Understanding Gaza: What, Why And How To Respond

From Friday, 30th of March this year, Palestinians in Gaza began holding weekly demonstrations. Though the protests have received some coverage in Australia, and some response from the Left, many have not understood the significant of the events, or how we can productively relate to them.

The protests are intended to continue until Nakba Day, on May 15. Give the paucity of public discussion of the protests, their significance, and most significantly public outrage at what is happening, it is worth reflecting on the importance of these events. The protests have the potential to lead to significant shifts in the debate about the Middle Eastern Peace process. A key point of contestation, and a core example of the abuse of human rights, the siege of Gaza, of which the protests are focused on, offers an important, and unique, opportunity for progressives to place pressure for change in Palestine.

This can only occur however if progressives are willing to take significant steps to step up pressure on these issues. This article provides some essential background on the situation in Gaza, and calls on progressives to make the issue a core priority, suggesting ways in which progressives can intervene in the issue.

The protests have the potential to lead to significant shifts in the debate about the Middle Eastern Peace process.

Why are they protesting in Gaza? Who are the refugees?

Photo from Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/alisdare/26498640657)

The march was declared the “March of Return”. The series of marches can be viewed through the prism of the refugee question, and the blockade on Gaza.

The refugee question dates back to what is called the Nakba, an Arabic word meaning “disaster”. In 1947, a civil war broke out in what was then Palestine under British mandate, between the Jewish and Palestinian populations. Over the course of 1947-1949, some 750 000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by Zionist militias, later the Israeli army. Over 400 Palestinian villages and towns were wiped out, or taken over by Jewish settlers. Israel passed laws effectively expropriating privately owned Palestinian land and homes, and barring the return of those who had fled during the war. These refugees have never been allowed to return to their homes. Al Awda estimates that the total number of refugees and their descendants number some 7 million today.

There are about 1.9 million Palestinians living in Gaza. 1.3 million of them are registered as refugees with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. One of the organisers, Hasan al-Kurd has identified lifting the siege on Gaza as an optimal outcome if they were able to have a “massive success” and bring a million Palestinians to the protest on May 15. Al-Kurd didn’t expect a million protesters to necessarily achieve a return of the refugees, but did hope it would give the Gazans “a chance to live in dignity” and “relief for the pain and suffering of everyone here in Gaza.”

 

What’s the context in Gaza?

In 1949, Israel signed armistice agreements with its Arab neighbours, who invaded during the 1948 war. Originally, the UN had proposed that Palestine be divided about 55 percent to Israel, 45 percent to the Palestinians. Israel conquered 78 percent of what was Mandatory Palestine, under British colonial rule. It had the benefit of overwhelming demographic superiority, due to its expulsion of the vast majority of the Palestinian population. The remaining Palestinian population was subjected to military rule, which lasted until 1966. In 1967, Israel conquered the remaining 22 percent of Palestine, known as the West Bank and Gaza. Gaza is a small strip in south-west Palestine, which borders Israel and Egypt. It is densely populated.

Harvard expert on Gaza Sara Roy argued that Israel pursued a policy of de-development of Gaza’s economy from the start of the occupation. Roy identified “de-development” as “a process which undermines or weakens the ability of an economy to grow and expand by preventing it from accessing and utilizing critical inputs needed to promote internal growth beyond a specific structural level.” In effect, Gaza became an “auxiliary of the state of Israel.” In her book of essays, Failing Peace, Roy writes:

De-development is shaped and advanced by a range of policies, which are themselves a reflection of the ideological imperatives of the Zionist movement: expropriation and dispossession; integration and externalization, and deinstitutionalization. These policies have contributed to de-development by dispossessing Palestinians of critical economic resources or factors of production needed to create and sustain productive capacity, by creating extreme dependency on employment in Israel as a source of GNP growth, and by restricting the kind of indigenous institutional development that could lead to structural reform that is economic, social and political.

Whereas the effect of underdevelopment is to reorder economic relations into a less meaningful, less integrated and disfigured whole, the effect of de-development over the long term is to damage those relations so that no whole can, in fact, emerge. The arguable decimation of the current Palestinian economy into no more than a set of disconnected economic activities lends weight to this proposition.

The effect of this dependency on Israel’s economy was to become particularly devastating when Israel began instituting closures on Gaza’s economy, even before the Second Intifada. These closures led to:

unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty (which would soon be surpassed). Yet the closure policy proved so destructive only because the thirty-year process of integrating Gaza’s economy into Israel’s had made the local economy deeply dependent. As a result, when the border was closed in 1993, self-sustainment was no longer possible – the means weren’t there. Decades of expropriation and deinstitutionalisation had long ago robbed Palestine of its potential for development, ensuring that no viable economic (and hence political) structure could emerge.

 

The siege on Gaza

In 2005, Israel withdrew some 9000 settlers from Gaza. In 2006, elections were held in the occupied territories, and in a surprise result Palestinians elected Hamas . Israel responded by imposing a siege on Gaza. The then-advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister, Dov Weisglass explained that “the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger”.

Israel tightened the siege in 2007 when Hamas pre-empted a coup attempt by their Fatah rivals, which was backed by the US, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In tightening the siege on Gaza, the Israeli security cabinet that the goal was to use “civilian levers” against Hamas, thus implying that the civilian population was deliberately targeted by the Israeli government. In 2008, Israel told US officials their intention to “keep Gaza’s economy ‘on the brink of collapse’ while avoiding a humanitarian crisis”. In a court case involving Israeli NGO Gisha, the Israeli government admitted that a purpose of the siege was “economic warfare”. Though occasionally spokespeople for the Israeli government claim the siege on Gaza is for security reasons, this pretext is hardly taken seriously anywhere. Only 32 percent of Jewish Israelis think that’s the reason for the siege on Gaza. As even the generally non-political Red Cross observed, “The whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.”

 

What has been the effect of the siege on Gaza

That blockade on Gaza began in 2006. It was intended to target the Palestinian civilian population, by strangling the economy. That has been the effect. It is hard to overstate how bad things are. Or how many times independent observers have warned how bad things were, and how bad they would get.

It would take forever to quote every one of the reports by numerous NGOs (Oxfam, Amnesty, Red Cross etc), the United Nations, human rights specialists, academics, activists, Israeli organisations (B’Tselem, Gisha) who have condemned the siege on Gaza.

In 2008, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights observed that, “Their whole civilisation has been destroyed, I’m not exaggerating. It’s almost unbelievable that the world doesn’t care while this is happening.”

That blockade on Gaza began in 2006. It was intended to target the Palestinian civilian population, by strangling the economy. That has been the effect. It is hard to overstate how bad things are.

All of that was worsened by the two major Israeli attacks on Gaza, the 2008-9 offensive, and the 2014 attack. In 2012, a UN World Food Program report warned that due to the siege and the severity of the first major attack on Gaza, Gaza might not be liveable by 2020. Another UN report affirmed that finding in 2016. More recently, the UN has warned in 2017 that those findings might be overly optimistic. Gaza may be unliveable earlier than 2020. And we are now in 2018.

There have been warning signs of the disaster in Gaza. The hospital system is “collapsing”, and medicines are increasingly unavailable. Over 40 per cent of medicines were no longer available. Health facilities rely on generators and emergency fuel for power, which were expected to run out months ago. Unemployment is estimated at over 40 percent since 2014, with a rate of 60 percent for Gazans between 15 and 29. Palestinians get power for about 3 hours a day. 80 percent of the population depend on food aid. Over 90 percent of the water isn’t fit for drinking.

Palestinians get power for about 3 hours a day. 80 percent of the population depend on food aid. Over 90 percent of the water isn’t fit for drinking.

Gadi Eisenkot is the chief of staff of the Israeli army. He’s infamous for announcing something called the Dahiyeh doctrine:

What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. […] We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. […] This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.

He warned in February that things were so bad in Gaza, that it was “on the verge of collapse”, and Israel should take substantial steps to remedy the humanitarian crisis. That was vetoed by the Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Israel’s Defence Minister, and the protests

Lieberman is the political representative who oversees the Israeli military. He suggested in 2009 that the way to victory in Gaza was by “breaking the will and motivation of Hamas to fight us, as was done to the Japanese in the last days of World War Two.” For Arabs “who are against us, there’s nothing to be done – we need to pick up an axe and cut off his head”. During the war on Gaza in 2014, he urged a boycott on Arab businesses striking against the war. He previously recommended the expulsion of 90 percent of Israeli Palestinians to the West Bank. After all, “They have no place here. They can take their bundles and get lost.”

Before the first protest took place, Lieberman threatened the protesters: “The leadership of Hamas is playing with your lives. Anyone who comes close to the [border] fence today puts himself at risk. I suggest to you to continue your lives and not participate in a provocation”. Anyone close to the fence – and he decides what constitutes close – put their own lives at risk. The Israeli military then bulldozed mounds for 100 Israeli snipers, who were given loosened permission regulations to open fire in a situation where there was no threat of life”.

Video footage showed clearly unarmed Palestinians walking along by themselves, or running from the Israeli army towards a Palestinian crowd, or sitting down praying, being shot dead by Israeli snipers. At the first protest, some 30 000 Palestinians showed up. 20 were shot dead, and another 750 were injured by live ammunition fired at them by snipers. At the second protest, 25 000 showed up.  Nine more were shot dead, and 300 more were shot and injured with live ammunition. Six journalists have been shot, including Yasser Murtaja, who was killed with PRESS displayed prominently across his body.

Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said all of the soldiers deserved a medal, and that “It has to be understood that there are no innocent people in Gaza… Everyone is affiliated with Hamas, they are all paid by Hamas, and all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are operatives of its military wing.” He later said he hadn’t meant to use the word “innocent”, just “naïve”. He didn’t retract the claim that they were all “operatives” of the “military wing” of Hamas. During previous offensives on Gaza, Israel has identified everyone connected to Hamas as fair targets for Israel’s military. In effect, Israel has announced openly its willingness to shoot and murder unarmed peaceful protesters, and has been caught on film doing so. Again, this is only a brief sampling of the abundant evidence to this effect.

At the latest peaceful protest, Israeli snipers shot dead a 15 year old Palestinian boy. The UN Middle East envoy called this “OUTRAGEOUS”, and responded to Israeli criticism on twitter by saying “stop shooting at children”. Some 34 Palestinians have been killed since the first protest.

How to respond

In terms of immediate demands, this should be relatively straightforward. People have the right to engage in peaceful protests. People should not be murdered by snipers for holding political demonstrations. There are plenty of individual cases which were documented on video, and verified by groups like Human Rights Watch, showing that Israel has killed people who presented no threat to the Israeli army. It should be relatively straightforward to affirm the right of Palestinians to hold political protests, and for Israel to respect their right to do so.

Violence used against unarmed, peaceful protesters who are shot by Israeli snipers hundreds of metres away should not be called “disproportionate”. It should be called wrong. If people have a right to hold a nonviolent protest, any use of force against those protesters for exercising their rights should be condemned. The number injured by Israeli snipers at each protest has declined because of the worldwide outcry. We should join this outcry, and should encourage others to similarly oppose Israel’s brutality.

Violence used against unarmed, peaceful protesters who are shot by Israeli snipers hundreds of metres away should not be called “disproportionate”. It should be called wrong.

The next point is relatively simple. The economy of Gaza has been destroyed by the blockade on Gaza. The evidence that it is intended to target the civilian population, to turn them against Hamas, is overwhelming. The condemnations have been endless. Starving a population, forcing them to depend on food aid, preventing them from rebuilding tens of thousands of destroyed and damaged homes, not letting them rebuild hospitals, restock medical supplies, repair their water supply… How can anyone defend any of that? It doesn’t require any political ideology. Save the Children says that they consider “Gaza to be unliveable now”. There are some one million Palestinian children in Gaza now. If you think they should have a chance at a decent life, that they should have access to clean drinking water, then it should be straightforward to demand an immediate and unconditional end to the siege on Gaza.

Starving a population, forcing them to depend on food aid, preventing them from rebuilding tens of thousands of destroyed and damaged homes, not letting them rebuild hospitals, restock medical supplies, repair their water supply… How can anyone defend any of that?

All of this should be relatively straightforward. Progressives need to be comfortable urging an end to the occupation, and supporting Palestinian rights. But supporting peaceful Palestinian protesters, and opposing the siege on Gaza are not complicated at all. The Human Rights Council investigation of the 2008-09 attack on Gaza found that the siege on Gaza may amount to a crime against humanity. Both the 2008-09 offensive, and the war on Gaza in 2014 were effectively fought over the demand by Hamas to end the siege on Gaza. Any future offensives will similarly be fought over this issue. It is easy to explain what the blockade is, what its effect has been, and why it must end. There is an enormous library of resources by independent organisations which can back up advocates whenever they want to discuss why the blockade must end now.

The opportunity

By Jos van Zetten from Amsterdam, the Netherlands (Gaza protest Amsterdam) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

People on the left have often faced the dilemma – do we advocate reform, or revolution? Radical leftists want revolution, centre-lefts want reform. There are more people on the centre-left than the radical left, and so radicals have often tried to bridge the gap, and build a broader coalition, by calling for reforms that create radicalising dynamics. The goal of seeking broad reforms, with a kind of radical edge, is that they have an educational aspect, and push activists and society in the right kind of direction.

In Australia, examples of both types of activism have been pursued in relation to Palestine. Though a range of actions have been pursued, by way of emblematic example we could identify the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as an example of more radical action. In contrast, an example of a reformist approach has been that of members of the ALP to recognise Palestine as a state.

The former is relatively radical, and is explicitly aligned with the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS supports boycotting Israel until three pillars of Palestinian rights are upheld. These relate to the right of return of Palestinian refugees, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the occupation of Palestinian territories held since 1967. However, the campaign targeted Max Brenner has drawn in few if any sympathisers beyond those who are already involved in Palestine activism. Even some Palestine solidarity groups shied away from these protests

The latter campaign of recognising Palestine has drawn in a broader cross section of Australians, and looks set to eventually win over the federal ALP. Yet the demand is more or less symbolic – recognising a state that currently does not exist, without any accompanying pressure on Israel to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state.

In my mind, the primary issue around Palestine which solidarity activists can organise is the occupation. It is brutal, it is based around numerous pressing human rights violations, and can credibly be regarded as akin to apartheid. This is also an issue where the stakes are not symbolic, and campaigns can actually win, and achieve reforms that have substantive and meaningful effects on the lives of Palestinians.

In my mind, the primary issue around Palestine which solidarity activists can organise is the occupation. It is brutal, it is based around numerous pressing human rights violations, and can credibly be regarded as akin to apartheid.

For Palestine activists in Australia to be effective, we need to find ways to make those human rights issues compelling and understandable. Not everyone can become an expert in the conflict, or learn about the historiography of the last 120 years. We need to be able to pick out issues which are easy to grasp, easy to explain, and don’t require complicated ideological commitments. As mentioned, we want what we campaign on to actually matter, so that if we win, it can contribute to meaningful substantive change.

In my view, this is why Gaza is so compelling. The blockade on Gaza is making life unlivable for almost 2 million people. About 90 percent of those people don’t have access to clean drinking water because of the blockade. Every few years, Israel fights a new war to maintain the siege on Gaza. When the next war breaks out, the question should be: is it worth all this death and destruction to maintain the siege on Gaza? Is it really so important to prevent almost 2 million people, about a million of them children, to have clean drinking water

Many, including human rights groups, have condemned Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups for firing indiscriminate rockets from Gaza at Israel. It is fair enough and appropriate to criticise this kind of violence and the targeting of civilians, regardless of who is doing it. Yet if such condemnation is to be morally serious, it should recognise and uphold nonviolent peaceful demonstrations by Palestinians in Gaza. If these protests are ignored by the West, and by leftist groups in particular, the message will be that the world doesn’t care, and so it is wiser for them to engage in armed struggle, as they cannot expect meaningful solidarity from the rest of the world.

If these protests are ignored by the West, and by leftist groups in particular, the message will be that the world doesn’t care, and so it is wiser for them to engage in armed struggle, as they cannot expect meaningful solidarity from the rest of the world.

It is not hard to argue that blockading 2 million people is wrong. And it is easy to document the effects of the blockade, and to cite unimpeachable sources, whether the UN, the Red Cross, Israeli human rights organisations, or Palestinian human rights organisations. The demand – to end the siege on Gaza – is an easy sell, and can co-exist with any number of other political commitments. For example, liberal Zionist journalist Peter Beinart has just written a long essay about how indefensible the siege on Gaza is at the Forward, an American liberal Jewish paper. You can find plenty of similar if shorter essays by other liberal Zionists.

Calling for an end to the siege on Gaza can work in the short term, and put pressure on the current political discourse to tangibly shift to the left. It is outside the current mainstream, but it is easy to envision it shifting to the mainstream. It connects to Palestinian activism on the ground right now, and dovetails with the demands of the current weekly protests. It pressures Israel to stop the killing, and is the central issue every war on Gaza has been fought on (and if there is another war on Gaza, it too will be about the blockade). Raising awareness of the blockade will inevitably teach people about the conflict, the occupation, and will be in a positive framework of Western states pressuring Israel to curtail its oppression of the Palestinians.

At time of writing, Amnesty International has just issued another call for an arms embargo against Israel. Amnesty said, “The time for symbolic statements of condemnation is now over. The international community must act concretely and stop the delivery of arms and military equipment to Israel. A failure to do so will continue to fuel serious human rights abuses against thousands of men, women and children suffering the consequences of life under Israel’s cruel blockade of Gaza.” This is the kind of moral authority that should come easily to leftists when discussing Palestine, and is pretty straightforward to anyone who understands what Israel is doing to Gaza.

For people in green politics, we can urge our representatives to make public statements in solidarity with Palestinians, and to urge an end to the blockade. We can write letters to other political representatives saying the same. We can urge NGOs to take a position, and call on the Australian versions of groups like Amnesty, Oxfam and so on to similarly take a public position on the blockade, and commit to campaigning on it. Some unions have taken positions supporting a partial boycott of Israel. People in unions can urge their unions to commit to opposing the siege on Gaza. This is a campaign that can win, and would capitalise on the growing momentum among Palestine activists in Australia in a concrete, meaningful way.

Resources

The United Nations has some good materials on Palestine. My favourite is the UNOCHA page, which can also direct you to it’s particular page on Gaza.

Human Rights Council materials can be found and accessed here. This is the newest special rapporteur.

This is Amnesty’s page. Here’s Human Rights Watch.

B’Tselem is Israel’s leading human rights group on the occupied territories. Al Haq is a respected Palestinian human rights organisation.

There’s various humanitarian organisations, which give a sense of the situation in Gaza. This is UNRWA. This is Oxfam. This is the Red Cross.

For news from a mostly liberal Zionist perspective, it is worth reading the free +972. Ha’aretz is the best Israeli paper, akin to the Israeli New York Times, though it has a paywall. And for a more activist slant, it is worth checking out Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada. IMEU has lots of useful resources.

For people looking for book-length accessible guides to the occupation, my personal favourite is Palestine Inside Out. A short primer on Israel’s treatment of Gaza can be found in Method and Madness, or This Time We Went Too Far (the latter is excellent).