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Collective punishment of 1.8 million human shields in a prison — Newsweek dares publish the truth of Gaza

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I’m going to give the ending first of Sarah Helm’s riveting literary account of touring the overwhelming destruction of Gaza for Newsweek. Yes, Newsweek; but evidently the “European edition version,” whatever that means. Helm:

The evening I left, I passed back by Beit Hanoun. Three young teenagers were digging in the dark… They were clearing the rubble from their family orchard.

The teenagers showed me where they had planted a new clementine tree. As I squeezed back out of the Erez turnstiles, I realised why there was no longer a need to plaster up martyrs pictures on Gaza’s walls. The latest collective punishment inflicted on 1.8 million Gazans had made martyrs of them all.

gaza-coverBefore that, we’ve learned that Gaza is a prison that now looks like Dresden in World War II and Israel’s actions have made all 1.8 million people into human shields, and most of them are refugees. Incredible. Helm is British, which helps explain the clarity. The piece is sold in a magazine-like way– “Gaza: One War, One Family. Five Children, Four Dead”– but while Helm describes that “erased” family in Rafah at the top, her focus is the sweeping, staggering destruction of a captive people. Her history lesson includes the Nakba and the refugee experience, and this passage uses words such as prison and siege:

People nowadays call Gaza a giant prison, and as I saw the new perimeter wall, built since I was last here, looming through the torrential rain, I could see why. And yet Gazans on the other side are not there for committing a crime. The vast majority are descendants of Palestinians who came to Gaza 66 years ago for refuge.

Before the 1948 Arab-Israel war, which brought about the creation of Israel, many of these Gazans had lived along this coast in towns like Ashkelon, which they still call Al Madjal. During the 1948 fighting they fled to Gaza as refugees and the towns they once lived in became part of Israel…

Gazan refugees now comprise 1.2 million of the 1.8 million “prisoners”. The rest have lived in Gaza for generations.Prison or not, Gaza today is certainly besieged.

Helm notes that the only other person to get into Gaza the day she did was a Palestinian who “had received exceptional permission to visit a relative in Jerusalem hospital.” She gives this important description of the inhumane bombing of infrastructure in Gaza. As they drive in,

puddles turned to torrents and our car – a 30-year-old Mercedes – sank, with water bubbling up through the floor, though our driver drove on through.

Exceptional flooding was caused not by the storm but Israel’s bombing of several Gazan reservoirs and a pumping station near the beach. We passed the ruins. The target seems to have been a police station, also demolished, right alongside. From the shattered pumping station, raw sewage flowed out to sea.

A simple and brilliant explanation of Israel’s indiscriminate killing of civilians:

It quickly became clear why so many civilians were killed in the summer war. Like Nabil’s family in West Rafah, these people, also near the border, couldn’t get away. In some cases Israel gave warnings, through leaflets dropped by plane or on the radio. Even then, the families often found nowhere to go. Israel accused Hamas of using children as “human shields” during the war but the whole Gazan population was a human shield. Wherever Hamas fired its rockets from, when Israel retaliated there was nowhere in this crowded land for civilians to go – no safe havens. “Civilians were at the eye of the storm,” said Raji Sourani, head of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Even if a family member was Hamas and carefully targeted by Israel, the house he lived in probably held as many as three families so destroying the building meant killing scores of others too.

Where is the balance? Thankfully she did not call Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the IDF; and her editors did not order her to do so.

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She describes postwar Gaza in plain terms for a western audience. Think Dresden and London during the blitz:

All across Gaza I found more rubble – areas that looked like mini Dresdens, or London during the Blitz; bombed hospitals, schools, the fledgling airport destroyed, though the latter was bombed in a previous Israeli-Gaza war. Factories were flattened too including the famous al-Awda biscuit factory, which once employed 400 workers. And all around thousands more Gazans were living in the ruins.

I can’t believe this account is in an American mainstream publication, albeit the European edition (you can’t find it easily on the Newsweek website). It’s humbling, isn’t it: that an honest reporter can speak with such clarity about such overwhelming atrocities and not stop herself for the sake of this or that blessed political piety, and her editors allow her to do so? That’s what literary journalism was always about. This comment below the piece is very moving: “Sarah Helm and Newsweek, I add my voice to the other grateful voices here, in acknowledgment of your fine reporting and accurate descriptions. After years of misrepresentations of Israel as “peaceful” and Palestine as “war mongers,” it’s refreshing to see this article that courageously turns those portrayals around and dares to report Truth. Thank you, from the deepest portion of my heart.”

Oh and by the way, we have England to thank again. Helm is a British author and journalist. Books here. May her career flourish. Thanks to Annie Robbins.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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24 Responses

  1. Maximus Decimus Meridius on December 14, 2014, 1:31 pm

    What’s interesting about this piece is that there wasn’t the usual almost obligatory attempt at ‘balance and backpeddle’ – ie, all the official Israeli denials and ‘explanations’, as well as ‘balancing’ details about the terror inflicted on Israelis by having their beach barbeque interuppted by sirens.

    If anything remotely positive is to come of the Gaza massacre, maybe it is that it is simply no longer possible to be a defender of Israel in polite society. I don’t believe the Gaza assault was a game changer in the sense that Israel stooped to new lows – it in fact did nothing it had not done many times before, in many parts of the Middle East – just that it is now impossible for Israel to hide its criminality, a criminality which is supported with glee by the huge majority of its Jewish population.

    I’ve always said the day will come where admitting to be a supporter of Israel will be akin to admitting to supporting South African Apartheid. Maybe that day is coming.

    • amigo on December 14, 2014, 2:18 pm

      “I’ve always said the day will come where admitting to be a supporter of Israel will be akin to admitting to supporting South African Apartheid. Maybe that day is coming.” MDM

      Amen to that and imagine the screams of antisemitism hurled in every direction when those supporters /apologists have their travel plans curbed or when Europeans refuse hotel accommodation or refuse to engage socially with them. White South Africans will recall such measures taken against them when they still viewed themselves as superior to “Blekks”and attempted to justify the Apartheid Regime and it,s brutal actions.

      • Maximus Decimus Meridius on December 14, 2014, 6:24 pm

        Yes, and lets not forget that Israel was of course an enthusiastic supporter of the Apartheid Regime in Pretoria, though they like to airbrush that out of their history, like so much else.

        Just as nowadays, nobody will ever admit to having supported the South African regime – including some white Saffers, the vast majority of whom DID in fact happily support Apartheid – some day it will happen that nobody will openly admit to having supported Zionism. Thankfully, the internet will make it less easy for them to whitewash their past.

    • SamT on December 15, 2014, 1:21 am

      Or wearing furs in public…

  2. pabelmont on December 14, 2014, 1:52 pm

    Bravo! And European edition is far better than nothing. In fact, it is in the EU (not the USA) that we see small steps forward by governments and much BDS activity among the citizens.

    • Blownaway on December 14, 2014, 4:55 pm

      Exactly. it would have been a wast in the US

    • RoHa on December 14, 2014, 7:05 pm

      Biggish step by the Swedish government.
      In Britain, Spain, France, Portugal, Belgium, and Ireland the governments haven’t quite caught up with the Parliaments yet. I expect we’ll see more from other European parliaments soon, which will put even more pressure on the governments.

  3. amigo on December 14, 2014, 2:09 pm

    it,s only a matter of time before MSM starts to put lots more of these stories of Israel,s crimes out in the open.They will do for the money if that is the only reason.Tongues are wagging among Media people and nothing is going to stop this stuff from coming out.

    Either way , if it get,s the perpetrators locked up , that,s fine.

    • Marnie on December 14, 2014, 2:31 pm

      Excellent journalism. Thanks for posting it. “Israel accused Hamas of using children as “human shields” during the war but the whole Gazan population was a human shield. ” The 17th is going to be interesting. Onward to prosecution of the war criminals.

      • seafoid on December 14, 2014, 4:59 pm

        JonS accused the schools, hospitals and UN shelters of hosting rocket squads.

  4. Helena Cobban on December 14, 2014, 2:29 pm

    (Any chance you guys could correct the aspect ratio on Helm’s photo? The current squeezing is highly unflattering… )

    But altogether– fantastic find, Annie!!

  5. sawah on December 14, 2014, 4:59 pm

    Thanks so much Annie and Phil…Just tweeted this out with rhetorical question why not in US edition?

    But, the time will come…and Mondoweiss an important and necessary canary in the coal mine

  6. seafoid on December 14, 2014, 5:01 pm

    Gaza is Israel’s gimp. The hatred of Israel for Gaza is unfathomable which is why the punishment is so brutal.
    And Israel can never escape 1948 because Gaza for Israel is 1948.

  7. W.Jones on December 14, 2014, 6:00 pm

    There’s a scene in a Robin Williams movie where an annoyed antagonist uses a pistol to kill an annoying fly. The Israelis used the “gun vs fly” approach in Gaza,

    Some militants were using a rocket launcher near or in the plaza of a Church (I think Catholic) in Gaza, so the Israelis called up the church and told them they were going to bomb it- one of the Israeli safety warnings. So then the Israelis massively bombed the church’s vicinity, hitting the church.

    This is simply excessive. It’s kind of like a gunman moving into a crowd, so then some military force announces that the crowd is a human shield and then attacking it.

  8. justicewillprevail on December 14, 2014, 6:36 pm

    What an incredible image she ends with: teenagers digging in the dark in order to plant a clementine tree. The slimmest, most slender symbol of hope for the future in the most benighted and devastated of circumstances. How poignant that is, an almost futile gesture, ranged as it is against the overwhelming military might and savage cruelty they suffer, and yet, because of its fragility, there is a kind of quiet dignity and undiminished sense of humanity under all that deprivation and slaughter.
    She joins Paul Mason and Jon Snow, as far as UK writers are concerned, in doing what you would expect reporters should routinely do – give eyewitness accounts, be witnesses and speak for those who haven’t the means to speak for themselves. This shouldn’t be remarkable or unusual, and it is surely a measure of how feeble and cowed most of the media has become, as they accustom us to accepting the destruction of populations in the name of ‘security’, torture, drone killings and all the rest of the ‘war on terror’.
    Honesty and clear-eyed reporting like this is a light in that darkness. It is only a sign of how corrupted we are that it merits a wide-eyed mention that she didn’t have to incorporate a feeble, mealy mouthed apology/justification for the slaughter from the Central Bureau of Newspeak. Which in its own way tells you how poorly served and misrepresented most of the world is.

  9. just on December 14, 2014, 7:59 pm

    “I can’t believe this account is in an American mainstream publication, albeit the European edition (you can’t find it easily on the Newsweek website). It’s humbling, isn’t it: that an honest reporter can speak with such clarity about such overwhelming atrocities and not stop herself for the sake of this or that blessed political piety, and her editors allow her to do so?”

    I can’t believe that every American won’t have this shoved in their face, 24/7.

    Thank you, Phil and MW.

  10. CigarGod on December 15, 2014, 8:47 am

    Very nice.
    I often cite “the economist -democracy index.” Where the usa ranks 20th…and israel all the way down at 40th. While euro-press holds all the top 10 free press positions. (Figures are closely approximate).

  11. Vera Gottlieb on December 15, 2014, 10:25 am

    I call Gaza an Zionist open-air shooting gallery.

  12. bevkrell on December 15, 2014, 11:52 am

    A last a commentator from an American media outlet. Reporting the horrific details of what the Palestinians in Gaza have to endure. Her graphic account is one of the few that has been the light of day in the West. She is right that Gaza is nothing more than an open air prison camp. That us why Sharon let the Palestinians have Gaza.

    Israeli denials and hasbara are no longer convincing the world that they are the victims. The shock and awe display over Gaza this summer has shocked the world and turned many pro Israeli Jews against the barbarity perpetrated. Israeli scored an own goal but blames the world for any criticism levelled against it using the old routine of self hater or anti Semitic slur.

    It is time for the US administration to bring Israel to book through the withholding of financial aid and military equipment. Unless America follows this line, the US will be seen to be culpable to the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.

    America cannot invoke sanctions against Russia without invoking sanctions against Israel.

  13. Oscar on December 15, 2014, 1:18 pm

    The really awesome thing is that the American Sheeple get a U.S. version of Newsweak that has ISIS on the cover!

    Ooo how scary! We need more war to protect ‘Merca!

  14. hjmetro on December 15, 2014, 7:31 pm

    It was easy to find the Newsweek piece on their site:
    Thanks for this, by the way :)

  15. TheXboundX on December 15, 2014, 9:29 pm

    I went to the newsstand hoping to buy this issue of Newsweek, boy was I ticked that it wasn’t in the U.S. edition, I thought that maybe it had been replaced by the next issue. Unhappy :(

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