London Review of Books
* 14 January 2009
In 2004, the Israeli army began building a dummy Arab city in the Negev
desert. It¹s the size of a real city, with streets (all of them given
names), mosques, public buildings and cars. Built at a cost of $45
million, this phantom city became a dummy Gaza in the winter of 2006,
after Hizbullah fought Israel to a draw in the north, so that the IDF
could prepare to fight a Œbetter war¹ against Hamas in the south.
When the Israeli Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz visited the site after
the Lebanon war, he told the press that soldiers Œwere preparing for the
scenario that will unfold in the dense neighbourhood of Gaza City¹. A week
into the bombardment of Gaza, Ehud Barak attended a rehearsal for the
ground war. Foreign television crews filmed him as he watched ground
troops conquer the dummy city, storming the empty houses and no doubt
killing the Œterrorists¹ hiding in them.
ŒGaza is the problem,¹ Levy Eshkol, then prime minister of Israel, said in
June 1967. ŒI was there in 1956 and saw venomous snakes walking in the
street. We should settle some of them in the Sinai, and hopefully the
others will immigrate.¹ Eshkol was discussing the fate of the newly
occupied territories: he and his cabinet wanted the Gaza Strip, but not
the people living in it.
Israelis often refer to Gaza as ŒMe¹arat Nachashim¹, a snake pit. Before
the first intifada, when the Strip provided Tel Aviv with people to wash
their dishes and clean their streets, Gazans were depicted more humanely.
The Œhoneymoon¹ ended during their first intifada, after a series of
incidents in which a few of these employees stabbed their employers. The
religious fervour that was said to have inspired these isolated attacks
generated a wave of Islamophobic feeling in Israel, which led to the first
enclosure of Gaza and the construction of an electric fence around it.
Even after the 1993 Oslo Accords, Gaza remained sealed off from Israel,
and was used merely as a pool of cheap labour; throughout the 1990s,
Œpeace¹ for Gaza meant its gradual transformation into a ghetto.
In 2000, Doron Almog, then the chief of the southern command, began
policing the boundaries of Gaza: ŒWe established observation points
equipped with the best technology and our troops were allowed to fire at
anyone reaching the fence at a distance of six kilometres,¹ he boasted,
suggesting that a similar policy be adopted for the West Bank. In the last
two years alone, a hundred Palestinians have been killed by soldiers
merely for getting too close to the fences. From 2000 until the current
war broke out, Israeli forces killed three thousand Palestinians (634
children among them) in Gaza.
Between 1967 and 2005, Gaza¹s land and water were plundered by Jewish
settlers in Gush Katif at the expense of the local population. The price
of peace and security for the Palestinians there was to give themselves up
to imprisonment and colonisation. Since 2000, Gazans have chosen instead
to resist in greater numbers and with greater force. It was not the kind
of resistance the West approves of: it was Islamic and military. Its
hallmark was the use of primitive Qassam rockets, which at first were
fired mainly at the settlers in Katif. The presence of the settlers,
however, made it hard for the Israeli army to retaliate with the brutality
it uses against purely Palestinian targets. So the settlers were removed,
not as part of a unilateral peace process as many argued at the time (to
the point of suggesting that Ariel Sharon be awarded the Nobel peace
prize), but rather to facilitate any subsequent military action against
the Gaza Strip and to consolidate control of the West Bank.
After the disengagement from Gaza, Hamas took over, first in democratic
elections, then in a pre-emptive coup staged to avert an American-backed
takeover by Fatah. Meanwhile, Israeli border guards continued to kill
anyone who came too close, and an economic blockade was imposed on the
Strip. Hamas retaliated by firing missiles at Sderot, giving Israel a
pretext to use its air force, artillery and gunships. Israel claimed to be
shooting at Œthe launching areas of the missiles¹, but in practice this
meant anywhere and everywhere in Gaza. The casualties were high: in 2007
alone three hundred people were killed in Gaza, dozens of them children.
Israel justifies its conduct in Gaza as a part of the fight against
terrorism, although it has itself violated every international law of war.
Palestinians, it seems, can have no place inside historical Palestine
unless they are willing to live without basic civil and human rights. They
can be either second-class citizens inside the state of Israel, or inmates
in the mega-prisons of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If they resist
they are likely to be imprisoned without trial, or killed. This is
Resistance in Palestine has always been based in villages and towns; where
else could it come from? That is why Palestinian cities, towns and
villages, dummy or real, have been depicted ever since the 1936 Arab
revolt as Œenemy bases¹ in military plans and orders. Any retaliation or
punitive action is bound to target civilians, among whom there may be a
handful of people who are involved in active resistance against Israel.
Haifa was treated as an enemy base in 1948, as was Jenin in 2002; now Beit
Hanoun, Rafah and Gaza are regarded that way. When you have the firepower,
and no moral inhibitions against massacring civilians, you get the
situation we are now witnessing in Gaza.
But it is not only in military discourse that Palestinians are
dehumanised. A similar process is at work in Jewish civil society in
Israel, and it explains the massive support there for the carnage in Gaza.
Palestinians have been so dehumanised by Israeli Jews whether
politicians, soldiers or ordinary citizens that killing them comes
naturally, as did expelling them in 1948, or imprisoning them in the
Occupied Territories. The current Western response indicates that its
political leaders fail to see the direct connection between the Zionist
dehumanisation of the Palestinians and Israel¹s barbarous policies in
Gaza. There is a grave danger that, at the conclusion of ŒOperation Cast
Lead¹, Gaza itself will resemble the ghost town in the Negev.
Ilan Pappe is chair of the history department at the University of Exeter
and co-director of the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies. The
Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine came out in 2007.