In 2005, Israel removed 7,500 illegal settlers from the choice lands in Gaza they had occupied for years. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s advisor Dov Weisglass admitted the point of this “Disengagement” was to put any chance of a real peace process “in formaldehyde” so that Israel could continue colonizing the West Bank with a freer hand.
Sure enough, though about 8,000 settlers were pulled out of Gaza and a few small West Bank outposts in 2005, the settler population in the West Bank increased by more than 12,000 that year. And it has continued growing ever since.
The Disengagement was also unilateral, which meant there was no coordination with the Palestinians. No core Palestinian requests were met, such as allowing free commerce, free sea access, and the reopening of Gaza’s International Airport. Palestinians were effectively blockaded even before Hamas won elections in 2006 with a 45% plurality of the vote.
Chapter 11 of my book Fast Times in Palestine recounts the heady days leading up to the contentious pull-out of Gaza’s settlers. Below is the last section of the chapter, in which I visited Gaza for the first time just as the settlers were evacuated.
Drinking by the Sea in Gaza
Even after a year in the West Bank, it was difficult for me to imagine life in the Gaza Strip. It seemed less an actual place than a metaphor for human suffering, the modern world’s dirty little secret, a forbidden, forgotten, crowded, impoverished, dangerous, besieged penal colony. Over a million people squeezed into a 27-by-5-mile strip of land choked by settlements, ‘security zones,’ sniper towers, and military bases, like a super-concentrated version of the West Bank.
An Israeli officer had recently admitted the army’s raids into Gaza were characterized by chaos and the indiscriminate use of force. “Gaza was considered a playground for sharpshooters,” he explained.
I remembered many of the names and faces of the hundreds of Gazans I had reported on who’d been gunned down. Schools and homes, roads and restaurants—nowhere was safe. The Gazans’ framework had become so warped, most truly couldn’t fathom why Israelis were so scared of Qassam rockets. They could only dream of their only torment being an occasional barrage of unguided missiles with a half-percent kill rate.
I arrived at the Erez crossing on Thursday, September 8, not entirely sure whether I hoped I’d be allowed in or turned back. I walked nervously toward a huge parking lot. It had been teeming with trucks and commerce before the near-hermetic sealing of this crossing, but it was deserted now. Two guards called to me and asked to see my passport. I gave it to them. They nodded at each other and directed me to a building further on.
Inside the building, a friendly Israeli guard took my passport and luggage. I waited in a small room with other aid workers and journalists, many of whom had probably been forced to misrepresent themselves in order to have any hope of access. I certainly hadn’t mentioned anything about my job in my application. We all avoided eye contact, fearful that anything we said might be used against us.
Half an hour later I was called up, given my passport back, and directed to the entrance to the Gaza Strip. I gathered my bags and made my way to the rather intimidating portal, a shabby affair of chipped concrete and metal bars. It led to a passage between concrete walls, a dark tunnel-like path that stretched on for nearly a mile. My feeling of fear and desolation intensified the further I walked down that Kafkaesque lane into God knew what.
Presently I came upon a closed metal gate. An unseen Israeli soldier was making blowing noises over a microphone. The blowing noises stopped as I approached. I tried the gate. It was shut tight. I looked around the empty hall.
“Hello?” I ventured. Nothing. Feeling silly, I knocked on the gate. Still nothing. “Hello?” I banged on the gate. I knew they could see me. It was unnerving to be trapped, watched, ignored. I felt very much like a gerbil in a cage. Were they waiting for me to do something? Entertain them? Hop on one foot? Say the magic word? I suppressed an almost irresistible urge to intone, “OPEN SESAME.”
Finally I gave up and sat on a concrete block and started playing with my cell phone to pass the time. Twenty minutes later several Palestinian workers approached from behind me.
“Salaam alaykum,” I greeted one of them, and he returned the greeting. “I’ve been waiting here twenty minutes,” I complained in Arabic.
He was unimpressed. “Sometimes we wait half an hour, one hour.” He shrugged.
Five minutes later the gate creaked opened. A soldier barked unintelligible orders over the loudspeaker. I grabbed my bags, and we all made our way through.
At last I neared the end of the tunnel. Two Palestinian women in hijab greeted me with shy smiles and warm Arabic pleasantries. As they carefully recorded my passport information in a tattered green volume, my fear began to ease. A familiar feeling of calm and safety settled over me. It was unmistakable: I was back in Palestine.
When I emerged, I got my first view of the Gaza Strip. It looked deceptively normal. Agricultural fields spread toward two villages on lows hills. The towns, Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, had once been famous for their oranges, but the Israeli army had razed most of their groves. Beit Lahiya was where seven kids had been killed by Israeli tank fire in a strawberry field in January.
I caught a cab into Gaza City. It looked similar to Ramallah but more flat and dense, larger and more overwhelming. A banner across a main intersection declared in dark green letters, “Palestinian Unity is a Must.” It was signed in red, “HAMAS.”
I made my way to a hotel on the beach, the Grand Palace, one of many swank venues built after Arafat returned in 1994. It was airy and elegant with white arches, and its verandas had fantastic sea views. With its air conditioning, satellite TV, hot showers and soft beds, it was easy to forget I was in a conflict zone on the verge of historic upheaval.
Gaza’s economy had been valued at $1 billion before the second Intifada, and the service sector was its largest segment. This hotel was a symbol of what could have been—an entire service industry, an international vacation destination, lost.
I went for a walk on the beach the next morning and said hello to a family sitting in a circle of lawn chairs enjoying coffee and cakes. They invited me to join them. A plump, friendly woman fished a pan of crumb cake out of her beach bag and insisted I sample it. I happily obliged, and we chatted and laughed for nearly an hour.
When I got up to leave, they expressed the usual mock-outrage that a guest should think of doing anything other than sitting with them and accepting their hospitality until the end of time. I thanked them over and over, and they made me promise to find them if I ever came back to the beach, or to Gaza, again.
Gaza’s seaport came into view as I continued walking, a small harbor surrounded by a stone breakwater. Ramshackle fishing vessels bobbed on the wavelets. It was another deceptively idyllic scene. Gaza fishermen were routinely fired on by the Israeli navy if they ventured past the limit of 12 nautical miles imposed in 2002—far less than the 20-mile limit agreed to under the Oslo Accords. [The limit is now down to 3 nautical miles.] Old photographs showed Gaza’s fish markets overflowing with red mullet, bream, flounder, tuna, sea bass, sardines, squids, shrimps, and crabs. The market today was a sad, scrawny shadow of those days. Everyone hoped Israel would remove the restrictions after the Disengagement, which forced Gaza’s fishermen to over-fish young populations near shore, and allow the construction of a deep water port to serve larger fishing and cargo vessels.
My primary concern on this aimless day was whether and when the Abu Holi checkpoint would open. It was the main barrier between the northern and southern Gaza Strip. I’d have to cross it to get to Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, by most accounts one of the friendliest and most brutalized towns in the Palestinian territories. I had a contact named Nader, a friend of an American Jewish journalist friend, waiting to meet me there…