Praying with Their Eyes Closed: Reflections on the Disengagement from Gaza
Israel’s disengagement plan is widely hailed by the international community, led by the United States, as a first step toward the final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. This essay is a refutation of that view. After presenting the current situation of Gaza as the result of deliberate Israeli policies of economic integration, deinstitutionalization, and closure, the author demonstrates how provisions of the plan itself preclude the establishment of a viable economy in the Strip. Examining the plan’s implications for the West Bank, the author argues that the occupation, far from ending, will actually be consolidated. She concludes with a look at the disengagement within the context of previous agreements, particularly Oslo—all shaped by Israel’s overwhelming power—and the steadily shrinking possibilities offered to the Palestinians.
When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, we had the Bible in our hand, and they had the land. —Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya.
On 9 June 2005, the last legal hurdle to implementing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza was cleared when the Israeli High Court approved the plan and its removal of all the Jewish settlements there. The settlers, though angered by the decision, were not surprised and vowed to oppose their coerced departure with all means possible. Considerable media attention in the United States has been devoted to the suffering of the Jewish settlers and the personal costs for them of the disengagement. This attention has served to thaw and then humanize the often violent and zealous settler population, and in so doing, to illustrate and amplify the sacrifices Israel is making for peace.
By now a great deal has been written about the disengagement plan by both supporters and opponents. Many of the arguments in favor focus on the redeployment as an opportunity to break the near five-year-old political impasse between Palestinians and Israelis and usher in a new era of stability and peace. In April 2005, for example, President Bush stated that Israel's withdrawal will allow the establishment of "a democratic state in the Gaza" and open the door for democracy in the Middle East. Tom Friedman was more explicit, arguing that "[t]he issue for Palestinians is no longer about how they resist the Israeli occupation in Gaza, but whether they build a decent mini-state there—a Dubai on the Mediterranean. Because if they do, it will fundamentally reshape the Israeli debate about whether the Palestinians can be handed most of the West Bank."
Embedded in both statements are a set of assumptions: that Palestinians will be free to build their own democracy, that Israel will eventually cede the West Bank (or even consider the possibility), that Israel's "withdrawal" will strengthen the Palestinian position in negotiations over the West Bank, that the occupation will end or become increasingly irrelevant, that the gross asymmetries between the two protagonists will be redressed. Hence, the Gaza disengagement plan—if implemented “properly”—will provide a real (perhaps the only) opportunity for resolving the conflict and creating a Palestinian state. It follows that Palestinians will be responsible for their success, and that if they fail to build a "democratic" or "decent mini-state" in Gaza, the fault will be theirs and theirs alone.
Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, has worked on Gaza for two decades and is the author of The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development (IPS, 2d edition 2001), among other works. Her new book, Between Extremism and Civisim: Political Islam in Palestine, will be published by Princeton University Press.