The seven week war on Gaza is theoretically over though Israeli forces continue limited incursions into the beleaguered and bombed out strip of coastal land and over 11,000 wounded and 100,000 homeless pick through the rubble of their lives, mourn their dead children, and survive hungry on the generosity of overstretched international aid. The headlines are all Abbas and airstrikes in Syria and Netanyahu declaring without a shred of credible evidence that ISIS is Hamas and Hamas is ISIS. Even more invisible are the ongoing land grabs, continued Jewish settlement growth, and arrests and killings of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Exploding the façade of political quiet, 43 reserve members of a top level Israeli intelligence group, IDF Unit 8200, recently released a letter stating their refusal to be part of any military operations that target Palestinians or enforce the ongoing brutal occupation. These soldiers expressed concern about the lack of oversight or restraint when it comes to spying on Palestinians, the lack of distinction between the guilty or innocent, the surveillance of an entire population and the societal damage that this inflicts, as well as the perversion of the court system when evidence is entirely suspect. Echoing the words and actions of Edward Snowden, these bravely outspoken Jewish Israelis are calling attention to the mostly silent catastrophe that is present in all of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
This is certainly consistent with my findings during a three week fact finding visit to Israel and the West Bank in June 2014, where I bore witness to the hunger strike of Palestinians lost in endless administrative detention (no charges, no legal protections), the many doctors, veterinarians, professors, poets, farmers, and students who had done time in Israeli jails, often without any charges or trials. I stayed in villages and refugee camps invaded by buses of heavily armed Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night, breaking into people’s homes, dragging off teenage boys accused of throwing stones at the eight meter high separation wall that constricts their lives or at military jeeps that crawl ominously through their villages at all hours of the day and night. Soldiers ransacked schools and threatened religious leaders; the smell of tear gas was everywhere. Arrested children were routinely interrogated in jails without parents or lawyers present; Palestinian human rights organizations like Adameer have documented that children are frequently abused, the torture is all psychological: prolonged sleeplessness, threats to harm family members, promises of release in exchange for more names. Thus an army of teenage collaborators has been created and these children return home traumatized, fearful, often refusing to attend school, suffering bedwetting and psychological damage for years. The medical and human rights literature documents that destroying the safety of childhood and the possibility of hope and a productive future can be no better plan to create a militant opposition that has nothing left to lose.
Then there is the complex, tightly controlled system of permits and checkpoints that make travel from Jenin in the northern West Bank to Hebron in the south a time consuming nightmare, let alone a visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. The experience of sitting endlessly in long lines of checkpoint traffic backed up for miles or waiting on line to squeeze through the narrow turn stiles at Qalandia checkpoint, only to face a 20 year old fresh faced soldier peering through thick bullet-proof glass, welding power over thousands of men, women and children trying to get to school or work or family is powerful. How can a viable economy develop when everything from fresh tomatoes to CT equipment is subject to obstructions and delays? How does a people who never know if and when they will get to their fields or their factories, schools, weddings, or elderly grandmother who has a doctor’s appointment stay sane? I spent hours interviewing a group of incredibly bright, articulate medical students at Al Quds University who found themselves outside Jerusalem when the separation wall was built (through their campus) and now many of them cannot get permits to train in the tertiary level hospitals in East Jerusalem. Adding to this insult, the Israeli Medical Association refuses to recognize the students’ hard heard medical degrees, while these same students come to Harvard on exchange programs and perform perfectly well in rotations at Mass General, Beth Israel Deaconess, and the Brigham.
Although the media has largely turned its gaze elsewhere, the war in Gaza has forced more of these kinds of contradictions to become painfully obvious to liberal Jews in the US. While the Israeli government talks about “pinpoint strikes” and “unprovoked attacks from Hamas” it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the massive destruction of the Gazan infrastructure, hospitals, schools, government buildings, UN facilities, homes. With more than 60 Israelis dead and a Jewish population fearful of the ever increasing reach of the primitive Qassam rockets, it is time to ask if three devastating attacks on Gaza in six years and a policy of periodically “mowing the lawn” is a long-term strategy that leads to an end to Palestinian resistance and a secure Israel.
Major media outlets and progressive organizations have begun an agonized debate amongst liberal Jews about the future of Zionism and the viability of the two state solution given the on-the-ground realities and Kerry’s spring negotiating debacle. Perhaps the recent level of horror produced by the invasion and bombing of Gaza is waking people up to the inherent contradictions between Zionism and democracy and the bankruptcy of US backed Israeli policy. At this point the need to give up Jewish privilege and power over another people, not only because it is undemocratic and morally indefensible but also because it is not “good for the Jews” may become a real possibility. Perhaps there will be a tipping point where a real sharing of land and resources for both peoples based on human rights for everyone will become a project US Jews can honestly sustain. Then the possibility for real democracy in Israel and a peaceful future for Palestinians will be something that everyone but the most recalcitrant right wing elements on all sides can support.
Alice Rothchild is a physician, author and filmmaker who has just published: On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the Gaza Invasion, Just World Books. The book relates her trip to Palestine in great detail. This piece is not an excerpt from the book.