De-suburbanification of Gaza: model for West Bank —and USA?

It will certainly be an edifying sight. Instead of Israeli military bulldozers destroying modest Palestinian homes to make way for garish and profligate suburban-style Jewish settlements, it’ll be the other way ’round. In the Gaza Strip, the world will witness a small counter-vortex to the general downward spiral of the planet into what some have called Global Apartheid.

But as satisfying as the spectacle will be, it is small indeed. The Israeli anti-occupation group Peace Now points out that while Israeli soldiers are expected to bulldoze 2,800 settler homes in Gaza and 360 settler buildings in the northern West Bank as part of the pullout, 4,000 new houses are being built in West Bank settlements. As his compatriots in Gaza were celebrating, Issam Faroun, mayor of the Palestinian town of Eizariya on the West Bank, spent the week protesting an Israeli military order that would cordon off the last open land in his town suitable for development and lead to thousands more Israelis moving in. “In the West Bank, there are two separate life systems—one for Israelis and one for Palestinians,” he told the Contra Costa Times, Aug. 28. “If it remains in the West Bank, Israel will have to decide: democracy or an ethnic state.”

Israeli historian Benny Morris had an interesting but highly problematic op-ed in the Aug. 24 New York Times, “Palestinians on the Right Side of History,” noting a long arc of justice in the Gaza disengagement—but finding the future of the West Bank to be a more “painful question”:

There is, from the historian’s perch, something fitting about the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. I am not speaking about the fact that this appallingly overcrowded area has 1.3 million Arabs who need every inch of its 140 square miles to even begin to imagine a better life and who regard their former Jewish occupiers as nothing more than robbers.

I mean instead that for the greater part of ancient history – that past in which the Jewish people anchor their claim to Israel – the Gaza Strip was not part of the Jewish state… [T]he Gaza Strip and the coastal towns to its north, for most of the years between, say, 1250 B.C. and A.D. 135 – the era in which the Jews lived in and often ruled the land of Israel – eluded firm Israelite or Judean control and, indeed, Jewish habitation. It is not even clear that the great Hebrew kings David and Solomon ever directly controlled the Gaza area.

The Hebrew tribes that crossed the Jordan River and pushed into the Holy Land in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. settled and established their rule along its hilly central spine, between Ishtamua (present-day Samua), Hebron and Shechem (present-day Nablus). This stretch, with Jerusalem at its center, comprises the area that the Bible and many Israelis now refer to as Judea and Samaria, and the rest of the world calls the West Bank.

This is the historical heartland of the Jewish people – and of course today it is largely populated by Arabs, who claim it as their own and are demanding that Israel evacuate it. By contrast, the coastal strip to the west, from Rafah north through Gaza to Caesarea, was the land of the strangers, the Gentiles. Paradoxically, Tel Aviv, that ultimate Israeli-Jewish city, serves as the hub of this coastline today, a city of the plain par excellence.

Thus in a spiritual sense, history served up a terrible irony at the start of the Zionist enterprise. Wishing to return to Shiloh and Bethel, Jerusalem and Hebron, the Jews immigrating to Palestine found its hilly core heavily populated by Arabs. So the early settlers put down roots in the thinly populated coastal plain and interior lowlands (the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys), where land was available and relatively cheap.

Then, in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, the Jews established their state in those same lowlands, while Judea and Samaria were occupied by the Jordanian Army, which resisted Israeli takeover. Thus history was reversed: The reborn Jewish state sprang up precisely in those areas that millenniums earlier had been the domain of the Gentiles.

The Gaza Strip was the exception. It was the only part of the old Gentile coastal plain that was saved for the Arabs, by the Egyptian Army. It changed hands, of course, in 1967 (along with the West Bank); but with the Israeli withdrawal, it will regain a long tradition of evading Jewish control.

In antiquity, Gaza was part of Biblical Pleshet or Philistia – the domain of the Philistines, a non-Semitic “sea people” hailing from the Greek isles who probably invaded and settled along the coast in the 12th century B.C. (more or less simultaneous with the arrival in the Holy Land of the Hebrews from the east).

From their towns of Gaza, Ashkelon and Jaffa, the Philistines controlled the coastal plain from 1150 B.C. to 586 B.C., and intermittently challenged Jewish rule over the inland hill country. Philistia was conquered (along with Judea) by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., and the Philistines were exiled and vanished from history.

In the second century A.D., after having quashed a Jewish revolt, the Roman rulers renamed the land of Israel – in order to de-Judaize it – Palestina (a derivative of Philistia). They thus gave the Arabs, who were to arrive on the scene five centuries later, the name they were to adopt. In this nominal sense, there is justice in the Palestinian Arabs now gaining possession of ancient Philistia.

Of course, these historical details are of little interest to the Islamic fundamentalists, who, by most accounts, enjoy majority support in the Gaza Strip. For them, history begins with the conquests of Muhammad and his caliphs in the seventh century.

According to Koranic law, all the land they conquered (including not only today’s Palestine but also Spain and Portugal) became inalienable Islamic territory. Or as Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, said recently, the fundamentalists seek to control not just the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; as he put it, “All of Palestine is our land.”

Indeed, probably most Arabs would like to “de-Judaize” all of Palestine, and many, no doubt, see the Gaza evacuation as a first step. But that remains a distant dream. Gaza may be reverting to “Gentile” rule, but whether the West Bank – in which lie the true historical roots of the Jewish people – will do so also is another, and far more painful, question.

What is dangerous—and ironic—about this piece is that Morris takes the Muslim fundamentalists to task for wanting to re-conquer Spain, but loans credence to the Zionist consensus that treats the ancient borders of the Hebrew kings as a cosmic real estate deed, instead of dealing with contemporary demographic reality as a secular fact. Indeed, rather than make implicit excuses for Israeli land-theft on the West Bank, we should view the de-suburbanification of Gaza as a model for the remaining Occupied Territories. As “painful” a reality as it no doubt is, the Southern California-style gated communities now perched on the West Bank’s hilltops will have to be converted back into Palestinian orchards and grazing lands if there is ever to be a just peace. (Unless, of course, Morris advocates a wholesale population transfer, and is willing to turn Tel Aviv and Haifa over to the Palestinians in return for Ramallah and Bethlehem, thus re-establishing the ancient juxtaposition of Philistia and Judea. Didn’t think so.)

In fact, the de-suburbanification of Gaza should even be seen as a model for Southern California itself—and the rest of the USA. We recently noted how the oil-intensive model of suburban development now hegemonic in the US is driving us towards endless war and, eventually, devastating social collapse as the reserves inevtiably start to run dry. And as “painful” a pill as it is to swallow for consumerist mainstream America, this model also underlies the fraying of the social fabric, by eroding any sense of place or community. For all the social pathologies of the inner cities, it is the sterile and atomized landscapes of suburbia that have witnessed the most shocking explosions of alienation and hatred. Wrote one blogger after the 1999 Columbine massacre:

My advice to the people in Littleton, CO (apart from my sincere sympathy) is to raze the entire community and move back to downtown Denver. Turn the area back into farmland, which it should have been left as in the first place. At least inner city schools are aware of Nazi-youth gangs or whatever, even if they can’t do much about them. Suburban people are too stupid and involved in shopping by car to know what is going on.

We heartily endorse his call for global de-suburbanification:

Bottom line: Destroy all Suburbs

If you don’t work in agriculture or don’t have a rich family that can afford a country house, you should live and work in a town or city. Period. Amen. No exceptions, unless you want to be a gypsy.

See our last posts on the Gaza disengagement and West Bank land-theft.

  1. Lest we start feeling too hopeful…
    From the BBC, via TruthOut:

    Sunday 28 August 2005

    A suicide bombing has injured at least 10 people at a crowded bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.

    Israeli officials say vigilance prevented a higher casualty toll.

    Two guards were seriously injured in the morning rush hour blast. It was the first such attack since Israel pulled its settlers out of the Gaza Strip.

    Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, condemning the attack, described it as a “terrorist operation”. But he also described a recent Israeli raid in the West Bank in which five Palestinians died as a “provocation”. The Islamic Jihad group had sworn to take revenge for the deaths.