In the early morning hours of August 10, 2005, we arrived at the soon-to-be former Jewish settlement of Netzarim, a few kilometres southwest of Gaza City. From a distance, we could see the taillights of the Israeli military vehicles as they gradually evanesced into the misty horizon near the Gaza border with Israel. You can still here the rumbling of the IDF tanks as they echoed into the silence of a seasonally Gaza morning. Except this time, the rumbling was not ominous of an imminent onslaught.
We stood there for a while looking and listening, taking comfort in the fact that the rumbling was slowly but surely fading away until it had vanished altogether. With the tranquility that followed, you are suddenly struck with the bizarre realisation that, indeed, the Israeli military and settlers are no longer around. Did they actually leave? In disbelief I asked my American colleague, who clearly was not in as much disarray as I was. Perhaps for him, an experienced journalist, it was only another political event to cover. But for me, it was a whole new paradigm, one that the English languages fails to describe in a single word.
As we followed the trail of the Israeli army, delving deeper into what used to be a restricted military zone, we began to see large congregations of mostly young Palestinians who clearly did not sleep that night. They arrived long before any journalists or police personnel, enthusiastically imposing a Palestinian presence on every spot the army and settlers had left. For those youngsters, it was a symbolic victory and a romanticised version of liberation. Some of them used their dusty feet to eliminate the caterpillar tracks the tanks had left in the sand. Like everything else in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was a political statement loaded with symbolism.
The majority of those youngsters, if not all, were born under the occupation and had never experienced a time without it. Undoubtedly, a Gaza without the IDF and Jewish settlers was a nice idea. But in practical terms, none of them actually had a solid visualisation of what life without the occupation would be like. There was no frame of reference to compare against. After nearly 4 decades of military occupation, oppression and domination were normalised and routinised so much so that many Palestinians, as a way of making sense of an abnormal existence, embraced the occupation as a definer of their individual and collective identity. And now, with the potential of ‘freedom,’ a new form of identity, possibly, needed to emerge. Or at least, this is what I initially thought.
As we stood in the middle of the rubble of what used to be a vibrant settlement, a 14 something year-old boy approached us with his hands full of bullets. “Look what we found! Look what the army left, a whole lot of unused M-16 bullets,” he said excitedly. I asked, “How did you get here so fast?” “No checkpoints, man! Can you believe that?! There were no checkpoints whatsoever,” he answered.
I could relate to that boy’s inability to get a full grasp of the new facts. But, in reality, that was part of the plan. The IDF already pulled out the vast majority of settlers, levelled the settlements, destroyed their infrastructure, and redeployed most of the IDF to positions near the border at least a week before. Since there were no settlers to protect, checkpoints were not needed, or this is at least what the Israeli army had us believe.
That morning, everything around us was somewhat surreal except for the occasional Mediterranean breeze, which perhaps created a fleeting feeling of normality. But, generally, the atmosphere was electrified with a range of emotions, all teetered on the extreme positive or negative ends of the emotional spectrum. With the tip of your fingers, you could almost touch the euphoria that floated about in the morning air. Nevertheless, it was an anxious euphoria, one hardly divorced from the usual apprehensive uncertainty and pessimism that characterised (and still does) most aspects of Palestinian life.
By proposing the Disengagement Plan in 2003, late Israeli PM Ariel Sharon intended to, literally, ditch Gaza – the same trouble-maker, unholy Gaza that Yitzhak Rabin before him had hoped he would wake up one day to find it swallowed by the sea. There were, and still are, many sides to the story as to why Sharon, one of Israel’s aggressive advocates of the settler movement, wanted to withdraw from Gaza and remove the Jewish settlements after 38 years of occupation.
None of those sides are of a particular importance here and it takes many pages to go through all of them. Even then, they would be only speculations. I am, nevertheless, more concerned with the aftermath of the Gaza disengagement, more interested in the dichotomy of ‘potential’ and ‘disillusionment’ that nowadays defines our retrospective views of Gaza.
On the ground, the youngsters’ excitement transcended the political intricacies, let alone, fragilities of the new situation. For them, removing the Jewish settlements meant no buffer or restricted military zones and, above all, a direct access to the Mediterranean sea. In places like Mawasi, for instance, a coastal region near the City of Khan-Younis in southern Gaza Strip, the security of the Gush Katif settlers meant that the Mawasi residents were put under severe restrictions including banning them from visiting the beach, which most of them could see through their windows but could not come near.
For others, if not all, freely travelling across the tiny Gaza Strip was clearly a major plus point. The disengagement meant they would no longer be controlled by the random whims of Israeli soldiers at the Abu Holy checkpoint between northern and southern Gaza. In a way, there was a potential of Palestinians having some control over some aspects of their daily lives.
Someone who lived near the Gush Katif settlement told me that the best thing about the Israelis leaving Gaza was that his house and orchard, which was vastly bulldozed by the IDF, were no longer a shooting target, and that Jewish settlers venturing outside did not mean putting him and his family under house arrest anymore. This man, jaded with a slightly hunched over back, chose to see a fragment of comfort in a larger, more complex political reality.
In his mind, the entire disengagement plan boiled down to the very right of his kids to play outside without the fear of being harassed or even shot at. When you see the sandbags on his windowsills and the bullet holes on the outside of his house, you can certainly appreciate his outlook.
The disengagement plan, implemented without Palestinian involvement, brought about an uncomfortable sense of aspiration, but what was happening in Israel behind closed doors was more of a perpetuation of the occupation. Ending the occupation was only a ‘potential’ not to be fulfilled, ever. To put it simply, the closest analogy I can think of is when somebody walks out of a room, locks the door and then throws away the key. You are now trapped on the inside, screaming, but are not allowed to physically die. After all, there is enough room under the door to slide some food in for you, just the right amount of calories to keep you from malnutrition. Is this familiar? Those taillights we witnessed evanescing into the misty Gaza horizon were not as a romantic end of a harsh era as much as they were ominous of a new, different phase of the occupation.
Nowadays, while the Israeli army is not physically stationed inside Gaza, it still has a full control over the lives of every Palestinian inside. As many had commented, the boots-on-the-ground occupation did end. However, the occupation itself did not. It has morphed into an occupation operated remotely. A remote-controlled oppression, so to speak.
The biggest irony in today’s Gaza is that the lack of physical contact with the occupier has made the situation a lot worse. Who would have thought?! Now, Gaza is only a press of a button away from an Israeli assault. The empathy that comes with the direct physical contact with others vanishes in the minute details of the peeping and blinking screens inside Israel’s military centres. A soldier sitting behind a computer monitor driving a drone over Gaza neighbourhoods or controlling the border gates, is likely to lose touch with reality. In his virtual world, there are no real faces to be seen or voices to be heard. Palestinians in his eyes are mere numbers embedded in a complex system of algorithms.
For the first time in modern history, we have now an occupying power that denies any legal or ethical responsibility for the occupied. So, in hindsight, Sharon did it and did it very cleverly. Israel can now have a remotely managed, free of charge occupation. Regardless of everything, you have to give Israel’s tactical knowhow some credit and lament the Palestinian short-lived hopefulness, if not naivety.