On a Unified Call for a Ceasefire in Gaza

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

A response to Representative Mike Sigler’s comments at the Tompkins County Legislature’s meetings on Jan 2, and 16, 2024, concerning  A Unified Call for a Ceasefire in Gaza; Urgent Humanitarian and Local Imperatives of the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission:

I make the following comments as a citizen of Tompkins County, a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are Israeli citizens and live in Tel Aviv. I do not represent Cornell University but am a professor of Indigenous studies at Cornell, who teaches classes and publishes articles on Palestine/Israel in its historical context.

Let me begin by noting that all the comments I heard from supporters of the ceasefire proposal at both meetings were informed with a precise historical understanding of the Israeli genocide in Gaza and were accompanied with deeply felt humanitarian concerns.

In contrast, Mr. Sigler’s comments in response seemed unconcerned with the ongoing genocide, which, as I noted at the Jan. 16th meeting, has to date effected at least 23,708 Palestinians killed and at least 60,005 wounded, an estimated 70% of whom are non-combatants in the Gaza Strip. Of these over 7,000 are children and “Save the Children” notes that at least 10 children per day have lost a limb in Gaza since Oct. 7, 2023. As I write these deadly and heartbreaking figures continue to rise and the threat of a wider war increases. Even worse than his lack of concern, Mr. Sigler’s comments were misinformed, and he used his platform as a legislator to misinform others.

Here, I take up some of his assertions, which I think a wider public in the U.S. may share because of similar government and major media misinformation.

+  At the Jan. 2 meeting, Mr. Sigler noted that Hamas’s charter declared war against the Jews. In fact, while Hamas’s original charter of 1988 did this, its revised charter of 2017, as I quoted at the Jan.16thmeeting, expressly stated: “Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity” (Article 16). Hamas is correct. Judaism and Zionism are not identical so that an attack on Zionism, which is a politicized religious ideology, is not an attack on Jews or Judaism, though many supporters of Israel collapse the two.

+ At the Jan. 16th meeting,  Mr. Sigler stated that Hamas had repeatedly rejected calls from neighboring Arab countries for a ceasefire. In fact, the situation is precisely the opposite. Here is a section of a Reuters article from Dec. 20th on the situation:

“Hamas leader visits Egypt amid intensive talks on new ceasefire” by Nidal Al-MughrabiBassam Masoud and Dan Williams

There remains a huge gulf between the two sides’ publicly stated positions on any halt to fighting. Hamas rejects any further temporary pause and says it will discuss only a permanent ceasefire. Israel has ruled that out and says it will agree only limited humanitarian pauses until Hamas is defeated.

“Hamas’ stance remains; they don’t have a desire for humanitarian pauses. Hamas wants a complete end to the Israeli war on Gaza,” a Palestinian official said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated that the war would end only with Hamas eradicated, all hostages freed and Gaza posing no more threat to Israel.

“Whoever thinks we will stop is detached from reality…All Hamas terrorists, from the first to the last, are dead men walking,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

Informed opinion tells us that Hamas will never be eradicated; in fact, Israeli violence only makes it grow. Palestinian political analysts Ibrahim Dalalsha notes “the political organization of Hamas is going to get bigger because of the level of support that it’s picking up from Palestinians, and not only in Gaza. It may lose half popular support in Gaza, but Hamas has a major public incubator in the West Bank,” where Israel has also been increasing the violence with nearly 400 dead to date. So, Netanyahu’s stance prescribes an endless war, which is not only destroying Gaza but also undermining Israel’s social and economic life.

In terms of Hamas rejecting ceasefire offers, on Dec. 25th Reuters reported the following from Cairo: “Hamas and the allied Islamic Jihad have rejected an Egyptian proposal that they relinquish power in the Gaza Strip in return for a permanent ceasefire, two Egyptian security sources told Reuters on Monday.” Coming from the Egyptian dictatorship, a treaty partner of Israel that helps enforce the siege of Gaza, the offer is both suspect and clearly unacceptable. Why not ask the Israeli government, which is committing genocide and enforcing apartheid to step down in exchange for a ceasefire? Egypt’s offer suggests that Hamas is the sole cause of this war, when the horrific attack by Hamas on Israel has a context: 75 years of apartheid, the continual dispossession of the Palestinian people and the 16 yr. siege of Gaza, which has been termed by human rights groups “the largest outdoor prison in the world.”’ Context is no excuse for Hamas’ crimes, but neither should be ignored in any diplomatic process.

+  Finally, on Jan. 16 in response to the pro-ceasefire comments, Mr. Sigler, following the Israeli government’s distorted comparison of the Hamas attack with the Holocaust, analogized Hamas to Nazi Germany under air attack by the allies (the firebombing of Dresden) in order to argue that just as the mass bombing of German civilians did not produce more Nazis so the bombing of Gaza would not produce more members of Hamas. What this analogy demonstrates is a complete misunderstanding of not only the position of the German people at the end of WWII, defeated and demoralized, but also what Rashid Khalidi has termed in the title of his book The Hundred Years War Against Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017. Germany under Hitler was, as it still is, a nation state. It was clearly the aggressor with international range and a powerful armed force in the air, on land, and sea, and a program of genocide against the Jews. So the analogy with Hamas and Gaza not only doesn’t fit but doesn’t make sense. It is totally incoherent: Hamas represents one arm of Palestinian resistance fighting against an illegally occupying power, the nation-state of Israel. And while Allied power brought an end to the war with Germany, Israel’s genocidal aggression  is only increasing Palestinian resistance and that of its Arab allies (Hezbollah, Ansar Allah [Houthis], and the Shiite militias in Iraq, all supported by Iran).  Thus, while Hamas’ committed war crimes on Oct. 7, Hamas is not analogous to the Nazi regime.

In fact, if one were to analogize, a close fit would be between Nazi Germany and Israel, a power with nuclear arms that has been operating an apartheid government (think ghettos) for 75 years and is now committing genocide in Gaza. Hamas, although the perpetrator of the Oct. 7th violence, was responding to the 75 years of Israeli settler-colonial oppression without an air force or the massive armaments that Israel has at its command.  Given the power difference, one might ask how Hamas was able to carry out its attack.

Since 1967 and the June war, Israel has been in violation of international law, specifically UN resolution 242, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops after the June war; the Fourth Geneva Convention, which interdicts the transfer of members of the occupying powers population to the occupied territories (hence all of the Israeli settlements are illegal under international law); and the institution of an apartheid government. Under international law apartheid is a human rights violation, a crime against humanity.

In this respect, according to UN figures, it should be noted that from 2008-to 2020 for every Israeli killed, including combatants, by Palestinian resistance, 22 Palestinians, mostly non-combatants, were killed by the IDF. The disproportionality points to another of Israel’s crimes against humanity, collective punishment. Let it also be noted that self-defense, including armed response (though not against non-combatants) is legal under international law.

In historical context, then, and context is crucial, Israel is the aggressor and Hamas is an arm of the Palestinian resistance. To be clear, this does not absolve it of the war crimes committed on Oct 7, any more than Israel is absolved of the war crimes and crimes against humanity noted here. But the context, of which Sigler is either ignorant or willfully ignoring, flips his analogy. As one of the speakers for the ceasefire said on the 16th and I paraphrase: In the correct analogy, Israel is Germany, and the Palestinians are the Jews. This dark and dispiriting irony should not be lost on us.

When my Cornell students come to class, it is expected that they will have done their homework, and they do, so that the class can have a coherent conversation about the subject at hand.

While making remarks at a legislative meeting is not the same as a classroom discussion, we should be able to expect that if our representatives comment, they exhibit some degree of factual knowledge about the concerns brought to them by their constituents.

At the meeting with the legislature on January 2nd, I asked the question: Who would not want a ceasefire? i.e.  who would not want to stop the killing on both sides, but overwhelmingly of Palestinian non-combatants including thousands of children? Apparently, the answer is: those who do not want to face history.

I encourage my students, who are in the process of facing history, when they encounter injustice to speak to it, making audible their opposition. I believe this makes a difference, however small, and perhaps sooner or later it will be a voice in a chorus. Speaking to injustice through recognizing history is what I am asking the Tompkins County Legislature to do in support of the ceasefire resolution.

Eric Cheyfitz is a professor of American and Native American studies at Cornell University. His latest book is The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States.