It is a remarkable feat of illusionary politics to present the 8,000 or so illegal Israeli settlers of Gaza as “victims” during the recent process of disengagement. Mainly lost in the media shuffle was the fact that Israel defied United Nations Security Council decisions and world opinion by establishing settlements in occupied Palestinian territory after the 1967 war. The establishment of such settlements for the civilian population of an occupying power is clearly prohibited by international law as set forth in Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
In addition to the illegality, it was a bizarre idea to impose an Israeli civilian presence on the already crowded Gaza Strip, which has long been one of the most densely populated places on earth. The twenty-five-mile strip now contains 1.3 million Palestinians, well more than half living in miserable refugee camps, with some estimates running as high as 85 percent. It was extremely costly for Israel to protect the twenty-one settlements in Gaza, it was unpopular with most Israelis, it was a demoralizing duty for the Israel Defense Forces and it was a constant source of grisly photos exhibiting the daily cruelties of the occupation.
Despite the moving TV scenes of Jews being forcibly evacuated by Jewish soldiers, Israel’s motives all along were essentially cynical: using expendable settlements, and now disengagement, to create a bargaining chip intended to solidify Israel’s hold on the West Bank. The Gaza settlers were indeed dupes of the larger Israeli vision of occupation, at least to the extent that they were led by the government to believe that the settlements would never be relinquished. Ariel Sharon fed such expectations a few years back when he proclaimed that the isolated and embattled settlement of Netzarim was as integral to the Israeli state as was Tel Aviv itself. But this weak form of victimization (remember that the settlers are being generously compensated and evicted with a maximum reliance on persuasion, compassion and tact) must be contrasted with the super-strong victimization of the Palestinians over the course of decades (including mass expulsions by force; repeated house demolitions without compensation or alternate housing; years of unpunished and provocative settler violence against Palestinian civilians; and an array of hardships arising from IDF protection of these long-beleaguered settlements).
Whether this is truly “disengagement” can also be questioned: Israel will retain complete control of Gaza’s borders, as well as of its entire airspace and coastal waters. In crucial respects, the prisonlike character of Gaza will reflect a shift in the security arrangements inside the region, nothing more. Henceforth, the supervision of the Palestinian prison in Gaza will be the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, with the prison walls and guard towers under the jurisdiction of the Israelis, who may also retain control of a security strip in the south separating Gaza from Egypt. And Gaza is to be permanently demilitarized and without weaponry, except light arms in the hands of authorized Palestinian security forces. Israel claims a continuing right to use force within Gaza either preventively or reactively at any time and place of its choosing. Under these conditions neither international law nor common sense would treat the Gaza disengagement as the end of Israeli occupation. It is a shift to a less oppressive form of occupation, allowing greater Palestinian mobility, eliminating internal checkpoints and easing the ordeal of daily life in the impoverished circumstances of the Gazans, but in the end Israel retains control.