Towards a Geography of Peace: Whither Gaza?

In Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, a man sits next to a wall that reads in Arabic, “No to internal fighting. Yes to fighting the occupation.”
16 June 2007. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

Ilan Pappé, The Electronic Intifada, 18 June 2007

The Gaza Strip is a little bit more than two percent of Palestine. This small detail is never mentioned whenever the Strip is in the news nor has it been mentioned in the present Western media coverage of the dramatic events unfolding in Gaza in the last few weeks. Indeed it is such a small part of the country that it never existed as a separate region in the past. Gaza’s history before the Zionization of Palestine was not unique and it was always connected administratively and politically to the rest of Palestine. It was until 1948 for all intents and purposes an integral and natural part of the country. As one of Palestine’s principal land and sea gates to the world, it tended to develop a more flexible and cosmopolitan way of life; not dissimilar to other gateways societies in the Eastern Mediterranean in the modern era. This location near the sea and on the Via Maris to Egypt and Lebanon brought with it prosperity and stability until this life was disrupted and nearly destroyed by the Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

In between 1948 and 1967, Gaza became a huge refugee camp restricted severely by the respective Israeli and Egyptian policies: both states disallowed any movement out of the Strip. Living conditions were already harsh then as the victims of the 1948 Israeli politics of dispossession doubled the number of the inhabitants who lived there for centuries. On the eve of the Israeli occupation in 1967, the catastrophic nature of this enforced demographic transformation was evident all over the Strip. This once pastoral coastal part of southern Palesine became within two decades one of the world’s densest areas of habitation; without any adequate economic infrastructure to support it.

The first twenty years of Israeli occupation at least allowed some movement outside an area that was closed off as a war zone in the years 1948 to 1967. Tens of thousand of Palestinians were permitted to join the Israeli labor market as unskilled and underpaid workers. The price Israel demanded for this slavery market was a total surrender of any national struggle or agenda. When this was not complied with — the ‘gift’ of laborers’ movement was denied and abolished. All these years leading to the Oslo accord in 1993 were marked by an Israeli attempt to construct the Strip as an enclave, which the Peace Camp hoped would be either autonomous or part of Egypt and the Nationalist camp wished to include in the Greater Eretz Israel they dreamed of establishing instead of Palestine.

The Oslo agreement enabled the Israelis to reaffirm the Strip’s status as a separate geo-political entity — not just outside of Palestine as a whole, but also cut apart from the West Bank. Ostensibly, both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were under the Palestinian Authority but any human movement between them depended on Israel’s good will; a rare Israeli trait and which almost disappeared when Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in 1996. Moreover, Israel held, as it still does today, the water and electricity infrastructure. Since 1993 it used, or rather abused, this possession in order to ensure on the one hand the well-being of the Jewish settler community there and on the other in order to blackmail the Palestinian population into submission and surrender. The people of the Gaza Strip thus vacillated in the last sixty years between being internees, hostages or prisoners in an impossible human space.

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