Gaza Will Be ‘Vacated but Still Occupied’

JERUSALEM – A growing number of Palestinians are beginning to believe that Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip will not mean the end of occupation.

"The Gaza Strip will still be occupied territory under international law," says Renad Qubbaj of the Palestinian NGO Network, based in Ramallah in the West Bank. "After implementation of the disengagement plan, the Israeli army will remain in effective control of all border crossings."

The lives of about 1.4 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip hang in the balance as Israel moves ahead with plans for disengagement. The Gaza Strip lies to the west of Israel along the Mediterranean Sea.

Officials on both sides have expressed the hope that the disengagement plan will move Palestinian and Israeli people closer to peace. Israel is due to withdraw its settlements from the Gaza Strip Aug. 17.

The disengagement plan calls for the evacuation of all Israeli towns and villages and military forces within the Gaza Strip. Israel says there will be no more grounds then for Palestinians and the international community to claim that the Gaza Strip is occupied territory.

But Jaber Wishah, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), is not optimistic. "Up till now, we don’t know the main features of the plan to pull out of Gaza," he told IPS. "Our analysis shows that the plan is not built on international law or international humanitarian law, and as such there will be no change in Gaza."

A paper released by the Palestinian NGO network says "the disengagement plan is a trade-off meant to legitimize the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including in and around Jerusalem, which are currently under expansion, as well as the separation and annexation wall, which is being erected in violation of international law."

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visiting the region last weekend in advance of the planned pullout reassured Palestinians that the United States is committed to the realization of "two independent democratic and viable states: Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace and security."

Rice told reporters that "we also recognize that the economic revival of the Palestinian territories is a key element for peace. That means that when the Israelis withdraw from Gaza it cannot be a sealed or isolated area, with the Palestinian people closed in after that withdrawal. We are committed to connectivity between Gaza and the West Bank, and we are committed to openness and freedom of movement for the Palestinian people."

But Qubbaj told IPS that "Palestinians in Gaza will have no control over airports, sea ports, or natural resources such as water or gas."

Seventeen Gaza settlements and four West Bank settlements are to be evacuated by force if necessary in the coming month. The International Crisis Group (ICG) reports that about 8,000 Israeli settlers will be evacuated, as will an additional 700 or so new settlers that have moved into the area to reinforce existing settlements and set up roadblocks for the disengagement plan.

Despite growing opposition from Israelis, and settlers in general, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says he is committed to the disengagement plan. Both parliamentary and judicial challenges to the disengagement plan have been consecutively defeated. But as the date approaches, it is anticipated that there will be more conflict between the settlers and the Israeli government, as well as clashes between Palestinians and settlers.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has welcomed the impending pullout. He told reporters at the same press conference as Rice that "the Israeli withdrawal that is anticipated from Gaza Strip will constitute an opportunity for us to develop the institutions of the state and spreading our authority over that dear part of our Palestinian homeland."

But though there will be no more Israeli military and civilian presence in the Gaza strip, "there is a great risk of Gaza becoming one big prison," Qubbaj said. "There will be no contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank, and the Israeli army will still be controlling the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza."

The disengagement plan specifically states that "Israel will guard and monitor the external land perimeter of the Gaza Strip, will continue to maintain exclusive authority in Gaza airspace, and will continue to exercise security activity in the sea off the coast of the Gaza Strip."

Wishah told IPS: "This will hurt the goal of two states living side by side; it will not bring more stability. On the contrary, it will increase the frustrations of the Palestinian people here in Gaza."

Workers have been barred already from employment in Israel, "bringing the unemployment rate to now 60 percent in Gaza; 80 percent of the population is currently living below the poverty line."

Wishah reiterated the sentiments of the Palestinian NGO Network. "It is certain that Gaza will become a big prison, there will be no freedom of trade or freedom of movement. Until there is a safe and continuous passage to the West Bank, there will only be movement through the Rafah border with Egypt but even that the Israelis want joint control over." Rafah would in any case be a roundabout route through Egypt.

The Palestinian NGO network maintains that "Palestinian society will be split into separate political, social, and economic entities, and Jerusalem will be turned into an isolated island."

As Israel is moving ahead with its disengagement plans, it has consistently and firmly maintained that it reserves the right of "self-defense both preventive and reactive."