15 September 2005 Edition

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The World Today - Future unclear despite welcome Gaza pullout

The media in Ireland and internationally have heralded the welcome and overdue Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as "the end of the 38-year occupation". However, brutal military occupation continues throughout Palestine and many believe Israel will use its withdrawal to reinforce repressive policies more generally.

While the future of the border crossings in Gaza, to Egypt and to other occupied Palestinian regions remains unclear, Israel has refused to negotiate on these issues, which will define whether or not Gaza remains an economically isolated prison for Palestinians.

All Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, like the ongoing construction of the Apartheid Wall are internationally recognised as illegal, confirmed by a 2004 ruling from the International Court of Justice, adopted by a majority vote in the UN General Assembly.

Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967, consecutive Israeli Governments have established settlements in violation of international law. These and the vast network of "by-pass" roads that join the settlements to each other and to Israel are illegally built on land confiscated from Palestinians. The aim is to consolidate Israeli control and prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state through disrupting Palestinian society.

According to Peace Now, an Israeli peace organisation, in September 2003 there were 145 official settlements in the West Bank, while the Land Research Centres says the real number is as high as 198 settlements.

Most settlers have been encouraged by the Israeli Government to move to the Occupied Palestinian Territories through economic subsidies, including cheap housing and mortgage grants (up to 95% of the cost).

Then, these settler communities created some 130 "outposts" throughout the West Bank. They are located away from the main settlements, and consist mainly of caravans or tents, which may not even be inhabited. However, some of the former outposts have over the years evolved into more permanent settlements, like Amona, Horsha, Givat Harel and Zayit Ra'anan were all former outposts that expanded and became permanent settlements. And then, there are the shops, restaurants, etc that have emerged along the by-pass roads.

Israel has done nothing to encourage economic growth in Gaza, and international and Arab efforts to improve the economy there have often been frustrated by the difficulty of getting goods and services in and out of Gaza. As a result, unemployment rates of around 50% have been the norm.

While it is an undoubtedly positive step that Israel will dismantle settlements and move its forces out of Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip remains sealed off from the rest of the world.

In residents of Gaza, already bereft of resources and with a completely shattered economy, have little hope of building their infrastructure. Also, according to the terms of the plan Israel's Primer Minister Sharon has laid out, Israel will retain the right to conduct military operations inside Gaza to search for terrorists. The guidelines for these incursions are very vague and there are no specific limitations on these operations or what the Israeli military can do during these operations. In other words, there is no guarantee that there won't be a repeat of military incursions like those in Rafah from 12-24 May, 2004 which were responsible for the death of 59 Palestinians and the demolition of 254 homes, leaving some 3,800 people homeless.

So, so far, the only benefit that Palestinians will reap from the Israeli withdrawal is the return of the land, while Israel is already basking on the praise of the international community and receiving lots of positive media coverage. And this is exactly what Sharon's government was aiming to achieve. In an interview with Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, on 8 October 2004, Dov Weisglass explained that the withdrawal plan allows Israel to "...park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure". The acceptance by the international community of an unilateral plan that may affect the future of Palestine validates Israel contention that "there is no negotiating with the Palestinians. It compels the world to deal with our idea, with the scenario we wrote," said Weisglass.

Because Gaza is not an area which holds significant Jewish historical places, nor does it have valuable resources, it is not much of a loss to Israel, as compared to the West Bank. Sharon hopes that by withdrawing from Gaza international attention and pressure to withdraw from the West Bank will diminish. This is what Weisglass means when he talks about the Gaza withdrawal "freezing the Peace Process" regarding the West Bank.

Israeli settlers have escalated attacks against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In August, three Palestinians were killed by an Israeli settler in the West Bank, using weaponry from the Israeli military. There have been further attacks and casualties since.

Throughout the West Bank, Israeli military occupation, settlement expansion and the construction of the internationally condemned Apartheid Wall continues. The of Palestinian refugees to return to Palestine is unresolved. In Lebanon hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugee continue to live in extreme poverty in refugee camps scattered throughout the country.

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