Fifteen years ago Israel left Gaza, and I was there.
In the early morning hours of August 15, 2005, I was in a team of journalists who arrived at the soon-to-be former Jewish settlement of Netzarim, a few kilometres southwest of Gaza City.
Netzarim was the first point of clashes between Palestinian youngsters and the Israeli army in the Second Intifada. To many in Gaza, Netzarim was a place with memorable moments. Many would proudly recall when Palestinian kids climbed on top of the IDF guard tower and tore down the Israeli flag. It is also where the world watched the IDF kill in cold blood Muhammad Al-Durrah as he took cover behind his father. At the time, it was an incomprehensible act, but as the Intifada escalated, it became so frequent that both the people and the media ceased to pay much attention. I remember turning on the news anxiously everyday, hoping, really hoping, that no-one was killed that day. Naively, I assumed that no death meant there was hope this ‘madness’ was going to see an end.
This was the first time I was this close to the settlement in 4 years. A bizarre and eerie feeling. Normally, the IDF would let you know you’ve come too close with a barrage of bullets. But today we discovered Netzarim has already been evacuated. From a distance, we could see the taillights of the Israeli military vehicles as they gradually evanesced into the horizon near the Gaza border with Israel. You can still hear the rumbling of the tanks as they echoed into the silence of an unseasonably cool Gaza morning. In my mind and the minds of most Palestinians in Gaza, the rumbling was often accompanied by the thundering noise of Apache helicopters and shells. That was the weekly symphony. But today, strangely, it wasn’t.
We stood there for a short while looking and listening, taking comfort in the fact that the rumbling was slowly but surely fading away until it had vanished altogether. With the tranquility that followed, one is suddenly struck with the bizarre realization that, indeed, the Israeli military and settlers are no longer around. Did they actually leave? In disbelief I asked my American colleague – who clearly wasn’t in as much disarray as I was. Perhaps for him, an experienced journalist, it was only another political event to cover. But for me, and possibly for every Gazan, it was a whole new paradigm with a lot of unknowns.
As we followed the trail of the Israeli army, delving deeper into what used to be a restricted military zone, we began to see large groups of mostly young Palestinians, possibly under the age of sixteen, who clearly did not sleep that night. They arrived long before any journalists or police personnel, enthusiastically imposing a Palestinian presence on every spot the army and settlers had left.
For those youngsters, it was a symbolic victory and a romanticised version of liberation. Some of them used their feet to erase the caterpillar tracks the tanks had left in the sand. Like everything else in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was a political statement loaded with symbolism.
All of those youngsters were born under the occupation and had never experienced life without it. Undoubtedly, a Gaza without the IDF and Jewish settlers was a nice idea – I emphasise the word idea. But in practice, none of them actually had a solid visualisation of what life without the occupation would be like. There was no frame of reference to compare against. After nearly four decades of military occupation, as a coping mechanism, we inevitably saw in the occupation a negative definer of our collective identity. And now, with the potential of ‘freedom,’ a new form of identity, possibly, needed to emerge. Or at least, this is what I initially thought.
As we stood in the middle of the rubble of what used to be a vibrant settlement, a 14-something-year-old boy approached us with his hands full of bullet shells. “Look what we found! Look what the army left, a whole lot of unused M-16 bullets,” he said excitedly.
This was almost an identical scene to what happened after Oslo 11 years earlier. As the Israeli military evacuated their posts following the initial Gaza-Jericho agreement of 1994, hordes of people flooded these posts hoping to mark a symbolic victory. It turns out, the IDF didn’t take everything. Piles of small military equipment were found. The largest and most notorious of those military posts was the one located on Al-Nassr Street (ironically, means ‘victory’) on the edge of my neighbourhood. We called it ‘elkheyam’, the tents camp. My friends and I walked past it every day on way to school. We became quite familiar with the guard soldiers, and, I believe, they became familiar with us, too. Ben – yes, that was his name – was one of those soldiers, whom we practiced our Hebrew on, and which he found quite irritating. He would ‘jokingly’ point his gun at us to scare us off. We thought it was funny. But looking back, it tells you how a twisted, unnatural situation can be normalised and routinised. But in 1994, this post was suddenly empty, the soldiers and vehicle were gone. Scouring through what’s left inside the post, we found hundreds, if not thousands of used and unused ammo shells. In fact, all the children from my neighbourhood made it their duty to dig for bullets on their way to and from school. This became a known problem so much so that teachers at my and other schools started inspecting and collecting ammo from the students. The ‘confiscation campaign’ became particularly frantic when some of the curious schoolboys built a fire behind the school and threw a handful of bullets in it – just to see what happens. The bullet bangs and whistles sent the teachers hugging the ground for safety. The distraught teachers forced every single kid in the school to empty their pockets and bags in an effort to weed out every last bullet. I vividly remember that large bucket at the headteacher’s office half-full of ‘confiscated military equipment.’ I don’t know what happened to that bucket, but rumour had it the headteacher melted the bullets and shells and sold them as copper. During the first Intifada, recycling copper and aluminium was a known industry in Gaza, so the rumour wasn’t really far-fetched.
Back to 2005. I asked the ammo-carrying boy, “how did you get here so fast?”
“No checkpoints or roadblocks, man! Can you believe that?! There were no checkpoints whatsoever,” he answered.
I could relate to that boy’s inability to get a full grasp of the new facts. But, in reality, that was part of the plan. The IDF already pulled out the vast majority of the 9000 settlers, leveled the settlements, destroyed their infrastructure, and redeployed most of the IDF personnel to positions near the border at least a week before. Since there were no settlers to protect, checkpoints and roadblocks were not necessary, or this is at least what the Israeli army had us believe.
That morning, everything around us was somewhat surreal except for the occasional Mediterranean breeze, which perhaps created a fleeting feeling of normality. But, generally, the atmosphere was electrified with a range of emotions. With the tip of your fingers, you could almost touch the euphoria that floated about in the morning air. Nevertheless, it was an anxious euphoria, one hardly divorced from the usual apprehensive uncertainty and pessimism that characterised (and still does) most aspects of Palestinian life.
By proposing the Disengagement Plan in 2003, late Israeli PM Ariel Sharon intended to, literally, ditch Gaza – the same trouble-maker, unholy Gaza that Yitzhak Rabin before him had hoped he would wake up one day to find it swallowed by the sea. There were, and still are, many sides to why Sharon, one of Israel’s aggressive advocates of the settler movement, wanted to withdraw from Gaza and remove the Jewish settlements after 38 years of occupation.
On the ground, the youngsters’ excitement transcended the political intricacies. For them, removing the Jewish settlements meant no buffer zones or restricted military areas and, above all, a direct access to the Mediterranean.
In places like Mawasi, for instance, a coastal region near the City of Khan-Younis in southern Gaza, the security of the Gush Katif settlers meant that the Mawasi residents were put under severe restrictions including banning them from visiting the beach, which most of them could see through their windows. Many of the households in the Mawasi area didn’t have electricity. I remember our hectic search for a power source in order to charge my colleagues’ laptop. The problem was eventually resolved when a kind local man offered to run his generator for us. As we waited for the laptop to charge, the man invited us in and offered us coffee and sweets. He already had a large tray full of sweets, a tradition common on Eid days. He was celebrating Israel’s withdrawal.
For others in the region, if not all, traveling freely across the tiny Gaza Strip was clearly a major plus point. The Disengagement meant they would no longer be controlled by the whims of teenage Israeli soldiers at the Abu Holy checkpoint between northern and southern Gaza.
Often times as we had waited on one side trying to get to the other side of the checkpoint along with hundreds of other Palestinians, we would spot a yellow-plated car whizzing through unhindered and guarded by two military vehicles. “Another Shlomo bastard,” people would remark whimsically, a reference to Jewish settlers. We would wait for hours anticipating the ‘Masters’ to pass through, so the soldiers can be kind enough to set us free. Occasionally, the bored soldier barricaded behind the thick concrete blocks would wave us through using his legs. Other times, they’d let a couple cars through, then close the entrance, trap the cars, and arrest or abuse everyone inside them. Eliminating security threats, apparently.
That checkpoint made a family visit or the simple task of going to university in Gaza City a serious risk. There was always the possibility of getting stuck on the other side, unable to go home, which happened to be only a couple of kilometres away.
Now with Disengagement, there was the hopeful potential of Palestinians having some control over aspects of their daily existence. No more getting stuck away from home or being held on the checkpoint for hours because of a single “Shlomo.”
It was even surreal to me to discover that despite the harsh conditions we lived through in Gaza City, there were isolated islands within the Strip with a lot worse conditions that we barely knew about! It turns out, there are hierarchies of misery within an overly miserable situation.
Someone who lived near the Gush Katif settlement told us that the best thing about the Israelis leaving Gaza was that his house and citrus orchard, which was largely bulldozed by the IDF, were no longer a shooting target. And that Jewish settlers venturing outside did not mean putting him and his family under house-arrest anymore.
In his mind, the entire disengagement plan boiled down to the very right of his kids to play outside without the fear of being harassed or even shot at. When you see the sandbags on his windowsills and the bullet holes on the outside of his house, or all over the brand-new furniture in his newly-wed son’s bedroom, you can certainly appreciate his outlook.
One immediate positive that came out of the disengagement is that the roof of this man’s house, which happened to look at the settlement, became the stakeout position of Al-Jazeera team and other solitary journalists. That meant some financial relief for him and his family, something at least he could use to fix the hundreds of bullet holes.
It wasn’t only his house – all houses surrounding the settlements looked like ‘sieves’ – a cynical name Gazans gave to bullet-riddled houses. The soldiers crouched in the towers surrounding the settlements apparently had very light fingers on the trigger, as Amira Hass of Haaretz once pointed out. They would shoot a barrage of bullets with the slightest hint of a threat – and sometimes out of spite or just pure boredom. One of the residents sarcastically remarked that it would take him a while to get used to falling asleep without the ‘lullaby of shooting sounds.’
Sharon’s Disengagement Plan was implemented without Palestinian involvement, despite the Palestinian Authority’s repeated requests to take part. Palestinians wanted Israel to leave the settlement buildings intact, at the very least to use them to re-house the hundreds of families whose homes were destroyed by Israel. As a part-time job at the Palestinian Information Centre, I spent hours translating piles of feasibility studies that discussed the different scenarios in which the settlements’ infrastructure could be repurposed for Palestinian benefits. However, we couldn’t help but feel that everything we were doing ‘to be ready’ was just ‘shooting in the air,’ a complete waste of time.
We all agreed, judging by our knowledge of Israel, that Sharon wasn’t going to leave a single building standing. For Israel, it was a matter of morale. To see Palestinians just waltz in and live in homes where settlers lived was going to be a significant slap in the face, a declaration of defeat. Think for a moment about the offensive irony in this sentiment. Then think gain about the pathological psychology behind it.
At Neve Dekalim, a settler community within Gush Katif, the settlers even emptied the swimming pools and destroyed the waterlines. Some even went ahead and spend some time smashing the tiles. Others left some racist and ‘threatening’ graffiti on the wall. My American colleague who spent some time inside this community a few days before the evacuation commented that it was a nice swimming pool that Palestinians could’ve used. Gaza had no swimming pools at the time. But a settlement swimming pool was the least of our concerns. After we’ve made sure we’re not shot at for merely venturing out, we’ll start thinking about splashing out.
Now we know that the Disengagement wasn’t a real withdrawal. Neither was it liberation, which the Palestinian factions sought to take full credit for. What was happening in Israel behind closed doors was more of a perpetuation of the occupation. Truly ending the occupation was only a ‘potential’ not to be fulfilled, ever.
Those taillights that we saw evanescing into the Gaza horizon were not as the romantic end of a harsh era as much as they were ominous signs of a new, different phase of occupation. One that’s remote, detached, and significantly more callous.
Gaza has become – increasingly – a region constantly on the verge of humanitarian collapse, at the mercy of very few Israeli politicians and generals who decide the number of calories that Gazans needed. For a collective that built much of its victim identity on the notion of ghettoisation and oppression, they surely are blind to their own wrongdoings.