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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Gaza Reality Check - New York Times

Gaza Reality Check - New York TimesAugust 18, 2005
Gaza Reality Check

Ever since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans to remove nearly 9,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, the withdrawal has been certain to be an emotional scene. Images beaming from the desert this week are bearing that out. As Israel moved to leave land it has held for 38 years, soldiers carried crying and screaming residents out of their homes. Some Gaza settlers pinned orange stars to their chests in a reference to the Holocaust. One West Bank settler grabbed a security guard's gun and opened fire, killing several Palestinians - an act that Prime Minister Sharon rightly denounced as "Jewish terror."

Without denying the genuine grief of many of the protesters, it's perhaps helpful to do a historical reality check. Gaza, a 25-mile-long, 6-mile-wide strip of land, was part of Mandatory Palestine, which was ruled by the British after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was never part of the Zionist state intended by the United Nations partition plan that led to the establishment of Israel in 1948. At that point, five Arab nations immediately attacked the new nation, but Gaza wasn't even part of the territory Israel got in signing truces in 1949. It became the home of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing Israel, and Israel's armistice with Egypt in 1949 put it under Egyptian rule.

In the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, Israel captured Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, along with the West Bank (from Jordan) and the Golan Heights (from Syria). Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt after making peace, but kept control of Gaza. A second agreement called for negotiating eventual Palestinian autonomy there.

Gaza represents the worst side of Israel's settlement movement. The densely populated strip is home to 1.3 million Palestinians - most of them refugees, or offspring of refugees. Each square mile of Palestinian land holds, on average, about 14,000 people. Until this week, the Jewish settlers occupied 33 percent of the land.

Because of an army blockade of Gaza that started during the Palestinian intifada in 2000, the Palestinians who live there have generally been unable to cross into Israel for work. Israeli military checkpoints, set up in response to terrorist attacks from militant groups, also hamper the movement of Palestinians within Gaza. Unemployment among Palestinians is estimated at 45 percent, and most Gaza families live on less than $2 a day.

One Israeli official, trying to explain the reluctance of Israel to withdraw from Gaza, recently maintained that Israeli leaders had never intended to keep Gaza, but had simply sought to use the territory as a negotiating chip. "The problem," he said, "is that Israel fell in love with its chips." So Israeli leaders allowed Jewish settlers to take over the best parts of the captured land.

It cannot be easy to be escorted out of one's home by soldiers. And there is plenty of reason to worry about how the new Gaza will be governed. But it's past time - 38 years past, to be exact - to give the Palestinians there a chance at a better life.

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