Monday, August 29, 2005

Celebration and Misgivings: Gazans Watch Settlements Emptied

Residents of the Kfar Darom settlement and their outside supporters demonstrate against their impending evacuation

Israeli troops kept the roads closed throughout Gaza

Mohammed compiled this report on the settler evacuation and its immediate aftermath from northern Gaza supplemented by a number of phone interviews. [more pictures at]

"I’m happy that I won't see settlers after today"

"I'm happy that I won't see settlers after today," exclaimed Nehad Basher. The fourteen-year-old stood on the roof of his family's four-story house in Deir Al Balah City, and from that vantage point he could see a long line of trucks and moving vans entering and leaving the soon-to-be-emptied Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom.

On Monday, August 15, the Israeli Army formally served eviction notices on the roughly 8500 Israeli settlers living in the Gaza Strip. By the time this article is published, the 48-hour grace period for voluntary departures will have expired and, starting just after midnight on August 17, the Israeli authorities will evacuate the remaining settlers by force if necessary.

While many of the settlers, especially secular Jews, have already left or are simply awaiting the arrival of moving vans, roughly half the settlers, many of them ultra-Orthodox Jews convinced it is their religious duty to stay, are completely opposed to the Gaza withdrawal (supported by a majority of Israeli citizens) and have vowed to leave only if carried out bodily. Complicating the situation are an estimated 5000 anti-disengagement supporters, who have been quietly slipping into the Gaza settlements over the last few weeks to swell the ranks of the anti-disengagement protesters. Although the borders of Gaza were officially sealed over the weekend to keep anti-disengagement forces out, many of the 50,000 hand picked, specially trained Israeli police and army personnel are guarding the borders to enforce the closure. The authorities serving eviction notices were, in some settlements, met by human chains of protesters and scuffles and some arrests ensued.

The Orange Flag of Defiance

Now, as Nehad Basher and his father watch from their rooftop, the anti-disengagement "command center" in Kfar Darom seems to be a tent, topped by an orange flag, roughly in the center of town. Many of the red-tile-roofed houses also fly the orange flag, the color adopted by the anti-withdrawal faction.

I spoke on the phone to Ruti Liberman, spokeswoman of a large anti-disengagement group, Motset Yesha. She remembered our conversation last week, indeed, recognized my voice, and was glad to give an update from Neve Dakalim, the largest Israeli settlement, hours before evacuation orders would be enforced. Many of the residents, she said, simply will not leave. "One of my neighbors is watering the lawn outside her house. She isn't going anywhere voluntarily," she explained. Just how smoothly the forced removals will work out remains to be seen.

Still, given the relative size of the opposed forces, it seems clear that in a matter of weeks, at most, Kfar Darom will be emptied.. Yahya Basher, Nehad's father, can't hide his happiness. "It's finally over—all the torture we endured at the hands of those settlers. The day they all leave has to be a festival for me!" Over the years, his house has been shot at, tear gas canisters have landed inside; his wife and children have been beaten while in their own orange and olive groves. His face grew grave as he explained how three years ago, his family's 27 donums of planted land were confiscated outright by the Israeli Army to "improve the security" of the Kfar Darom settlement. Unlike the settlers who will receive substantial financial compensation, Palestinians whose land was expropriated or houses destroyed received nothing. Now, when the Israeli withdrawal is completed, the Basher family are hoping to reclaim and replant their land.

In the same Deir Al Balah neighborhood, not far from the Basher home, an older woman wearing a married woman's white mendeel (headscarf) looked through a broken window in a wall so riddled with bullet-holes that portions actually resemble a sieve. It's hard to find a good translation for the joyful, piercing shrilling Palestinian women sometimes utter, a kind of victory cry nonetheless edged with angry lament. Umm-Mohammed was born in Askelan, in what is now Israel. Her words, perhaps, sound vengeful: "I cannot stop shrilling when I see those settlers being removed by the Israeli army, suffering as they have made us suffer." The words are harsh—but the bullet-holes, literally too many to count, in the wall of her house that faces Kfar Darom tell their own story. Like so many Palestinian civilian homes close to Israeli settlements, the walls are virtual moonscapes of bullet fire, testimony to the polar opposite of a "good neighbor policy." Sometimes Palestinian militants shot first, many times, the residents could figure out no reason at all for the hail of Israeli bullets. Sometimes the bullets came from the armed settlers, sometimes from the Israeli soldiers in sniper towers. Now, for the first time in years, Umm-Mohammed can look through the window of her own house in relative safety.

Planting the Palestinian Flag

The Israeli Army was worried that the withdrawal would be marked by Palestinian attacks, but so far, Hamas and the other militant factions have kept their word to take no hostile action against the departing settlers. Throughout Gaza, however, the children of many neighborhoods near the settlements have been well-nigh unstoppable, dashing over the broiling sand, often barefoot, to plant the Palestinian flag as close as possible to settlement walls. Palestinian Authority soldiers have formed rough perimeters to keep the children at a safe distance, but none of the exuberant children have been hurt.

A New Era?

The Western mainstream media have been hailing the Gaza disengagement as a first step to restarting the stalled peace process, but many Gaza residents are less than completely optimistic. As Baker Abdulraheem from Khan Younis in southern Gaza explained, "What exactly will we get out of this disengagement when the Israelis will control the borders, the airspace, the seacoast, when they will be right outside the borders ready to re-invade whenever they please?" Certainly, despite heavy pressure from the international community, many vital questions of border control are still unanswered. "Of course," Abdulraheem continued, "it isn't a bad thing—if the checkpoints are gone and we can move around Gaza freely; if the farmers get their land back; if the people living near the settlements no longer have to live in fear—of course that's not bad. But does it make us a sovereign nation? A free country—with the Israelis controlling all the borders?"

Guns abandoned—or poised and ready?

Will Gaza finally know peace? Some of the militants, in light of the many truce violations since February, and the ongoing violence in the West Bank, are less than optimistic.

The Sharon government has been unending in its demands that Palestinian President Abbas "crack down on terrorists," while he has preferred, in the main, to negotiate and include the militant factions in the political process. In a recent speech at a celebration at the Gaza City harbor, Abbas declared there should be no separate militant factions: "All Palestinians should be under one Palestinian flag. . . One Authority, one legal force in the Palestinian territories." However, Mahmoud Al Zahar, a Hamas political spokesman, said that while the Israeli occupation continues, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, armed resistance must remain an option. "Asking us to disband the Al Qassam Brigade [the militant wing of Hamas] is a crime," he told reporters at a Gaza City celebration on 12 August. "That force should remain armed and ready to protect Palestinians."

Although the Western mainstream press has been talking of "historic breakthroughs," few Palestinians believe Ariel Sharon has undergone a complete transformation and suddenly become their champion. Disengagement was a unilateral Israeli decision, and the specific details of the withdrawal from Gaza were as difficult for the Palestinian authorities to ascertain as for the settlers. Whether this is really a step toward a lasting, just peace, or another brutally frustrating dead end for ordinary citizens on both sides of the Green Line, only time will tell.

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After the Evacuation I

photos: Mohammed Omer
Palestinian children show the flag and get as close as possible to an empty settlement, while others play in demolished settlement greenhouses. This is the first time in five years they could set foot on their families' farmland which had been appropriated by the settlers.
more pictures at

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After the Evacuation II

photo: Mohammed Omer
The empty settlements are still "closed zones" but thanks to a zoom lens, the Israeli bulldozers at work demolishing houses at Morag can be seen clearly
more photos at

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Disengagement Riddled with Uncertainty

photo: Mohammed Omer

Jedallah Al Haut explains how he bought the machinery from the clothing factory where he used to work in the Gush Katif settlement. He plans to establish his own business in Gaza once the Israeli withdrawal is completed.

Last week, Mohammed did telephone interviews with several Israeli settlers. His article below appeared in Morgenbladet (a Norwegian weekly) on 12 August.

Confusion, misdirection, propaganda, misinformation and outright lying are the hallmarks of life for everyone in the Gaza Strip these days. From the 1.4 million native Palestinians in Gaza through the Israeli soldiers and some 8500 Israeli settlers, from heads of state to the humblest citizen, nobody seems sure exactly how the planned "disengagement" of Israeli forces and the evacuation of the illegal Israeli settlements will play out. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his closest advisors, who probably know the most, are saying little, while public reaction ranges from the mainstream Western media hailing the plan as a "breakthrough for peace" while extremist rabbis publicly call down death and destruction on Sharon and his government.

The one thing that seems to be certain is that Sharon has staked his political future on removing all the Israeli settlers from Gaza, and from four small settlements in the northern West Bank. Such vague plans that have been announced so far involve an orderly and voluntary removal, but Sharon has left little doubt that the Gaza settlements will be emptied, by force if necessary.

The settlers themselves fall into two main groups: roughly half are secular or moderately-observant Jews who were attracted to the Gaza and West Bank settlements by strong financial incentives—low housing costs, tax advantages, free land, business opportunities. The other half of the settlers, however, follow an ultra-Orthodox theology that, they claim, insists they must physically occupy "eretz Israel"—"greater Israel"—and displace all the non-Jewish inhabitants. Their presence in the settlements is God's will, their inescapable religious duty. While their motives are religious, the Israeli government—whatever its leanings any given year—has supported them for political reasons.

The fervor—some would call it fanaticism—of the religious settlers has forced many of their secular neighbors into an awkward double game. Those who announced publicly they would be happy to leave Gaza if given adequate compensation and financial assistance in starting over have been denounced as traitors or worse by the ultra-Orthodox. Many received death threats, were harassed or even beaten. As a result, many secular settlers have secretly approached the Disengagement Management requesting compensation and voluntary evacuation, while in public, to preserve their safety, offering lip-service to the hard-liners. Making matters worse, the Sharon government has been painfully slow in announcing re-settlement plans, and the promised compensation has yet to be paid.

In the West Bank, the Apartheid Wall, denounced as illegal by the International Court, has separated Palestinian towns, villages and cities from each other and from their farms and groves, but the route of the Wall has also left some 70 Israeli settlements, some only isolated outposts, on the Palestinian side. There as in Gaza, some of the secular settlers—who moved to the settlements for financial reasons—would be happy to relocate if offered a good financial deal, but in the highly-charged atmosphere, feel it is much too dangerous to say so publicly.

The religious settlers, led by many outspoken rabbis in and out of the settlements, are opposing the disengagement with everything from media-savvy civil disobedience, to threats of violence, and even medieval curses. For them, the end—doing God's will by staying in the settlements—justifies almost any means, for their enemies are not just Israel's enemies but God's.

Many observant modern Jews had never heard of the Pulsa d'Nora ceremony (the "Scourge of Fire"), let alone seen it, when footage of the medieval rite recently surfaced on Israeli TV. Rooted in Kabalistic lore and ceremonial magic, the ritual calls down the most elaborate and dire curses on its target. A description sounds like a piece of horror fiction: twenty black-robed rabbis enter an underground cave in the middle of the night, light black candles, and keep repeating after the leader the name of the one to be cursed—most recently, "Ariel Sharon." In solemn prayers, the rabbis called upon the Destroying Angel to kill Sharon. Further, if by chance the rabbis misjudged the situation and their intended victim, Sharon, does not deserve death, then, they stipulate, may the Destroying Angel kill the twenty rabbis.

The extremist rabbis make no secret of the fact that the Pulsa d'Nora ritual was done against the late Israeli Prime Minister Itzak Rabin and, they insist, it succeeded brilliantly. In fact, a fanatic young Israeli student, Yeghal Amer, assassinated Rabin, but according to the rabbis, it was really the Destroying Angel at work.

Most Palestinians in Gaza can cite less arcane sources for their hardships. With the disengagement slated to begin mid-August, the checkpoint closures have been frequent. At the closed Abu Holi checkpoint in mid-Gaza, Jedallah Al Huat, 28, explained that he used to work at the Gush Katif settlement. There, starting at age 16, he was employed as a tailor for Israeli settler Toni Bukra, 38. When the impending disengagement was announced, Bukra offered to sell the furnishings of his clothing factory to Al Huat. They settled on a price of 300,000 shekels (roughly US$7000) for the machines, factory equipment, fabric inventory and finished clothing, which Al Huat brought to his home in Gaza where he hopes to establish his own business post-disengagement.

Over the years, Al Huat got to know his employer and explained, "The settlers in Gush Katif have had a comfortable life. More than that, they've grown rich here. The first time I ever met Toni, he was riding an old black bicycle. Now he drives a 2005 model Suzuki. Toni was in a very shaky financial situation before he came to Gaza—I doubt you could call it middle-class. But he's done very well in Gush Katif," Al Huat explained. "And when he leaves, he'll get lots of money for his house, his clothing factory, and for his 13 donums of greenhouses."

A number of sources said Bukra has signed up for voluntary evacuation and compensation, but Bukra himself denied this in a phone interview. So, then, he was being forced to leave Gaza? "I'll have no choice," he replied. "When the army asks me to evacuate, I will move, and I will find a good place to live."

Bukra's pragmatic approach is light-years away from the prevailing sentiments at the nearby Neve Dakalim settlement. There, not just the IOF forces guarding the Israeli enclave, but many of the settlers are armed, and frequently open fire at the civilian neighborhoods of Khan Younis. In January of this year, 15 year old Ahmed Abu Mustapha was walking down the street when he was shot dead by a sniper in the settlement.

One of the Neve Dakalim residents, Rakhel Suashten, 64, started life as an American citizen. She still speaks English with a strong American accent, and has kept her American citizenship as well. She first became a settler in 1968, and moved to Neve Dakalim in 1997. "This is not a disengagement," she declared. "I am going to be thrown out of my own house here in Gaza, forcibly removed from my neighbors and my home. I have not packed my bags. We are all praying it will not happen."

But has she—just in case the worst does happen—signed the papers to get financial compensation? "Of course I didn't sign!" she almost shouted. "I don't want tainted money." Verbally, the elderly woman is as militant as her armed neighbors. "The Palestinians are the ones who should be thrown out," she insisted "That's part of our Bible—don't you know that?" she asked.

Roughly half the settlers share Mrs. Suashten's hard-line position, and they have support from within Israel as well. The Palestinians in Gaza are bracing themselves for a total closure of all the Gaza checkpoints and border crossings during the evacuation, partly to prevent the extremist settlers from bringing in supporters. The Israeli army has already had to stop thousands of anti-disengagement protesters from entering Gaza.

One of the most vocal and visible anti-disengagement groups is Motset Yesha, funded, according to their spokeswoman, Ruti Liberman, by the Israeli government. Improbable as that claim sounds, the anti-disengagement forces are unquestionably well-organized, well-funded, and highly-motivated. Dabi Rosen, spokeswoman of the Gush Katif Regional Council, is never far from her cell phone these days. "I'm on my way back to Gaza from a setter's demonstration against the Prime Minister," she said in a phone interview. Ms. Rosen has often stated her outright hatred of Palestinians. Told that this reporter was writing for Morgenbladet, she interrupted to say, "Oh, we have many good friends and supporters in Norway working against the disengagement." Although I gave her my name, I am still not sure whether she simply wasn't listening, or perhaps thought ethnic Norwegians are often named "Mohammed."

Why, I asked, did Sharon want to evacuate the Gaza settlements? "Sharon has personal problem with corruption," she answered, "but we settlers are the ones paying the highest price. Of course," she added, "the Palestinians will starve when we leave. We have been employing them in our settlements, but once we're gone, this will be nothing but a jail for them."

"Have you ever looked at a map of the world?" I asked her.

"I have one with me," she replied.

"Then how," I asked, "did it happen that Israel is sitting in the middle of 22 Arab nations here in the Middle East?"

"The word 'Palestinian' doesn't exist," she shouted. "There are no Palestinians! All this land was given to us by God! And if you refer me to the world map, I refer you to the Scriptures!"

I resisted the temptation to ask that if Palestinians did not exist, to whom, then, was she speaking? Instead, I asked her opinion of Sharon—if, as she'd often stated, Sharon was doing a grave disservice to Israel and the Jews, then who was Sharon serving in his war against the Palestinians?

I didn't get to finish the question when Rosen shouted, "War against Palestinians? What do you mean? It's the Palestinians who are killing Israeli citizens."

"Ah, then are you telling me that those helicopters we see on TV shelling Palestinian schools and firing on Palestinian civilians, and those bulldozers destroying Palestinian houses—are you telling me those helicopters and bulldozers are Palestinian?"

"The Palestinians should thank us for employing them in our land, instead of fighting against us!" Rosen insisted. "It seems that you don’t know our history, you know nothing of the truth. Please go study our history and you'll see we are the owners of this land." Despite her extreme religious views, Ms. Rosen hasn't completely ignored more mundane considerations. Before we finished our conversation, she pointed out the amount of money being offered the settlers "is not enough to buy a flat in the North of Israel!"

One wonders how the media and the politicians, in and out of Israel, will react to TV footage of women and children being dragged from their homes, or of the Israeli army grappling with Israeli protesters. Repeat anything often enough, convincingly enough—whether one is calling Palestinians "terrorists," or the disengagement plan an abomination in the sight of God—and some people will believe it. Certainly, the extremist settlers and their supporters are stating their case in the strongest possible terms. After even brief talks with a few of them, the dilemma of the secular settlers becomes clearer. People like Jadi Rosen, many of them armed to the teeth, are living next door or down the street. When and how will those willing to evacuate declare themselves? Will they defy their neighbors and the extremist rabbis? What provision—if any—has the Israeli Army made to protect them from their militant neighbors? Is Sharon—as many analysts fear—trying to engineer an evacuation so difficult, so traumatic, so expensive, that the Europeans and Americans will accept his land-grab in the West Bank? These are all vitally important questions for every living soul in Gaza, but so far, no one has answers.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Hope Turns to Horror

Umm-Mohammed, mother of 21-year-old Mohammed Hamdan Qeshta, is overcome by grief. Her son, due to be married today, was killed yesterday afternoon by Israeli gunfire. He was walking down the street near his home in Rafah.

Doctors at Abu Yousuf Al Najjar Hospital in Rafah try in vain to save Qeshta.

Mohammed just emailed this report:

Mrs. Qeshta and her whole large family were busy preparing for the wedding of her 21-year-old son to take place today. Instead, the unarmed young man was shot in the head and shoulder by Israeli bullets Tuesday afternoon as he walked down the street near his home. The head injury was fatal, and according to Dr. Musa, director of Rafah's Al Najjar Hospital, Qeshta was dead on arrival.

Normally, Palestinian weddings are wonderfully festive events, but for the Qeshta family, joy was turned to grief by Israeli gunfire. Instead of a wedding celebration, the family had a funeral and are receiving those who would have been their wedding guests as mourners instead.

Over the weekend, Nidal al Qadi, 25, was standing near his home in another Rafah neighborhood when he was injured by gunfire from the Israeli Army. In both cases, witnesses could cite no reason for the shooting.

Even though the Israeli "disengagement" from Gaza is only days away, Rafah's civilian neighborhoods have been targeted for seemingly random shooting and shelling from the Army watchtowers near the border and around the settlements, as well as from circling Apaches and from some of the more militant settlers. On Monday, the Israeli government sent letters to all the residents of the Gaza settlements saying their presence would become illegal as of 15 August and the Army would evacuate them, by force if need be, starting on the 17th. Some of the extremist settlers have insisted it is their religious duty to resist evacuation at all costs. Many Palestinian civilians fear being caught in the crossfire as some settlers and soldiers both seemed determined to inflict maximum damage during these final pre-disengagement days. While many—possibly most—of the Israeli soldiers and settlers want a smooth, non-violent removal, as the Qeshtas learned yesterday, it takes only one bullet fired by one individual to destroy the hope and joy of two families.

The Rafah Crossing to Egypt has been open but Palestinians between the ages of 16 to 35 are not allowed to cross. This will create special problems for many university students slated to study outside Palestine, not to mention business people, and medical patients. Normal activities for all Palestinians in Gaza have become unusually difficult as all the internal military checkpoints have been limiting their opening hours to very brief periods every day. No one knows exactly what problems the actual disengagement will bring, but everyone in Gaza fears things may soon get worse.

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