I just finished watching an online clip of CNN's reporting on the Israeli rocket attack on the UNRWA shelter in the town of Beit Hanoun in the very northeast corner of the Gaza Strip. About 17 people were killed and around 200 wounded. The scene of medics carrying the wounded out of the UN School which has been in use as a shelter is heartbreaking especially scenes of very young children on stretchers most seriously wounded and maimed. This horrific scene cannot but instill shame and grief in the hearts of those who are in the least bit supportive of the Jewish State. The IDF has claimed, with UN confirmation, that Hamas artillery shells have also landed in the area around the school but it is mostly Israel rocket fire that has caused the damage and loss of life and limb.
True, Hamas has long used UN schools and hospitals as weapons depots and sites from which to launch rocket attacks against Israel. The UN has confirmed this as well with General Secretary Ban Ki Moon confirming reports of Hamas rockets recently found in UN run schools in the Gaza Strip. The fact that Hamas uses much of the Gaza population as human shields doesn't absolve Israel of its responsibility to avoid firing in heavily populated areas. And the important thing to remember is that there is no military solution to this conflict; Israel is just as mistaken today in believing that it can destroy Hamas by force as it was thirty years ago in thinking that it could destroy Yassir Arafat and the PLO.
The current war in Gaza which began over one month ago has left over 1,800 dead, mostly Palestinians and thousands more wounded. This early CNN report (and so many others as well) make it very difficult for the IDF to avoid responsibility for the civilian casualties by claiming it did all it could to prevent it. The report asserts;
The coordinates of the school in Beit Hanoun, which was serving a shelter for families in Gaza, had been given to the Israeli military, said a U.N. spokesman, Chris Gunness...An Israel Defense Forces statement said militants had shot at the Israeli military and the IDF responded with "fire toward the origins of the shooting." The IDF said it had told people at the school to evacuate because of the fighting in the area and given a four-hour window to get people out. Israeli officials told CNN they had warned U.N. officials for three days to evacuate. Shortly after the strike, Gunness tweeted that the coordinates of the shelter had been given to the Israeli military and that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency had twice tried to coordinate with the Israeli military to evacuate the civilians at the shelter. The shelter is in an area that has seen intense fighting recently. Gunness posted: "Precise co-ordinates of the UNRWA shelter in Beit Hanoun had been formally given to the Israeli army. ... " Then minutes later, he tweeted: "Over the course of the day UNRWA tried 2 coodinate with the Israeli Army a window for civilians 2 leave & it was never granted. ..."UN officials and Palestinian eyewitnesses claimed that the IDF liaison office was contacted repeatedly regarding a time frame for evacuation but the shelter was hit by artillery before a response came to UN relief workers at the shelter. Schools sheltering civilians had been hit by IDF artillery fire twice previously in this invasion and several times in previous ones. The excuse is that Hamas uses civilians as human shields because images of civilian deaths serve as potent anti-Israel propaganda all over the world. This is only one reason that Hamas has become increasingly unpopular over the past several years. Opinion polls in Gaza show that they increasingly reject Hamas. One example is a recent poll taken by the Watan Center for Studies and Research in the Gaza Strip showed that 23.3% of Gazans polled support Hamas while 32.9% support Fatah which has a clear plurality of support of Gazans. It is also the case that polls repeatedly show that the vast majority of Palestinians in both Gaza and the WB, favor a negotiated solution to continued fighting and that Hamas's performance at governing is untenable having failed to bring sovereignty, prosperity, security or freedom to the Palestinian people.
One opinion poll commissioned by the neoconservative WINEP, but conducted by a reliable, Palestinian pollster, is the only available opinion poll in published in English since the start of the Israeli invasion of Gaza on July 8. It surveyed "a standard geographic random probability sample of 1,200 Palestinian adults with a three percent margin of error. The responses are fascinating and quite counter intuitive. The vast majority of Palestinians, over 85% across all age groups surveyed want Israel to open the borders to allow Palestinians into Israel to work. In Gaza, about a third of those surveyed favor Abbas as president of the PA over Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh garnering barely more than ten percent support and the majority (over half) want uphold the ceasefire, renounce violence and get Hamas to support Abbas's position for further negotiations with Israel in pursuit of a peaceful solution. Interestingly, according to this poll, about two-thirds want to continue non-violent "popular resistance" to continued Israel occupation/foreign domination.
As we go into a second ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel (the first one lasted little more than an hour), over 1,800 Palestinians (roughly one percent of the entire Gazan population) are dead with thousands wounded and roughly 67 Israeli soldiers and civilians killed. Despite the present ceasefire, Netanyahu, the Israeli PM, wants to continue the war until Hamas is utterly decimated. This is as impractical, immoral and unrealistic as was the Likud coalition's belief in the 1980s that it could utterly destroy the PLO by military force; the Lebanon War in the 1980s, which provided the context for this effort by Israel, led to the resignation of the Begin government as an accomplice to war crimes, specifically the massacre of over 2,000 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. Netanyahu is similarly a war criminal and the ultimate fate of the current Likud government remains to be seen though it is sure that Hamas will not be vanquished by Israel's continued use of military force.
The Roots of the Current Conflict
The current conflict has its roots in the 2005 unilateral IDF withdrawl from Gaza when Ariel Sharon was PM. Shortly after this total army/Jewish settler withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Hamas won a legislative election in January 2006 (they won about a third of the votes but they were able to cobble together a party coalition with the other Islamic Fundamentalist groups that comprised over three fourths of the Palestine Legislative Council.) Israel responded to this electoral victory with immediate repression of Gaza much of it consisting of devastating restrictions on the Gazan economy. Much of this began in February 2006 when Israel froze monies due to be transferred to the PA in Gaza. The Original Oslo Agreements left the PA heavily financially and economically dependent on Israel, a point of contention between Palestinian leaders and the State of Israel.
Gwen Iffil of PBS said in an interview with a Hamas spokeman that soon after the announcement of the Hamas electoral victory; "...the Israeli cabinet agreed to freeze the transfer of about $55 million in tax and customs receipts to the debt-ridden Palestinian Authority." Israel's reasoning was that Hamas was a terrorist organization whose charter called for the violent destruction of Israel. Then PM Ehud Olmert declared his decision to suspend all monies due to be transferred to the PA due to the election of Hamas. The 1994 Paris Protocol on Economic Relations, as part of the Oslo Agreements, created a Palestinian/Israeli Customs Union "...whereby Israel collects duties on goods destined for the Palestinian territories, value-added taxes on major Palestinian purchases from Israel, and excise taxes on gasoline, then disburses this revenue on a monthly basis to the PA government." It is under these terms that Israel has consistently "held the purse strings" over the PA government leadership despite, as Iffil claimed in the PBS interview, that Israel release most of the money owed by past agreements to the PA.
According to the above cited WINEP report on the Customs Union, even conservative observers such as Neil Zilber criticize the unilateral nature of the Israeli actions and their dire effects;
As of earlier this year, these customs transfers amounted to nearly $115 million per month, making up an estimated 36 to 44 percent of the PA's yearly budget of $3.88 billion (adjusting for currency fluctuations between the Israeli shekel and the U.S. dollar). In other words, they constitute the PA treasury's largest single revenue source, surpassing even direct budgetary assistance from foreign donors.
Though Zilber stops short of referring to the Israeli freeze on the PA's financial assets as a "collective punishment" (as has the UN and the international humanitarian community) he well demonstrates that severity of these actions and asserts that Israel has benefited little from such actions claiming that such unilateral moves risk "miscalculation and escalation."
In September 2007, Israel officially declared Gaza to be a "hostile entity" and followed the Hamas takeover of Gaza in the summer of that year with a draconian naval blockade that prevented basic foodstuffs, building materials and other necessities from entering the Strip. The dramatic humanitarian effects of the seven year siege are well known and documented and need no further belaboring here. Suffice it to say that the effects of the blockade since 2007 have been were dramatic and have only worsened year by year. Many humanitarian agencies have well documented the impact on the Gaza population. One such agency describes the cumulative impact of the blockade over the course of the first five years. According to a 2012 press release by the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA) the naval blockade imposed by Israel in June 2007 as a response to armed Hamas take over of Gaza, resulted in much damage to the Gazan economy and suffering among the population;
Since the beginning of the blockade in June 2007, the Palestinian fishing yield has decreased by 7,000 metric tons representing an overall loss of around US$26.5 million. Restrictions have reduced 90 percent of Gaza’s fishermen to poverty...nearly 30 percent of Gaza’s businesses have closed and an additional 15 percent have laid off 80 percent of their staff. Without opportunities to earn their own income, 80 percent of people in Gaza receive aid to get by.
The result of Israel's continued external control of Gaza and the creation of a security perimeter around the Gaza strip which has controlled the movement of people and materiel in and out of the Strip since 1967, has been a source of antagonism between Israel and Hamas whose rocket attacks against Israel since 2007 were said to be a legitimate form of resistance to continued Israeli domination. Israel may have redeployed the IDF from the Strip in 2005 but it never relinquished its total external control of Gaza's borders with Israel. Egypt has similarly controlled Gaza from its side mostly by policing the Rafah crossing into the Egyptian controlled Sinai.
Sharon's 2005 Redeployment; An Act of Peace or Continued Neo-Colonial Domination?
What is to be made of Israel's 2005 redeployment of soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip? Israeli scholar, Avi Shlaim believes it was not a gesture of peace "but a prelude to further Zionist expansion on the West Bank." In other words, Israeli loss of land in Gaza was to be offset by the expansion of settlement blocs in the West Bank where the Israeli government and Jewish settlers still control about 60% of the total land. This may be true but there is actually a more important political strategy at work here designed to sustain long term Israeli hegemony in the region.
One of Israel's more moderate critics, Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism, has published an assessment of the current crisis in Ha'aretz in which he decided that Sharon's unilateral move was more to ensure continued Israeli domination of Gaza than serve as a "confidence building measure" for further negotiations. Beinart points out that more than just being politically practical or financially sound, the redeployment served to shield Israel from further political pressure to negotiate a true peace deal with the PA while entrenching Israel's external control of Gaza without the formerly associated financial costs and political/military risks. Beinart begins with an infamous quote from Dov Weisglass, then Chief of Staff for Ariel Sharon;
“The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”
The Israeli government well understood that the Bush Administration had absolutely no inclination to push for renewed peace talks or even to prevent a further outbreak of violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Their not so benign neglect was the cause of so much of the violence that ensued in the region after the outbreak of the second Intifada that occurred in late 2000 toward the very end of Clinton's second term. But the Sharon government needed a plan to avoid further concessions. It wanted to freeze the situation in place allowing it to go no further so as to ensure continued Israeli control of the Gaza Strip. In late 2004, Weisglass, one of the architects of the new redeployment strategy told a Ha'aretz reporter the following;
"Because in the fall of 2003 we understood that everything was stuck. And although by the way the Americans read the situation, the blame fell on the Palestinians, not on us, Arik [Sharon] grasped that this state of affairs could not last, that they wouldn't leave us alone, wouldn't get off our case. Time was not on our side. There was international erosion, internal erosion. Domestically, in the meantime, everything was collapsing. The economy was stagnant, and the Geneva Initiative had gained broad support. And then we were hit with the letters of officers and letters of pilots and letters of commandos [refusing to serve in the territories]. These were not weird kids with green ponytails and a ring in their nose with a strong odor of grass. These were people like Spector's group [Yiftah Spector, a renowned Air Force pilot who signed the pilot's letter]. Really our finest young people."
Weisglass continued to boast of his "freezing" the ideas and commitments of the Palestinian/Israeli peace process indefinitely allowing Israel to unilaterally proceed with its efforts to create an apartheid situation out of what was originally intended to be a just and lasting peace. Weisglass remarked toward the end of the interview that such unilateral efforts by Israel were ultimately intended to transform the Palestinians into "Finns" who could easily be bullied and cajoled in the way the old Soviet Union behaved toward its neighbor Finland. Such a remark leaves no doubt as to the motives behind the 2005 IDF redeployment from the Gaza Strip! It was a strategy, however, that backfired and has led to nearly a decade of tragic violence, needless loss of life, suffering and instability in the region.
A Word About Tunnels: Theirs and Ours.
As Gazan resistance to external control increased (the 2006 Hamas victory was only one such reaction to Israel's control of Gaza as Fatah seemed powerless-and unwilling-to do much about it.) Israel tightened the noose around the entire Strip. This noose was the basis of the more than 3,000 rockets fired at Israel in the run up to Israel's Operation Cast Lead in 2008 which took over 1,300 lives or about one percent of the Gazan population. The same was true of Operation Pillar of Defense four years later in which about 167 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians; the ongoing siege of Gaza becomes increasingly intolerable and so Hamas responds with rocket fire in the vein hope that this will create sufficient pressure on Israel to lift the siege. Of course, it is a losing strategy in that it only provokes a lethal and disproportionate response from Israel as we see in the recent IDF incursion. Neither the ongoing military blockade/import restrictions regime nor the incursions that inevitably follow Hamas resistance in the form of rocket attacks are essential to Israel security. Negotiations are the real answer here. Israeli use of force in Gaza is simply to pursue the political goals of avoiding negotiations and of illegally sustaining Israeli control of the Strip.
The Gazan population copes with the siege by smuggling in food, medicine, materials and arms through a complex series of hundreds of tunnels mostly on the northern and Egyptian side of the border. An Al Jazeera report from earlier this year reported that not only are these tunnels essential to the relief effort for Gaza but have become a growth industry itself supporting thousands of Palestinian workers in the Strip;
An estimated 7,000 Gazans scratch an insecure living by working in the tunnels, stretching from southern Gaza into Egypt. The network of tunnels, estimates numbering over 500, is an essential prop to Gazan business. Through them flow building materials, foods, medicines, drugs, and people, accounting for an estimated $700 million per year in an economy which grew by 20 percent in 2011.
A close look at the damage caused to the Gazan economy every year by the Israeli siege tells why these tunnels are so essential. An American Friends Service Committee press release from 2010 reported that; Between 2007 and 2010, even basic necessities such as cooking gas, water filtration equipment, toilet paper, tooth paste, clothes, noodles, candy, and spices were blocked from entering Gaza. The excessively harsh nature of the seven year Israeli siege has been well documented and need no further elaboration. Suffice it to say that the complex of tunnels that both Israel and Egypt have consistently try to either close or destroy are the Gaza Strip's only lifeline to the outside world.
Tunnels used over time by a besieged people have an interesting precedent in modern history. This quote from the Jewish Virtual Library website gives us a detailed and very disturbing look at that precedent and deserves to be quoted at length;
Smuggling began at the very moment that the Jewish area of residence was established; its inhabitants were forced to live on 180 grams [6½ oz.] of bread a day, 220 grams of sugar a month, 1 kg. [2.2 lbs.] jam and ½ kg. of honey, etc. It was calculated that the officially supplied rations did not cover even 10 percent of normal requirements. If one had wanted really to restrict oneself to the official rations then the entire population of the ghetto would have had to die of hunger in a very short time.... The German authorities did everything to seal off the ghetto hermetically and not allow in a single gram of food. A wall was put up around the ghetto on all sides that did not leave a single millimeter of open space....They fixed barbed wire and broken glass to the top of the wall. When that failed to help, the Judenrat was ordered to make the wall higher, at the expense of the Jews, of course....Several kids of guards were appointed for the walls and the passages through them; the categories [of guards] were constantly being changed and their numbers increased. The walls were guarded by the gendarmerie together with the Polish police; at the ghetto wall there were gendarmerie posts, Polish police and Jewish police... The victims of the smuggling were mainly Jews, but they were not lacking either among the Aryans [Poles]. Auerswald, too, employed sharply repressive measures to stop the smuggling. Several times smugglers were shot at the central lock-up on Gesiowka* Street. Once there was a veritable slaughter (100 persons were shot near Warsaw). Among the Jewish victims of the smuggling there were tens of Jewish children between 5 and 6 years old, whom the German killers shot in great numbers near the passages and at the walls....And despite that, without paying attention to the victims, the smuggling never stopped for a moment. When the street was still slippery with the blood that had been spilled, other [smugglers] already set out, as soon as the "candles"** had signaled that the way was clear, to carry on with the work....The smuggling took place – a) through the walls, b) through the gates, c) through underground tunnels, d) through sewers, and e) through houses on the borders....This is a quote from Jewish writer and escapee from the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum whose famous Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, from which the above quote is probably taken, details the horror of daily life for Jews in the Ghetto. There are obvious differences between the Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza today but the great number of parallels are quite disturbing. Remove the words Jews and Germans and substitute Israeli and Palestinian and we have a fairly accurate description of the current crisis in Gaza.
The comparison between today's siege of Palestinians in Gaza with that of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland is an old one. According to well known professor of Arab history, politics and culture, Joseph Massad of Columbia University in New York, the PLO openly and consciously identified with the Jewish experience of the Warsaw Ghetto drawing inspiration from the Jewish uprising against Nazi terror. Massad writes of how the Palestinian leadership saw the Ghetto rising as a great historic symbol of resistance to tyranny and occupation. In a 2009 piece for the Electronic Intifada Massad makes reference to the besieged Jews of Warsaw by saying;
"Their uprising was always inspirational to the Palestinians. In the heyday of the PLO as a symbol of Palestinian liberation, the organization would lay flower wreathes at the Warsaw Ghetto monument to honor these fallen Jewish heroes."
Those who often prattle on about "Palestinian anti-Semitism" would do well to heed the manner in which Professor Massad explains the perception of Jewish history held by most Palestinian leadership. It is a history largely revered and celebrated as mirroring their own. Palestinians don't reject Jews as Jews. It is Zionist colonization, tyranny and violence that the Palestinians find so odious. Time is running out for a peaceful solution. Warsaw Ghetto survivors had a Yiddish expression, "Nisht fergessen, Nisht fergebben!"(Never forget, never forgive!) Will this soon become the Gazan mantra with regard to their Israeli neighbors.