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"The Ordeals of Gaza"

Lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London 

Israeli military spokesmen, justifying their army's assault on the Gaza Strip, said the war was about Sderot. In a way, they were right. It is about Sderot. In 1948, where Sderot houses Israeli Jews today, there was a village called Najd - Arabic for a high plateau. It was home to about seven hundred people, most of them small farmers. Two days before the declaration of the State of Israel - that is, on May 13th - Haganah forces expelled the inhabitants.

Eventually, these people - as the Egyptian Army that invaded Palestine a few days later gradually lost ground to the new Israeli Army - found refuge in the Gaza Strip.

In 1949, Israel defined its first borders through a series of truce accords with its neighbours. To Egypt, it offered to absorb the Gaza Strip into Israel. At the time, Israeli leaders were under the impression that there were about 100,000 Palestinian Arab refugees in Gaza. I quote now from an excellent book, 1949: The First Israelis (Henry Holt, NY, 1986), by the Israeli historian Tom Segev:

Moshe Sharett told the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Knesset that the government hoped to obtain "considerable advantages" from the annexation of the Strip, such as the additional territory, the removal of the Egyptian presence from Israel's border to the other side of the Sinai desert, and the elimination of the possibility that the Strip would be annexed by Jordan, or anyone else. When the government had agreed to annex it, it figured that the Strip's total population numbered no more than 180,000; later it turned out the figure was 310,000, 230,000 of whom were refugees. At that point Sharett suggested that there should be no more talk about the Gaza Strip. (page 30)

There remained the problem of the refugees. United Nations resolutions specified that all of the 750,000 Palestinian Arabs driven from their homes in 1947 and 1948 be permitted to return. However, Israel had not expelled them in order to allow them back.

The Middle East Department of Israel's new foreign ministry made clear what fate was intended for them. Again, I quote from Tom Segev's 1949:

The department staff estimated that the refugees would "manage." As they put it, "the most adaptable and best survivors would manage by a process of natural selection, and the others will waste away. Some will die but most will turn into human debris and social outcasts and probably join the poorest classes in the Arab countries." Ben-Gurion informed the Minister for Immigration, Moshe Shapira, that the "Government line is that they may not return. That was in April 1949. (page 30)

Although Moshe Sharett, who later became prime minister, had decreed there be no more talk about Gaza in 1949, there has been nothing but talk and bloodshed around the Strip ever since. Israel conquered it in 1956. But there was no longer a question of annexing the Strip. Israel merely kept it under military occupation, thus denying its refugees any chance of returning to their homes on the other side of the Gaza line. By now, anyway, their villages had been demolished or filled with Israeli settlers.

Najd became Sderot in 1951. Another settlement called Or -ha-Ner went up on lands owned by Najd's farmers in 1957, as Israel was reluctantly - under a diktat from American President Dwight Eisenhower - withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in March.

Ten years later, Israel invaded again. If I may, I'm going to quote now from my own book, The Tribes Triumphant, a summary of what happened next.

In 1967, Palestinian boys found small arms that the Egyptian army had, in its retreat, abandoned. They attacked Israel's occupying forces. Their resistance, small and disorganized, proved futile. Israel dispatched General Ariel Sharon, who in August 1953 had assaulted Gaza's Al Bureij refugee camp to quell the rebellion. In 1971, Sharon leveled large sections of Gaza's refugee camps. His forces built detention centers in the Sinai Desert for 12,000 Palestinians accused of resistance that Sharon called terrorism. In Gaza, Sharon perfected the methods of control that he would employ as prime minister thirty years alter: house demolitions, sniping of demonstrators, curfews, closures of villages and refugee camps, shooting armed men and unarmed bystanders alike, arresting and torturing thousands of young men. In Gaza, it worked, With the Palestinian population cowed, the Israeli army seized patches of land. Colonists fenced off the best beaches and orchards in the Strip and built houses. Israel took Gaza's electricity company and gave it to a private Israeli company.

Gaza was quiet for a time, and its workers were allowed to take jobs in Israel. But settlers took their land as they did lands in the West Bank, and the Palestinians rose up - in a more or less non-lethal protest called the intifadah in the late 1980s. During that time, Israel reacted harshly to stop peaceful demonstrations, to force people not to withhold their taxes and to shoot youngsters throwing rocks. Dr. Eyad Sarraj told me that the repression was so widespread then that no less than 55 per cent of the children in Gaza saw their fathers physically beaten by Israeli soldiers. Think of the impact on a child. Those children are now in their twenties and thirties, and they are trying to protect their children.

In The Tribes Triumphant, I wrote about the children of Gaza when I was there in 2002:

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Israel finally closed its Gaza settlements and withdrew its army to the borders of the Strip. Gaza was still a prison, but the guards were all now outside the walls making sure no one came in or out. We know the recent history - the election of a Hamas government, the Israeli siege of the strip, the ceasefire that Israel violated in November by murdering six Hamas militants, the Hamas reaction in the form of Qassem rockets towards Sderot - where some of them or their families had been born before 1948 - and Israel's invasion on December 27. Two hundred people were killed in the first half hour, and more than a thousand died before Israel declared its victory. Henry Siegman, who is a visiting professor here at SOAS, wrote in the London Review of Books, "It cannot be said that Israel launched its assault to protect its citizens from rockets. It did so to protect its right to continue the strangulation of Gaza."

This invasion had been planned in coordination with the United States for at least six months. Britain was not exactly out of the loop. Private Eye of January 22nd reported:

While foreign secretary David Millband called for an 'immediate ceasefire' in Gaza and Gordon Brown stressed the need to 'stop the supply of arms' to Hamas, the Foreign Office has been licensing increasing arms sales to Israel.

These include just the kind of kit the Israeli air force needs for its bombardment of the Palestinians: compoonents for combat aircraft and military aero engines, as well as parts for Israeli pilots' 'helmet-mounted display equipment.'

According to the latest Foreign Office figures, Britain exported £18,847,795-worth of weapons to Israel in the first three months of 2008. This was a sharp increase compared to the £7.5m worth of weapons sales to Israel in the whole of 2007.

Of course, the United States increased its military shipments to Israel to meet the impending demand on a larger scale than Britain did - so much so that Noam Chomsky, among others, wrote of "the latest US-Israeli assault on helpless Palestinians." Chomsky wrote on January 19th,

... on December 31, while terrorized Gazans were desperately seeking shelter from the ruthless assault, Washington hired a German merchant ship to transport from Greece to Israel a huge shipment, 3,000 tons, of unidentified "ammunition." The new shipment "follows the hiring of a commercial ship to carry a much larger consignment of ordnance in December from the United States to Israel ahead of the air strikes on the Gaza Strip," Reuters reported. All of this is separate from the more than $21 billion in U.S. military aid provided by the Bush administration to Israel, almost all grants. (See Noam Chomsky, "'Exterminate the Brutes',: Gaza 2009," 19 January 2009.)

We have witnessed other "US-Israeli assaults on helpless Palestinians" - the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when Palestinians and Lebanese were the victims and the world was outraged not only by the war itself - that killed at least 30,000 people, but by the savage massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps that followed. A window opened at the time - for activists as for journalists. It became possible to report on what Israel was doing to people under its occupation, but the activism died down, the journalism reverted to its usual, safe, mundane accounts of beleaguered Israeli soldiers amid the confusion of Oriental intrigue and terrorism. We saw it again in the summer of 2006, when the Israeli air force and army devastated Lebanon. Again, good reporting broke onto the front pages - mainly because the events could not be easily disguised. And the public clamour for a ceasefire - despite the American and British resistance to asking Israel to observe one - finally had some results. But, once again, attention waned. Things went back to normal - that is, the US taxpayer subsidising the colonisation of the West Bank and granting new and better weapons to the occupier - while the western press portrayed an incomprehensible conflict between equal adversaries.

This time, journalists must not stop driving home the effects of occupation on the occupied, the hypocrisy of demanding democracy from the occupied Palestinians while rejecting their choice of leaders and the urgent need to end this conflict once and for all. And activists should not go home - not until the political path opens on a full withdrawal from the occupied territories. Palestinian independence is all that will lead to peaceful relations between Palestinians and Israelis. The people of Najd may not be able to go home, but they are entitled to govern themselves in Gaza, to recognition of their lost rights and to compensation.

What can we do about it? So far, supporters of justice around the world have marched, protested, spoken out, circulated petitions and lobbied their governments to take action to stop the siege and the attacks on Gaza. We must listen to those who, like the brave Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, have declared publicly that their family members who were murdered by the Nazis must never again be used as an excuse to kill more innocent people in Palestine.

There is a new administration in Washington. It must be lobbied from home and abroad to make any change in American policy a response to public demand. The new president brought up the example of his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who told a delegation of African American civil rights proponents that he agreed with their demands. But now, he said, you have to make me do it. Now, it is up to us to make the new incumbent of the White House support a policy to end the Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. That is the programme around which supporters of justice in Palestine and Israel have coalesced. That is an achievable policy, and many Israelis know that only pressure from America - and our pressure on American officials - can bring that about. As the past sixty years have demonstrated, change in Israel will not come from within.


© Charles Glass 2009





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