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The Penal Colonies
Tanya Reinhart, Israel
July 3, 2002
The Gaza strip is a perfect realization of the Israeli vision of
"separation". Surrounded with electric fences and army posts, completely
sealed off from the outside world, Gaza has become a huge prison. About one third of its land was confiscated for the 7,000 Israeli settlers living there
(and their defense array), while over a million Palestinians are crowded in
the remaining areas of the prison. With no work or sources of income, about
80% of its residents depend, for their living, on UNRWA, or contributions
from Arab states and charity organizations. Now Israel is considering the
imprisonment there of families of suicide bombers from the West Bank1.
As a senior Israeli analyst stated, Gaza can now serve as "the penal
colony" of Israel; its "devils island, Alcatraz". (Nahum Barnea, Yediot
Aharonot June 21, 2002)
This is the future that Sharon and the Israeli army designate for the West Bank as well. While the external fence is presently being built, Israel's
current military operation is set to be the final step in the implementation the IDF plans for reestablishing full military rule (which was abolished in large parts of the West Bank during the Oslo process). Though Israel describes everything it does as a spontaneous reaction to terror, the plan was fully spelled out in the Israeli media already back in March 2001, soon after Sharon entered office. Alex Fishman, military and strategic analyst of Yediot Aharonot, explained at the time that since Oslo, "the IDF regarded the occupied territories as if they were one territorial cell", and this placed some constraints on the IDF and enabled a certain amount of freedom for the PA and the Palestinian population. The new plan is a return to the concept of the military administration during the pre-Oslo years: the occupied territories will be divided into tens of isolated "territorial cells", each of which will be assigned a special military force, "and the local commander will have freedom to use his discretion" as to when and who to shoot. (Yediot Ahronot weekend
supplement, March 9.2001)
The first stage of this plan, the destruction of the institutions of the
Palestinian Authority, was completed in the previous 'Operation Defensive
Shield' in April of this year. In practice, from that time on, the towns
and villages of the West Bank have been completely sealed. Even exit by
foot, which was possible up to that point, became blocked, and movement
between the "territorial cells" now requires formal permits from the
Israeli military authorities. Soldiers and snipers prevent any "unauthorized" walking to agricultural fields, to places of work and study, or for medical treatment.
However, unlike the pre-Oslo period of Israeli military rule, the army makes it clear that there is no intention to construct any civil administration
that will take care of the basic daily needs of the two million Palestinians, such as food supplies, health services, garbage and sewage. For these tasks, some form of a Palestinian Authority will be maintained, though in practice it will not be allowed to function.
As a 'military source' told Ha'aretz, "Internal conclusions of the security
echelons, following operation 'Defensive Shield', assessed that the
functioning of the civil branches of the Palestinian Authority had reached
an unprecedented nadir, mainly due to the destruction the IDF operation
left behind in Ramallah (including the systematic destruction of computers
and databases) . . . Combined with the severe restrictions on movement, the
Palestinian population is becoming, as the military source defined it,
'poor, dependent, unemployed, rather hungry, and extreme'. . . . The financial
reserves of the Palestinian authority are reaching the bottom. . . . In a
future not far off, the majority of Palestinians will only be able to maintain a reasonable life through the help of international aid." (Ha'aretz Hebrew edition, June 23, 2002, Amos Har'el). Thus, the West Bank is being driven to the level of poverty of the Gaza strip.
Nevertheless, at the same time that Israel deprives the Palestinians of
their means of income, it also makes a substantial effort to diminish or
block international aid, under the pretext that the aid is used to support
terrorists or their families. At the outset of its new 'operation', Israel
"decided to stop the flow of food aid and medicine from Iran and Iraq to
Palestinians in the territories" (Ha'aretz, June 24, 2002, Amos Har'el).
Iranian and Iraqi aid is an easy target for Israel, as these countries
belong to the "Axis of Evil". However, Israel started launching a more
ambitious campaign: The EU—the largest PA donor—is under constant
pressure from Israel to cut its aid, which is used, inter alia to pay the
salaries of teachers and health workers. The tactics are always the same:
Israel provides some documents presumably linking the PA to terror. Any aid
to the PA is, therefore, aid to terror2.
UNRWA's aid is the next target. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for
Palestinians in the Near East (UNRWA) has become a major source of food for Palestinians in the besieged territories. Its food supplies are now
delivered not only to the refugee camps, but also in towns and villages.
The amount of food UNRWA supplies has increased fourfold in two years3.
Recently, "Israel has begun a campaign in the United States and the United
Nations to urge a reconsideration of the way the UN Relief and Works
Agency, which runs the Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, operates. Israel charges that UNRWA workers simply ignored the fact that Palestinian organizations were turning the camps into terrorist bases and it is demanding the agency start reporting all military or terrorist
actions within the camps to the UN. . . . Meanwhile, Jewish and pro-Israeli
lobbyists in the U.S. are waging a parallel campaign . . . American Jewish
lobbyists are basing their efforts on the fact that the U.S. currently
contributes some 30 percent of UNRWA's $400 million a year budget, and is
therefore in a position to influence the agency: A congressional refusal to
approve UNRWA's funding could seriously disrupt its operations. (Ha'aretz,
June 29, 2002, Nathan Guttman) The campaign is not yet demanding cutting
UNRWA's aid and presence altogether, but raising the impossible demand that
UNRWA should serve as an active force in "the war against terror"
("reporting military or terrorist actions" is the first step towards such
Since September 11, Sharon has been constructing an analogy between the occupied territories and Afghanistan (with the PA as Al Qaeda). He keeps
declaring that the solution to Palestinian terror, and the required 'reforms', should be along the lines set in Afghanistan. The analogy is frighteningly revealing: As it established the 'reforms' in Afghanistan, the US forced starvation upon millions of people. This is how Noam Chomsky described it: "On Sept. 16, the New York Times reported that 'Washington has also demanded [from Pakistan] a cutoff of fuel supplies . . . and the
elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other
supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population.' Astonishingly, that report
elicited no detectable reaction in the West, a grim reminder of the nature
of the Western civilization that leaders and elite commentators claim to
uphold. In the following days, those demands were implemented. . . . 'The
country was on a lifeline,' one evacuated aid worker reports, 'and we just
cut the line' (NY times Magazine, September 30). According to the world's
leading newspaper, then, Washington demanded that Pakistan ensures the
death of enormous numbers of Afghans, millions of them already on the brink of starvation, by cutting off the limited sustenance that was keeping them alive." (Interview with Michael Albert, reprinted in Noam Chomsky, 911,
Seven Stories, 2002). Arundhati Roy, summarized this at the time: "Witness
the infinite justice of the new century. Civilians starving to death while
they're waiting to be killed" (Guardian, Sept. 29).
The new stage of Israel's 'separation' can no longer be compared to the
Apartheid of South Africa. As Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa's Minister of
Water Affairs, said in an Interview with Al Ahram Weekly, "the South
African apartheid regime never engaged in the sort of repression Israel is
inflicting on the Palestinians" (Issue of March 28 April 3, 2002). We are
witnessing the daily invisible killing of the sick and wounded being deprived of medical care, the weak who cannot survive in the new poverty conditions, and those who are bound to reach starvation.
Nevertheless, the public debate in Israel revolves around questions of
efficiency: Is it possible to stop terror with such methods. Let us suppose
even that it is. Is it allowed? Is this what we (Israelis) want to be?
One people stole the 'Lamb of its poor neighbor'5: Gaza and the West Bank are 22% of the land of Israel-Palestine, where the Palestinians lived in the past. On this small piece of land, three million people live, with hopes,
needs and dreams, just like ours. Since Oslo, they have been lured with
promises that we are about to evacuate the settlements and give them back
their land, at the very same time that we have been imprisoning them in
Gaza, stealing more of their land in the West Bank, and leaving them no
hope whatsoever. The Palestinian people are fighting for their freedom. The
crimes of Palestinian terror do not remove our culpability for our own
Before Oslo, as well, there was a wave of horrible terror attacks. But at
that time, after each such attack, the call was heard: get out of the
territories! Then it was still understood that when you leave people no
hope, there is no way to stop the madness of suicide bombing. It is not too
late to get out of the territories.
1 In its meeting on Friday, June 21, 2002, the Israeli cabinet "decided
in principle in favor both of the expulsion of families of suicide strikers
from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. . . . The implementation of this
expulsion policy depends upon the outcome of a legal review." ('IDF set to
expel bombers' families' By Aluf Benn, Amos Harel and Gideon Alon, Ha'aretz
June 23, 2002)
2 Here is one example of the pressure on the EU:
"The documents seized from PA offices in recent months, some of
which were included in the document compiled by minister without portfolio
Dan Naveh following Operation Defensive Shield, were presented last week to
the EC delegation in Israel and representatives of the International
Monetary Fund at a meeting with IDF intelligence officers. Naveh claims the
documents prove European financial aid has been used to finance terrorism
and incitement, and has also found its way into the pockets of senior PA
The head of the EC's delegation to Israel, Giancarlo Chevallard,
told Ha'aretz that at the meeting, the delegation saw evidence that Arafat
is financing terrorism, but added Israel had not provided evidence that
European financial aid which is designated to pay the salaries of PA
employees is being used to finance terrorist attacks. Another senior
delegation official said he was extremely skeptical Israel had evidence to
prove European aid is being used by the PA to finance terrorism. . . .
Meanwhile, in the shadow of the Israeli accusations, the European
Parliament's budgetary committee last week delayed the transfer of 18.7
million euros in financial aid to the PA until the EC reports how the money
is to be distributed. . . . " (Ha'aretz, June 6, 2002, Yair Ettinger)
This specific frozen amount was released in the meanwhile. However Israel's
3 Amos Har'el, 'The IDF neutralizes the Palestinian Authority, and
humanitarian organizations try to replace it', Ha'aretz Hebrew edition,
June 23, 2002. (Quoted before)
4 The campaign against UNRWA started earlier: "In letters written to
Annan in May, Republican U.S. Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic U.S.
Representative Tom Lantos accused the U.N. agency of allowing and promoting terrorist activity in the camps. Specter said UNRWA schools promoted anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiments and Lantos said the agency allowed terrorists to organize in the camps." (Inter Press Service, June 24, 2002)
5 Bible, Samuel II, 12:11: "12:1The LORD sent Natan to David. He came to
him, and said to him, "There were two men in one city; the one rich, and
the other poor. 12:2The rich man had very many flocks and herds, 12:3but
the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb, which he had bought
and raised. It grew up together with him, and with his children. It ate of
his own food, drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was to him
like a daughter. 12:4A traveler came to the rich man, and he spared to take
of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man who
had come to him, but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man
who had come to him."
Tanya Reinhart is a professor at Tel Aviv University and the University of Utrecht. She is author of Israel/Palestine: How to End the 1948 War.
This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Yediot Aharonot, June 30, 2002.