After the Disengagement, A Palestinian After-Party

Apart from post-withdrawal celebrations, the PA will have to try to strip Palestinian military groups of the halo of heroism.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian children brandish the Palestinian flag during a rally of the Palestinian Legislative council (PLC) in Gaza City, to celebrate the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza Strip. August 21, 2005.
Palestinian children brandish the Palestinian flag during a rally of the Palestinian Legislative council (PLC) in Gaza City, to celebrate the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza Strip. August 21, 2005.Credit: BAUBAU
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The main headline in the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Ayyam on Wednesday, August 3, reported that a boy of 6 had been killed in the northern Gaza Strip and another 10 children had been wounded. The boy was defined as a "martyr" - a term that is usually reserved for people killed by the Israel Defense Forces and for suicide attackers. But this child was killed by the explosion of a "locally made" missile, as the report put it, a euphemism for a missile or mortar launched by a Palestinian cell.

The newspaper did not specify which organization was responsible for having launched the missile. The Hamas movement said it had no connection to it. Islamic Jihad hastened to deny that one of its cells was involved in the incident, but promised to hold back on firing its missiles until after the disengagement.

Ever since the Palestinians began to manufacture and launch locally produced missiles, about four years ago, most of the casualties they have inflicted - dead and wounded - have been Palestinian, and not Israeli. But up until recent weeks, these accidents were not given the prominence they are getting now. The Palestinian media did not dare publish or emphasize reports that would damage the myth of "the armed struggle" so conscientiously nurtured by the various television stations and the propaganda films of the various organizations. The Palestinian media, in a way that is more direct and transparent than in the Western press, organize the "hierarchy" of their headlines according to the preferences of the regime, according to how they interpret the public's tastes and the fears of the various power groups - thus reflecting a tendency to avoid debate on sensitive subjects.

What is clear is that the Palestinian Authority fears that Qassam launchings during the course of the withdrawal will interfere with the process of evacuating the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, will make it look impotent, or will invite an Israeli military response that will undermine even further its already unstable situation. Therefore, it appears that the PA is now trying to strip the armed Palestinian groups, and first and foremost the Islamic opposition organizations, of the halo of heroism created around the firing of mortars and Qassams.

This situation is due to the fact that, from the moment the Palestinian doubts as to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's intention to carry out the disengagement were removed, another image war broke out between the PA and Hamas - primarily as concerns the struggle for the public's approval and the election race for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Most of all, Hamas nowadays likes to call the disengagement a "withdrawal" - and to attribute it to the success of "the armed struggle" of which its members have been perceived as the spearhead for the past five years. They are bringing their spokesmen to public parks in the Gaza Strip, praising their martyrs, talking about victory and reading verses from the Koran in the few places that are intended, in essence, for the recreation of secular families.

Palestinian police sources are saying they "have not left a single flag in the shops" and that they are intending to spur the masses to celebrate at the sites of the evacuated Jewish settlements - with clear Hamas symbols - even before the last Israeli soldier leaves.

As compared to the Oslo era in the 1990s, there is a reversal of positions here: At that time the PA, inspired by Yasser Arafat, called any new deployment of the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank "a withdrawal" and a form of "liberation," while Hamas was scornful and said there was no "withdrawal" without any guarantee of continuity. Now Hamas is glorying in the "withdrawal" while the representatives of Fatah are the ones trying to lower expectations and remind the Palestinians that withdrawal should not be spoken of as long as Israel controls Palestinian freedom of movement into and out of the Gaza Strip, and as long as the West Bank remains occupied and the Jewish settlements there expand every day.

"While the colonization of the Gaza Strip will end, Israel's occupation of it will not," states an explanatory document written at the Palestinian Office for Disengagement Affairs, headed by Mahmoud Dahlan. In the language of political correctness there, they speak of an "evacuation" or a "redeployment."

But apparently it has been difficult for Dahlan's team to root out the common usage of the word "withdrawal." Thus it has been decided in the PA and Fatah to try to direct the celebrations after the disengagement and not leave the arena of the rejoicing exclusively to Hamas and its symbols. In what has become a project to create income for about 1,800 garment workers in Gaza, the PA has ordered thousands of T-shirts, trousers, posters and stickers with its slogans printed on them - as a counterweight to the Hamas slogans. The PA is also organizing rallies and informative programs on television and radio, calling for people to behave in a civilized way, and warning against looting and mass disorder immediately upon the evacuation of the settlements.

Whereas in Israel the opponents of the disengagement had been trying to create the impression that it is possible to halt the process, in recent months, Palestinian workers employed in the settlements and inhabitants who live nearby were reporting on the quiet dismantling and emptying of greenhouses and homes, and on settlers who are selling cars, tractors and household goods to inhabitants of the Muasi (agricultural area where the Gush Katif settlements were built). The validity of the work permits the workers received in June was until August 15 - even though two weeks earlier, the permits issued were valid until September 22. This is another sign that the Israeli government is serious in its intentions.

The inhabitants of Muasi have been informed recently that the transit point between Muasi and Khan Yunis will be closed soon, and in its stead another one, between Muasi and the Tel Abu Sultan neighborhood in Rafah, will be opened. In other words, during the process of evacuating the inhabitants of Gush Katif and demolishing houses in the settlements, the Palestinians will be permitted to use only the more distant transit points.

Hard to believe

Yet, despite all the clear signs that the disengagement is really coming, Yusuf, an inhabitant of Rafah, sums up his impression of his fellow Palestinians this way: They are finding it hard to believe. For so long, especially during the past five years, the Jewish settlements and the army's security arrangements have dictated prohibitions and restrictions that became harsher and harsher, and turned into an integral part of people's lives. The evacuation of 8,000 Jewish settlers will indeed make the lives of 1.3 million Palestinians considerably easier, but it is still hard to imagine this. Perhaps this is why people need someone from above to organize the festivities for them .

First of all, life in areas near the settlements and the dozens of military positions has become very dangerous during the past five years: The rules of engagement were very permissive, and every shepherd or child who wanted to move any distance from his home was endangering his life at the hands of IDF soldiers; not only infiltrators who wanted to carry out a terror attack at a settlement or against a military position were at risk. The evacuation will restore freedom of movement to people, at the most personal and immediate level.

Secondly, the evacuation of the settlements will restore to the Palestinians half of their seashore. During the past five years, the strip of beach from Dir al-Balah in the middle of the Gaza Strip to Rafah in the south and the beach at Beit Lahia in the north have been closed to the Palestinians. In Rafah, Siafa, Khan Yunis and Dir al-Balah, people have been living 300 to 500 meters from the sea and from the most beautiful beaches in the Gaza Strip, but for the past five years the IDF has not allowed them access, in order to protect the settlers. The mother of 6-year-old Mohammed of the Shabura refugee camp in Rafah is now trying to imagine how her son will react to the first caress of the waves.

Also during these past years, Muasi (where several thousand people live), Siafa and the Ma'aniya neighborhood of Dir al-Balah were turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape. Entering and exiting these places was permitted for limited periods daily, only to inhabitants, but not to all of them. From time to time people of certain ages were not allowed to return to their homes - or they could not leave them without special permits, which were given sparingly. The evacuation of the settlements will restore to these people freedom of movement, freedom to entertain guests in their homes, freedom to go out to work, buy food products, take agricultural produce to the market, go to clinics and schools and so on - without waiting for IDF permits or for soldiers who will open the gates.

The evacuation will also ensure normal movement between the parts of the Gaza Strip, which in recent years the IDF has often segmented, preventing travel between the northern and southern parts for weeks or even months on end. Extensive agricultural lands, including the Muasi region, have been ruined - whether directly by the uprooting of the vegetation (including vineyards and groves) or because there was no possibility of marketing the produce grown there.

Abu Ibrahim is the owner of groves in Muasi. He was not allowed to get to his groves, because in his identity card it says that he is a resident of Khan Yunis (and not of Muasi, which is half a kilometer away). During the past years his guavas fell, overripe, and covered the ground until they rotted and fermented. He says that he still does not know whether he will be able to recover from the economic and psychological crisis he has suffered for the past several years, but the knowledge that soon he will be able to move between his grove and his home in Khan Yunis makes him happy.

Abu Ziad, from Siafa, is expecting that dozes of families who left their homes over the past five years because they could not stand the restrictions on movement, will return to them. Nevertheless, he says he is worried about the future: If the disengagement is not accompanied by a political process and political coordination between Israel and the Palestinians, the day is not far away when armed men will come and again fire Qassams from the area - and then no one will prevent the IDF from coming back into the Gaza Strip, from bombarding it with artillery or bombing it from the air.

Meanwhile, Yusuf from Rafah, who says he is worried about a disintegration of the internal Palestinian situation because of tensions between Fatah and Hamas, and among various security organizations - is planning his first picnic with his wife on the beach in five years.n

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