The total separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank is one of the greatest achievements of Israeli politics, whose overarching objective is to prevent a solution based on international decisions and understandings and instead dictate an arrangement based on Israel’s military superiority.
In view of the violent rivalry between the two main movements competing for the upper hand in the Palestinian mock-government, Fatah and Hamas, it’s easy to forget the effort Israel invested in separating families, economies, cultures and societies between the two parts of the Palestinian state “in the making.” All that remained was for the Palestinians to crown the split with their dual regime.
The restrictions on Palestinian movement that Israel introduced in January 1991 reversed a process that had been initiated in June 1967. Back then, and for the first time since 1948, a large portion of the Palestinian people again lived in the open territory of a single country - to be sure, one that was occupied, but was nevertheless whole. True, there quickly emerged three categories of Palestinian residents: third-class Israeli citizens, residents of Israel (in Jerusalem) and residents of the “administered territories.” Yet the experience of renewing old family and social ties and creating new modes of social, cultural and economic companionships proved stronger than the administrative distinctions. The dynamism, creativity and optimism of the first intifada (1987-1992) owe much to the reality generated by this freedom of movement inside a single country.
Israel put a halt to this freedom of movement on the eve of the first Gulf war. Since January 1991, Israel has bureaucratically and logistically merely perfected the split and the separation: not only between Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and their brothers in Israel, but also between the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and those in the rest of the territories and between Gazans and West Bankers-Jerusalemites. Jews live in this same piece of land within a superior and separate system of privileges, laws, services, physical infrastructure and freedom of movement.
One day, when the archives are opened, we’ll know just how calculated and planned this process was. Meanwhile, we cannot ignore the fact that it commenced at a time when the Cold War and South African apartheid were ending and the international community assessed that conditions were ripe for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement based on the June 4, 1967 lines.
In parallel with the Oslo process, Israel took bureaucratic steps that rendered hollow the clause in the Oslo Accords according to which the Gaza Strip and West Bank are a single territorial unit. Gazans were forbidden to live, study and work in the West Bank without permission from Israel (which was rarely given, and only to favored applicants). Gazans were also forbidden to enter the West Bank via its border with Jordan. Friends and family live just 70 kilometers apart but Israel does not allow them to meet. Today, a Palestinian born in Gaza who lives in the West Bank without Israeli permission is considered an “illegal presence.”
The devious unilateral Israeli disengagement of 2005 perpetuated a process that commenced in 1991: Gaza and the West Bank fall under different types of administration, with Israel cleverly presenting Gaza as an independent entity no longer under occupation. In the last Palestinian elections, Hamas proved more persuasive than Fatah when it attributed the Palestinian “victory” and the Israeli withdrawal to itself and its armed struggle. There followed Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza security forces in June 2007 and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ directive to tens of thousands of Palestinian Authority employees to boycott their places of work in the Strip.
In the recent Palestinian unity talks, the substantive questions have not been asked: Has the public in the West Bank and Gaza given up on the link between the two parts occupied in 1967 until the distant realization of the dream of one state? Will the Palestinian leaderships be taken to account by the people for the assistance they gave Israel in severing the two territories? Is the link to the Arab and Muslim worlds more vital for Hamas than the link with the West Bank? Are ceremonial international standing and the perks of senior officialdom more important to the PA and the Palestinian Liberation Organization than the population of Gaza?
The answers must also come from the Israelis, and particularly those who claim to support peace. Prior to Hamas’ election victory in 2006, the PA’s center of rule was in Gaza. That didn’t hinder Israel from perfecting the conditions of separation and severance that turned the Strip into the detention camp it is today while Israeli peaceniks in their multitudes sat on their hands. Even if a miracle happens in Cairo and the Palestinians unite, the government of Israel will not willingly forego its greatest achievement: severing Gaza from the West Bank. This achievement, which will only stoke the fires of a bloody conflict, is the disaster of both peoples.
Amira Hass is a correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz. Since January 22 of this year she has been reporting from Gaza. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter that publishes contending views of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.