Collective Punishment in Gaza
This article originally appeared on the New Yorker on 29 July 2014.
Three days after the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched the current war in Gaza, he held a press conference in Tel Aviv during which he said, in Hebrew, according to the Times of Israel, “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”
It’s worth listening carefully when Netanyahu speaks to the Israeli people. What is going on in Palestine today is not really about Hamas. It is not about rockets. It is not about “human shields” or terrorism or tunnels. It is about Israel’s permanent control over Palestinian land and Palestinian lives. That is what Netanyahu is really saying, and that is what he now admits he has “always” talked about. It is about an unswerving, decades-long Israeli policy of denying Palestine self-determination, freedom, and sovereignty.
What Israel is doing in Gaza now is collective punishment. It is punishment for Gaza’s refusal to be a docile ghetto. It is punishment for the gall of Palestinians in unifying, and of Hamas and other factions in responding to Israel’s siege and its provocations with resistance, armed or otherwise, after Israel repeatedly reacted to unarmed protest with crushing force. Despite years of ceasefires and truces, the siege of Gaza has never been lifted.
As Netanyahu’s own words show, however, Israel will accept nothing short of the acquiescence of Palestinians to their own subordination. It will accept only a Palestinian “state” that is stripped of all the attributes of a real state: control over security, borders, airspace, maritime limits, contiguity, and, therefore, sovereignty. The twenty-three-year charade of the “peace process” has shown that this is all Israel is offering, with the full approval of Washington. Whenever the Palestinians have resisted that pathetic fate (as any nation would), Israel has punished them for their insolence. This is not new.
Punishing Palestinians for existing has a long history. It was Israel’s policy before Hamas and its rudimentary rockets were Israel’s boogeyman of the moment, and before Israel turned Gaza into an open-air prison, punching bag, and weapons laboratory. In 1948, Israel killed thousands of innocents, and terrorized and displaced hundreds of thousands more, in the name of creating a Jewish-majority state in a land that was then sixty-five per cent Arab. In 1967, it displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians again, occupying territory that it still largely controls, forty-seven years later.
In 1982, in a quest to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization and extinguish Palestinian nationalism, Israel invaded Lebanon, killing seventeen thousand people, mostly civilians. Since the late nineteen-eighties, when Palestinians under occupation rose up, mostly by throwing stones and staging general strikes, Israel has arrested tens of thousands of Palestinians: over seven hundred and fifty thousand people have spent time in Israeli prisons since 1967, a number that amounts to forty per cent of the adult male population today. They have emerged with accounts of torture, which are substantiated by human-rights groups like B’tselem. During the second intifada, which began in 2000, Israel reinvaded the West Bank (it had never fully left). The occupation and colonization of Palestinian land continued unabated throughout the “peace process” of the nineteen-nineties, and continues to this day. And yet, in America, the discussion ignores this crucial, constantly oppressive context, and is instead too often limited to Israeli “self-defense” and the Palestinians’ supposed responsibility for their own suffering.
In the past seven or more years, Israel has besieged, tormented, and regularly attacked the Gaza Strip. The pretexts change: they elected Hamas; they refused to be docile; they refused to recognize Israel; they fired rockets; they built tunnels to circumvent the siege; and on and on. But each pretext is a red herring, because the truth of ghettos—what happens when you imprison 1.8 million people in a hundred and forty square miles, about a third of the area of New York City, with no control of borders, almost no access to the sea for fishermen (three out of the twenty kilometres allowed by the Oslo accords), no real way in or out, and with drones buzzing overhead night and day—is that, eventually, the ghetto will fight back. It was true in Soweto and Belfast, and it is true in Gaza. We might not like Hamas or some of its methods, but that is not the same as accepting the proposition that Palestinians should supinely accept the denial of their right to exist as a free people in their ancestral homeland.
This is precisely why the United States’ support of current Israeli policy is folly. Peace was achieved in Northern Ireland and in South Africa because the United States and the world realized that they had to put pressure on the stronger party, holding it accountable and ending its impunity. Northern Ireland and South Africa are far from perfect examples, but it is worth remembering that, to achieve a just outcome, it was necessary for the United States to deal with groups like the Irish Republican Army and the African National Congress, which engaged in guerrilla war and even terrorism. That was the only way to embark on a road toward true peace and reconciliation. The case of Palestine is not fundamentally different.
Instead, the United States puts its thumb on the scales in favor of the stronger party. In this surreal, upside-down vision of the world, it almost seems as if it is the Israelis who are occupied by the Palestinians, and not the other way around. In this skewed universe, the inmates of an open-air prison are besieging a nuclear-armed power with one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world.
If we are to move away from this unreality, the U.S. must either reverse its policies or abandon its claim of being an “honest broker.” If the U.S. government wants to fund and arm Israel and parrot its talking points that fly in the face of reason and international law, so be it. But it should not claim the moral high ground and intone solemnly about peace. And it should certainly not insult Palestinians by saying that it cares about them or their children, who are dying in Gaza today.