Gaza Strip faces bleak future ten years after Israel’s pullout
Gaza City - When Israel vacated 21 Jewish settlements and unilaterally pulled its army out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, after a 38-year occupation, residents hoped to turn the enclave on the Mediterranean into the Singapore of the Middle East.
A decade later, Gaza residents say Israel tricked them. True, Israel ended its occupation of this part of the Palestinian territories but it also tightened its grip on the enclave and its 1.8 million residents, plunging them into desperation and driving them to flee hardships.
About 80% of Gaza’s residential neighbourhoods and infrastructure were destroyed by large-scale Israeli wars since Israel’s pullout began on August 15, 2005.
Electricity is rarely available because of insufficient or expensive fuel supplies from Israel, poverty blights 51% of the population and unemployment is at a record 43%. Gaza is also under a stringent Israeli siege that restricts trade and deprives Gazans of travel abroad.
A further deterioration was caused by Hamas’s violent takeover of the strip in June 2007 from the moderate Palestinian Authority (PA) responsible for the West Bank, splintering Palestinian ranks and weakening the Palestinian position in negotiating with Israel.
For eight years, Gaza has been largely ostracised and its reconstruction bid impeded because few governments are willing to deal with its militant rulers.
“The reality is that things have gotten much worse since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal because of the destructive Israeli wars and the endless internal divisions,” said Naji Shurab, a political science professor at Gaza’s Azhar University.
“If we look at the horrifying rates of poverty and unemployment, the damaged infrastructure, weak economy, political and social crises, one would understand that this was exactly the motive behind Israel’s unilateral withdrawal.”
When the settlements were vacated and the last Israeli soldiers pulled out, the PA announced ambitious plans to lure investors worldwide to rebuild the enclave.
The area Israel had occupied was 120 square kilometres of the Gaza’s total area of 360 square kilometres.
Following Hamas’s takeover of the strip and routing out Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s security forces, Hamas took control of the area of the evacuated settlements and executed its own plans there. One of Hamas’s immediate steps was changing most of the biblical or Jewish names of the abandoned settlements, calling them after historic Islamic battles.
The settlements were labelled the Muhararat, Arabic for “liberated areas”, which are overseen by a special Hamas-run government body, called the Department of Muhararat Affairs. Parts of the Muhararat are used as plantations, producing fruit and vegetables to end dependence on Israeli produce, a long-shot goal considering a chronic shortage of crops caused by insufficient water for irrigation.
Other parts of the former settlements are used as training camps for Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other militant groups. The rest — the parts that remained nearly intact after Israel’s pullout — is used as residential neighbourhoods, hospitals and recreation areas. Muhararat Director- General Mohammed Shaer said the Israeli settlements had occupied 20,000 acres but there was much more land around them whose owners had been banned from using.
Shaer said when Israel pulled out, most of the Muhararat was ransacked. However, he insisted that order was restored when Hamas took over “protecting the area and what remained inside it, mainly agricultural equipment, green houses and electric lines”.
Before its pullout, Israel demolished one of Gaza’s landmarks, the Palm Beach Hotel, part of an Israeli chain, which Israel built during the occupation. Shurab blamed Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah Party for failing to invest in the Israeli disengagement plan in Gaza. “Instead of using Israel’s withdrawal as a vehicle to improve living conditions in Gaza, they resorted to silly internal feuds that harmed efforts to attain Palestinian dreams of political and economic independence,” he said.
“Nothing has been accomplished over the past ten years,” Shurab said. “Peacemaking with Israel achieved nothing and the negotiations are stalled, while Jewish settlements in the West Bank are increasing and the Gaza Strip remains isolated from the rest of the Palestinian territories.”
Gaza political analyst Akram Attallah, who specialised in Israeli affairs, scoffed at the notion that Israel’s occupation of the strip had ended. “Israel still occupies the Gaza Strip because it maintains a tight grip on our borders and controls our air and sea,” Attallah said. “The three wars Israel waged on us, the siege it imposed on us are evidence that Israel is still occupying the Gaza Strip and this occupation hasn’t ended yet.”
Gaza analyst Talal Oukal said more “sinister” Israeli plans lied ahead. “Israel’s long-term goal is to undermine Palestinian statehood by pushing Gaza’s population to accept being in an isolated, or separate entity, away from the remainder of the Palestinian territories,” he said.