From Khan Yunis, you can't see settlers

Gideon Levy
9 January 2005

On the face of it, one could think that the disengagement was already in place. From Khan Yunis, one hardly sees any settlers or settlements at this point. If, in the West Bank, red roofs and water towers are visible from every Palestinian home, here, in the center of the Gaza Strip, people see only watchtowers, camouflage nets and concrete walls. The settlers, the settlements, the soldiers are all hidden on the other side of the vast, cleared-out expanses, fortified behind the armored positions, the iron walls, the tanks and the fences.

Even the soldier at the notorious Abu Huli checkpoint, which splits the main road from Gaza to here, is both visible and invisible as he issues his orders to Palestinian drivers. Only his voice is heard through the scratchy loudspeaker located high on the tower that dominates the road, and the kowtowing drivers rush to obey.

At one time, settlers' vehicles drove through the junction, and the Palestinians knew that they faced a delay of hours because of them. Now, the settlers cross on the bridge above, hidden behind concrete walls, while the Palestinians travel - or are delayed without knowing why - on the road below.

The invisible occupation is sometimes crueler even than the open occupation that manifests itself at the checkpoints of the West Bank. In Gaza, the soldiers and settlers do not have human form; they are faceless and incorporeal; only voices that bark out commands, bulldozers that destroy and settlements that look like fortresses.

In Khan Yunis, there is no need to wait for the settlers to carry through their threats to resist government decisions by force in order to come to the conclusion that Israeli democracy has been wounded.

The very presence of settlements such as Ganei Tal and Neveh Dekalim, which are depicted in the media as flourishing communities, with kindergartens, synagogues, lush fields and residents who are now experiencing serious distress, attests to the existence of apartheid. On one side, you have a minority that lives in affluent communities and dictates the life of the majority around it by means of military force that protects it and maintains total separation on the ground. On the other side, across from the terrifying watchtowers that encircle the two settlements, is the Khan Yunis refugee camp, with streets of sand and mud, a place most Israelis never see.

The attacks on the settlers are described as murderous terrorism that is perpetrated in a vacuum, the product of a bloodthirsty character; but the day-to-day suffering that the settlers cause the Palestinians is not shown. The Khan Yunis refugee camp is now in mourning for its sons who were killed and its houses that were demolished. No one here is talking about the disengagement plan or about the elections being held today. Here, they are all preoccupied with a cruel battle of survival. Mourners' tents can be seen in every corner of the camp. Fresh memorial posters are put up on the walls every day. One of them shows the face of Ahmed Touman, 17, who suffered from Down's Syndrome and was killed a few days ago. The hospital report states that bullets were found in his head, his heart and his ribs, and that fragments were found in his leg and hip. The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman's Office stated that soldiers had fired warning shots at his legs.

In the muddy alleys, terrified children pick at the new ruins. Every rainfall turns the camp into a vast swamp, and with the razed houses, the place looks like a disaster zone. Much of the residents' suffering is due to the existence of the settlements, which choke them from the west and dispossess them of their land; and when this situation prompts armed individuals to open fire at the settlements, the army responds disproportionately, causing harsh suffering to thousands of innocent people.

But do we have the right to look only at the present and forget the past, which led to their wretched existence? Shouldn't that past at least create the feeling of a desire for atonement?

Every family here carries the memory of a different life, on the streets of Majdal and in the fields of Isdad, in the groves of Kastina and the bountiful lands of Faluja - 45 towns and villages in the area north of the Gaza Strip that were destroyed and lost to them. Everyone whose house is now being demolished under the tracks of the IDF bulldozers is a child of families who once experienced similar destruction. Hardly a day goes by here without leveling and demolition operations. Only the silver sea of the greenhouses in Ganei Tal and Neveh Dekalim is left untouched. In their fields, which border the refugee camp, another ugly side of the new pioneers is revealed - the NIS 35-48 [less than $10] a day that a handful of workers from Khan Yunis earn for the privilege of working the plots where the settlers grow spices for export.

In Gush Katif, they haven't heard of minimum wage or about justice. It's hard to describe in words what the Khan Yunis refugee camp looks like. The camp reaches the consciousness of Israelis only through IDF reprisal operations such as "Purple Iron" or "Autumn Wind." Few ask what sin these people have committed; the only desire of most of them is to live in humane conditions at long last. They are suffering primarily from the occupation, which is here because of the settlements, and from Khan Yunis, an end to the occupation looks very far off indeed.

As the settlers brandish "moral considerations" against "the evacuation of Jews from their land," we must remember what life in Khan Yunis is like, whose land this is, who the real victim is and how all this suffering settled on the local population here.

Originally published here.