The recent conflict in Gaza has laid bare for the world to see the sheer brutality of the Israeli state. The might of one of the world’s most advanced militaries was unleashed against an almost totally defenceless population, who had no escape route. This is the third major infliction of violence on the Gaza Strip since withdrawal of settlers in 2005 and the most costly in terms of human lives. Perhaps the most shocking thing was the almost total support for such violence throughout Israeli society.
The grip of the Israeli right on politics is deep-set, as I have argued elsewhere. But it is the increasing grip on the social mind-set which seems most worrying. Palestinians are so regularly de-humanised, so regularly equated with ‘terrorists’ or worse, that their slaughter en masse appears necessary or desirable. Today in Israel even peace demonstrations are attacked with chants of ‘Death to Arabs’ and those who oppose the violence subjected to abuse. There were reports of crowds forming on hills in Southern Israel to cheer as explosions echoed from Gaza. It is a nation and a society almost totally complicit in the violence.
It should not be forgotten why such violence was undertaken. Whilst Israeli government claims about responding to rocket attacks, tunnel activity and Hamas responsibility for kidnappings may have justified limited and proportional action, the scale of Israeli violence reveals deeper motives. Netanyahu’s government is nothing if not cynical in achieving its aims. Their reaction to the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah was telling: this was a challenge to Israeli dominance and was not to be tolerated.
As Nathan Thrall has recently argued, they soon started looking for ways to undo or undermine this agreement. The kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in June provided them their chance. Netanyahu himself almost immediately declared that ‘Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay’. This was despite tenuous evidence or credible motive for responsibility (indeed some evidence suggests that the kidnappers operated independently), but was nonetheless swiftly acted upon.
Why? The Israeli government is primarily interested in preserving the status quo: the continuation and consolidation of the occupation and the complete capitulation of the Palestinians. Hamas represents the most prominent organ of real resistance to this situation and must therefore be periodically hammered. Israel’s hierarchy illustrates this perfectly when callously describing their incursions into Gaza as ‘mowing the lawn’, though the latest round surely is surely better described as ‘scorched earth’. The human cost it entails, horrifying though it is to outsiders, is worth paying for a return to normality for Israeli society. But what will become of the Palestinian people when the missiles and artillery fire die down? A return to ‘normality’ is no great thing for this long-suffering populace.
We should not forget that the real atrocity is, and long has been, the occupation itself. In a 2001 essay, the Palestinian scholar Edward Said described the daily suffering that the occupation entails and the lack of hope foreseen for the future. It is depressingly familiar thirteen years later and is worth quoting at length:
“The stark outlines of Israel's decades-long daily pressure on a people whose main sin is that they happened to be there, in Israel's way, is staggeringly perceptible in its inhuman sadism. The fantastically cruel confinement of 1.3 million people jammed like so many human sardines into the Gaza strip, plus the nearly two million Palestinian residents of the West Bank, has no parallel in the annals of apartheid or colonialism. F-16 jets were never used to bomb South African homelands. They are used against Palestinians towns and villages. All entrances and exits to the territories are controlled by Israel… which also controls the entire water supply. Divided into… non-contiguous cantons, completely encircled and besieged by Israeli troops, punctuated by 140 settlements … with their own road network banned to ‘non-Jews,’ as Arabs are referred to, along with such unflattering epithets as thieves, snakes, cockroaches and grasshoppers, Palestinians under occupation have now been reduced to 60 percent unemployment and a poverty rate of 50 percent (half the people of Gaza and the West Bank live on less than $2 a day); they cannot travel from one place to the next; they must endure long lines at Israeli checkpoints that detain and humiliate the elderly, the sick, the student, and the cleric for hours on end; 150,000 of their olive and citrus trees have been punitively uprooted; 2,000 of their houses demolished; acres of their land either destroyed or expropriated for military settlement purposes.”
These words only begin to scratch the surface of the everyday injustice that is the greatest pain for many Palestinians. But this is only the experience of Palestinians in the West Bank. In Gaza, even before destruction was visited in the last few weeks, the Israeli blockade has maintained a human catastrophe. According to the UN Israel has “destroyed Gaza’s once dynamic private sector and pushed the majority of the population into poverty and forced reliance on international aid”. Running water, electricity and medical supplies are all very rare. For children, the socioeconomic disaster has real consequences: Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert reports a “prevalence of anaemia in children <2yrs in Gaza… at 72.8 percent, while prevalence of wasting, stunting, underweight have been documented at 34.3, 31.4, 31.45 percent respectively”.
Control over daily life is so absolute that Israeli technicians have actually been able to calculate the minimal daily calorific intake of Gaza residents, the idea being, according to former government adviser Dov Weissglass , to put them on a “diet”. Furthermore, all routes out of the Strip by land, sea and air are controlled by Israel, so there is no escape from the collective punishment. Palestinians are faced with a choice of enduring this kind of life in relative anonymity or exposing themselves to gratuitous brutality while the world pays attention but largely wrings its hands.
In Latin America, many governments have broken diplomatic relations with Israel in disgust at their ongoing oppression. In Europe and North America, however, where nations can hold much greater sway, the reaction has been minimal. Living in what Guy Debord once described as the ‘society of the spectacle’, it is much easier for us to be appalled by images of explosions, blood and death than it is by everyday suffering. With 24-hour television news, the centrality of celebrity gossip, sports and tabloid crusading, attention never focuses on a single matter for too long. Such a culture struggles to grasp the notion of a ‘slow motion catastrophe’ which has gradually worsened over years and even generations and is illustrated perfectly by the situation in Gaza.
With the latest offensive in this territory, the horror of the situation for Palestinians has, as Jon Snow has said, become one that confronts us all. As it comes to an end, will the attention of the world again drift elsewhere and let the quotidian suffering of living under occupation re-commence for the Palestinians? Or can this be a turning point, where the world sees the stark and shocking reality of the occupation and says ‘no more’?