Palestinians observed Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with a mix of contradictory emotions. Paramount, perhaps, was relief. Nearly 9,000 Israeli settlers, who had occupied a third of the land there while confining 1. 3 million Palestinians to the rest, were finally gone.
But, as images of anguished settler families torn from their homes played across televisions the world over, some felt an odd sense of compassion as well. As one Palestinian friend remarked to me, “We, above all, understand the pain of exile and homelessness.” She was referring not only to Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip — where nearly 5,000 homes have been partially or fully destroyed in the last five years alone (according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics), rendering about 20,000 Palestinians homeless — but also to the events of 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians fled in fear or were forced into exile by the new Jewish state.
Unlike Israeli settlers, Palestinians were evicted from their own homes and homeland, not from lands illegally seized and settled by their government. Nor are Palestinians treated with kid gloves by the Israeli military. Most receive but minutes notice before demolitions, any resistance is met with lethal force; a few have been buried in the rubble of their own homes. Palestinians have not received compensation for their losses, while Jewish settlers are receiving new homes and $200,000 to $500,000 per family. Palestinian suffering has not been as minutely chronicled by the world’s media as has that of Jewish settlers.
Most important, the long-term trend of Palestinian dispossession has not been reversed by Gaza disengagement. Earlier this year, Israel announced plans to destroy 88 Palestinian homes in Silwan, just outside the walls of Old Jerusalem, to make way for a Jewish archeological park. This week, Israel unveiled plans for a new Jewish residential development in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem, and confirmed that it had ordered new seizures of Palestinian private and public lands in the West Bank. The purpose of the land seizures is to extend Israel’s separation barrier around a large Jewish settlement, Maaleh Adumim, and link it to Israel. Doing so would virtually bisect the West Bank, and make a viable Palestinian state there impossible. Haim Ramon, Israeli cabinet minister, has acknowledged that the route of the barrier is partially drawn to ensure the “Jewish character” of Jerusalem.
Disengagement has been touted as a bold step for peace. Yet it is increasingly apparent that Gaza withdrawal is but one side of a two-faced strategy. The other side is increasing Jewish settlement of the West Bank, including Jerusalem. There, 430,000 Jewish settlers live in colonies built on land seized from Palestinians — and they are expanding every day. In October 2004, Dov Weisglass, adviser and confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, admitted in an interview published in Ha’aretz that Gaza disengagement was a way to avoid peace negotiations with Palestinians, consolidate control over the West Bank and foil the creation of a Palestinian state.
As American citizens, we cannot afford to be indifferent. Israel is the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid and frequently benefits from our diplomatic protection. Of 80 U.S. vetoes in the Security Council since the birth of the United Nations, 39 have been for Israel. Now, Israeli diplomats are asking for $2.2 billion of our tax dollars to help fund the withdrawal of the Gaza settlements, costs that never would have been incurred if Israel had respected international law in the first place. Our one-sided support of Israel is a key reason for anger against us in the world community.
The Israeli design for permanent colonization of lands reserved by the international community for a Palestinian state is a formula for decades of conflict and violence. Fostering a genuine Middle East peace — one based on justice and equal rights for Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — would immensely advance our national interests. If we hope to preserve any possibility of such a peace, our first step must be demanding — and enforcing — a strict ban on Israel’s ruinous settlement activities, which inflict such severe human and material costs on all.
GEORGE E. BISHARAT is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He writes frequently about law and politics in the Middle East.