Under siege: from Leningrad to Gaza

Two strangers with very different pasts united by a common experience of siege and blockade.

Esther Rappaport
15 December 2014
gaza siege 2.jpg

Flickr/Kashfi Halford. Some rights reserved. 

We met on social media during Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer. We were both grappling with the brutality of siege, one of us amid the bombs on Gaza, the other a child of a Leningrad siege survivor. Frustrated with the intolerable and continuing violence we decided to write together about siege and its lasting legacy.

What we found was that a descendant of a city the Nazis tried to starve, and a survivor of Israel’s endless siege on Gaza, have a great deal to communicate to each other and to the world. 

At the outset, we agreed this was not a “normalization” project; we believe in an end to the occupation, the right of Palestinian refugees to return, and equality for all. In seeking an end to siege and its legacies, we were both inspired by the haunting words of Mahmoud Darwish:


In the state of siege,
Time becomes space transfixed in its eternity,
In the state of siege,
Space becomes time that has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow.

In Leningrad, one million civilians were starved to death or killed in the two-and-a-half year German siege during the second world war. Early in the siege, a fire broke out in the emergency food supply storage facilities, essentially leaving the city without food. Some resorted to eating pets and dead bodies, others scraped wallpaper off the walls to consume the potato starch glue that had some nutrients. The dead were buried in mass graves, the lucky ones smuggled out to safety.  

It was tragedies like this that prompted the negotiation of the Geneva Conventions, which Israel is a party to. Although international law does not prohibit siege amid armed conflict, it does categorically reject collective punishment. The siege on Gaza has been recognized as collective punishment, and declared illegal by The International Committee of the Red Cross and countless others. Since events like Leningrad prompted the negotiation of the conventions, for us, the failure to implement them in Gaza is tragic.

In taking the lessons of Leningrad, we must recognize in Gaza today that much of the day-to-day trauma for besieged Russians in 1941-4 lives on as we write. Just like then, we see today that under a siege, life is reduced to existence or survival. Economic development and trade are stifled, and residents are forced to rely on humanitarian aid. Culture stagnates as few have the resources or mental space for anything beyond the mundane. 

Perhaps it is because sieges rely on mental, physical, and emotional deprivation that it remains difficult to understand what daily life is like closed in from all sides. Although many journalists report from Gaza, they tend to focus on political issues while aid organizations typically report on only the most urgent humanitarian concerns. The struggle to convey the reality of daily life is part of the siege, and is part of what makes siege possible. 

What is happening in Gaza is multigenerational trauma. Not only have generations now lived through successive attacks and years of siege, but the trauma will continue for years to come, like it has for the families that survived Leningrad. In the years after WWII, Leningrad survivors worked to have their tragedy recognized, its lessons taken up. In 2009, the Jewish survivors of the Leningrad siege were recognized by Germany as Holocaust survivors and received financial compensation. To say it again: siege was part of the Holocaust. 

leningrad parade.jpg

Onlookers at a parade in St. Petersburg commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Leningrad with Soviet-era war posters in the background. Demotix/Yury Goldenshtein. All rights reserved. 

The Nazis tried to starve Leningrad instead of attacking it directly. Israel, we feel, is doing both: killing Palestinian civilians in frequent massacres as well as slowly and collectively making life unbearable by denying the most basic needs. These years of war and aggression have affected everything–human beings, houses, infrastructure, land, trees, animals, livelihoods, hospitals, medical supplies, schools, mosques, factories, water resources and even Gaza’s only power plant.  And this is not new; the Palestinians have endured a long and ongoing history of massacre, decades of systemic ethnic cleansing, 47 years of military occupation, and apartheid policies and forced displacement since 1948. Today, 80% of the Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, who fled their villages in today’s Israel for safety. Those who fled Leningrad are survivors of the Holocaust. Those who flee Gaza are still refugees.

But it is not names and comparisons we were interested in. It is the connection between the eternity of siege, its continued and barbaric use as a military strategy, and the utter failure of the international community to uphold its own conventions written with the blood of millions. We feel that is dehumanizing to view Gazan Palestinians as miserable; they suffer enormously but also resist for dignity and justice. The Palestinian movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel provides a renewed sense of optimism and sense of power.  

The ongoing trauma of Gaza is profound and cannot be ignored. It shares this awful eternity not only with Leningrad, but also with Jerusalem, with Hebron, with the villages destroyed in 1948, with the continued exile of millions from their homes. The fight for compensation, recognition, and historical reckoning undertaken in the wake of Leningrad must also take center stage for Palestinians today.  

The full discussion between Ayah and Esther can be found at Al-Shabaka

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