As the Israeli government prepares to implement Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to "disengage" from the Gaza Strip, political debate in Israel focuses on the fate of the 6,000 Jewish settlers slated for evacuation. Yet for the 1.4 million Palestinians who live in Gaza, the Israeli occupation will continue, albeit in a different form, even if Israeli troops largely pull back from the territory.
Under Sharon's proposal, Israel plans to remove its troops from the Gaza Strip and "redeploy" them to bases just across the border. According to that plan, the goal of disengagement is to "dispel the claims regarding Israel's responsibility for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip."
But international law does not permit Israel to hold the keys to Palestinian economic development while it shirks its responsibilities as an occupying power to provide for the Palestinians' welfare. Under the Sharon plan, Israeli forces will continue to surround Gaza on land, patrol its coastline and its skies. That military cordon will allow Israel to continue to control the flow of all goods and people into and out of the territory. Gaza will remain dependent on Israel for water, sewerage, electricity, telephone access, trade and currency, which will remain the Israeli shekel.
Even before the uprising began in 2000, movement in and out of the Gaza Strip was nearly impossible except for an ever-shrinking number of Palestinian workers. Today, export crops rot at checkpoints while much-needed imports, including medicine and fuel, are regularly cut off for days or weeks at a time. As long as Israel holds the veto over Gazans' ability to support themselves economically, it will continue to bear an occupying power's responsibility to ensure their welfare. If Israel continues to impose such restrictions, Gaza's economic viability will remain tenuous.
The international community for many years has helped to sustain Gaza's Palestinian population through economic aid. But that large-scale assistance does not relieve Israel of its legal obligation to provide for the welfare of Palestinians in Gaza as long as it retains effective control over the territory.
Israel also plans to reserve the right to launch incursions into Gaza. What that could entail was illustrated in September after Palestinian militants fired Qassam rockets across the border, killing two Israeli civilians in Sderot. Israeli forces responded with a 17-day military operation that killed 110 Palestinians. Just hours after Israeli forces pulled out of the Jabaliya refugee camp, Human Rights Watch visited a neighborhood that the Israeli military had comprehensively leveled during the incursion, rendering hundreds of Palestinians homeless.
To the extent that Israel grants them the authority and ability, Palestinian security forces have a duty to protect civilians within Gaza and to prevent indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel civilians. Israel's "disengagement" provides a new opportunity for these forces to exercise these duties responsibly. Permitting or launching deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians is flatly prohibited by international law. But even if Palestinian security forces fail in those duties, the wholesale demolition of many homes in response amounts to the collective punishment of civilians, which also violates international law and hardly stems the cycle of reprisals.
Meanwhile, Sharon's disengagement plan explicitly envisions further mass demolition of homes to expand a "buffer zone" on the Gaza-Egypt border. Since 2000, Israeli forces have illegally expelled 16,000 Palestinians from the border area and razed 1,600 homes. The army has recommended additional demolitions that would render tens of thousands more Palestinians homeless and level one-third of the Rafah refugee camp, an area more than twice as densely populated as Manhattan.
As a report that Human Rights Watch released last week demonstrates, Israel's arguments about the need to destroy homes as a way of dealing with smuggling tunnels from Egypt are not credible. With tunnel-detecting technology such as that already used in the Korean demilitarized zone and along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Israeli military could destroy the tunnels from behind its 8-meter-high security wall along the border, obviating the need for destructive incursions into the camp. Instead, the buffer zone seems aimed at ensuring long-term control of Gaza after disengagement.
Darryl Li and Lance Lattig, a researcher and an editor at Human Rights Watch, last week released a report on home demolitions in Gaza.