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Beit Hanoun, Israeli Bombing of a UN School/Shelter

Gaza’s Children Trapped in Despair

by NORMAN POLLACK

The Gazan death toll has climbed above 1,100, no end in sight. Hamas is demonized for rejecting the cease-fire extension, mention of its one-sided character–Israeli troops remain in place, as are the full parameters of the Occupation, notably, the long-term, dispiriting, life-destroying (literally) blockade– being conveniently omitted from media coverage. Despite world concern, Palestinians are in more desperate straits than ever. Beit Hanoun was three days ago; who knows how much further punishment awaits the people of Gaza, and with demonstrations increasing, the West Bank, too? That a cease-fire is meaningless with Israeli tanks and military forces on the ground, a principal Hamas argument, implying that nothing has altered the status quo, that the carnage would be, if it has not already been, swept under the rug, and that Palestinians are no closer to a two-state solution than before, now with Israelis acting with impunity and their hard-line rigidifying, perhaps more distant than ever, all international efforts, led by Kerry, are a solemn farce. The world community has become desensitized to the plight of the weak. Israel will never suffer the consequences of its micro-genocide in Gaza, Beit Hanoun fact and symbol for the systematic killing of another people, nor suffer the pangs of conscience, fact and symbol for its own inner moral decay.

***

World Jewry has erected a high wall of ideological protection around Israel, a defensive-psychological formation which not only condones its actions in all particulars (including, now, the invasion of Gaza), but also vituperatively strikes out, the cancer of intra-recriminatory behavior, against critics as therefore self-hating Jews for purposes of silencing dissent. Judaism is presently in a strait-jacket, the prime enabler for Israel’s commission of war crimes. I have consistently argued for the separation of Judaism from Israel, the latter a transgressive force contaminating the wellsprings of Jewish ethical principles and teachings by its actions with respect to Palestinians and, in fact, a global posture of Reaction, as in its uncritical support of—fully reciprocated by—American foreign policy. Even when not directly joined in battle, Israel has been the spiritual (I use the term loosely) partner of America in counterterrorism as it melds with the power politics of counterrevolution, presently directed at Iran, China, Russia, and going back to US wars of global hegemony, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, not to say, from the 1950s on, the overthrow of democratically-elected governments, again Iran, and later Chile, for starters.

This inseparable record helps explain the US support for Israel, a coded relationship signifying a common purpose, beyond presumed religious bridges of orthodoxy/fundamentalism spanning both sides, or the propaganda activities and lobbying of AIPAC, that reaches to the heart of a mutually favored system of globalization free alike from socialism, revolution, and challenges, political, economic, cultural, military, to a nucleus of Western powers led, naturally, by the US. There would be no slaughter of innocents in Gaza without that global framework intact, or rather, in process of being worked out. How relate this to Beit Hanoun? Gazans and Palestinians in general, representing the oppressed worldwide, are a test case in the necessary circumvention of freedom, if power-relations of dominance and submission are secured and made permanent. The world is shaking down into its constituents, for the US and Israel an alarming rise of rival power blocs and indigenous peoples, industrialization and broad patterns of modernization now on the historical boards and readily within reach, so that the accustomed status of superiority in a selectively defined West, backed by military force, is being questioned if not yet undermined.

***

Before turning to Beit Hanoun, I must contest the idea of the self-hating Jew because an impediment to clear thinking on the inflammatory subterfuge which seeks to exonerate Israel from its aggressions now and before, and because it also seeks a false solidification of the Jewish people through scare-tactics of supposed disloyalty and worse. Criticism of Israel does not signify anti-Semitism. Period. The charge of self-hating Jew is intended to terrorize Jews into conformity while not-so-subtly giving sanction to Torah interpretations, admittedly present, which emphasize passages celebrating conquest, the chosen-people idea, and divine mission (the Promise of the Land). My position, however, is that Judaism is more than the embodiment of ethnocentrism. From its secular and religious dimensions, often combined through an irreducible identity founded on historical experience and social teachings, we see in the nineteenth and twentieth century, until, I suspect, the 1970s, an inspirational surge of radicalism and intellectual creativity central to US and global progressive currents, from philosophy, literature, and painting, to the organization of unions, civil rights demonstrations, and the antiwar movement, earning, particularly in the period 1890-1940, the respect for American radicalism enjoyed on a world basis.

Jewish neuroticism (a not altogether deplorable trait, because, Hamlet-like, it often can lead to fleshing out submerged issues) is not of interest here, except insofar as the “self-hating” imagery disguises from Israelis the layers of repression corroding the Jewish conscience through showing indifference to the suffering Israel has inflicted on the Palestinian people. American Jewry, ditto. Making the charge itself betrays the characteristics of a blood-feud, in which Israel is fast destroying Judaism. I cannot let that happen, despite CounterPunchers who have e-mailed me saying, in effect, I should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Judaism, perhaps all religion, is not worth saving. I’m not prepared to go that far. One cannot blame Judaism for Israel’s conduct. Israel has brought Judaism’s identity into question, an issue beyond secular vs. religious, or, for the latter, between various intra-denominational shadings or belief systems. As religion it stands in danger of transmogrification because of unyielding attachment and devotion to its nationalistic expression, presumed to have the status of universality, which, were it any other nation, would have earned the condemnation for its policies and actions by a pre-Israel world Jewry and, especially, Jewish community in America.

If I tend to romanticize and/or exaggerate Jewish radicalism, humaneness, socially transcendent visions of racial equalitarianism and economic democratization, foundation stones for emancipated thinking in literature, music, philosophy, and the arts, signifying a vanguard group for progressive civilization, this is bred in my bones, in my civil-rights and antiwar protests, in spiritual affirmations of human betterment, whether or not I was a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist. Judaism was historically the umbrella under which like-minded radicals/humanists gathered—of course not the only one, but worthy of respect and, through my criticism of Israel and the American Jewish community in lockstep with it, my pointed effort toward its liberation from what I consider its present state of global Reaction and moral emptiness. The charge of self-hating Jew is framed by guilt that Judaism as currently practiced can no longer affirm its past. Enough for now; I shall return to the topic later in greater depth. The deeply-moving tragedy of Beit Hanoun awaits discussion.

***

It is easy, and usually valid, to berate the New York Times in its editorial policy, the preponderance of its op-ed contributors, and much but not all of its journalism, i.e., first-rate work of investigative reporters in the field (at times, below the radar of the editorial board). In this series of articles on Israel’s invasion of Gaza (now the sixth) I have drawn heavily on, and learned much from, The Times by way of concrete facts of Israeli criminality, from saturated bombing to the missile firings of armored vehicles, on to the use of ground troops (together a scorched-earth policy in microcosm within a densely populated civilian area). Most recent, we see Ben Hubbard and Isabel Kershner’s article, “In Gaza, at Least 16 Die at U.N. School Used as Civilian Shelter,” (July 24), and Hubbard and Jodi Rudoren’s, “Blasts Kill 16 Seeking Haven at Gaza School,” (July 25), a composite picture leaving no doubt as to Israeli disregard of world opinion and insensitivity to mass killings (then weaseling out by claiming Hamas rockets may have fallen short, this despite the fact that four U.N. schools have been hit thus far by Israeli shelling).

Hubbard-Kershner in an opening statement sets the scene: “A series of explosions at a school run by the United Nations sheltering hundreds of Palestinians who had fled their homes for safety from Israeli missile assaults killed at least 16 people on Thursday afternoon [the 24th] and wounded many more. The cause was not immediately clear.” Colorless, yet fraught with meaning: Israeli tanks rummaging through neighborhoods, firing at will, supported by air strikes and troops; medical teams unable to rescue the wounded because fired on by snipers; medical supplies running out in overcrowded hospitals, themselves subject to bombardment; multiple hits, on a school thought to be a safe haven, but how many errant shots could Hamas possibly have launched so coincidentally on target? The unctuousness of the Israeli response, the scene of utter devastation, both stand for contrasting worlds of dominance and repression, and always, with Israel, whether as insouciance or deniability, accountability is the last thing wanted.

Israel absolves itself by giving warnings—here, evacuate, “because the surrounding area was a combat zone.” How, combat zone in the first place, given the area’s residential nature and the known fact that the school was a U.N. refuge for civilians? And then the decision to leave—too late! They write, “The civilians who had taken refuge in the school had been gathering in the courtyard preparing to flee just when it was hit multiple times, according to witnesses.” Israelis were not unaware of the school and its function. Even the day before, a U.N. relief official in New York told reporters that “at least 72 United Nations schools, hospitals and offices have been damaged in the latest fighting, even though they are visibly marked.” (This may be a cheap shot on my part, but Israel’s contempt for the United Nations is well known; I, for one, suspect here “pay-back” time, in this case a “twofer,” because Palestinians were involved.) They continue: “’Each and every one of their GPS references have been provided to the Israeli military,’ said the official, John Ging, director of operations for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.”

Tellingly: “The Beit Hanoun school was the third one serving as a shelter to be hit in the current conflict [the fourth, vacant]. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency [U.N.R.W.A.}… said that more than 140,000 residents of Gaza were now staying in 83 schools where it has set up shelters.” The day before, “a school sheltering 2,000 people in Deir el Balah, in central Gaza, was struck in what was believed to be a drone attack.” In Beit Hanoun, witnesses to the school attack said “they had gathered in the courtyard and were waiting to be evacuated to a safer area when explosives rained down.” The grimness of the scene is the raw stuff of war-crimes material: “Eight of the dead and about 80 wounded were brought to the Kamal Odwan Hospital, the nearest facility, where rooms and hallways were packed with wounded patients and their relatives.” The people said “they had fled with their families from homes in the areas days before because of Israeli shelling and the situation in the school had been getting worse as food and water became scarce.” (From other sources, e.g., the BBC, we see interviews with doctors in the hospitals, in which medical supplies were also becoming scarce and hospitals were becoming morgues.)

Down to human scale. “It was early afternoon, after they had gathered, that the strikes came.” Here is Mohammed Shinbary, “’We went to the school to be safe and then they hit the school,’” stated as he was “kneeling on the hospital floor and cradling his wounded daughter, Mahasin, 7.” Here too, Amina Nassir, standing “over a single gurney holding two of her daughters: Fatima, 13, had lost a chunk of flesh from her leg and Aya, 12, had a broken shoulder and had shrapnel wounds on both legs.” All of the survivors agreed, only “after they had gathered that the strikes happened. Most said there were at least four strikes, though they were unclear what kind of explosives hit the school. Many appeared shocked that the attack had occurred inside the school grounds, a place they assumed would be spared.” And finally, Nidal Shayboub, age 20, who said that “he and 27 members of his extended family had been staying at the school because of shelling near their homes. Mr. Shayboub, his pants bloody from a shrapnel wound in his buttocks, said a friend had told him that four of his relatives had been killed: [his] mother, brother, and two aunts.”
Amina Nassir captures the prevailing mood: “I don’t know where we can go now. We can’t go home and even the schools are unsafe.” Homelessness, so common to the World War 2 refugee, defines a reality experienced by all in Gaza, refugees in their own land.

***

From the Hubbard-Rudoren article, the school bombing is provided additional context. “[A]s the war engulfed their homes, families in this northern Gaza town packed up their belongings and children and headed to the one place they presumed would remain safe: the United Nations school.” The source of the bombing remains unconfirmed, but signs, although the reporters and U.N. are noncommittal, point more here to Israeli culpability. First we see again, it was after Palestinians “gathered in the courtyard… believing they were about to be bused elsewhere, [that] blasts tore through the crowd, killing 16 people and sending scores of wounded, mostly women and children, streaming into local hospitals.” Timing clearly suggests premeditation, particularly since the U.N. had notified the Israelis of its intentions.

Conflicting testimony: “People in the school reported three to five blasts and accused Israel of shelling them. Israel suggested that rockets fired by militants might have fallen short of their targets or that the school might have been hit with errant shells from either side in fighting nearby.” Yet, “[t]his was the fourth time that United Nations schools had been struck.” Robert Turner, director of U.N.R.W.A. for Gaza, explained the agency’s role in providing services for the Palestinian refugees (its status was similar to that of a government: “It runs hundreds of schools and medical centers, oversees infrastructure projects and provides regular food to about half the population.” We learn that “more than 70 percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million people are registered refugees, most of them descended from Palestinians who fled or were forced to leave their homes during the war over Israel’s creation in 1948.” In sum, Israel had an authoritative body to work with, had it wished to—the schools as places of refuge (too, hospitals!) as firmly off-limits in any sane view of the world. This gross imbalance of the opposing forces, refugees and large-scale unemployment set against Israel’s wealth, power, technological advancement, military forces and nuclear arsenal, suggests a hegemonic disproportion easily translated into sadism, the need to show superiority toward and in the process humiliate those underfoot.

Turner, a credible observer, stated that the U.N. “had not confirmed the source of the blasts,” but that “in the earlier instances when schools had been hit, he was ‘certain’ that Israel was responsible.” His office “had told Israel that hundreds of people were sheltering in the school and provided its coordinates—12 times—most recently at 10:56 a.m. Thursday [the day of the bombing]. He said that it was the only shelter in Beit Hanoun where the agency was still providing services, after others had been deemed too dangerous, and that the Israeli warnings had made the United Nations decide to withdraw its staff and tell the Gazans it was no longer safe.” The courtyard, busses waiting, the bombing begins.

Postscript: At this writing, Sunday, July 27, there are reports of Hamas’s acceptance of a 24-hour truce, no word yet from Israel, according to Kershner and Hubbard in their Times article, “After Rocket Attacks From Gaza, Israel Resumes Fire,” who also write, “Huge clouds of smoke could be seen rising from the eastern neighborhoods of Gaza City that run close to the border with Israel, and fewer Palestinians were out on the city streets than on Saturday, as they appeared to be hunkering down again.” Meanwhile, sentiment in Israel, official and popular, is building up for widening the campaign. There is pressure on Netanyahu, seen by many as not sufficiently hawkish, “from partners in his governing coalition and also from some ministers within his own party not to take the pressure off Hamas at this point.” Go all the way; occupy all of Gaza. So-called centrists, e.g., Shaul Mofaz, member of the Knesset and former defense minister, said on Sunday that “Israel had enough troops inside Gaza and stationed along the border to take the ground operation to ‘the next stage’ and recommended ‘exacting a direct price from Hamas’s leadership.’” Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party opposed any cease fire—go all the way: “Israel stands at a decisive moment.”

Rudoren’s article, “Amid Outcry Abroad, a Wealth of Backing in Israel for Netanyahu,” (July 27), provides an up-to-date description of the inner mood of Israel, the siege mentality, ironically, of the aggressor, and with Netanyahu’s poll numbers skyrocketing, along with near-unanimous commentary that world criticism is creating a backlash merely determining Israel to act with greater impunity. Tzipi Livni, darling of the centrists, is constantly at his side. But Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US, sums up the psychological dimensions of the invasion. He uses “the Hebrew phrase ‘Im kvar az kvar,’ roughly akin to ‘in for a dime, in for a dollar.’ If we’re getting slammed, we might as well go all the way.” The greater the international criticism, the greater Israel’s belligerence. There will be more Beit Hanouns, more dead children, more rubble, becoming the hallmark of Gaza’s landscape, more fear, displacement, suffering—and for Israel, false pride, insensitivity, silencing of critics, contempt for humankind, eating away at that part of Judaism which preaches human solidarity and the social welfare.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.