Israel’s triumph over Gaza and the flotilla

After the Camp David negotiations broke down, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared that ‘we have no partner for peace’, and the Israeli public lurched to the Right. Despite promising signs of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators approaching agreement at Taba (unilaterally ended by Israel), the Israeli public elected Ariel Sharon. The Israeli public no longer believed in peace and its leaders agreed.

However, the conflict with the Palestinians was about 100 years old. Surely, if a peace agreement wasn’t reached, they would continue to resist Israel. How could this dilemma be solved? The answer decided on by Sharon was basically force: to crush the Palestinians. The military assaults on the occupied territories were only one aspect of this process. There were polite words for the non-military aspects, like ‘unilateralism’, ‘convergence’ and ‘disengagement’.

As Oxford historian Avi Shlaim noted, Sharon’s ‘vision is to annex de facto half the West Bank, to redraw unilaterally the borders of Israel and to leave a few isolated enclaves for Palestinian rule. That would certainly not be a viable Palestinian state.’ This was the idea of convergence: Israel would unilaterally withdraw from parts of the occupied territories, whilst de facto annexing its desired parts – the best land, with the Jews on it, with as few Arabs as possible.

As Shlaim noted, Sharon’s goal was to:

push the remaining Palestinians out of the West Bank and absorb the occupied territories into Greater Israel. One should distinguish here between a ‘hard’ and a ‘soft’ transfer. Sharon knows that the international community will not tolerate ethnic cleansing and the forced expulsions of large numbers of Palestinians, but soft transfer is happening all the time. The building of the wall is one example of the methods by which the Sharon government is putting constant and relentless pressure on the Palestinians to drive them from their land and livelihood, separating farmers from their land and workers from their jobs. As a result, a steady trickle of Palestinians are moving from the West Bank to the East Bank, to Jordan and to other Arab and Gulf nations.

Greg Sheridan referred to this as the ‘security barrier’. But as Amnesty International reported, ‘more than 85 per cent of its entire route is on Palestinian land inside the West Bank. The fence/wall separated thousands of Palestinians from their farmland and water sources’.

B’Tselem notes:

The route was based on extraneous considerations completely unrelated to the security of Israeli citizens. A major aim in setting the route was de facto annexation of part of the West Bank: when the Barrier is completed, 9.5 percent of the West Bank, containing 60 settlements, will be situated on the western – the ‘Israeli’ – side, and Israeli politicians already relate to the Barrier’s route as Israel’s future border.

Even if we accept Israel ‘s claim that the only way to prevent attacks is to erect a barrier, it must be built along the Green Line or on Israeli territory.

The purpose is not so difficult to understand. Norman Finkelstein put it simply:

what happens if you’re building a fence – you’re saying you’re building it because you don’t get along with your neighbours – and then you build the fence and the fence starts going around your neighbours’ swimming pool… well then people begin to wonder…Is this because you don’t get along with your neighbours or is this because you want your neighbours’ swimming pool? Or in this case, the most fertile land in the West Bank. … And then, what happens if you build the fence so it cuts right through your neighbours’ living room? Or as in the case of the fence they’re… the wall they’re building in the West Bank that cuts right through the West Bank. Then you begin to wonder ‘are they building this structure to defend themselves or to drive the people living there to leave?

The general goal was to drive Palestinians out of the West Bank and colonise Palestinian land in the West Bank. The withdrawal of settlers from Gaza was part of this process. Ariel Sharon’s influential adviser, Dov Weisglass, openly declared this in Israeli media. He explained that the withdrawal of settlers ‘supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians’. He bragged about his achievement:

The peace process is the evacuation of settlements, it’s the return of refugees, it’s the partition of Jerusalem. And all that has now been frozen … what I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns. That is the significance of what we did.

Obviously, the Palestinians will never turn into Finns. So the settlements won’t be evacuated, the refugees won’t return and Jerusalem will remain the eternal united city of the Jews. In the extended version of the interview (no longer available on Ha’aretz), he explained that ‘thanks to the disengagement plan, we have in our hands a first-ever American statement that [the large settlement blocs] will be part of Israel.’

Israeli unilateralism in Gaza faced a particular challenge. Israel knew the conflict had not been resolved, that life there was dreadful and that the spirit of resistance remained strong. If not peace, Israel would need to bring out the iron first. Arnon Soffer explained what would need to be done after the withdrawal:

First of all … We will tell the Palestinians that if a single missile is fired over the fence, we will fire 10 in response. And women and children will be killed, and houses will be destroyed. After the fifth such incident, Palestinian mothers won’t allow their husbands to shoot Qassams, because they will know what’s waiting for them.

Second of all, when 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day … If we don’t kill, we will cease to exist … Unilateral separation doesn’t guarantee ‘peace’ — it guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews

It would be nice to think that these are the ravings of a fringe crackpot. However, as Larry Derfner stated:

Soffer, head of the geography department at the University of Haifa and a longtime lecturer at the Israeli army’s Staff and Command College, has influenced Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and hundreds of other Israeli political, military and economic leaders in recent years. In February 2001, on the night of his election as prime minister, Ariel Sharon sent an aide to ask Soffer for a copy of his original 1987 pamphlet about the demographic threats to Israel.

After disengagement, Israel immediately set itself the task of crushing the people of Gaza. The ‘kill and kill and kill’ part may be associated with Israel’s devastating military assault from December 2008-January 2009. Yet the linchpin of Israeli oppression of Gaza is the siege.

In November 2005, shortly after the settlers were removed from Gaza, Harvard specialist on Gaza Sara Roy put Gaza’s economy into proper historical context.

Since 2000, the economy of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has lost a potential income of approximately $6.4 billion and suffered $3.5 billion worth of physical damage at the hands of the Israeli army. This means, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, that the ‘occupied Palestinian territory has lost at least one fifth of its economic base over the last four years as a consequence of war and occupation.


the devastation is not recent. By the time the second intifada broke out, Israel’s closure policy had been in force for seven years, leading to unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty (which would soon be surpassed). Yet the closure policy proved so destructive only because the thirty-year process of integrating Gaza’s economy into Israel’s had made the local economy deeply dependent. As a result, when the border was closed in 1993, self-sustainment was no longer possible – the means weren’t there. Decades of expropriation and deinstitutionalisation had long ago robbed Palestine of its potential for development, ensuring that no viable economic (and hence political) structure could emerge.

Of the Gazan population, 50 percent were 15 or younger.

According to the World Bank, Palestinians are currently experiencing the worst economic depression in modern history, caused primarily by the long-standing Israeli restrictions that have dramatically reduced Gaza’s levels of trade and virtually cut off its labour force from their jobs inside Israel. This has resulted in unprecedented levels of unemployment of 35 to 40 per cent. Some 65 to 75 per cent of Gazans are impoverished (compared to 30 per cent in 2000); many are hungry.
About 42 percent of Gazans are now categorised by the World Food Programme (WFP) as ‘food insecure’ – i.e. lacking secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development; in five areas of Gaza, the figure exceeds 50 per cent. An additional 30 per cent of the population is ‘food vulnerable’, i.e. under threat of becoming food insecure or malnourished.’

By 2008, 70 percent of Gazans were food insecure.

One would think the Gazans had suffered enough. Yet then came the siege on Gaza, tightened again and again. The Israeli government has openly described it as a type of ‘economic warfare’. When Israel extended the siege to limit the amount of fuel and electricity allowed into Gaza, it was casually reported in Israel’s press that Israel’s cabinet was using ‘civilian levers’. WikiLeaks revealed that Israel had briefed the US on its goal: ‘they intend to keep the Gazan economy functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.’

The results have been appalling beyond belief. In June, UNRWA declared that Palestinian unemployment reached 45.2 percent. Think of how traumatised Australia was by the Great Depression, when unemployment peaked at 30 percent. UNRWA’s spokesman said, ‘It is hard to understand the logic of a man-made policy which deliberately impoverishes so many and condemns hundreds of thousands of potentially productive people to a life of destitution.’ Since 12 May, Israel hasn’t allowed any exports at all from Gaza. What would happen to any economy prevented from exporting goods?

The statistics of unemployment are dry, and cannot begin to explain the suffering in Gaza. As UNRWA noted, 95 percent of Gaza’s water is undrinkable, and 40 percent of diseases are waterborne. I wrote about this a [ ] year ago: it is perfectly within Israel’s power to allow repairs to Gaza’s water supply. It chooses not to do so. And so, Gaza’s population, mostly children, do not have access to clean drinking water.

As Weisglass noted, the point of withdrawing settlers from Gaza was as a public relations ploy. It did not mean an end to the occupation of Gaza; it meant the occupation became more cruel, as Israel manoeuvred to control Gaza from the outside.

Israel’s policy of grinding the Palestinians into the ground has a weakness. It depends crucially on Western support. When John Kerry expressed his shock that pasta wasn’t allowed into Gaza, Israel was publicly embarrassed, and decided it would let pasta into Gaza. After the last flotilla, when Israel killed nine activists trying to break the siege on Gaza, Israel faced another public relations disaster. Once again, it loosened the blockade.

As the new flotilla approached, Israel decided it would let UNRWA build 18 new schools and 1200 new houses. It’s a mysterious coincidence that when Israel needs to improve its public image, the blockade miraculously becomes more flexible. One should still remember that according to 22 NGOs, Gaza needs 86 000 new housing units to accommodate population growth and the massive destruction of homes during Israel’s massive onslaught on Gaza from 2008–9. That attack destroyed 19 of Gaza’s 27 concrete factories: 85 percent of its productive capacity.

Right now, Israel is celebrating its triumph. Greece has for now prevented the flotilla from sailing to Gaza. Netanyahu is basking in the glory of alleged backroom sneaky dealing. Mark Weisbrot has suggested a more plausible explanation: Washington’s ‘enormous leverage over the Greek government’ due to its financial crisis.

The flotilla remains the best hope we have to end the cruel siege on Gaza, to allow the Palestinians the chance at rebuilding their devastated society, and to respect their dignity as human beings. Alice Walker was to sail on the Audacity of Hope, which carried nothing but letters, mainly addressed to the children of Gaza.

Walker set off for the trip because ‘the children of Gaza need to know that there are people in the world who love them.’

Meanwhile, the Australian government told Australian citizens on the flotilla that they would not have access to any consular support. It wanted to send a different message to the children of Gaza.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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