Israel tightens the noose: 'suffer or leave'

A Gaza ceasefire was negotiated by Israeli and Palestinian officials on November 26. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it is aimed at ending the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel by armed Palestinian resistance groups, and providing the basis for negotiations regarding the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Palestinians, for their part, hope the ceasefire will provide some relief for the people of the sealed Gaza Strip, who have faced a relentless Israel Defense Forces (IDF) campaign since late June.

More than 400 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the past five months, over half of whom have been unarmed civilians; four Israelis have been killed in the past three years by the largely symbolic Qassam rocket fire.

Over a year after Israel "withdrew" from the Gaza Strip, the territory's 1.4 million Palestinian residents are experiencing a nightmare of imprisonment, intensifying poverty, and the destruction of their homes, livelihoods and infrastructure. A statement released on November 16 by nine leading Israeli human rights organisations outlined the humanitarian disaster that has developed: "The Gaza Strip is almost entirely sealed off from the outside world, with virtually no way for Palestinians to get in or out. Exports have been reduced to a trickle; imports are limited to essential humanitarian supplies."

Since Israel's June 27 bombing of Gaza's only power station, which had produced 43% of the territory's electricity, "most of the population has electricity between 6 and 8 hours each day, with disastrous consequences on water supply, sewage treatment, food storage, hospital functioning and public health".

Eighty per cent of the population is living on less than US$2 a day. According to Harvard University professor Sara Roy, in an October 4 Counterpunch article, 830,000 of Gaza's 1.4 million people are dependent on UN food relief programs to survive — 100,000 of them have been added to the programs since March. The education and health systems have been disintegrating.

Israel began withdrawing 8500 settlers from Gaza in August 2005, but has maintained control of the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that since June 28, Rafah has been open on only 13% of the days it was scheduled to be. In a November 28 Electronic Intifada article, Daoud Kuttab noted that in July, seven Palestinians "waiting to be let into Gaza from Egypt died as a result of heat and absence of shelter". Israel also controls and patrols the air space and the coast, and refuses to allow the Gaza airport to re-open.

This reality led John Dugard, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), to comment on September 26 that "Gaza is a prison … and Israel seems to have thrown away the key".

In Gaza, crushing the resistance to the occupation of the territories is the key goal of the Israeli government. Al-Ahram Weekly journalist Khaled Amayreh wrote in the paper's October 19-25 edition, "Israeli officials say they want to apply the 'lessons from the Lebanon war' in Gaza by making sure that Palestinians are not allowed to build up significant military defences that could harm the Israeli army during recurrent murderous incursions into Palestinian towns and villages. In other words, Israel wants to ensure that the wanton killing of Palestinians remains as cost-free as it has hitherto been."

Israeli academic Tanya Reinhart explained the meaning of the unilateral "disengagement" from Gaza, and its aftermath, in an October 2 Counterpunch interview: "Israel does not need this piece of land, one of the most densely populated in the world, and lacking any natural resources. The problem is that one cannot let Gaza free, if one wants to keep the West Bank. A third of the occupied Palestinians live in the Gaza strip. If they are given freedom, they would become the centre of Palestinian struggle for liberation, with free access to the Western and Arab world".

Driving Palestinians out

There are fears among the ruling Israeli elite of the "demographic threat" that Palestinians within Israel and in the OPT pose to the future of the Jewish state. Ali Abunimah, in a November 17 Chicago Tribune article, wrote, "Today there are roughly 5 million Jews and 5 million Palestinians living in the same land. The trends are incontestable. Within a few years, Palestinians will form the clear majority."

Abunimah quoted Olmert from 2003: "We are approaching the point where more and more Palestinians will say, 'There is no place for two states' in this country, and 'All we want is the right to vote'. The day they get it, we will lose everything."

While the response to the demographic "problem" varies in Israel, with the extreme right proposing the systematic expulsion of Palestinians ("transfer"), there is unquestionably a concerted, and steadily intensifying, attempt by the government to drive Palestinians from their homes. This effort includes tactics ranging from fostering economic depression to bureaucratic restrictions in immigration; and in the West Bank, outright annexation of huge swathes of land.

Roy notes, "According to the World Bank, Palestinians are currently experiencing the worst economic depression in modern history". The territories' economies have been deliberately destroyed and prevented from recovering. The International Monetary Fund reported on November 1 that there has been a 60% decline in the income of the Palestinian Authority since March, when Hamas formed government following its January electoral victory. The response of the West to the election was to cut off aid. Israel has withheld US$360 million it has collected in taxes on all Palestinian goods that pass through Israel. The IMF report identified this as the key factor in the catastrophic drop in government income. The sanctions have meant that the Palestinian Authority has been unable to pay the full salaries of its 175,000 public servants since March.

In a November 1 press conference in Ramallah, Palestinian deputy foreign minister Ahmed Subuh reported that foreign consulates in the OPT received 10,000 applications for immigration by Palestinians between June and October.

At the same time as Israel is "encouraging" Palestinians to leave, it is refusing the right of Palestinians with foreign passports to renew tourist visas. One thousand Palestinians with foreign passports have been denied entry back into the Palestinian territories in the past eight months, according to Samar Assad of the Palestine Centre.

Applications for residency are almost always refused on "security" grounds. The UN's IRIN media service reported on November 7 that since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, Israel has refused to process 120,000 requests from Palestinians for family unifications. All applications remain frozen.

A second nakba

Events have focused attention on the crisis in Gaza, but at the same time in the West Bank there is nothing less than ethnic cleansing being carried out. The "separation barrier" is slicing through the West Bank, annexing settlements, water sources and roads into the Israeli side, affecting 400,000 Palestinians.

Former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon began building the eight-metre-high, 703km-long concrete wall through the West Bank in 2002, and 670km has been built so far. Reinhart said the wall "robs the land of the Palestinian villages in these areas, imprisons whole towns, and leaves their residents with no means of sustenance". Cutting deep into Palestinian territory, the Israeli government speaks openly of declaring the barrier as their border. The wall makes room for the expansion of major Israeli settlements.

A November 28 IRIN article about the impact of the wall, reported: "In the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya — which is enclosed to the north, west and south by the barrier and can be shut off from the east by the Israeli military — about 4000 people have moved out, mostly back to nearby villages, leaving about 600 shops to close … A pattern of ghettoisation and population flight is being repeated in other towns along the length of the barrier."

In 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the construction of the wall contravened international law. Currently, the wall is encircling five Palestinian villages north-west of Jerusalem, creating the Bir Nabala enclave with a combined population of 15,000 people, and cutting them off from East Jerusalem and other Palestinian villages. The Israeli high court gave the project the green light in November, ruling that it would not cause the residents of the villages "disproportionate harm".

Israeli human rights organisation B'tselem has documented a significant increase in Israeli settlers in the West Bank, a result of a conscious strategy by Israel's ruling elite to seize as much land as possible in the West Bank, establishing "facts on the ground" in the event of the establishment of a Palestinian state. Between 1997 and 2004 there was a 52.8% growth of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and they now number half a million.

Settlement Watch released a report based on a map leaked by Israel's Civil Administration on November 21 that showed that 39% of settlements in the West Bank were constructed on land privately owned by Palestinians. For instance, 86% of the Maale Adumim settlement sits on privately owned Palestinian property, according to the map. The web of Israeli checkpoints is also expanding to service the settlements; there are now 528 checkpoints in the West Bank.

As Reinhart put it: "In the Palestinian nakba [catastrophe] of 1948, 730,000 Palestinians were driven out of their villages. But rather than waiting for the history books to tell the story of the second Palestinian nakba, the Palestinians along the wall are struggling to save their land." The expansion of the settlements and major Jewish population centres in the West Bank makes the chance of a viable independent Palestinian state increasingly impossible to attain; many commentators are saying while in the past, the idea of a single binational, secular state seemed an impossible dream, the reality on the ground today means the idea must be seriously considered as the one chance for a peaceful future in Palestine based on justice.