The restriction of Palestinian movement in Gaza and elsewhere has long been a central tactic of the Israeli occupation.
During the latest Israeli assault on Gaza considerable media coverage has been given to the Israeli tactic of calling people a few minutes before their homes are bombed. Some observers appear to accept the Israeli contention that this is a humanitarian gesture. Others raise the question of where, in this landscape of violence, in a tiny, densely populated strip of land with no free points of egress, the inhabitants are supposed to go. As Jon Stewart put it, “Evacuate to where? Have you seen Gaza?”
Palestinians living in Gaza’s “open air prison” are not only targeted for attack, but also victimized by enforced immobility. Through years of policies of increasing control, closure, and blockade, Israel has created this vulnerability and is now deploying immobility as a lethal weapon. There is frequent reference in the media to the blockade imposed on Gaza in 2006 after Hamas won parliamentary elections, but the process of isolating Gaza began long before that. Understanding how immobility was imposed and then weaponized requires looking at the history of borders, movements, and constraints on motion that have defined this place since 1948.
Two-thirds of Gaza’s residents are refugees, displaced from their villages before they were confined in Gaza. When Palestinians became refugees in Gaza in 1948 they did not cross an international border into displacement. They headed south or west, moving away from fighting, expelled by Israeli military forces, and only after the fact was a boundary marked between their homes and their place of refuge. These borders are “provisional,” defined in the armistice agreement signed between Israel and Egypt (which governed the new Gaza Strip) in 1949. The armistice line was “not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary, and is delineated without prejudice to rights, claims and positions of either Party to the Armistice as regards ultimate settlement of the Palestine question.” But of course this boundary has functioned as a political boundary. It has prejudiced the rights and claims of Palestinians. This border has determined much of the fate of Gazans. They have lived, generations now, in displacement just a few miles from their homes and villages. And their movement, within and beyond Gaza’s borders, has been subject to the whims of occupying and neighboring powers.
During the twenty-years of Egyptian rule in Gaza movement was possible—with a permit—across the southern border into the Sinai. Palestinians went to university in Egypt, they got jobs in the Gulf, they traveled, they were connected to the larger community of displaced Palestinians. Other people traveled to Gaza, not just humanitarian workers and peacekeeping soldiers, but tourists from other Arab countries, encouraged by the duty-free zone that Egypt established in Gaza. And Palestinians also came to have a relationship with the new space of the Gaza Strip, to feel at home there even as they longed for their homes on the other side of the armistice line.
Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian movement have multiplied extraordinarily in recent years.
With the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip (along with the West Bank) in 1967, people were able to visit—though not to reclaim—these homes. The government’s interest in incorporating the Occupied Territories, though not their population, into Israel required that the borders be relatively porous. And the territories became frequent shopping destinations for Israelis. Gaza, in particular, became known for its cheap car mechanics. And even if Israel did not want the Palestinian inhabitants of the territories (granting them citizenship would have immediately threatened the Jewish majority in Israel), it did want their labor. So, Palestinian movement was relatively unimpeded for the first twenty-five years of the occupation. Along with the workers who came from the territories for jobs, Palestinians were able to travel for leisure, study, and to visit family members.
But a few years into the first intifada, which began in December 1987, Israel began to impose restrictions on Palestinian movement from the territories (while simultaneously bringing in foreign laborers to take the place of Palestinian workers). The first steps in developing a comprehensive “pass system” were imposed in Gaza in the late-1980s, as residents who wished to move were required to get a security-services approved magnetic card (in addition to the ID card required of everyone). The Israeli closure policy, wherein any Palestinian movement required a permit, was fully developed after 1991 (the first Gulf War provided the occasion for the first comprehensive closure of the territories). With these restrictions in place, the number of Palestinians working in Israel decreased dramatically and people’s capacity to move between Gaza and the West Bank severely diminished.
Rather than easing these conditions, the Oslo Accords that were signed between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993 consolidated them. Gaza was fenced off, many years before the wall was built in the West Bank. An immediate consequence of Oslo was that movement between the West Bank and Gaza became impossible for most Palestinians (those not qualifying for VIP status). Goods could still enter—and Gaza was a major market for Israeli products—but people could no longer reach the other parts and people of Palestine.
When I was researching and living in Gaza in the late 1990s, late in the “peaceful” days of Oslo, movement in and out of Gaza for foreigners like me was nearly unimpeded. Not so for Palestinians. A friend, who visited me to add a comparative perspective to her West Bank-based research on how young people experienced the landscapes of restriction and circuitous movement that characterized the Oslo-period occupation, found the framework of her inquiry ill-suited to Gaza’s isolation. Her opening question—how far does Jerusalem feel to you?—was very much a non-starter in a context where people had no chance of reaching that destination. Rather than offering stories about the convoluted space and time of occupation—off-roading around checkpoints, never being able to predict how long a journey might take—the young Gazans she met usually said that they had never left Gaza. And most did not seem to think it likely that they would anytime soon.
Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian movement have multiplied extraordinarily in recent years. This isolation has not only harmed individuals—impeding their ability to live full lives—it also impaired the Palestinian political community, increasing distance, distrust, and ultimately division between the West Bank and Gaza. During the second intifada Israel began to restrict internationals’ entrance into the Strip, too. Having already essentially prohibited Palestinian travel through the Erez crossing, Israel’s response to Hamas’ victory in 2006 was to impose a blockade on the entrance of many goods into Gaza, along with the export of Gazan products. The tunnel economy that emerged at this time was one Palestinian response to these restrictions. Egypt has contributed to this isolation by largely shutting the southern border (the Rafah crossing is opened periodically and somewhat unpredictably).
So Gazans are immobilized in every sense: cut off from other members of their community, isolated from the “international community,” deprived of economic opportunity, basic goods, and access to advanced medical care. Imposed immobility is itself a form of violence against people, and it cruelly magnifies the violence of military assault. The current catastrophe in Gaza is a product of years of preparation. Restriction of Palestinian movement goes back to their displacement in 1948. And mobility management has been a central tactic of Israeli occupation since 1967. The phone call ahead of the bomb, the “roof knock” (a small bomb) ahead of the lethal strike, are twists in this long trajectory. That sometimes the phone call is not followed by a strike underscores its potency in psychological warfare. These tactics are yet another weapon in the massive arsenal deployed against Palestinians.