out of the Gaza Strip is an old dream of the majority in Israeli society.
Even before the Oslo agreements in 1993, the call to get out of there was
heard after every terror attack. Today, according to the polls, it has the
support of 60-70% of the Israelis. But governments come and fall, and
still, this majority has not found the political power to realize its will.
At the start of the Oslo process, the majority believed
that Israel was withdrawing first from the Gaza Strip. But then Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave the concept of withdrawal a new meaning: he left
all of the settlements intact, increased their territory, and built a heavy
fence around the areas left for the Palestinians. With the Gaza strip
imprisoned and isolated, there began a process of eternal negotiations with
the Palestinian leadership over the details of further stages that would,
perhaps, materialize at some future point. The majority believed at the
time not only that we had already left Gaza altogether, but also that we
were just about to get out of the rest of the occupied territories and end
the occupation. This continued until the explosion that Ehud Barak created
reminded us that, in fact, we have not yet gotten out of anything.
In February of 2002, Ami Ayalon and the council for Peace and Security
called for a break from the route of eternal negotiations. It is both
possible and necessary, they said, to withdraw unilaterally from the
territories that the majority agrees we will get out of at the end of the
process: all of the Gaza strip and all of the West Bank, excluding 6%-10%
of the big settlement blocks. This means evacuating unilaterally and
immediately all of the settlements in these areas, even before the final
agreement. At the polls, 60% supported this idea, but what came out of it
at the end was an extensive campaign to 'let us first build a fence' (kodem
gader ve-az nedaber). In the elections of 2003, Mitzna stepped into the
spotlight with a more modest version of the idea of unilateral withdrawal --
Let us evacuate the settlements of the Gaza strip immediately. But during
his election campaign, "immediately" has turned into "in a year or two after
the elections", and in the meanwhile, let us strengthen the fence.
But now, so the papers say, we have finally reached a
historical turn. The majority is asked to believe that of all Israeli
leaders, it is Ariel Sharon who will get us out of Gaza. Sharon, who shaped
the map of the settlements in the Gaza strip in the seventies, and explained
persistently the supreme strategic importance of the Netzarim settlement in
cutting the strip into halves, Sharon of the Lebanon war, Sharon of Jenin -
he is the one who will now dismantle the Gaza settlements and end the
For those who doubt, ample evidence is provided by the world of politics.
Intensive negotiations of the plan take place, with the U.S. and with Egypt.
Low and behold, the right wing is already protesting, the settlers are
furious, the chief of staff Ya'alon has reservations, and Sharon may be
about to loose his coalition - a strong indication of how serious he is.
Those who still doubt remember that there have already been many plans in
the past, and road maps and diplomatic convoys, and still it turned out at
the end that Sharon did not really mean what he said. To restore their
faith, the political discourse is filled with explanations on why this time
it is different. Some say that Sharon has changed, or that he has had to
yield to the will of his voters, to whom he has promised peace. Others
explain that what drives Sharon is the need to distract attention away from
the various scandals and allegations of corruption in which he is involved,
or that perhaps he is willing to give up on the Gaza settlements in order to
gain international support for his fence plan in the West Bank.
The point is that in order to achieve the goals assumed in these
explanations, one does not need to dismantle a single settlement. It is
sufficient to declare intentions, and start a new process of negotiations.
This is precisely what all Israeli governments have done successfully since
1993, and what Sharon has done for the last three years. The only
innovation is that now negotiations take place with everyone except the
Palestinians. All that is needed is to throw a pacifier at the majority and
to convince them that this time Sharon really means it. This way, the
majority will continue to sit silently another year, and let Sharon apply
the Gaza model also in the West Bank.
The American historian Howard Zinn formulated a simple rule: Governments
lie. It appears that this generalization is one of the most difficult for
people to internalize and digest in a democratic society. Until this
changes, the majority is doomed to believe again and again the same lie.
Narrowing the prison cells
Sharon's "disengagement" plan was introduced in early
February 2004, at the peak of international criticism of Sharon's project of
the wall, with the Hague hearing scheduled to begin just a few weeks later,
on February 23.
In an interview with Ha'aretz, Sharon announced that "this vacuum for
which the Palestinians are to blame, cannot go on forever. So as part of the
disengagement plan I ordered an evacuation - sorry, a relocation - of 17
settlements with their 7,500 residents, from the Gaza Strip to Israeli
territory…The aim is to move settlements from places where they cause us
problems or places where we won't remain in a permanent arrangement. Not
only settlements in Gaza, but also three problematic settlements in
Samaria." (Yoel Marcus, Ha'aretz, Feb 3, 2004). Although the
headlines presented this as a plan for an immediate unilateral Israeli
withdrawal from the Gaza strip, modeling Israel's withdrawal from Southern
Lebanon, Sharon, in fact, clarified already in this interview that "the
process will take one to two years". He explained that a long process of
negotiations lies ahead, not with the Palestinians, who will be excluded
from any negotiations about the plan, but with the U.S., with whom,
"agreement is needed on both the evacuation and the matter of the fence"
Three days later, full details were given on what Sharon asks of the U.S. in
return for his generous concessions - "shifting the separation fence to the
east, with U.S approval, to a temporary security line that will surround
more settlements than the present path of the fence… The new security line
will be maintained until the full application of the road map. After
negotiations [with the Palestinians] resume and an agreement reached,
[Israel] will move the fence to the border that will be determined." (Aluf
Ben, Ha'aretz, Hebrew edition, Feb 6, 2004). Sharon also seeks U.S.
permission "to expand the big settlement blocks in the West Bank, which are
to be annexed to Israel in the permanent agreement" (ibid).
Indeed, the fence-route has been at the center of intense Israeli
negotiations with the U.S. Nachum Barnea, one of the most well briefed
Israeli journalists, reports that "Israel does not ask for money to finance
the evacuation, although it will be glad to get it. It mainly seeks support
of the fence-route." (Yediot Aharonot Saturday supplement, Feb 20,
Apart from the negotiations with the U.S., there is no sign on the ground of
any intention to evacuate from Gaza. A committee was formed to make plans
about how to compensate the settlers there, but so far there are no reports
of any interviews or contacts made by the committee with any of the
settlers, nor of any concrete plans it has come up with. There isn't even a
list of the settlements that supposedly will be evacuated from Gaza. Shortly
after Sharon's ceremonial announcement to Yoel Marcus in Ha'aretz, we
heard that "sources in Sharon's office have said that the planned evacuation
of Gaza will include less than the 17 settlements that Sharon mentioned in
the interview with Yoel Marcus. According to a diplomatic source in
Jerusalem, Sharon may propose to evacuate in the first stage only the
isolated settlements and postpone the evacuation of the Katif block [the
largest settlements block in the Gaza strip] to a second stage" (Aluf Ben
and Arnon Regular, Ha'aretz, Hebrew edition, Feb 9, 2004).
One could infer that at least isolated settlements such as Netzarim are
being prepared for evacuation in the near future. This, in fact, would be a
significant step forward. As Sharon has repeatedly explained, the Netzarim
settlement was not erected arbitrarily. It lies close to the seashore in
the middle of the strip. In order to reach it from the mainland, Israel
built a special road dotted with Israeli army posts.. This road, with its
constantly widening "security strip" separates the northern area of Gaza
city from the rest of the strip. Transit between the northern part of the
strip and its southern part is completely at the mercy of the Israeli army,
which means that, in reality, it is not possible for Palestinians.
Evacuating at least this settlement with its road and army posts would
enable some territorial continuity in the crowded Gaza strip. But on the
ground, work on fortifying this settlement has only intensified in recent
weeks. "The IDF is currently building, at the cost of millions of shekels, a
new electronic fence for Netzarim… The new fence will prevent penetration
under foggy weather conditions… The chief of staff approved the plan and the
region commander issued the orders, including the appropriation of land from
Palestinians" (Nachum Barnea, Yeddiot Aharonot Saturday Supplement,
March 12, 2004).
But since both Israelis and the world are so eager to
believe that Sharon intends to evacuate the Gaza settlements soon, who would
notice the daily horrors? At least the fence project in the West Bank is a
focus of some world attention. In the Gaza strip, the fence was already
completed during the first stages of the Oslo process. The strip has become
a huge prison, further divided internally into smaller prison units. But the
present project of the military is narrowing the prison cells even further.
This is done through a steady erasure of houses and orchards along the
"security strips". Alex Fishman, senior military analyst of Yediot
Aharonot, describes one of the projects that continues as Israel
"prepares to withdraw". "In the Gaza battalion, they keep executing
gradually but systematically the old dream: to widen the "Philadelphia" road
[along the border with Egypt] to at least one kilometer in width… The
realization of this dream has been happening for two years already. Every
time the IDF spokesman announces that our forces are operating in the area
of Rafa to expose tunnels, a few rows of houses are erased in the refugee
camp. In some of the segments of the road, the width is already a few
hundred meters, and their hands are still outstretched." (Yediot Aharonot
Saturday Supplement, March 19, 2004).
Now that Sharon "intends to withdraw", this project can continue
undisturbed. Since the announcement of the new initiative, there have
already been three murderous Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza
(reported on February 12, March 8, and March 17-21). At the same time, new
prospects are opened for the future maintenance of the prison, e.g. who
should be responsible for feeding the prisoners. National Security Advisor
Giora Eiland, who is in charge of composing the full details of the
disengagement plan, explained in a meeting of the security establishment
with Sharon that as Israel withdraws from the Gaza strip "it would no longer
be responsible for what happened there. 'Let the world worry about them,' he
said. 'I will no longer be the occupier in Gaza, so it will be as much the
Egyptians' and Europeans' business as mine' " (Aluf Benn, Ha'aretz,
March 18, 2004).
Here is how Amira Hass describes the daily reality of the Gaza strip:
This is an
admission of failure. The written word is a failure at making tangible to
Israeli readers the true horror of the occupation in the Gaza Strip…This
admission of the failure of the written word is not meant to enhance the
role of photography. A picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, but for
the Israeli occupation to approach some level of comprehension, Israelis
need to see tens of thousands of photographs, one after the other, or watch
documentaries that are at least eight hours long each, so they could grasp
in real time the fear in the eyes of the school children when some whistling
above turns into twisted crushed metal with charcoaled bodies inside.
should show the viewers the vineyards of Sheikh Ajalin, the ripe
grapefruits, the peasants who for years nurtured the fruit with great love
only to see it all turned to scorched earth left behind by Israeli tanks and
bulldozers. No movie has yet been produced that would enable Israelis to
taste the wonderful grapes of Sheikh Ajalin. The vineyards are gone so the
military positions can protect Netzarim.
photographs illustrate the following facts - from September 29th up to
Monday this week, 94 Israelis have been killed - 27 civilians and 67
soldiers, according to the IDF. From that same date up to February 18th this
year 1,231 Palestinians have been killed - all of them were terrorists?
Lacking a central Palestinian agency, there are differences between the data
provided by Palestinian groups and none claim to be 100 percent accurate…
The failure to
bring all this home to readers is not because of the weakness of words or a
lack pictures. It is because Israeli society has learned to live in peace
with the following facts. There are 8,000 Jews and 1.4 million Palestinians
in the Gaza Strip. The total area of the Strip is 365 square kilometers. The
settlements occupy 54 square kilometers. Along with the areas held by the
IDF, according to the Oslo accords, 20 percent of the Strip is under Israeli
control. That's 20 percent of the territory for half of one percent of the
of every expansive settlement to the densely populated, suffocating crowded
Palestinian community is what causes the large number of Palestinian
casualties in the Gaza Strip, including many civilians. It is what
determines the flexible rules of engagement, the type of bombs that break
into fragments, the unmanned aircrafts that fire missiles.
Amira Hass, "Words
Have Failed Us," Ha'aretz, March 3, 2004.
is Professor of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University. She is author of
Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 (Seven Stories
Press, 2002), one of the most important books on the Israel-Palestinian
conflict to date. Visit her website:
is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Yediot Aharonot, March
17, 2004, translated from Hebrew.
Other Articles by Tanya Reinhart
The Complex Art of Simulation
Guaranteed Failure of the Road Map
The Lilliputians Are No Longer Tiny People
Palestinians Don't Even Have Weather
Academic Boycott: In Support of Paris VI
A Vote for Mitzna is a Vote for Sharon
The Penal Colonies
The Voiceless Majority
Why an Academic Boycott
Jenin: The Propaganda Battle