'Gazans Laugh at the Idea of Israel's Disengagement. Israel Is Still a Major Factor in Their Lives'

12:00 Jul 23 2022 Gaza (غزة) and Israel (מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל‎ * دَوْلَة إِسْرَائِيل‎ )

'Gazans Laugh at the Idea of Israel's Disengagement. Israel Is Still a Major Factor in Their Lives' 'Gazans Laugh at the Idea of Israel's Disengagement. Israel Is Still a Major Factor in Their Lives' 'Gazans Laugh at the Idea of Israel's Disengagement. Israel Is Still a Major Factor in Their Lives' 'Gazans Laugh at the Idea of Israel's Disengagement. Israel Is Still a Major Factor in Their Lives' 'Gazans Laugh at the Idea of Israel's Disengagement. Israel Is Still a Major Factor in Their Lives'
Published by Haaretz

A Palestinian mother carrying her child faces Israeli soldiers who guard the Ansar II prison camp in January 1988. Credit: SVEN NACKSTRAND / AFP

Dotan Halevy. Credit: Hadas Parush

A mosque in southern Gaza. “The Palestinians thought that after Oslo things would continue as they had been. When Israel said goodbye, cope, and disengaged – it caused a tremendous rupture.” Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

A man sells sheep at a livestock market ahead of the Eid al-Adha festival, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, earlier this month. Credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Gaza beach in June. Credit: SUHAIB SALEM/Reuters

'Gazans Laugh at the Idea of Israel's Disengagement. Israel Is Still a Major Factor in Their Lives'

Why did Israel once build fine new neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip, and then leave residents to their own devices? How do young people from bordering Jewish communities feel about their neighbors? And why do Gazans download the Israeli missile alert app? Haaretz speaks to historian Dotan Halevy

by Ayelett Shani for Haaretz
July 23, 2022


Tell us about yourself.

I’m 38, a historian of the modern Middle East, and I’m doing a postdoc at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. I obtained my doctorate at Columbia University, and for the past decade I’ve been studying Gaza, the city and the territory.

For the past two years – together with Dr. Yonatan Mendel – you’ve also been teaching a course at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva titled “Gaza: History, Society, Culture and Politics.” What’s the reaction been?

It’s a popular course. When we first launched it, we didn’t know what kind of reception it would get, but to our surprise a lot of people signed up – so much so that we had to enlarge the class.

Is it a declaredly political course?

Yes. The course is political. We don’t hide that, and we don’t hide our views, which are reflected in the way we convey the material. At the same time, even though the course isn’t neutral, it’s fair. We provide a platform for all shades of opinion and we invite guest speakers from across the political spectrum, including the fringes. Already in the first class we explain that, as Israelis who are nourished by the Israeli media, the information we get is very specific and is filtered through the prism of what’s “good” and “bad” for Israel.

Do you tell your students that they are getting biased information?

Biased and partial. Unequivocally. Look, it’s not that dealing with Gaza as a security problem isn’t legitimate. But that cancels out every other aspect. We tell students that if they want to hear about Hamas’ extremism toward Israel, or its internal corruption, they don’t need us. We want to bring them something else.

It’s hard to talk about Gaza without falling into the trap of people who dismiss such discourse because it’s associated with the left wing. It’s definitely hard to arouse empathy.

That trap accompanies the course all the time, because the very desire to talk about Gaza in terms of something other than what is bad or good for Israel is indeed perceived as leftist. So we try to bring as many cultural testimonies as possible, and precisely of the sort that don’t deal directly with Israel. Articles. Stories. Poetry. Dance performances. Films.

. . .

Let’s leap forward in time, ignoring the four-month period after the 1956 Sinai Campaign when Gaza was under Israeli control. In 1967, Israel conquered Gaza, where there were already about half a million people. The Israeli army established itself there, and Gaza City was controlled and administered exclusively by Israel.

What we saw in 1967 was actually a reflection of certain Israeli mindset: In Israel’s consciousness it could manage this territory, because it was compact. There was a large population in a small area whose borders were clear and which was closed on one side by the sea.

It doesn’t have the sporadic character of Judea-Samaria – it’s a densely crowded, homogeneous territory.

Totally, and we can see that the topography and the population dispersal in Judea-Samaria compelled Israel to establish its rule in a different way. Gaza is really a kind of concentrated pill of the refugee problem, and Israel decided that it would take control of it and resolve the problem. The first step was to encourage the emigration of Gaza’s residents, in particular to Jordan.

How was this done?

Because Gaza was so overpopulated, it was easy to lower the living standard. People were prevented from going to work. Businesses were not allowed to develop. But emigration was insignificant, so Israel had to switch gears. The thinking was that if we didn’t succeed in removing the refugees from Gaza, we would at least cause them to give up their refugee status. Israel launched a series of projects involving the country’s major architectural firms. Apartments were built, fine new neighborhoods were constructed [in Gaza], and an offer was made to the refugees to leave the camps and move into them, provided they gave up their refugee status and demolished their homes in the refugee camps.

Israel built in the Gaza Strip the way it did in Yamit [in northern Sinai]: It was part of a project of rebuilding the whole territory of what was then called the “Eshkol District.” The idea was for Gaza to be connected to Ashkelon, for the southern Strip to be economically connected to Yamit, for settlements to be established that would break the continuity of the [Palestinian] population, for Yamit to act as a buffer between the people of Sinai and the residents of Gaza, for the territory to be dispersed and decentralized. Above all the hope was that the refugees would not have anything to complain to Israel about.

During that phase, Gaza was not hostile territory – or at least it wasn’t perceived as such. That changed in 1971 with the murder of the Aroyo family’s children. A terrorist tossed a grenade into the car of an Israeli family that was on a Shabbat outing in Gaza, murdering the two children, Marc and Abigail. Their mother was seriously wounded.

In those years, ferment and resistance to Israeli policy began to surge in Gaza, as documented well in Motti Kirschenbaum’s 1970 film “Grenade in Gaza.” That murder was indeed a turning point, because it sparked an Israeli response. Ariel Sharon [then head of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command] was sent to the Strip to “make order.” He went in with bulldozers that created huge boulevards in the camps, so that armored personnel carriers could pass through. His brutality led [Defense Minister Moshe] Dayan to replace him with “Gandhi” [Maj. Gen. Rehavam Ze’evi], but in the meantime relative quiet was achieved. In 1981, Israel established the Civil Administration, signalling to Gaza and the West Bank that we were there to stay. But the significant thing that happened in this period – what influenced and would continue to influence dramatically, in the future, the ongoing relations between Israel and the Gaza Strip – was that Israel simply made Gaza economically dependent on it. Israel allowed Gazans to work in Israel in industry, agriculture and construction, but prevented the development of local industry and commerce in the Strip. From the first moment, Gaza was built and shaped as a dependent economy.

Israel simply made Gaza economically dependent on it. It allowed Gazans to work in Israel but prevented the development of local industry and commerce in the Strip.

But even before that it wasn’t independent.

Correct. In 1967, the economic situation was bad. There was poverty. The Egyptian army [which had ruled Gaza, except for a short period in 1956, until the Six-Day War] is not exactly a liberal body. So, yes, Israel rehabilitated Gaza, there was prosperity, but that prosperity came at the expense of development. The inhabitants experienced a rise in standard of living, but they lacked the ability to stand on their own.

‘The absolute end’

And you maintain that this was a policy. Can you elaborate? Ground your argument?

It’s policy. There are numberless examples. After 1967, Israel shut down the Arab banks in the Gaza Strip. Israeli banks avoided giving loans, resulting in a shortage of capital for investment in industry and agriculture. Israeli farmers received subsidies and benefits that farmers in Gaza didn’t get, so agriculture in Israel had an advantage. For years, Israel prohibited the export of agricultural produce from Gaza to Europe, in order to prevent competition with Israel. Marketing of produce in Israel was also barred for various periods, again to prevent competition with Israeli growers, though Israeli farmers could sell in Gaza without limits.

Israel barred the digging of new wells in Gaza, and restricted water consumption by farmers. For example, in 1985, the water consumption of Jewish settlers was 2,300 cubic meters per capita annually, whereas local Gazans were limited to an average of 123 cubic meters per person. Similar restrictions were imposed on industry: Israel banned importation of various types of machines and materials into Gaza. Israeli industrialists received considerable governmental encouragement to invest in factories in the Strip and the West Bank, where labor was cheap, but the profit line belonged to the Israelis.

And in light of that dependence, when Israel began to prohibit Gazans’ entry into Israel some 30 years ago, it was a mortal blow.

When we think today about besieged Gaza, we think about the disengagement [Israel’s withdrawal from the Strip, in 2005], but it should be thought of as a process that began as early as the first intifada [which began in late 1987], as a security measure. Beforehand, Dayan had advocated an open-door policy, and everyone who wanted to leave Gaza was able to do so. The intifada upended that: Israel no longer allowed the population of the Strip to leave freely.

And things were upended again after the Oslo Accords, in 1993.

The Palestinians thought that after Oslo, things would continue as they had been, only that the government would be Palestinian. When Israel said goodbye, go cope, and disengaged from them – it caused a tremendous rupture. In our course, we hosted Sufian Abu Zaida, a former Fatah official, and Ali Al-Awar, from the Palestinian Culture Ministry. Both of them were in the Gaza Strip at the time of Oslo. They described the crisis painfully, the shock, the great hope of Oslo, which became a bitter disappointment. The disengagement was in fact the absolute end of a process that began long before.

I spoke today with a friend who grew up in a settlement in the Gaza Strip. He told me about how the lives of the settlers and the Gazans are intertwined. About the friendships that persist to this day. It’s clear that the relations were based on force and authority, but there was also a human relationship. There was a reality of coexistence.

A reality of life together did exist. Kobi Bornstein, who directed the Israeli settlers’ PR campaign against the pullout, was another guest speaker in our course. He said that even in the most utopian scenario, from his viewpoint – of returning to Gush Katif [the bloc of Israeli settlements in the Strip] – the relations would not be unequal, as they had been. That the situation would have to change. He expressed deep reservations about the way we treat the Palestinians today. Our students from the Gaza envelope communities also really help us understand the transition from the situation in which the Strip was totally intertwined with Israel, and the situation of total disconnect today. The intifada affected that early coexistence critically, and after Oslo, that window was closed completely. Israel left Gaza.

“You left us to our own devices.”

Yes. It isn’t just a matter of being “left on our own,” but also “You shut the gate on us.” For Israelis, the disengagement and the closure are a kind of end of the story. But for the Gazans, Israel remains a significant factor in their life. Palestinians just laugh when they hear “Israel left the Gaza Strip.” The dominant currency in Gaza is the shekel. They see the soldiers sitting across the fence, the observation balloons; they hear the buzzing of the drones that have become an integral element of life in Gaza. The buzzing is heard everywhere, relentlessly. I have a friend who works in an international organization, who enters and leaves Gaza all the time. I asked him whether there’s an alarm system in Gaza as protection against Israeli bombing raids. He replied that there isn’t one, but that the Gazans download the Israeli Red Alert app. That way, they know what to expect.

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