As I write this, Israel continues to escalate its air attacks on the Gaza Strip, killing more than 100 Palestinians, of whom at least half were civilians; injuring more than 600; and displacing about 2,000 people from their homes. (The numbers vary widely by source and change by the minute.) The Israeli military has reportedly mobilized 40,000 reservists so that it can ramp up still further if it so decides. The justification for “Operation Protective Edge” is retaliation for rockets shot toward southern Israel, with some landing in Gazan fields, others intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system and a few making it in. (A full accounting is elusive, with varying reports in the media, often short on verifiable facts and long on emotional rhetoric.) To date, some Israeli property has been damaged, but no casualties and two injuries are reported.
It’s those Palestinian rockets that that are dominating the headlines, and that cause even normally sympathetic progressives to waffle in their condemnations of Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of the 1.7 million people corralled in Gaza. Yet there is very little direct, probing discussion of the topic. Is the line between provocation and retaliation really that clear? Is the use of violence to fight violence by some Palestinians somehow abnormal or unique? And what proportion of the population in Gaza is actually involved in the rocket attacks or supports the practice?
It’s time the peace community engages in this discussion, not just among ourselves but with those for whom the fight for liberation is real rather than academic: the Palestinians of Gaza.
Provocation vs. retaliation
Israel charges, and the media dutifully reports, that the provocateurs are Hamas and other groups in Gaza, typically labeled “militants” or “Islamists” (both code words for “terrorists”), unlike the more noble-sounding “rebels” or “resistance fighters” of Syria (which the U.S. government supports). But the question of “who started it” is not a simple one.
The Gaza Strip has been under Israel’s control in some fashion for 47 years, but with suffocating intensity since 2007. Israel strictly limits travel in and out; controls the supplies that come in, including a ban on most construction materials; and prohibits virtually all exports, thus crippling the economy and triggering one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the Arab world. One could call such long-term, repressive conditions a continual provocation. I am reminded of an observation made by Michelle Alexander in her seminal book on mass incarceration of American blacks, The New Jim Crow:
“The easy answer (to “criminal acts”) is to wag a finger at those who are behaving badly…But the more difficult answer – the more courageous one – is to say yes, yes we should be concerned about the behavior of men trapped in ghetto communities, but the deep failure of morality is our own…Are we willing to demonize a population, declare a war against them, and then stand back and heap shame and contempt upon them for failing to behave like model citizens while under attack?”
In the shorter term, the question of “who started it first” depends greatly on when you start the clock. Take any rocket attack from Gaza, and go back in time a few weeks or months. You’ll quickly find an Israeli act of aggression –raids, shootings or abductions. An example: The current rocket fire flared following the mass arrests and nine deaths of Palestinians in the West Bank, committed by Israeli forces in retaliation for the abduction of three Israeli settler youth. In the two weeks before that tragedy, however, Israeli forces abducted 17 teenage Palestinian boys in the occupied West Bank. The youngest was 13. Some were dragged at gunpoint from their homes and family under cover of dark; others were seized from the streets in broad daylight.
Palestinian violence in perspective
I respect those in the peace camp who are unilaterally opposed, on principle, to the use of violence, particularly when non-combatants are targeted or treated as “collateral damage.” I share their belief that fighting violence with violence only perpetuates and exacerbates a dehumanizing spiral. But history has shown that when there is oppression, some individuals will choose that route; it’s the norm, not the exception.
Our own American Revolution was certainly far from a non-violent reaction to repression, although the famous pacifist Howard Zinn argued that alternative approaches were not adequately tried. And although the movements for Indian independence and civil rights for South African and U.S. blacks had Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., each of those leaders and their followers had counterparts that chose more war-like tactics.
But perhaps the most ironic parallel is the tactics chosen by Jews living in British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s-40s, as they struggled to carve out their own country. The Jewish leadership created the Haganah to guard Jewish farms and kibbutzim. Later, the role of the Haganah (rather like the Palestinian Fatah party) changed dramatically. It became a much larger organization, encompassing nearly all the youth and adults in the Jewish settlements, as well as thousands of members from the cities. However, many Haganah fighters objected to the official policy of havlagah (restraint) that Jewish political leaders had imposed on the militia. This policy appeared defeatist to many, who believed that the best defense is a good offense. In 1931, the more militant elements of the Haganah splintered off and formed the Irgun–a group widely labeled a terrorist organization and responsible for the murder of many civilian Palestinians as well as British soldiers. Perhaps their most famous attack was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which served as headquarters for the British administration. Ninety-one were killed and 46 were injured. One of the Irgun leaders was Menachim Begin, who later became the sixth prime minister of the new state of Israel.
The point: Palestinians should not be held to any higher standard than the rest of the human race. Contrary to popular perception, most Palestinians do not engage in violence. But there always will be some who believe there is no other way.
The people and the rockets
Israel says its massive air strikes and impending ground incursion are meant to eliminate Hamas. But even if you think it is feasible and morally permissible to assassinate an entire party (one which is made up of different factions, including members who are quite moderate and open to discussion), there are 1.7 million people who live in the Gaza Strip. And most are not militant Hamas acolytes. An April 2013 poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center found that more than 80 percent of Palestinians (including those in Gaza) supported nonviolent means of resistance against Israeli occupation. Moreover, support for firing rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israel stood at just 38 percent, with the popularity of Hamas at only 20 percent.
Those results fluctuate over time, however, in response to “facts on the ground.” For instance, polls in December 2012 found support for both Hamas and rocket resistance on the rise. If presidential elections had been held then, pitting Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas’ Ismail Haniya, the latter would have won, claiming 48 percent of the vote.What had occurred at that time to influence public opinion? Gaza had just emerged from the “eight-day war,” in which Israel pounded the Strip with air attacks. I visited Gaza immediately after the hostilities ended, and support for Hamas was indeed surging, despite the litany of grievances I had heard previously (and that was quick to return). The reason was simple: A people who had lost all sense of “personal agency” after more than seven years of blockadeand international failures to enforce laws such as the Fourth Geneva Convention (which bans collective punishment) had re-gained a modicum of dignity by fighting back. The same dynamic is repeating now.
Here are just a few of the voices of the young people (under the age of 25), who make up 65 percent of the population of Gaza and are being shaped by the years of oppression:
“If history can prove anything, it proves that civil, political and human rights are demanded by those who are deprived, and not granted by those who hold the keys,” says Mohammed Alhammami, a young man from Gaza now studying at Franklin & Marshall College in Cincinnati, OH. “The U.S. colonies turned to war to force their British overlords to recognize their independence. The Palestinian case is no different. The only way to stop this cycle is to grant the deprived their civil, political and human rights — justice and equality. Nothing more, and nothing less.”
Sarah Ali, a teaching assistant at the Islamic University of Gaza and a contributor to the short-story collection, “Gaza Writes Back,” agrees: “Most of us are just filled with anger. Rockets help us keep the little dignity we have, and they show Israel that bombing civilians has consequences. Peace negotiations with Israel have proved futile over and over again. Israel has only expanded its illegal settlements across the West Bank. BDS (the movement for boycotts, divestments and sanctions) is excellent, but whether people admit it or not, it’s mostly violence that works with Israel. For instance, the 2012 attack on Gaza stopped, and we got some concessions (such as an easing of restrictions on fishing and farming) because Israel asked Egypt to negotiate with Hamas to stop the rockets.”
Saeed El Housieni, a boy who attends Gaza City’s American International School, adds, “I personally do not support the idea of facing violence with violence. I don’t support the rockets coming out from Gaza, especially when they’re launched toward highly populated areas,” says. “I think that that the best solution would be a truce followed by a recognition of the existence of one another, opening the borders and co-existing together. Yet, we have to do something to change this unlivable situation — which leaves us with the other remaining solution, which is sadly violence.”
Some Israelis themselves have come to recognize that the true source of their insecurity is not Palestinian rockets, but the occupation. And therein lies a ray of hope:
“The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that…the Palestinians will accept everything that’s done to them and won’t respond, despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation,” writes Yuval Diskin, the chief of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, from 2005 to 2011, in a Facebook post.
Gideon Levy, a columnist with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, puts it even more bluntly: “What exactly are 1.5 million people supposed to live on? Is there anyone who can explain why the blockade, even if partial, of Gaza continues? Can anyone explain why its future is never discussed? Did we think that all this would continue and Gaza would accept it submissively? Anyone who thought so was a victim of dangerous delusions, and now we are all paying the price.”