabriel Hershman