The statistics coming out of Gaza as Israel’s most recent bombardment of that hapless territory gradually winds down are on the scale of a natural disaster, but they capture the nature of a catastrophe methodically inflicted by one people on another.
In a month of indiscriminate bombardment, Israel has killed or injured almost twelve thousand people, including thousands of children. It has severely damaged or destroyed the homes of some 17,000 families (over 100,000 people). It has terrorized half a million people into flight from one corner of the tiny coastal enclave in which they are trapped to another, leaving them in urgent need of food assistance merely to survive. Schools, clinics, refugee shelters, hospitals, ambulances, a university campus and Gaza’s only power plant have all come under Israeli fire, sometimes repeatedly. UN schools designed to accommodate 500 people as emergency shelters have been packed with up to 3,000. The social infrastructure—already strained to its limits by years of siege—is close to breakdown. Hospitals have run low on urgent supplies including water and fuel for emergency generators. Morgues were filled; the broken bodies of Palestinian children ended up in ice-cream counters that—in a just world—would be those same children’s sources of delight.
Of the fatalities whose identity and status have been verified so far, 86 percent are civilians, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Of those tabulated in its most recent update, 226 are members of armed groups; 459 are children.
Despite the sheer scale of the catastrophe it has inflicted on Gaza, Israel failed to attain a single one of its ever-shifting array of declared objectives (which ranged, according to Israel’s whims, from stopping rocket fire to completely demilitarizing the Gaza Strip).
It is—as usual—a matter of elementary simplicity to dispense with those declared objectives and the mendacious protestations and justifications Israel has fabricated around them. Gaza is not a sovereign state firing rockets across an international frontier: it is an occupied territory held under tight Israeli control. Sealed off by land, sea and air, even its population registry remains in Israeli hands. Internationally recognized as the occupying power in Gaza, Israel is legally accountable for the welfare of the population whose very capacity for life it has been obsessively reducing to ruins. And in any case the sequence of events leading to this bombardment was triggered not by rockets from Gaza but by the recent Israeli crackdown in the West Bank, which culminated in the burning alive of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish fanatics—and, beyond that, five decades of grueling military occupation.
Israel’s repeated claim that it targets only rocket launchers or tunnels is belied by the scale and nature of the weapons it unloaded on Gaza. Its 2000-pound aerial bombs take down entire buildings along with everyone in them (almost a thousand buildings have been severely damaged or destroyed in such air strikes). Its 155mm howitzer shells have a margin of error of 300 yards and a lethal radius of up to 150 yards from the point of impact. Each of the 120mm flechette shells its tank crews fire burst into a 100 by 300 yard shower of 5,000 metal darts carefully designed to shred human flesh.
Having sealed Gaza off from the outside world and blanketed almost half of the territory with warnings telling people to flee for their lives (to where?!), Israel has been indiscriminately firing all of these munitions into one of the most densely-inhabited parts of our planet. Entire neighborhoods have been leveled; entire families have been entombed in the ruins of their homes. The catastrophic result of Israel’s bombardment is no surprise.
No surprise—but also not exactly thought through either; more a matter of casual disregard. For it’s not as though Israel has carried out this violence in pursuit of a strategic master plan (its endless prevarications over its objectives in Gaza are the clearest indicator of this). Such gratuitous outbursts of violence (this episode is the third in six years) are, rather, what Israel falls back on in place of the strategic vision of which it is bereft. It can indulge in these outbursts partly because, in the short run at least—endlessly coddled by the United States, where venal politicians are quick to parrot its self-justifications—it does not pay a significant price for doing so.
But Israel’s almost reflexive spasms of violence are also enabled by the double ideological vision that distorts its view of the world around it: on the one hand, utter disregard for the value of Palestinian life and sweeping contempt for the principles of justice and of self-determination that guide the Palestinian cause; and, on the other, an obsessive self-regard. Hence the opinion polls that show barely 4% of Israeli Jews finding the scale of bombardment of Gaza excessive; hence the pathological Israeli use of the label “terrorist” to describe Palestinians; hence the frankly genocidal recent proposal by the deputy speaker of Israel’s parliament that Gaza be purged of its population, reduced to rubble, and then remade as an Israeli beach resort.
Just as Israel has failed to attain any of its declared objectives in Gaza, its limitless capacity for violence has also foundered on the collective Palestinian will to self-determination, which Israel has been trying—and failing—to vanquish for sixty years. But while Palestinian steadfastness may contain Israeli violence, it is insufficient on its own to actually end it. Nonviolent international intervention in support of the Palestinian cause—especially in the growing campaign for BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions)—is absolutely essential as well. Bypassing callow politicians and empowering ordinary people of good will, the BDS campaign is one of the few mechanisms that can exact a price from Israel for its oblivious disregard for international humanitarian law and its contempt for Palestinian rights.
For all of the sheer violence that Israel unleashed in Gaza, in fact, the indiscriminate scale of the bombing has actually seemed to accelerate BDS efforts around the world. In terms of simple, crude, mindless violence, then, Israel may have “won” this round; in terms of the larger political struggle—which is in a sense what really matters—it has almost certainly lurched from one loss to another as the world reacts in disgust. That won’t bring back the dead or help heal the wounded, but at least it will mean that the suffering in Gaza has not been—as Israel would have preferred—entirely gratuitous.