Who made Gaza into a bloody trap?
Blaming ‘Israeli insanity’ for imprisoning Gazans overlooks the central role of the polite, Western peace process.
Many people are profoundly angry with Israel for its air assaults and ground invasion of Gaza. It is unquestionable that the war, now in its thirteenth day, has in the short term caused terrible suffering and in the long term will intensify divisions in the region. And yet, in the widespread condemnation of Israel for attacking Gazan territory, one key question has gone unasked: why does the Gaza Strip exist as a separate entity in the first place?
Liberal commentators in America and Europe, alongside European leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy and to a lesser extent Gordon Brown, have slated Israel over its recent airstrikes. They have called on the Israelis to ‘respect Gaza’s integrity’ or to keep their ‘Hands off Gaza!’ (1). This may come off as radical: standing up to the powerful Israeli military on behalf of the beleaguered 1.5million Palestinians who live in Gaza. But, in truth, there is a deeply uncritical and even conformist streak to this supposed solidarity with Gazans. The outraged critics of Israel accept the Western-imposed idea that Gaza, in effect a glorified refugee camp, should be a distinct pseudo-statelet for Palestinians, separate from Israel and even from the Jews. And yet this separation is the very condition that keeps Gaza impoverished, unfree and in a state of permanent conflict with its bigger, more powerful neighbour.
Critics attack Israel for its use of force in Gaza. Yet they implicitly support the partitionist and sectarian underpinnings of the Middle Eastern ‘peace process’, which has upped the ante between Israel and Gaza. Facilitated by Washington and Brussels over the past 15 years, the peace process has been based on the idea that Israelis and Palestinians must be permanently separated – that is, the Middle East must be partitioned. The Oslo Accords of 1993, overseen by then US President Bill Clinton, called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and affirmed ‘a Palestinian right of self-government within those areas through the creation of a Palestinian Authority’. The Roadmap for Peace of 2003 – drawn up by the US, the UN, the EU and Russia – called for a ‘permanent two-state solution’ and demanded ‘clear, unambiguous acceptance’ of this solution from both Israel and the Palestinians (2).
The central theme of the peace process is always that Israelis and Palestinians cannot possibly live together in a democratic federal state, and thus there must be a ‘permanent’ separation which must be kept in check by ‘formal monitoring mechanisms’ overseen by the international community (in the words of the Roadmap for Peace) (3). This divisive dynamic, far from ushering in a new era of peace, has heightened sectarian tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. And nowhere is this clearer than in Gaza.
Life in Gaza has never been pleasant. Around 25 miles long and six miles wide, this tiny piece of land, about twice the size of Washington DC, is home to 1.5million Palestinians. The borders of the Gaza Strip were defined by the armistice lines between Egypt and Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that followed the dissolution of the British mandate of Palestine and the creation of Israel. The Gaza Strip was never intended to be a legitimate state or independent territory: rather it became home to thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war. The vast majority of the 1.5million Palestinians who live in Gaza today are direct descendants of those refugees. Gaza was occupied by Egypt from 1948 until 1967, when it was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War; it was occupied by Israel from 1967 until 1993, when the Oslo Accords handed authority to the newly-formed Palestinian Authority. Under both Egypt and Israel, the Palestinians of Gaza suffered political repression. But, remarkably, the situation in the Strip has worsened under the peace process.
The peace process, with its demand for a ‘permanent’ separation between Israel and the Palestinian territories, has had a dire impact both economically and politically on Gaza. In economic terms it has led to greater impoverishment in the Strip; in political terms it has further entrenched divisions between Arabs and Jews.
One of the first consequences of the implementation of the Oslo Accords in 1993/1994 was the sealing of the borders between Israel and Gaza. Where Gaza had once been considered a hopefully temporary grouping of refugee settlements created by the war of 1948, with Oslo it was suddenly elevated to the status of a semi-sovereign territory under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. What had previously been seen as a ghetto for refugees was now heralded as a distinct cultural entity worthy of ‘respect’ and ‘celebration’. Nothing better captured the cynical nature of the peace process, its effective transformation of Palestinian defeat into something positive, than this transformation of Gaza from a territory created by default to house displaced Palestinians into part of a new ‘Palestinian homeland’.
After Oslo, the borders between Israel and this newly defined territory were immediately strengthened. In 1994, the first year of Oslo implementation, Israel began building a 60km-long barrier between itself and the Gaza Strip. The barrier, completed in 1996, consisted of wire fencing with posts, sensors and buffer zones (4). This separation fence can be seen as a physical manifestation of the peace process and of Oslo: the brute expression of the idea that underpinned the peace negotiations, which was that Israel and the Palestinians must be partitioned off, separated by ‘monitoring mechanisms’.
The economic impact on Gaza was disastrous. The raising of new and stronger borders between Israel and Gaza deprived the Strip of its main source of income, which came from Palestinian day labourers who had previously crossed the ‘green line’ to work in Israel. As part of its post-Oslo fencing off of Gaza, Israel began to impose ‘generalised border closures’ which prevented Gazans from moving from the Strip to work in southern Israel. As one account notes, these closures ‘disrupted previously established labour and commodity market relationships between Israel and the Strip’ (5). As a result, between 1992 and 1996, after the First Intifada of 1987 to 1993 had died down and the new structures of the peace process took over, economic output in the Gaza Strip declined by one-third. This led to high unemployment in Gaza. According to one American study, in 2001 GDP in Gaza had declined 35 per cent to a per capita income of $625, and 60 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line (6). Today, Gaza is on an economic par with sub-Saharan Africa.
Alongside economic impoverishment, the peace process deepened the political divide between Israelis and Palestinians. With its focus on separation, the Western-sponsored process gave rise to new and more brutal forms of sectarianism. Thus in the 1990s, the presence of Jewish settlements in Gaza became an explosive political issue. Gazans frequently protested against the settlements, and Palestinian militants launched attacks against them. In 2005, the Israeli military, following a plan drawn up by Ariel Sharon, used force to dismantle all the settlements and to remove every Jew – 9,000 in total – from Gaza. Scenes of distraught Jewish families being dragged from Gaza, while Palestinian onlookers cheered, captured the deep sectarianism that had been unleashed by the peace process.
Again, such actions were a logical consequence of the Oslo Accords and later the Roadmap for Peace, which was built on the notion that there could be no progress until both sides ‘clearly and unambiguously’ accepted the need for a ‘permanent two-state solution’ (7). The result of an all-Arab Gaza is that, in that small corner of the Middle East, Palestinians and Jews are more hermetically sealed from one another than at any other time in modern history. Such a state of affairs can only have contributed to the sense that Gaza and Israel are two totally opposed blocs: different, cut off, forever conflictual. To borrow a phrase from history, Gaza under the peace process has been turned into a ‘bloody trap’ for Palestinians.
In recent days, Israel has been criticised for transforming Gaza into a ‘jailed state’. In truth, it is 15 years of international intervention under the guise of enforcing a ‘peace process’ that has imprisoned Gaza. Washington and Brussels have effectively imposed a multicultural solution on to the Middle East, where the emphasis is on preserving both sides’ sense of national identity through separation and constant monitoring. And if divisive multicultural policies can be explosive in cities in the West, imagine the impact they can have on a volatile part of the world like Israel/Palestine. Israel should be strongly criticised for its recent attacks, but only criticising Israel, without interrogating the role played by Western powers in legitimising new forms of partition and storing up the potential for violence, is intellectually irresponsible. More than that, it leaves unchallenged the idea that the ghetto of Gaza is a fit place for 1.5million people to live in, and the notion that Arabs and Jews must be separated into their own statelets.
The international community’s meddling has further divided the people of the Middle East. And in many ways, such meddling has also inflamed Israel’s attacks on Gaza: feeling itself losing control of affairs in the Middle East, Israel is lashing out in an out-of-control fashion in an attempt to assert its authority and keep the fenced-off and volatile Gaza in check. A genuine peace can surely only emerge if the people of the region are free to mix and work together, and possibly even to come up with their own political solutions, free from the cynical intervention of the international community and the shallow solidarity of Western activists. The widespread demand to ‘Free Gaza’ overlooks the fact that such an entity, created by default, surrounded by hasty borders, monitored by UN officials and around 300 Western NGOs, and increasingly treated as a permanently separate semi-official state, can never be free.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on spiked in June 2007.
Gaza is not Warsaw, by Nathalie Rothschild
There is no such thing as a ‘good lie’, by Tim Black
Whose war is it anyway?, Brendan O’Neill
War without ends?, by Mick Hume
The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild
‘We’re all Gazans now’, by Tim Black
The antithesis of anti-imperialism, Brendan O’Neill
Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza
(1) EU will sing a different tune under the Czechs, The National, 2 January 2009
(2) See the Roadmap for Peace.
(3) See the Roadmap for Peace.
(4) Activists sale to bust Israeli sea blockade on Gaza, Reuters, 22 August 2008
(5) ‘The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development’, reviewed in Arab Studies Quarterly, Summer 1997
(6) The Gaza Strip, CIA World Factbook, 2007
(7) See the Roadmap for Peace.