Personal Voices: The Occupation is Not Over

In the breezy, far northwestern corner of the Gaza Strip, where the Mediterranean collides with golden sands and an in-sea barrier marking the border with Israel, there is a small Palestinian village.

Al-Siyafa, according to the residents of this area, was once a paradise with lush strawberry patches as far as the eye could see, guava and avocado trees that were the envy of every farmer, and citrus orchards that masked the salty coast humidity.

Now, it is a scorched, barren landscape that accommodates little more than the occasional wildflower.

For days, we have been bombarded with images of weeping settlers on our television stations. How hard it must be, we are told, for these settlers to give up the only homes many of them have ever known. How cruel and inhumane that they are being "forcefully evicted," children clutching dolls and mothers sobbing by their side.

But we do not hear of the village of al-Siyafa, sandwiched between the settlements of Dugit and Eli Sinai, their red-roofed, sea-front villas visible in the distance, safely set apart from their neighboring Palestinian village with barbed wire and acres of cleared earth.

It is for their sake, for their safety and pleasure, that this once flourishing land was cleared of its trees, and the Palestinians of their livelihoods.

In their name, millions of Palestinians' lives have been crippled, roads torn apart and sealed off, homes destroyed and Palestinians made homeless, hundreds of innocent lives lost, and acres of fertile farmland razed and annexed.

We do not hear of Um Ahmed al-Ghul, who lost her only son to the sniper tower that once overlooked this village, as he was picking mint leaves from their small garden.

Al-Siyafa has been turned into an open-air prison in recent years, sealed off from the rest of Gaza with barbed-wire fences, an Israeli sniper tower, tanks, and a complicated and arbitary permit-entry system for residents, all in the name of security for the settlements.

Residents have no access to health care inside their fenced-in village, no electricity, and no schools. In order to reach these facilities, they must pass through an Israel-imposed checkpoint, which opens at particular hours of the day, and often not at all.

But soon, the settlers will be gone. The red-roofs, the sniper towers, and the fences will gradually disappear. Gaza, we are told, will finally have the opportunity to thrive and prosper as an independent and free territory.

Or will it?

Just because the visible markers of occupation will be gone, it does not mean the occupation itself will end. Instead of controlling our lives from within, Israel will control our lives from without in a convenient, secure manner.

That is, after all, what disengagement was about: tactical maneuvering; isolating the Gaza Strip that Rabin hoped to wake up one morning and find swallowed by the sea; rendering a contiguous Palestinian state impossible and stopping a negotiated peace dead in its tracks.

In a few weeks, the Israeli army will simply be redeploying to outside of the Gaza border, taking control of Gaza's Palestinians like a prison warden in charge of his inmates.

Israel will also maintain its troop presence along the Philedelphi corridor in Rafah, where some 20,000 Palestinian lost their homes in a systemic policy of demolition to make way for this border buffer zone. Where young children, like Iman al-Hims and Noran Deeb, lost their lives to an indiscriminate Israeli sniper.

Even the latest round of talks on the status of the Rafah crossing -- Gaza's only route to the outside world -- have been inconclusive.

Likewise, Palestinians will be unable to move freely to and from the West Bank. And without such a territorial link, a viable Palestinian economy, or state, is impossible.

Gazans' freedom of movement will continue, then, to be ultimately and arbitrarily controlled by the Israeli government.

But the story does not end there.

Two years ago, I wrote a long piece about al-Siyafa. In it were stern warnings from human rights experts that the neglected village was a model for what was to come in the West Bank. Al-Siyafa, and the Gaza Strip in it entirety for that matter, was a testing ground for Israel -- rather than getting your hands dirty, isolate Palestinian villages in the name of "security."

Now, weeks away from the end of disengagement, and two months away from the completion of the wall in the West Bank, we are closer to that reality than ever before.

The Wall, whose route was ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice last July, is annexing some 52% of Palestinian land, much of it slated for settlement expansion for the 420, 000-some Israeli settlers who continue to reside there illegally.

Once completed, experts warn that unemployment and poverty will surge in the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza.

The barrier will also complete the isolation of East Jerusalem, the Palestinian capital, from 3.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, like those in al-Siyafa, will be forced to endure the uncertainty of checkpoints on a daily basis to attend school or work or receive medical care.

Last week, I was interviewed by several radio stations on my thoughts on the withdrawal. Over and over I was asked, as a Palestinian mother and journalist, was I hopeful about what was to come? The optimist -- and mother in me -- prompted me to say, "One must always be hopeful even in the face of fences and walls."

But I fear the reality may be otherwise.

My parents grew up with Israeli foot soldiers patrolling their streets and neighborhoods, barging into their homes, detaining and beating young boys arbitrarily in the middle of the night; but they could travel freely to the West Bank, Jerusalem, and even Israel.

I grew up with soldiers cocooned in tanks and Apache helicopters that wreaked havoc upon refugee camps and residential neighborhoods; in armored bulldozers that turned my grandfather's farm into a wasteland; in sniper towers bellowing orders through loudspeakers, controlling my every move in and out of Gaza.

I do not want my son growing up in another phase of this occupation; I do not want him to have to describe how his life and his childhood was hijacked by an occupier he could not see.

Rather, I want him to grow up with the freedom to move; with freedom from fear; and ultimately, with the freedom to live.


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