Gaza is a ruin, populated by nearly two million people. The July–August 2014 bombardment of this tiny enclave by Israel resulted in over 2,500 dead Palestinians and an infrastructure—already weak—utterly destroyed. A garrotted sliver of land that sits on the Mediterranean Sea, Gaza cannot import goods to survive, let alone to reconstruct the damage. Oxfam says that it would take over a hundred years to bring Gaza back to the conditions in June 2014 because of the ongoing Israeli siege. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an agency tasked with the provision of relief to the Palestinian refugees, complained that “people are literally sleeping amongst the rubble; children have died of hypothermia” (Gaza Situation Report 77). Pledges for relief are not delivered, and even if they would be handed over to the United Nations (UN), the Israeli embargo makes it impossible for goods to enter Gaza. Gaza, like the rest of Palestine, is condemned to purgatory.
It is hard to assume that Gaza had a history before its catastrophe at the hands of Israel. Jean-Pierre Filiu, in his formidable history of Gaza (Gaza: A History), attempts such an exercise—but then gives up. A tenth of his book takes up the story from the earliest Pharaonic records to 1948. The bulk of the book explores what happens to this small strip of land in the last half of the 20th century to the early part of the 21st century. With foresight, Gaza’s Mayor in 1937, Fahmi al-Husseini, warns against the impending dispossession of the Palestinians on behalf of the Jewish settlers. “It would be better for the British government,” he wrote, “to consign the inhabitants of Palestine to death and destruction, or even to envelop them with poison gas, than to inflict upon them any such plan.”
Filiu’s book documents the anticipation of the catastrophe (what the Palestinians call the Nakba) and its aftermath. It is hard to write a history of repetition, of endless Israeli attempts to crush the Palestinian resistance in Gaza and to throttle life itself in this small piece of land. In 2004, Israel’s National Security Director (NSD), Giora Eiland said to his United States’ (US) counterparts, privately, that Gaza is a “huge concentration camp.” Can a “concentration camp” have a history or is this merely a documentary of the eternal return of suffering?
The Israeli government excuses its actions by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of Hamas, the Islamic resistance organisation. But Filiu demonstrates that the current Israeli strategy for Gaza resembles, in every detail, the Israeli strategy deployed in the 1950s, when Hamas was not in existence. Even in the absence of any Palestinian resistance organisation, Israel sought to quash Gaza. Those Palestinians expelled by Israel in 1948 streamed into Gaza, tripling the population in days and putting immense stress on its social and economic fabric. By 1950, Israeli intelligence observed that the refugees in Gaza had been “condemned to utter extinction.”
To hasten that journey to extinction, Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 began incursions into Gaza to kill Palestinian officials and civilians—from Bureij Camp to Deir al-Balah. When the Palestinians began to respond with their own raids, Israeli Minister of Defence, David Ben-Gurion, suggested that Gaza come under Israeli military occupation. Israel occupied Gaza in 1956, inflicting enormous losses on the civilian population. Filiu uncovers evidence of massacres—“in cold blood,” says Abdulaziz Rantissi, who was then eight. Men, hands in the air, were led to prisons where they were interrogated through torture—and some killed. “No information on these round-ups filtered abroad,” Filiu notes, “as almost all of the UN observers had left Gaza.” Major General E L M Burns of the UN Observer mission later wrote that he was convinced that it was Israel’s intention to expel the Palestinians from Gaza. The grammar of oppression was set between military interventions and military occupation. This was before Hamas was founded in 1987.
Conflicts within Gaza
One of Filiu’s great achievements is to turn the Palestinian population from being victims of Israeli aggression alone to being survivors and fighters for a different future. He lays out the conflicts within Gaza between the notables and their various patrons—whether Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Syria. Between the communists and the Muslim Brotherhood lay al-Fatah, the main vehicle of Palestinian nationalism and the core of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964.
These political organisations worked beside the Palestine Red Crescent Society, the Union of Palestinian Women Committees, and the General Union of Palestinian Women and a host of others. The secular nationalists—led, in part, by the PLO—struggled to maintain the coherence of Palestinian society in Gaza by building institutions and resisting the suffocation enforced by Israel. All that came of these struggles was survival—the maintenance of the hopes of Palestinian national liberation. Beneath the work of the secular nationalists came the tentacular operations of the Muslim Brotherhood, which sought to influence society rather than struggle against the Israeli occupation. As the secular nationalists could not deliver much, the Islamists emerged in the 1980s as their alternative. It was the asphyxiation by the Israeli occupation that delivered large parts of Gaza’s population to the Islamists, whose main vehicle in the 1990s was Hamas.
To give a history to what seems an unending tragedy, Filiu offers a different sensibility to each of the generations that have lived in limbo. The generation of mourning and the generation of dispossession lived through the loss of their homes and the destruction of their futures. By the 1980s, they gave way to the generation of intifada, when Gaza, in sum, rose up against the Israeli yoke. His conclusion asks if we have now entered into the generation of impasses—if there is no way out from the siege by Israel. Israel’s NSD Eiland told his US interlocutors that a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine) is “unviable.” Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Israeli security concerns with Gaza make it impossible to consider an end to the occupation and war. Eiland is merely mimicking Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s 1978 statement that under “no condition will there be a Palestinian state” (Begin earned a Nobel Prize for Peace the next year). Eiland suggested that the solution to Gaza “lies in the Sinai desert.” In other words, the Israeli end game is to expel the Palestinians of Gaza to Egypt, and perhaps to expel the Palestinians of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordan.
On the Ground
If life is made intolerable enough, the Palestinians might indeed flee. Israel has Gaza under siege. No goods can enter or leave without Israeli authorisation. Palestinian boats cannot fish even in the extent of their territorial waters. Egypt collaborates with Israel to keep the Rafah Crossing closed for much of the year. When the pressure on the Palestinians pushes them to resist, Israel bombs the infrastructure and residential neighbourhoods with deadly force. Journalist Mohammed Omer lives in Gaza. His recent book, Shellshocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault, is a set of reports from Gaza during Israel’s lethal 2014 bombing of the strip.
Omer bravely gathers the voices of ordinary Palestinians who live through the torment. Amnah Odah (age 66) places the revolt of the Palestinians in context.
Putting Gaza on a diet of malnutrition and collective punishment, cutting off water, interfering with salaries, blocking other basic human rights and not letting basic construction supplies come through the Rafah crossing is unbearable. Of course, this is causing people to revolt and stand up for their rights (p 83).
The political factions welcome them—whether al-Fatah or Hamas or the many others on the Marxist left and the Islamist right. The resistance does not go down without a fight. About 70 Israeli soldiers died in the 2014 attack. They are vulnerable even as the Palestinians bear the greatest cost.
Of the two and a half thousand Palestinians who died in the last attack, over 500 were children. Omer tells their story with poignancy. There is Fares al-Tarabeen (age three months), whose body came to the overworked Shifa hospital. “He was still wearing his diapers,” writes Omer. Umm Amjad Shalah talked of her son, Salman (age 10) who could not let her go, being in terror of the noise of the explosions and the death around him. “Sometimes he screams so loud,” she says, “it almost sounds like he’s laughing loudly.”
Gaza Unsilenced, a collection of short pieces—many written by residents of Gaza—has haunting stories from the children. Ghadeer al-Omari writes of her son’s question, “We are not going to die today, are we?”. Mu’taz Hilal Muhammed al-Azayzeh (age 15) writes of the death of his friend Alaa Abu Dahruj, and how when he heard the news, he absent-mindedly walked out into the streets weeping as Israeli bombs flew around him.
Food rots because there is no power; bodies rot in the morgue. Gaza Unsilenced has an entire section called “Destitute by Design: Making Gaza Unlivable.” There are essays of the destruction of schools and hospitals, of the attacks on water purification plants and power plants, of the merciless erasure of Gaza’s farms and factories. The book ends with a list of the Palestinians dead. Each name comes with an age. There are too many children amongst them. Social media lights up with atrocity after atrocity. But Israel never has to stand to account.
Voices of the Living
Max Blumenthal, an American journalist, travelled across Gaza in the middle of the war. He listened carefully to the voices of the living as they told him about the dead and their encaged existence. Blumenthal’s book, The 51 Day War, is an honest appraisal of the regime of destruction that has been visited upon Gaza. There is history here, as there has to be, and there is prose alive to the everyday life of the Palestinian experience in Gaza.
Tamer Atash of Gaza’s Shujaiya neighbourhood tells Blumenthal of the Israeli bombing (p 55),
It felt like an atomic bomb with four F-16s coming one way and another four from the opposite direction, weaving between the houses. At this point, we decided we were not going to make it. We said our last prayers, and that was it. Because we know that when the Israelis lose one of their soldiers they become lunatics. We just knew they had suffered something, we could sense it.
When the Atash family watched the world around them collapse, Jordan—on behalf of the Palestinians—tabled a motion for a ceasefire. The Israeli government rejected it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “No international pressure will prevent us from acting with all power.” The phrase “all power” is chilling, and indeed, a good description of the way Israel was already prosecuting the war.
There is something special about Blumenthal’s book. It is neither a detached analysis nor an emotional reporting with the taste of death in the grammar. This is a fine investigative reporting from the battlefield. It is not merely war reporting, although Blumenthal lays out the military tactics used by both sides. This is neither merely a book of suffering. It puts the tragic, terrible suffering into its broader context.
Omer’s book Shell-Shocked and Alareer and Haddad’s Gaza Unsilenced are painful to read—also tedious. How much description of devastation can a reader take? And yet, Omer’s style is crisp and unpretentious and Gaza Unsilenced is heartfelt and moving. They simply let the survivors speak, and allow municipal authorities to lay out the challenges they face. Each bombardment of Gaza resembles the other, and in fact, Filiu’s descriptions from 1967 of Israeli bombing of UN schools is eerily set beside Omer’s and Blumenthal’s accounts of the same thing almost 50 years later.
Israel’s propaganda machinery goes into high gear to shoot down any attempt to bring it to account for the violence. A report from the Israelis on 14 June admits the “harm to the civilian population,” but then says that this was the result of “unfortunate—yet lawful—incidental effects of legitimate military action.” Israel worries about the preponderance of evidence gathered by the UN, which will raise serious legal problems. Palestine is now a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC’s special prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said last year that she was not going to buckle under “political pressure,” namely, from the US and Israel. When Palestine goes to the ICC, Bensouda said, she would open a file on the Gaza bombardment. Now is the time.
Gaza Situation Report 77, United Nations Relief and Works Agency, published on 29 January 2015; available at: http://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/emergency-reports/gaza-situation-report-77.
This article originally ran in Economic and Political Weekly.