Hamas’s vicious attack on October 7th effectively provoked Israel’s horrendous and ongoing assault on Gaza. As has been endlessly reported, Hamas forces killed 1,200 Israelis, many of them young people attending a music concert, and kidnapped some 240 others. For many, it invoked memories of the Jewish people’s greatest trauma, the WWII Holocaust.
The Holocaust witnessed 6 million Jewish people exterminated. It is symbolically embodied in two vivid images – the Star of David forced to be worn by all Jewish people and the concentration camp where unimaginable horrors occurred. Each invokes not merely the modern era’s most gruesome war, but a pathologically orchestrated effort to de-humanize a people and terminate a religious belief.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a concentration camp as:
a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard—used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.
And a death camp is “a concentration camp in which large numbers of prisoners are systematically killed!”
Many – perhaps most – Americans, and of all backgrounds, have seen images of a concentration camp. They are horrific images. Most are still-photo and moving-film images shot by the American military during the liberation of the camps following the end of WW II in Europe. Gruesome. How those who survived did so is a miracle.
The current war between Israel and Hamas concerns whether there are meaningful parallels between the Holocaust and today’s conflict.
Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust resource center, distinguishes three phases in the evolution of WW-II era concentration camps:
Phase 1 — from 1933 to 1936. It was characterized by detention of political opponents to the Nazi Party in concentration camps. Following Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, the Nazis commenced arresting political adversaries and placing them in camps. By the end of July, 27,000 people had been taken into what the Nazis called “protective custody.” In addition to Jews, Jehovah Witnesses, Roma, communists, socialists, trade unionists and homosexuals were imprisoned.
Phase 2 — from 1936 to 1942. It was characterized by increased role of concentration camps like Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenburg, Ravensbrueck and Auschwitz. In the summer of 1938, Jews were imprisoned in the camps simply for being Jews, particularly after Kristallnacht, when 36,000 were detained. When WW-II broke out, some 25,000 prisoners were imprisoned at camps; by the end of 1941, 60,000 prisoners were incarcerated. In late-1941 and early-1942, camps were set up at Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec. They were part of Nazi’s “The Final Solution” extermination policy.
Phase 3 : 1942 to 1944-45. Beginning in February 1942, concentration camp prisoners were exploited as forced laborers in the German armaments industry, manufacturing weapons and other essential items for the German war machine. In Auschwitz, Jewish prisons were treated much worse than other prisoner groups (e.g., German, Polish, Soviet). The Jewish prisoners were “exterminated” — Yad Vashem’s word – at Auschwitz or Majdanek (in Poland).
Adam Kirsch, in a very thoughtful 2015 New Yorker book review of two studies of the concentration camp — the Konzentrationlager or K.L. – points out:
The K.L. was defined from the beginning by its legal ambiguity. The camps were outside ordinary law, answerable not to judges and courts but to the S.S. and Himmler. … At the same time, they were governed by an extensive set of regulations, which covered everything from their layout (including decorative flower beds) to the whipping of prisoners, which in theory had to be approved on a case-by-case basis by [Heinrich] Himmler personally.
Most pointedly, Kirsch notes: “… prisoners were treated simultaneously as inmates to be corrected, enemies to be combatted, and workers to be exploited.”
According to one analysis, between 1933-1945, the SS operated over 25 concentration camps and over 1,100 attached satellite camps. It reminds readers, “Most of the six million European Jews murdered by the Nazis died outside concentration camps, shot or gassed on the killing fields of eastern Europe.”
Kirsch adds, “Still, the single most lethal site of the Holocaust was a concentration camp: Auschwitz. Here, the SS killed some one million Jews; most were murdered on arrival in gas chambers.”
For a list of camps by country, check out.
Few will recall that the first concentration camps were built by the British during the Second Anglo-Boer War which lasted from 1899–1902. The Brits sought to impose imperialist control over South Africa and faced considerable resistance from white Afrikaner descendants of the Dutch settlers who entrenched in the South African Republic and Orange Free State. To contain the resistance, the Brits operated concentration camps. Between July 1901 and February 1902, some 48,000 people died – 28,000 whites and 20,000 blacks.
In all likelihood, fewer will recall that the U.S. has its own history of concentration camps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted: “The US ran concentration camps before, when we rounded up Japanese people during World War II.” She sought to remind people, “It is such a shameful history that we largely ignore it. These camps occur throughout history.” During the WW-II era, 120,000 Japanese Americans — two-thirds of whom were U.S.-born citizens — were held in ten incarceration camps, euphemistically called “War Relocation Centers.”
Nearly two centuries earlier, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act (1830). In 1838, Gen. Winfield Scott took command of Alabama’s removal of the Cherokee people to “emigration depots.”
The preceding brief review of the history of concentration camps is intended to suggest that such camps take different forms at different historical moments. Nevertheless, their principal purpose is to “concentrate” a targeted population, be they Jewish people, South Africans, Japanese Americans or Native Americans.
In the 21st century, the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” (OPT) is the most extreme example of a postmodern concentration territory. In the wake of the Arab-Israel war of June 1967, Israel seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, refusing to adhere to Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 that called for withdrawal from the occupied territories.
In 1971, under heavy secrecy, Israel built two detention camps in the Sinai Peninsula where innocent Palestinians were sent. One was used for the families of Fatah members. As the Israel publication Haaretz reported, hundreds of Gazans, including families of suspected Fatah terrorists — and young men not suspected of anything — were jailed in detention camps for almost a year.
In 1993, the Israeli military withdrew from some parts of the OPT and installed the Palestinian National Authority (PLO) to run the government in these areas. In 2005, Israel evacuated from the Gaza Strip, dismantling 21 settlements and removing settlers. In 2006, Hamas (Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”) was a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that defeated its rival political party, Fatah (aka the Palestinian National Liberation Movement), a faction of the PLO, and was elected to run Gaza.
Little reported is Israel’s role in fostering Hamas. Col. David Hacham, an expert in Arab Affairs in the Israeli military, dates Israel’s role in the fostering of Hamas to 1979 when Israel officials approved the establishment of The Islamic Center (aka Mujama al-Islamiya) in Gaza; it was a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. As Hacham told The Jerusalem Post in 2017, “Israel did not establish Hamas, but what was done in 1979 eventually led to what we know today as the terror organizations.” He added, “That was the original sin.”
In 1981, Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, who served as an Israeli military governor in Gaza in the early 1980s, told The New York Times that the Israeli government had provided him money to finance the Palestinian Islamist movement as a “counterweight” to the PLO. In 2009, Avner Cohen, a retired Israeli official, told The Wall Street Journal, “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation.” He confessed, further explaining that “Israel cooperated with a crippled, half-blind cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, even as he was laying the foundations for what would become Hamas.”
Even more succinctly, former Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) declared:
“… you look back at the history, Hamas was encouraged and really started by Israel, because they wanted Hamas to counteract Yasser Arafat … So then, we as Americans, we say, ‘We have such a good system. We’re gonna impose this on the world. … So we encouraged the Palestinians to have a free election; they do, and they elect Hamas.”
In the wake of Hamas’s victory, Israel imposed a blockade of Gaza in June 2007, reversing the economic gains within the OPT since 1993. The situation was made worse with the expansion of the Israeli settlements in the OPT; the UN Security Council declared them a “flagrant violation of international law.” Between 1967 and May 1979, Israel established 133 settlements in the OPT, consisting of 79 in the West Bank, 29 in the Golan Heights, 7 in the Gaza Strip and 18 in the Sinai. By 1977, West Bank settlers increased from 3,200 to 17,400; by 1982, settlers in East Jerusalem and the Jerusalem area were estimated at “approximately 80,000.”
As Norman Finkelstein, one of the leading critics of Israel’s OPT policies, noted in 2018: “Since Israel implemented the blockade, 99 percent of the people of Gaza have never left the territory. They’ve been trapped in that densely-populated hell hole – five miles wide, 25 miles long. Nobody’s allowed in, nobody’s allowed out.”
For a vivid depiction of Gaza mapped out on top of New York City, see an Al Jazeera map.
The fashioning of the OPT began in the wake of the establishment of the state of Israel. The UN identifies this as the Nakba which “means ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic, [and] refers to the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.”
Al Jazeera reports, “Between 1947 and 1949, at least 750,000 Palestinians from a 1.9 million population were made refugees beyond the borders of the state,” It adds, “Zionist forces had taken more than 78 percent of historic Palestine, ethnically cleansed and destroyed about 530 villages and cities, and killed about 15,000 Palestinians in a series of mass atrocities, including more than 70 massacres.” The Associated Press (AP) estimates that “700,000 Palestinians, a majority of the prewar population, fled or were expelled from what is now Israel in the months before and during the war …”
Two decades later, the Nakba was followed by the Naksa or “setback,” further refashioning, and concentrating, the OPT. It was a result of the Six-Day War that pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and 300,000 more Palestinians fled, mostly into Jordan.
According to one study, “the Nakba has made Gaza Strip the most crowded place on the World.” It found the following:
“The population density of historic Palestine in 1948 reached 73 individuals/km of Arabs and Jews compared to 389 individuals/km in 2007. The population density in the Palestinian Territory reached 625 individuals/km of which 415 individuals/km in the West Bank and 3,881 individuals/km in Gaza Strip. In Israel, on the other hand, the population density reached 317 individuals/km of Arabs and Jews in 2007.”
The OTP became an even more “concentrated” territory.
In 2018, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) found Gaza to be “one of the world’s most densely populated areas, with more than 5,000 inhabitants per square kilometer. The Gaza Strip is smaller than the city of Oslo but is home to three times as many people.” It notes, “Today many refer to the Gaza Strip as the world’s largest open-air prison, where the prison guard is Israel.”
One of those who referred to Gaza as an open-air prison is Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. In 2022, he said, “Israel, with Egypt’s help, has turned Gaza into an open-air prison.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the OPT confirms this assessment. In March 2022, it found that the “political system of entrenched rule satisfies the prevailing evidentiary standard for the existence of apartheid.” In October, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the OPT concluded that the occupation of the OPT is unlawful due to its “permanence and Israel’s measures to annex Palestinian land in law and in practice.”
Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, said Israel transformed the OPT into an “open-air prison” through widespread detentions of Palestinians. In June 2023, she reported that since 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians, including children as young as 12, had been arrested and detained by Israeli authorities. She argues:
“By deeming all Palestinians as a potential security threat, Israel is blurring the line between its own security and the security of its annexation plan … Palestinians are presumed guilty without evidence, arrested without warrants, detained without charge or trial very often, and brutalized in Israeli custody.”
Her assertion was dismissed by Israeli authorities.
Israel’s response to the Hamas vicious attack of October 7th was, sadly, predictable. Not unlike Pres. Bush after “9/11,” the Israelis went to war. So far, more than 12,000 Palestinian have been killed – approximately half of them women and children – and furthered the great displacement of over one million Palestinians.
Two critical features of Israel’s current war effort are (i) to turn the OPT into a concentration territory and (ii) to turn Palestinian people into things.
The process of turning the OPT into a concentration territory was identified by Israelis two decades ago. In 2003, Baruch Kimmerling, a sociologist at the Hebrew University, described Gaza as “the largest concentration camp ever to exist.” In 2004, Israel’s National Security Director Giora Eiland said that Gaza is a “huge concentration camp.”
While other presidents visited Palestine (e.g., Bill Clinton and George Bush), only President Jimmy Carter acknowledged what was happening there. In his 2009 visit to Gaza, he lamented: “[Palestinians in the Gaza Strip] are being treated more like animals than human beings… [N]ever before in history has a large community like this been savaged.’”
To enforce its status as a “concentrated” area, Israel completely encircled Gaza with a 20-foot-high wall that spans 40 miles in December 2021. If you’ve never seen what the fence looks like, check it out.
Containment within the OPT was implemented in still other ways. Among them were restrictions of movement in/out of Gaza and the West Bank; restricted access to areas within 300 meters of the Gaza side of the perimeter fence with Israel; restricted access off the Gaza coast (e.g., fishermen have access to only 50 percent of the waters allocated under the Oslo Accords); periodically blockades of crossings into Gaza, preventing the flow of people (including medical cases) and essential commodities (including food).
Perhaps the most egregious form of concentration is arrests and imprisonments. In 2022, Israeli forces arrested an estimated 7,000 Palestinians. As of yearend 2022,
there were 4,700 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. They included 29 women, 150 children, five Legislative Council members and 15 journalists. In addition, there were 860 “administrative detainees,” including seven children, two women and two PLC members. Making matters worse, 330 detainees have spent more than 20 years in prison; 25 of them were arrested before the Oslo Accord. Furthermore, there are 552 detainees who are sentenced to life imprisonment. For a detailed list of killings by country in 2022, check out the UN site.
Containment helps turn the Palestinian people into things. Israeli authorities are also using language to dehumanize their “enemy,” the Palestinians. This is a tactic not unlike how the Nazis used the Star of David. Many within the Israeli military and political leadership have sought to dehumanize the Palestinian people.
On October 9th, two days after the Hamas attacks, Yoav Gallant, the defense minister, declared: “We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.” He stressed that the Israeli military planned to eradicate Hamas in Gaza. Naftali Bennett, a former prime minister, ranted, “We’re fighting Nazis.” And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued, “You must remember what Amalek [i.e., a biblical enemy] has done to you, says our Holy Bible — we do remember.”
The New York Times noted that invoking the Amalek is “referring to the ancient enemy of the Israelites, in scripture interpreted by scholars as a call to exterminate their ‘men and women, children and infants.’” Going further, it notes that X, formerly Twitter, has posted about 18,000 calls for Gaza to be “flattened,” “erased” or “destroyed.”
Israel’s revenge over Hamas’s attack of October 7th has gone on for over a month and “victory” – whatever it means — seems no closer than when it started bombing Gaza on October 7th. Its bombing campaign has destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure, especially homes, apartment buildings, roadways, hospitals and schools. This has been accompanied by the cutting-off of key services, including water, electricity, fuel and medical supplies.
Israel’s bombings of Gaza is part of a campaign to force people living in the north to flee to the south, On October 13th, the IDF dropped leaflets on Gaza declaring:
“The IDF calls for the evacuation of all civilians of Gaza City from their homes southwards for their own safety and protection and move to the area south of the Wadi Gaza, as shown on the map.
“You will be able to return to Gaza City only when another announcement permitting it is made. Do not approach the area of the security fence with the State of Israel.
“Civilians of Gaza City, evacuate south for your own safety and the safety of your families and distance yourself from Hamas terrorists who are using you as human shields.”
The bombings of north Gaza occurred as IDF ground troops with heavy equipment invaded the area and now occupy large chunks of the territory, including hospitals and other public sites. In the endless pursuit of Hamas, the bombing campaign is spreading to parts of south Gaza, putting at risk those who fled from the north. A new round of targeted assaults seems to seek to further concentrate Palestinians deeper into the western south.
Estimates vary as to how many have fled ranging from “thousands” to 50,000 to “more than 100,000” to – as The Wall Street Journal reported – “about 600,000 people have left northern Gaza for the south …”
No one knows when the war will formally end. As Prime Minister Netanyahu told Meet the Press on November 12th, “If you want peace, destroy Hamas. If you want security, destroy Hamas. If you want a future for Israel, the Palestinians, the Middle East, destroy Hamas.”
Netanyahu insisted that once the war ends, Israel’s military – i.e., the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) — will remain in control of Gaza. He said that Israel will have “overall security responsibility” in the Gaza Strip. “IDF forces will remain in control of the Strip, we will not give it to international forces,”
One of the outcomes of Israel’s ongoing Gaza campaign will be the further “concentration” of Palestinian people in the south. As the war plays out in Gaza, a campaign of expropriation of Palestinian lands is occurring in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This will help consolidate large sectors of the OPT into a concentration territory.
The process of “concentration” that has remade Gaza – and other parts of the OPT – can be summarized as follows:
+ Phase 1 – from 1967 to 1993. From the Six-Day War until Israel’s military withdrew from parts of the OPT and installed the PLO.
+ Phase 2 — from 1993 to 2005. From Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza to Hamas’s victory
+ Phase 3 – from 2007 to 2021. From Israel’s imposed blockade on Gaza to the erection of the Gaza wall.
Today’s war further concentrates Gaza and the OPT.
This development meets the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a concentration camp as “a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution.” Sounds like the Occupied Palestinian Territory?
Sadly, the concentration camp of old has morphed into the 21st-century, post-modern concentration territory.