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Unsilencing Gaza: One year since ‘Operation Protective Edge’

By Refaat Alareer and Laila El-Haddad

This essay is the Introduction to Gaza Unsilenced, an anthology co-edited by Refaat Alareer and Laila El-Haddad and published by Just World Books to mark the anniversary of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. The essay is reproduced here by permission of Just World Books to whom requests for further republication should be addressed.

Gaza Unsilenced was launched July 8. Copies of the book can be ordered at justworldbooks.com/gaza-unsilenced.

On July 7, 2014, Israel launched a colossal ground, air, and naval assault on the Gaza Strip, the tiny Palestinian coastal enclave Israel controls. This was the third, and to date the worst, such assault waged by Israel against Gaza since 2008. It was an outrageous act of premeditated aggression to which the Israeli government gave the Orwellian name “Operation Protective Edge.”

In the course of fifty-one dark days, nearly 2,200 Palestinians were killed; about a quarter of them were children, many of whom were deliberately targeted. [1] One hundred and forty-two families lost three or more members. About 11,000 Gaza Palestinians were injured, maimed, or permanently disfigured. Israeli bombardment destroyed or severely damaged 18,000 housing units, displacing nearly 20,000 Palestinian families comprised of about 108,000 men, women, and children. It also flattened about 17,000 hectares of crops, and decimated the agricultural infrastructure that sustains life: irrigations systems, animal farms, and greenhouses. [2]

This relentless pummeling was directed at a population still recovering from the two preceding Israeli attacks—Operation “Cast Lead” in 2008–2009, and Operation “Pillar of Cloud” in 2012—and reeling from an illegal and debilitating seven-year-long siege and blockade that shattered livelihoods and deliberately impoverished the residents (“put them on a diet,” in Israeli parlance [3]). Seventy-two percent of Gaza’s residents were described by UN bodies as food insecure or vulnerable—that is, lacking access to sufficient and nutritious food to feed their families—and nearly half unemployed. [4] This same population, along with their brethren in the rest of Palestine and abroad in diaspora, had already endured sixty-six years of displacement and dispossession, almost a half century of Israeli military occupation involving continuing settler colonialism, and decades of closures and movement restrictions.

And yet, if we are to believe the popular discourse in the mainstream Western media, Gaza “had it coming,” and by some perverse and morally vacuous logic, its residents “were to blame” for their own suffering. How do we make sense of all of this? Why would Israel see fit to pound Gaza over and over again, and more to the point, how can they get away with it? How can we truly understand the situation in Gaza, as a means to understanding the situation in Palestine more broadly? How can we understand a place that is encircled from every angle, continuously and systematically assailed to rally voters (in Israel), or to “teach a lesson,” or, in another obscene Israeli expression, to “mow the lawn” [5]—to trim those unruly, defiant hedges? Whenever Gaza is hit, it is thrust anew into the media limelight, and its residents are recast into the double roles of both victim and villain. Gaza, we fear, has been reduced to an allegory and an abstraction. We are inundated with figures and numbers attempting to depict for us what life is like in this tiniest of places. How can words convey that which numbers and images and characters and online posts cannot, no matter how valiantly? How do you provide an accurate and humanistic—a real narration—of the Palestinian story that is Gaza?

In Gaza Unsilenced, we attempt to do just this. We set out to compile a compelling collection of some of the best writing, photography, tweets, art, and poems from that harrowing time and the year that followed, to depict as truthfully and inclusively as possible what was done to Gaza, what the impact has been on both the people and the land, and how they are coping under a still existent siege.

As Palestinians from Gaza who were watching the horror unfold from abroad, we were driven by a sense of urgency, despair, and obligation to curate and edit this book, to be a conduit for voices writing from and about Gaza, as a means for changing the narrative and thereby changing public opinions, which we hope can help push the long-standing U.S. policy of blind alliance with Israel in a different direction, and ultimately, let Gaza live.

Laila, an author, activist and mother of three, originally from Gaza City, was in the United States during the assault, where she makes her home along with her Palestinian husband, who is forbidden from returning to his native land, as are millions of other refugees. Refaat, a professor of English literature, was in the middle of his PhD program in Malaysia, where he had been obliged to travel alone because the remainder of his family was unable to leave Gaza as a result of its near hermetic closure. We first met during an early 2014 book tour of the United States for Gaza Writes Back, a volume of short stories written by Refaat’s students in Gaza.

Besides being native Gazans, we both had another stake in this latest assault. Refaat had a deeply personal loss: his younger brother, Mohammed Alareer, 31, was killed by an Israeli missile in the presumed safety of his own home, leaving behind two young children and a wife. In his life, Mohammed was known as a loveable and somewhat mischievous character Karkour on the local television children’s program Tomorrow’s Pioneers. Refaat writes a deeply moving account of his relationship, and his brother’s untimely death, in the first chapter of this book (“The Story of My Brother, Martyr Mohammed Alareer”). Refaat lost four other distant relatives (three of whom were shot at short range) and eight in-laws, and dozens of his relatives lost their houses in the battered neighborhood of Shija’ia. Laila, whose aunts and uncles reside in Gaza, learned that nine members of her extended family, including five children, had been killed in a targeted Israeli strike—on the same morning in early August 2014 on which she was scheduled to participate in a Congressional briefing. Laila’s relatives were asleep inside their home when the first warning missile hit, killing half the family. They were given eight seconds to leave the house. The rest only made it as far as the outside of their house before they too were mown down.

Despite our personal losses in this ongoing ethnocide, we have been careful to avoid portraying Palestinians in Gaza as passive victims to be pitied, starving, impoverished, silenced into submission. It is our way of opening up the conversation about Gaza, of countering an Israeli narrative that has proven deadly in its ability to justify atrocities like that committed in the summer of 2014, over and over again, and of providing a forum for Gaza to speak, unsilenced and without obstruction.

Many of the pieces are new to this volume, submitted in response to a call for content, while others have been previously published on blogs and in e-zines, newspapers, and social media outlets. (For space considerations, we had to omit hyperlinks in content that was originally published online.)

Where possible, we have included photography, graphic art, and writings by Palestinians from Gaza itself—people like Dr. Belal Dabour, whose live-tweets from inside Gaza’s busiest hospital kept us awake at night, or 36-year-old mother Ghadeer al Omari (“My Son Asks if We Are Going to Die Today”), who soberly concludes, “To be a Palestinian from Gaza means that you are just a postponed target, and all you can do is wait to face your destiny.”

The pieces we chose deconstruct the pretexts, the untruths, used to justify this unspeakable attack. We sought to highlight Palestinian voices, whether from within the confines of Gaza or outside of it, in historic Palestine or in diaspora. We wanted to look at not only the human and institutional impact of the attacks themselves, but also the context, the bigger picture, especially as it relates to the remainder of the Palestinian people. Gaza is just a part of the Palestinian equation, after all. We also sought to explore how Palestinians and other people of conscience responded, whether by digital and creative means or by way of analysis, and finally, to look carefully at the aftermath of the 2014 military attack, as the slow asphyxiation of Gaza by other means continues to this day. We felt it vital to explore not only the immediate impact of the Israeli assault, but to go in depth and analyze the effects of the siege and blockade beyond 2014 and continuing with no end in sight, as part of an overarching and systematic Israeli policy to strip Palestinians of freedoms, livelihoods, and land.

A Brief History

Sometimes referred to as the world’s largest open air prison, a modern Warsaw ghetto, or other depictions that attempt to convey the cruel reality that this small corner of the world, our home, has become by design, Gaza is a very tiny place. It has a population of just over 1.8 million that is growing at a rate of three percent yearly, the thirteenth highest growth rate in the world. Its land mass is roughly that of the city of Philadelphia’s, a third of New York City, with a population density equal to that of Boston. It is a place where every space and plane is surveilled, occupied, and surrounded, where Israel’s ever-buzzing drones have become a disquieting, omnipresent fixture of the likewise besieged sky. It is a place defined by political paradoxes and subject to hegemonic hypocrisy—a place where your freedom to travel, to learn, to farm, to fish, to marry, to live, to build, or to simply be are controlled by an outside power, who nevertheless claims to have relinquished that control.

The modern-day Gaza Strip was carved out of a much larger British administrative swathe known as the Gaza District, which was connected without interruption to the rest of historic Palestine, and which was approximately three and a half times the size of the modern day Gaza Strip. As part of the Egyptian-Israeli Armistice Agreement of 1949, Gaza’s borders were redrawn to suit its eventual occupier’s colonial objectives, and its inhabitants—along with the hundreds of thousands who fled there for safety from invading Zionist militias in 1948—were sealed in and prevented from returning to their homes and their land, which in many cases were only a few miles away. This influx of refugees from other parts of Palestine tripled Gaza’s population overnight.

For the next 19 years, Gaza remained under Egyptian administrative rule and control. During this period, the newly established state of Israel attacked Gaza ruthlessly and repeatedly, under the guise of preventing “infiltrators” from crossing the border (Palestinians attempting to return to their homes or reclaim their property), especially under the direction of a young Ariel Sharon and his infamous Unit 101. Between 1956 and 1957, Israel briefly occupied Gaza and summarily executed more than a thousand Palestinian men and women, an event that Laila’s mother, Maii El-Farra, who was 11 years old at the time, recalls vividly. [6] In the early 1970s, Sharon, by then chief of the Israeli military’s Southern Command, hit Gaza hard in an attempt to crush the resistance in its refugee camps, bulldozing large blocks of entire neighborhoods to make way for army vehicles and deter future resistance, and burying alive many suspected fighters in the process.

In 1967, Israel invaded and formally occupied the entire Gaza Strip, along with the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. Since then, Palestine has been suffocating under a brutally oppressive occupation. Palestinians have continually paid heavy price for refusing to succumb to an alien invasion. Tens of thousands of houses have been destroyed, almost a million trees have been uprooted, and close to a million Palestinians have spent time in Israeli military prisons.

Now, 48 years later, Gaza is bordered by an inaccessible Mediterranean to its west, by a hostile Egypt on its south, and is hemmed in on its north and east by an impermeable Israeli buffer zone, whose construction began in 1996—in the immediate aftermath, ironically enough, of the so-called Oslo “Peace Accords.” During the following years, Israel fortified this buffer zone with high-tech sniper towers, sometimes equipped with robotically controlled machine guns, and more often with Israeli soldiers under vague “open fire” and “shoot to kill” orders. [7] As for those refugees from 1948, who currently make up 75 percent of the population of Gaza—they are still prevented from exercising their right, as spelled out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to return to their homes and their lands.

This was the historical backdrop of the events that unfolded in the summer of 2014. What of the more immediate context? What actions preceded “Protective Edge,” and more to the point, what is the context that is so sorely lacking in this discussion?

Prelude and Context

Few Westerners may have recalled, in the heat of last summer’s Gaza onslaught, the shooting deaths of two Palestinian boys in Beitunia on May 15, 2014, outside of Israel’s Ofer prison. Nadim Nuwara (17) and Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh Salameh (Abu Thaher, 17) were participating in Nakba Day protests, in remembrance of 66 years of forced expulsion from their homes. The demonstration they took part in also coincided with solidarity protests for hunger-striking Palestinians being held on administrative detention in Ofer. (The strike would go on for two months, believed to be the longest mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons.) Israeli authorities, as per their standard operating procedure, were quick to absolve themselves of responsibility for the two teens’ deaths, going so far as to claim that reports of their killings were fabricated, though video footage clearly showed how they were killed. [8] As Mouin Rabbani notes in his “Institutionalised Disregard for Palestinian Life,” included in this anthology, the killings, “like any number of incidents in the intervening month where Israel exercised its right to colonize and dispossess—are considered wholly insignificant.” [9]

As far as Israel was concerned, it was the disappearance of three Israeli teens on June 12 that required a massive military response irrespective of the identity of the perpetrators. The subsequent “bring back our boys campaign” was a propagandized, hate-fueled effort that led to the mass incarceration of more than 600 Palestinians in the West Bank, to the largest military campaign there in more than a decade, and later to the massive assault on Gaza known as “Protective Edge.” This despite the fact that, as it later emerged, the Israeli authorities knew from shortly after the disappearance of the three Israeli youths that they were already dead and that the action against them had not, as Israeli leaders claimed, been a directive issued by the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. But regardless of the facts, the standard “Western” narrative of that summer’s events went something like this: Hamas kidnaps three Israeli teens; teens found murdered; Gaza is bombed.

In the weeks preceding the war, however, five more Palestinians were shot to death. A sixth victim, 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khudair, was kidnapped and burned to death by Jewish vigilantes, shortly after Netanyahu’s infamous “vengeance for the blood of 3 pure youths” tweet. (His cousin Tarek, a U.S. citizen who was visiting for the summer, was brutally beaten by Jewish thugs in an incident that generated no discernible outrage from U.S. elected officials.) As far as Palestinians were concerned, the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers was simply the latest pretext used by a lawless Israeli government to “mow the grass” in Gaza and pummel its population (and beyond Gaza, the entire Palestinian population) into submission.

So why attack Gaza, then? Officially, Israel stated its desire for deterrence and security. A more immediate target identified by some was the desire to disrupt the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks, and to render Gaza a “docile ghetto,” [10] in the words of Rashid Khalidi. More bluntly, Israel continuously pummels Gaza just to show they can; to put Gaza and its people in their place; and to send a stark reminder to other Palestinians of the fate they may suffer if they choose not be willing parties in their own imprisonment and dispossession.

It bears remembering, too, that Israeli aggression against Palestinians, and in particular Israel’s violations of the 2012 truce with Palestinian factions in Gaza, were constant and continuous, though they went largely unreported by the Western media. An objective reading of the period prior to the 2014 offensive reveals hundreds of Israeli violations of the 2012 truce, ranging from shootings of farmers, to attacks on fishermen, to actual armed incursions into the Gaza Strip.

According to a study conducted by Yousef Munayyer in early 2014, “Israeli cease-fire violations have been persistent throughout and have routinely resulted in Palestinian injuries and deaths. Palestinian launches have been rare and sporadic and occurred almost always after successive instances of Israeli cease-fire violations.” [11] Munayyer traced and documented more than 100 Israeli violations that preceded the 2014 offensive. [12]

British journalist Ben White has noted that in most of the Western media “a period of calm” is “exclusively defined in terms of attacks on Israelis. ‘Calm’ from this perspective means security for Israelis—but more dead and injured Palestinians.” [13]

Misrepresentations by Western media, and Israeli misinformation and the “self-defense” pretext it uses thus continue to be major reasons why many in the West are uninformed or ill-informed about the situation in occupied Palestine. Indeed, the mainstream media in the West is complicit in the war crimes committed by Israel as its writers and editorialists continue to provide the cover and the excuses for Israel as it goes on with its brutality and human rights violations.

The Human Toll

We frequently hear Gaza explained in the context of numbers: this many dead, and that many living, in this large of an area. But what does it really mean when children are deliberately targeted while running for cover, or when entire families are wiped out as they sit for their evening Ramadan meal, or when the only survivors are too young to tell you who they are? When there are so many dead and so little electricity that little bodies are piled into ice cream trucks instead of morgues? When children under six years old have witnessed three separate assaults in their still extremely vulnerable young lives? How can we reconcile these scenes with the impenitent statements of Israeli talking heads about self-defense?

Laila’s aunt, Dr. Mona El-Farra, a physician and human rights activist who was working shifts at a clinic in Gaza City during the assault, has talked in a poignant matter-of-fact way about two such child survivors, whom she had happened upon. The realization dawned on her only gradually that she was treating unidentified children who had lost their entire families. One story stood out in particular—that of unnamed child “Number 6”:

He was around three years old and had identifying stickers on his arms saying “Unknown” and “Number 6.” I was shocked and immediately asked the nurses and ambulance drivers what his name was. They said no one knew, they’d found him in a mass of destroyed houses and he seemed to be the only surviving member of his family. “Doesn’t anyone remember where his house was?” I asked. They said that where they had found him, all the buildings had been destroyed and were mixed up with each other, and sometimes children were blasted from one place to another. So they didn’t know where he had been living exactly.

And then I realized that he was Number 6, and that means there were five other unidentified children before him—and probably many more children after him.

I stopped asking questions because I needed to get on with my work. [14]

By some estimates, Israel’s use of firepower on Gaza by land, sea, and air during Operation “Protective Edge” was equivalent to the atomic bomb used in Hiroshima. Concretely, some 23,400 tank shells, 20,400 artillery shells, and 2.9 million bullets, or “almost two bullets for every man, woman, and child in Gaza,” [15] were emptied out into Gaza and its people. These tank and artillery shells were no crudely made rockets. They were state-of-the-art, sophisticated ordnance, whose purpose is not to protect, but to maim and kill, especially considering they were being launched into densely populated areas.

According to a report from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), during the 51 days of aggression, the Israeli occupation annihilated not only thousands of lives, but entire sectors of Gaza’s economic and social life. Twenty-eight hospitals and clinics were destroyed, along with 141 schools, scores of places of worship, and 60,000 homes. “Protective Edge” also inflicted billions of dollars worth of damage on vital civilian infrastructure such as water, sanitation, roads, electricity, and telecommunication. [16]

It is difficult to grasp what the fallout from all this means as Gaza struggles to rebuild: farmers without farms, students without classrooms, workers with no factories, fathers without jobs, children without parents, parents without children. An entire population was left reeling from severe trauma and a still unrelenting siege.

A War of Words

Gaza is a place drowning in euphemisms and the intentional semantic legerdemain that Israel uses to obscure its real intentions. Accompanying every attack, Israel rolls out a carefully considered operational name to evoke relief and comfort, even invoking the Bible: Operation Rainbow in 2004, Summer Rains in 2005, Autumn Clouds in 2006, Cast Lead in 2008, Pillar of Cloud in 2012. Spin-doctors are employed to sell these attacks to the international media in order to sustain them for as long as possible and to make them sound the only reasonable option at the disposable of a restrained and reluctant Israel.

There is no shortage of hasbarists (propagandists) and Israel apologists who invest time and money into defending the indefensible, ready to spring into action as soon as the first bombs fall. [17] Various branches of the Israeli government and military have their own interactive media teams, along with professional graphic designers, attempting to persuade audiences abroad of the righteousness of the campaign.

But imposing Israel’s voice and narrative—or always finding an excuse for whatever crimes the Israeli occupation perpetrates—is not their only mission. They also work to smother and delegitimize the voices of the indigenous Palestinians. As the Palestinian political anthropologist Irene Calis explains:

The dehumanization of native populations within a supremacist social order is not in itself sufficient to maintain an apartheid and settler-colonial regime. Such a regime also involves their criminalization for simply existing—for continuing to be present in the coveted land. This means that resistance, in any form, to the status quo is treated as a criminal offence. [18]

Israel has cultivated myths and narratives that dominate the mainstream of Western discourse, while simultaneously devaluing and delegitimizing those of the indigenous inhabitants it has for so long repressed.

The aim of Israel’s propaganda is to dehumanize the Palestinians and to render their very existence questionable at best, easily disposable at worst, employing ethnocentric and outright racist tropes to make their point—some specific to this particular assault, and others recycled, employed equally against whichever Palestinian party happens to be in power. This was a defensive war, we were told. No country would tolerate rockets raining down on its citizens, we kept hearing. “We were aiming to destroy tunnels…. We do so in a way that minimizes civilian causalities, while our enemies take no such precaution…. They would kill more if they could; it’s not for lack of trying…. We love our children; they use theirs as human shields. But we want a better future for everyone. Their children are victims of terrorist rulers. They store weapons in schools, or under schools, or near schools, and hospitals, and places of worship! Civilian casualties are unavoidable, but it’s not our fault; it’s theirs. We allow them access to our hospitals. We offer them peace, but we have no partner for peace….”

One notable example of a prominent American journalist buying Israel’s line hook, line, and sinker was that of Diane Sawyer, who commented to her viewers in early July 2014, that what they were seeing on some shocking video footage showing badly pulverized homes and their distressed residents was “an Israeli family trying to salvage what they can” after “rockets rain[ed] down on Israel today as Israel tried to shoot them out of the sky.” But the footage was not of Israelis or even Israel, but of the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, and a Palestinian family gathering belongings in the smoking debris of a missile-hit home. [19] She later apologized to viewers for the mistake—but the broader message of “vulnerable, beleaguered Israelis reeling from lethal Palestinian rockets” probably lingered. (During the 51 days of war, the Palestinian factions’ generally primitive rockets caused only very limited damage to Israeli civilian structures—the degree of damage to Israeli military targets was subject to strict Israeli censorship and was never reported in the media. Six civilians died in Israel during the fighting, along with 67 members of the IDF. [20])

The Jewish-American scholar-activist Norman Finkelstein has written, “What renders Israel’s abuses unique throughout the world is the relentless effort to justify that which cannot be justified.” [21] We would add that it is the impunity that Israel enjoys in the West and the receptivity there to its propaganda that render Israel unique—not the fact of its propagandizing alone, since all who commit atrocities anywhere in the world are always at pains to justify them.

The Digital Battlefield

The assault of 2014 was arguably the first large-scale Israeli atrocity to unfold live on our timelines and social media feeds. During Operation Cast Lead of 2008–2009, Israel had at times imposed a complete media and telecommunications blackout of Gaza, but this was not the case during the 2014 attack.

Many have argued that social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, was an equalizer for Palestinians, accomplishing just that, leveling out the imbalance of power, and turning traditional media hierarchy on its head—or at the very least, that it provided the besieged with alternative tools of creative resistance with which to counter Israel’s bloody and fully funded offensive. On Twitter alone, for example, the hashtag #Gazaunderattack was used more than four million times in the first two weeks of the assault.

Israel, for its part, was funding digital war rooms—recruiting supporters to take to the internet and troll tweets, Facebook posts, and the like, and posting its own cartoonish propaganda graphics. Celebrities ranging from professional basketball player Dwight Howard to actress Selena Gomez and singer Rihanna and even boyband sensation Zayn Malik joined in the sometimes raucous social-media discussions—and were often quickly chastised by Israel, speedily recanting their support for Palestinians or else forced to do damage control by restricting their tweeting to something “less controversial.” [22]

Within minutes of posting #FreePalestine on his Twitter account, Dwight Howard deleted the post, replacing it instead with one that read: “previous tweet was a mistake. I have never commented on international politics and never will.” (The Nation magazine sports editor Dave Zirin later opined that we should thank Howard for exposing “how Palestinian people are imprisoned not only by walls, barbed wire, and checkpoints but also by Western hypocrisy” and that “acknowledging the humanity of the Palestinian people comes with a price.” [23])

And sometimes, as in the case of Palestinian-American professor of native studies Steven Salaita, that price is your job. Salaita’s previous promise of a tenured position at the University of Illinois was rescinded after he posted a series of tweets decrying Israeli actions in Gaza, some of them featured in this book. After Salaita started posting his tweets, a student and former intern with the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) started a petition accusing him of anti-Semitism, hate speech, and “lack of civility.” Salaita countered that his tweets were “pulled out of a much larger history of tweeting and general political commentary that indicates quite strongly and clearly that I’m deeply opposed to all forms of bigotry and racism including anti-Semitism.” [24]

But with information at the speed of a tweet comes, too, the risk of creating caricatured reductionist representations of Palestinians: victims to be pitied, heroes to be idolized, numbers to be quantified, but never quite real human beings with the entirety of emotions and behaviors that might involve.

This book’s contributions reveal the profundity of both Palestinian culture and Palestinian voices in their insistence on life and defense of their rights to live a decent life. It is an attempt to give faces to those rendered faceless and reduced to mere numbers. It also presents other Palestinian voices or voices inspired by the steadfastness of Palestinians.

Gaza and the Palestinian Condition

There will be those who ask, Why care about Gaza? There are surely more catastrophic conflicts, after all, hungrier tummies, more desperate citizens, higher fatalities, crueler means of extermination, all vying for our divided and beleaguered attentions and increasingly desensitized consciousness—not only in the rest of Palestine but in the entire region. So why is Gaza so special?

The late great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish famously said of Gaza, that it “equals the history of an entire homeland.” If one wants to understand the Palestinian condition, the thinking goes, and Israel’s long-term strategies and visions, then look no further than Gaza.

Israel’s continuous aggression, siege, and violations of all basic human rights as well as its occupation of Palestinian land, sea, and airspace and theft of natural resources continue to be the root cause of all the trouble in occupied Palestine. Israel’s continued presence as an occupying power deprives Palestinians of their freedoms.

In this sense, writes Palestinian historian Sherene Seikaly, scenes of devastation from Israel’s summer assault in Gaza “do not belong to this time or this place alone. They are instances in what is now a century-long confrontation with colonialism. They are part of an archive that is the Palestinian condition. In the immediate present, to live in Gaza is to live in perpetual search for refuge,” [25] where there is no refuge to be found.

Gaza has been subject to some form of closure since the implementation of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, [26] when Israeli authorities cancelled the exit permit that allowed Palestinians in Gaza to travel freely to the rest of occupied Palestine. The siege, in its more current manifestation, is simply the “culmination of a process that began twenty years ago,” according to Sari Bashi, the former director of the Israeli human-rights group GISHA. [27]

In 2005, Israel unilaterally dismantled its settlements and military infrastructure from within Gaza and relocated them to the occupied West Bank and to the borders of Gaza respectively, in a move described by the advisor to then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as “formaldehyde” intended to freeze the broader diplomatic process “indefinitely.” [28] But it was not a withdrawal, nor was it by any stretch of the imagination (including the legal one) an “end to occupation.” All of Gaza’s effective markers of sovereignty—the benchmarks of a cessation of occupation [29]—remained under Israeli control: borders, airspace, maritime access, control of the West Bank, which together with Gaza, constitute a single territorial unit, and even the population registry and the taxation system.

Immediately after the Disengagement, Gaza was sealed for months on end, resulting in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis unseen in all of Gaza’s then 38 years of occupation, [30] leading then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to observe that many Palestinians were being “deprived of basic human needs.” [31]

It was the placement of what would become an ever-tightening noose around Gaza, intended to choke it of its livelihood and render it forever dependent on the powers that would continue to control it from afar. The blockade of Gaza intensified even further after the elections of Hamas’s Change and Reform party in 2006 and their subsequent consolidation of power in 2007, after their defeat of CIA-funded Fatah militias led by strongman Mohammad Dahlan aimed at toppling them.

Regardless, the blockade served no real security purpose, but was rather a very calculated tool of collective punishment. GISHA reports again: “Beginning in September 2007, Israel openly stated that it would restrict the movement of goods into and out of Gaza not in order to protect against security threats stemming from the transfer, but rather as part of a policy to apply ‘pressure’ or ‘sanctions’….” [32]

The goals of the current and continuing siege on Gaza according to a high-ranking Israeli government official in the Netanyahu government, are “no development, no prosperity, no humanitarian crisis.” [33] In other words, to prevent prosperity and development by targeting the bedrock of a self-sufficient and productive economy, while preventing an all-out media outcry. In line with this calculated policy, it should come as no surprise that Israel has systematically targeted Gaza’s productive sector, specifically its institutions, agricultural, and water systems and other infrastructure. [34] Twenty percent of the animal population—some 15,000 animals—were killed in the attacks, and half of Gaza’s poultry perished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. [35]

And yet, despite all this, we seldom hear of world leaders or media citing the Palestinian need for security or the Palestinian right of self-defense. Who, after all, would tolerate thousands of tons of bombs raining down on them—not once, or twice, but three separate times within five years? Who would tolerate a siege so asphyxiating, so enduring, that it has created a situation, to quote the United Nations, of “fishing without water, farming without land”? Where young people are categorically banned from traveling to purse their higher educations? Where your freedom to live and love and prosper as a family is, too, interrupted?

In the words of Palestinian-American academic Rashid Khalidi, whose “Collective Punishment in Gaza” we include in the concluding chapter of this book:

“The pretexts change: they elected Hamas; they refused to be docile; they refused to recognize Israel; they fired rockets; they built tunnels to circumvent the siege; and on and on. But each pretext is a red herring, because the truth of ghettos…is that, eventually, the ghetto will fight back.” [36]

Holding Israel Accountable

Today, Gaza is back to the untenable status quo. The challenge of writing this book alone speaks volumes about that status quo: one of us, Laila El-Haddad, is based in the United States, and is unable to return to Gaza, though she possesses a Gaza residency identity card, or hawiya; when she does travel, her husband, a Palestinian with refugee status who is denied his right to return to his own native land by Israel, cannot travel with her. The other, Refaat Alareer, returned to Gaza shortly after the end of “Protective Edge”—but he has been unable to leave Gaza to resume his studies in Malaysia. Thusly, the fragmentation of the Palestinian people continues to be actively enforced by Israel. It took months of coordinating over Skype during three-hour windows of electricity due to rotating power outages there, for us to pull this book together. Between January 1 and June 3, 2015, Gaza’s Rafah Crossing into Egypt has been open only five days, and only a select few of the roughly 60,000 travelers waiting to leave or enter Gaza have been allowed to pass through.

As for reconstruction efforts, only a fraction of the $3.5 billion in aid pledged to “rebuild” Gaza in the fall of 2014 has actually materialized. And what little cement has made it through is unaffordable to the vast majority of the population dependent on aid handouts. Oxfam International, which blamed Israeli restrictions on imports of construction materials into the Gaza Strip, lamented that around 100,000 people are still homeless after the 2014 summer assault. Oxfam has warned that it could take 100 years to rebuild Gaza and that “only an end to the blockade of Gaza will ensure that people can rebuild their lives.” Nearly a year after the Gaza onslaught, the UN reports, “not a single totally destroyed home has been rebuilt.” [37]

But the question we should all be asking is what good will it do to rebuild the laboratory, the holding pen, the ghetto that has become Gaza, if the overriding cause of its suffering, and the power structures that keep this misery in play, are not put in check? Should we not, then, work together to end injustice, oppression, and occupation in Palestine? Certainly that would contribute to peace throughout the whole Middle East.

By now, it should be clear that this story is not simply the story of a 51-day attack. Nor is it one about 2,200 people killed during the attack. It is not even a story of an Orwellian world where war is peace and victims are villains. It’s a story of what happens when, despite the ability to do so, powerful nations choose to remain silent or, worse, are complicit through financing the crimes being committed in the name of their taxpayers.

Gaza is the example, and continues to be the example, time and again, for what happens when we fail to hold our leaders accountable for their actions and complicity. It is the story of steadfastness and resilience, of decades-long dispossession and an insistence on surviving and existing with dignity despite calculated efforts to rid Palestinians of their humanity and existence. And if we aren’t moved to act in solidarity, or at the very least, speak out, then we have lost everything.

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© 2015 Just World Books

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