Understanding Gaza

When a vast military machine is being
unleashed on a captive population
under siege, whose most militant members
are lightly armed and try to make up
in suicidal courage for what they lack in
materiel, the image most likely to spring to
mind is that of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Tony Karon
Rootless Cosmopolitan
December 31st, 2008


It’s fear of another Holocaust that has driven Israel to bomb the crap out
of the Palestinians in Gaza — at least, that’s if you believe what you read on
the New York Times op ed page. (Never a good idea, of course, because as
I’ve previously noted, when it comes to Israel and related fear-mongering,
there simply is no hysteria deemed unworthy of the Times op ed page.)

[Benny] Morris, a manic fellow at the best of times prone to intellectual mood
swings — having laid bare the ethnic cleansing that created modern Israel,
Morris then didn’t as much recant as complain that the problem was that Ben
Gurion hadn’t finished the job. And since the 2000 debacle at Camp David, of
course, he’s been a de facto editorial writer for Ehud Barak, the failed former
Prime Minister nicknamed “Mr. Zig-Zag” while in office because of his
inconsistency — and who, of course, is the author of the current operation
in Gaza.

Barak, never shy about spewing utter rubbish when his audience is American
and prone to be taken in by demagoguery, last weekend offered the priceless
suggestion to Fox News that “expecting Israel to have a cease-fire with
Hamas is like expecting you to have a cease-fire with al-Qaeda.” Presumably
it would not occur to Fox’s anchors to ask why, then, had Barak maintained
just such a cease-fire for the past six months? And why had he been seeking
its renewal?

But when it comes to demagoguery, this crowd knows no shame. Here is
Morris explaining what he wants us to believe is the current Israeli mindset:

“Many Israelis feel that the walls — and history — are closing in on
their 60-year-old state, much as they felt in early June 1967, just before
Israel launched the Six-Day War … the Egyptians had driven a United
Nations peacekeeping force from the Sinai-Israel border, had closed
the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and air traffic and had deployed
the equivalent of seven armored and infantry divisions on Israel’s
doorstep… Arab radio stations blared messages about the coming
destruction of Israel.

“Israelis, or rather, Israeli Jews, are beginning to feel much the way their
parents did in those apocalyptic days. Israel is a much more powerful
and prosperous state today. In 1967 there were only some 2 million Jews
in the country — today there are about 5.5 million — and the military
did not have nuclear weapons. But the bulk of the population looks to
the future with deep foreboding.”

This “foreboding” says Morris is based on the fact that the Arab world has
never truly accepted the legitimacy of Israel’s creation (well, duh! Israel’s
creation for Arabs is inextricably linked to the ethnic cleansing of 700,000
Palestinian Arab refugees from its territory; a process well documented by
Morris himself) and continue to oppose its existence. (The fact that the
Arab world has offered a comprehensive recognition and normalization of
relations with Israel in exchange for it retreating to its 1967 borders seems
to have passed the historian Morris by.)

Then, he says , there’s the fact that “public opinion in the West (and in
democracies, governments can’t be far behind) is gradually reducing its
support for Israel as the West looks askance at the Jewish state’s treatment
of its Palestinian neighbors and wards. The Holocaust is increasingly
becoming a faint and ineffectual memory and the Arab states are increasingly
powerful and assertive.”

Well, actually, as Avrum Burg has said so eloquently in his new book The
Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise from its Ashes
, it is precisely because of
the Holocaust experience and the universal message of “Never Again” that
the West today is engaged with human rights abuses everywhere, no matter
who the victim and perpetrator — even when the perpetrators are Jewish.
Again, though, the idea that Israel is being isolated in the West would seem
preposterous to any objective observer; and the idea that the Holocaust is
being forgotten even more so. (Clearly, historian Morris pays no attention to
the Academy Awards.) This sort of silliness makes you wonder if anyone
actually edits the NYT’s op ed page. How can any editor even vaguely
grounded in reality allow a sentence to pass that says “the Arab states are
increasingly powerful and assertive.” Any examples you can provide to back
this outlandish claim, Benny? Would the op ed page editors even think to
ask? Benny Morris may be like your hysterical uncle making up his own
facts to support unsustainable arguments, but he’s hardly the first to have
done so on the NYT op ed page in the past year alone.

A little reality isn’t going to slow down Morris’ train of hysteria — Iran’s
nuclear program and Ahmadinejad’s bluster about Israel disappearing “has
Israel’s political and military leaders on tenterhooks,” he proclaims. Oh
yeah? How come whenever they’re behind closed doors and not talking to
gullible Americans, they let on that they know that even a nuclear-armed
Iran represents no “existential threat” to Israel? If Israelis are on tenterhooks,
it’s not the political and military leadership who understand the realities;
it’s the public that has listened to its political leaders spin up an endless
torrent of baseless hysteria about Iran under the absurd rubric of “1938 all
over again”.

Morris’s menaces extend to Hizballah in the north with its rockets — which
only seem to be fired on Israel when Lebanon is under attack by the Israelis
— and then there is Hamas, armed to the teeth with rockets and ready to
fight until every inch of Palestine “is under Islamic rule and law.” (Actually,
Hamas has not even imposed Shariah law in that tiny patch of Palestine —
Gaza — that it currently controls, so it seems to be making a poor start.)

You’d think that the 100-1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli casualties of the
first four days of the Gaza offensive would give the lie to the idea that Israel
is threatened with annihilation by Hamas and its rockets.

And then there’s the “internal” menace, Israel’s Arab population, which
identifies more with the Palestinians, which they essentially are, than with
the Jewish population of a state that offers them a second-class citizenship.
(Go figure, eh?) Morris concludes by warning that Israel is feeling closed
in by these intolerable menaces, and that the Gaza bloodbath won’t be the
last time it lashes out. Sounds ominously like a threat of new ethnic
cleansing, actually. (Actually, the “internal” menace that Morris doesn’t
mention is the fact that growing numbers of young Israelis don’t live
in Morris’s echo chamber of existential threats everywhere they look; they’re
evading military service in record numbers and are, increasingly, moving
abroad, having seen through the fiction that the whole world is a cesspool
of virulent antisemitism.)

Essentially, Morris would have us excuse the bloodbath in Gaza in light of
the specter of a new Holocaust. That’s a little deranged, actually. Cynically
wielding the Holocaust as a cudgel to intimidate critics into silence, as Burg
points out in his book, is a well established trope of Israeli p.r. But when
a vast military machine is being unleashed on a captive population under
siege, whose most militant members are lightly armed and try to make up in
suicidal courage for what they lack in materiel, the image most likely to
spring to mind is that of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Robert Fisk, in his own analysis, does something rarely found in the columns
of U.S. news outlets: He reminds us who the Gazans are:

How easy it is to snap off the history of the Palestinians, to delete the
narrative of their tragedy, to avoid a grotesque irony about Gaza which
– in any other conflict – journalists would be writing about in their
first reports: that the original, legal owners of the Israeli land on which
Hamas rockets are detonating live in Gaza.

That is why Gaza exists: because the Palestinians who lived in Ashkelon
and the fields around it – Askalaan in Arabic – were dispossessed from
their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the
beaches of Gaza. They – or their children and grandchildren and great-
grandchildren – are among the one and a half million Palestinian
refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80 per cent of whose
families once lived in what is now Israel. This, historically, is the real
story: most of the people of Gaza don’t come from Gaza.

But watching the news shows, you’d think that history began yesterday,
that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped
up in the slums of Gaza – a rubbish dump of destitute people of no
origin – and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel,
only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force.
The fact that the five sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents
who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now
bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story.

Now, when it comes to understanding and responding to the crisis, we have
the comments made by President-elect Barack Obama last July in Sderot,
which were widely quote in response to the weekend’s strikes: “If somebody
was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night,
I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect
Israelis to do the same thing.”

I suppose the question I’d like to ask Obama, in the very Jewish tradition
of asking how I would experience that which I was about to do to another, is
what he would do if someone had moved his grandparents out of their home
and forced them into a refugee camp, where he and his daughters lived,
caged in, and were now being slowly choked of any meaningful livelihood,
denied access to medicines, elecricity, even basic foodstuffs sometimes.
What, I wonder would he do then? (He needs to have a meaningful answer
to that question if he’s to be anything other than an obstacle to progress
in the Middle East, like Bush has been. He may want to take a lesson from
“Mr. Zig-Zag” here: On the election campaign trail in 1999, Ehud Barak was
asked what he’d have done if he’d been born Palestinian, and answered
without hesitation, “Joined a fighting organization.” A moment of rare
honesty, that.)

It will be up to Obama, more than any other world leader, to change the
morbid dynamic between Israel and the Palestinians — because it is a U.S.-
authored conceptual approach that undergirds the current travesty in Gaza.
I wrote in the National last weekend, Israel’s attack on Gaza was closely
paralleled with the murder in Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold:

It’s not that Israel wanted to attack Gaza; it would have us believe it had
no choice.

Like the Vicario brothers in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterful novel
Chronicle of a Death Foretold – who believed they were honour-bound
to kill Santiago Nasar for sleeping with their sister, and told anyone
who would listen of their intention in the unspoken hope that someone
would stop them – Israel, too, had been yelling from the rooftops its
intention to strike Gaza.

…Just as in the Marquez novel, what propelled the Gaza tragedy
forward to its bloody conclusion was that neither the Israelis nor anyone
they told of their plan were willing to confront the absurdity of the
‘rules’ that made them believe they were obliged to spill blood. Israel
claimed that it had no choice but to launch a military campaign that has
begun with air strikes but will probably escalate to some form of
ground invasion.

The context of the renewed rocket launching, of course, was the
breakdown of the ceasefire brokered by Egypt between Israel and
Hamas in June, which expired last week. Israel set off the latest upsurge
in rocket attacks by launching raids on Nov 5 which it said were
necessary to stop Palestinians tunnelling under the boundary fence.
But the ceasefire has not really worked for Hamas, because it had
expected that in exchange for holding its fire, not only would Israel
reciprocate but it would also begin to ease the crippling economic siege,
the objective of which was the overthrow of the Hamas government.
Israel insists that wasn’t what it agreed, saying it had offered only
“calm for calm” – and that the same offer was still on the table.

But why would Hamas settle for a cease-fire that removed the threat of
Israeli bombs, but did nothing to relax Israel’s chokehold on its economy?

…Israel has painted itself into a strategic corner – with the enthusiastic
support of the Bush administration – by continuing its quest to reverse
the choice of the Palestinian electorate in 2006. Even some in the Israeli
security establishment recognise that the fundamental flaw in Israel’s
policy over Gaza is its refusal to recognise political reality. “The state
of Israel must understand that Hamas rule in Gaza is a fact, and it is
with that government that we must reach a situation of calm,” Shmuel
Zakai, former chief of the Israeli military’s Gaza division, told Israel
Army Radio last week. Israel’s error, he said, was in failing to improve
the economic situation in Gaza once the truce took hold, and instead
maintaining a chokehold that worsened the situation.

…The US-Israeli strategy on Hamas in Gaza has been a spectacular
failure because it is fatally flawed (by its inability to relinquish the goal
of reversing the results of the 2006 Palestinian election by anti-
democratic means). So when, in the coming days, you hear Israeli
leaders claiming they “had no choice” but to go to war in Gaza,
remember the Vicario brothers of Gabriel Garcia’s novel, who also
believed they had no choice. And also remember that Marquez, in his
book, blamed the whole town and its anachronistic codes for failing
to stop a tragedy that unfolded in slow motion and in plain sight.

Many Israelis are questioning the old fictions about military action being
able to solve Israel’s problems. The ever-excellent Tom Segev offers the

Israel is striking at the Palestinians to “teach them a lesson.” That is a
basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its
inception: We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment,
sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive,
violent rabble, ignorant children who must be educated and taught
wisdom – via, of course, the carrot-and-stick method, just as the drover
does with his donkey.

The bombing of Gaza is also supposed to “liquidate the Hamas regime,”
in line with another assumption that has accompanied the Zionist
movement since its inception: that it is possible to impose a “moderate”
leadership on the Palestinians, one that will abandon their national

As a corollary, Israel has also always believed that causing suffering to
Palestinian civilians would make them rebel against their national
leaders. This assumption has proven wrong over and over.

All of Israel’s wars have been based on yet another assumption that has
been with us from the start: that we are only defending ourselves.
“Half a million Israelis are under fire,” screamed the banner headline of
Sunday’s Yedioth Ahronoth – just as if the Gaza Strip had not been
subjected to a lengthy siege that destroyed an entire generation’s
chances of living lives worth living.

It is admittedly impossible to live with daily missile fire, even if
virtually no place in the world today enjoys a situation of zero terror.
But Hamas is not a terrorist organization holding Gaza residents
hostage: It is a religious nationalist movement, and a majority of Gaza
residents believe in its path. One can certainly attack it, and with
Knesset elections in the offing, this attack might even produce some
kind of cease-fire. But there is another historical truth worth recalling in
this context: Since the dawn of the Zionist presence in the Land of
Israel, no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the

Indeed, soon enough, this bloody mess will end in another cease-fire, having
hardly changed the political equation in Gaza at all — much to the chagrin
of the Bush Administration, the Israeli government and the regimes in Cairo
and Ramallah who are quietly cheering Israel’s assault in the hope that it
fatally weakens Hamas. That cease-fire will end rocket fire on Israel, but will
also likely require the opening of the border crossings into Gaza. If so,
that’s an outcome that could have been achieved without the killing of close
to 400 people. And my money says that this cynical show of force by
Barak and Tzipi Livni won’t even stop Bibi Netanyahu from winning Israel’s
February election. The killing in Gaza, in other words, even by the most
cynical measure, has been utterly senseless.

Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME who also maintains his own website,
Rootless Cosmopolitan, where he comments on everything from geopolitical
conflict to Jewish identity issues. “Rootless Cosmopolitan” was Stalin’s
euphemistic pejorative for “Jew” during his anti-Semitic purges of the late
1940s, but Karon, who grew up in South Africa and whose family roots lie in
Eastern Europe, and before that France, takes the term as a badge of honor.
Karon was a teenage activist in the left-Zionist Habonim movement before
finding his way into the big tent of the anti-apartheid liberation struggle,
an experience that prompted him to re-imagine what it meant to be a Jew
in the world.