Monday, August 15, 2005

Gaza Pullout - it's about time!

Today, as I write this post, marks the start of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. As I write this post, Israeli troops have sealed off Gaza and are preparing for the forcible removal of Jewish settlers in 48 hours.

I have never liked the concept of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. While I do support Israel's right to exist as a sovereign nation, I also support the Palestinians in their aspiration to exist in peace as a sovereign nation side-by-side with Israel, and not underneath the sole of Israel's combat boot. Israeli citizens should realize that Palestinians need to live somewhere, and that most Palestinians want many of the same things they do: a productive livelihood, and a safe and stable place to raise their children. Israeli settlements, and the security apparatus necessitated by them, only act to destroy these aspirations. There is a saying, "the devil makes work for idle hands", and the Palestinian territories are no exception to this. Unemployed or underemployed people are a ripe recruiting ground for terrorist groups.

The Gaza strip is one of the most heavily populated areas on Earth, with about 1.3 million Palestinians crammed into an area roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. (a city of 563,000). By that statistic alone, it is liveable, but when you insert 5,000 or so Israeli settlers, along with thousands more Israeli soldiers to "protect" those settlers from those 1.3 million Palestinians, you end up with scenes like this picture: an old man, walking around a deep trench dug through the middle of one of Gaza's main roads, with a sniper tower watching him in the background.

The damage that this type of security does to the Gaza economy cannot be overstated. According to the CIA World FactBook, the annual per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Gaza is just $600 - which translates into the average Gaza Palestinian living on less than $2 a day! To put this in perspective, this is the same per-capita GDP as Somalia, the morass of a country in Western Africa, that has not had a functioning government for over 10 years, and which has sent streams of starving refugees into Kenya and other neighboring countries. Iraq, even in the midst of its current violent disarray, has a per-capita GDP nearly four times as high as Gaza's.

Of course, all of these numbers pale in comparison with Israel, whose per-capita GDP is at $20,800.

Even for purely selfish reasons, keeping Gaza in this state of perpetual destitution does not benefit Israel either. Israel spends far more money on security forces in Gaza than it reaps from tax revenue there. Cutting its losses in Gaza will enable Israel to channel its tax revenue to more productive initiatives.

With the settlers gone, from Gaza, there will be no need for Israeli troops to dig up roads or divide Gaza with checkpoints, and Gazans will free to move about their territory and conduct business. However, this is only part of the solution. In order to thrive, Gaza needs to have a viable economy, and in order for this to happen, the free-flow of material and people between Gaza and neighboring countries will need to be ensured. As it is, Israel is planning to retain control of all border crossings into and out of Gaza, and if this is abused, it could instead turn Gaza into the world's largest open-air prison camp.

In addition to the obvious benefits to Palestinians, having an economically viable Gaza as a neighbor would benefit Israel as well. Productive people are happy people, and happy people are very unlikely to strap an explosive vest onto themselves and go find a bus to board.

For many people, what I am saying makes sense, however in Israel, statements like mine can be a political anathema in certain circles. It is for this reason that I applaud Ariel Sharon for having had the guts to unilaterally do something that needed to be done, no matter how much political capital it will cost him. Many people in Sharon's own party now hate him and consider him a traitor for pushing through this "disengagement" plan to pull settlers out of Gaza, and it is quite possible Sharon may not survive the next election. Sharon has had a long career in Israeli politics, and he has wagered his whole political legacy on this one move. For the sake of world peace, and for the sake of both the Palestinians and the Israelis, I hope Sharon's gamble pays off.