It’s now three months since Hamas’s vicious attack on October 7th and, sadly, there appears to be no end in sight. It was a well-planned attack that effectively provoked Israel’s horrendous and ongoing assault on Gaza. As has been endlessly reported, around 1,200 Israelis, many of them young people attending a music concert. 240 others were taken hostage.
Shortly after the attack Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lamented, “This war was imposed upon us by a despicable enemy — by savages who celebrate the murder of women, children, and the elderly.” And he then declared: “This is a moment of genuine struggle against those who have risen up against us to destroy us. Our goal is victory – a crushing victory over Hamas, toppling its regime and removing its threat to the State of Israel once and for all.”
On December 26th at a Likud party meeting, Netanyahu said he was actively working to ethnically transfer Palestinians out of Gaza. “The world is already discussing the possibilities of voluntary immigration,” he said. Adding, “It has strategic importance for the day after the war.” An Israeli newspaper reported government officials were in negotiations with Rwanda, Chad and the Congo regarding the possible reception of Palestinian “migrants.”
Israel’s response to Hamas‘s attack was, sadly, predictable. Not unlike Pres. George W. Bush after “9/11,” the Israelis went to war. So far, more than 22,000 Palestinian have been killed – approximately half of them women and children – and furthered the great displacement of over one million Palestinians; it is estimated that more than 7,000 Palestinians — mostly women and children — are reportedly missing. In addition, 506 Israeli military personnel have died.
Today “victory” seems no closer than when Israel launched its counter-offensive. Laura E. Adkins recently wrote in The Forward, “Israel, still reeling from Oct. 7, is single-mindedly focused on defeating Hamas. But it will never do so if all parties involved can’t provide a hopeful vision of what comes next.” She, along with others, identify the two most discussed likely war outcome – a one-state or a two-state solution. But what if these are mere chimera, best-case wishes impossible to achieve? What if “victory” involves something very different?
Israel’s current military campaign is distinguished by an effort to turn the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) — encompassing the Gaza Strip and West Bank (including East Jerusalem) — into what can best be conceived of a “concentration territory.”
Since its founding 75 years ago, the Israeli government has moved systematically to transform the OPT into an ever-shrinking concentrated territory.
This has involved a two-fold, complementary strategy of (i) reducing the Palestinian population through a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” and (ii) shrinking the territory into an ever-smaller land mass. This two-phased strategy seems the unstated goal of the current Israel war effort – and what “victory” really means.
Mouin Rabbani dates Israel’s effort to shrink the Palestinian population from before the state of Israel was established. As he notes,
As early as 1895, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the contemporary Zionist movement, identified the necessity of removing the inhabitants of Palestine in the following terms: “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country … expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”
In the wake of the establishment of the state of Israel, the UN identifies the first phase of the formal “expropriation and the removal” 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.”
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.
Two decades later, the Nakba was followed by a second concentration, the Naksa or “setback,” that further shrunk the OPT’s population. 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;
Two leading Israeli authorities identified this as a critical step in the process of turning the OPT into a concentration territory. 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 was a “huge concentration camp.”
In 2018, the Norwegian Rufugee Council (NRC) found Gaza to be “one of the world’s most densely populated areas, with more than 5,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. 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.”
A similar process of concentration took place in the West Bank. The New Yorker recently reported:
There will be a number of Palestinian Bantustans, Gaza-style, all over the West Bank. And each one of these Palestinian enclaves is already surrounded and gradually will be more surrounded by this mix of measures, whether it be Israeli infrastructure such as roads or military bases or walls or fences or settlements and so on.
Whether in Gaza or the West Bank, Israel’s unstated goal has been to concentrate the Palestinian territory and population.
Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur of human rights in the Palestinian Territory identifiedIsrael’s action as a form of “ethnic cleansing.” “Israel has already carried out mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians under the fog of war,” she said. Adding, “Again, in the name of self-defence, Israel is seeking to justify what would amount to ethnic cleansing.”
Historically, containment within the OPT has been implemented in multiple ways. They included restrictions of movement in/out of the Gaza and the West Bank; restricted access to areas within 300 meters of the Gaza side of the perimeter fence with Israel; restrict 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).
To enforce Gaza’s status as a “concentrated” area, in December 2021 Israel completely encircled it with a 20-foot-high wall that spans 40 miles.
Perhaps the most egregious form of concentration is arrests and imprisonments.
Israel’s containment campaign is also documented in the systematic bombings that have devastated much of Gaza. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) appears to have two “enemies” or targets – (i) “identified” targets and (ii) “general” targets. Identified targets include alleged sites of Hamas leader and other nebulous critical “military” locations; general targets include the vast number of non-military homes, hospitals, schools, religious centers, farms and highways as well as ordinary street life. Every Palestinian is an IDF enemy.
As vividly displayed in satellite imagery analyzed by Jamon Van Den Hoek (Oregon State University) and Corey Scher (CUNY Graduate Center) of the Decentralized Damage Monitoring Group (DDMG), between 41.3 percent (118,000) to 51.3 percent (147,700) of buildings in the Gaza Strip were damaged as of December 34, 2023. In all likelihood, a goodly proportion of these building are no longer habitable.
No one know when the war will formally end. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi admitted, “This war has necessary and not easy goals to achieve, it takes place in complex territory. That’s why the war will continue for many more months ….”
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 IDF will remain in control of Gaza. He said that Israel will have “overall security responsibility” over the Gaza Strip. “IDF forces will remain in control of the Strip, we will not give it to international forces.” In addition, Netanyahu has, in the words of The New York Times, “made clear he has no intention of resigning after the war in Gaza ends.”
Control signifies victory. Such control involves the further “concentration” of a shrinking Palestinian population and habitable land area. Israel may likely be forced to establish a quasi-permanent military presence – an unofficial “occupation force” – in preserve “security.” This also assumes, for example, that the U.S. will not cut a deal with Egypt to absorb the forced displacement of, say, one million Palestinians or those of the West Bank to Jordon.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines 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.”
As the war plays out in Gaza, a campaign of expropriation of Palestinian lands and the shrinking of its people is occurring in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This will help to further consolidate large sectors of the OPT into a concentration territory. Sadly, the concentration camp of old has morphed into the 21st century, post-modern concentration territory.