Anyone remotely familiar with the intricacies of Gaza’s survival has heard that the 365 square kilometers that constitute the Gaza Strip are an open-air prison. Some might have heard that access to the sea in front of the strip has been limited time and again for Palestinians to make a living from fishing. From the 20-nautical mile deep fishing area foreseen during the initial Oslo talks in 1994, Palestinian fishermen were pushed back to an always smaller fishing area, ending to a minimal 3 miles in 2009 (that is 15% of the total amount allocated by the Oslo promises).
The logic of this shrinking fishing area is mathematically clear: from a maximal fishing area of about 1,100 sq. kilometers (30 km by 37 km, i.e. 20 nautical miles), the area was limited to 60% of its original amount in the first limitation (to 12 miles in 2002). From there, its area was halved twice, down to 30% in October 2006 (30 kilometers on 6 nautical miles) and again to 15% at the end of Cast Lead in 2009. Why this area was divided by two in 2006 and 2009? The most obvious hypothesis, suggested by the timing of these fishing restrictions, is that it was thought out by Israel as a form of punishment against the Gazan population for showing support to Hamas.
Moving from sea to land, we could see, over the course of the last summer’s 50 day war, the same advancement of the limitations set by the Israeli government and military forces — and maybe we should stop distinguishing between the two bodies, as the latter seem to be dictating most of the government’s actions.
In the last war waged against Gaza on 8 July 2014, Israel has repeated, as a sort of excuse for its violent actions, that it had warned Palestinians living next to the borders to leave them, as they would be considered belligerents. The “no-go” limit was made initially of a 1-kilometer strip of land running along the border with Israel in which any movement would be considered an act of aggression (see Map 2, with a thin pink zone marked along the border).
A week into the new operation, and a couple of days after Israel launched its ground operation, this 1-km became a 3-kilometer area sometimes called “buffer zone” (Map 3), eating up temporarily more than 40% of the Gaza Strip. Thus, the “pink zone” became bigger and bigger. But was this really only temporary measure?
Two lessons, which can be gleaned from these maps, can provide answer to this question.
First, the deepening of this terrestrial no-go zone mirrors that experienced by Gazawi fishermen. Except that the consequences for the Gazawis are even direr, since no one lives on the sea (although they can live from it), but hundreds of thousands are directly affected by land restrictions. In this no-go zone, the UN estimated that, by 31st of July, 457,000 displaced Gazawis had been forced to leave their homes, 250,000 of whom are from the no-go zone, and of whom 236,375 persons found refuge in one of the 88 UNRWA shelters.
This tactic is a continuation of the same settler colonialism’s strategy at play in other parts of historical Palestine, as Maya Mikdashi argued, by analyzing the ways in which Palestinian casualties are reported. Similarly, Sherene Seikaly interpreted the last war on Gaza as a “historical repetition of the Israeli strategy of land expropriation that has aimed at and resulted in an ever-shrinking Palestine.”
It may be obvious, but nevertheless worth remembering, that this ever shrinking Palestine is the other side of the coin of an always expanding Israel.
A visual way to show that the extension of this no-go zone is not a pure accident, contingent to the nature of the military operations launched by Israel in the first days of July, is to confront the map that resulted from the ceasefire reached between Hamas and Israel on 21 November 2012, during the 2012 Pillar of Cloud operation, with the latest map. That map (see Map 4), produced by the UN branch in charge of Humanitarian Affaires (OCHA) distinguishes in its detailed version between a no-go zone of 100 meters, dark red, followed by a 100 to 300 meters restricted area in which “access” is “permitted” only “on foot and for farmers” (pink red), ending with a last “Risk Zone” made of the 1 to 1.5km along the fence (light pink).
The extension to 3-km in the last war should come as no surprise to the observers of Israeli settlers colonial policies: it is part of an ever growing strangulation strategy of Palestinian land and population. The same could be seen in the 1947-1948 Nakba (like episodes in the force evacuation of Jaffa by its Palestinian Arab inhabitants in April 1948, that is before the establishment of Israel) or from the late 1950s onwards with the Judeization of the Galilee (described by Ilan Pappé in his book The Forgotten Palestinians). That strategy is continuously repeated to favor the “natural expansion” (dixit Netanyahu) of the “illegal settlements in the West Bank” (dixit the International Red Cross), not to mention what has been going on in and around East Jerusalem for more than three decades.
Yet, the same strategy of gradual suffocation takes a different meaning in Gaza — and this is the second lesson we can gain from a detailed reading of these maps. In contrast to the West Bank, Jerusalem or Galilee, the Gaza Strip is so densely populated that the creation of such “no-go zones” can only lead to pre-announced massacres. With 1.8 millions people living in a space of 365 km2 (the Gaza Strip), and 44% of the Strip which where off-limits by a fiat (or phone call) of the Israeli military, one could only wonder where all these displaced Palestinians would go. Some managed to run away in the minute or two allocated by Israeli warnings. Others were not able to do so and died under Israeli bombings. Some of the massacres of civilians during the last war, such as those of the UN school of Beit Hanoun, of the neighborhood of Shuja’yah, and the village of Khusaa, took place precisely in this “pink zone” of barely 3 kilometers (Map 3).
Now that a cease-fire has been holding for more than a month, and learning from the fate of the dwindling fishing areas, one can suppose that, at some point, Israel will further extend the permanent no-go zone another kilometer or two. Up to where will the Israeli government push the limit of a strip that is hardly 6 kilometer deep at its minimum? Will Gazawis be forced to take shelter in the 3-nautical miles “permitted” for fishing? Gazawis have a proverb that describes impossible tasks as “paving the sea.” Is this what the current Israeli right wing government is aiming at? Should Gazawis end up living on the sea, since it has become impossible for them to live from it?