Disengagement and the Frontiers of Zionism

by Darryl Li | published February 16, 2008

For background on Israel’s system of control over Gaza after 2005, see Darryl Li, “The Gaza Strip as Laboratory: Notes in the Wake of Disengagement,” Journal of Palestine Studies 35/2 (Winter 2006).

In mid-January, when Israel further tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip, it hurriedly assured the world that a “humanitarian crisis” would not be allowed to occur. Case in point: Days after the intensified siege prompted Hamas to breach the Gaza-Egypt border and Palestinians to pour into Egypt in search of supplies, Israel announced plans to send in thousands of animal vaccines to prevent possible outbreaks of avian flu and other epidemics due to livestock and birds entering Gaza from Egypt. [1] Medicines for human beings, on the other hand, are among the supplies that are barely trickling in to Gaza now that the border has been resealed.

More than an act of enlightened self-interest -- or, more bluntly, a recognition that “the virus doesn’t stop at the checkpoint” [2] -- the reported animal vaccine shipment is a clue to how Israel is reconfiguring its control over the Gaza Strip. The story of the recent restrictions, when told at all to the outside world, has been conveyed largely through statistics: 90 percent of private industries in Gaza have shut down, 80 percent of the population receives food aid, all construction sites are idle and unemployment has broken all previous records. [3] Journalists and NGOs have rendered individual portraits of ruined farmers, bankrupted merchants and trapped medical patients. But the stranglehold on Gaza is not simply a stricter version of the policies of the past five years; it also reflects a qualitative shift in Israel’s technique for management of the territory. The contrast between Israel’s expedited transfer of animal vaccines to Gaza and its denial of medicine for the human population is emblematic of this emergent form of control, that, for lack of a better term, we may call “disengagement.”

“Disengagement” is, of course, the name Israel gave to its 2005 removal of colonies and military bases from the Gaza Strip. But rather than a one-time abandonment of control, disengagement is better understood as an ongoing process of controlled abandonment, by which Israel is severing the ties forged with Gaza over 40 years of domination without allowing any viable alternatives to emerge, all while leaving the international donor community to subsidize what remains. The effect is to treat the Strip as an animal pen whose denizens cannot be domesticated and so must be quarantined. Disengagement is a form of rule that sets as its goal neither justice nor even stability, but rather survival -- as we are reminded by every guarantee that an undefined “humanitarian crisis” will be avoided.

From Bantustan to Internment Camp to Animal Pen

Since its beginnings over a century ago, the Zionist project of creating a state for the Jewish people in the eastern Mediterranean has faced an intractable challenge: how to deal with indigenous non-Jews -- who today comprise half of the population living under Israeli rule -- when practical realities dictate that they cannot be removed and ideology demands that they must not be granted political equality. From these starting points, the general contours of Israeli policy from left to right over the generations have been clear: First, maximize the number of Arabs on the minimal amount of land, and second, maximize control over the Arabs while minimizing any apparent responsibility for them.

On the first score, Gaza is a resounding success: Although it covers only 1.5 percent of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, it warehouses one out of every four Palestinians living in the entire country. But on the second count, Gaza’s density has made it very difficult to manage and its poverty makes it an eyesore before the world community. Thus, Palestinian resistance and, to a lesser extent, international constraints, have forced Israel to revise its balance of responsibility and control several times. Each phase of this ongoing experiment can be understood through spatial metaphors of increasingly constricted scope: bantustan, internment camp, animal pen.

From 1967 to the first intifada of 1987-1993, Israel used its military rule to incorporate Gaza’s economy and infrastructure forcibly into its own, while treating the Palestinian population as a reserve of cheap migrant workers. It was during this stage of labor migration and territorial segregation that Gaza came closest to resembling the South African “bantustans”—the nominally independent black statelets set up by the apartheid regime to evade responsibility for the indigenous population whose labor it was exploiting. [4]

During the Oslo phase of the occupation (1993-2005), Israel delegated some administrative functions to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and welcomed migrant workers from Asia and Eastern Europe to replace the Gazans. A new infrastructure of movement controls also emerged. Permits for travel to Israel and the West Bank, once commonly granted, became rare. Ordinary vehicular traffic ceased. In the second half of the decade, Israel erected a fence around the territory and commenced channeling non-Israeli people and goods through a handful of newly built permanent terminals like the ones that have recently come to the West Bank. It was during this period that Gaza under Israeli management most resembled a giant internment camp. The detainee population was, to a certain extent, self-organized and appointed representatives to act on its behalf (the PA) who nevertheless operated under the aegis of supreme Israeli military authority, within the framework of agreements concluded by Israel and a largely defunct Palestine Liberation Organization (which are now basically agreements between Israel and itself).

The failure of the settlement enterprise and the ferocity of the armed resistance during the second intifada beginning in the fall of 2000 undoubtedly contributed to the decision to remove settlements and withdraw soldiers. Aside from buying Israel crucial political cover to push ahead with its colonization plans in the West Bank and elsewhere, disengagement has also drastically reduced vulnerability to Palestinian armed groups. From 2000 to 2005, Gaza contained less than 1 percent of the Jewish population of Israel-Palestine but accounted for approximately 10 percent of Israeli intifada-related fatalities (and more than 40 percent of all Israeli combatant deaths). At the same time, the threat was almost entirely located inside the territory, against soldiers and settlers. Gaza’s hermetic closure largely neutralized the threat of suicide bombs, leaving Palestinian armed groups in Gaza with few effective means of harming Israel. Since August 2005, Qassam rocket attacks have killed four people inside Israel, less than 2007’s weekly average of Palestinians killed in Gaza by the Israeli military. [5]

Critics have been quick to point out that disengagement did not change Israel ’s effective control over Gaza and hence its responsibility as an occupying power under international humanitarian law. At the military level, Israel continued to patrol Gaza’s airspace and seacoast, and ground troops operated, built fortifications and enforced buffer zones inside the Strip so regularly that the major difference seems to have been a mere relocation of their barracks a few kilometers to the east. With the removal of permanent military bases, however, critics also tended to decry Gaza’s ongoing dependency on Israel as evidence of control. The taxation system, currency and trade remained in Israel’s hands; water, power and communications infrastructure continued to depend on Israel; and even the population registry was still kept by Israeli authorities.

Israel’s response has been simple, if disingenuous: If responsibility for Gaza arises from Gaza’s dependency on Israel, then it would be more than happy to cut those ties once and for all. And this is exactly what Israel started doing after Fatah’s military defeat in Gaza at the hands of Hamas in June 2007. Indeed, even if the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border reopens with a liaison role for Fatah (or the PA security services under the command of President Mahmoud Abbas), as is still the case at Erez, the only crossing point for people between Israel and the Strip, this is only likely to furnish Israel with another pretext for washing its hands of responsibility for Gazans. In any event, in Gaza the Oslo experiment in indirect rule seems to be over. Israel now treats the territory less like an internment camp and more like an animal pen: a space of near total confinement whose wardens are concerned primarily with keeping those inside alive and tame, with some degree of mild concern as to the opinions of neighbors and other outsiders.

The difference is most apparent in the question of electricity. In 2006, Israel responded to the capture of one of its soldiers and the killing of two others by bombing Gaza’s only power plant, which, even after some repair, now operates at roughly one third of capacity. [6] Now it seeks to accomplish the same deprivation through cutting the electricity that it supplies directly to Gaza, compounding the daily blackouts that were already common. These reductions, as approved by the Israeli Supreme Court on January 30 and as first implemented on February 7, will be calibrated to ensure that the “essential humanitarian needs” of the population are met. In November, the court endorsed the same standard in permitting reductions of the amount of Israeli fuel sold in Gaza. This shift in Israel’s approach from 2006 is akin to the difference between clubbing an unruly prisoner over the head to subdue him and taming an animal through careful regulation of leash and diet.

Disengagement and “Essential Humanitarianism”

In order to understand the management differences between an internment camp and an animal pen, it may help to start with the place where Israel’s control over Gaza is most physically manifest: the crossings.

Karni crossing is the sole official crossing point for commercial traffic between the Gaza Strip and Israel, a highly fortified facility straddling the frontier on the site of an old British military airfield near Gaza City. Karni has approximately 30 lanes for handling different types of cargo -- from shipping containers to bulk goods -- needed to meet the diverse needs of a modern economy. Karni is a creature of the Oslo period, concretizing its logic of impressive spectacle and laborious inefficiency in order to balance Israeli control with the image of Palestinian autonomy. The crossing operates on the wasteful principle of “back-to-back” transport: Goods are left by one party in a walled-off no man’s land and then picked up by the other without any direct contact, essentially doubling shipping costs.

In recent months, Israel has completely shut down Karni except for occasional shipments of wheat grain and animal feed. [7] At the same time, Israel has routed a few types of permitted “essential items” mostly through the Kerem Shalom and Sufa crossings further south. Unlike Karni, Kerem Shalom and Sufa are operated entirely by Israel and make no gestures toward Palestinian partnership. They are not commercial crossings but essentially gates in the fence, never designed for trans-shipment of goods and incapable of handling many types of difficult-to-package items such as building materials and piped gases. [8] When open, Kerem Shalom and Sufa together can process perhaps 100 truckloads of cargo per day compared to Karni’s capacity of approximately 750 truckloads. [9]

Most revealing, however, is the manner of transfer: Cargo at Kerem Shalom and Sufa is offloaded from trucks and then left on pallets in the open for Palestinians to come and pick up when they are allowed to approach. The contrast with Karni’s elaborate security procedures and regimented distribution system is striking. “At least in prison, and I’ve been in prison, there are rules,” Gazan human rights lawyer Raji Sourani told the New York Times. “But now we live in a kind of animal farm. We live in a pen, and they dump in food and medicine.” [10]

The physical move from Karni to Kerem Shalom and Sufa and the official restriction of passage only to “humanitarian items” embody the shift in Israel’s blockade policy, from trying to punish the Gazan economy to dispensing with the economy altogether (except when Israeli producers need to dump cheap surplus in Gaza). Israel is also selectively disengaging from other economic relations with Gaza: Major Israeli banks have announced their intention to sever ties with Gaza, and Israel has since autumn limited the inflow of US dollars and Jordanian dinars, endangering Gazans’ ability to purchase imports and make use of remittances.

The sheer redundancy of Gaza’s economy in Israel’s eyes is most obvious in the context of the Israeli Supreme Court decision approving fuel cuts to Gaza on the basis that if it is possible to ration the remaining fuel for hospitals and the sewage network, then Gaza’s economy need not play a role: “We do not accept the petitioners’ argument that ‘market forces’ should be allowed to play their role in Gaza with regard to fuel consumption.” [11] The logic of the Court’s decisions on fuel and electricity suggests that once undefined “essential humanitarian needs” are met, all other deprivation is permissible.

In practice, the neat distinction between vital needs and luxuries is often impossible to implement since it ignores the enormous swath of human activities and desires in between that are no less important simply because they can be temporarily deferred. This has been most poignant in the case of permits to leave Gaza for medical treatment, which are now granted only to those with “life-threatening” conditions. [12] Under the scheme, according to Human Rights Watch, permits for mere “quality of life” procedures such as open heart surgery have been denied, leading to patient deaths. In the case of the electricity cuts, the Supreme Court blithely acted as if Gazans could easily redirect remaining power to hospitals and sewage networks despite clear evidence to the contrary. [13] To the extent that electricity can be redistributed within areas, technicians must physically go to substations several times per day and manually pull levers that are designed to be operated only once a year for maintenance purposes. As a result, there have been numerous breakdowns and at least two engineers have been electrocuted. [14]

Even if it was possible to implement and was done with the best of intentions, the logic of “essential humanitarianism” (it is unclear what would constitute the “inessentially” humanitarian) promises nothing more than turning Gazans one and all into beggars -- or rather, into well-fed animals -- dependent on international money and Israeli fiat. It allows Israel to keep Palestinians and the international community in perpetual fear of an entirely manufactured “humanitarian crisis” that Israel can induce at the flip of a switch (due to the embargo, Gaza’s power plant only has enough fuel at any one time to operate for two days [15]). And it distracts from, and even legitimizes, the destruction of Gaza’s own economy, institutions and infrastructure, to say nothing of ongoing colonization elsewhere in Israel-Palestine. The notion of “essential humanitarianism” reduces the needs, aspirations and rights of 1.4 million human beings to an exercise in counting calories, megawatts and other abstract, one-dimensional units measuring distance from death.

The Names of Inequality

As Israel has experimented with various models for controlling Gaza over the decades, the fundamental refusal of political equality that undergirds them all has taken on different names, both to justify itself and to provide a logic for moderating its own excesses. During the bantustan period, inequality was called coexistence; during the Oslo period, separation; and during disengagement, it is reframed as avoiding “humanitarian crises,” or survival. These slogans were not outright lies, but they disregarded the unwelcome truth that coexistence is not freedom, separation is not independence and survival is not living.

Disengagement, however, is not merely the latest stage in a historical process; it is also the lowest rung in a territorially segregated hierarchy of subjugation that encompasses Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and within the Green Line. Half of the people between the Mediterranean and the Jordan live under a state that excludes them from the community of political subjects, denies them true equality and thus discriminates against them in varying domains of rights. Israel has impressively managed to keep this half of the population divided against itself -- as well as against foreign workers and non-Ashkenazi Jews -- through careful distribution of differential privileges and punishments and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Of course there is always the possibility of occasional, dramatic acts of resistance like the breaching of the border -- which temporarily transformed a desolate stretch of demolished houses into a giant open-air market -- and incremental technocratic changes such as a possible arrangement to reopen the Rafah crossing. But between these two paths, the inexorable governing logic of controlled abandonment seems likely to remain intact.

It is telling that despite all of the talk of separation, even the most remote and isolated segment of the Palestinians living under Israeli control are still close enough to Israeli Jews for the introduction of livestock and fowl from Egypt to prompt rapid public health action. For the transfer of animal vaccines speaks not only to Israel’s control over Gaza and its disclaimer of any responsibility for the people living there, but is also a tacit reminder of the intimacy that persists through 40 years of domination. The people of the southern Israeli town of Sderot, too, were unpleasantly reminded of this intimacy when, one morning in 2005, they awoke to find hundreds of leaflets on their streets warning them in Arabic to leave their homes before they were attacked. [16] The Israeli military had airdropped the fliers over neighboring parts of the northern Gaza Strip in an attempt to intimidate the Palestinians there, but strong winds blew them over the frontier instead.


[1] Associated Press, January 30, 2008.
[2] This phrase (ha-virus lo ‘otzer ba-mahsom) is the title of a 2002 book on the health care system in the West Bank and Gaza Strip whose English edition appeared under the more politically correct Separate and Cooperate, Cooperate and Separate: The Disengagement of the Palestine Health Care System from Israel and Its Emergence as an Independent System (Tamara Barnea and Rafiq Husseini, eds.) (London: Praeger, 2002). Thanks to Deema Arafah for this reference.
[3] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “The Closure of the Gaza Strip: The Economic and Humanitarian Consequences,” December 13, 2007.
[4] Dark visions of a bantustan future for Gaza are as dated as they are irrelevant. As early as 1985, two authors noted “Gaza is effectively a Bantustan -- a dormitory for day laborers in the Israeli economy. It is for this reason that the much vaunted ‘two-state solution’ has rather less appeal to the people of Gaza than to some on the West Bank.” Richard Locke and Antony Stewart, Bantustan Gaza (London: Zed Books, 1985), p. 2.
[5] More than 70 percent of Israeli fatalities in the Gaza Strip pre-disengagement were armed security personnel, as opposed to 50 percent in the West Bank and 15 percent inside the Green Line. Statistics on Israeli fatalities are culled from “Victims of Palestinian Terror Since September 2000,” updated regularly by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs at http://www.mfa.gov.il/ and from the tallies kept by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem at http://www.btselem.org/English/Statistics/Casualties.asp. According to p. 6 of B’tselem’s draft annual report for 2007, 293 Gazans (armed and unarmed) were killed by Israel in 2007.
[6] For an overview of the effects of the strike and an assessment of its legality, see B’tselem, Act of Vengeance: Israel’s Bombing of the Gaza Power Plant and Its Effects (September 2006). Israel has continued to hamper repairs, leading to widespread power outages even before the more recent deliberate power cuts. OCHA, “Gaza Humanitarian Situation Report: Power Shortages in the Gaza Strip,” January 8, 2008.
[7] OCHA, “Gaza Closure: Situation Report,” January 24, 2008.
[8] World Bank, Two Years After London: Restarting Palestinian Economic Recovery, September 24, 2007, p. 16; OCHA, “Gaza Humanitarian Situation Report,” June 27, 2007, p. 3.
[9] OCHA, “Gaza Humanitarian Situation Report,” November 6, 2007.
[10] New York Times, November 18, 2007.
[11] Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ) 9132/07, Jabr al-Basyuni Ahmad v. The Prime Minister (interim decision of November 29, 2007), para. I.4.
[12] HCJ 5429/07, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel v. The Minister of Defense.
[13] HCJ 9132/07, Jabr al-Basyuni Ahmad v. The Prime Minister (final decision of January 30, 2008). For more on the Court’s dubious factual findings (including its reliance on a government claim that unnamed “Palestinian officials” had assured them that redistribution of power to hospitals was feasible, despite multiple signed affidavits to the contrary from senior Palestinian utilities managers), see Gisha (Legal Center for Freedom of Movement), “Briefing: Israeli High Court Decision Authorizing Fuel and Electricity Cuts to Gaza,” January 31, 2008.
[14] OCHA, “Electricity Shortages in the Gaza Strip: Situation Report,” February 8, 2008.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ynet, September 27, 2005.

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