By Aditya Ganapathiraju
Why are people on Gaza so unhappy? Well, if you had to live in a prison, wouldn’t you be unhappy?— Former CIA officer Robert Baer
It’s the most terrifying place I’ve ever been in… it’s a horrifyingly sad place because of the desperation and misery of the way people live. I was unprepared for camps that are much worse than anything I saw in South Africa.– Professor Edward Said 1993
They may be living but they’re not alive. – Journalist Philip Rizk
The situation on the ground in Gaza has continued to deteriorate since January. One of the most densely populated areas in the world, this small coastal strip is home to a million and a half Palestinians, many of them refugees for over 60 years. It is now the worst condition it’s been in since 1967 when the Israeli army took military control of the land.
As numerous scholars and observers have concluded, the Israeli plan for Gaza seems to be to turn it into a depoliticized humanitarian catastrophe, turning the Palestinians trapped in there “beggars who have no political identity and therefore can have no political claims.”
The Israeli assault against Gaza last winter brought this enclave to the forefront of the news cycle, only to disappear from the headlines in the weeks and months that followed. The attention of much of the world’s dominant media moved on to other issues soon after a unilateral Israeli pullout—planned precisely timed so as not to cause an unsightly distraction from the inauguration of the new American president.
The lack of prominent coverage was not because there was a lack of newsworthy events in Gaza. No, “breaking news is Gaza’s middle name,” says freelance journalist Philip Rizk. “But because this breaking news always holds the same kind of information, no one cares to report on it.”
“An Eye for an Eyelash”
Violence in the occupied territories has always been bloody but many longtime observers were shocked by the brutality of winter assault, which killed more Palestinians in the first three weeks than during the entire first Intifada, or uprising against the occupation (1987-1993), prompting the UN to label it “one of the most violent episodes in the recent history of the occupied Palestinian territory.”
The January offensive left 1,417 people dead, 1,181 of which were non-combatants (313 children and 116 women). Another 5,303 Palestinians were injured in the attacks, including 1,606 children and 828 women, many left devastated with life-altering conditions.
The attack, carefully-planned six months in advance, destroyed 60 police stations early on, obliterated 20 ambulances and 30 mosques, in addition to leaving several hospitals bombed. Some 280 schools and kindergartens were damaged, 18 of which were destroyed completely (including 8 kindergartens).
Another 6600 dunams of agricultural land, which Palestinian farmers depend on for their livelihood, were razed (1 dunam=1,000 square meters). In all, some 21,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. An estimated $1.9 billion worth of damage was inflicted, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit report.
“What we’re witnessing today is an assault, a massacre,” and “not a war whatsoever,” said Zahir Janmohamed of Amnesty International on the 15 of January, reminding an audience that this was not a conflict between two equivalent military powers but rather another bloody chapter a long history of “Israel’s colonial operations” in the occupied territories. His views were confirmed by facts on the ground, as one scholar recently observed.
The systemic and widespread destruction of both lives and infrastructure was not an unintended consequence of the offensive but rather a deliberate strategy derived from the destruction inflicted during the 2006 Lebanon conflict.
The attack followed the “Dahiya Strategy,” referring to the Beirut area that was destroyed during the attack on Lebanon in 2006. It concluded civilians must pay for their leader’s actions.
Of course if one were to conclude that Israeli civilians should pay for their leader’s actions or American civilians be held responsible for George Bush’s actions, the (muted) international response might be different.
The strategy was formalized two months before the attacks by Tel Aviv University’s Institute of National Security Studies and urged the use of “disproportionate force” ( by definition a war crime) to inflict crushing damage on “economic interests” and “centers of civilian power,” leaving the targeted society devastated and “floundering” in a long reconstruction process. (for more on the political dynamics involved and actions of Hamas and Israel before and during the attacks, see these papers).
“Behind the dry statistics lie shocking individual stories,” a group of Israeli human rights groups wrote. “Whole families were killed; parents saw their children shot before their very eyes; relatives watched their loved ones bleed to death; and entire neighborhoods were obliterated.”
The stories of those who experienced the attacks, who lost loved ones, and who continue to suffer, offer another perspective often absent here in the U.S. Some of these stories, which described the toll of war beyond numerical abstractions, trickled out in the British press, where journalists are less ideologically constrained to follow the party line, even despite the Israeli military ban on foreign journalists.
Anwar Balousha, a 40-year-old man living in Jabalyia refugee camp in northern Gaza told British reporters of his personal loss. It was around midnight when an Israeli bomb struck their refugee camp’s mosque with a blast so powerful it collapsed several neighboring buildings, including the Balousha’s home. Of his seven daughters sleeping in a single room, five were killed—buried under bricks and rubble as they slept.
"We are civilians,” Anwar said. “I don’t belong to any faction, I don’t support Fatah or Hamas, I’m just a Palestinian. They are punishing us all, civilians and militants. What is the guilt of the civilian?"
While human rights groups and other observers painstakingly extracted similar stories, the lesser-known narrative of a siege decimating Gaza’s society remained largely untold, confined to the dissident press and humanitarian groups.
Most stories usually report on the violence and bloodshed between two forces, which are often implied to be equivalent both morally and physically. The day-to-day struggles of 1.4 million Palestinians enduring and resisting a 42-year old occupation do not fit neatly into the standard narrative of events describing the Palestinian-Israeli issue. It becomes easy for many to see ordinary Palestinians as nameless and faceless creatures, characters in a story taking place in a faraway land.
Israeli violence towards Gaza did not begin on the 27th of December.
As Amnety’s Janmohamed observed, the assault included the blockade and other attacks and incursions into Gaza, all of which started well before that Saturday morning in December. The roots of the humanitarian disaster imposed by the Israeli need to be examined, he said, alluding to what one OXFAM official described as “a serious crime against humanity,” a situation where 1.5 million people “are being punished for something they haven’t done.”
[This is the first part of a series on Gaza, Part II describes life under siege]