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Gaza: The Murderous Melodrama

Gaza: A History

by Jean-Pierre Filiu, translated from the French by John King
Oxford University Press, 422 pp., $29.95

Gaza and Israel: New Obstacles, New Solutions

a report by the International Crisis Group
Middle East Briefing No. 39, 11 pp., July 14, 2014; available at www.crisisgroup.org
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Magnum Photos
A smuggling tunnel in Rafah, Gaza Strip, 2012; photograph by Paolo Pellegrin

In 332 BC Alexander the Great conquered Gaza. It was not easy going. The siege lasted for one hundred days, and the Gazans, led by Batis, the “king of Gaza,” defended themselves skillfully, notably by extensive use of tunnels. Alexander himself was wounded in the fighting. He revenged himself by killing almost all the city’s young men, including Batis, who was tied to Alexander’s chariot and dragged to death beneath the ramparts (shades of Achilles’ humiliation of the dead Hector). The story seems all too familiar; for us, too, Gaza calls up violent images. It’s relatively easy to dig tunnels in its sandy subsoil, as we know from the brutal war that broke out this summer.

I’m not sure “broke out” is the right phrase. Human agency was very much at work on both sides. Hamas, battered, isolated, and impoverished, had little to lose and, as things turned out, much to gain in popular support by launching missiles and mortars at Israel and inviting another round of severe Israeli punishment. Benjamin Netanyahu, by ordering a large-scale attack on Hamas activists and institutions on the West Bank in response to the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers on June 12, gladly accepted the invitation.

One of the most striking elements in the murderous melodrama that ensued was the utter confusion in the Israeli leadership about what might constitute a credible war aim. Stopping the renewed missile fire from Gaza proved to be impossible, though Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system worked for the most part effectively. Only after Israel’s land operation in the inner periphery of Gaza got underway was the army able to seize upon the extensive tunnels, many crossing under the fence around the Strip and opening into Israeli territory, as a possible raison d’être for the whole campaign.

Without minimizing the real threat posed by these tunnels—which the army apparently had known about for years—one might note the evident relief the government felt at having finally found a military target they could handle. The citizens of Israel, who will usually believe anything the army says, seemed entirely persuaded. Some thirty tunnels were blown up. I assume that by now many new ones are being dug.

Clearly, this was the summer of Israeli discontent. Nothing was able to put an end to the rain of missiles and mortar shells from Gaza. Israeli settlements near the Gaza border were evacuated; and when the army announced that it was safe to return, renewed attacks killed residents and soldiers stationed nearby. (In Gaza and Israel combined, sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians were killed.) For weeks the most common word on the TV and radio news and talk shows, with their familiar line-up of dusted-off former generals, was “deterrence.”

More specifically, the question was how to restore or reinvent this somewhat nebulous, almost metaphysical objective. The campaign—named “Protective Edge” in English (tsuk eitan, “Steadfast Boulder,” in Hebrew)—aside from dealing with the tunnels, was supposed to deter the enemy from launching more missiles and from any other such acts in the future. The Hamas leadership repeatedly refused to play the part they had been assigned. Despite the immense destruction they absorbed and the deaths of some 2,200 Palestinians, the vast majority of them innocent civilians (including some five hundred children), Hamas was, to put it simply, undeterred.

It’s not unlikely that the Israeli army and, in particular, those responsible for strategic intelligence and long-term planning are now struggling with the implications of this stubborn fact. I think most Israelis are well aware that the war did not end with anything like an Israeli victory, and that the next round is likely to be similarly inconclusive, or worse—much worse, if Hezbollah in Lebanon joins in the fighting. In his press conference following the cease-fire, Netanyahu himself uncharacteristically confessed that sometimes force cannot achieve all goals. He also, at an earlier press conference on July 20, callously blamed Hamas for using “telegenically dead Palestinians” to win sympathy, as if he himself had nothing to do with either the number or the identity of those telegenic dead.

One has to bear in mind that Israelis live in a largely mythic world, a somewhat modified and vastly simplified version of the Iliad. In this starkly polarized vision of reality, in which Israelis are by definition innocent victims of dark, irrational forces operating against them, heroic death in war always makes sense, and violent coercion is the option both of necessity and of choice. The Hebrew proverb says: “If force doesn’t work, use more force.” But this summer the proverb failed to deliver.

In theory, this moment might generate in both ordinary Israelis and their elected leadership the kind of insight that has been so lacking for the last few decades. Are we going to go on fighting these futile wars every couple of years, killing large numbers of innocents in the process, with mounting casualties among Israeli soldiers and civilians as well? There is, after all, another, rather attractive option, as Assaf Sharon has recently, and eloquently, said in these pages.1 If violence doesn’t work, Israel might consider cutting a deal with the Palestinian moderates, ending the occupation, and making peace along the lines of the Saudi peace proposal (or “Arab Peace Initiative”) of 2002.

In this respect, two developments of note followed closely on the cease-fire. First, well within the mythic tradition, Netanyahu announced a new and huge appropriation of land for settlement on the West Bank—3,799 dunams, or about one thousand acres, the largest such appropriation in three decades. Included in the new takeover (along with lands from the villages of Husan, Nahalin, Jaba, and Surif) is Wadi Fuqin, one of the most beautiful valleys in all of Palestine, which until now had been saved from the settlers largely by a concerted campaign of Israelis living in Zur Hadassah, close to the threatened wadi.

Apart from the human tragedies involved, the irreparable ecological tragedy about to happen should be squarely faced, though I assume it counts for nothing in the eyes of Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet. It’s not enough to see this new, dramatic land grab as an act of political expediency meant to appease the government’s extremist ministers. Much deeper currents are at work. One could conclude that the Gaza war was a sideshow, maybe even a useful distraction hiding the really serious business of taking more Palestinian land. So much for making peace.

Then on September 12 a group of forty-three officers and soldiers from Unit 8200, the cream of Israeli army intelligence, a unit only slightly less prestigious than the combat squadrons of the air force, published a letter to the prime minister and the chief of staff in which they state that they will no longer serve in their former capacity. They wrote:

The Palestinian population under military rule is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence…. There’s no distinction between Palestinians who are, and are not, involved in violence. Information that is collected and stored harms innocent people. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself. In many cases, intelligence prevents defendants from receiving a fair trial in military courts, as the evidence against them is not revealed. Intelligence allows for the continued control over millions of people through thorough and intrusive supervision and invasion of most areas of life.

As Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz on September 14, it’s as if Stasi operatives in the GDR had suddenly turned against their commanders. No one should underestimate the importance of the soldiers’ statement; the timing, so close to the dismal war of this summer, is also important. In 2004, the last time there was a wave of refusals to serve on the part of air force pilots and of soldiers in one of the elite combat units, Israel, under Ariel Sharon, responded by dismantling the Gaza settlements and retreating from Gaza. Sharon, through his close confidant Dov Weisglass, famously listed the pilots’ protest as a major factor in the decision to abandon the settlements.

Along with the letter of the members of Unit 8200, more detailed accounts of what this kind of intelligence work entails have been emerging in the press (one can also see the system in operation in two recent films, Omar and Bethlehem2). If you are Palestinian and happen to be gay, or need some special kind of medical care, or are in financial straits, or want a permit so that you can travel to visit a relative or spouse, or have had some run-in with the security forces, you’re fair game for blackmail or bribery or both.

If anyone has any doubt about the veracity of the soldiers’ reports, he or she has only to read the superb Palestine Speaks, edited by Mateo Hoke and Cate Malek, a collection of documentary interviews with ordinary Palestinians living on the West Bank or in Gaza. It’s all there: the regime of surveillance and blackmail, the constant threat of arbitrary arrest and likely torture, the continuous theft of land, and the more mundane, but no less tormenting, reality of the roadblocks, state-inflicted terror, random violence, lack of legal recourse, and disenfranchisement.

The voices of these ordinary individuals, so similar to those Palestinians I encounter regularly in the territories, speak here with unsettling eloquence. There are heartrending stories, such as the autobiographical sketch of a courageous fisherman from Gaza, Jamal Baker, whose life has been more or less destroyed by the Israeli blockade, his new boat (worth $10,000, an astronomical sum in Gaza) blasted out of the water by a caprice of soldiers in the Israeli navy, his son nearly killed in this attack. The basic idea governing the entire appalling system is to stamp out the Palestinian nationalist movement and to block all Palestinian aspirations to live a normal life in dignity—and at the same time, to steal huge chunks of land. Whatever Israel does in Gaza ultimately serves this goal.

The process of disenfranchisement and consequent eviction goes on. In early September the government leaked its plan to resettle some 12,500 Palestinian Bedouins from the Jahalin, Rashaida, and Ka‘abna tribes in a new city to be built for them in the Jordan Valley. Needless to say, the Bedouins are strongly opposed to this move, which will destroy their culture and their historic way of life. The plan is the final, logical move in a decades-long process of undermining the West Bank Bedouins, denying them access to wells and grazing grounds, starving them of infrastructure and services, including proper medical care, and ruthlessly depriving them of basic human rights—the goal being to cleanse areas marked for Israeli settlement of their presence.

I have seen the process with my own eyes in the small, ravishing encampment at Khirbet al-Duqaiqa on the edge of the desert in south Hebron. Like dozens of other such encampments, al-Duqaiqa is scheduled for destruction. This is the Israeli version of culturecide, sometimes expressly rationalized by old-fashioned colonial rhetoric about enlightening the benighted natives, as we have heard from the bureaucrats of the Civil Administration at the larger site of Susya, also slated for demolition, in the hilly heartland of south Hebron.

Gaza was the bone Sharon threw to the world in order to allow Israel to carry out its long-term annexationist program on the West Bank. There is a certain poetic irony about this process. It’s worth remembering that Gaza is no ordinary place. It was there that the Palestinian national movement reinvented itself after the 1948 war, when the West Bank had been taken over by Jordan. Gaza was also a historic dumping ground for Palestinian refugees; most of the estimated present population of some 1.8 million, crammed into an area of about 140 square miles, is made up of refugees and the descendents of refugees, some of them displaced several times. Some 200,000 fled to Gaza in the course of the 1948 fighting, quadrupling the original population.

In the early 1950s, after the war and the armistice agreements, Israel continued to expel Palestinian villagers from the surrounding area, notably from the large village of Majdal (today the city of Ashkelon), into the Strip. (Moshe Dayan, then commander of the southern front, gave the order.) The ongoing, routine business of dispossession and expulsion proceeding apace throughout the West Bank, with new refugees spilling over into cities such as Yata and Hebron, thus has a long-standing precedent; and Gaza serves as the definitive example.

In Gaza: A History, Jean-Pierre Filiu, who teaches at Sciences Po in Paris, tells the story of Gaza’s modern political history in impressive, agonizing detail. The body count adds up from page to page. Fierce conflict between Palestinian factions accounts for some of it. Perhaps the most original part of this book is its exploration of the origins of Hamas and the Islamists’ gradual rise to power, including their assumption of an active military role. One tends to forget that at the early stages the Israelis actively encouraged the formation of the new organization in the hope that it would serve as a balance against the PLO mainstream—and that initially this movement was largely opposed to armed resistance, though Hamas might not like to be reminded of that today.

Its charismatic founder, Shaikh Ahmad Yassin (who would eventually be assassinated by Israel in 2004), was a disciple of Sayyid Qutub, the main founding figure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (he was hanged there in 1966). In the early days, in 1973 and 1974, the new organization in Gaza, named al-Mujamma‘ al-Islami or “Islamic Collective,” focused its efforts on religious education—on what it called the development of “the thinking Muslim individual”—and on social works, charity, a health system, sports, and building civil society. Some of these early Hamas institutions, in particular the effective network of schools, still survive today both in Gaza and in the West Bank, where the movement spread during the 1980s and 1990s. When seen together with the endemic corruption and impotence of the old Fatah elite, they account to no small degree for popular support of Hamas.

At this early stage, the leaders of the Mujamma‘, including many names that would subsequently become familiar from Israel’s hit lists, held themselves aloof from politics. These were the days after Sharon had “pacified” Gaza by the most brutal repression it had ever seen (apparently he also made use of the infamous tunnels for his own purposes).

The armed Palestinian resistance had failed, at great cost; the Mujamma‘ appeared to offer a new way, a grassroots-level attempt to build institutions and inculcate a severe, purist version of Islam. Its emblematic institution was the newly founded Islamic University situated in Gaza City, where men such as ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Rantissi and Mahmud al-Zahar were appointed professors.

By the early 1980s, however, the embryonic Hamas began drifting into more violent strategies and methods, especially with regard to its mainstream nationalist rivals in the Fatah organization, among others. In part, this process was inherently teleological, the natural development of a movement driven by fanatical purism: “Even football matches were used as a stage for their battle between Islam and ‘unbelief.’” Hatred of Fatah became an article of faith for Hamas. These were also the years in which Israeli settlements were planted in Gaza, most of them in the Gush Katif enclave to the south, but some in the heart of the densely populated central urban core of the Gaza Strip.

The effect of the settlements on the mostly refugee population in Gaza was predictably devastating. As Filiu notes, “Each settler…had 400 times as much land at his disposal as a Palestinian refugee and twenty times more water than a peasant farmer in the Gaza Strip.” The Mujamma‘, rapidly becoming more radical and already dreaming of seizing power, now renamed itself “Hamas,” literally “zeal”—an acronym for harakat al-muqawama al-islamiyya, the “Movement of Islamic Resistance.”

A charter was proclaimed in 1988, a document apocalyptic in tone and paranoid in relation to the Jews, who are accused of having been the driving force behind the French Revolution, the Communist Revolution, World Wars I and II, and most other disasters of modern history, including, of course, the Palestinian catastrophe. Hamas thus opposed what was eventually known as the Oslo process, with its critical component of Palestinian recognition of Israel as part of an eventual end to the occupation and the realization of Palestinian statehood.

Hamas took over Gaza in early 2007, after having won, by a small margin, the general Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 but having been denied the fruits of this victory through the refusal of Israel, the US, and Europe—with the active collusion of the PLO–Fatah leadership—to accept these results. The Hamas assumption of power in Gaza was accompanied by deadly clashes with Fatah, and after Fatah’s defeat was quickly followed by an Israeli blockade that is still in force today. In the years that followed the takeover, the inevitable series of mini-wars began, culminating in this summer’s campaign.

The blockade created a surreal reality that many have recorded.3 On the one hand, the part of the Gazan economy that existed above ground—farming, small businesses—rapidly collapsed. Some two thirds of the population were unemployed; many lived in a kind of absolute impoverishment, surviving on bread, hummus, and tea. On the other hand, the underground economy based on the vast network of tunnels leading to and from Egypt was thriving, and what might optimistically be called the Gazan middle class, or what was left of it, could buy almost anything they needed, including smuggled-in luxury cars, albeit at high prices. Almost anything: the Gaza Zoo, highly popular among the huge population of children, tried desperately to import a zebra via one of the tunnels, but this didn’t work out (it was too expensive, at $40,000 per zebra); in the end they painted black and white stripes on two donkeys.

It would be nice to think that the current cease-fire, which seems likely to hold, could produce some amelioration of this volatile, unacceptable reality, as “Gaza and Israel: New Obstacles, New Solutions,” a report by the International Crisis Group, issued in July, earnestly advocates. Like everyone else, the ICG is in favor of opening the southern border of the Strip with Egypt and of easing the transfer of goods to and from Israel on the northern and eastern borders. One also hears the fond hopes that the Palestinian Authority can return to Gaza, and that it may even eventually replace Hamas as rulers. But the report concludes by saying, probably correctly, that “the policy of trying to topple or weaken Hamas was misguided when it was designed and remains so today.”

The underlying recommendation of the ICG is that the PA-Hamas unity government formed, after extraordinarily difficult negotiations, in April 2014 be reinstated and actively supported by the West as well as the major Arab states. Note that in signing this agreement last spring, Hamas explicitly agreed to renounce violence and implicitly accepted the moderates’ strategy of negotiations for peace. Netanyahu, not surprisingly, saw the agreement not as an opportunity but as a threat; hence his all-out attack on Hamas activists in the West Bank that quickly led to war. Reports from late September indicate that the unity agreement is indeed being resuscitated and that, if these efforts don’t break down again, the PA may soon be ruling Gaza jointly with Hamas.

So far it looks as if the terms of the cease-fire agreement will mostly replicate the understandings that were in place since 2012, before this summer’s fighting. It would take some imagination on the part of the Israeli government and the cabinet ministers to do something more creative; unfortunately, imagination is not one of their strong points—except for the commonplace visions of impending doom when any form of compromise is contemplated.

Meanwhile, on another level, grave questions remain about the way Israel conducted its latest Gaza war (and will probably conduct the next one). It’s too early to know what the various official bodies of inquiry will find; on the basis of past experience, I wouldn’t expect much from the army’s internal investigations. Both B’Tselem, the well-known human rights organization with impeccable credentials, and Breaking the Silence, one of the most effective of the peace groups, are carrying out their own research on what happened, including interviewing many soldiers who were in the war.

Early results are far from encouraging; to take but one example, credible eyewitness accounts emerging from the village of Khuza’a, near Khan Yunis, speak of widespread, lethal shooting by soldiers at civilians attempting to follow the army’s own orders to evacuate their homes on July 23. Khuza’a has been more or less reduced to rubble.

Probably the most trenchant statement on the underlying principles involved was published in Haaretz on August 4, while the war was still raging, by Michael Sfard, an outstanding human rights lawyer and jurist from the legal aid organization Yesh Din. Its main point has to do with the army’s policy called, colloquially, “Knock on the Door.” This procedure, very widely adopted during the fighting, allows for air strikes or artillery shelling of targets embedded in civilian areas if the civilians are given advance warning and told to leave. Typically, a phone call or text message is sent to such civilians, or leaflets are dropped, informing them that their home is about to be bombed. Sometimes a preliminary missile is fired at the house as an announcement—a knock on the door.

The army and the government pride themselves on the moral righteousness they think is demonstrated in this way; but a large percentage of the civilian casualties in the summer’s fighting were connected to this policy, which, writes Sfard,

does not take into consideration the question of whether the prior warning given the population is effective—i.e., whether the population can in fact leave, whether solutions have been found for the elderly, the ill and the children. Nor is it accompanied by the creation of a safe corridor through which people can flee to some place that won’t be fired on, and where civilians have what they need to survive.

There are indications that the advance warning was, in some cases, given only a matter of seconds beforehand. Imagine what it’s like to get a text message saying your house is about to be blown up: What do you do first? What, or whom, do you take with you in your flight? Moreover—though Sfard doesn’t say this in his essay—it’s far from clear that if a civilian fails to heed such a warning he or she becomes, ipso facto, a person who can be killed with impunity. Even soldiers are not usually executed for disobeying an order. Sfard does not hesitate to describe the Knock-on-the-Door policy, along with the extremely lax definition by the army of what constitutes an acceptable military objective, as a “‘targeted assassination’ of the principles of international law.”

The dimensions of destruction in Gaza are terrifying, and only a fool, or a blind nationalist, would blame them all on Hamas and its nefarious policies. The present disastrous situation in Gaza has a long prehistory and a wider political setting. This summer’s war might have been meaningful, or at least intelligible, if Israel had embarked on it with the aim of strengthening the Palestinian moderates in order to reach an agreement. That was not the case.

But it is not right to couch this conclusion only in conventional pragmatic terms. There is a complex but urgent moral dimension to what happened this summer. Large-scale civilian casualities, including hundreds of children classed as “collateral damage,” cannot be justified even under conditions of combat such as the army faced in Gaza. No more amenable to rational justification is the continued occupation of the West Bank. By now, after forty-seven years, we use the word “occupation” as if it were almost a routine, or normal, form of existence. It is not.

Faced with these grim realities and their no less grim antecedents, a reader of Filiu’s account might be forgiven for retreating into the distant past when Gaza was home to a scintillating world of Greek-speaking sophists, pro- and anti-Chalcedonian monks and intellectuals, Christian Neaplatonists such as Peter the Iberian (mid- to late-fifth century), sober historians, secular rhetoricians, and inventive artists and builders.4 To my taste, the most fascinating part of Filiu’s history is the short introductory survey of Gaza in ancient and medieval times. Here is a Gaza that has been lost to us. Alexander’s conquest, like many others, was a passing episode. Imam Shafi’i, the founder of one of the four great schools of Islamic law, was born in Gaza in 767; his daughter’s tomb and those of some of his pupils are still there in the Zeitun neighborhood.

Although nearly all Israelis now know the name of the Shuja’iya neighborhood, the site this summer of the first heavy battle, probably only a few know that it is named after the local Ayyubid hero, Shuja’ al-Din Uthman al-Kurdi, who died fighting the Crusaders in Gaza circa 1239. Mamluk-period Gaza, following the collapse of the Crusader kingdom, left behind an astonishing richness of Islamic monuments—mosques such as the great ‘Umari Mosque rebuilt by Sultan Baybars in the mid-thirteenth century on the ruins of a Crusader cathedral and famous for its enormous manuscript library, madrasa academies, Sufi Khanqahs or monasteries, glittering palaces, and caravanserais.5 We have to hope that at least some of them are still standing.

Letters

When Israel Backed Islam November 26, 2014

  1. 1

    Failure in Gaza,” The New York Review, September 25, 2014. 

  2. 2

    See my review in these pages, April 24, 2014. 

  3. 3

    See my “Eyeless in Gaza” in these pages, July 15, 2010. 

  4. 4

    See Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity, edited by Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony and Aryeh Kofsky (Brill, 2004), and in particular the essay there by Yakov Ashkenazi, “Sophists and Priests in Late Antique Gaza According to Choricius the Rhetor.”  

  5. 5

    See Mohamed-Moain Sadek, Die Mamlukische Architektur der Stadt Gaza (Klaus Schwarz, 1991).