The ongoing discussions about Israel’s military objectives in Gaza are largely focused on whether the settler-colonial state is planning a long or a short-term military reoccupation of the Strip. Israelis themselves are fuelling this conversation, with 41 per cent of them wanting to leave Gaza following the war, and 44 per cent wanting the Gaza Strip to remain under Israeli control.
These numbers were revealed in an Israeli public opinion poll conducted by the Lazar Institute and published by Maariv last Friday. They reflect real confusion regarding the legal status of the Gaza Strip, even in the minds of Israelis themselves.
In truth, Israel was — and remains — the Occupying Power in Gaza and the rest of Palestine, despite the “redeployment” from the small and impoverished enclave in September 2005. Back then, Israelis convinced themselves that they were no longer the occupiers of the Strip and, therefore, were no longer responsible for it. The responsibilities of an occupying state for the land and people under occupation are clear in international law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention.
But the Israelis were and are wrong, even if, on 21 September, 2005, the last day of the redeployment, Tel Aviv declared Gaza to be “foreign territory”. Almost exactly two years later, this supposed “foreign territory” was declared to be a “hostile territory”, and thus subjected to the ire of the Israeli military should it not respect Israeli sovereignty and pose a threat to Israel’s southern nominal border.
International law, however, is not beholden to Israeli definitions. The UN has repeatedly issued statements insisting that Gaza remains an Occupied Territory. Moreover, the fences and walls separating Gaza from Israel are not internationally-defined borders, as designated by the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel, Egypt and other Arab countries following the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.
So, the heated Israeli discussions on occupying or not occupying Gaza after the war are moot; Gaza has never been freed from occupation and thus cannot be “reoccupied”.
Whether Israel accepts this obvious logic or not, it matters little, since it is the international legal institutions, namely the UN, the ICJ and others, that have the authority and responsibility to reach and enforce such conclusions. Nevertheless, Israel needs to be reminded of a few urgent matters.
For a start, resuming the siege on Gaza as usual will not resolve Israel’s problems. After all, it was the hermetic siege — whereby Palestinians were “put on a diet” but not allowed to die of starvation, according to senior Israeli government advisor Dov Weisglass in 2006 — which provided the main rationale behind Gaza’s need to resist the occupation. What’s more, it was that very resistance that forced Israel to redeploy from populated areas in Gaza in the first place, leading to the draconian siege which has been in place for nearly 17 years.
These facts are usually overlooked by mainstream media because they create an unnecessary inconvenience for the Israeli narrative regarding the war. In Western media, for example, it is commonplace to highlight September 2005 — although here “redeployment” is perceived as “withdrawal” — and 7 October 2023, and the Hamas attack on southern Israel, as the most significant dates and events deserving attention when discussing the situation in Gaza. While the first is used to exonerate Israel, the latter is used to implicate Palestinians.
However, neither the Palestinians nor anyone interested in the true context of this war should feel bound to this logic.
Moreover, we should remember that the majority of Palestinians in Gaza are descendants of refugees who were expelled in 1948 from their homes and villages in what is now Israel. They, rightly, continue to see themselves as refugees entitled to the Right of Return, as enshrined in UN Resolution 194.
Another date worth remembering is June 1967, when Israel occupied what remained of historic Palestine: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This remains a critical milestone, as it represented an earth-shattering historical shift in Israel’s relationship with Palestinians, who became both victims of Israel’s settler colonialism as well as its military occupation.
The Israeli military occupation ushered in a new form of popular resistance in Palestine, where ordinary, oppressed Palestinians confronted Israeli soldiers daily. The tools of that resistance from 1967 until 2005 were largely civil disobedience, popular strikes, mass protests and rock-throwing. Yet, that was still enough for the Israeli military to be chased out of Gaza, thus ending the everyday policing of the Strip in exchange for a new stage of military occupation.
On the last day of the Israeli redeployment, tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in central Gaza soon after midnight to confront Israeli soldiers as they evacuated the last military base, east of the Bureij area. Without prior coordination, the Gaza youth wanted to send a message to the Israeli army that they were not welcome inside Gaza, not even in the last hours of redeployment.
Israelis should reflect on this history. They should also recall that the Israeli rush to escape Gaza — under the leadership of a notorious army General, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — took place when Palestinians had no army and few arms. Their armed resistance consisted mostly of poorly organised militias, backed by the fury of hundreds of thousands of fed-up, occupied and oppressed people.
If Israel returns to Gaza to stay, the challenge of governing the rebellious Strip will be much more difficult. Gaza’s population has increased exponentially since 2005. Moreover, the weakest of Gaza’s fighting groups commands thousands of men, ready to fight and die to keep the Israelis out.
Even more important is that Israel has failed to govern one Gaza, although it has tried to do so for nearly four decades. If it foolishly decides to return, it would have to contend with two Gazas, a defiant and empowered population above ground, and tens of thousands of fighters below.
The truth is that Israel has no military option in Gaza, and those who support whatever military strategy Tel Aviv has in mind, are equally deluding themselves. The only solution for Gaza is the same as that for the rest of occupied Palestine: a clear understanding that the real problem is not “Palestinian terrorism” or “militancy”, but the Israeli military occupation, apartheid and unrelenting siege.
If Israel does not end its illegal actions in Palestine, leading to freedom, equality and justice for the Palestinian people, legitimate resistance in all its forms will continue unabated.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.