Images of life in Gaza reveal reasons behind lingering tensions

August 23, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

SAY THIS FOR the Israeli settlers who have been made to leave the Gaza Strip this month: few as they were compared to more than a million Palestinians inhabiting the most densely populated piece of real estate in the world, they actually wanted to be there.

Most of the Palestinians living in Gaza would rather be somewhere else, somewhere closer to the ancestral homes that they and their grandparents and great-grandparents left behind in the wars between the Arabs and the Israelis. They were among the tides of refugees who went to Gaza because they had nowhere else to go, victims of conflicts whose chief protagonists were in Cairo, Damascus, Amman and Tel Aviv.

Eventually, and inevitably, they became radicalized by an Israeli occupation and a corrupt Arab leadership that drained them of any hope. Small wonder they turned to terrorism. Many, even cool heads in the Israeli establishment, predicted it would happen.

Placing colonies of Israelis in such an environment was bound to exacerbate the tension. But don't blame the settlers. They had every incentive to move to the Gaza Strip. The first of those was the idea that they were reclaiming land promised to them by God.

Second, and most helpful, was that they would be protected by the mightiest military in the region, which, in turn, is supplied and supported by the mightiest military in the world. Third, and possibly more important for those less concerned about messianic implications, was the generous government subsidization offered to settlers for help in building, developing, watering and electrifying their remote and endangered communities.

The last of these helped to produce very pretty sites, comfortable air-conditioned homes with red tile roofs, surrounded by more greenery than practically anywhere else in the Gaza Strip and a pleasant view of the Mediterranean Sea.

It cost Israel a lot of money to support the Gaza Strip settlements. The human cost was great, too. Israelis lost their lives in and near the settlements. Israeli soldiers died to help protect them.

American taxpayers indirectly assisted in the development of the settlements, for while U.S. governments declared they were obstacles to peace, the same U.S. governments successively helped Israel with tens of billions of dollars in economic and military aid which facilitated Israel's expenditures on the settlements.

Now, Washington is being asked by the Israeli government to help foot the bill - with about $2 billion - to help re-settle the settlers that Washington historically claimed should not have been there in the first place.

Settler families are to be compensated for the loss of their homes, the land they occupied and the livelihoods they developed while they occupied the land. Most of the evacuated Israeli families will receive between $200,000 and $300,000. Some will receive more. Others, especially those who did not leave voluntarily, will receive less.

The most passionate settler, especially the religiously motivated, would argue that no amount of money is enough to compensate for having to abandon land they consider sacred.

But an image has kept coming to my mind while tape of the forced exodus played continuously. It is the image of the weeping Palestinian mother of 10 children sitting in tears at the side of the wreckage of her primitive home after it had been bulldozed by the Israeli army because it purportedly encroached on territory that did not belong to her.

The day was July 26, 1983. I recall it perfectly because that afternoon my youngest son was born in a hospital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, delivered by a Palestinian doctor whose patients included Israeli women.

The woman who lost her home in Gaza that day would not have dared to throw anything at the Israeli soldiers who knocked down her house. I doubt she received any compensation.

In December 1987, the first intifada started in Gaza. It would not surprise me if the woman's children had been radicalized enough by the events of that day to become aggressive participants.

If the evacuation of Gaza is to be anything more than a tumultuous moment, both sides need to be as energetic about stopping events that radicalize people enough to want to kill each other.

G. Jefferson Price III was a foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun.

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