Roving thoughts and provocations

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Gaza & the Israeli Peace Movement: One Year Later

A demonstrator dressed as a clown being arrested by Israeli police during a protest against the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, December 18, 2009. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The fact that Gaza is still under siege has hardly infiltrated Israeli awareness. The first anniversary of Israel’s military intervention in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, has of course been noted in the Israeli press. The predominant tone, even in Haaretz, supposedly the voice of the liberal left, is almost smug. The rain of Qassam missiles on Israeli cities and villages has more or less halted; in recent months housing prices in Sderot, which is less than a mile from Gaza, have soared, and demand for plots of land in the moshavim close to the Gaza border far outstrips supply. So for Israelis the campaign was clearly a success, despite the 1,400 Palestinian dead, the 3,540 houses destroyed in Gaza, the devastation of the civilian infrastructure there, and the international outcry about possible Israeli war crimes.

In general the Gaza story now fits the regnant Israeli paradigm: They attacked us, we patiently put up with it for a very long time, then we let them have it, and things have now been quiet for X months (until we have to do it again). Though nothing could be farther from the truth or more self-serving, most Israelis believe this. For the hard-core right, the paradigm is even simpler: We evacuated Gaza, removed settlements, and got Qassams in exchange. Ergo, all Israeli settlements on the West Bank must be maintained, indeed expanded, at any cost. Settlers I encounter on the West Bank think this syllogism is now part of the so-called “consensus,” and I’m beginning to think they may be right; it certainly informs government policy toward the Palestinians. You can also state the operative principle more bluntly: Fence them in.

Meanwhile, the picture emerging from Gaza is a more complex one. The volume of goods allowed in via the Israeli checkpoints is about 25 percent of what it was before the war. Flour, rice, and cooking oil are permitted, but the rules, which change all the time, are arbitrary to the point of perversity: recently tea, sugar, and preserves were banned (can one manufacture explosives from tea bags?), then reinstated. Pencils and notebooks are out. Only a trickle of construction materials, badly needed in the wake of the destruction wrought by the IDF offensive a year ago, has crossed the fence: a mere 41 truckloads over the last eleven months, compared to 3700 truckloads each month in 2007-2008. Ninety percent of available drinking water is not up to WHO standards.

According to the relief organizations, some seventy percent of the population survives on less than a dollar a day. Palestinian fishermen are hemmed in to ever smaller spaces: they used to be allowed to sail eight nautical miles from the coast; this dispensation was reduced first to six, then to the present three miles, and the Israeli navy regularly arrests them and sometimes impounds their boats (the shoals close to shore have been both polluted and largely exhausted; sardines are present six nautical miles from the coast).

At the same time, smuggling via tunnels from Egyptian territory is a thriving business, and you can’t blame everything on the siege; the Hamas government clearly benefits, in more ways than one, from its tight control over all goods coming into Gaza (a license per tunnel costs some 10,000 Israeli shekels) and may even prefer the present situation to the lifting of the blockade. Recent visitors to Gaza report that medicine and food, including luxury items, are available in plenty if one can pay for them. On January 1, Israeli planes bombed some of the tunnels, but the effectiveness of such attacks remains doubtful; despite extensive destruction a year ago, the tunnels (by now numbering in the hundreds) were rapidly rebuilt following the Israeli campaign. Egypt is said to be planning a steel barrier on the Gaza border which may slow down the tunnel traffic.

The apathy within Israel toward Gaza and its people is not absolute. The army, under fierce pressure because of the international outcry, says it is investigating 150 cases of possible criminal offenses by soldiers during last year’s campaign (so far, rather typically, only in one case are charges being pressed). There has been a chain of passionate, if not particularly effective, protests. On December 26 a thousand people demonstrated against the siege in a nocturnal protest march in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. In Beersheva riot police tried to shut down a lively protest on the streets, as they did during the war a year ago; this time they were less successful. There is even a Coalition Against the Siege that is organizing another march on Saturday night in downtown Tel Aviv.

On December 31 a Gaza Peace March took place both inside Gaza and on the Israeli side of the Erez border crossing, at the northern end of the strip. According to one report, on December 30, the Egyptian government allowed some 80 international peace activists—a small fraction of the more than one thousand that had gathered in Cairo—to cross into Gaza from the Rafah gate in the south; they marched through Gaza, and stopped about 500 meters short of the Erez crossing on the Gaza side, as close as they could get without risk of being fired on by the Israeli soldiers stationed there. Assembled on the Israeli side, meanwhile, were about a thousand Israelis, including several Arab members of the Knesset who, predictably, were furiously attacked by right-wing politicians for fraternizing with the enemy.

On December 27 I joined a march on the northern Gaza border organized by activists from Ta’ayush and other peace organizations. In theory, we were meant to be operating in tandem with what was supposed to be a much larger group of Palestinians marching inside Gaza but, given the tremendous difficulty in communications, this didn’t play out quite as planned. Unusually for us, we took pains to keep the plan secret—no emails, no cell phones, details passed only by word of mouth in safe places, only a few trusted journalists invited—in the hope that we would gain a little time on the beach and thus be able to unfurl our banners and cry out our message of hope.

Initially it worked: we had about seven heady minutes marching by the sea in sight of the Gaza tenements before the army zeroed in on us. Then the most remarkable configuration of forces descended upon us: a platoon of regular soldiers, the blue-uniformed police (some on horseback), Border Police, the notorious riot-control unit, amphibious craft closing in from the sea, and even an army helicopter hovering in the sky above us. There was one mock-heroic moment when two activists tried to get past the barrier by jumping into the sea and swimming frantically toward Gaza; the cavalry fished them out. The BBC turned up (a little late) and took some pictures; the Israeli media paid little attention. Sixteen activists were arrested and carted off to the police station in Sderot, where they were questioned and released some hours later. I can tell you the blockade works, and not only against tea bags.

It’s easy to be cynical about Gaza, cynical about whatever you choose to focus on: Israeli policy, the misery of Hamas rule, the fortunes acquired by the tunnel-smugglers, the suppression of dissent within Israel, the gratuitous cruelty of the ongoing siege. None of it makes sense unless you bring in the larger picture of the occupation and the steadfast reluctance of Israeli governments to make peace. Seen in isolation, Gaza is too riddled with ambiguity to galvanize what’s left of the Israeli peace camp into action. The real contrast is with the burgeoning protests in East Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah where several Palestinian families have recently been evicted from their homes and Israeli settlers planted in their stead.

The legal situation in Sheikh Jarrah is ambiguous: Israeli courts have recently ruled that Jewish claims to ownership of land and houses in the neighborhood, from long before 1948, are valid and constitute a basis for evicting the Palestinian residents, all of whom received these lands from the Jordanian government in the 1950s in exchange for their UNRWA cards (thus relinquishing their status as refugees). But the issue is not really a legal one. The government, the municipality, and the settlers want to take over yet another Palestinian neighborhood—another 26 homes are scheduled for eviction, in addition to the three that have already been evacuated—and, of course, to prevent any future compromise in Jerusalem.

As a result, hundreds of Israelis, many of them young people joining the struggle for the first time, take off Friday afternoons to march through town and then demonstrate, courting arrest and harassment, in Sheikh Jarrah; the clumsy attempts by the Jerusalem police to suppress the protest violently have only added to our numbers. The demonstrations have a festive character, with drummers, acrobats, and clowns (the police arrested the clowns). Rumors about the demise of the Israeli peace movement are, it seems, premature.

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