Witnessing the systematic destruction of Gaza

August 4, 2014

Nearly one-quarter of Gaza's 1.8 million residents are on the move as Israel's bombing campaign continues to target whole neighborhoods, hospitals, United Nations shelters and civilian infrastructure. The number of people killed since Israel began the so-called Operation Protective Edge is nearly 2,000, with some 10,000 injured. The death toll has overtaken the more than 1,400 killed by Israel during its late 2008-early 2009 Operation Cast Lead.

While the White House issued a statement last week condemning Israel's sixth bombing of a UN shelter as "totally indefensible," Barack Obama nevertheless granted Israel permission to use a U.S. munitions stockpile located in Israel that is supposed to be reserved for U.S. use, but which can be accessed for Israel in "emergency situations."

Joe Catron is a journalist and activist in Gaza, where he works with Palestinian groups and international solidarity networks. He co-edited The Prisoners' Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts from detainees freed in 2011, and blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com. Catron spoke with Tithi Bhattacharya, a Purdue University professor and member of the International Socialist Review editorial board.

WHAT CAN you tell the world about the morale of people in Gaza now living almost a month under Israeli bombs?

MORALE REMAINS strong, even among those facing the toughest circumstances. Whenever I walk into al-Shifa hospital, I pass through an encampment of displaced people, mostly from Shejaiya to the east, erected on the grounds. I'm always struck by the visible strength and determination of its residents, as well as the paramedics, nurses, doctors, journalists and coffee vendors within the hospital itself.

Nearly all in Gaza are tired of endless bombardment and hope for a cease-fire, of course. But there's a broad consensus that any cease-fire worthy of the name must include an end to Israel's siege, allowing Palestinians to travel, trade, fish, farm and conduct their political affairs without restrictions, by definition. In fact, while I'm not a pollster, I don't personally know of anyone here willing to settle for less.

SINCE THE mainstream media is still deceptive about the impact of Israel's assault, can you talk about the actual extent of the devastation? What do neighborhoods in Gaza now look like?

People walk through the rubble during a pause in the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza
People walk through the rubble during a pause in the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza (Iyad al Baba)

IT VARIES by area. Some, like my neighborhood by the Gaza seaport on the west coast of Gaza City, have sustained shellings and air strikes, but remain intact with localized damage. Days of saturation bombing have reduced others--like Shejaiya, Khuza'a and Beit Hanoun--to rubble.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Israel has ethnically cleansed large regions of the eastern and northern Gaza Strip adjacent to its separation barrier. After ordering residents to leave their homes, it systematically destroyed them, while shooting anything that moved.

The process has seemed very reminiscent of the Nakba of 1948. Looking at the results, I think it's clearly part of Israel's plan to prevent these areas from becoming fully habitable again for years. And with Israeli forces having ordered evacuations from 44 percent of the Gaza Strip, it's hard to predict how much of it will be recognizable when they finish.

This was a flaw in my analysis when we stayed at Al-Wafa hospital. I thought the Israelis saw the building as a strategic asset because of its size and location, something they would want to seize quickly during any invasion of the city from the east. I didn't realize they actually planned to purge the whole area of Palestinian life.

DURING OPERATION Cast Lead and other Israeli operations, people in Gaza have continued to build a sort of grassroots infrastructure. For instance, we know of underground schools that people ran to continue educating children and youth. Are there similar efforts going on today?

IT'S SUMMER, so the kids might not like the underground school idea! But it's been amazing to watch an entire grassroots infrastructure come together, with very little centralized coordination, to support Palestinians displaced from their neighborhoods. In addition to hundreds camped out at Shifa, thousands more have found shelter in schools, mosques, churches and anywhere else there's room.

As of July 30, the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 240,000 had been displaced to these shelters, while 200,000 more were staying with host families. Everyone's resources are stretched thin, but neighbors are doing what they can to help the displaced with food, clothing, etc., when not opening their own doors to house them.

HOW WOULD you assess the military resistance mounted by Hamas? We have read encouraging reports of even elite Israeli forces such as the Golani Briagde facing a military challenge. Is this is the reason why Netanyahu wants to continue the bombing?

GROUND OPERATIONS by Hamas' al-Qassam Brigades and other resistance groups have done a great deal to inspire people and keep spirits high. News of these daring raids, which have killed dozens of Israeli soldiers, have shown that while Israel's troops may be able to push buttons on billion-dollar machines, they aren't so good when it comes to actual fighting.

It's notable that while Israel has massacred more than 1,000 Palestinian civilians, Hamas fighters have repeatedly bypassed civilian settlements across the Green Line to reach military posts. Israel can yell all it likes about its civilians being targeted, but the numbers tell a very different story.

Israel may have anticipated a barrage of rockets. But rather than prolonging its offensive, I suspect the fierce resistance its army has met on the ground is one of the main factors, along with rising global outrage, pushing its leaders to seek a truce. Of course, they hope for a lopsided one--in practice, a unilateral cease-fire by Palestinians--allowing Israel to preserve the siege.

HOW DO people in Gaza feel about the silence of the leaders of the Arab states and the collusion of states like Egypt with Israel and the U.S.?

LIKE MANY political questions, the answer depends very much on whom you ask. I think it's fair to say that there's been broad disappointment with, if not outright hostility toward, the tepid responses of Arab governments. At the same time, many have been gratified by new support from unexpected quarters, like Latin America.

SINCE THE massive demonstrations broke out in the West Bank, there has been some talk in the news media about a third Intifada. Do you think there is such a possibility?

I THINK it's a possibility, but not the only one. In some ways, yearning for a third Intifada foists an unfair burden onto the minority of the Palestinian people who live under direct occupation, facing challenges to mounting a successful resistance that don't exist elsewhere.

For four decades before the first Intifada, although Palestinians obviously resisted within occupied territory, the core of the struggle lay elsewhere--in the refugee camps of the diaspora. With the decline of the Tunis-Oslo paradigm, which roughly characterized the first two Intifadas, as well as the rapid growth of global networks like the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the next phase of the Palestinian struggle may combine both these models and more.

I can't say that the spark won't be struck in Bil'in. But it could also come from Beirut, or Brooklyn.

THOUGH WORLD leaders and Western governments have turned their back on Gaza and actively aided Israel, there has been an outburst of global protests in solidarity with Palestine. How do people in Gaza see these protests?

THESE EVENTS have encouraged a number of them during difficult times. On Twitter, I've seen nearly as many pictures of solidarity protests in North America and Western Europe tweeted by friends in Gaza as by friends from these regions. While the role of solidarity activism in shifting worldwide public opinion and government policies is crucial, its impact on morale here shouldn't be underestimated.

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