This article originally appeared on Conor McCarthy’s blog Reflections From a Damaged Life on the 22nd of July.
The current Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip recalls earlier interventions over the last several years, going back to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. As this blog has noted before, amidst the welter of reportage and high-octane verbiage brought forth in the media about these events, perhaps the most important thing for us observing, and protesting, from afar is to maintain a sense of the ‘bigger picture’.
As this blog has noted previously, Gaza is a place where violence – the hidden violence embodied and crystalised in the historical and present structures of states and interstate relations, as well as the obvious violence of war and counter-terrorism – over-determines the situation as we witness it now.
Let’s repeat a few simple facts:
- Gaza is the most densely populated region on the planet, with 1.7 million inhabitants. The overwhelming majority of these people are either refugees or the children or grandchildren of refugees – the human detritus of phases of Israeli ethnic cleansing both in 1947-49 and in 1967. The great majority of the population is poor, and unemployment is extremely high, with approximately 60% of the population directly dependent on UNRWA for assistance and food;
- Gaza has never been a sovereign political entity or part of one – it has no army, no formal state apparatus, and it is technically, in spite of Israel’s pull-out of its settlers in 2005, under Israeli occupation. This means that Israel has a duty of care to the Strip and its inhabitants;
- Gaza has historically been the locus of various kinds of Israeli violence: not merely ethnic cleansing, but also land confiscation, illegal colonial settlement, and population transfer; punitive raids into the Strip are not new – the Israeli raid of 1955 stands out. And so amidst our horror at the current savagery meted out to the Strip, we must remember that it is routinely subjected to Israeli internventions, air-raids and killings;
- Gaza has been subject to an Israeli blockade since 2007, which seeks to control all movement not only of alleged Iranian or Syrian weapons supplies to Hamas, but also of food, fuel, medical supplies, and other essentials of even the most basic civil life, and it is surrounded on its Israeli borders by a ‘fence’, which has served as the prototype for the much better-known West Bank ‘security’ wall.
It is hard, on the face of it at least, to know what Israel’s policy is vis-a-vis Gaza. It’s likely enough that if it could be assured of a ‘suitable’ government (like the Mubarak dictatorship or like the present one, but unlike that of Mohammed Morsi), Israel would turn responsibility for the Strip over to the Egyptians. However, it seems highly unlikely that Egypt would take this task on, most especially while it is experiencing its own instabilities, fighting Islamist insurrection in the Sinai peninsula.
In the context of the current status quo, Israel is unlikely to adopt a radical solution to the Gaza problem. It will resist a Palestinian government in which Hamas takes part – the current offensive must be seen in part as an attempt to break the Hamas/Fatah coalition. The Netanyahu government is set firmly against allowing further Palestinian political development, and, in spite of occasional statements to mollify Western governments or the Obama administration, it has no intention of running with the ‘two-state solution’ – apart from anything else, its relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank put paid to that.
Equally, it must be said that while ‘transfer’ (ethnic cleansing) is openly discussed in Israeli public political and policy circles (and has been for some time), it is unlikely that Israel would execute such a drastic action, unless in the context of some wider Middle East crisis. But the possibility cannot be ruled out. If the Syrian/Iraqi crisis were to widen into Jordan, for example, with Israel intervening in that war, a much more violent intervention into Gaza (and also the West Bank) might be launched. We must realise that the firepower being deployed in Gaza at the moment, frightful as it may be, is nothing in comparison to what the IDF could do if it wished. If Israel really wanted to ‘destroy the terrorist infrastructure’, and if the political conditions were correct, the IDF could decapitate Hamas in a few hours.
So one is left with the impression that Israel is content, most of the time, to maintain the Gaza Strip and its denizens in the condition, as I wrote back in 2012, of what Giorgio Agamben has called ‘bare life': a space wide open to Israeli incursion and modification (the present Israeli operation to clear a strip within the border of the Strip of all tunnels and Hamas installations, at very likely huge cost of house destruction and considerable loss of life, is an example), and inhabited by an generally inert, legally and discursively ‘semi-human’ population, without internationally recognised rights, deprived of many of the most basic human needs, and which it is possible to maim and persecute freely. The Gaza situation exemplifies a point made years ago by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism - the stripping of German Jews of their citizenship was the crucial step to their dehumanisation and eventual genocide. Stateless people, like the Palestinians, can be herded around, racially abused, injured and butchered by a recognised state with impunity.
The following are some materials that remain useful or illuminating:
John Mearsheimer’s talk on Gaza seems as fresh as it did in 2012:
Here is my own review of Gideon Levy’s excellent little book The Punishment of Gaza, which gives some background on the Strip, and a powerful sense of the everyday brutality of the occupation:
Here is Mouin Rabbani, writing in the current London Review of Books:
Left-wing Israeli ‘New Historian’ Ilan Pappe on the crisis:
I have not previously mentioned the Journal of Palestine Studies on this blog. The JPS, the official organ of the Institute of Palestine Studies, probably the leading Anglophone institute of research on Palestine and the Palestine question, and is an extraordinarily rich and useful journal. The Institute itself, founded in Beirut in 1963, is affiliated to the Institute of Palestine Studies in Washington DC, and the Institute of Jerusalem Studies in Ramallah. The journal, edited by Rashid Khalidi, the inaugural Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, contains scholarly essays, copious book reviews, photographic archives of Palestine and its history, sections which monitor the Arabic and Hebrew press, and also which monitor settlement construction and development. In the current context, the Journal is offering a ‘Special Focus’, which contains numerous useful articles on Gaza, its politics, the history of recent struggle there, Israeli policy regarding the Strip, and so on. I’ll post links to a couple of these articles; the rest are available for free on the Journal’s website: http://www.palestine-studies.org/focus.aspx
Photograph of Western Graveyard, Nablus in the West Bank comes from the book Phantom Home by Ahlam Shibli. Sean Sheehan reviewed the book for ILR here.