An Israeli and a Palestinian professor—both members of the international network Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (<www.ffipp.org>)—traveled to Princeton University Oct. 10 to discuss the topic “Between Gaza and the West Bank.” Orly Lubin is with the Department of Literature and the Women and Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University, while Issam Nassar, associate director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies, currently teaches in Bradley University’s history department. The event, sponsored by the Transregional Institute, was the first in a series devoted to the theme of “Society under Occupation: Contemporary Palestinian Politics, Culture, and Identity.”
Nassar questioned whether Israel’s recent disengagement from Gaza was a solution and, if so, for what and for whom. The U.S. considers Gaza’s problems—high population density in very little space and high unemployment—as a result of the intifada. This is somewhat true, Nassar conceded, since the Israeli army destroyed 45,000 Gaza homes, along with many mosques, schools, and places of business. But one can’t understand the history of Gaza in only the last five years, he said.
Gaza’s problems go back to 1948, when refugees from the new Israeli state flooded into the area, quadrupling its population. Following the 1967 war, Israel incorporated the occupied territories into its economy as a market for Israeli products and a source of cheap labor inside Israel, producing what Nassar characterized as complete economic dependence on Israel. Then, during and after the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, Israel imposed a continuous closure that has sealed Gaza off “like a prison.”
As evidence that disengagement is not about solving the difficult situation for Palestinians in Gaza, Nassar quoted Israel’s original disengagement proposal of April 18, 2004: it will “serve to dispel claims regarding Israel’s responsibility for the Gaza Strip” and leave “no basis to claim that Gaza is occupied territory.” Under actual implementation, “overall exclusive authority over all air space and territorial water will remain in Israel’s hands” and Israel will continue to sell Gaza electricity and gas at pre-disengagement prices.
If Israelis had acted with good will, Nassar maintained, they would have worked with the Palestinians instead of unilaterally. Instead, he said, they “handed a free victory to Hamas.” Israel has sold the removal of a few thousand settlers who should not have been there, leaving great destruction in the process, as a great concession. And the U.S. is exerting pressure on the Palestinian Authority to confirm the end of any Israeli responsibility for Gaza, hinting that if Palestinians succeed in Gaza, more will be coming. But, Nassar asked, with such a history and with its borders, sky, sea, and water resources under Israeli control, how can Gaza become independent?
Lubin addressed the issue of what the Gaza disengagement means for Israelis. The majority of Israelis, she assured the audience, have no illusions that it is a courageous step. They know that Israel created a ghetto with no infrastructure and allowed no development, and that its army can re-enter at any time. What Israelis saw on television were not the weeping soldiers and mothers shown on American broadcasts, she said, but disengaged, well-trained soldiers dealing with screaming, orange-wearing fanatics and parents putting their children through unnecessary trauma. Within one week, Lubin said, things were back to the normal routine of targeted killings, bombing Gaza, and extending the apartheid wall in the West Bank.
Nobody in Israel thinks disengagement was designed to further the peace process, Lubin asserted; most think it was done for military considerations: it took too many soldiers to guard small, scattered settlements. In fact, she said, the army may no longer reveal the cost of protecting the settlements. The army also has been coping with those who refuse to serve, Lubin said: Every year one-third of those supposed to enlist do not do so, some out of principle but most because serving in the army is unpleasant.
According to Lubin, disengagement broke the myth of the settlements. They had been viewed as a serious obstacle to peace because it had been assumed that nobody could remove them. The fact that it was so easy to get out of settlements, that it took only six days—despite suicide threats and a potential split in the Likud party—has caused a crisis for the Orthodox right wing. It thought it had broad support, but two anti-disengagement demonstrations were canceled when crowds failed to show up. Lubin said the settlement movement lost the people because it was self-centered and oblivious to other issues, such as rising poverty within Israel. For some of the religious settlers who really expected the miracle their rabbis promised them, disengagement has been a theological crisis. Many no longer feel they belong to the Zionist movement.
Israel as a society, Lubin argued, has been held together for 38 years by occupation. It has always been about security, the holiness of the land, and the logistics of the military. But, she said, when the occupation turned out to be so visibly bad, the glue holding Israeli society began melting, revealing the fractures that have always been there. Lubin sees the possibility of good coming out of this fragmentation, if it leads Israelis to ask themselves, what does it mean to be accountable as a nation, to acknowledge what has been done? What would it mean to take responsibility? It would cost money, but, as she reminded her American audience, “your tax dollars will take care of that.”
Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area