There are three aspects of the recent Israeli withdrawal from Gaza which interest me: Why did they do it? Can Gaza survive? And what’s next?

First, as to why they did it, there was an excellent piece by Ethan Bronner in the New York Times last week. The question is why the very people who initially encouraged the settlers would now force them to leave. Bronner’s answer is based on demographics:

But for those, like Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who created and nurtured the settlements, the move to dismantle them is something very different. It is an admission not of error but of failure. Their cherished goal — the resettlement of the full biblical land of Israel by contemporary Jews — is not to be. The reason: not enough of them came.

Actually, that’s only half the reason. True,

contrary to the expectations of the early Zionists … most of the world’s Jews have not joined their brethren to live in Israel. Of the world’s 13 million to 14 million Jews, a minority — 5.26 million — make their home in Israel, and immigration has largely dried up. Last year, a record low 21,000 Jews immigrated to Israel.

But the bigger reason is that with the Arab population growing faster than the Jewish one,

the proportion of Jews in the combined population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza had dropped below 50 percent for the first time. This means, many Israelis argue, that unless they yield territory, they will have to choose a Jewish state or a democratic one; they will not be able to have both.

This will be true whether or not the Jews pull out of the occupied territories, but it certainly gives them some more time before they have to come to terms with it.

As to the second issue, that of economic viability. I’m afraid that those greenhouses they bought from the settlers will not be enough. As the BBC reports, a lot still needs to happen before the residents of Gaza can even begin to export anything they might grow.

the one thing that the Gaza Strip does have is access to the Mediterranean Sea, with the potential of being the main port for enclave.

But investment in port facilities — such as roll-on, roll-off container ships and the airport, which was bombed by the Israeli air force and never repaired — is awaiting some key decisions about the future relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Something needs to happen soon, because the economic situation there is in dire straights:

According to the CIA World Factbook, GDP in 2001 declined 35% to a per capita income of $625 a year, and 60% of the population is now below the poverty line. Gaza Strip industries are generally small family businesses that produce textiles, soap, olive-wood carvings, and mother-of-pearl souvenirs; the Israelis have established some small-scale modern industries in an industrial center. Electricity is supplied by Israel. The main agricultural products are olives, citrus, vegetables, Halal beef, and dairy products. Primary exports are citrus and cut flowers, while primary imports are food, consumer goods, and construction materials. The main trade partners of the Gaza Strip are Israel, Egypt, and the West Bank.

A study carried out by Johns Hopkins University and Al Quds University for CARE International late in 2002 revealed very high levels of dietary deficiency among the Palestinian population. The study found that 17.5% of children aged 6–59 months suffered from chronic malnutrition. 53% of women of reproductive age and 44% of children were found to be anemic.

Finally, as to what will happen next, the New York Times editorial board paints a bleak interpretation of Sharon’s intentions:

Unfortunately, Mr. Sharon seems to think that withdrawing from Gaza will buy Israel time to spend to consolidate in the West Bank. Even the pro-withdrawal officials in Mr. Sharon’s hard-line Likud Party maintain that Gaza is not the beginning, but rather the end. Mr. Sharon’s own chief political strategist has said that a central purpose of the Gaza withdrawal plan was to take Palestinian statehood off the table indefinitely. The belief appears to be that by giving” President Bush Gaza, Israel will have bought for itself at least a lack of American pressure so that it can remain in the West Bank.

Ramzy Baroud, writing in Counterpunch, is even more forthright about what this all means:

The odd part is that the Israeli government labored little to give false impressions regarding the real meaning of its army and settlers deployment. Israel did not wish to hide the fact that it would retain control over the borders of Gaza, its land, its air and its water. Equally there were no real efforts made to hide the fact that Israel maintains the right to strike the impoverished and utterly crowded strip at the time of its choosing or that it wished to have total control over anything or anybody that enters or leaves the area. Gaza’s open air prison’ status, gained since the Israeli occupation in 1967, will hardly be affected.

Nonetheless much is gained. For one, Israel can comfortably subtract Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants from its demographic nightmare, maintaining, for a while longer perhaps, the Jewish majority. The move will also end Israel’s futile military quest to subdue a strategically inconsequential enclave, scrapping with such a decision the unfavorable international attention given to its Gaza occupation, the demoralization of its armed forces and the unavoidable loss of life as a result of Palestinian attacks on its settlements.

He also points out that Gaza accounts for only 4.5 per cent of the overall Occupied Territories of 1967,” so there is still a long way to go!

Back in April, I wrote about what a viable two-state solution would require. I’m still not sure there is any such thing as a viable” solution based on two separate states, but clearly we are still a long way away from any such solution.

UPDATE: I wanted to add that anyone interested in understanding the history of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories should read Avishai Margalit’s 2001 essay Settling Scores.” It will cost you $3, but it will be $3 well spent. You even get a nice map! If I have time I’ll write something about it …

UPDATE: See this great map.

UPDATE: Thanks to Michael, a free link to the Margalit essay. Now you have no excuse not to read it!

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