Gaza and the Palestinians - an unsustainable injustice

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Israel's brutal attacks have inflicted untold suffering on Gaza's beleaguered population. Yet Israel, despite its military might, has not succeeded in its mission to smash Hamas, Saree Makdisi tells Socialist Review.

The assault on Gaza was described implicitly by Israel and the media as a war of military and economic equals. What were the living conditions in Gaza before the war?

Even after redeploying soldiers and Jewish colonists from inside Gaza in 2005, Israel retained control over Gaza's airspace, borders, territorial waters and natural resources (including an offshore natural gas field for which British Gas holds a contract) and even the territory's population registry. Israel is considered to be the occupying power in Gaza, as it has been since 1967. That means that international law holds Israel, not Hamas, accountable for the welfare of the civilian population of Gaza.

Since 2005 (actually long before that, but things got much worse that year) Israel has been acting in a manner directly in violation of its responsibilities to the civilian population as the occupying power.

Instead of allowing people their right to come and go from the territory, to import and export goods, to develop economically and so on, Israel locked Gaza up in 2005. They turned it into a giant prison, and, in the words of the then UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, John Dugard, threw away the key.

Three years of isolation and siege (which got even worse in 2006 and 2007) destroyed Gaza's economy, deliberately reduced 80 percent of the population to grinding poverty, and made them dependent for their day to day survival on food handouts from international aid agencies. In late 2008 Israel cut off even that nutritionally insufficient assistance (as it has on other occasions as well). It has also, with the blessings of its high court, reduced electricity supplies to Gaza (and since Israel bombed the territory's only power plant in 2006, Gaza depends on electricity supplies from Israel). So when this war started, the people of Gaza were already suffering from lack of access to food, water (which requires energy for pumps) and medicine.

There were already growing signs of malnutrition, skyrocketing rates of anemia and stunted growth in children. The war came on top of all that.

What was Israel's plan? Was it really to destroy Hamas?

Israel turned to Gaza in order to reassert itself militarily after its stinging defeat in Lebanon in 2006, almost exactly in the way in which a bully will turn to someone weak in order to reassert himself after having been faced down by someone else. This was done partly for domestic political purposes, to enhance the poor electoral prospects of the current defence and foreign ministers - both of whom are contenders in next month's elections - and partly in order for Israel to project to the Palestinians yet again the message that they must learn to submit to Israel's will; to accept, in the memorable 2002 words of Israeli general Moshe Yaalon, "that they are a defeated people". As usual Israel failed.

Israel is keen to separate Hamas from the general Gazan population. What is the reality in the light of Hamas's 2006 election victory?

The reality on the ground is that Hamas and the other armed Palestinian factions in Gaza (including Fatah factions, by the way) resisted over three weeks of Israeli bombardment, inflicted losses on the invading Israeli army, prevented the Israelis from capturing territory (other than the open fields which were never contested) and continued to fire rockets at Israel. In a word, they utterly prevented Israel from attaining a single one of its declared objectives.

Compare that to the performance of the pretender to the Palestinian Authority (PA) presidency, Mahmoud Abbas (I say "pretender" because his term expired and yet other countries continue to treat him as though he were the PA president), who has never looked weaker, more craven, more submissive, more unimaginative and less appealing to Palestinians. He was unable even to participate in the Arab summit in Qatar because, he said, the Israelis wouldn't let him. Who would you support if you were a Palestinian living under occupation? As was revealed in 2006, and now again today, Hamas enjoys popular support not because of its Islamicism, but because it refuses to submit to Israel in the way that Abbas and others like him have shown themselves willing to do, no matter the cost to their people and their cause.

What is the role of Egypt? Why has it closed its border with Gaza?

The Egyptian government is profoundly unpopular and lacking in legitimacy. Nothing worries it more than the rise next door of a popular movement that also gained the legitimacy of a proper democratic election, such as has never been held in Egypt's history.

Of course, it's terrified of Hamas and of the message that Hamas holds out - again, not the Islamic message, but the political one: don't submit, don't accept Israeli or US dictates, stand for what you believe in and insist on your rights. Those are the main drives of Hamas rhetoric. So Egypt's role is to support Israel's siege of Gaza, and, in general, to support the US-Saudi-Israeli front. In this they are in cooperation with the deeply unpopular and illegitimate Arab governments against their own peoples and against any local drive to self-determination (Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon).

Mubarak said himself (to Europeans) that he wants Hamas to be defeated. But Egypt is hampered by two major considerations. First, the anger of its own people, who draw lines which even Mubarak will not dare cross; and second, its awareness that what Israel would like to do is to permanently, legally, separate Gaza from the West Bank and East Jerusalem (they are all considered one territory, legally speaking), and to foist Gaza and its problems onto Egypt, which is the last thing that the Egyptians want. So Egypt is actually in a really awkward position.

What about Israel's use of white phosphorous and using Palestinians as human shields?

Can you imagine the British army and air force in response to IRA bombs in Britain in the 1970s, which killed far more people than all the rockets ever fired by Palestinians at Israel, cutting off Northern Ireland from the outside world, stopping supplies of food, medicine, electricity and fuel from getting through and then showering densely populated neighbourhoods of Belfast with white phosphorous, high explosives, one-tonne bombs, depleted uranium and dense inert material explosive (an experimental weapon that basically shreds the human body)? What does this level of violence, directed against a besieged, exhausted, hungry, thirsty and terrified civilian population - half of them children - with no possible avenue of shelter or escape, tell you about Israel's attitude toward the Palestinian people?

What is Barack Obama's administration's policy?

It's too early to tell, but all the signs are that it's going to be a replay of Bill Clinton's administration. Given the people that Obama has appointed, any attempt at peacemaking will most likely take the form of the Clinton-era proposals of Oslo and Camp David, which will basically serve to protect Israel's claim to Jewishness, Israel's military and political needs, and Israel's natural resources needs, and to proceed with the fiction of a Palestinian statelet that will in fact amount to little more than an archipelago of isolated territorial islands cut off from each other and the outside world by Israeli power. That's what was on offer under Clinton's presidency.

How do you get to the one-state solution that you advocate? Israel has a strong economy and a huge army. Do you think that the neighbouring Arab masses have a role to play?

The prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, has said on more than one occasion that when the Palestinians turn from the Algerian paradigm (struggle against occupation) to the South African paradigm (one person, one vote), Israel will lose.

Israel systematically privileges Jews over non-Jews - inside Israel, in Jerusalem, in the West Bank and in Gaza. For example, Jewish citizens of Israel have rights that are denied to the non-Jewish citizens of the state (ie the Palestinian citizens of Israel, to whom Israel refers using the deliberately misleading and deracinated term "Israeli Arabs"), beginning with the Law of Return. This is a nationality law exclusively for Jews. In fact, judicially speaking, Israel does not recognise the existence of Israeli nationality, only Jewish nationality, so Jews who are not citizens actually enjoy rights and privileges denied to citizens who are not Jews.

In the West Bank, there are different road networks and different legal and administrative systems for the Jewish colonists and the non-Jewish, Palestinian, indigenous population (Palestinians are subject to military law, for example, while Jewish colonists are subject to Israeli civil law).

In both Israel and the occupied territories Palestinians face obstructions, limitations and prohibitions to which Jewish people are not subject. And yet, in the overall land area under the control of the Israeli state (that is, Israel plus the occupied territories) there are approximately equal populations of Jews and Palestinians. This level of injustice is simply not sustainable in the long run. There is nothing that Israel fears more than the Palestinian demand for equality in a reconstituted democratic and secular state.

The Palestinians have a huge role to play in this struggle, but the other big role falls to people outside, and in particular to people in Europe and the US, who are in a unique position to bring pressure to bear in the form of a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign modelled on the one that brought down apartheid in South Africa. Israel's recent rampage in Gaza has put that campaign back on the agenda of concerned citizens everywhere.


Saree Makdisi is the author of Palestine: An Everyday Occupation, published by W W Norton and available from Bookmarks Bookshop, 020 7637 1848.