Collective Punishment as Normalcy

Looking out over the Rafah skyline at dark from the roof of my apartment building most families are sleeping. The flicker of a few late night TVs can be seen through an occasional window. The street lights shine down on the sidewalks, highlighting mounds of sand and scattered trash. Laundry and the tattered edges of Palestinian flags blow gently in the wind. Things are peaceful, mostly quiet with the sporadic calls of roosters and donkeys.

The the slow rumble begins of the American made F16s overhead, not a new sound, but tonight there are many and more consistent than usual. The bright lights of flash grenades rip me from the occupation free reality I have always known, reminding me I am in Rafah. The experience is surreal. There have been mock air raids for intimidation purposes every night over Gaza for the last few days as well as over 25 actual missiles dropped destroying major roads, agricultural lands and a bridge. “Four access routes have been targeted in the northern Gaza Strip by the air force,” an IDF spokesman said. “The routes have been used by terrorists to reach areas from which they launch rockets and mortar shells at Israeli targets.” These homemade rockets are highly inaccurate, have a range of 10 kilometers and according to Israel itself, pose no strategic threat. Yet these so called “routes” being bombed are not used solely by the resistance fighters but are the roads to schools, hospitals, homes and farms of the 1.4 million residents of Gaza.

Last week I heard the sound of an Apache helicopter and stood to look out the window because it sounded so close and seemed to be m aking circles around the apartment. Glancing out the window I watched it drop a missile that lit up red and disappeared behind the apartment building across the street. It landed in a nearby neighborhood directly on a car in the street killing a 20 year old resistance fighter who they were aiming for. There was no trial, just an assassination. Ten innocent civilians were injured including three children. This is just one of many of these extra-judicial killings, clearly illegal by international law, committed by Israel regularly.

I have been trying to write about these experiences for two weeks but have been wordless in attempting to explain the immense gap between my previous perception as understood by Hollywood movies and news accounts and the reality, the feeling of watching a machine made by your country drop a weapon into the community in which you are living. It is so different when you know families in the neighborhood under attack, when the store across the street where you usually shop is closed because the night before someone in their family was killed. When a missile is falling on the same neighborhood where earlier in the day you saw the simple beauty of a small child carrying his younger brother on his back through puddles, watched taxis swerve around a toothless old man driving a donkey cart loaded with fresh tomatoes, and where you sat with a family who insisted you eat more when you know they don’t have enough food to feed themselves.

Collective punishment… “the punishing of a group of people for the crime of a few or even of one. It is in direct contradiction to the concept of due process, where each individual receives separate treatment based on their individual circumstances as they relate to the crime in question.” In my short time in Palestine I have witnessed collective punishment by Israel through the mass arrests of young men simply because of their age, the dem olitions of hundreds of homes of innocent families because of their location, the inability of all Palestinians to move freely to school, to jobs, to see their family, to get to the hospital, the destruction and confiscation of olive groves, and now, the air strikes on neighborhoods and infrastructure. In Gaza this week 3-month-old Maria Fikri Ekhrout, was injured by shrapnel to the right eye and the skull when she was at home. She was only one of many innocent civilians injured and this is “post-disengagement,” (more accurately redeployment from the ground to air, border, and sea). The windows of a large hospital were blown out. I am tired of listing these atrocities, the words seem empty in contrast to the look in the eyes of those who have suffered from them directly. How the list might read differently if you too saw the old man praying on a small rug in the rubble of his demolished home. These direct experiences lift the long lists of human rights abuses off the page, giving them new meaning, no longer just reaching the logical mind, but moving in to the heart.

The Israeli military and the media provide no shortage of attempted justifications for these acts of collective punishment, and it is the responsibility of Israeli citizens and Americans who fund these actions to demand that such attacks must stop. In short soundbytes, the media attempts to portray Israel as only “defending itself” against supposedly hate-filled Arabs. Once you are here on the ground this rhetoric is absurd. Yes, there are individual Palestinians who are firing rockets into Israel, suicide bombers who have killed innocent Israelis, but forcing the entire population of Palestinians to suffer daily will not bring peace. Bombing roads, killing Palestinian children and leaving thousands of poor civilians without homes is not a proper response. Anger is fed and more good hearted civilians become extremists.

Repea tedly the media and Israel blame the Palestinian leadership for their “inability to restore order, to stop ‘terrorist’ attacks and control the situation.” But this denies the role of 38 years of occupation and the systematic, strategic role Israel has played in destroying the infrastructure of the PA. There is no question that a lot of corruption exists within the Palestinian Authority, but they are not to blame for the resistance. Without occupation there would be nothing to resist. I hear the same logic from America in reference to Iraq, justifying the collective punishment and the continued occupation because without it, there will be chaos. That, like the PA, the new Iraqi government can’t get things under control. It is a self fullfilling prophesy. The military strategies of Israel and America create the very chaos that “forces them to remain and take necessary security measures.” In Palestine, while the Israel Occupation continues, these security measures come in the form of a wall that claims mass amounts of arable land and the majority of all water resources. In Iraq, while the American occupation continues, billions of dollars end up in the hands of American based corporations for “reconstruction” and continued resource control.

The first morning after I witnessed an air strike, over tea with a close family, I mentioned what I had seen in the night. The family smiled at each other, “this is normal” the father told me, “no big deal.” Right now the atrocities I am witnessing are nothing compared to what they have seen, what they have lived through. Yet an end to the collective punishment is no where in sight. Israeli defense officials announced today the creation of a “no-go zone” 1.5 miles deep which will run along the northern and eastern edges of Gaza enforced with artillery, helicopter and gunboat fire. According to a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office, under this policy “any thing that moved” would be “fair game.” Gaza is only about 25 miles long and six miles wide so this is a significant amount of land, much of it farmland. They recently threatened to cut off electricity to Gaza following each rocket attack. This policy is on hold due to pressure from human rights groups pointing out that the hospital in Gaza is without generators. Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, stated that “if the options are that Israeli southern communities suffer rocket fire or Gazans flee to Sinai under Israeli bombardment, I prefer the second option.” Yesterday, in America, our congress approved an additional 600 million dollars to Israel to “fund joint security projects.” The longer I am here and the more exposure I have to the experience of life under occupation the more confused I become about the difference between “terrorism” and the anti-terror policies of collective punishment employed by Israel and the US. I feel frustration and hopelessness for the future of the people I have come to know in the last three months. Yet I still hold on to the hope in people to people connection and know there is power in the simple act of listening and sharing one anothers stories.

ROCHELLE GAUSE is a member of the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project. She can be reached at