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Gaza: imprisoned by the peace process

The international community’s multicultural solution in the Middle East has achieved the remarkable feat of making things worse.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Very few can have supported Israel’s recent outrageous airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. Such attacks will only intensify conflict in the region. And yet, in the almost universal condemnation of Israel for attacking Gazan territory, one question has gone unasked: why does the Gaza Strip exist as a separate entity in the first place?

Liberal commentators in America and Europe, alongside European leaders, have slated Israel over its recent airstrikes. They have called on the Israelis to ‘respect Gaza’s integrity’ or to keep their ‘Hands off Gaza!’ (1). This may come off as radical: standing up to the powerful Israeli military on behalf of the beleaguered 1.5million Palestinians who live in Gaza. But, in truth, there is a deeply uncritical and even conformist streak to this supposed solidarity with Gazans. The outraged liberal critics of Israel accept the Western-imposed idea that Gaza, in effect a glorified refugee camp, should be a distinct pseudo-statelet for Palestinians, separate from Israel and even from the Jews. And this separation is the very condition that keeps Gaza impoverished, unfree and in a state of permanent conflict with its bigger, more powerful neighbour.

Critics attack Israel for its use of force in Gaza. Yet they implicitly support the partitionist and sectarian underpinnings of the Middle Eastern ‘peace process’, which has upped the ante between Israel and Gaza. Facilitated by Washington and Brussels over the past 15 years, the peace process has been based on the idea that Israelis and Palestinians must be permanently separated – that is, the Middle East must be partitioned. The Oslo Accords of 1993, overseen by then US President Bill Clinton, called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and affirmed ‘a Palestinian right of self-government within those areas through the creation of a Palestinian Authority’. The Roadmap for Peace of 2003 – drawn up by the US, the UN, the EU and Russia – called for a ‘permanent two-state solution’ and demanded ‘clear, unambiguous acceptance’ of this solution from both Israel and the Palestinians (2).

The central theme of the peace process is always that Israelis and Palestinians cannot possibly live together in a democratic federal state, and thus there must be a ‘permanent’ separation which must be kept in check by ‘formal monitoring mechanisms’ overseen by the international community (in the words of the Roadmap for Peace). This divisive dynamic, far from ushering in a new era of peace, has heightened sectarian tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. And nowhere is this clearer than in Gaza.

Life in Gaza has never been particularly pleasant. Around 25 miles long and six miles wide, this tiny piece of land (which is about twice the size of Washington, DC) is home to 1.5million Palestinians. The borders of the Gaza Strip were defined by the armistice lines between Egypt and Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that followed the dissolution of the British mandate of Palestine and the creation of Israel. The Gaza Strip was never intended to be a legitimate state or independent territory: rather it became home to thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war. The vast majority of the 1.5million Palestinians who live in Gaza today are direct descendants of those refugees. Gaza was occupied by Egypt from 1948 until 1967, when it was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War; it was occupied by Israel from 1967 until 1993, when the Oslo Accords handed authority to the newly-formed Palestinian Authority. Under both Egypt and Israel, the Palestinians of Gaza suffered political repression. But, remarkably, the situation in the Strip has worsened under the peace process.

The peace process, with its demand for a ‘permanent’ separation between Israel and the Palestinian territories, has had a dire impact both economically and politically on Gaza. In economic terms it has led to greater impoverishment in the Strip; in political terms it has further entrenched divisions between Arabs and Jews.

One of the first consequences of the implementation of the Oslo Accords in 1993/1994 was the sealing of the borders between Israel and Gaza. Where Gaza had once been considered a hopefully temporary grouping of refugee settlements created by the war of 1948, with Oslo it was suddenly elevated to the status of a semi-sovereign territory under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. What had previously been seen as a ghetto for refugees was now heralded as a distinct cultural entity worthy of ‘respect’ and ‘celebration’ (nothing better captured the cynical nature of the peace process than this transformation of Gaza from a territory created by default into part of a new ‘Palestinian homeland’). After Oslo, the borders between Israel and this newly defined territory were immediately strengthened. In 1994, the first year of Oslo implementation, Israel began building a 60km-long barrier between itself and the Gaza Strip. The barrier, completed in 1996, consisted of wire fencing with posts, sensors and buffer zones (3). This separation fence can be seen as a physical manifestation of the peace process: the brute expression of the idea that underpinned the peace negotiations, which was that Israel and the Palestinians must be separated by ‘monitoring mechanisms’.

The economic impact on Gaza was disastrous. The raising of new and stronger borders between Israel and Gaza deprived the Strip of its main source of income, which came from Palestinian day labourers who had previously crossed the ‘green line’ to work in Israel. As part of its post-Oslo fencing off of Gaza, Israel imposed ‘generalised border closures’ which prevented Gazans from moving from the Strip to work in southern Israel. As one account notes, these closures ‘disrupted previously established labour and commodity market relationships between Israel and the Strip’ (4). As a result, between 1992 and 1996, after the First Intifada of 1987 to 1993 had died down and the new structures of the peace process took over, economic output in the Gaza Strip declined by one-third. This led to high unemployment in the Strip. According to one American study, in 2001 GDP in the Gaza Strip had declined 35 per cent to a per capita income of $625, and 60 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line (5).

Alongside economic impoverishment, the peace process deepened the political divide between Israelis and Palestinians. With its focus on separation, the Western-sponsored process gave rise to new and more brutal forms of sectarianism. Thus in the 1990s, the presence of Jewish settlements in Gaza became an explosive political issue. Gazans frequently protested against the settlements, and Palestinian militants launched attacks against them. In 2005, the Israeli military, following a plan drawn up by Ariel Sharon, used force to dismantle all the settlements and to remove every Jew – 9,000 in total – from Gaza. Scenes of distraught Jewish families being dragged from Gaza, while Palestinian onlookers cheered, captured the deep sectarianism that had been unleashed by the peace process. Again, such actions were a logical consequence of the Oslo Accords and later the Roadmap for Peace, which was built on the notion that there could be no progress until both sides ‘clearly and unambiguously’ accepted the need for a ‘permanent two-state solution’ (6). The result of an all-Arab Gaza is that Palestinians and Jews are more hermetically sealed from one another than at any other time in modern history. Such a state of affairs can only have contributed to the sense that Gaza and Israel are two totally opposed blocs: different, cut off, forever conflictual. To borrow a phrase from history, Gaza under the peace process has been turned into a ‘bloody trap’ for Palestinians.

In recent weeks, Israel has been criticised for transforming Gaza into a ‘jailed state’ (7). In truth, it is 15 years of international intervention under the guise of enforcing a ‘peace process’ that has imprisoned Gaza. Washington and Brussels have effectively imposed a multicultural solution on to the Middle East, where the emphasis is on preserving both sides’ sense of identity through separation and constant monitoring. And if divisive multicultural policies can be explosive in cities in the West, imagine the impact they can have on a volatile part of the world like Israel/Palestine. Israel should be held up to ridicule for its recent attacks on Gaza, but only criticising Israel, without interrogating the role played by Western powers in legitimising new forms of partition, is intellectually lazy. More than that, it leaves unchallenged the idea that the ghetto of Gaza is a fit place for 1.5million people to live in, and the notion that Arabs and Jews must be separated into their own statelets.

The international community’s meddling has further divided the people of the Middle East. And in many ways, such meddling has also inflamed Israel’s attacks on Gaza: feeling itself losing control of affairs in the Middle East, Israel is lashing out in an out-of-control fashion in an attempt to assert its authority and keep the fenced-off and volatile Gaza in check. A genuine peace can surely only emerge if the people of the region are free to mix and work together, and possibly even to come up with their own political solutions, free from the cynical intervention of the international community and the shallow solidarity of Western activists.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill argued that the upsurge of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in 2001 was a result of the peace process, and read the 2003 roadmap to nowhere. Josie Appleton argued that Israel’s 2005 pullout of Gaza was neither a cunning plan by Israel nor a victory for the Palestinians, and that young, middle-class Western peace activists were taking the Middle East conflict too personally. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

(1) Palestine: imprisoning a whole nation, John Pilger, New Statesman, 24 May 2007

(2) See the Roadmap for Peace

(3) See Information on the Israeli-Gaza Strip Barrier

(4) The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development, reviewed in Arab Studies Quarterly, Summer 1997

(5) Gaza Strip, CIA World Factbook, 2007

(6) See the Roadmap for Peace

(7) Palestine: imprisoning a whole nation, John Pilger, New Statesman, 24 May 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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