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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