BY DEMIAN VOKSI & MATTHEW WILLIAMS
For weeks, Palestinian protests have been brutally put down by the Israeli military, a draconian demonstration of force along the border of Gaza which has left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. The crackdown of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) against the "Right of Return" marchers has, despite the Syrian Crisis, caught international attention, drawn condemnation from human rights groups and sparked fierce debates within Israeli and Palestinian society.
The violence has been grotesque. Wounded protesters in hospital and been torn and maimed by Israeli sniper fire. Tanks have also been deployed and have been responding to the use of Improvised Explosive Devices being used along the border by militants. Billowing black smokes pierces the sky from tyres burned by the Palestinian men, women and children and the flags of Palestine are everywhere. A journalist, Yaser Murtaja, 30, was also killed during these protests by an Israeli sniper. Disturbing video footage of IDF soldiers cheering as one of their comrades shot a Palestinian dead from the concrete security towers and images of Israeli civilians watching the ongoing violence with smiles on their faces have only stoked the unsavory scenes unfolding on the edge of the Gaza Strip.
The word 'Gaza' for most is synonymous with occupation, violence, state-sponsored Israeli terror directed at Palestinian civilians and Hamas-led terrorism who infrequently rain Qassam rockets on Israeli territory bordering the tiny territory. Gaza is an enduring symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the nearly 2 million Gazans encased in the thin 360 kilometer squared area of land along the Mediterranean it is a life of perpetual fear and deep uncertainty. For the Israelis, particularly its security apparatus, it is a terrible headache and a dramatic example of their failure to annex the territories they have occupied since 1967.
THE RISES AND FALLS OF GAZA
Gaza has risen and fallen throughout its long history. Its capital Gaza City, much like war-ravaged Aleppo in Syria, is one of the oldest cities on the planet and contrary to the woes of modern Palestine, the tiny strip has experienced eras of prosperity and wealth and been a commercial hub coveted by empires.
During the 'Pax Romana', the Byzantine period of rule, and the 'Pax Islamica' under the Umayyad, Abbasids and the Shi'a Fatamids, Gaza and its people experienced peace and flourished economically, excelling in the trade of aromatics, incense and wine while being a centre for religious and philosophical discourse and education in both Roman, Byzantine and Islamic eras. Before the Mamluks relinquished control of Gaza to the Ottoman Empire, the area experienced what historian Filiu coins a golden age.
In contrast to these periods of relative calm, peace has walked hand in hand with Gaza's utter ruin. The Macedonians, who were led by the fearsome yet brilliant Alexander the Great unleashed their wrath on the city as its defenders put up a stubborn resistance. As with the city of Tyre (the modern city of Sur in Lebanon), whose citizens were either crucified or sold into slavery, Gaza was to meet the same fate for stubbornly resisting the Macedonian phalanxes for one-hundred days in 332 BC. An expected swift victory turned into prolonged siege warfare and Alexander decided to make an example of its inhabitants. The ancient city was torn to the ground by Alexander's army, and was ransacked again by the Hasmoneans under Alexander Jannai in 96 BC. Gaza was also sacked by Jewish zealots during the Great Revolt against the Roman Empire in 66 A.D.
Two terrible plagues killed 22,000 in 1348 and 12,000 in 1438 respectively (Butt, Life at the Crossroads, 54) and Gaza City, much like the rest of the Middle East, was ravaged by the Hulagu and his Mongol hordes during the Middle Ages and subject to occupation by Crusaders from Western Europe who spread terror throughout the land, including the cornerstone of Palestine. Equally under the dominion of Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire, the rebellious city was subject to massacre and butchery so much so that 'four subsequent centuries of Ottoman presence in Gaza meant that 'by 1525 the population had fallen to less than 1000 families.' (Filiu, Gaza, A History, 26)
During the First World War, the strip was battered by fighting between the Ottoman Turks and the General Allenby's British forces fighting there way up towards Jerusalem. In 1947-1948, the demographics of the area were changed irrevocably by the influx of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Israeli military offensive across Palestine, clashes between the Palestinians, Egyptians and Israelis and what some authors have coined as a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
IT’S A NEST OF SNAKES
After the traumatic changes catalysed by the events of 1947-1948, six days in June during 1967 shook the region and Gaza was at the epicenter of this political earthquake. The Six Day War saw the Israelis seize the Sinai from Egypt, the Syrian Golan from the Ba'athist regime in Damascus, and Eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank from the Jordanians. Gaza, which had been under the occupation of the Egyptian military was seized by the IDF, a strategic move which had been expressly cautioned against by Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan.
The former Chief of Staff, who had overseen a year long occupation of the Gaza Strip following the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, described the territory as a "a nest of snakes". As a coordinated offensive agreed by the British, France and Israel got underway to seize control of the Suez Canal in Egypt sparking the Suez Canal Crisis, the IDF seized control of the Gaza Strip. Rafah and Tell al-Muntar fell rapidly, but between 2-3 November, Khan Yunis put up fierce resistance and was bombed heavily by aircraft and artillery, fighters were executed on the spot and according to UNRWA, 275 were executed including 140 refugees, many of them in the the town's central square.
Another massacre followed in Rafah where 'the Israel authorities and UNRWA's other sources of information agree that a number of refugees were killed and wounded at that time by the occupying forces.' The Israeli version of the event stipulates that the refugees were hostile. 'The stated purpose of the Israel authorities was to find persons who were members of the so-called "Palestine Brigade" or who participated in fedayeen operations... Moreover, sufficient time was not allowed for all men to walk to the screening points and get there before the designated hour. In the confusion, a large number of refugees ran toward the screening points for fear of being late, and some Israel soldiers apparently panicked and opened fire on this running crowd.' Detainees were rounded up by the Israeli military in coordination with the Shin Bet, and their forces swept the camps for insurgents and spread terror, in-part to encourage the refugee population to leave Gaza. (Filiu, Gaza: A History, 98-100). 111 were killed, 103 were refugees.
The United States, according to Michael Fry and Miles Hochstein, worked until March 1957 to convince the Israelis to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. The experience impacted Dayan's future occupation blueprint considerably. Speaking to Gaza's mayor in the wake of a general strike established in protest against the brief occupation, Dayan said "If you close the shops, only your people will suffer. If the schools are shut, it's your children's disadvantage. We will not interfere." (Bregman, Cursed Victory, 13).
In 1967, two urges dominated the Israeli government: 1. Do they absorb the territories or 2. Do they return the territories to Jordan, the Palestinians, Egypt and Syria? Clearly, as Ahron Bregman analyses in Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, Dayan coveted the West Bank and Jerusalem, but was keen to minimise the Israeli presence within these territories and in-particular in Gaza, which his counter-part Yigal Allon was keen to annex the territory in the wake of the Six Day War. 'The thinking behind Allon's proposal for the Gaza Strip was strategic in nature, namely that Israel would annex the bulk of the land in the southern section of the Strip, with its lush citrus grove and indigenous population in small towns, which could then be easily settled by Jews to form a buffer zone with Egypt and the Sinai desert.' (Bregman, Cursed Victory, 59). The Gaza Strip would eventually become an integral part of Israel, as 'the military government offered Israeli citizenship to the indigenous residents of Gaza Strip, but not to the Palestinian refugees living there.' (Bregman, Cursed Victory, 59) However, the local Gazans and the Palestinian refugees - despite clear political differences - were united in their hostility to the Israelis and their policies. The costs of defiance for the 'Arabs' occupying the lands coveted by Prime Minister Eskhol and Yigal Allon were severe.
THE DEPORTATIONS OF 67-68
Both insidious and direct policies were introduced to try to force the Palestinian refugees to leave. Between June 1967 and December 1968, the Gaza Strip lost 25 per cent of its pre-war population as 'the Israeli government appointed a special committee whose task it was to plan the transfer of between 150,000 and 250,000 refugees from the Strip to the West Bank.' According to Abu Hasan, a resident of the Gaza Strip, a more direct campaign of ethnic cleansing took place: "A few weeks after the Strip had been occupied, the Israelis embarked on a programme of forced deportation. On one occasion, the Israeli army round up all the men from my Quarters and herded us into Jaffa school. The Israelis had two local mukhtars (Palestinian village elders) with them who told the officer in charge each man's profession - 'he's a labourer, that one's a teacher' and so on. The Israelis picked out the ones they wanted, put them on trucks and sent them to Jordan." 25,000 to 50,000 workers who lived in Gaza but were outside the Strip during the Six Day War were prevented from returning. (Bregman, Cursed Victory, 60-61)
These policies in Gaza mirrored those in the West Bank which were introduced by Dayan and Sholomo Gazit. Under Operation Refugee and 'Open Bridges' policy, 'it was no surprise that while 175,000 and 250,000 Palestinians left during and after the war, only a fraction, perhaps 14,000 were allowed to return...every Israeli effort directed towards encouraging emigration, and the process for refugees (made) return to the West bank slow and difficult.' (Bregman, Cursed Victory, 20) Israeli commander, Narkiss 'testified to placing several buses in Jerusalem writing on them 'To Amman - Free of Charge'', the incentive for the Palestinians being a life free from occupation and a chance to escape poverty and economic deprivation rife in Gaza and the refugee camps there (Bregman, Cursed Victory, 19). Once at the bridges to Jordan, 'the Palestinians would sign a departure statement declaring they had left willingly. This was rarely the case.' According to a former Israeli soldier:
"We forced them to sign....a bus would get to the bridge with only men...aged 20 to 70 accompanied by soldiers. We were told these were saboteurs and it would be better if they were out of the country. The Palestinian men did not want to leave, and were dragged from the buses while being kicked and hit with rifle butts. By the time they reached my signing stall, they were usually already completely blurred and they would not care any longer about signing....frightened they would cross to the other side running...When someone would refuge to give me his hand the soldiers would beat him up badly. Then I would forcibly take his thumb, immerse it in ink and fingerprint him." (Interview published in the local Jerusalem newspaper KolHa'ir November 1991, in Hebrew)
The Israelis wanted the majority of Palestinian refugees to go to the East Bank and Jordan, and those dwelling in Gaza were to their brethren in the West Bank. Both annexation and deportations failed to remove all the Palestinians, but occupation and bouts of violence remains rife.
ARIEL SHARON’S FIRST WAR ON GAZA
Ariel Sharon's history with the Palestinians is one of terrible violence. On 14 October, 1953, Unit 101, a special forces unit led by Sharon, assaulted Qibya, a small town under Jordanian control at the time, and killed 69 people. In the words of journalist Jason Burke, 'the attack was a typical Sharon operation. It was thorough, violent, ruthless, attention-grabbing and deeply controversial.' This formidable blueprint was replicated multiple times within the Gaza as the Strip became the scene of a 'border war' between King Farouk and then Abdel Nasser's Egypt and Israel, the former of whom were left with the responsibility of managing a refugee crisis neither country wanted. On 28 August, 1953, the same unit conducted a raid on Bureij Camp which resulted in the deaths of twenty civilians in response to the Tsahal raid which killed five civilians including three children.
Raids by Palestinian militants sponsored and supported by Egyptian army (one which had been infiltrated by multiple members of the Muslim Brotherhood) were met with bloody responses by Sharon, a young officer in his twenties, who meted out reprisals on Palestinian policeman and Egyptian soldiers occupying Gaza, in particular on 26 April, 1954 and 23 February, 1955.
As military governor, Arik Sharon crushed Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip between 1970-71. His military units carried out a string of tactics which pancaked entire districts and systematically uprooted 38,000 Palestinians, killed over 100 Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) suspects, and led to the arrest of an estimated 700-1000 militants. Collective punishment was imposed on the population as 2,500 homes were demolished in Jabyla, Rafah and Shati refugee camps, families were expelled to the Israeli-occupied Sinai to curb the hundreds of militant operations, skirmishes and raids into Israeli territory.
As in the first occupation of 1956-57, the initial measures taken to try to uproot the Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip, and the brutality of Sharon's spell as military governor illustrated that the Israelis were more extremely capable at pacifying the rebellious territory, but they were unable to expel the population and annex it. This laid the ground-work for further resistance and violence to the Israeli occupation and it was no surprise that Gaza was the cradle of the first Palestinian intifada, a revolt which acted as a catalyst for the Oslo Accords.
In Lebanon, Sharon was at the heart of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. Recalling its resolution ES-7/9 of 24th September, 1982, the UN declared the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila camps to be an act of genocide in December, 1982. The term, extremely political, as with any atrocity shook the international community and appalled Israeli society as Lebanon swiftly became the country's Vietnam.
The Israelis were complicit in mass-murder. The victims claiming to be on the verge of genocide, the Phalangists, who had been armed and trained by the Israelis and who had lured and actively encouraged Mr. Begin and Ariel Sharon to intervene in Lebanon on their behalf, had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Israeli politicians and military officials found themselves overlooking a massacre and did nothing to stop it. That Mr. Begin's Lebanese allies committed mass-murder and the IDF looked on and aided the act is a horrific irony, an appalling Greek tragedy.
Ariel Sharon was a highly competent military commander and a serial war criminal. He manufactured a war of his choosing in Lebanon which violated international law and abused the very foundations of Israeli fledgling democracy and brought the IDF into disrepute. That he escaped prosecution for war crimes and went on to become Prime Minister of Israel should stir deep revulsion amongst the international community, Israeli society and brings shame on the Bush administration for buying into Mr. Sharon's narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider Middle East between 2000 - 2006.
A new era of resistance
In the late 1980's the situation in Gaza became more complicated, with the start of the First Palestinian Intifada, and the establishment of Hamas. The First Intifada started in December 1987. The event which ignited the revolt was an incident near the Jabalya camp, when an Israeli army truck rammed into a group of Palestinians, resulting in four deaths. However, it would be mistaken to attribute the beginning of the Intifada to a single event. The pent up rage and frustrations of the Palestinian population of Gaza, most of them being refugees from the Nakba and the Six Day War, were deeply rooted in the Israeli occupation of Gaza, and with all the humiliation such an occupation produced.
The Intifada carried on for almost six years, arguably without any explicit leadership figure and with various Palestinian fractions involved in the uprising. The Israeli response was brutal and uncompromising. Around 1600 Palestinians were killed during the First Intifada, and the Israeli army shocked the international community with Yitzhak Rabin's brutal policy of breaking the bones of rioters. In 1990, an Israeli army Colonel testified in court that former defense minister Rabin in 1988 gave the orders to beat up and break the limbs of Palestinian protesters, adding that such conduct was "part of the accepted norm in that period and nothing out of the ordinary“. Use of tear gas and live ammunition on the protesters was common, as well as tactics such as the razing of Palestinian buildings, detentions and curfews. It is estimated that up to 29,000 Palestinian children, one third of them under 10 years old, were in need of medical attention as a consequence of the beating inflicted by the Israeli army in the first year of the Intifada.
The establishment of Hamas
In the chaos of the First Intifada, a new organisation surfaced. The end of 1987 marked the official formation of Harakat al Moqawama al Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement), better known after its acronym; Hamas. The roots of Hamas go back to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood which was founded in 1928 by Hassan al Banna. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood then established a branch in Palestine in the mid-1940's and spread quite quickly. Jeroen Gunning, in his book Hamas in Politics states that by 1947, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood had 10,000 members and 38 branches with the branch in Gaza becoming the largest political organisation in the Gaza Strip, finding its base in the dispossessed refugees which arrived in Gaza after the Nakba.
In the decades following the Six Day War in 1967, the Palestinian Brotherhood profited from several developments in Palestine. The first one was that while Israel imposed a ban on political activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Brotherhood acted as a charitable religious organisation, relying on the activism and activity of university students. The second one was that it was proven over time that their main ideological opponent, the PLO and their affiliated leftist organisations seemed to be incapable of countering Israel. The PLO was expelled first from Jordan, and then from Lebanon and it seemed that their fight against Israeli occupation was going nowhere. At the same time, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood was slowly building its influence in the Gaza Strip and to a lesser degree, the West Bank.
When Hamas appeared in 1987, soon after the start of the First Intifada, publishing its Charter in 1988, the path to the resistance to Israel via the path of political Islam had already been set by the previous generations of the Muslim Brotherhood members in the Gaza Strip, aided by the facts that Israel ignored religious activity, hoping that religious organisations will counter their greatest nemesis, the PLO, as the group was slowly losing credibility. It is worth noting that the rise of Islamist discourse regarding Palestine acted in parallel to the rise of the Israeli discourse of claiming the Palestinian land for themselves on religious grounds, a trend which continued and in fact blew up in the following decades.
The Hamas Charter and the continuation of 'resistance'
Hamas drew significant criticisms since it got established especially regarding the content of their charter in which the organisation outlines its identity and aims. Three discourses are the most prominent in it: Islam as a way of life, Palestinian nationalism as an identity and Zionism as the enemy. However, in the context of that last discourse, Hamas' framing of the "Zionist threat to Palestine“ steers in a thoroughly anti-semitic direction. In Article 14 the accent is on the necessary unity of the "Palestinian circle, the Arab circle and the Islamic circle“ which all have a "role in the struggle against Zionism“.
In Article 13 it is clarified that „Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement“. Article 15 concentrates on the "Jew's usurpation of Palestine“, done on the basis of previous "ideological invasion that affected it as a result of the orientalists and missionaries who infiltrated the region following the defeat of the Crusaders“. Article 20 compares Jews to "Nazis“, and Articles 17 and 22 delve into various conspiracy theories in which Zionists are presented as puppet masters, attempting to rule the world through "Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, The Lions“ (referencing various international societies) and state that they "were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about“.
Hamas' infamy rose as they began with a campaign of suicide bombings on civilian targets in Israel in 1993, and which continued through the 90's before expanding during the Second Intifada, as well as their refusal to accept the Oslo Accords between the Israeli government and the PLO. Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad conducted 27 bombings before the start of the Second Intifada.
The Second Intifada, the elections and the Palestinian infighting
At the turn of the century, the climate in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was under immense pressure. The Oslo Accords failed to live up to their promise, on top of being seen as far too large a compromise in the first place by a lot of Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, seen by many Israelis as the man who could have brokered peace with the Palestinians was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli right wing extremist dissatisfied with the signing of the Oslo Accords, and in the next election the right wing Likud party led by Benjamin Netanyahu took leadership of the Israeli government. The Camp David Summit in 2000 has fallen through with Israeli negotiators denying that Israel was responsible for the Palestinian refugee crisis, offering to accept 100,000 refugees out of over 700,000 at that time, and denying Palestinian sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem. Israel has also, contrary to the Oslo Accords and the international law, ramped up the building of illegal settlements on occupied land.
On September 28, 2000, just ten days after the Palestinians mark the remembrance date of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in the southern suburbs of Beirut in 1982 to which he bears personal responsibility according to the Israeli Kahan commission, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in occupied East Jerusalem and Likud officials later stated, echoing Sharon's words at the site, that the Temple Mount will stay under Israeli sovereignty. Protests flared up and soon spread all over the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Intifada continued for just over 4 years, marked by a suicide bombing campaign in which Hamas had a pivotal role while Israeli forces assassinated Palestinian political leaders. Around 3000 Palestinians and 1000 Israelis died during the Intifada with Israel retreating from the Gaza Strip and who built a barrier alongside the 1967 border, often infringing upon Palestinian land and tearing communities apart.
Perhaps emboldened by the resistance they have put up against the Israelis during the Second Intifada, Hamas entered the Palestinian 2006 legislative elections under the list name 'Change and Reform' and with an economy-based campaign and swept the elections winning 74 of the 132 seats, with Fatah in second place, winning 45 seats. However, world leaders were not quite happy that the democratic elections in Palestine resulted differently than expected. The EU has not decided to continue with providing aid to the new government and Israel and the United States imposed sanctions on the Palestinian National Authority after Hamas took power, and in 2007 after months of clashes between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinian government split with Fatah taking control of the West Bank and Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip.
The Status Quo
In 2007 Israel began the blockade of the Gaza Strip, the condition which continues to this day. The International Committee of the Red Cross defines the blockade as collective punishment, and the blockade has significant and severe impact on the 1.9 million residents of the Strip. Electricity is reduced to 4 hours a day, sewage heavily pollutes the sea, 47% of the population does not have enough food, 96% of the water is undrinkable and there is not enough cement and other construction imports coming into Gaza for reconstruction. The territory extending 300 meters into the Strip is prohibited to the residents with severe agricultural impact on Gazan farmers and a third of the Gazan sea territory is prohibited for access to Gazan fishermen. Both the farmers and the fishermen have been repeatedly fired on by the Israeli military when they ventured into those areas. The unemployment rate is at 42% with youth unemployment standing at between 60 and 65%.
Since 2007 Israel has conducted 3 larger conflicts in Gaza mainly concerned with Hamas' rocket fire towards Israel which usually escalated after skirmishes with the Israeli army flared up. The war in 2008-2009 has taken around 1100 Gazan lives, the one in 2012 around 100 and the last one in 2014 has resulted in 2251 deaths, 65% of them civilian.
At the end of March of 2018, protests have begun in Gaza under the name „Great March for Return“ with tens of thousands mostly unarmed Gazans protesting for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Although there had been several incidents of firebombing and lighting tires on fire by the Gazans, protests are largely peaceful. However, the Israeli army has responded violently, so far killing 41 people (several of them journalists) and injuring over 5000. Humans Rights Watch has characterised Israeli killings as unlawful and calculated with an Israeli general stating that Israeli snipers are fully aware that they are shooting at children.
Videos of Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinians, mostly unarmed protesters and then celebrating have surfaced causing outrage. One of the Palestinians at the protests has even been shot in the mouth while giving an interview for a TV channel. However, such Israeli conduct has not drawn any meaningful international response, with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even pulling out the old "Israel has the right to defend itself“ line despite the fact that Israel has suffered no casualties, and that not a single rocket has been fired from Gaza towards Israel since the protests began.
Gaza is suffocating in its blockade and has arguably turned into hell on Earth. Benjamin Netanyahu's government has made it clear that it maintains the policy of expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, and has made zero efforts to come to an understanding with the Palestinians. Why would it? It has the unconditional support of the world's largest superpower and the power of unilaterally deciding between life and death. Israeli officials have repeatedly engaged in dehumanising Palestinians- Avigdor Liberman, the current defence minister said that "those who are against us deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe“ and claimed that "there are no innocent people in Gaza“. Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked shares his opinion and has been quoted saying that all Palestinians "are enemy combatants“. Netanyahu himself has been elected on the election promise that a "Palestinian state will not be established under [his] watch“.
In the end, Gaza and Palestine will continue protesting at-least until May 15th, the Nakba Day. Israeli soldiers will continue shooting them and Israeli officials will continue condoning it. Politicians around the world will continue insisting that Israel is defending itself, and nothing will change because the status quo is too comfortable for everyone except the Palestinians. Nobody cares about the Palestinians anymore.
Demian Vokši and Matthew C.K Williams