by Robin D. G. Kelley, August 8, 2014
“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians” –Nelson Mandela
Israel’s illegal, genocidal war on the people of Gaza has the characteristics of a massive tsunami.
Waged with even greater ferocity than Operation Cast Lead or any other assault since the Nakba of 1948 or the 1967 War, its destructive impact may even be worse. Masked as a war of “self-defense,” the euphemistically-named “Operation Protective Edge” is state violence at warp speed; it is completely indiscriminate yet calculated in its targeting of children and adult civilians, hospitals, schools, shelters, markets, and neighborhoods. So massive the onslaught, so swift the reports on social media, that my twitter feed resembles a ticker-tape machine. No one can write or speak fast enough to keep up with the body count.
As I write now, the Palestinian dead is inching toward the 2,000 mark, the injured close to 10,000; a quarter of Gaza’s population is displaced; about 10,000 homes were destroyed—including 141 schools; entire neighborhoods have been razed to the ground; morgues are filled to capacity as dead bodies lay strewn in streets, under rubble or placed in vegetable refrigerators or commercial ice cream freezers. The lack of electricity, clean water, food, sanitation, medical supplies, among other things, means a variety of infectious, nutritional and water-borne diseases are imminent.
If you are reading this, you’re probably familiar with these terrifying facts.
Thanks to fearless journalists and activists by way of social media, the consequences of the war have slipped past the cordon of corporate U.S. media obliged to “balance” horrific images of dead civilians with the Orwellian propaganda of Prime Minister Netanyahu and IDF spokesman Lt. Colonel Peter Lerner, the enthusiastic cheerleading of National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and President Obama whose fidelity to Israel’s “security” manifestly overrides any expressed concerns over the slaughter of children.
However heartbroken members of the Obama administration or Congress might be over the killing of innocents, they enthusiastically backed re-arming Israel with no conditions whatsoever. Obama did not flinch when he approved an additional $225 million in “emergency aid” for Israel’s “Iron Dome.” He absolutely refuses to recognize Israel’s attacks on Gaza as a massacre, apparently missing the irony in his recent press statement justifying air strikes and dropping humanitarian aid in Iraq: “[W]hen we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
The U.S. did not act carefully or responsibly with regard to Israel. Instead, the president was an enabler. He knew full well that the attack on Gaza was not about the kidnapping of three Israeli students or the so-called terror tunnels running from the Gaza Strip into Israel. As Norman Finkelstein recently pointed out on Democracy Now!, Israel could have easily sealed off the tunnels from within their own borders without firing a shot. The war was an aggressive act of collective punishment (a blatant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention) intended to intimidate Palestinians for supporting Hamas, undermine prospects for a unity government, completely disarm the territory, and tighten its control of the occupation.
In the course of the last three weeks, I’ve encountered more and more people who only a year ago had little to say about Palestine now describing Gaza as the largest open-air prison in the world, or citing the fact that our taxes subsidize Israel’s garrison state to the tune of 6 million dollars a day, and that U.S. aid to Israel since 1949 has exceeded 121 billion dollars. They also know that the U.S. has consistently vetoed U.N. resolutions condemning Israel’s abuses of human rights. The most sophisticated readers understand that the wars in Gaza, not to mention IDF attacks and home demolitions in the West Bank, violate our own Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits the use of U.S. weapons and military aid against civilians, particularly in occupied territories.
The growing number of “heartbroken” Americans among us are beginning to read Ma’an News, The Electronic Intifada, Mondoweiss, Jadaliyya, Counterpunch, The Middle East Monitor, The Link, download reports from the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), listen to Democracy Now!, follow the tweets of Gaza journalists such as Mohammed Omer, or simply take notice of the steadfast activism of Jewish Voice for Peace, International Solidarity Movement (Palestine), Students for Justice in Palestine, Codepink, U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, USACBI, to name but a few. The latest carnage in Gaza is the turning point, we are told; the age-old knee-jerk charges of anti-Semitism no longer work to stifle criticism of Israel. (Though apparently no one has told the Congressional Black Caucus—with the possible exception of Keith Ellison—or so-called African American leaders or their self-appointed punditocracy, whose cowardly silence on Palestine has become commonplace.)
And best of all, fewer critics are framing Palestinian oppression in terms of alleged ancient Jewish-Arab hostilities or even an Israeli-Palestinian “conflict,” but rather as a colonial occupation and violation of international law and human rights, subsidized by the United States.
Besides the news that Spain had imposed an arms embargo on Israel, and Latin American nations have severed diplomatic ties in response to the attack on Gaza, the increase in Americans critical of Israel may be the only silver lining in this horrific episode. And still, I worry. We’ve been here before. During Operation Cast Lead when Israeli forces were shelling hospitals, mosques, schools, businesses, infrastructure, and U.N. facilities, and children were blown to bits, the world—including many Americans—were rightfully outraged.
When the smoke cleared, 1,419 Palestinians were dead (82.2% civilians), at least 5,300 were injured, and large swaths of Gaza lay in near ruins. Protests swelled, petitions circulated, and poets turned despair into resistance. The Goldstone Report appeared soon thereafter, exposing a litany of war crimes and violations of international law and human rights. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights filed 490 separate criminal complaints to Israeli authorities on behalf of 1,046 victims demanding prosecution and redress for what were clearly documented war crimes, but these were ignored. Instead, the Israeli military conducted its own internal investigation, exonerating itself: “[T]hroughout the fighting in Gaza, the IDF operated in accordance with international law.
The IDF maintained a high professional and moral level while facing an enemy that aimed to terrorize Israeli civilians whilst taking cover amidst uninvolved civilians in the Gaza strip and using them as human shields.” Eventually mass indignation receded, leaving only the die-hard activists and the Palestinian people as a whole faced with the prospect of dying a slow death under occupation and systematic strangulation.
Action in support of Gaza, and Palestine more generally, tends to rise in proportion to spectacular violence. The IDF attack on the Gaza flotilla in 2010—the infamous assault on the MV Marvi Marmara—generated a surge of international condemnation. Two years later, when Israeli air strikes resumed under “Operation Returning Echo,” protests broke out everywhere fearing a repeat of 2008-2009. The latest criminal war on Gaza has thus far produced the most casualties, the most material damage, and the greatest moral outrage. Images of infant corpses, young men succumbing to sniper bullets, and entire families being pulled from the rubble generate feelings of anger and sympathy, while propaganda efforts to portray Israelis as vulnerable, terrified victims of Hamas rockets have largely backfired.
Spectacular violence in Gaza and the West Bank has certainly swelled the ranks of the BDS movement, but in the lull between well-publicized crises, the struggle for Palestinian justice tends to be difficult and isolating. Less than a year ago, the American Studies Association faced relentless attacks for passing a fairly mild resolution respecting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The backlash culminated in an open, acrimonious attack on the BDS movement by nearly every major university president across the country.
And apparently the backlash within American academe continues, as evidenced by the recent efforts by the AMCHA Initiative to fire Professor Rabab Abdulhadi (above) from her post at San Francisco State University for leading a delegation of scholars to Palestine, and the decision by University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, to fire Professor Steven Salaita for his searing critiques of Israel on twitter. And lest we forget, the defenders of Alicia Keys were declaring victory over BDS “bullies” because she decided that performing in Tel Aviv, normalizing and legitimizing the regime while it waged its own war of attrition against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, was perfectly consistent with her humanitarian aims of promoting global children’s health.
The ranks of BDS supporters continue to grow, due largely to tireless organizing and partly to Israel’s attacks on Gaza and dramatic stories of violence and dispossession in the West Bank. My point is that reacting to spectacular violence cannot sustain a movement, especially if the sole objective is the cessation of hostilities. Peace is impossible without justice.
The brilliant Egyptian writer, Adhaf Soueif, said it best in a recent editorial: “The world treated Gaza as a humanitarian case, as if what the Palestinians needed was aid. What Gaza needs is freedom.”
Freedom means much more than ending the blockade. Freedom means, at minimum, ending the occupation, dismantling apartheid, eradicating racism, and ensuring the right of Palestinians to return to their native land. These are not abstract, pie-in-the-sky demands, but constitute the necessary conditions for a Palestinian future and a stable and secure region.
As I write these words, Israel has rejected the ceasefire agreement proposed by Palestinian representatives. Not surprisingly, the U.S. and Israeli press are spinning the story as if Hamas rejected Israel’s generous terms for a ceasefire. What the Palestinians proposed is quite reasonable; they are asking for the cessation of violence, including Israeli incursions, assassinations, infiltrations; ending the siege and opening borders for the movement of people and goods; permission for Palestinian fishermen to fish; reopening of the Gaza airport and the establishment of a marine port; exonerating the West Bank protesters who were or currently are detained since June 12; and launching reconstruction efforts in Gaza headed by the national unity government with assistance from the United Nations.
Israel’s unilateral rejection opens the door for more bloodshed. Even if Israel had agreed to the terms laid out by the Palestinians, it would not end the occupation. It would have provided much needed relief to the embattled, but it would have also been something akin to a pyrrhic victory at best, a far cry from the ultimate objective: a Free Palestine. And Israel understands this, which is why its pundits, politicians, and military strategists are already preparing for the next war on Gaza.
Determining next steps requires that we go back many steps – before the siege, before the election of Hamas, before the withdrawal of Jewish settlements in Gaza, before the Oslo Accords, even before the strip came under Israeli occupation in 1967. Often described as “the largest open-air prison in the world,” Gaza is much closer to a concentration camp than a prison. And despite a rich and ancient history, its peculiar condition can be traced to the Nakba generated by Israel’s creation in 1948.
The 1.8 million currently locked inside Gaza are not there because they were charged with a crime; on the contrary, they are crime victims. Most Gazans are descendants of families driven from their homes during Israel’s colonial/territorial wars of 1948 and 1967. They have not received compensation for the unlawful seizure of their property. They are there because they were in the way of Israeli settlement policy—much like the Poles and the Czechs and the Russians and all European Jews who got in the way of German designs for lebensraum (living space). And like the victims of German aggression, Gazans are subject to bombing raids on civilians, chemical warfare, deliberate starvation and other unspeakable war crimes—and for a much longer period of time.
But unlike concentration camp inmates who resisted German occupation, Gazans who resist are not portrayed as heroes in the media or even in the most liberal, “sympathetic” accounts. Those who fire hundreds of ineffectual rockets or throw thousands of ineffectual rocks are rendered the aggressor, the source of the conflict, the terrorist.
If we recognize as the U.N. does, the illegal blockade and war on Gaza, it is not unreasonable to imagine a U.N. “peace keeping” force dispatched to suppress the violence and break the blockade. Of course, when it comes to the “defense” of Israel, law and reason yield to American power and its blind allegiance. A few rungs down the ladder of appropriate, reasonable responses are international sanctions, boycott and divestment. Yet, even some of the staunchest critics of the occupation take issue with BDS, notably the movement’s fourth demand: that Israel grants all Palestinians the right to return as stipulated by UN Resolution 194. Leftists and Progressives have largely embraced the other three demands: end the occupation and the blockade of Gaza; dismantle the apartheid wall; recognize the fundamental rights of all Palestinian-Arab/ & Bedouin citizens of Israel for full equality. But once you open a path to return, to restore stolen property, to repair nearly seventy years of dispossession, Israel as it is currently constituted is unsustainable.
I do not believe this is merely a matter of living in denial that the two-state solution is dead. It also has to do with the inability on the part of a segment of the Left to see Israel as a colonial project, specifically a settler colonial state founded on the subjugation of indigenous people (Palestinians–Muslim and Christian; Bedouin; Mizrahi Jews; and imported racialized labor) but with the backing of international law.
For one thing, part of the answer lay in the unique historical context for Israel’s founding, as well as the power of its founding myths. There is the convergence between Israel’s Zionist roots – a nationalist ideology generated partly in opposition to racist/ethnic/religious oppression, but also motivated by an imperative to bring modernization to a so-called backward Arab world—and the post-Ottoman colonial domination of the region by Britain and France. By colonial subjects I mean an indigenous people (inhabitants of the Mandate known as Palestine—Muslims, Christians, Mizrahim or Sephardic Jews) under British rule, alongside European Jewish settlers after the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Ultimately, this convergence put Jewish settlers in conflict with British imperialism.
Second, the Holocaust was critical, not just for the obvious reasons that the genocide generated global indignation and sympathy for the plight of Jews and justified Zionist arguments for a homeland, but because, as Aime Cesaire argued in Discourse on Colonialism (1950) (before Hannah Arendt), the Holocaust itself was a manifestation of colonial violence. Therefore, in 1948, Israel comes into being as a nation identified as victims of colonial/racist violence, through armed insurrection against British imperialism. It is a narrative that renders invisible the core violence of ethnic cleansing, the Nakba, resulting in the destruction of some 380 Palestinian towns and villages, producing the massive refugee population that settles in the Gaza strip.
The myth of Israel’s heroic war of liberation against the British convinced even the most anti-colonial intellectuals to link Israel’s independence with African independence and Third World liberation (and at some point, even Israel’s ruling labor party pursued alliances with newly independent African nations under the guise that they, too, were part of the non-aligned movement). This began to change in the early 1960s, when Israel had become cozy allies with apartheid South Africa under Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd–who observed in 1961, that, “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” Verwoerd was right. After the Nakba expelled about 700,000 Palestinians, Israel passed The Absentees’ Property Law (1950), effectively transferring all property owned or used by Palestinian refugees to the state, and then denied their right to return or reclaim their losses. The land grab continued after the 1967 war and military occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.
Israel’s right to exist may be inscribed in law, but it functions as a rogue state, one of the last nakedly colonial outposts operating above the protocols of international law and human rights. Its lawlessness is enabled by the United States. A complete end to the blockade is but one small step in a protracted struggle to bring Israel into compliance—and that is still not the entire task before us. Even after the bombing stops and the smoke clears, we must continue to build the BDS campaign; ramp up our opposition to racism (including the assault on African immigrants and asylum seekers in Israel); support an embattled Israeli and Palestinian Left; demand that Israel’s war crimes be prosecuted and U.S. complicity in such crimes rendered visible; fight for an arms embargo on Israel; oppose the ongoing dispossession and home demolitions in the West Bank, the use of administrative detention, jailing of minors, and political repression; and demand the right of return and for just compensation for one of the great colonial crimes of the last half century.
To fight for a truly democratic, nonracist, humane, sustainable, economically viable, safe and secure world for the people of Palestine/Israel is merely to demand what we have been struggling to achieve in this country for decades. As long as the lives of Salem Khaleel Shamaly and Eric Garner and countless others can be snuffed out by the state or vigilantes for merely being rendered a criminal threat, then none of us are really free.