Gaza Strip faces bleak future ten years after Israel’s pullout

Friday 04/09/2015

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.