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Jobless in Gaza 

Arab commentators disagree about lasting meaning of Israeli pullout

Thursday, Aug 25 2005
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A somber note for many Gazans witnessing the Israeli pullout was the prospect of losing jobs. Al-Jazeera profiled the closure of one of the last remaining monuments of Oslo-era cooperation, the Erez industrial park, a multidisciplinary Gaza manufacturing facility that had employed more than 4,000 Arab workers. One of the newly redundant vented to Al-Jazeera cameras: “This is a cruel decision for us, I have worked here for 10 years,” he said. “I don’t have any work in Gaza, I am going to have to sit around doing nothing.” According to Israeli Gaza correspondent Amira Hass, the settlements employed around 3,200 Palestinians whose cheap labor (salaries averaging about a third of the Israeli minimum wage) inflated the wealth of Israeli farmers and entrepreneurs. The international LinkTV, whose Middle Eastern–themed programming attracts many Arab viewers because of shows like the Peabody award–winning newsreel Mosaic, ran a documentary peering into the life of a Palestinian family working on a Gaza agricultural settlement, remarkable for its unintentional echoes of the Old South. One memorable image showed the enthusiastic Palestinian father speaking in Hebrew of the brotherly bond between Arabs and Jews, while seated at a table with the settler couple that had given him a good job and food to eat.

Overall, the Arab media approached last week’s Israeli withdrawal from Gaza from an almost unanimously critical perspective. But the Middle East’s satellite commentators and editorial pages were anything but monolithic in content, sharply disagreeing over what the week’s “disengagement” meant and, more importantly, portends. Reading a sampling of reports and opinion from the region’s main Arabic and English presses, it would be difficult to decide whether the Gaza pullout was cause for Palestinian celebration or gloom.

Neglecting economics, Arab papers had particular scorn for the Western media’s “soft” treatment of previously belligerent settlers. Rami Khouri, of Lebanon’s Daily Star, wondered in his column if everyone had forgotten who the victim was: “The widespread press descriptions of the Gaza settler’s ‘emotional pain’ at being sent back to their own country of Israel lack both credibility and relevance.” Khouri, among other acerbic commentators, noted the glorification of Ariel Sharon’s “heroic” masochism in reneging on his legacy as father of the settlements: “It is outrageous that Sharon would say, even as he was evacuating Gaza, that he prefers to keep it.” The paper’s editorial, however, rationalized Sharon’s promise to “continue and develop” settlement activity in the West Bank as the words of a man trying to appease his public: “We can partly excuse the imperialist hostility of his statement by acknowledging that the pullout has stirred strong sentiments in Israel, and Sharon is now facing considerable domestic pressure and even a potential challenge to his premiership.”

Despite a few overtures, the main attitude spanning the Arab media is one of extreme vigilance and suspicion. Discussion around the seemingly benevolent withdrawal has turned to what the “catch” will be, a dreaded prospect that has precluded widespread Palestinian celebration, for fear of indicating partnership in a bargain that might mean the loss of the West Bank. A fearful Daily Star editorial raised the empty threat of international law against Sharon’s PR maneuvering: “He cannot continue to ignore his responsibilities to the international community under the ‘road map’ to peace, nor can he speak two different messages — one of peace to the international community and one of conquest to his Israeli public.” Speculation as to Sharon’s true disengagement motives was far-reaching and almost unanimously bleak. Khouri called the pullout “an expedient, grudging, defensive, reluctant endeavor” that “does not have the compelling ring of authenticity and honesty that characterized the white South Africans’ coming to terms with black majority rule.”

As Western anchors gaped at Ariel Sharon’s incredible personal sacrifice, getting teary over the drama of internecine Jewish conflict, Al-Jazeera sat back like a pessimistic theater critic and waxed unenthusiastic: “The question of the evacuation of the settlements has not come with the difficulty the Israeli government is trying to project,” sighed Palestinian correspondent Shereen Abu Aqla. More curious to Al-Jazeera was the soldiers’ “excessive sensitivity” in evicting the settlers, and all the “images of self-control, patience and kindness that the eye has not witnessed before from the Israeli forces,” especially in comparison to the Israel Defense Forces’ callous and sometimes deadly management of Israeli Arab protests. An article on the Al-Jazeera Web site had six references to Israeli “tears” and seemed to make much of the sympathy-provoking practice by which settlers would wave their children in front of phlegmatic soldiers, portraying their behavior as a kind of child endangerment similar to Michael Jackson’s toddler-dangling. One report read, “Another man who had been forced onto a bus held his infant nephew out of the window, shouting to the soldiers, ‘You want him?’”

Veteran journalist Daoud Kuttab, writing in the Jordan Times, cautioned against believing that the withdrawal came in response to Palestinian resistance, especially during the current climate of ambiguity: “It would be a mistake to attribute the Israeli withdrawal exclusively to Palestinian attacks,” he explained. “After all, this bittersweet Israeli action was neither a clear result of military defeat nor a consequence of political negotiations.” He acknowledged the political stakes of Sharon’s decision, stopping short of using the word “courage”: “There is no doubt that the evacuation of Jewish settlers in areas that Israelis consider part of their God-given territory represents a huge ideological reversal.” One analogy that kept re-appearing throughout media speculation of Sharon’s pullout motives was that of military strategizing, as in the words of Ghassan Sharbal, editor in chief of the influential pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat: “Sometimes a warrior is forced to retreat a step. But that doesn’t mean he wants peace,” he wrote. “The retreat aims to redraw the lines, a redeployment to strengthen his ability to fight the next battle.” The Al-Ahram Weekly viewed the withdrawal as a smoke screen to distract from accelerated construction in Palestinian East Jerusalem, where new settlements and the growing Separation Wall threaten to imminently cut the civic and economic heart of Palestine out of the West Bank. The paper quoted the somber prediction of professor Ali Jarbawy, from Ramallah’s Bir Zeit University: “By giving up Gaza, the Israelis are winning 15 years’ advance in materializing their project,” he explained. “The formula for Sharon now is not land for peace, but land for time.” The disengagement has expanded the almost-deaf disconnect between the sides, with both dreaming up isolated and unrealistic endings to the story that begins with Gaza, as Cairo’s Al-Ahram Weekly’s Sherine Bahaa described.

“It would seem as if the two parties are speaking different languages,” she said. “Palestinian officials believe Gaza is but a prelude to the liberation of Jerusalem and the West Bank while the Israelis are reiterating that no more retreats are expected, neither now nor ever.”

Ehud Asheri, of the Israeli left-wing Daily Ha’aretz (whose coverage of Middle East affairs many Arab journalists prefer to The New York Times), cut through the satellite fog and gave the best summary of the media circus, calling attention to “the real battle being waged in the Gaza Strip — the battle over the disengagement narrative,” which the settlers were “winning,” regardless of real events, “on television.”

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