Column: Dispatches From the Edge: Dinner With Condi and the Fate of Gaza By Conn Hallinan

Friday December 09, 2005

There is a moment in Jeffery Goldberg’s New Yorker profile of Brent Scowcroft, George Bush Senior’s former national security advisor, when the current administration’s combination of arrogance and cluelessness crystallize. Over dinner, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice tells Scowcroft that the “good news” from the Middle East is that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pulling out of Gaza, the first step toward resolving the issue of a Palestinian state.  

According to Scowcroft, he replied, “That’s terrible news. For Sharon this is not the first move, this is the last move.” 

Rice bristled and, says Scowcroft, “We had a terrible fight on that.” 

It is difficult to find oneself on common ground with a man like Scowcroft, a protégé of serial killer extraordinaire Henry Kissinger. He was part of the team that green-lighted Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, which, according to the United Nations, killed over 200,000 people. There is a cold whiff of death about the man. 

But he gets Ariel Sharon. 

Maybe it is because, like Sharon, he is an ex-general, and understands the centrality of deception in the business of war. And the key to understanding the Israeli prime minister, says Knesset member Yossi Sarid, is to remember, “Sharon is a deceiver.” 

A close—and chilling—examination of the Gaza Disengagement Plan by Sara Roy in the London Review of Books makes that abundantly clear. “Whatever else it claims to be,” writes Roy, “the Gaza Disengagement plan is, at heart, an instrument of Israel’s continued annexation of West Bank land and the physical integration of that land into Israel.” 

Roy, a Harvard economist, has worked in Gaza since 1985 and is the author of numerous books and studies.  

Almost three decades of occupation have turned Gaza into one of the poorest and most desperate regions in the world. Unemployment is upwards of 70 percent, and somewhere between 65 percent and 75 percent of its residents live under the poverty line. Places like the Jabalya refugee camp have three times the density per square mile of Manhattan.  

Gaza has long been a poor place, but it has become measurably worse in the last five years. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate has more than doubled since 2000. A Harvard study projects that, by 2010, Gaza will need to create 250,000 jobs a year just to keep pace with its population growth.  

The World Food Program found that 42 percent of Gazins are “food insecure,” defined as “lack [ing] access to safe and nutritious food essential for normal growth and development.” An additional 30 percent are “food vulnerable.” Some 13.2 of Gaza’s children suffer from “body wasting,” and one in five have moderate anemia. 

The Disengagement Plan will make all of this worse, because a major goal, according to the plan, is “to reduce the number of Palestinian workers entering Israel to the point it ceases completely.” 

Keep in mind that Israel began integrating Gaza and the West Bank into its economy right after the 1967 war. Both area became pools of low wage, skilled labor for everything from construction to agriculture.  

“Decades of expropriation and deinstitutionalization had long ago robbed Palestine of its potential for development, ensuring that no viable economic (or political) structure could emerge,” says Roy. 

Added to that is the destruction waged by the occupation forces in Gaza and the territories. According to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, “The Occupied Palestinian Territory has lost at least one fifth of its economic base over the last four years as a consequence of war and occupation.”  

When Rice told Scowcroft that the Gaza disengagement was the first step in the creation of a Palestinian state, she was either being disingenuous or hadn’t bothered to read the Plan. “It is clear that in the West Bank,” the document reads, “there are areas which will be part of the state of Israel, including major Israeli population centers, cities, towns and villages, security areas and other places of special interest to Israel.” 

That plan is already well underway. The “security” wall has already isolated 242,000 Palestinians (10 percent of the population) in a closed military zone between Israel’s border and the western side of the wall. Another 12 percent are separated from their lands by settlements or settlement roads. When the 425-mile wall is completed, Palestinians will have access to 54 percent of the West Bank. 

Within the wall, the network of settler roads and tunnels that give freedom of passage to 400,000 settlers, effectively imprison three million Palestinians.  

According to former Knesset member and Gush Shalom leader Uri Avnery, “Sharon does not make a secret of his real intentions: to annex to Israel 58 percent of the West Bank.” Avnery adds that since no Palestinian leader would be a partner to such a “solution,” Sharon plans to unilaterally implement all this, “backed by force, without any dialogue with the Palestinians.” 

The roadblocks, land seizures, and daily humiliations Palestinians go through are all part of a design. Its aim is to make life so unbearable for the Palestinians that they will leave, in what Sharon’s former tourism minister, Benny Elon, calls a “voluntary transfer.”  

“Transfer isn’t necessarily a dramatic moment, with buses and trucks loaded with people,” human rights activist Gadi Algazi told the daily Ha’aretz, but a continuing “strangulation under closures and sieges that prevent people from getting to work or school, receiving medical services, and from allowing the passages of water trucks and ambulances, which send the Palestinians back to the age of the donkey and the cart.”  

Israelis pay a heavy price for the settlements as well. According to Peace Now, the occupation costs $1.4 billion a year. “The settlements,” says Amir Peretz, the new leader of the Labor Party, “have emptied out the budgets of education and welfare of the social periphery and increased the social gap in Israel.” 

Since 1988, child poverty in Israel has increased 50 percent, according to the government’s National Insurance Institute. One third of Israeli children live below the poverty line, and Israel has the dubious distinction of having the second largest gap between rich and poor in the developed world (the U.S. is number one). It also has the highest poverty rate among 65 year olds in the Western world. 

Henry Siegman, former executive head of the American Jewish Congress, points out that the Israelis have a partner if they want one. According to a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey, the majority of Palestinians want a ceasefire, the militias disarmed, and they place “improving their lives” over “ending the occupation.” 

Yet for the most part, the gates to Gaza remain locked. The Israeli government is planning to add 6,500 homes to West Bank settlements, and while it did move 8,500 settlers out of Gaza, it also built accommodations for 30,000 more in the West Bank. The roads and the wall devour Palestinian lands, and targeted assassinations and raids continue. All of this, argues Siegman, invites a terrible retribution. 

“Measures that collectively punish the Palestinian public and undermine efforts to revive Gaza, if not reversed, will lead Palestinians to the conclusion that their optimism was misplaced,” he writes. “If that should happen, no one should be surprised if the intifada returns with unprecedented fury.”