Notes on Israel’s Assault on Gaza

He who lives on depriving others of light drowns in the darkness of his own shadow.

– Mahmoud Darwish

As readers are surely aware, Israel has initiated a major military assault on Gaza, the greatest escalation of violence since 2008-09’s Operation Cast Lead, in which some 1,400 Palestinians were killed (among them over 300 children, and the majority civilians), 3,500 homes destroyed, and around 20,000 Palestinians made homeless, to name just a few of the human costs which accumulated over the course of those few weeks. As if to illustrate the reality of uneven power and disproportionate violence, 13 Israelis lost their lives over the same period. Many are referring to the operation which is currently underway, “Operation Pillar of Cloud” (a biblical reference to a divine cloud which lent protection to Jews), as a second Cast Lead. Israel has been firing on Gaza with aircraft, tanks, and naval gunboats, with ground forces apparently on standby. Figures are changing faster than I can keep up with them, but it seems that at least 10 Palestinians have been killed (including two children), and at least 100 injured. Lest readers forget (or for those unaware), Israel is bombarding a captive population – Gazans have nowhere to run to. Meanwhile, the Obama administration – in keeping with the US policy of providing overwhelming diplomatic, economic, and military support to Israel, from which neither Democratic nor Republican administrations depart – has publicly announced its support for Israel’s “right to self-defense.”

In the US (and much of the rest of the world), the immorality of Israel’s current assault will be obfuscated with references to Hamas, rockets, Israel’s right to self-defense, anti-Semitism, and so forth (I write this, incidentally, as a Jewish-American who thoroughly condemns racism in any form, anti-Jewish racism included). But these tropes are merely smokescreens. Aside from the fact that Israel initiated the current phase of military conflict after a two-week de-escalation (resulting in the death of a 12 year old Palestinian boy who was playing soccer outside his home), the present operation needs to be situated in its broader historical and geographical context if it is to be interpreted in any meaningful way. Palestinians have suffered under the imposition of a racist settler-colonial regime for a century now, with ethnic cleansing beginning in force six decades ago. 800,000 Palestinians were dispossessed during the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe), or what Israel refers to as its war of independence. Another 300,000 were dispossessed in 1967 with Israel’s expansion into what are now referred to as the occupied territories. In between these periods, and since, Israel has taken every opportunity to drive Palestinians from their homes and lands, in an effort to acquire as much territory with as few Palestinians as possible. Palestinians living in Israel proper are relegated to the status of third class citizens (below Mizrahi Jews), while those living in the occupied territories are subject to constant overt violence and surveillance (many other Palestinians are simply left to live in exile).

In Gaza, Israel has imposed a military siege and naval blockade since 2006 when Hamas was elected. Not only has this stranglehold prevented the free movement of people, it has decimated the Gazan economy. 80% of Gaza’s factories have closed, and estimates of the unemployment rate range from 30% to 50%. The problem of the quantity and quality of water is becoming increasingly acute, and at least 60% of households are “food insecure.” Nothing illustrates the cynicism of the siege more than the now famous comment made by Dov Weisglass, advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, shortly after the siege was imposed: “The idea,” he said, “is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” To this end, in a manner reminiscent of Nazi or British colonial regimes, Israeli health officials actually formulated calculations regarding the minimum calories required to prevent the mass of Palestinians from slipping into starvation, and then used these calculations to determine how many truckloads of food would be allowed into Gaza every day.

So, yes, in this context, rockets are sometimes fired into Israel by a small minority of Gaza’s population. We can judge these actions as unethical or unstrategic, but the idea that they excuse the present assault is preposterous. One would be hard pressed to find a single historical example of an indigenous population subjected to the indignities and violence of colonialism which did not include some violent forms of resistance. Even in India, which the West loves to uphold as the epitome of “good” anti-colonialism, the resistance to the British included an armed force of some 40,000 in the form of the Indian National Army. A peaceful resolution to the current wave of violence will not come from the cessation of rocketfire from militants in Gaza, but rather through building mass movements for, and in solidarity with, Palestinian liberation through decolonization and the dismantling of the relations of domination, exclusion, and exploitation which currently prevail in Israel/Palestine.

A large demonstration is gathering outside, so I must leave this here. More later.

[update: pictures from the demonstration referred to above are posted below]

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Fragments (1)

Border Crossing

As with all border crossings in Israel-Palestine, our entry into Israel proper was a (milder) microcosm of the politics of surveillance and control for which the country has become renowned. Of course, our experience pales in comparison to that of Palestinians, other Arabs or people of color, and Muslims, but is revealing nevertheless. With white internationals (or in Jeff’s case, someone who can often pass for white), the primary fear seems to be that we might be doing exactly what we in fact planned to do – either traveling in the Occupied Territories and deepening our understanding of the Palestinian struggle or, worse still, engaging in direct solidarity work with organizations like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Jeff was the first to approach the customs counter (we decided Jeff ought to go first in hopes of taking advantage of his characteristic nonchalance). The woman barraged him with questions: “Why have you come to Israel? What do you do for work? You were a student? What did you study? Do you have any Israeli Facebook friends? Why have you only reserved a hostel for one night? Do you plan to visit Ramallah or the West Bank?”

Eventually she asked Jeff whether or not he knew any (Jewish) Israelis, to which Jeff replied that we would at some point be visiting my cousin in Tel Aviv (true). At this point I was summoned to the counter. “What is your relationship to this man [Jeff]? How well do you know him? How long have you known him for? What is the name of your cousin in Tel Aviv?” (translation: does his name signify Jewishness or Arabness? – reflexively treated as mutually exclusive categories). After I communicated to her my cousin’s clearly Jewish-sounding name, she eased up a bit. Still, she needed to make sure. “Do you have any plans to visit Ramallah or the West Bank?” (translation: are you coming here to associate with Palestinians, or have you come here to drink and have sex and see archaeological sites like the majority of tourists from the US?). I looked at her quizzically as if to say, “Are you crazy? Of course not,” shook my head no, and the next thing we had our clearance stamps and were on our way. I had forefronted my Jewishness, indicated my disinterest in (or perhaps even hostility towards) Palestinians, and that was all it took to render us safe entrants in the eyes of the Israeli state.

We would be heading to Ramallah the day after the next.

Demonstration: Nabi Saleh

Last Friday, the day after completing our training with ISM, we attended one of the weekly demonstrations in Nabi Saleh, a small Palestinian town about 20 kilometers northwest of Ramallah. At face value, the demonstrations are against the seizure of Palestinian land and the appropriation of Palestinian water resources by the nearby Halamish settlement, but of course these demonstrations are also an expression of a deeper discontent with the dispossession and subjugation to which Palestinians have been subjected across the whole of Palestine for the past six decades. We gathered in what appeared to be the center of the town, seated in a circle beneath the shade of a large tree beside an aging cemetery. At first, the group was made up primarily of (non-Palestinian) internationals – some (US) Americans, a handful of British, and a small army of Italians – but after prayer had come to a close the number of Palestinians clearly exceeded that of internationals. We began marching towards the town well, which has become a symbol of settler encroachment. Almost as soon as the Israeli military was within view, they began firing teargas canisters at us. Teargas canisters are, mind you, dangerous projectiles, which is why the military is supposed to shoot them at a high angle (this is what makes it possible to pass them off as “non-lethal weapons”). These soldiers, however, were shooting tear gas canisters at a low angle, so that they whizzed past us as we marched down the narrow street (in December 2011, Mustafa Tamimi was killed in one of the Nabi Saleh demonstrations after being shot directly in the face with a tear gas canister from just a few meters away). One canister missed Jeff by maybe a foot. I took cover alongside a nearby house, eyes burning and throat closing from exposure to the tear gas.

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The demonstration went on for hours. Palestinians and internationals acting in solidarity would advance, soldiers would respond with teargas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and sound grenades (several fellow demonstrators said that live ammunition was also used at times, but I have been unable to confirm this). Most of the soldiers used violence to quell the “unrest” without any hesitation or apparent remorse, as one might imagine zookeepers dealing with a particularly rebellious group of (non-human) animals. But the Palestinian demonstrators seemed undeterred and unafraid. Children as young as seven would directly confront fully armed soldiers in stand offs – displays of bravery which were profoundly humbling and inspiring. Boys just a little older would slingshot stones towards the soldiers, and even sent a blazing tire rolling towards the military at the end of the road, only to have to scatter once more under showers of rubber-coated steel bullets. Many of the soldiers were themselves little more than children, and as I stood face to face with one of the more boyish of the bunch, I could see the discomfort written on his face, perhaps even seeds of doubt. But when one is young, insecure, and eager to take one’s place in a hyper-masculine and militaristic culture, doubt can be just as dangerous as conviction.

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In the end, somewhere between four and six people were arrested, including one Palestinian boy aged 15. It seems that the arrested internationals have been released, while the Palestinian boy, as far as I know, remains imprisoned. The whole demonstration almost felt like the enactment of some bizarre play – the soldiers going through their well-rehearsed motions as an overwhelming and unrelenting repressive force, the Palestinians communicating once more loudly and clearly their refusal to submit to the violence and indignities of Zionist settler-colonialism. One could easily see these demonstrations as futile exercises, a hopeless banging of one’s fists against the unyielding frame of a massive military machine. But I think this would be a mistake. For the value of these demonstrations is not, as I see it, in the extent to which they materially combat or undermine the forces of Israeli domination, but rather in the act of refusal itself, in their capacity to keep hope and dignity alive. As Mahmoud Darwish once put it, “[s]teadfastness is survival and survival is the beginning of existence.” These small acts of refusal comprise the foundation upon which the possibilities for new beginnings rest.

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Introducing Hebron (al-Khalil)

Following Friday’s demonstration, we left for Hebron (in Arabic, al-Khalil, ironically meaning “the friend”), one of ISM’s three primary bases of operation. Hebron reveals the system of Israeli apartheid at its worst. The Israeli military presence is ubiquitous, with soldiers and checkpoints at every turn. The blatant function of the 3,000 or so troops stationed in and around Hebron is to protect the 500 or so Jewish settlers as they act with impunity against the Palestinian population of 165,000. Palestinian movements are consistently highly restricted, and frequently subjected to even further delimitations on a seemingly arbitrary basis. Shehuda street (renamed “apartheid street” by Palestinian activists) is fully segregated – Palestinians are not allowed to walk it without a permit from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Meanwhile, settlers roam the streets freely with assault rifles. The city is literally divided. As determined by the Oslo Accords, H1 (the new city) is under the control of the Palestinian Authority (at least nominally), while H2 (the Old City) is under Israeli military control. Hebron’s Old City, as Chiara De Cesari summarizes, now “presents itself to the Palestinian inhabitants as a disarticulated urban space dotted with black holes, no-go and danger zones, a patchwork, an unstable geography. Hebron epitomizes in fact the progressive dismemberment of the Occupied Territories, triggered by Israeli settlements’ expansion in their midst that accelerated during the so-called peace process throughout the 1990s and in the early 2000s.” The economic impact of this process of dismemberment and segregation has been tremendous; in the suq (market), the former economic center of the city, nearly 80% of commercial activity has ground to a halt. Yet in characteristic Orwellian fashion, one can find streets graffitied with slogans such as “Free Israel!”, or the now infamous contribution of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), “gas the Arabs!” In 1994, a settler originally from New York took these sentiments to heart, and opened fire in Ibrahimi Mosque, murdering 29 and injuring 125.

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It is in this context that we have joined in the Palestinian olive harvest. Palestinian olive growers have been subjected to frequent attacks on their land, homes, and families by settlers, and the participation of international solidarity activists has been used as a means of mitigating this violence. The personal testimonies I have encountered are what one might expect given the larger portrait of the city sketched above. On my second day of harvesting, one Palestinian farmer showed me an olive grove that had been burnt to the ground by settlers. After harvesting, as I sat with the family over a delicious meal the mother had prepared, she proceeded to describe to me how not long ago settlers had brutally beaten her son, breaking several bones. She said this to me, with tears in her eyes, as a group of armed settlers walked by us, casting smirking and disdainful looks in our direction, laughing amongst themselves. Meanwhile, a group of soldiers sat beneath a nearby tree (“for our protection”), looking bored and playing with their assault rifles. Another local Palestinian olive grower – who is quite active in the Palestinian resistance movement and also helps to run a biweekly free medical clinic – later relayed to me a litany of abuses suffered at the hands of settlers: they have cut down his fruit trees, smashed his windows, cut his water lines, littered his land with trash and barbed wire, and fired live ammunition into his home; they have beaten him, his wife (resulting in two miscarriages), and his son (knocking his teeth out with a rock); they even went so far as to urinate on his daughter. The day before yesterday, we visited another Palestinian who had four 40 year old olive trees cut down by settlers early that morning; in the past they had razed some 400 trees on his land. Yesterday the Israeli military reaffirmed its allegiances when it demolished another Palestinian home in the south Hebron hills.

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The transparency of the apartheid system in Hebron is exceptionally relevant to those of us living in the US, not only because we have had our own experience with formal apartheid in the form of Jim Crow (and an ongoing experience with informal apartheid in the form of the present neoliberal regime of racial domination, particularly evident in the system of mass incarceration), but even more to the point – because it could not exist without our consent. Israel is dependent upon the US both militarily (Israel is the largest recipient of US aid, scheduled to receive some $30 billion from 2009 to 2018, the majority of which is funneled into the military and policing apparatus) and diplomatically (e.g. the US frequently exercises veto power on Israel’s behalf on the UN Security Council). While this support is shrouded in racist tropes invoking democracy, anti-Semitism, and so forth, US support for Israel is actually far more cynical and straightforward, and pivots upon the projection of US power into West Asia and North Africa, typically regarded as one of the most geostrategically central regions in the world (i.e. from the perspective of ruling classes). If masses of people were to withdraw their consent from this “special relationship,” it would cease to exist, and Israel’s apartheid regime would no longer have legs to stand on. In my view, the Palestinian solidarity movement which is presently the most dynamic, and which has the greatest chance of both pressuring Israel and raising awareness in the US about our complicity (or forced implication) with Zionist settler-colonialism and its attendant system of apartheid, is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in which I have been a participant for the past several years. More information about this movement can be found here: http://www.bdsmovement.net/

Further reflections on our time in Hebron to come soon.

Sources:

De Cesari, Chiara, “Hebron, of Heritage as Technology of Life,” Jerusalem Quarterly, Volume 41 (Spring 2010), available at: <http://www.jerusalemquarterly.org/ViewArticle.aspx?id=336&gt;.

Fitzgerald, Markus, “Ultimate goal of Israeli policies in Hebron: ethnic cleansing,” International Solidarity Movement (28 July 2012), available at: <http://palsolidarity.org/2012/07/ultimate-goal-of-israeli-policies-in-hebron-ethnic-cleansing/&gt;.

Strickland, Patrick O., “An Image of Hebron: the Occupation’s Ugly face,” Palestine Chronicle (31 July 2012), available at: <http://palestinechronicle.com/view_article_details.php?id=19448&gt;.

Background

Metal is time’s master, and nothing cuts one metal except another that carves a different history.

– Mahmoud Darwish

 

Background

When I made the decision to travel to Palestine with two of my closest friends and fellow organizers, Jeff and Andy, I did so with multiple intentions. Firstly, to deepen my knowledge of Israeli settler-colonialism, the associated system of apartheid, and the diverse forms of Palestinian resistance by way of first-hand experience, and to use this developing understanding to inform my participation in the Palestinian solidarity/liberation movement back in the United States. Both Andy and I have been involved in Palestinian solidarity work for several years (while Jeff and I have been involved in various forms of more general anti-capitalist/anti-authoritarian organizing), primarily in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement (for more information, see http://www.bdsmovement.net/ and http://www.olympiabds.org/), and are committed for the long haul to working towards the decolonization of Palestine. Secondly, to explore the ways in which the processes operating in Palestine are not only local and regional but also global – most obviously in the sense that global processes (e.g. neoliberalization, the projection of US power, the current crisis of capital accumulation) are major shapers of the history and geography of Palestine, but perhaps even more importantly in the sense that what is happening in Palestine is indicative of emergent global processes; in other words, practices or dynamics which are often regarded as peculiar or exceptional to Palestine by both the right and the left (such as territorial fragmentation, the coincidence of pockets of intensive exploitation and pervasive exclusion, or the intricate mechanisms for policing and controlling the movements of Palestinians) may in fact have something important to tell us about more general processes increasingly experienced by subordinated groups the world over. Thirdly, to make the connections – both intellectually and in practice – between the specific dynamics, conditions, and concerns of the movement(s) for Palestinian liberation and those of the more expansive and loosely networked multiplicity of movements often referred to in the singular as the alter-globalization or global justice movement, each of which Jeff, Andy, and I consider ourselves students of and participants in. In the US (and presumably elsewhere), the Palestinian solidarity/liberation movement has often been ghettoized, both by its participants and by other movement actors, and I wanted to develop first-hand knowledge that might help me to resist this dynamic, to situate the Palestinian liberation struggle within the more general global struggle against capitalism, colonialism, racism, heteropatriarchy, and ecological devastation to which I am committed, not only rhetorically but tangibly in practice. And, fourthly, to be moved and inspired. Privileged and problematical though it may be, I felt that witnessing both the violence of Israeli settler-colonialism and the resilience of Palestinian resistance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds would serve as an intellectual and emotional reminder of why I hold the political convictions that I do, and why embracing radical hope and imagination is something more than a fool’s errand.

This decision, however, was not without its ambiguities. To begin with, there is the tension that emerges in relation to the privilege of being able to enter and exit such a situation at will, to travel to Palestine (framed somewhat cynically) with the intention of mining it for knowledge and inspiration. This tension is compounded by my (white) Jewishness, which places me at the top of the racialized hierarchy upon which the Zionist state has been founded. While we planned to engage in on-the-ground solidarity work while in Palestine (primarily through participation in the International Solidarity Movement – for more information, see http://palsolidarity.org/), none of us had any illusions of making a significant material contribution to the Palestinian struggle during our time here. We would enter Palestine as transients, only briefly, and with little skills or knowledge that might be of any real use to Palestinians (none of us even speak Arabic). And with what contributions we might actually be able to make – say using our privileged position as white internationals to mitigate violence against Palestinians in certain circumstances – there would always be the danger of reproducing colonial relationships and consciousness – for instance, falling victim to the illusion that our perspectives and agency somehow have more to contribute to the Palestinian struggle than those of Palestinians themselves (i.e. the white/Western savior complex). All of us have been aware of these pitfalls, and recognize that in many ways we will be taking away far more than we will be contributing while we are here, but hope to make up for this imbalance by committing to bringing whatever insights garnered in Palestine to bear upon our organizing work in the US (and by committing to being engaged in this work substantively and consistently). Beyond that, we will simply have to be mindful of this tension and do away with any notions of moral purity, for we will almost certainly inadvertently reproduce certain oppressive relations during our time here.

Normally I abhor writing which is hurried – employing language which is flat and devoid of creativity, presenting analysis which is underdeveloped, communicating emotions which have yet to be fully processed. For these reasons, I nearly scrapped the idea of a blog altogether. Simply put, it’s not really my style. But I decided to force myself, because I think that, to the extent that communicating with others about our experiences in Palestine helps develop wider consciousness of the dynamics and moral weight of the Palestinian struggle, it is  in some sense an ethical imperative. That being said, all of the thoughts and observations communicated here will be incipient, and I welcome any feedback or critique that might help me or other readers to enrich our interpretative frameworks or political orientations. On a more mundane and practical note, while I would like to blog with some regularity, my on-the-ground commitments will often prove an obstacle to the frequency or consistency of posts; for now, I will aim for once a week. Finally, if anyone is interested in further resources on the history and dynamics of Israeli settler-colonialism and Palestinian resistance, or is curious about how they might themselves become involved in solidarity work, please write me and I will be happy to provide you with information or refer you to people more experienced and knowledgeable than myself. Thanks for reading.