Life after the settlements

When Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip in August, Palestinians will contend with a society shattered by occupation and the powerlessness of its own leadership.

Published July 22, 2005 8:30PM (EDT)

In a small bit of plastic foil, Misbah Shamalach, 65, keeps crumpled pieces of paper that signify both his past and his future. When Israeli soldiers drove him from his land, when his 12-year-old nephew Abd al-Samad was shot and bled to death in his field, when everything seemed to be lost, even then Shamalach held on to these pieces of paper, the only documents he has to prove that he is the owner of his land. Ever since he fled from Nezarim, where his father and grandfather plowed their fields, to this place, this bare, shabby house on the outskirts of Gaza City, he has held on to his documents. An emaciated donkey stands next to a makeshift chicken coop of wire and corrugated metal. The barren, rocky soil between the dilapidated houses in his neighborhood can barely support a few stray onions.

In 1967, the Israelis, at war with Egypt, captured this coastal strip, 40 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide (about 25 by 6 miles). Shamalach draws a rough diagram in the sand to show where his eggplant plantation was back then. "First the Israeli army occupied government land," he says, drawing a straight line to indicate the enemy. "But then the settlers came, the Israeli zones were expanded and we lost our land." As he continues to draw in the sand, more and more circles representing settlers begin to encroach on his plantation.

Finally, in January 2000, Shamalach was forced to abandon his fields in the now Israeli settlement of Nezarim. "But now we return," he says, pulling his old documents from their protective plastic wrap.

Israeli withdrawal just around the corner

In mid-August, the Israelis will embark on their historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. For more than three decades, 21 Israeli settlements, together with their fortified apartment buildings, greenhouses and community centers, kept expanding into the Gaza Strip. Despite massive and occasionally violent protests earlier this week by Israelis protesting the withdrawal, they will soon be gone.

But as Palestinians gradually prepare for their return, there is little evidence of triumph.

On the southern outskirts of Rafah, a Palestinian town directly on the Egyptian border, Samir Kishta, 45, cautiously steps onto a devastated street. He's been away from his old neighborhood for an entire year. "The Israelis really don't want to leave," he says. But despite his trepidations, he's returned to take a look at an area that could become the nucleus of a future Palestinian state.

A few birds chirp in the dreary emptiness of gutted apartment buildings on the outskirts of the town, and a cellphone rings, sounding the opening bars of the Beethoven standard, "Für Elise." In the shadows of rusted steel beams and concrete shells, Kishta walks to his former house. It was here, just a few steps from the border, that the Israelis demolished many Palestinian houses, officially in an effort to put a stop to weapons smuggling from Egypt.

Kishta doesn't exactly have high hopes for a new era in Palestine. He has learned little else but to despise the Israelis. Ironically, it's precisely for this reason that he trusts the Palestinians' fiercest enemy, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"There is only one reason why I believe that the settlers will withdraw -- because Sharon promised that they would," he says, as a twisted piece of metal clatters into the interior of the devastated shop he once owned. "Sharon keeps his promises."

The combination of helplessness and poverty among the Palestinians living in Rafah provides an ideal recruiting ground for extremists, and Hamas has been quick to take advantage of conditions there. But the Israeli withdrawal could break the recurring pattern of terror and retaliation in the region. When the Israelis leave, Hamas' enemy will also disappear. What happens then?

Yearning for martyrdom

In August, when Israeli troops and Jewish settlers withdraw from the Gaza Strip, they'll leave behind a society shattered by the occupation and by the powerlessness of its own leadership. "Thirty-six percent of all boys between the ages of 12 and 14 want to be martyrs by the time they're 18," says psychoanalyst Iyad al-Sarraj, author of a study on the occupation's emotional impact on Palestinians. For many young Palestinians -- children who refused to remain as helpless as their fathers -- becoming a suicide bomber was seen as their only option.

Sarraj sits in the shade of oleander bushes and palm trees in his lush, green garden, looking forward to a time when the enemy will have disappeared from his country. "If Palestinians fail to recognize justice and the rule of law as the new supreme order, violence will increase again, even without the Israelis," he says. Sarraj has observed how, in the past few years, violence has become an outlet for Palestinian frustration, leading to dramatic increases in crime, rape and domestic violence in Gaza.

While Sarraj discusses his statistics, the energetic voice of an imam chanting the Friday prayers booms into the garden from a mosque next door. Muslim imams are worried that as political optimism grows in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians will gradually lose their sense of religious humility. Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad are also struggling to define their roles after the Israeli withdrawal. When forced to deal with the daily business of reconstruction in a peaceful Gaza, they could lose their credibility as alternatives to both the corrupt Fatah Movement led by Yasser Arafat and now by Mahmoud Abbas, and of the Israeli occupation.

"Everyone will be euphoric and will celebrate on the first day of the Israeli withdrawal," says economist Salah Abd al-Shafi, 43, "but the next day Palestinians will want jobs, they'll want investments, and they'll want results."

The social and economic reality of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip isn't exactly uplifting: 1.4 million people living on 365 square kilometers makes it one of the world's most densely populated regions. Well over half the population lives below the poverty level. Four-fifths of all Palestinians, who used to be able to find work in Israel, have now lost their livelihood as a result of frequent border closings, usually after terrorist attacks.

Palestinians will have to rely on themselves

To make matters worse, the World Bank cites a 93 percent decline in foreign investment in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank between 1999 and 2002. And when the Israeli settlers and soldiers are gone, Palestinians will increasingly direct their demands and expectations at their own people.

Hatim Abu al-Tayif, 31, insists that the Gaza Strip must become a success story. The young architect sits in the office of a city official in Chan Junis, gazing at maps on the wall, where cross-hatched sections identify the locations of Jewish settlements. "We have no idea what the Israelis will be turning over to us," says the urban planner. Streets, hotels, apartment buildings, greenhouses -- Abu al-Tayif says he can only guess what lies behind the walls and fences of areas, off-limits until now, that will soon belong to the Palestinians. Even the aerial photographs the city purchased to facilitate its planning efforts were censored -- the sections that would have shown Jewish settlements were simply cut out.

And so local officials plan to begin the post-withdrawal era by first addressing their community's most pressing needs. In Chan Junis -- a city in southern Gaza Strip -- 800 houses were destroyed during the occupation, while another 3,000 were left severely damaged. The most important task for officials is to find shelter for those left homeless by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The city is completely overtaxed," says Abu al-Tayif. But despite this bleak outlook, the architect has already committed some of his colorful dreams to paper: a recreation zone on the Chan Junis seashore, complete with a beachfront promenade lined with hotels and restaurants. Al-Tayif is wildly enthusiastic about his ideas, but adds: "Of course, all of this can only happen once we have improved the city's infrastructure, installed a water supply system, and completed the resettlement program."

But many Palestinians believe that the Israeli withdrawal, far from presenting a great opportunity, could turn out to be a trap. If internal disputes erupt once the settlements have been turned over, or if corruption continues unabated, it would represent a triumph for those who despise the Palestinians, both in Israel and other parts of the Arab world.

An Israeli trick?

The city officials in Chan Junis are already gearing up their police force to prevent looting and illegal house occupation in the settlements on the day after the withdrawal. "By withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, Sharon simply wants to prove how incapable the Palestinians are," says Khaled Al-Yazji, 43, of the Palestinian Foundation for Culture, Science and Development, implying that the withdrawal is nothing but a trick designed to encourage internal unrest among the Palestinians.

There is little sense of anticipation for the withdrawal of the Jewish settlers. Every night, Kamal Abu al-Ajin, 42, makes his way to the Erez border crossing to Israel, where he joins a line of tired men standing in the dark, waiting for a green, white and red metal gate to slowly open and close again.

After passing through the gate, the Palestinian workers walk through a 250-meter covered passageway of steel, barbed wire and surveillance cameras to reach the Israeli checkpoint, where automated equipment searches them for explosives or weapons. The Israelis have replaced the human inspectors with electronic sensors. Invisible soldiers shout commands over loudspeakers while the Palestinians pass through the checkpoint, a series of revolving doors and metal detectors.

"We're constantly afraid of losing our jobs, because the Israelis close the checkpoint so frequently," says Abu al-Ajin. "I manage to work about three months in an entire year -- the rest of the time I'm locked out, or rather, locked into Gaza." A baked goods vendor adds his two cents to the conversation: "You will see," he says, "that the withdrawal of the settlers will be completely meaningless when Sharon closes the borders afterwards." The other men nod quietly. "Then we'll be locked in," the vendor adds, "and we'll suffocate."

Gaza needs links to West Bank

A World Bank analysis conducted in December 2004 reaches a similar conclusion: The withdrawal of the settlers will not promote peace if the government in Jerusalem refuses to guarantee residents of the Gaza Strip access to Israel and the West Bank. Without freedom of movement, says the analysis, the economy in Gaza will be incapable of developing.

Currently about half of Gaza's exports depend on the link to the West Bank. "Gaza would fall apart without the West Bank," says Yazji, the official with the Palestinian Foundation for Culture, Science and Development.

The Palestinians seem to have lost the ability to hope. Hardly anyone perceives the upcoming Israeli withdrawal as a gift or as a victory. Instead, many see it as an act of overdue justice -- one that comes too late, in light of the losses of the past years; is too small, in light of Palestinian poverty; and is too insignificant, in light of the obstacles Palestinians continue to face in their efforts to achieve an independent state.

Ahmed Muheisin, 65, also refuses to yield to the hope that peace could soon come to the region. He says that he was blinded by optimism once before, and that it cost him the ability to see his son Sharif.

In September 2000, Sharif was accepted by Birzeit University near Ramallah, across Israel in the West Bank. The boy planned to commute once a week between the university and his family's home in the Gaza Strip. But Sharif never returned, says his father. Ever since the Intifada began, a few days after Sharif had left for Ramallah, he was barred from visiting his father and 13 siblings.

Sharif continues his studies at Birzeit, occasionally sending pictures to his father in the other part of Palestine. Muheisin, wearing a suit and tie, sits on his sofa and says, sadly: "Now that would be a real peace process, if I could be permitted to visit my child at the university."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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By Carolin Emcke

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