The Public Humanist

Gaza, Why?

This month marks one year since Israeli land, sea, and air forces attacked the Gaza Strip, killing 1,434 men, women, and children and injuring upwards of 5000 according to the United Nations.

The Gaza Strip became the Gaza Strip as a result of the creation of Israel in 1948. As a result of the 1948 war, refugees from the 78% of Palestine that became Israel crowded into the remaining portions of Palestine that then needed to be named. They were christened the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Gaza’s population quadrupled overnight. Israel barred Palestinians from returning to their homes in the interests of creating and maintaining a Jewish majority in the new state. In 1967 Israel conquered and occupied these portions of Palestine, which got a new name, a collective name: the Occupied Territories. Israel stayed in Gaza until 2005 when it withdrew its forces and the small number of Israelis who had settled there since 1967. Israel flattened its settlements, compensated the settlers, and resettled them in Israel proper. Nonetheless, the forced evacuation of settlers who, both in the West Bank and Gaza, are mainly religious Jews, gave uncomfortable prominence to the religious-secular divide in Israel.

As of September 2005 the population of Gaza, all 1.5 million of them, was free of Israeli settlers and free from occupation. But wait. Gaza is an elongated rectangle surrounded on two sides by Israel, on one side by the Mediterranean Sea, and on the fourth and very short side by Egypt. Israel controls the air space. The two sides Gaza shares with Israel are guarded by barriers manned by Israeli troops. On the Mediterranean side Israel does not allow Palestinian fishermen to get far enough away from shore to actually fish. The short border with Egypt? Mainly closed. So Gaza was by no means the master of its own affairs. And when elections in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006 produced a Palestinian government that Israel and the United States didn’t like, Israel began to choke Gaza to show that the winner of the election, Hamas, could not rule. Like the U.S.-enforced sanctions on Iraq from 1990-2003 to destroy Saddam Hussein’s government, it didn’t work. But it did make earning a living impossible for everyone but smugglers, and life itself very fragile. Upwards of 90% of the inhabitants of Gaza live on international handouts, which reach Gaza only with great difficulty.

Iraq has oil, but why should the Gaza Strip attract such deadly interest? The CIA Factbook helpfully notes that as a “strategic strip of land along Mideast-North African trade routes [it] has experienced an incredibly turbulent history; the town of Gaza itself has been besieged countless times in its history.” So the Israeli siege is just one more in a long string? Gaza is a very small patch of land, about the size of the island of Grenada, but clearly small size is no protection against invasion by a neighbor infinitely more powerful. The U.S. invasion of Grenada in October 1983 allowed President Reagan to announce that the U.S. had gotten over the Viet Nam syndrome and prepare for mid-term elections. The Israeli invasion of Gaza took place in a similar context. Israel had a Lebanon syndrome to overcome and elections pending. And there was the dangerous divide among Israel’s Jewish citizens, brought sharply into focus by its evacuation of Gaza in 2005. What better way to paper it over than to create a diversion, a threat to Israeli security. The U.S. moved on to bigger targets after Grenada. Will Israel?

So let’s look again at the claim of self-defense. From 2005 until 2007, rockets from Gaza killed 11 Israelis; the Israeli army killed 1290 inhabitants of Gaza. In 4 months of ceasefire between Hamas and Israel between June and November 2008, Hamas maintained the ceasefire and reduced rockets to between 2 and 3 a month. Israel did not fulfill the terms of the ceasefire since it did not relax its siege. On November 4th Israeli Special Forces stole into Gaza and killed six members of Hamas. Thereafter rocket fire increased until December 27, when Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead”, a no-holds barred attack that lasted for three weeks. But who was responsible for the increased level of hostilities? Doesn’t everyone have a right of self-defense?

A kill ratio of over 100 Palestinians to 1 Israeli in the buildup to the Israeli invasion of Gaza and during the invasion itself (13 Israelis died between 27 December 2008 and 20 January 2009 to 1434 Palestinians) hardly lends credibility to the security argument. PIctures give an idea of the scale of death and destruction on both sides.

Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire on January 18, 2009, two days before President Obama’s inauguration. Yet, the ability to act unilaterally is another indication that Israel’s security was hardly in jeopardy. Still, two days after being inaugurated President Obama affirmed “America is committed to Israel’s security and we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats,” adding that rocket fire from Gaza was one such threat. My students had a better measure of Israel’s security. Two of them were in Israel during the invasion of Gaza on a trip supported by Birthright Israel. They had a great time partying, hiking, hanging out with Israeli soldiers their own age, and the slides they projected in class proved it. They heard little about Gaza or southern Israel close to the border with Gaza and felt entirely safe, they said.

But what Israeli political purpose could possibly be served by a 100 to 1 killing ratio?

One answer, and a very ugly one, can be sketched by going back to 1967. By conquering and occupying the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel came to rule more Palestinians than any other state, even Jordan. Until 1967 Israel had always maintained that Palestinians were an Arab problem; it was up to the Arab states to absorb and control them. After 1967 Palestinians became an Israeli problem, not only in fact, but in the eyes of most of the world. After 1967 Israel increasingly saw the United Nations, which had legitimated Israel by voting to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab in 1947 and by accepting Israel as a member state in 1949, as an enemy. And that’s because Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories grossly violated international law. The U.N., as the official forum of international law, repeatedly reminded Israel of its violations at least when the U.S. did not veto Security Council resolutions critical of Israel.

The Palestinians under Israel’s control also became a problem for Israel’s self-view as a Jewish state and a democracy. They force Israelis to see the contradiction between a Jewish state and a democratic one. There they are, an indigestible inassimilable lump of humanity. Nothing to be done but to make their lives as miserable as possible and hope they leave. But that does not appear likely. Moreover Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the weapons it used, its targets, and the level of destruction have invited international attention and criticism. All criticism is dismissed as biased or anti-Semitic–Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the report of the United Nations fact-finding mission headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, but these charges are getting a bit shop-worn.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply