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19/5/05

Palestine: Après Nous, Nous: Covering the Colonial Retreat Peter Lagerquist with Tom Hill

  

May 19, 2005

(Peter Lagerquist is a freelance journalist based in Israel and the West Bank. Tom Hill is a doctoral candidate in history at Cambridge University. The authors thank Mitri Karkar for his translation assistance.)

It was vintage Shimon Peres. On April 18 Israel’s deputy prime minister emerged from a tete-à-tete with French President Jacques Chirac proclaiming a shining vision of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. “We could convert a settlement into a Club Med,” he suggested. “We must not wait for the political solution, but create economic and social hope.” The assembled press might have been even more bemused if Peres’ proposal had not sounded so in tune with other recent statements about the fate of Gaza after Israel’ s promised withdrawal in mid-August 2005. A week earlier, Peres, Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Muhammad Dahlan and World Bank officials had emerged from a forum convened by the Washington-based Aspen Institute also touting plans for major investments in the impoverished territory. On both occasions, talk about what will be done with Israel’s Gazan settlements after they are evacuated echoed deeper concerns over the order that will emerge after the “disengagement.”

The real gold nugget unearthed at the Aspen Institute proceedings was a deal, struck behind closed doors, whereby Israel will “coordinate” its disengagement with the Palestinian Authority. It answered Israel’s need for a “dignified” pullout, voiced by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and other top US officials three weeks earlier. “Israelis are especially worried that a terrorist takeover of settler properties — a Hamas flag, say, flying over the settlement of Neve Dekalim after the withdrawal — would be a propaganda bombshell that would effectively gut popular Israeli support for withdrawal,” reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Mofaz’s audience would already have been well-briefed. The specter of post-pullout chaos has roamed the news headlines and op-ed columns ever since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched his country on the path to disengagement in late 2003. Less attention has been paid to the concerns of Gaza’s Palestinian inhabitants, which only begin with what Israeli generals will do to strike dignified poses.

“I’ve heard that the Israelis will close down all of Gaza when the settlers evacuate,” says a young man seated at an evening meal in the Nusseirat refugee camp. “It will be very difficult.” People here do need “economic and social hope.” The UN puts unemployment in the Strip at 68 percent — much of it because after the current Palestinian uprising began, very few Gazans have been allowed to go to Israel, or anywhere else, for work. Yet if the projects of “hope” bruited about in overseas capitals seem surreal in the Gaza that Israel will leave behind, it is also because they are conceived around the understanding that Israel will not really leave. This talk does not so much anticipate a “political solution” as supplant it, along with enduring Palestinian narratives of past injustices and future hopes. In what it says and what it does not say, the discourse of “hope” recalls the similar vision of a business-oriented New Middle East that Peres talked up during the 1993-2000 Oslo “peace” process. In reality, and much like the experiences marketed by Club Med, such talk rehearses a colonial fantasy. Chirac, who once did duty in French Algeria, would know it well.

SOUNDING THE RETREAT

Well before its colonies in Africa and Indochina rose in the twilight decades of European empire, France conjured a vision of the approaching darkness in which its own dimming lights might still flicker. Once we leave, went the wisdom of that day, natives no longer bound by a higher order would fall on each other to divide the spoils, and chaos would ensue. The idea found expression in a phrase: Après nous, le deluge. Although millions of Algerians and Vietnamese died while it held sway in Paris, the idea did not. As politicians, journalists and other disengagement entrepreneurs grapple in advance with the order that will follow Israel’s in Gaza, questions about whether disengagement is a retreat at all only heighten the sense of déjà vu.

In March, the BBC condensed a televised report by Alan Johnston into an online feature titled “Pullout Problems.” A snapshot of what slides quietly by in the press, it largely mirrored prevailing media coverage of disengagement. Over the week that it was posted, it slipped by 3-6 million BBC online readers, coasting on what can only be described as a historically loaded subtext: can the Palestinians handle withdrawal? “Israel worries that what were the homes of settler families might immediately become the loot of groups like Hamas, which claim that it was their rocket and other attacks that forced the Israeli retreat,” wrote Johnston. Palestinians are supposedly worried too: “There has certainly been reform of [the Palestinian Authority’s] financial affairs, but ordinary people here will still have the gravest doubts that the settlers’ assets will be managed properly… The Palestinian Authority has a dismal reputation for corruption. And there is another concern — law and order in the days after the army pulls out. The Palestinian Authority worries that with their pent-up loathing of Israel, local people might try to storm the settlements en masse and loot and ransack whatever is left.”

It is apt that the article opens with a nod to Israel’s need for a dignified withdrawal. Though the reader would not know it, such reportage transplants diverging worries into a discussion almost completely framed by Israeli, and to a lesser extent, international concerns. Palestinians — “ordinary people,” no less — are called forth to address these as if they were their own preoccupations, even if not a single ordinary person speaks directly through the online reportage. But as journalists write about disengagement as if it were already a fact — much as they talked about peace during the 1993-2000 Oslo “peace process” — and conjure concomitant visions of a seething mass waiting at the settlements’ gates, Gazans worry about things at once more mundane and remote.

Few ordinary Gazans will believe evacuation until they see it. “First of all, I hope they get out, but I really don’t think so,” says a young man in the southern town of Rafah. His skepticism is not unfounded. Withdrawal has already been postponed from July to August, despite the earnest urgings of the White House and the other members of the “Quartet” who sponsor the road map that supposedly points the way toward negotiations for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace. Polls show steady erosion of the Israeli majority supporting disengagement as talk of “chaos” proliferates. Sitting members of the Israeli cabinet are on record questioning even this timetable — indeed whether disengagement should happen at all. On May 9, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom noted that it would be “unreasonable” to complete the withdrawal if Hamas wins Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for July. Israel, he cautioned, should not “hand over the territories only for Hamas to create there a ‘Hamastan.’”

Having yet to embrace Club Medistan, Gazans post more prosaic worries. “And then what?” is the next question at the dinner in Nusseirat. “Where will we find work? Gaza is the world’s biggest prison,” quips a middle-aged policeman bleakly. “There is still a fence around Gaza. When I am able to go to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, this will be a withdrawal,” echoes an older man in Rafah. Both would be familiar with a joke now making the rounds of Palestinian coffee shops — a parable for the diplomatic “concessions” made to the Palestinians from the “generous offer” at Camp David in July 2000 to periodic promises of an “easing of closures” to disengagement. The joke goes as follows: a man living in a cramped room with his family asks how he can get more space. “Move in the donkey,” he is told. “But now it is even more crowded!” he complains. So bring in the horse, he’s told. “It’s even more crowded!” he exclaims. So he is told to move out the donkey and the horse. The man marvels: “Now it feels so spacious!”

CIRCULAR DEPENDENCE

Diplomats and media pundits spend little time in Palestinian coffee houses, however. For those who portray disengagement not as a political diversion but a push toward peace — needing a supportive partner — the question of what to do with the settlements has become another opportunity to remind the Palestinian would-be state of its managerial responsibilities. Though blind to the writing on Israel’s wall in the West Bank, they might nevertheless have been embarrassed by Shaul Mofaz’s confessions to the daily Yediot Aharonot on May 11, the anniversary of Israel’s independence. Promising that disengagement will allow Israel to extend its borders into the West Bank, Mofaz prophesied that “the settlers of [the West Bank] and Gaza will be able to say in years to come that they helped establish the eastern frontiers of the state of Israel.” In foreclosing what might seem rational responses to such intentions — like resistance to occupation — “good governance” is a highly circumscribed program. But because good governance is the only internationally approved path to popular credibility open to the Palestinian Authority (PA), and because governance is, after all, about taking care of “your own people,” diplomats and journalists alike successfully frame it as an issue that not only should be, but actually is, at the forefront of ordinary people’s concerns.

It is true that the PA is keen to reassure its international patrons. But meanwhile and perhaps more than at any previous historical juncture, the Palestinian “street” and its leadership are talking past each other. As ordinary people “doubt” the integrity and capability of their government, the PA voices its own version of foreign fears of clamoring hordes of real estate speculators beating at the settlements’ doors. “These houses [to be evacuated] could be a poisoned chalice,” Deputy Finance Minister Jihad al-Wazir told the BBC’s Johnston. “How would we decide who would live in them? They would create social tension. Maybe the rich and the elite would live in these homes, with their very nice gardens and views of the beach, while the housing crisis would continue in the rest of Gaza.” This social conscience is belied by a towering apartment complex on the road from Gaza City to Jabalya, with many times the capacity of the villas in the large Gush Katif settlement bloc. Financed by the late ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahayan, it stands empty today, inviting only the angry queries of Gaza taxi drivers.

Within the circular argument in which the PA, international mediators, the Israeli government and journalists are engaged, more pointed questions also go unasked. What business is it of Israel’s what the Palestinians do with the Gaza settlements? One answer is that it is Israel’s business because it is business. The settlements, writes the BBC, are “some of the most valuable assets in poverty-stricken Gaza.” The greenhouses in the Gush Katif bloc alone are worth $80 million. Tellingly, such facts have impressed themselves first and foremost on Israel and its international interlocutors.

Dignity in mind, Israel’s original preference was to bulldoze all settlement “assets” entirely. Despite its coordination agreement with the PA, Israel is still nervous about the disposition of settlement assets. Yet plans had already shifted by the time Peres went to the Aspen Institute conference. The talk is now of transferring assets to an “international third party” that would then pass it on to the Palestinians in a gradual transition. For Peres this would also provide a justification for delaying withdrawal further. “If we destroy the homes, it will lengthen the process by three months,” he told the Jerusalem Post, “since according to international law we will need to clean up the debris.” Outgoing World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who has now been installed as the Quartet’s special envoy on disengagement, has renewed discussion with Peres over the possibility that an international third party would buy the “assets” from Israel.

In this debate, the US Agency for International Development has been a step ahead of everyone else. In mid-January, USAID invited tenders for its own “transition” plan, which would have an Israeli-approved private security force take over agricultural land and $80 million worth of greenhouses in Gush Katif, and, later, possibly other settlements. A local operator, funded by USAID and substantially staffed with Israelis, would then upgrade the land and channel its produce to Israeli agribusiness for re-export to the European and US markets. The idea was to “focus on business expansion, growth and export development in a way that accepts Israeli security controls as parameters and devises approaches to work around them,” said the work plan. “We are looking at a win-win situation both for Palestinians and Israelis,” explained a USAID officer in Tel Aviv to Middle East International. If this “transition” looks more like a “takeover,” perhaps that is because occupations have a way of remaining a going concern.

Gazans understand this reality. “We have to keep in mind that the economy of Gaza is dependent on Israel. Its impossible that we’ll be disconnected from Israel,” says 25-year old Abu Hassan in Rafah’s Tuffah neighborhood. He is unemployed like nearly everyone here. It therefore came as a shock when Israel in April announced it will sever Palestinian access to its labor market after withdrawal — to “reduce mutual dependence” between Israelis and Palestinians. Though its official status is not clear, the announcement underlined longer-standing plans to completely close the Israeli labor market to Palestinians by 2007. As Israel restructures its relationship with a Strip closed off from other markets, Gaza’s inhabitants are finding it even more difficult to see beyond the exigencies of daily survival to any wider horizons. Asked what she thinks about withdrawal, a wizened woman in Rafah answers in the language of diminished expectations: “God willing, we hope for the best, for us and them. We only ask the United Nations and UNRWA to build us a sewage line.”

HISTORY, BUT NOT THEIR STORY

Though the media likes to dub the Gaza withdrawal a “historic event,” the coverage actually elides both history and the political narratives that are grounded therein. Obsessions over maintaining order and capital stocks after disengagement particularly ignore the legacy of colonial “order.” To clear space around the space that has already been cleared around Israel’s Gaza frontiers, 30,000 people have seen their homes razed since Israel first launched its counterinsurgency in 2001. “Rome created a desert and called it peace,” the Roman chronicler Tacitus famously wrote. Israel ruined a country and called it assets. For this reason Israel is not “returning” land — the word never appears in the BBC’s coverage, or a surprising amount of other disengagement coverage. Rather, land is to be “handed over.” The Palestinians are “receiving,” not reclaiming, occupied territory. In Rafah such language is met with incredulity: “A gift? From the Israelis to the Palestinians?” laughs a young man. “How many children were killed here, in Rafah alone? Hundreds!” echoes another.

They could also have been talking about places like the “Austria” neighborhood in Khan Yunis, a collection of shelled-out and demolished European-funded apartment buildings wedged between a cemetery and a disused slaughterhouse. The reason rises 300 meters away: a welter of concrete walls and sniper towers surrounding the nearest Gush Katif promontory of Neve Dekalim. Or he could have been talking about the Mawasi enclave, whose 8,000 inhabitants have lived for over four years as literal prisoners between Gush Katif and the sea.

Yet such sites of national trauma will not enjoy any formal commemoration. Though the Khiam prison and torture center operated by Israel’s South Lebanese Army proxy was converted into a museum after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, no one seems interested in financing memorials among the remnants of the Gaza settlement enterprise. It is an implicit admission that a liberation narrative is not possible in talking about this particular retreat, that museums would be testimonies to a story yet to be told. “No, destroy them,” answers a twenty-something man in the Tuffah neighborhood when asked whether a memorial should be left for future generations. “The occupation is in their hearts.”

Few Gazans, meanwhile, worry very much about what will be done with the land that would be left them. “The people should claim it because it belongs to the people who suffered,” one young man opines after some prompting. But even he is in a minority. “This is state land. Let them do what they want with it,” says an older donkey driver dismissively. His indifference is not surprising. In a population that is 80 percent comprised of refugees, withdrawal amounts to little more than yet another reshuffle of space. “I’ll go back to my damaged house, over there in the western neighborhood,” says one man. “I can’t afford to replace the windows, and I don’t even feel like it. This is not our place. Our houses are in Haifa and Acre and Majdal. We had a house and orange plantations in Asdoud. My grandfather told me about it. How can we ever forget it? They say they came to their houses after 3,000 years. And what about us? We have the right to return, after 50 years, and our children after 100.”

ENDURING FAREWELLS

To capture the significance of Israel’s withdrawal, the media likes to turn its long lenses on Gaza settlement villas and concrete fortifications. It need not look so far. At the Erez checkpoint that connects the territory to Israel, and through which Israel thereby also controls its links to the West Bank and the wider world, the post-disengagement order has already dawned. Along with its sister terminal in Karni — also on the Gaza border — Erez offers a template for a new generation of “high-tech terminals” that Israel will build to deflect demands by Wolfensohn and the Quartet that it act to facilitate the movement of Palestinian people and goods after disengagement. To this end, the US will divert $50 million from a $350 million aid package that President George W. Bush had earlier this year earmarked for the Palestinian Authority — because, in the words of a White House apokesperson, it is “presumed to be a help to the Palestinian economy.”

Ordinary Gazans have even more cause to feel diverted. On a hot spring afternoon at Erez, a family waits into a fifth hour to pass through. A Palestinian security officer finally receives instructions from the other side, ushering them into a lengthy tunnel that eventually terminates in a screen of steel bars, wire mesh and remote-controlled turnstiles. On the other side is a containment zone, then another set of bars, wire mesh and a gate. Beyond the gate are two concrete towers with sniper slits covered by sand bags. There are about a dozen other Palestinians here, leaning on their suitcases, squatting on the floor. “I’ve been here for an hour,” says a businessman. Two middle-aged men wearing orange vests say they work as helpers at the checkpoint. The soldiers cannot be seen; no one is sure if they are actually there and as time passes the doubt grows.

There is a sound of construction; on the other side, Palestinian workers can be glimpsed enlarging the checkpoint. Finally, a disembodied voice crackles through an intercom. The Palestinians get in line; the turnstiles buzz and instructions are barked; one by one they squeeze through. The intercom instructs the Palestinians in orange vests; they pat down the other Palestinians, collect all passports, ID cards and pre-issued permits. Finally, two Israeli soldiers appear on the other side and the papers are passed through the bars. After some time, the Palestinians are let out. With them they carry an afterthought for the times: the Israelis were not there most of the time. They did not need to be. At the Aspen Institute gathering in Washington, participants spoke of launching five Gaza investment projects by the end of the year — one of which would be a uniform factory. It is perhaps most ironic that it would not matter if these were Palestinian or Israeli uniforms. This is occupation by remote control, as Israeli commentator Meron Benvenisti once called it, a model of orderliness. USAID would prefer to call it a win-win situation, but the French might have said it best: Après nous, nous.

When they crossed back over the Mediterranean, France’s soldiers sang Edith Piaf’s “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien” (No, I Regret Nothing). If Israel’s soldiers sing, it will be with the knowledge that things are being taken care of after they leave. “We’ll definitely try to make sure that the security exists to ensure that there is no lawlessness,” Jihad al-Wazir told the BBC. He is also planning “a proper public relations campaign, to make sure that there is the utmost transparency and people know what to expect.” Perhaps Wazir also already senses that it is not what happens, but what kind of people it happens for. When the Germans overran the Berlin Wall and took apart with their bare hands what was left, to carry off as souvenirs, it was depicted as a joyful celebration. If the people of Gaza were to overrun Israel’s settlements, to “loot and ransack whatever is left,” it will be portrayed as a frenzied riot. Gazans would find it hard, for their own reasons, to narrate disengagement as liberation. Says a young man on the bluffs overlooking Rafah: “It will be one degree warmer, but we are still below zero.”

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