Suffering and survival after the war on Gaza

October 15, 2014

Eric Ruder examines the aftermath of Israel's onslaught against Gaza this summer.

THE AUGUST 26 cease-fire that ended Israel's 51-day scorched-earth offensive against the people of Gaza was greeted with celebrations in Gaza.

Thousands poured into the streets in huge throngs that snarled traffic and filled city squares. They came out to express their joy that Israel, with one of the world's most powerful militaries, was unable to subdue the Palestinian resistance. For its part, Hamas declared victory.

Without question, people around the world could not help but be inspired by the determination of Gaza's 1.8 million residents to withstand such a punishing military assault. But the most important demand articulated by practically every Palestinian in Gaza--an end to Israel's suffocating siege that has turned life there into a living hell--remains elusive, and the price paid to arrive at the cease-fire is horrifying to recount.

Satellite imagery shows the systematic destruction of farmland and residential housing. Some 13 percent of Gaza's housing stock was destroyed or damaged by Israeli bombing, according to the UN report "Gaza: Initial rapid assessment" released in late August. About 5 percent of housing is uninhabitable--roughly 18,000 housing units have been either destroyed or severely damaged--leaving more than 108,000 people homeless.

The ruins of Gaza after Israel's onslaught
The ruins of Gaza after Israel's onslaught (Robin Lloyd)

Israel also damaged or destroyed at least 15 of Gaza's 32 hospitals, forcing six to close down. Of 97 primary health-care clinics, 45 reported damage, and 17 were closed. Between 20 and 30 percent of Gaza's water and sewage infrastructure was damaged. Gaza's only power plant was repeatedly targeted by Israeli forces, eventually forcing it to shut down. Israel's Operation Protective Edge, as the targeting of Gaza's civilians was misnamed, also damaged 75 kindergartens and day care centers. In addition to the more than 2,100 people killed and 11,000 injured in Gaza, Israeli forces also injured thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank.

A report issued by the International Monetary Fund in mid-September predicted that Gaza's already fragile economy would contract 15 percent this year due to the war, and that the cost of reconstructing Gaza would run about $7.8 billion. The report also noted that of the billions pledged to reconstruct Gaza following Israel's Operation Cast Lead that ended in early 2009, only $330 million had been received by March 2010.

But the statistics--as awful as they are--can obscure the all-encompassing sense of despair for Palestinians living in Gaza. The hopelessness is so suffocating that thousands of people have tried to flee Gaza by entering Egypt and paying huge sums to smugglers in order to board flimsy vessels bound for Italy on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. In mid-September, hundreds of people--mostly Palestinians--perished when one such ship sank.

According to Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Al Dameer Association for Human Rights:

Seven years of a blockade, three wars in six years, and no hope, no reconstruction, no real political impact on the ground, high levels of poverty, high levels of unemployment. Imagine young people who are 30 years old, and they don't have any opportunity for jobs, and they cannot think of building or establishing a family. So it's not food, it's not money--it is the needs of any human being. Because the Gazans are not looking for a specific type of life. They are looking for life itself, and they don't have the option to choose any type of life."

No wonder so many Palestinians have concluded that risking death to live elsewhere is better than being condemned to life in Gaza. And that's exactly what Israeli officials want them to conclude.

EVEN AS the dust was still settling over the ruins in Gaza this summer, Israel announced it was confiscating an additional 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank, the largest single land grab by Israel in 30 years. This theft of Palestinian land, following so closely after the Gaza massacre, is testament to Israel's intentions to keep the pressure on.

According to the Economist:

Encircled by Mr. Netanyahu's latest appropriation, Palestinian residents of the bucolic village of Wadi Fukin have already lost all but 450 of the 3,000 acres they once had, and stand to lose more. The hillsides where the village's 600 sheep and goats graze are set to go. Unable to farm, many men find work as builders, often on Jewish settlements nearby. They may yet be called upon to build homes for Israelis on land they regard as their own.

Israeli officials justify the confiscation as a "security measure" in response to the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens in June. But Palestinians and those in Israel who are critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's expropriation plan more accurately describe the decision as "collective punishment." The land seizure would effectively double the size of Gush Etzion settlement near Bethlehem.

The killing of the three Israeli teens also served as the justification for the bombing of Gaza in July and August. In June, Netanyahu called those responsible for the deaths "human animals." But one month earlier, when the murder of two Palestinian teens by Israeli snipers was caught on camera, Netanyahu couldn't muster the same outrage.

Because the building of illegal settlements in the West Bank runs contrary to official U.S. policy, the State Department issued a comment offering rote dissatisfaction and urging Israel's government to reverse the decision. But empty rhetoric is the limit of what can be expected from U.S. officials when it comes to the serial violations of international law committed by their closest ally in the Middle East. At present, the population of West Bank settlers is growing three times faster than population of Israel as a whole.

In addition to glaring measures such as land annexation, Israel uses many other tactics to harass, humiliate and repress Palestinians in the West Bank, including but not limited to arbitrary arrests, detention and torture; a high-volume acoustic device mounted in a turret atop a military vehicle used to blast protesters; and the regular use of a truck that sprays "skunk water."

"Due to its intense smell that gnaws at your nostrils, [skunk water] makes it difficult to breathe," Mariam Barghouti, a Ramallah-based activist, told "If you only get sprayed with it, that is an agony you have to live with for a few days to a few weeks. The water lingers on your skin to a point when you want to rip your skin off."

In 2006, Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, described the overall policy of successive Israeli governments as "incremental genocide." In early July, he penned an article that returned to this same theme:

Israel's present assault on Gaza, alas, indicates that this policy continues unabated. The term is important since it appropriately locates Israel's barbaric action--then and now--within a wider historical context. This context should be insisted upon, since the Israeli propaganda machine attempts again and again to narrate its policies as out of context and turns the pretext it found for every new wave of destruction into the main justification for another spree of indiscriminate slaughter in the killing fields of Palestine.

The Zionist strategy of branding its brutal policies as an ad hoc response to this or that Palestinian action is as old as the Zionist presence in Palestine itself. It was used repeatedly as a justification for implementing the Zionist vision of a future Palestine that has in it very few, if any, native Palestinians...

I will concede that all over the Middle East there are now horrific cases where dehumanization has reaped unimaginable horrors as it does in Gaza today. But there is one crucial difference between these cases and the Israeli brutality: the former are condemned as barbarous and inhuman worldwide, while those committed by Israel are still publicly licensed and approved by the president of the United States, the leaders of the EU and Israel's other friends in the world.

RECONSTRUCTION OF Gaza's damaged housing will take 20 years under current conditions, according to Shelter Cluster, an international organization co-chaired by the Red Cross and the UN's refugee agency that assesses post-conflict rebuilding projects. It might take less time, according to the group, if the siege of Gaza imposed by Israel and Egypt were lifted, and it might take longer if the necessary reconstruction funds don't materialize.

In the meanwhile, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, the military rulers of Egypt and Netanyahu are using the people of Gaza and the humanitarian crisis they face as levers to accomplish longstanding political goals--in particular, the isolation of Hamas and the broader resistance forces.

The resistance took Israeli forces by surprise during the ground phase of Israel's assault, killing more than 60 soldiers. It proved to be a more effective fighting force than had been anticipated. Abbas and the PA have long been willing collaborators with Israel in the vain hope that at some time in the future, they might one day becomes heads of a new Palestinian state.

Abbas has therefore participated in the demonization of Hamas, even as he condemned Israel's Operation Protective Edge. In fact, just as Abbas and the PA sabotaged attempts to hold Israel accountable for Operation Cast Lead, evidence has emerged of PA efforts to obstruct an investigation by the International Criminal Court into war crimes committed by Israeli forces this summer.

Currently, Abbas is using the carrot of reconstruction aid and payment of salaries to 45,000 Gaza civil service employees who have gone uncompensated for months in order to insinuate the PA back into Gaza.

Hamas and the PA have agreed allow to PA personnel to serve as gatekeepers at the border crossings between Gaza, Egypt and Israel, but the implementation of the agreement remains confused, according to Gaza journalist Mohammed Omer. This marks the first return of the PA to Gaza as a political and civil authority since the 2006 elections won by Hamas, which prompted a failed coup attempt by PA forces and their ouster from Gaza.

More broadly, the setbacks to the Arab uprisings throughout the region--of which the restoration of Egypt's military dictatorship is a particularly sharp expression--were fundamental to Israel's calculations about whether to carry out Operation Protective Edge.

If not for these setbacks in the Arab Spring, Israel's Gaza offensive would have been too provocative to contemplate, considering the intensity of struggle it had the potential to unleash. Instead, the streets of the Arab regimes remained relatively quiet throughout the summer onslaught.

AN OPINION poll in Israel in early September showed that far-right Economics Minister Naftali Bennett defeating Netanyahu as leader of Israel's right wing by a 39-28 percent margin. The cease-fire to Israeli operations in Gaza hurt Netanyahu's support because so many Israelis wanted to see even greater bloodshed. With Netanyahu desperate to shore up his extremist credentials, we should expect that Israel will seek to inflict yet more setbacks on Palestinians, like the seizure of the 1,000 acres of land. Yet despite some words of criticism during the war, support for Israel remains unswerving among U.S. and European policymakers.

Palestinian polls, on the other hand, show Abbas' popularity cratering--to 36 percent--and Hamas' popularity, which had sagged, rebounding to 88 percent, its highest level of support since 2006. This was largely due to Hamas' ability to withstand Israel's war, an accomplishment in and of itself. As a consequence, 79 percent of Palestinians thought Hamas won the war, while only 3 percent thought Israel had.

Even more importantly, Israel's war produced global outrage among ordinary people--something that could be measured by the unprecedented size of solidarity protests across the U.S. and around the world. For this reason, the question of what emerges in the aftermath of Israel's war will be the crucial determinant of whether Israel ends up paying a political price for its military offensive.

It's axiomatic that the U.S. and Europe will not hold Israel accountable. The only force now capable of doing so is the growing global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. This movement can and should seek out new campaigns, new targets and new audiences as it brings pressure on Israel to grant basic rights to Palestinians inside Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza and in refugee camps spread throughout the region.

The Palestinian BDS National Committee and 20 associated Palestinian groups have thus issued a statement entitled "A Call from Gaza: Make Israel Accountable for its Crimes in Gaza--Intensify BDS!" People everywhere should heed the call.

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