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Israel’s Endgame: Make Gaza Uninhabitable

By Jonathan Cook

“Israel has ignored warnings by the United Nations that Gaza is about to become uninhabitable, acting as if Palestinians there can be caged, starved and abused indefinitely. Now crises are unfolding on all fronts – social, economic, political and humanitarian – and Israel is running out of time to find solutions.” – AMEU (September-October 2019)

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Israel has ignored warnings by the United Nations that Gaza is about to become uninhabitable, acting as if Palestinians there can be caged, starved and abused indefinitely. Now crises are unfolding on all fronts – social, economic, political and humanitarian – and Israel is running out of time to find solutions


Gaza Beach, 2006 (Image Source: WikiCommons)

The only way Israelis can be made to sit up and take note of the disaster unfolding next door in Gaza, it seems, is when they fear the fallout may spill out of the tiny coastal enclave and engulf them too. Environmental experts from two Israeli universities issued a report in June warning that the imminent collapse of Gaza’s water, sewage and electricity infrastructure would soon rebound on Israel.

Gideon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, which commissioned the report, told journalists: “Without urgent, vigorous action, plagues and infections will break out that could cost a great many lives, both in Israel and in Gaza, and no fence or Iron Dome [Israel’s missile interception system] can thwart them.” Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper paraphrased another of Bromberg’s comments: “If something isn’t done, the upshot could be political horror in the form of hundreds of thousands of Gazans fleeing for their lives toward Israel – for fear of catching disease.”

Bromberg and others on Israel’s left are well aware that Gaza’s 2 million Palestinians were long ago dehumanized in the eyes of most Israeli Jews, who think of them as nothing more than terrorists or terrorist sympathizers who deserve their sorry fate. Stories of Gaza’s endless suffering a short distance from Israelis’ homes are unlikely to shame them into action. They can be roused only out of self-interest – a fear for their own safety and the wellbeing of their loved ones.

Gaza’s problems, however – the fact that it is one of the most densely populated, poorest and polluted places on the planet – are not an accident, or the consequences of some natural cataclysm. The crisis there is entirely man-made – and one that has been engineered over decades by Israel.

Israel effectively treated the Strip as a dumping ground – a holding pen – for the mass of refugees it created by dispossessing the Palestinians of their homeland in 1948. Nearly three-quarters of Gaza’s inhabitants are descended from the refugees of that war, Palestinians who were forced off their lands in what is now Israel and denied the right ever to return to their homes.

Having exiled them, Israel was nonetheless prepared to use the Palestinians of Gaza as a cheap labor force – for a time. It was possible until the 1990s for Palestinians to exit Gaza relatively easily to work in Israel’s dirtiest and lowest-paying jobs. But as the occupation entrenched, Israel was forced into a rethink by two developments.

First, Palestinians under occupation, including in Gaza, launched a lengthy campaign of mass civil disobedience against their occupiers in the late 1980s, known as the first intifada, that included general strikes, a refusal to pay taxes, boycotts of Israeli goods and stone-throwing. And second, Gaza’s population has grown exponentially, at a pace that outstripped the capacity of this tiny territory – measuring just 25 miles in length and some 5 miles across – to accommodate them.

In response, Israeli leaders pushed for a more clear-cut physical separation from Gaza. The rallying cry of politicians of the time was: “Us here, them over there.”

Israel’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach was soon given diplomatic sanction in the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s. Israel surrounded Gaza with high-security fences and armed watchtowers, established an exclusion zone along its sea coast, and revoked the general exit policy.

Ariel Sharon’s disengagement of 2005, when the last remaining Jewish settlers were pulled out of the enclave, marked the completion of Israel’s separation policy. The occupation did not end, however. Israel still controlled Gaza’s airspace, its land perimeters and coastal waters. Israel soon imposed a blockade, preventing goods as well as people from entering or leaving, a blockade it tightened dramatically when the Palestinian faction Hamas won elections in the occupied territories in 2006.

Since then, Israel has transformed the holding center into a super-max prison. This year it finished a submarine barrier with sophisticated sensor systems along the coast. Israel is currently enlarging the perimeter fence to make it 20 feet high and fortifying it with remotely controlled gun towers, while all-seeing drones patrol the skies above Gaza.

The first dire warning about conditions in Gaza was issued in 2015, a year after Israel’s massive attack on the enclave known as Protective Edge, in which more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed, including over 550 children, and 17,000 families left homeless. A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) argued that Gaza would be “uninhabitable” by 2020 if the trends then current continued. None of those trends has been halted or reversed. Which means Gaza is about to slide into a fully fledged humanitarian catastrophe entirely created by Israel, and implicitly supported by the silence and inaction of western states.

But while Israel has managed to keep the Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza cooped up like underfed and abused battery chickens, it is starting to find it is much harder to contain the various crises – social, economic, political and humanitarian – unfolding in the enclave. Slowly Israel is waking up to the fact that Palestinians don’t behave like chickens.

Rockets, kites and marches

Inevitably Gaza’s inhabitants have reacted to the slow tightening by Israel of its chokehold on their enclave. But by the time of the Palestinians’ second uprising, which began in late 2000, the kind of mass civil disobedience that charaterised the first intifada was no longer possible. Gaza’s population was by that stage imprisoned behind a fence. The factions, especially Hamas, instead tried to break free of their confinement by launching primitive Qassam rockets into Israel.

Largely ineffective as a weapon of death or destruction, the rockets have nonetheless spread fear in Israeli communities close to the enclave. But their use has had mostly negative repercussions for Gaza. Israel responded with extra-judicial executions of Palestinian leaders in Gaza that typically killed many more bystanders, and used the rockets to justify ever-more severe forms of collective punishment that culminated in the blockade. What little western sympathy there had been for Gaza drained away as Israel, assisted by the western media, edited out the context for the rockets – Gaza’s imprisonment by its occupier – and presented a simplistic, ahistorical narrative of terror attacks on innocent Israelis driven, it was implied, only by the Jew hatred of Islamic extremists.

While popular support in Gaza for the rocket attacks has ebbed over time, Palestinians there have learned the hard way that they cannot afford passivity. As soon as the rockets fall silent, Israel and the world forget about Gaza. The west’s hypocrisy has been plain: it condemns the inhabitants of Gaza for struggling against their imprisonment by firing rockets, but then ignores their plight when they play according to diplomatic rules.

Over the past year and a half, the rockets have been largely replaced by a couple of popular initiatives that were launched with two aims in mind: to make Gaza’s suffering visible again, and to challenge Israeli and western prejudices about the enclave. Both initiatives mark a return to the type of mass civil disobedience exemplified by the first intifada, but recast for an era in which the Palestinians of Gaza have limited opportunities to confront their oppressor directly.

The first are incendiary kites and balloons – Israel inevitably adds the label “terror” to these balloons and kites – sent over the perimeter fence to set fire to the agricultural lands of the Israeli communities that prosper close by at Gaza’s expense. The damage caused to Israel’s local economy is intended to serve as a pale mirror of the massive economic destruction Israel has inflicted on Gaza’s economy over many decades, including, as we shall see, to its farmland. The balloons are a way, like the rockets, to remind Israelis that Palestinians are suffering out of sight, on the other side of the fence, but do so without risking the civilian deaths entailed by the rockets’ use.

The second popular initiative has been a weekly mass protest, largely non-violent, called the Great March of Return, close to the perimeter fence. The title is meant to remind observers that most Palestinians in Gaza are denied the right to return to the hundreds of villages their families were expelled from by Israel in 1948 and which are now located on the other side of the fence. Tens of thousands of marchers regularly defy Israeli restrictions that have declared hundreds of meters of Gaza’s land inside the fence as a “no-go zone”.

The protesters’ goal is to ensure that Israel and the west cannot overlook Gaza’s suffering and desperation, or shirk their responsibility for the catastrophe unfolding there, or continue to erase the deeper historical injustice caused by Israel when it dispossessed the Palestinians of their homeland in 1948. The protests are a potent reminder that this crime against the Palestinians has to be addressed before any lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can occur.

Israeli officials have every reason to want the very opposite for Gaza. They need its suffering overlooked; the Palestinians there mute, or at least violent in ways that Israel can re-characterize as terrorism; and the historical injustices forgotten. They have therefore worked hard to suggest that the protests are not a natural expression of Gaza’s anger, frustration and desperation in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe engineered by Israel, but a new, veiled terror strategy organized by Hamas. The marchers are not civilians, Israel argues, but hardcore Hamas activists who want to destroy Israel.

That has rationalized Israel’s extremely violent response, with snipers using live fire against the protesters. Those shot include large numbers of children, wheelchairs users, as well as paramedics and journalists identifiable by their clothing. Israel has executed more than 200 protesters, nearly a quarter of them children. A further 32,000 have been injured – an average of 500 a week.

One of the investigators in a UN commission of inquiry into Israel’s handling of the protests concluded that its military forces “have intentionally shot children, they’ve intentionally shot people with disabilities, they’ve intentionally shot journalists.” That was confirmed in July when the Israeli media revealed that snipers had been ordered to routinely shoot the protesters in the upper leg, in an apparent effort to deter people from attending. This order continued even when it became clear that a significant proportion of those shot were dying from their wounds or needed a leg amputated. Only very belatedly did commanders order that protesters be shot in the ankle to reduce the number of deaths.

The logic of settler colonialism

Israelis’ widespread indifference to the fate of Palestinians, most especially in the case of Gaza, is deeply entangled in the ideology Israel embodies. Zionism is viewed in much of the west simplistically: as purely a salvation movement, one that created a “lifeboat” for Jews – in the shape of Israel – at a time of profound need as the Nazi Holocaust ravaged large parts of European Jewry. But Zionism, in both its Christian and Jewish forms, long predates that genocide. Its roots are to be found in European settler colonial ideologies that emerged from the 17th century onwards.

Settler colonialism is markedly different from traditional colonialism. The latter, illustrated by Britain’s relationship with India, is characterized by colonists arriving in another land to exploit the resources and labor of the native people. Whatever treasure was unearthed in the colonies – rubber, tea, tulips, sugar, diamonds, oil – was shipped back to the motherland, where it helped to support the lavish lifestyles of an elite. Great amounts of violence were needed to force the native population to submit. The colonists also tried to rationalize the resource grab, both to themselves and to the indigenous population, traditionally through religion and ideas of improvement – the “white man’s burden”. Colonists prospered until the native population found a way to expel them.

Settler colonialism, by contrast, has a different rationale – what scholars have termed the “logic of elimination”. Settler societies are not there primarily to exploit the natives, though they may in part do that too for a time. They are there to replace them. And there are three possible routes by which that ambition can be achieved.

The first – what might be termed the Americas model – is to exterminate the natives, to wipe them out so there can be no local challenge to the settler colonial project. The second – what might be called the Israel model – is to ethnically cleanse the natives, to drive them out of the coveted territory to another place. And the third – what might be termed the South Africa model – is resorted to chiefly when it has not been possible to fully realize the first or second models. Apartheid regimes herd the natives out of sight into ghettoes – often called homelands, reservations or, in South Africa’s case, Bantustans – where they can be largely ignored, deprived of their rights and access to resources.

Settler societies can adopt more than one model over time, or they may experiment with different models. In the United States, for example, settlers exterminated much of the Native American population and then drove the remnants into reservations. In South Africa, apartheid also required ethnically cleansing the black population from lands coveted by white settlers.

Israel too has adopted a mixed model. In 1948, and then again in 1967, it carried out mass ethnic cleansing operations. During the 1948 Nakba, literally the Catastrophe, Zionists expelled more than 80 per cent of Palestinians living inside the borders of what was about to become the Jewish state of Israel. Afterwards, Israel adopted a system of apartheid against the remnants of the native population, first inside its recognized borders (as I outlined in a previous edition of the Link) and later in the occupied territories.

In Israel today, some 93 per cent of territory has been “nationalized” exclusively by the state on behalf of Jewish people around the world, while Palestinian “citizens”, a fifth of Israel’s population, have been penned into little more than 2 per cent of Israeli territory. In the occupied territories, meanwhile, the settlers have directly seized 42 per cent of the West Bank for themselves, while the Israeli government directly controls more than 60 per cent of the territory, what was declared “Area C” in the Oslo Accords.

Israel’s monstrous vision

Ethnic cleansing and apartheid have been the mainstays of Israel’s approach to the Palestinians inside Israel, in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. But over the past 15 years its policy towards Gaza appears to have moved in an additional direction – towards elements of what might be called a model of incremental genocide.

“Genocide” is an emotive term, and one few people wish to use in relation to Israel, given the extermination of many millions of European Jews at the hands of the Nazis. But it is a term that exists outside of, and apart from, the Holocaust. It has a meaning clearly defined in international law, and one that is key to analysing and evaluating political situations and their likely future trajectories. The term was coined precisely to offer tools for early detection so that genocides could be prevented from taking place, not simply labeled once the atrocity was over. To preclude genocide as a possible explanation for Israel’s behavior in Gaza is to prioritize the historic sensitivities of some Jews over the current, urgent and existential threats to a substantial part of the Palestinian people…

Continue this essay at Jonathan Cook’s website

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