Winners and losers, good guys and bad guys get determined by timing. How does anyone decide when a crisis starts? How do we know who started it? In Gaza, three young Israelis were kidnapped and killed. Was that the beginning, were they the good guys? Certainly they were victims, but was their “side” the good guy side?
In Gaza, even as the airstrikes and bombing continues, the siege remains. Gaza is besieged – still occupied, even after Israel moved its soldiers and settlers out of Gaza in 2005. The soldiers weren’t withdrawn, they were simply redeployed. The settlers were moved, mostly to other, equally illegal, settlements in the West Bank. But even before the current crisis, Gaza was surrounded, Israeli soldiers patrolling the separation fence that completely surrounds Gaza, controlling the coastal waters, the air, the borders…so that nothing and no one gets into or out of Gaza without Israeli approval. Even the border with Egypt, the one crossing point near Rafah in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, is almost always closed, something Israel and the U.S. have demanded from Egypt for years.
When that Israeli redeployment in 2005 took place, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice negotiated an agreement in which Israeli soldiers, allegedly unseen behind tinted glass, would oversee but in fact control the European monitors at the Rafah border crossing into and out of Gaza. It was supposed to provide the illusion of autonomy for Gaza, but no one was fooled, and the crossing most often remained closed.)
Within a year, following the 2006 Palestinian elections (deemed among the most free and fair ever held in the Arab world by the Carter Center and others) in which Palestinians had the audacity to elect the wrong party, in this case the Hamas party, Israel responded by a complete siege imposed on Gaza. It remains today.
So when more than 220 people are killed by Israeli airstrikes during the current assault, it takes place against a population that has already suffered eight years of profound deprivation and what amounts to imprisonment – lacking sufficient food, water, medical equipment or construction materials to survive, let alone even begin to rebuild. The UN says that 90% of the available water in Gaza – and there is very little available – is not fit for human consumption.
So where do we start the clock? The siege of Gaza began in 2006, 39 years after Israel first occupied the Strip, should we begin there? Two years later Operation Cast Lead was launched, resulting in more than 1,400 Palestinians killed in Gaza, hundreds of them women and children, perhaps we should start there? Or maybe four years after that, when eight days of Israeli air attacks killed 158 Palestinians, of whom 102 were civilians including 30 kids.
Let’s start the clock there, in November 2012. The common calculation in the U.S. press then was that it all started when Palestinians in Gaza fired a rocket at an Israeli jeep. In response to that, Israel assassinated a Hamas leader on November 14th. That’s one timeline. But what if we ask (aside from the staggering disproportionality) what was going on with that rocket, why was it fired? It turns out that just a few hours before, Israeli troops had killed a 13-year-old Gaza child who was playing soccer. Two days before that, Israeli soldiers had killed a young man walking in one of their declared “no-go” zones inside Gaza. Israeli officials said, “We told him, we called out to him not to go there, and he didn’t listen.” It turns out he was a mentally disabled young man, who maybe didn’t hear, maybe didn’t understand, continued to walk, and he was shot dead. Maybe that’s where we should have started the clock.
This time around, less than two years later, there’s a timeline question again. Most mainstream voices say the current escalation began when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank on June 12th. Although no evidence was ever put forward regarding who was responsible, the Israeli government immediately blamed Hamas, and launched an almost three-week long series of raids against Palestinians across the West Bank. Israeli troops arrested more than 1,300 Palestinians, including children and 28 members of the Palestinian parliament. None were charged with anything but they remain in prison. Hundreds of homes were raided, many destroyed. Israeli troops killed eleven Palestinians.
Even before the teenagers’ bodies were found, and egged on by ultra-right-wing elements within the Israeli parliament and government, racist calls for vengeance and cries of “death to the Arabs” exploded across Israel. Only later, after the military gag order was lifted, did we learn that Israeli authorities had known almost from the hour the three were kidnapped that they were already almost certainly dead. In a cruelly cynical ploy, the hope that they were still alive was manipulated to provide cover for the violent campaign against Hamas in the West Bank and the newly created unity government linking Hamas and Fatah across the occupied territories. Also during that time, Israeli planes carried out airstrikes over Gaza for six nights beginning on June 13th, the day after the teenagers went missing. Another casualty was 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Kheidr, kidnapped and tortured to a horrific death on July 2nd by a group of young Israelis. His murder was far too reminiscent of James Chaney, the only African-American among the three Freedom Riders murdered in Mississippi in 1964, who was tortured to death while his two white comrades were shot in the head.
So why start the clock with the kidnapping of the three young Israelis? What went before? Well, aside from the ordinary reality of military occupation and siege, of apartheid policies that expropriate land, divide families, and deny people their fundamental human rights, there were other specific events. Just a few weeks before the kidnapping of the Israelis, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank. Does that justify the kidnapping and killing of the three Israelis? Of course not. But it speaks to the arbitrariness of timelines and starting points. We still don’t know who killed the three Israelis or why – Israel says its two suspects are tied to Hamas, but no evidence has been presented and Hamas has denied any involvement.
Ultimately the only relevant timeline is that of occupation. If we are serious about “ending the violence,” the only way to do it is to end the occupation – the traditional occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the siege form of occupation in Gaza. We can get a ceasefire, stop it for the moment, but then violence will continue, because military occupation is inherently violent. In the United States people tend to identify violence only when it comes from those living under occupation, who use, sometimes illegally, the military tools of the weak. Or when the “ordinary” violence of the occupier escalates to new and visible heights. That “ordinary” violence – the military siege of Gaza, the constant raids, arrests of children, targeted assassinations, denial of Gazans’ right to move...none of these become the focus of international outrage.
We hear a great deal from world leaders about the responsibility to protect, the new mantra of the United Nations. "We have a responsibility to protect the people of Libya. We have a responsibility to protect the people of Syria." Somehow we rarely hear the call to protect the people of Palestine.
My old friend Raji Sourani, founder and director of Gaza’s Palestinian Center for Human Rights, told an interviewer a couple of days ago,
“We don't expect anything but freedom of movement – the end of the siege and freedom of movement of goods and individuals to and from Gaza. The Human Rights Council should send an investigation mission, to the occupied territories, to Gaza, in order to investigate these war crimes perpetrated by Israel. We need a committee which has the ability to hold any suspected war criminals accountable. We simply need the rule of law in this part of the world. And all we want is an end to this criminal, belligerent occupation, but nobody is talking about that. I don't want self-determination, I don't want independence, I don't want a Palestinian state – I want to be normal. I just don't want this occupation. We want the rule of law: is that too much to ask?”
Protection should not be too much to ask. The United Nations claims a commitment to the “responsibility to protect” people whose own governments are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens – and in a situation of occupation, where the Occupying Power is violating its responsibility to protect the people living under that occupation, that global responsibility should apply.
In Washington especially, we hear a great deal about Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Asked during the November 2012 assault on Gaza whether Palestinians have that same right of self-defense, the State Department spokesperson repeated, “Israel has the right of self-defense.” Palestinians, apparently, do not have any such right to defend themselves against the “precise” Israeli bombs that target houses, hospitals, clinics – or four little boys playing on a Gaza beach.
Ironically, if Israel’s real goal was to protect its civilian population from the fear of Palestinian rockets, it would have called for an immediate ceasefire long ago. Because history shows very clearly, that during ceasefires Israelis are safe. During the ceasefire that followed the carnage of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, until the November 2012 Israeli assault, 271 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air strikes, drones, planes and helicopter attacks. No Israelis were killed by Palestinian rockets. Ceasefires protect Israelis, even if they don’t protect Palestinians very well.
International protection is vitally needed. But international support for such an initiative reflects global political realities. And those are not in favor of Palestinian human rights.
During Cast Lead in 2008-09, Israel could count on a U.S.-dependent dictator in Egypt, governments throughout the region that did not even pretend to have accountability to their populations, that were accountable only to the U.S. and therefore were prepared to avoid holding Israeli accountable in any serious way for its violations of Palestinian rights. By the time of the 2012 Israeli attack on Gaza, the Arab Spring was at its height. Dictators had been overthrown, monarchies were starting to fear popular demands for the rights of citizens. The two countries the United States had traditionally relied on as interlocutors in the region, Turkey and Egypt, were now arguably the closest allies of Hamas in Gaza. A newly elected government in Egypt, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, opened the Rafah crossing most of the time. Turkey’s foreign minister visited Gaza during the Israeli assault and pledged support for the people of Gaza.
All that is gone now. The Arab Spring is in its most difficult period, with the overlapping wars in Syria broadening across the region, Iraq on the precipice of a new civil war, Libya collapsing into violence and chaos in the wake of the NATO intervention. A coup in Egypt last year overthrew the elected government and installed a military regime once again with a U.S.-backed general with strong ties to Israel as president. The Rafah crossing remains closed, and Egypt has turned against Hamas, against Gaza.
What has not changed is U.S. backing for Israel’s attack on Gaza. Washington has made clear its uncritical support for the Israeli assault, enabled by the $3.1 billion U.S. military aid to Israel this year alone, as well as an additional $351 million extra military support just approved by a Senate committee on July 16. In complete violation of U.S. law – specifically things like the Leahy Law that prohibits military aid to forces known for patterns of human rights violations – Washington continues to give Israel carte blanche to use U.S.-made weapons to attack Gaza: F-16s fighter jets, Apache helicopters, armored Caterpillar bulldozers, all produced in the United States and purchased with our tax dollars.
That’s why the focus needs to be on changing U.S. policy – reversing the longstanding impunity for Israel guaranteed by the United States that means no Israeli officials are ever held accountable for violations of human rights and international law, canceling the billions in military aid that make the U.S. an accessory to Israeli crimes, and ending the overwhelming political and diplomatic backing for Israel’s occupation and apartheid. That’s the urgent task.
The people of Gaza need a ceasefire – a ceasefire that guarantees protection and their long-denied rights. A temporary fix that returns Gaza’s million people to the conditions of siege and occupation before the current crisis will not work. We can’t look only to the current moment of violent crisis. History – and justice – are determined by when we start the clock.