Who started it?

on 14 Comments

With the successful Palestinian bid for “nonmember statehood” in the UN and the ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister, Avigdor Leiberman’s resignation in the face of corruption charges, Gaza is once again out of the news and the consciousness of much of the Western press. The ascendency of Hamas has been successfully challenged by Mahmoud Abbas defying the wishes of the US. The unpleasant memories fade quickly. Just a few weeks ago, I stood with a group of protesters calling for an end to the bombing of Gaza as hundreds of Boston area Jews and their supporters waving Israeli flags streamed into Temple Mishkan Tefila for a solidarity rally featuring rabbis and prominent Massachusetts politicians. While some people stopped to curse us, calling us “Hamas Nazis,” (a particularly bizarre invocation of the Holocaust), or honked horns in support, several engaged in heated interactions. I am haunted by the man who repeatedly shouted, “Who started it? Tell me, who started it?” This is indeed a complicated question, as is the underlying assumption that the Gazans deserved the wrath of the Israeli Defense Forces who were presumably acting out of self-defense in the face of Palestinian terror. 

The people of the Gaza Strip have now been under occupation for 46 years, under closure for 22 and an intensified blockade for six, resulting in high levels of poverty, unemployment, economic decline, poor nutrition, inadequate health, polluted water, and the development of a massive black market tunnel economy at the Gaza/Egypt border. This is not only a passage for Iranian-made weapons, but also food, cattle, cars, and people. Since April 2001 when the first Qassam rocket fell on Israel, 59 Israelis have been killed and 4,717 Palestinians. Critics blame Hamas for concealing themselves amongst the civilian population, but in a land mass 26 by 6 miles, where will nearly 2 million people hide? 

Between February 2009 and August 2012 the Gaza Strip averaged six Israeli incursions or attacks per week.  There have been hundreds of homemade rockets fired by militants into southern Israel, although in the fall there was an unofficial truce mediated by Egypt.  On November 14th the IDF conducted a targeted assassination of Ahmed Jabari, commander of Hamas’s military wing, who according to Israeli activist Gershon Baskin, had just been presented with the draft of a long-term cease-fire proposal which he was prepared to sign. Baskin, who negotiated the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, also claimed that Hamas leadership had been moving towards a more “pragmatic approach,” something that should be welcomed by Israeli leaders. Indeed, despite all the fiery rhetoric, the fact that Hamas was willing to engage in a democratic election in 2006 implied a tacit acceptance of the State of Israel. They were met with a crushing blockade. So who started it?

In 2008 after a six month truce broken by an Israeli incursion and militant factions shelling Sderot and Ashkelon, Israel launched a massive three week attack on Gaza creating a devastating humanitarian catastrophe. This was reportedly a response to the 2006 Hamas electoral victory, (which was largely seen as a response to the corruption and inadequacy of Fatah and not a desire to drive Israeli into the sea), and the 2007 Hamas takeover (the Fatah opposition in this civil war was partly funded by US dollars). Numerous investigations condemned human rights violations by both Israeli and Hamas forces, but noted the extreme disproportionality and severity of the Israeli violations. So who started it?

Perhaps we should go back to 2005 when Jewish settlements were removed from Gaza, but the Israeli military retained tight control over the borders, the air, the sea, and much of the economy; many say creating a different kind of occupation, the world’s largest open air prison.

As we march backwards in history, looking for whom to blame, I fear we will end up in the early 1900s when the British promised historic Palestine to both the indigenous Arab population and to the Jewish Zionists in Europe.

It is always easier to assign blame, to hold on to a sense of righteous victimhood, than to bear any responsibility. This is no longer a question of who started it, but how to stop. Hamas has agreed to halt rocket fire from the various militant factions, but has also learned that Gaza is largely forgotten unless there is militant resistance. There is nothing like a missile heading towards Tel Aviv to get the world’s attention. Israel has agreed to stop targeted assassinations and loosen the blockade, but has no timetable and the Israelis are angry, announcing new settlement growth in the controversial West Bank area of E1. The future depends on a viable agreement where one people’s security and prosperity does not come at the expense of its neighbors.  The future also depends on the ability to recognize the common humanity, suffering, and yearning of every grief stricken mother in Sderot and Gaza City. But this is not a fight between equals.  Israel’s new defensive shield against Hezbollah is ironically named “David’s Sling,” again equating Israel as the underdog victim in this fight.  Their testing system, set for Israel’s Negev Desert, is called “The Stunner.”  Has anything been learned?

About Alice Rothchild

Alice Rothchild is a Jewish-American physician. Her most recent book On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion (2014 Just World Books).

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14 Responses

  1. seafoid
    December 19, 2012, 12:09 pm

    It started in Europe with the Christians. There was a pogrom in Zurich , Switzerland in 1349. Jews blamed for the black death. It wasn’t the first and it wasn’t the last but the Jews were often targeted.

    link to pauldoolan.com

    After WW2 the virus was transmitted to Palestine and the Palestinians became the Jews. And they are often targeted.

    • W.Jones
      December 19, 2012, 4:04 pm

      You are saying persecution of Jews (and vice verse) began with Christians in Europe, as opposed to, say, Joseph’s brothers in Egypt?

      • seafoid
        December 20, 2012, 4:06 am

        The Askhenazim had no links to Palestine and Zionism is a response to Ashkenazi persecution. It’s a European thing, I think

      • W.Jones
        December 20, 2012, 3:30 pm


        I thought DNA research showed Ashenazi were a mix of Palestinian and European DNA, and even that the Middle Eastern DNA was stronger among them than the European DNA was.

        Secondly, even if the Ashkenazis began in medieval Europe, it seems they picked up their relations with their neighbors to a big extent from much older traditions on what those relations are and should be.

      • seafoid
        December 21, 2012, 4:07 pm

        The Chinese in Indonesia and the Lebanese in West Africa don’t go back 2000 years. Rich elite minorities may be targeted when things fall apart as in famine, political meltdown or epidemics – the Chinese and Lebanese expats know all about it – it is not confined to Jews. It doesn’t happen all the time but it does happen.

        I don’t buy this Jewish history as eternal suffering. Or Israel as redemption BS either.

        Ha’aretz have “this day in Jewish history” and half of it is pogroms- this is a gross misrepresentation of Jewish history. Where did the women get the time to figure out all the recipes?

      • Annie Robbins
        December 22, 2012, 10:58 pm

        i agree seafoid. if every culture did this (hump their collective grief nonstop) one might imagine all that existed war years of pain and suffering. most people move on.

  2. yonah fredman
    December 19, 2012, 12:25 pm

    “Indeed, despite all the fiery rhetoric, the fact that Hamas was willing to engage in a democratic election in 2006 implied a tacit acceptance of the State of Israel.” This is baloney. Various statements by various leaders at various times can be interpreted in different ways regarding Hamas and acceptance of the State of Israel, but participating in elections might have implied acceptance of Israel as far as signing a piece of paper is concerned, but to cite it as something of substance, is baloney.

  3. Shmuel
    December 19, 2012, 2:05 pm

    The people of the Gaza Strip have now been under occupation for 46 years, under closure for 22 and an intensified blockade for six

    And , for the most part (about 1.1 million of the Strip’s 1.5 million inhabitants, according to UNRWA), refugees for 65 years .

    This is no longer a question of who started it, but how to stop.

    Since each side views its actions as reactions, the question of who started it (or who has to stop it first) remains. And since the immensely more powerful side’s version of events (“self-defence”) is supported in word and deed (or lack of deed) by its even more powerful friends, all we are left with is the question of who has the power and therefore the responsibility to stop it – which is also a kind of “who started it” argument.

    • Citizen
      December 20, 2012, 7:29 pm

      @ Shmuel, I’d say the most responsible, are the ones who should stop it. I pick America and England as top candidates. Fat chance it will be stopped.

  4. eljay
    December 19, 2012, 3:45 pm

    >> Israel’s new defensive shield against Hezbollah is ironically named “David’s Sling,” again equating Israel as the underdog victim in this fight.

    Hezbollah should name its defensive shield “Tickle-fight” or “Cuddly Kitten”.

  5. RoHa
    December 19, 2012, 7:57 pm

    Who started it? Let’s see.

    From the end of the nineteenth century to the 1940s, hordes of swarthy, unshaven, wild-eyed, fanatical, Palestinian Arabs poured into Jewish areas of Warsaw, London, and New York, loudly declaring their intention to set up a Palestinian Arab state in which Jews would be second class citizens. So they started it. Right?

    Or was it the other way round, with the Palestinian Arabs living quietly at home and being invaded by Eurpean and American Jews?

  6. Sibiriak
    December 20, 2012, 12:04 pm

    The people of the Gaza Strip have now been under occupation for 46 years,


    Canadian Lt.-General E.L.M. Burns, chief of staff of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (1954-1956), “Between Arab and Israeli” :

    The Strip is about forty kilometres long, and averages eight and a quarter kilometres in width; thus it contains about 330 square kilometres.

    There are about 310,000 Arab residents in the Strip, 210,000 of them refugees from the southern parts of Palestine now occupied by Israel. Thus there are about 1500 persons to the square kilometre of arable soil — about 3900 to the square mile …

    One does not see people starving or dying of disease in the streets; nevertheless the Gaza Strip resembles a vast concentration camp, shut off by the sea, the border between Palestine and the Sinai near Rafah, which the Egyptians will not permit them to cross, and the Armistice Demarcation Line which they cross in peril of being shot by Israelis or imprisoned by the Egyptians.

    They can look east and see wide fields, once Arab land, cultivated extensively by a few Israelis, with a chain of kibbutzim guarding the heights or the areas beyond.

    It is not surprising that they look with hatred on those who have dispossessed them.

  7. Citizen
    December 20, 2012, 7:30 pm

    Woodrow Wilson: guilty as charged.

  8. Denis
    December 20, 2012, 9:37 pm

    @Alice: I stood with a group of protesters calling for an end to the bombing of Gaza as hundreds of Boston area Jews and their supporters waving Israeli flags streamed into Temple Mishkan Tefila

    Good on you for being there, Alice.

    There is a fairly brief and very well written history of the conflict at IfAmericansKnew.org.

    link to ifamericansknew.org

    One of the interesting things I learned from it is that a lot of the Palestinian people pretty well got screwed by their own in the 19th century, which is hardly surprising and has not stopped. Palestinians are providing labor to build those beautiful settlement complexes. Palestinians are, in many instances, selling land to Jewish settlers. But this is not just a 21st century trend, it goes back to the 19th century.

    The Ottoman Land Code of 1858 allowed upper class Arabs to acquire title to the agricultural land that had been held and worked by the peasant class for generations. The upper class Arabs then sold the land out from under the peasants.

    The fellahin [peasants] naturally considered the land to be theirs, and often discovered that they had ceased to be the legal owners only when the land was sold to Jewish settlers by an absentee landlord…Not only was the land being purchased; its Arab cultivators were being dispossessed and replaced by foreigners who had overt political objectives in Palestine.” Rashid Khalidi, “Blaming The Victims,” ed. Said and Hitchens

    The IAK article later states that this was only a small part of the land (6%) eventually expropriated by the Herzl’s Jewish hordes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But when one realizes that this conflict is about ownership/control of land and only about ownership/control of land, then this first step in the erosion of the Palestinians’ land-rights surely marks the beginning of today’s conflicts. Without this toe-hold created by greedy, short-sighted Arabs not realizing what was coming, one wonders if Herzl’s plan could have ever got momentum, even with the push by Hitler.

    I think this entire problem is reducible to sorting out legal title to land. The UN, backed by the world’s powers, should put aside Judaism, Islam, Zionism, Torahs, Korans, and all the religious rubble that gets people fired up, and get down to determining under accepted international law and norms who has clearest title to each parcel of land, bearing in mind that the law does not permit the passage of title to land by forceful taking without a legal or contractual rationale – not by government, not by individuals, not by companies.

    Where Jews have sound title to land in the West Bank, Gaza, or anywhere, its theirs. Where they don’t, it’s not theirs. End of story; everybody go home. Where Jews have made improvements to land that they don’t have title to, tough — just like every other place in the civilized world.

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