Israeli settler pullout won't make Gaza free

By Paul McCann

The Toronto Star, August 18, 2005


It seems that Israel wants to lock up Gaza and throw away the key, says Paul McCann

There is a Bedouin village - breeze-block shanties built on sand dunes - in the north of the Gaza Strip that has been overlooked by the army watchtowers of the Jewish settlement of Nisanit. On most nights during the intifada, soldiers in these watchtowers fired down into the alleys of the village, keeping everyone hemmed into their homes at night.

On occasion, children, disorientated and panicked by the firing, had been known to run out of their shacks and into the line of fire.

There were many randomly-firing watchtowers surrounding the Israeli settlements in Gaza. They have killed hundreds of Palestinians, both militant and innocent, and are hated by the local population.

Their removal this week, along with the settlements themselves, will rightly be a moment of celebration. But just because the most visible and oppressive signs of the Israeli occupation will be gone, no one should be under the illusion that Gaza will cease to be the world's largest prison camp.

Last week, the Israeli cabinet decided it would maintain troops on the border between Gaza and Egypt for the foreseeable future - along the so-called Philadelphia corridor. It was from a watchtower on this border that peace activist Tom Hurndall was shot in 2003.

The same cabinet meeting also decided that Israel must continue to control who enters and exits Gaza through Egypt and proposed a new border crossing at Kerem Shalom where Israel, Gaza and Egypt meet.

This busy cabinet meeting also decided that it would allow Gaza to have 5 kilometres of territorial waters; after that Israel would control the sea. It had already been decided that Israel will continue to control Gaza's airspace.

Earlier this year, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the guardian of international humanitarian law, sent the Israeli government a confidential position paper making clear that the removal of the Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza will not end the occupation.

The paper stated: "Israel will retain significant control over the Gaza Strip, which will enable it to exercise key elements of authority. Thus ... it seems at this stage the Gaza Strip will remain occupied for the purposes of international humanitarian law."

It is a view backed by the highly respected Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. In a legal brief prepared for the donor community, the program's director wrote: "The partial redeployment of Israel's military presence in and around the territory is not the controlling factor in international law to determine the end of occupation ... The end of occupation rests essentially on the termination of the military control of the Occupying Power over the government affairs of the occupied population that limits the people's right to self-determination."

Why this matters is made clear in the disengagement resolution passed by the Israeli government last summer. That states: "The completion of the (disengagement) plan will serve to dispel claims regarding Israel's responsibility for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip."

But if it is still the occupying power, then in law Israel has very specific responsibility for the welfare of the population of Gaza.

If the occupation is seen to have ended, then it can wash its hands of all 1.3 million of them.

At the moment, Israel talks of improving conditions at the notorious Erez crossing from Gaza into Israel, where thousands of Palestinian cheap labourers are routinely humiliated for hours before they can get into Israel to work. But in the longer term, it seems Israel wants to lock up Gaza and throw away the key.

Shaul Mofaz, the minister of defence, and Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister, have both gone on record this summer as saying that no Palestinian workers will be allowed into Israel from 2008.

The wording of the disengagement bill states there are to be no labourers "in the longer term."

At the G8 summit, the international community promised to invest $3 billion in Gaza. But without access to the outside world, these funds will do little to improve life or create permanent jobs.

If Gaza is to feel the benefits of disengagement, the fishermen need to be able to fish, merchants to travel and import and crucially, after 38 years of enforced integration with Israel's economy, labourers will still need to work on the building sites of Tel Aviv and Ashkelon.

Otherwise the watchtowers of Gaza will only have moved a few hundred metres and no doubt will soon fire down once more on Palestinians - both militant and innocent.

Paul McCann was spokesman for the U.N.'s Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza from 2001 to 2005. This article first appeared in the Independent newspaper Tuesday.


Copyright 2005 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.