(June 23, 2007 issue) Not long ago, I claimed that Israel is employing genocidal policies in the Gaza Strip. I hesitated before using this very charged term and yet decided to adopt it. The responses I received indicated unease in using such a term. I rethought the term for a while, but concluded with even stronger conviction: it is the only appropriate way to describe what the Israeli army is doing in the Gaza Strip.
On Dec. 28, 2006, the Israeli human rights organization Betzelem published its annual report on Israeli atrocities in the occupied territories. In 2006, Israeli forces killed 660 citizens, triple the number of the previous year (around 200). Most of the dead are from the Gaza Strip, where Israeli forces demolished almost 300 houses and have slain entire families. Since 2000, almost 4,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, half of them children, and more than 20,000 wounded.
The point is not just about escalating intentional killings but the strategy.
Israeli policy makers are facing two very different realities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the former, they are finishing construction of their eastern border. Their internal ideological debate is over, and their master plan for annexing half of the West Bank is gaining speed.
The last phase was delayed due to the promises made by Israel, under the Road Map, not to build new settlements. Israel found two ways of circumventing this. First, it defined a third of the West Bank as Greater Jerusalem, which allowed it to build towns and community centers within this new annexed area. Second, it expanded old settlements to such proportions that there was no need to build new ones.
The settlements, army bases, roads and the wall will allow Israel to annex almost half of the West Bank by 2010. Within these territories, Israeli authorities will continue to implement creeping transfer policies against the considerable number of Palestinians who remain.
There is no rush. As far as the Israeli are concerned they have the upper hand there; the daily abusive and dehumanizing combination of army and bureaucracy effectively adds to the dispossession process.
All governing parties from Labor to Kadima accept Ariel Sharon’s strategic thinking that this policy is far better than the one offered by the blunt “transferists” or ethnic cleansers, such as Avigdor Liberman. In the Gaza Strip there is no clear Israeli strategy, but there is a daily experiment with one. The Israelis see the Strip as a distinct geo-political entity from the West Bank. Hamas controls Gaza, while Mahmoud Abbas seems to run the fragmented West Bank with Israeli and American blessing.
There is no land in the Strip that Israel covets and there is no hinterland, like Jordan, to which the Palestinians can be expelled.
Ethnic cleansing is ineffective here. The earlier strategy in the Strip was ghettoizing the Palestinians there, but this is not working. The Jews know it best from their history. In the past, the next stage against such communities was even more barbaric. It is difficult to tell what does the future hold for the Gaza community: ghettoized, quarantined, unwanted and demonized.
Throwing Away the Key
Creating the prison and throwing the key to the sea, as South African law professor John Dugard has put it, was an option the Palestinians in the Strip reacted against with force in September 2005. Determined to show that they were still part of the West Bank and Palestine, they launched the first significant number of missiles into the Western Negev. The shelling was a response to an Israeli campaign of massive arrests of Hamas and Jihad people in the Tul Karim area.
Israel responded with operation “First Rain.” Supersonic flights were flown over Gaza to terrorize the entire population, succeeded by heavy bombardment of vast areas from the sea, sky and land. The logic, the Israeli army explained, was to weaken the community’s support for the rocket launchers. As was expected, by the Israelis as well, the operation only increased the support for the rocket launchers.
The real purpose was experimental. The Israeli generals wished to know how such operations would be received at home, in the region and in the world. And it seems the answer was “very well;” no one took interest in the scores of dead and hundreds of wounded Palestinians.
Following operations were modeled on First Rain. The difference was more firepower, more casualties and more collateral damage and, as expected, more Qassam missiles in response. Accompanying measures ensured full imprisonment of Gazans through boycott and blockade, with which the European Union is shamefully collaborating.
The capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006 was irrelevant in the general scheme, but it provided an opportunity for the Israelis to escalate even more. After all, there was no strategy that followed the decision of Sharon to remove 8,000 settlers from Gaza whose presence complicated “punitive” missions. Since then, the “punitive” actions continue and have become a strategy.
First Rain was replaced by “Summer Rains.” In a country where there is no rain in the summer, one can expect only showers of F-16 bombs and artillery shells hitting the people of the Strip.
Summer Rains brought a novel component: the land invasion into parts of the Gaza Strip. This enabled the army to kill citizens and present it as an inevitable result of heavy fighting within densely populated areas and not of Israeli policies.
Summer Rains, Autumn Clouds
When the summer was over came the even more efficient “Autumn Clouds:” beginning on Nov. 1, 2006, the Israelis killed 70 civilians in less than 48 hours. By the end of that month, almost 200 were killed, half of them children and women.
Some of the activity was parallelled the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, making it easier to complete the operations without much external attention, let alone criticism. From First Rain to Autumn Clouds there is escalation in every parameter. The first is erasing the distinction between “civilian” and “non-civilian” targets: the population is the main target for the army’s operation. Second is the escalation in the means: employment of every possible killing machine the Israeli army possesses. Third is escalation in the number of casualties: with each future operation, a much larger number of people are likely to be killed and wounded. Finally, and most importantly, the operations have become a strategy — the way Israel intends to solve the problem of the Gaza Strip.
A creeping transfer in the West Bank and a measured genocidal policy in the Gaza strip are the two strategies Israel employs today. From an electoral point of view the policy in Gaza is problematic, as it does not reap any tangible results; the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas is yielding to Israeli pressure and there is no significant force that arrests the Israeli strategy of annexation and dispossession.
Gaza Fights Back
But the Strip continues to fire back. This would enable the Israeli army to initiate larger genocidal operations in the future, but there is also the great danger that, as in 1948, the army would demand a more drastic and systematic “punitive” action against the besieged people of the Gaza Strip. Ironically, the Israeli killing machine has rested lately. Its generals are content that the internal killing in the Strip does the job for them.
They watch satisfied the emerging civil war in the Strip that Israel foments and encourages. The responsibility of ending the fighting lies of course with the Palestinian groups themselves, but U.S. and Israeli interference, the continued imprisonment, the starvation and strangulation of the Strip all make such an internal peace process very difficult.
Cutting Israel’s Oxygen
What unfolds in Gaza is a battleground between America’s and Israel’s local proxies most unintentional but who dance to Israel’s tune nonetheless — and those who oppose their plans. The opposition that took over Gaza did it in a way that one finds very hard to condone or cheer.
Once fighting there subsides, the Israeli Summer Rains will fall down again on the people in the Strip, wreaking havoc and death. There is no other way of stopping Israel than that of boycott, divestments and sanctions. The only soft point of this killing machine is its oxygen lines to “western” civilization and public opinion. It is still possible to puncture them and make it at least more difficult for the Israelis to implement their future strategy of eliminating the Palestinian people either by cleansing them in the West Bank or genocide in the Gaza Strip.
Dr. Ilan Pappé is an Israeli historian and author of numerous books, including The Modern Middle East and The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.