Ten years ago, the Israeli government enacted a policy of “disengagement” from Gaza that was first proposed in December 2003 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The intent was, according to The Washington Post, to “increase security of residents of Israel, relieve pressure on the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians.” Benjamin Netanyahu, then the finance minister, resigned in protest: “We have reached the moment of truth today … There is a way to achieve peace and security, but a unilateral withdrawal under fire and with nothing in return is certainly not the way.”
The plan called for the removal of 21 settler communities and the Israeli Defense Forces from Gaza and is constantly cited even today as a testament to Israel’s commitment to peace. But the “disengagement” was meant to alleviate international pressure on Israel to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians, allowing for the continued colonization of occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem and the West Bank. As senior Sharon advisor Dov Weisglass explained in October 2004:
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The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process … And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with … a [US] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.
So it would be a grave mistake to think that the removal of the settlements brought about a major change in the lives of Palestinians. The administration of Gaza fell to the Palestinian National Authority, but Israel controls its borders, coastline and airspace and maintains an illegal blockade that has imposed a chokehold on Gaza.
Those who say that Gaza is now “free” of Israeli control and who blame the Palestinian National Authority for all the woes in that territory need to be reminded of the chokehold and its effects. The analogy has often been made: To consider Gaza “free” is like looking at a prison yard and saying that because the prisoners seem to be moving about at will, they are free. To say that ignores the entire overwhelming apparatus that imprisons them. If even David Cameron can call Gaza an “open air prison,” then we should attend to the actual status of life in Gaza 10 years after Israeli “disengagement.”
Israel remains an occupying power over Gaza, and its blockade has crippled Gaza. This was, in fact, the plan, as evident in this statement from Weisglass, acting as an advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger … The hunger pangs are supposed to encourage the Palestinians to force Hamas to change its attitude towards Israel or force Hamas out of government.” He was not speaking only metaphorically. In 2012, it was revealed that in early 2008, Israeli authorities drew up a document calculating the minimum caloric intake necessary for Palestinians to avoid malnutrition so Israel could limit the amount of foodstuffs allowed into Gaza without causing outright starvation.
In fact, years into this terrible regime, many Palestinians are dying of hunger and other causes. As the Institute for Middle East Understanding reports, according to a 2012 joint report by Save the Children and UK-based Medical Aid for Palestinians:
• 10 percent of children under age 5 experienced stunted growth caused by prolonged malnutrition due to the blockade and siege.
• 58.6 percent of Gaza’s schoolchildren were anemic, as were more than 68 percent of children aged 9 to 12 months and nearly 37 percent of pregnant women.
• According to UNICEF, more than 90 percent of the water from Gaza’s only aquifer is unsafe for human consumption due to pollution, while repairs to Gaza’s sewage and water infrastructure cannot be carried out because of Israeli restrictions on the entry of building materials and equipment.
• Gaza suffered from severe shortages of electricity due to Israeli restrictions on imports of equipment needed to replace and repair the electrical infrastructure, even before Israel bombed Gaza’s only power plant during its latest assault.
And in August 2012, the UN released a report entitled “Gaza in 2020: A Liveable Place?” which noted that unless Israel ends its siege and urgent action is taken to reverse its effects:
[By 2020 there] will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most. The already high number of poor, marginalized and food-insecure people depending on assistance will not have changed, and in all likelihood, will have increased.
The horrible truth is that the Palestinians in Gaza are facing either a slow torturous death by means of the blockade and strangulation by deprivation of utilities, water and sanitation, or by bombardment and military attack. We need to be clear on the strategies of control and domination that have been in place for more than a decade after “disengagement” and lend our voices and energies to the cause of Palestinian freedom.