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Ramzy Baroud: The Palestinian Quest to Break Away

Freedom Deferred:
The Palestinian Quest to Break Away


By Ramzy Baroud

Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza has undoubtedly raised the level of mistrust among Palestinians toward what is now seen as the Sharon government’s irrevocable designs on the whole of the Occupied Territories.

Periodic and unabashed statements made by various Israeli officials further indicate that the disengagement is a tactical move aimed at fortifying what Israel has alone resolved as the final solution to its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority’s official stance continues to recognize Israel’s prejudiced policies as positive first steps and is actively involved in their facilitation. The PA’s behavior can only be the outcome of political despair, where making the best out of bad situations has become the mantra.

Ongoing talks in the post-disengagement period have thus far been centered on the issue of control over border crossings, the airport and the seaport. Both Egypt and Jordan have been actively involved in facilitating those talks. While Palestinians wish to break away from Israel’s control over their economy, as has been the case for decades, Israel is adamant in maintaining this skewed relationship.

Expectedly, media coverage of the Israeli withdrawal and the theatrical evacuation of the settlers from Gaza (who are now being resettled illegally elsewhere in the West Bank) have drastically waned. However, a key issue, that of the freedom of Palestinians, whether within or outside the Occupied Territories is receiving little or no coverage, dropped like a negligible side point of no consequence.

It is not an overstatement by any definition to argue that the supposedly trivial issue continues to be at the heart of Palestinian national aspirations and the surge of hope that followed the Israeli withdrawal. In fact, the issue of freedom of movement, access and an end to the long-imposed Israeli dominion over Palestinian economy goes back to the very early stages of the peace process.

Among the many contentious issues that have consumed talks since the ceremonial signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israeli and PLO leaders on September 13, 1993, was the issue of the freedom of movement for Palestinians, within and outside the Occupied Territories.

The physical confinement of the Palestinian population goes decades back, most markedly to June 1967, when Israel’s military rule expanded to include East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

While the catastrophic outcome of the 1967 war brought about the least desirable situation for Palestinians, Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement was most visible at border crossings in Gaza and the West Bank, chiefly those bordering Egypt and Jordan respectively. The economic and social impacts of this new arrangement were devastating to say the least. For one, a substantial portion of the underdeveloped Palestinian economy was wholly reliant on neighboring entities.

Both Egypt and Jordan were used as starting points for Palestinian professionals seeking jobs in many oil-rich Arab Gulf states. Much of the income generated by tens of thousands of Palestinians abroad found its way back to the economically stagnant Occupied Territories, thus helping struggling families cope with poverty and the near total absence of a meaningful economic infrastructure.

The Israeli takeover of Palestinian borders, thus freedom of movement, resulted in the serious interruption of the flow of labor abroad and for long changed the legal status of those professionals who departed the Occupied Territories prior to June 1967, from residents of the Occupied Territories to permanently exiled. This status remains in place until today. Confined to the Occupied Territories, and subjected to the subsequent suffocating economic reality therein, Palestinians found themselves turning to Israel for financial relief.

The relatively vibrant Israeli economy and its constant need for manual labor was the only respite Palestinians could find as tens of thousands were quickly transferred to become Israel’s cheap labor force. Lacking any other viable option, Palestinian laborers working under harsh and often inhumane conditions, were meagerly compensated and were denied all sorts of benefits.

Expectedly, the arrangement was most suitable for Israeli companies, for their business costs drastically decreased and profits sharply augmented. For Palestinians, this relationship signaled the commencement of a historic period of severe economic dependency, which for decades made Palestinian economic growth entirely an Israeli decision.

The Israeli army’s recurrent closure of the Occupied Territories, which was justified as a ‘security measure’ and often extended for weeks to months on end, rendered the majority of Palestinian laborers unemployed. In the poorest areas in the Gaza Strip, such closures often mounted to humanitarian crises and were often employed by the Israeli military as a form of collective punishment and as a tool of political pressure.

It is against this backdrop that ordinary Palestinians welcomed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. While the rapport between the agreement and Palestinian national aspirations, that of complete sovereignty and statehood was most ambiguous, Oslo was perceived as an opportunity to shake off their choking economic reliance on Israel, to establish freedom of movement within and without the Occupied Territories and to free up the economy.

It was also assumed that Palestinians would soon take control over their own border crossings, that between the West Bank and Jordan and between Gaza and Egypt. More, Palestinian officials spoke at length of a Palestinian manned seaport, an airport and a safe passage to link the West Bank and Gaza, promised under the provisions of Oslo to be implemented at later stages.

However, the only project to be implemented was that of the airport in October 1998, only to be destroyed by Israeli tanks and bulldozers two years later. The seaport was bombed while still under construction. The safe passage was partially implemented yet proved worthless, as the movement between Gaza to the West Bank remained and continues to remain exclusively an internal Israeli matter, while the PA playing the role of the facilitator. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians from Gaza, mostly students, are trapped in the West Bank, unable to be reunited with their families since the so-called safe passage was sealed off by Israel years ago.

In the light of this grim history, Palestinians and Israelis are once again deliberating these matters. Alas, little has changed since the touted Oslo Accord to force the conclusion that Palestinians will finally have the key to their Gaza prison or to West Bank cantons. As history has shown, Palestinian freedom of movement and thus, the Palestinian economy will remain captive to the same lasting elements; that of Israeli political advantage and continuing military dominion. Meanwhile, the so-called peace process will likely carry on marching within the boundaries of empty rhetoric, handshakes and broken promises.

*************

-Ramzy Baroud, a veteran Arab American journalist, teaches mass communication at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of PalestineChronicle.com.

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