In August 2005, the Palestinians rejoiced in the Gaza Strip: After 38 years of military occupation, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew and the Jewish settlements were dismantled. Green and white wooden fishing boats from Rafah and Khan Younis, respectively, came to join a small yellow fleet in the Gaza City port, where Palestinian flags fluttered in anticipation of Mahmoud Abbas's appearance. The Palestinian Authority (PA) president arrived at the port and gave a passionate but prudent speech, urging the Palestinians to demonstrate restraint in the face of this unprecedented opportunity: freedom in a piece of what remained of Palestine. Not a bullet was fired at the departing Jewish settlers, nor was a missile launched into Israel. The festivities continued into the night: trucks with young men pounding drums and chanting in the streets; women waiting and watching from the windows; synthesizer music blaring from blown-out buildings converted into pre-nuptial dance floors, and lively parties at sea-front hotels; kitschy artificial flower wreaths on the sidewalks, posters of Abbas and, of course, Yasser Arafat; and always the staccato spattering of gunfire rounds. Summer is the season of marriages, and every night was a party. The occupation was over and the Gazans were happy for a short while.

Short-lived Joy

The fleeting taste of freedom dissipated as reality set in. No IDF soldier or Jewish settler remained inside the Gaza Strip, but the small sliver of territory remained closed to the outside world. The hope instilled by the UNDP-PAPP banners - "Today Gaza … Tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem" - turned to spiteful disillusionment as the Gazans remained largely quarantined. The Israeli Navy limited fishing to within a few kilometers of the coast. And Israel has stopped granting permits to Palestinians to work in the southern Israeli cities of Ashkelon (Majdal) or Ashdod, or to look for work in Tel Aviv. Plenty of young men loiter along the beach, the bullet wounds in their legs the telltale signs of their attempt to swim to the smokestacks of Ashkelon in search of work. Small arms and light drugs still freely pass the Israeli barrage, going through Gaza into the Negev and Sinai deserts, via the infamous tunnels, also used by resistance fighters to carry out operations such as the kidnapping at Kerem Shalom on June 25, 2006.
In November 2005, the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EU BAM-Rafah) went into effect to monitor the passage of people through the only crossing point along the Egypt-Gaza Strip border. Upon leaving, the IDF removed all technical equipment at the Rafah crossing. The Palestinians then resorted to using the old scanners and conveyor belts from the closed Rafah International Airport. Germany had provided financial aid, but the IDF bombarded and bulldozed the runway. Nonetheless, the number of Palestinians passing through the Rafah crossing did increase substantially, and the EU civilian mission was deemed an immediate success for having deployed so rapidly. However, the other clauses of the Agreement of Movement and Access (AMA) between Israel and the PA, providing the guidelines to the EUBAM-Rafah, were not implemented. Some of the outstanding points include:
* a safe passage connecting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, to allow for the transport of goods and people;
* the restoration of the Rafah International Airport;
* the reconstruction of the Gaza City port; and
* the facilitation of movement within the West Bank by decreasing IDF checkpoints.
And as attention was diverted to the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tried to promote construction in the E1 area between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, in an attempt to expand the Israeli hold on "Greater Jerusalem" while cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank.

A Victory and Its Aftermath

With the widely held belief that Hamas "drove" the Israelis out of Gaza, the Palestinians saw that their hope for achieving freedom lay in a change of government. This resulted in the electoral victory of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in January 2006. European observers deemed the Palestinian legislative elections fair and democratic, but Israel quickly imposed three conditions for dealing with a Hamas-led PA: 1) the immediate recognition of Israel, 2) the renouncing of the use of violence, and 3) the recognition of all previous agreements between Israel and the PA. Having gained popular credit for its armed resistance against the Israeli occupation and for the "liberation" of the Gaza Strip, Hamas would have been committing political suicide to acquiesce immediately or explicitly to these demands.
Israel then drove the last nail in the coffin of the Oslo Accords when it broke the Paris Protocol of April 1994 by withholding payment of all customs and tax revenues - some US$50 million destined for the PA every month. The financial embargo was matched by an international freeze on all foreign funds to the PA, and all diplomatic contact was cut with the new Hamas-led PA government.
The provocative Israeli shelling of Palestinian families on Gaza beaches and the killing of a prominent militia leader, Jamal Abu Samhadana, who had recently been nominated to the top Palestinian security position, drove Hamas to launch homemade Qassam rockets into Israel. Incidentally, Hamas was the only Palestinian militant group to have maintained the 16-month truce with Israel since Abbas managed to negotiate a ceasefire with Sharon in Sharm al-Sheikh in February 2005.
For Israeli security reasons, the Rafah crossing, as well as all other crossing points, remain closed. Curiously, the IDF still retains ultimate control of the passage of Palestinians at the Rafah crossing from Kerem Shalom, even though Rafah is on the Egypt-Gaza border. EU mission activities at Rafah have been suspended and no Palestinians are allowed to pass. The Gaza Strip is completely sealed and is being pounded relentlessly by the IDF, an action now widely perceived as an attempt to smash for good Hamas's capacity to govern the PA.
The subsequent kidnapping of an Israeli soldier on June 25, 2006, at Kerem Shalom was allegedly an act of revenge by independent Palestinian militants. As the World Cup mesmerized the world, the IDF ravaged the Gaza Strip; the IDF bombed the bridges connecting the Gaza Strip and destroyed the electricity plant providing over 50% of the Gazans' energy supply. Due to the Israeli closure, the scarcity of fuel and food quickly deteriorated into what the UN called "a grave humanitarian crisis." The IDF proceeded to kidnap newly appointed PA ministers and parliamentarians, as well as over 60 civil servants affiliated with Hamas in Ramallah and East Jerusalem; they also destroyed the PA Ministries of the Interior and of Foreign Affairs, as well as the prime minister's office in Gaza City. Enticed by pure escapism, the Palestinians preferred watching the World Cup, rather than living with the constant sound of death.

'Just Like Beirut'

In the Gaza Strip, F-16 fighter jets constantly break the sound barrier. The pressure from the sonic booms shatters glass and windows. "Just like Beirut in 1982," said Michael Jansen, after her exit from the Gaza Strip. Coincidentally, the veteran Middle East correspondent is the author of The Battle of Beirut1, the first book about "Why Israel invaded Lebanon." On a fortuitous taxi ride to Amman, she said the Palestinians kept their windows and doors open as they watched the World Cup, just like in Beirut, not caring so much who won, provided there were goals scored - some existential excitement and distraction from death.
During the Israeli siege and bombardment of Beirut in August 1982, the Lebanese brought their television sets down into the streets to watch the World Cup. The street is safer than an apartment room and creates a sense of solidarity with fellow citizens. And this solidarity that emanates from cheering for a common cause is what Mahmoud Darwish, the renowned Palestinian poet, describes insightfully, contrasting the delayed boredom with the Palestinian cause with the thrill of the World Cup: "Soccer provides the outlet previously provided by Palestine."2 Once having rallied to the call of Palestinian national aspiration, Arab states - degenerate monarchical and repressive military dictatorships - remain silent and inactive in Gaza in 2006, as in Beirut in 1982 and again in 2006.

Saturation and Apathy

The repetition of death connected with the state of Palestine, Darwish writes, "creates boredom when the scene goes on too long." And Jansen's description, "just like Beirut," was eerily prophetic as Israel invaded and destroyed Lebanon again in the wake of the abduction by Hizbullah of two Israeli soldiers. In August 2006, a year after Israel disengaged from Gaza, the renewed Israeli incursions into, and bombardment of, the Gaza Strip have become banal, rarely arouse interest, and barely make second-page news. On the front page, on radio and the evening news, Israel's bellicose acts reflect the inherent recurrence of the Israeli-Arab conflict. International attention now focuses on Hizbullah and Lebanon instead of Hamas and Gaza, thus continuing to neglect the initial root cause of the conflict. And as a viable Palestinian state slips further out of sight, the world keeps watching.