In February, the well-known British street artist Banksy went to the Gaza Strip to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians in the aftermath of the devastating Israeli assault the previous summer. With regard to the murals he painted around the Strip, he wrote: “Gaza is often described as ‘the world’s largest open-air prison’ because no one is allowed to enter or leave. But that seems a bit unfair to prisons—they don’t have their electricity and drinking water cut off randomly almost every day.” [1] This comment, a new iteration in a long history of describing Gaza as a place of confinement, is meant to point out the continuous degradation of living conditions in this sliver of land cut off from the rest of Palestine and the world.

Plans for rebuilding Gaza in the wake of the latest Israeli onslaught also prompted a suggestion for revision of terminology. In response to the Cairo donor conference held in late October 2014, commentators argued that proposals for reconstruction would deepen the systems of control over Palestinians and place humanitarian actors in the position of implementing the blockade Israel has tightened since Hamas was elected to lead the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006. According to journalist Jonathan Cook, “One Israeli analyst has compared the proposed solution to transforming a Third World prison into a modern US super-max incarceration facility. The more civilized exterior will simply obscure its real purpose: not to make life better for the Palestinian inmates, but to offer greater security to the Israeli guards.” [2]

Observers have been regularly describing Gaza as an open-air prison at least since the late 1990s. The term has been used by activists in the Palestinians’ corner (such as Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader), by not-so-sympathetic officials (such as former World Bank head James Wolfensohn), by humanitarian and human rights organizations (such as Médecins Sans Frontières and B’Tselem), by reporters writing for a range of outlets and, perhaps most importantly, by Palestinians themselves. The twists offered by Banksy and the unnamed Israeli analyst suggest that conditions have become so dire that this language may now be inadequate to describe the state of affairs.

What does the term “open-air prison” connote? Perhaps the first referent for the term is the control over Palestinian movement that has been a central part of Israeli occupation practice. These restrictions are what Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams pointed to when he said in 2009 that “this is a total denial of the rights of the people of Palestine. This is an open-air prison…. People can’t travel out of here; they can’t travel in.” [3] And it is not only advocates for Palestinian rights who have noted this control. In the midst of the 2014 attack, the New York Times reported that “the vast majority of Gazans cannot leave Gaza…. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in 2010 called Gaza ‘an open-air prison,’ drawing criticism from Israel. But in reality, the vast majority of Gazans are effectively trapped.” [4] Gazans suffer from their inability to move in and out of the Strip. Even Israeli officials might concede this point, though they would disagree about who is responsible.

And responsibility is a second referent in the term “open-air prison.” It is meant to indicate not only that Palestinians in Gaza cannot move, but also that Gaza is not independent. Israel, the occupying power, is the warden of the jail. In 2007, following the Hamas takeover of the Strip from security forces loyal to the Fatah-dominated branch of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, the Guardian remarked: “The Palestinians can be blamed for weak leadership…. But the impoverishment and fragmentation of Gaza is a result not just of tribal Palestinian politics, but of the cumulative despair generated by living in an open-air prison. As Israel is the jailer it bears responsibility too for the conditions inside.” [5] As a letter to the editors of the Washington Post put it: “Gaza has been turned into an open-air prison, with all its borders—land, sea and air—controlled by Israel.” [6]

The insistence on Israeli responsibility has only become more urgent in the years since the 2005 pullout of Jewish settlers and pullback of soldiers to the Green Line, the 1949 armistice line that is the closest thing to an internationally recognized border around the Strip. Israeli officials have since argued that they no longer occupy Gaza; the UN and experts in international law disagree. [7] The 2014 attacks prompted some of the strongest statements about responsibility, as when Médecins Sans Frontières official Jonathan Whittall decried the circumstance of working “in an open-air prison to patch up prisoners in between their torture sessions…. Some of the prisoners have organized into armed groups and resist their indefinite detention by firing rockets over the prison wall. However, the prison guards are the ones who have the capacity to launch large-scale and highly destructive attacks on the open-air prison.” He went on to ask: “Would [we] accept to work in a prison where the guards had thrown away the key and threw explosive devices over the wall into the overcrowded den of human suffering?” That Médecins Sans Frontières felt compelled to move beyond its usual stance of being a witness to suffering, but not judging causes, indicates both the extremity of suffering and the immensity of the imbalance in responsibility for it.

Prison life is about confinement and loss of control. It is also experienced as a narrowing of life possibilities and future horizons. A February 14, 2015 report in the Washington Post put it starkly: “In almost every way, the Gaza Strip is much worse off now than before last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas. Scenes of misery are one of the few things in abundance in the battered coastal enclave…. Palestinians in Gaza say they are trapped more than ever in what they call an open-air prison.” With the dramatic destruction of 2014 fresh in the collective mind, it is easy to forget just how bad things already were beforehand. In the summer of 2002, at the height of the second intifada and Israeli armed incursions into Palestinian cities, Vincent O’Reilly, the head of Refugee Trust International wrote that Palestinians were imperiled by “malnutrition, ill health, psychosocial trauma, depression and psychosis. Agriculture is on the verge of collapse, livelihoods are threatened and for many people destitution is close.” He continued: “Indeed the fact that on any one day over 1 million people are denied free movement by armed soldiers means that citizens of the West Bank and Gaza are being held in the largest open-air prison in the world today.” [8]

As O’Reilly’s comments show, in early appearances the term “open-air prison” was frequently applied to both parts of the Occupied Territories. In 1988 an article in the Toronto Star described the intifada youth in Gaza as “the first generation to have lost their fear because they have nothing to lose: Jail sentences merely change the architecture of their prison.” [9] And the earliest LexisNexis result for the full term “open-air prison” is about a village in the West Bank. [10] Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s the term was applied equally to both places: “Now they live under occupation in what are essentially two open-air prisons, one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza.” [11]

Mirroring conditions on the ground, usage began to diverge in the later years of the second intifada, as Israel increasingly shut down access to Gaza and began to build a wall through the West Bank. In the face of this construction, a report in Ireland’s Sunday Tribune commented that the wall was poised to “effectively mak[e] the West Bank a huge open-air prison, like the Gaza Strip.” [12] By 2007 the linguistic separation seems complete, along with the political separation of the territories between Hamas and Fatah. Commenting on the Hamas seizure of control in Gaza, Gwynne Dyer wrote: “In a sense this confrontation has been coming for years because the Gaza Strip is an overcrowded open-air prison where living conditions are vastly worse than in the West Bank.” [13] Increasingly, the suffering of the West Bank and Gaza were perceived as different. And Gaza was viewed as a harbinger of the worst possible fates for the West Bank.

There have also been shifting temporalities in the term’s deployment. It is sometimes offered as a description of what is and sometimes as a warning of what may come to be. As noted, the building of the West Bank wall was one occasion when “open-air prison” has been used to admonish. The Irish Times related a UN Security Council debate in 2003, in which the wall was described as “a land grab that would create ‘open-air prisons’ on Palestinian territories.” [14] Another was the removal of Jewish settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005. An editorial in the San Jose Mercury News reported on Palestinian fears that “the pullout set to begin next week will simply turn the narrow, overcrowded strip of land into an open-air prison whose borders and destiny will remain under Israeli supervision.” [15] These concerns were echoed by international activists, such as the Canadians reported on by the Montreal Gazette: “A Gaza Strip without Jewish settlements will be little more than an open-air prison for Palestinians unless the international community puts pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to also relinquish control over land, sea and air access to the territory, say Montreal advocates for Palestinian rights.” [16]

What does it mean that there are warnings of a possible future that is also the present condition? For one thing it highlights the ongoing and steady deterioration of Gaza’s situation: As bad as the present may be, there always seems to be a worse future yet to come. For another, it points to the inadequacy of existing vocabulary to properly name this condition. As much as the term “open-air prison” properly calls attention to confinement and control, it might also suggest a process of ordered judgment that may unwittingly accept that Palestinians in Gaza deserve their punishment. As much as it underscores the downslide of daily life, it might also suggest a degree of routine and regularity that belies the constant threat faced by those who live in Gaza. As a resident of Rafah put it: “This is worse than prison…. In prison, you can be safe. Here you are in danger all the time.” [17] And he said that in 2001.

Endnotes

[1] Independent, February 27, 2015.
[2] The National (Abu Dhabi), October 27, 2014.
[3] Guardian, April 9, 2009.
[4] New York Times, July 21, 2014.
[5] Guardian, June 14, 2007.
[6] Doris Rauch, letter to the editor, Washington Post, November 27, 2012.
[7] Lisa Hajjar, “Is Gaza Still Occupied and Why Does It Matter?” Jadaliyya, July 14, 2014.
[8] Letter to the editor, Irish Times, August 15, 2002.
[9] Toronto Star, January 9, 1988.
[10] Philadelphia Inquirer, May 1, 1997.
[11] Edwin Daniel, letter to the editor, Edmonton Journal, August 18, 2001.
[12] Sunday Tribune, January 5, 2003.
[13] Halifax Daily News, June 17, 2007.
[14] Irish Times, October 16, 2003.
[15] San Jose Mercury News, August 12, 2005.
[16] Montreal Gazette, August 16, 2005.
[17] Reuters, August 19, 2001.

How to cite this article:

Ilana Feldman "Gaza as an Open-Air Prison," Middle East Report 275 (Summer 2015).
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