(This article originally appeared in The Rice Standard on August 6, 2014. Reprinted with the author’s permission.)
I sit on my bed, cradling my head in disbelief. It’s 5:30 pm: I’ve just arrived home from work and opened my laptop to check the news.
On the screen in front of me, the Washington Post headline spells out in elegant letters:
“Attack near U.N. shelter leaves 10 dead as Israel pulls most ground troops from Gaza.”
Dozens of headlines this month have left me to marvel at the US media’s indifference toward Palestinian lives — but few as much as this one. Can we even begin to imagine a world where the Washington Post would publish a headline as ludicrous and insensitive as “Attack near Tel Aviv shelter leaves 10 dead as Hamas pulls most ground troops from Israel”? It is almost as though these ten living, breathing individuals were only debris, the last pieces of litter Israel discarded on the floor before packing up its bags and heading home for the night.
To comprehend such a headline in reverse, we would have to first imagine a universe in which Hamas had ever stationed ground troops in Israel. Or to take that analogy further, a universe in which Hamas had ever occupied Israeli land, or bulldozed Israeli homes, or bombed Israeli cities en masse from warships and fighter jets. (All of which Israel has regularly done to Palestinians, none of which Palestinians have ever done to Israel). But all of this is beside the point: a comparable incident has not occurred on Israeli soil for years.
On the other hand, bombings of hospitals, ambulances, schools and civilian shelters in Gaza have been regular, everyday occurrences. According to the Euro-Mid Observer for the Human Rights, in just the first three weeks of the invasion, the IDF severely damaged or destroyed 21 hospitals, 167 schools, 9528 homes, 108 mosques, 1 church, 5 of Gaza’s 8 universities, and the only power plant in Gaza. In total at least 1865 Palestinians have been killed, an estimated 85% of them civilians.
In Israel this month, 6 homes were damaged by Hamas rockets: 5 lightly, 1 heavily. No religious buildings, hospitals, schools, universities, or electrical/power infrastructure were significantly damaged. Of the 67 Israelis who have been killed this month, 64 were IDF soldiers operating in combat zones on the border of Gaza or within Gaza itself. Inside Israeli territory, there have been 3 casualties.
Israel’s primary if not sole defense for this enormous disparity in the death tolls is the “human shields” argument: that Hamas is launching its rockets and positioning its members from within civilian infrastructure. Yet the evidence for this claim is maddeningly thin. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have previously documented how Israel’s human shield accusation is largely unfounded, both in regards to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Independent, reporting from Gaza this month, reached a similar conclusion about this summer’s invasion. Jeremy Bowen, BBC’s Middle East editor, found “no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.” On the contrary, he observed that vast numbers of people were “fleeing different neighborhoods,” with “no evidence that Hamas had compelled them to stay.” While Hamas members have at times gone on television or radio to encourage Gazans to stay in their homes, hardly anyone in Gaza appears to have listened: almost all Palestinians have fled to wherever they can: schools, shelters, hospitals, all of which were supposedly safe havens from the attacks, all of which Israel has consistently viewed as legitimate targets without needing to provide any evidence of Hamas activity. UN official Jens Laerke wasn’t exaggerating when she said there was “literally no safe place for civilians” in Gaza.
There were in fact three schools in which UN officials discovered rockets. But even in these cases, which represent just 2% of the 167 schools that were targeted, does the mere presence of weaponry justify a massive bombing that will guarantee the deaths of dozens of women, children and babies? United Nations officials own and operate the school grounds; even if rockets had been secretly placed there, they would not have been launched from those buildings. More importantly, to focus heavily on these few incidents is to downplay or ignore the fact that the vast majority of attacks on hospitals, schools, shelters and ambulances have been unconnected to any Hamas military activity.
There is plenty more that has gone virtually unreported. The New York Times, for example, reports the number of rockets launched by Hamas and the number of targets hit by Israel. Just glancing at these figures, we get the idea that both sides are being equally aggressive: about 3,000 Hamas rockets launched, about 3,000 Israeli targets hit. But these two figures are measuring totally different things. When you change the graphic so that you’re measuring the same thing on either side, the Israeli figure to soars to 60,000 rockets, missiles and bombs. The Hamas tally, on the other hand, remains at 2,909 rockets, 0 bombs and 0 missiles.
Let’s not be naive: if Hamas had even 5% of Israel’s weapons capability, they’d be launching bombs and missiles back just as fiercely. But that is not the reality of this conflict, it never has been, and it never will be, so to dwell on hypothetical scenarios rather than the status quo seems both pointless and counterintuitive.
Also unreported in the West, Hamas has offered Israel a ten year truce throughout this entire invasion with the only significant demand being an end to the economic blockade on Gaza. Seriously, take a look at the ten demands they’ve made and see if there is even one item that appears unreasonable. Each and every point is simply asking that Israel comply with international law. In fact, just weeks before this invasion began, Hamas and Fatah had finally agreed to form a unified Palestinian government – which would have adopted a policy of non-violence, recognition of the State of Israel, and adherence to past agreements. The United Nations enthusiastically welcomed this government, but as with any agreement in which Palestinians have a real chance of forming a state, Israel unilaterally rejected the proposal.
None of this is to excuse Hamas for their virulent anti-Semitism and religious fundamentalism, both of which are central aspects to their ideology. It is to dispel the myth that they are unwilling to compromise for the sake of peace. While Hamas has used extremist, frightening language in the past to characterize its struggle against Israel, Israeli politicians have often been just as extreme in their rhetoric. The fanaticism is especially common among right wingers, such as congresswoman Ayelet Shaked, who earlier this month called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers that give birth to “little snakes,” and suggested they follow their dead sons to hell. This kind of speech is not just confined to the far right, however: last weekend Moshe Feiglin, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset (Israel’s Congress) called for concentration camps in Gaza and the shipment of all their peoples across the world, such that Gaza could be destroyed and rebuilt as Jaffa, a booming, bustling Israeli city and port. Feiglin is not a fringe personality; he is Speaker of the House, the Israeli equivalent of Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner, and a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party.
Let’s think back. What started this month’s conflict? The kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers. Without a shred of evidence, Israel accused Hamas for this crime and launched Operation Protective Edge. Mickey Rosenfeld, spokesman for the Israeli Police Foreign Press, confirmed to journalist Jon Donnison that this kidnapping was not carried out by Hamas, but by “a lone cell that operated without the complicity of Hamas’ leadership”. Rosenfeld later denied that he made this statement to Donnison, but Donnison swore to its validity. Is everyone getting this? The accusation used to justify this whole invasion was likely illegitimate.
If the kidnappings weren’t the reason for the invasion, what was this really about? Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has said the conflict will not stop “until we achieve the objective of returning security to the citizens of Israel.”
If this is what it’s all about, Mr. Netanyahu, I will venture to ask the question that no one in the New York Times or CNN or the US government appears comfortable bringing up: What exactly will it take for take for Israelis to feel secure? If a unified Palestinian government that commits to non-violence and recognizes Israel’s existence was not enough, what is it going it take? Are the 1865 massacred bodies of children, women and men in Gaza not enough? Does every remaining acre need to be bombarded by air strikes before Israelis feel safe? Does every Palestinian in Gaza and West Bank need to pack up and move somewhere else before Israelis can sleep comfortably? Does every village, every olive tree, every sky need to be occupied, bulldozed and painted with Palestinian blood before Israelis can finally feel “secure”, secure because there is no longer a Gaza, no longer a West Bank, no longer a Palestine, only an Israel? Every bombing campaign, every settlement building, every diplomatic move in the last five decades has suggested that is exactly what it will take, in the eyes of the Israeli government, for Israel to finally feel “secure”. In Netanyahu’s own words, “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”
But there’s so much else happening in the world. Look at Syria, look at Sudan. Why are we just focusing on Gaza? This argument, which I wholeheartedly agree and sympathize with, is nonetheless usually raised not out of pure humanitarian concern, but as an unspoken tactic to shift the topic at hand such that any real discussion on this issue can be postponed indefinitely, and that any responsibility on Israel’s part can be evaded. Yes, hundreds are being massacred in Iraq. Yes, tens of thousands are dying in Syria. Yes, hundreds of thousands are starving in North Korea. Should the UN and international community be doing all we can to put a stop to these horrors? Absolutely. Yet none of that changes or detracts from the gravity and desperation of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. We should always try to broaden our conscious efforts to as many issues as we can — I say this as someone who has relatives in Syria that are presently in danger — but we should not use other tragedies as an excuse for dispelling, downplaying, or ignoring another issue, Israel-Palestine or otherwise.
Let us therefore, momentarily, turn back to Gaza, where 1.8 million people are blockaded by land, air and sea, hemmed in by the rubble of their homes and the dead corpses of their relatives, penned in behind a barrier twice as high as the Berlin Wall, with nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. A United Nations report last year estimated that Gaza would be an unlivable place by 2020; it appears their ominous prediction has arrived six years early.
This is where we must depart from a narrow focus on this month’s invasion and begin to investigate the broader history of this conflict: the colonization and occupation of Palestinian land, the strategies of both armed and unarmed resistance, and the series of events that created the reality of this astonishing map. Reading over the UN’s report, one is struck by the urgency of this catastrophic situation, and by the near certainty that unless the siege on Gaza is lifted, unless the settlements in the West Bank stop, unless the world takes a firm stance against Israel’s actions, the situation will soon worsen beyond any point of repair. As citizens of the United States, whose government does far more than any other country in the world to fund and support Israeli policies, we are more empowered than anyone else to learn about this issue, to speak out, and to do however much we can to put a stop to this injustice.