Violent Occupation, Unreasonable Restrictions, Collective Punishment: A Reading List on the Israel–Palestine Crisis in Gaza

Continued violence and non-recognition of basic rights have marked the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. The self-governed Gaza Strip has faced “collective punishment” and “retaliation” by Israel in response to Palestinian resistance to occupation. The international community’s failure to hold Israel to account is marked by the non-recognition of the Palestinian claims to justice.

May 2021 witnessed the resurgence of violent air strikes on the Gaza Strip by Israel, resulting in deaths of Palestinians, including civilians. 

According to an EPW editorial (2021),

Even as the ceasefire has been announced on 20 May, more than 220 Palestinians, including 63 children, have lost their lives; over 1,500 of them injured in Israel’s latest round of bombing on Gaza. Palestinians elsewhere in the occupied territories of West Bank and East Jerusalem and inside Israel too are facing Israel’s increased aggression. 

What led to these strikes? The precipitating events seem have begun with the eviction of six Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem—a continuation of Israel’s long-held policy of evicting Palestinians in an attempt to maintain a demographic balance inside the occupied city and reduce its Arab population to a minority. 

The eviction at Sheikh Jarrah ordered by Israeli courts was to be a regular affair. However, this time, Palestinians scaled up their opposition by raising it at multiple levels through protests and via social media. The gathering at Al-Aqsa compound, where hundreds vowed to oppose the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, was attacked by Israeli security forces on 8 May without any provocation. Israeli forces repeated the attacks three days later, apparently to make way for Jewish right-wing celebrations of “Jerusalem Day,” a commemoration of Israel’s capture of the city in the 1967 war. The repeated attacks on Al-Aqsa created a massive outrage among the Palestinians across the occupied territories and inside Israel. Hamas’s ultimatum to Israel asking it to withdraw its security forces from Al-Aqsa or face rockets was a part of that outrage and helplessness against the aggression. Following the firing of some ineffective short-range rockets by Hamas, most of them intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anyway, Israeli bombings, mostly in civilian areas, started.

The 2021 crisis is nowhere close to a unique occurence.

It should be noted that in the last 16 years, Israel has carried out air and artillery strikes on regular basis, killing hundreds of Palestinians inside Gaza. Before the current round of strikes, Israel had carried out major attacks on the enclave in 2008 and 2014 in which more than 1,000 and 2,000 Palestinians were killed respectively.

In this reading list, we establish three truths about the Israeli aggression in Gaza. 

1. Violence Underpins the Israeli Occupation of Palestine

How did Israel’s statehood come to be in the first place? Amir Ali, drawing insights from Rashid Khalidi’s book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, explained that the “hyper-statehood” of Israel was facilitated by a diminishing British empire and an emerging American superpower. “This hyper-statehood,” wrote Ali, “existed at the expense and denial of Palestinian statehood.”

The creation of the state of Israel was hardwired into the British mandate in Palestine that lasted from 1922 to 1948 and which integrated within itself the November 1917 Balfour Declaration that in its brief, taciturn 67 words expressed a commitment to a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration did not even mention the Palestinians, referring to them as the “non-Jewish communities,” whose civil and religious rights were protected, without mentioning their political rights.

While the Israeli state was created in the aftermath of World War II, the dispossession of Palestinians on behalf of Jewish settlers had begun in the British mandate of Palestine. 

Stating categorically that “ethnic cleansing was the reality by which Israel was established,” an EPW editorial (2018) emphasised:

From its very origins, the Zionist programme was premised upon the necessity of conquest, achieved with the patronage of an imperial power. When it focused on Palestine as the site of its possible consummation, Zionism adopted a slogan that denied the existence of an entire people: “A Land without a People, for a People without a Land.”

The editorial went on to call Israel “an anachronism at the moment of its creation, the parting kick of retreating Western colonialism.”

With its denial of the very existence of Palestinians, the Israeli approach that followed since its creation was one of massive expropriation of Palestinian land, underpinned by violence and military force.

The United Nations (UN) had recommended partition of the British Palestine mandate into an independent Arab state and an independent Jewish state, the Israeli state obtained far greater territorial boundaries through the war of 1948 than it could have obtained through the UN’s partition plan. In his book review of Blaming the Victims, edited by Edward W Said and Christopher Hitchens, Achin Vanaik (1989) drew attention to a report dug out by Israeli historian Benny Morris which effectively debunked the notion that Israel did not terrorise Palestinian Arabs into leaving. 

This was a report by the intelligence branch of the Israeli defence forces titled "The Emigration of the Arabs of Palestine in the Period 1/12/1947-1/6/1948" when over 3,90,000 Palestinian refugees fled. The report makes it clear that around 70 per cent of this exodus (surely an underestimate) was accounted for by direct hostile Jewish operations (55 per cent) and by the Irgun and Stem gang (15 per cent).

The large-scale displacement of Palestinians in 1948 marked the beginning of their persecution at the hands of Israel and is remembered as the “Nakba” or catastrophe. S S Tabraz and D Sambandhan (2007) wrote:

For Palestinians, together with the memories of Jewish atrocities, “1948” means the generation of refugees—displacement of around 6,00,000 and 7,00,000 Palestinians and the ongoing national suffering and humiliation that remains its legacy. Thus the term “1948” is still known as ‘al Nakbah’ (catastrophe) and remains the basis of the national liberation movement for Palestinians for whom liberation and redemption still remain elusive.

The violent persecution of Palestinians by Israel has continued since, with the Gaza Strip, with its Palestinian majority, being a major target. In a letter of solidarity with Gaza, amid renewed aggression by Israel in 2014, Binayak Sen, Imrana Qadeer, Mohan Rao, Ramila Bisht, Sarojini N, Shaktivel Selvaraj, Vikas Bajpai et al (2014) highlighted:

History stands testimony to the bloody war games that Israel has unleashed on the Palestinian people, beginning with the cold-blooded massacre of over 5,000 people in 1956 at Khan Younis, the execution of about 35,000 prisoners of war in 1967 in total disregard to the international law, thousands of Palestinians wounded and hundreds killed in the first “Intifada” against the occupiers and many more such killings. In the war unleashed on Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009, almost a million and half tonnes of explosives were rained on that landlocked strip in which more than 1,500 Palestinians were killed, which included a large number of women and children.

Since 1967, there has been a systematic creation of “settlements” in the occupied Palestinian territories. Frederic F Clairmont (2000) noted:

At present, there are 2,00,000 fully armed ‘settlers’ on the West Bank, 1,80,000 in Jerusalem and 6,500 in Gaza, or around 3,80,000. These settlers are entrenched in more than 150 settlements. Each is an armed camp. 

2. ‘Facts on the Ground’ in Gaza are Determined by Israel

Israeli occupation forms an all-pervasive part of life for Palestinians. Drawing from her experiences at the Palestine Festival of Literature, PalFest 2010, Ritu Menon (2010) shared:

I doubt that I will ever again be able to utter that innocuous word “Occupation” with equanimity. In Palestine it hits you smack between the eyes, trips you up, ties you down. You can never get enough distance between it and yourself. It is hard, when 90% of your land is under the Israelis, and only 10% can be claimed as your own—with their permission. When the colour of your Identity Card—blue for Jerusalem, green for the West Bank, brown, for Gaza—determines your mobility within your own country, when there are 570 checkpoints controlled by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the tiny area of the West Bank.

The “facts on the ground” for Palestinians are determined by Israel, despite varying degrees of self-governance in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Cataloguing the living conditions in Gaza in the aftermath of Israeli aggression in 2014 in his review of four books relating to Gaza, Vijay Prashad (2015) wrote:

Gaza is a ruin, populated by nearly two million people. The July–August 2014 bombardment of this tiny enclave by Israel resulted in over 2,500 dead Palestinians and an infrastructure—already weak—utterly destroyed. A garrotted sliver of land that sits on the Mediterranean Sea, Gaza cannot import goods to survive, let alone to reconstruct the damage. Oxfam says that it would take over a hundred years to bring Gaza back to the conditions in June 2014 because of the ongoing Israeli siege. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an agency tasked with the provision of relief to the Palestinian refugees, complained that “people are literally sleeping amongst the rubble; children have died of hypothermia” (Gaza Situation Report 77). Pledges for relief are not delivered, and even if they would be handed over to the United Nations (UN), the Israeli embargo makes it impossible for goods to enter Gaza. Gaza, like the rest of Palestine, is condemned to purgatory.

Prashad reiterated that Israel has Gaza under siege, and no goods can enter or leave without Israeli authorisation. When the pressure on the Palestinians pushes them to resist, Israel bombs the infrastructure and residential neighbourhoods with deadly force. 

Placing the Palestinian resistance in context, Prashad highlighted Amnah Odah’s statement as quoted in Shell-Shocked: On the Ground under Israel's Gaza Assault by Mohammed Omer:

Putting Gaza on a diet of malnutrition and collective punishment, cutting off water, interfering with salaries, blocking other basic human rights and not letting basic construction supplies come through the Rafah crossing is unbearable. Of course, this is causing people to revolt and stand up for their rights.

In his review of Gaza Unsilenced edited by Refaat Alareer and Laila El-Haddad, Prashad observed the extent of human rights atrocities perpetrated by Israel with impunity:

Food rots because there is no power; bodies rot in the morgue. Gaza Unsilenced has an entire section called “Destitute by Design: Making Gaza Unlivable.” There are essays of the destruction of schools and hospitals, of the attacks on water purification plants and power plants, of the merciless erasure of Gaza’s farms and factories. The book ends with a list of the Palestinians dead. Each name comes with an age. There are too many children amongst them. Social media lights up with atrocity after atrocity. But Israel never has to stand to account.

Reviewing Gaza: A History by Jean-Pierre Filiu, Prashad reached the conclusion:

It is hard to write a history of repetition, of endless Israeli attempts to crush the Palestinian resistance in Gaza and to throttle life itself in this small piece of land. In 2004, Israel’s National Security Director (NSD), Giora Eiland said to his United States’ (US) counterparts, privately, that Gaza is a “huge concentration camp.” Can a “concentration camp” have a history or is this merely a documentary of the eternal return of suffering?

While life in Gaza has been compared to that in a “concentration camp,” the Israeli state has been characterised as an “apartheid state.”

Contending that, as with its South African apartheid counterpart, “apartheid Israel” is dependent on cheap Palestinian labour as well as mass immigration and land expropriation, Clairmont (2000) detailed the underlying thinking of the Israeli establishment with an example:

The late prime minister Shamir of the Likud party encapsulated cynically the occupier’s unmitigated racism and contempt for any law other than that of the occupier. His view was the essence of simplicity: just keep talking about negotiations but make sure that while you’re talking you grab land. “We are going to talk with the terrorists [that is the official designation for the Palestinians resisting the terrors of their oppression and expropriation] While we are talking we are going to send in the scrapers and the bulldozers on the lands we have liberated (sic). What’s more is that Palestinian labour will build those roads and settlements.”

Israel has continued to expand settlements, confiscate Palestinian land, demolish houses and inhibit free movement for Palestinians within the West Bank, and between the West Bank and Gaza.

In 2018, Israel took it one step further with its “open embrace of apartheid,” when it enacted its new “Jewish nation-state” law. An EPW editorial (2018) noted:

Israel has stirred outrage by enacting a harsh law of exclusion—called “Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people”—that aspires to shut the Palestinians out of their homeland for all of time.

3. Asymmetry of Power and Violence Underpins the ‘Peace Process’ in Gaza

There is no denying that Israel has occupied Palestinian lands with violence and that it continues to use violence as a means of oppressing Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip. Yet, much of the international discourse surrounding Israel–Palestine, led by the United States (US), is couched in terms of “violence on both sides” and “retaliation” for “terrorist activities.” In fact, Israel has, over and over again, depicted a trend of blaming Hamas’s actions for its aggression in the Gaza Strip. 

For instance, when Israel launched what it termed “Operation Protective Edge” against the Palestinian people living in the Gaza Strip in 2014, it claimed that it attacked Gaza in response to the alleged abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas. While Hamas denied the allegation, Israel saw it as a justification for its “retaliation.” Vijay Prashad (2014) explained:

The abduction and killing of the teenagers was the spur for Israel to once more launch a major assault on the Palestinians—first by the raids in the West Bank, and then by the armed action in Gaza. The sheer density of the attack on Gaza—with hundreds of tonnes of explosives dropped on the 1.8 million people who live on 365 sq km—is bewildering. It is not the first time, since Gaza is the favoured destination for Israeli aggression.

The Israeli stance has received support from the US.

The United States … has decided that Israel has the right to “respond” to Hamas— despite the evidence that it was Israel that was the one who started the fighting here, that Hamas has denied that it was involved in the abduction and killing, and that Israel has not bothered to prove any Hamas culpability. The US also stated that the Palestinians, unlike the Israelis, have no right to defend themselves. US claims that Israel has a right to defend itself are erroneous—Israel, as an occupying power over Palestinian lands, cannot claim that it has the right to self-defence under international law against those whom it has occupied.

Prashad emphasised that Israel acts against the Palestinians with impunity because it knows that it will be protected by the US. 

In the aftermath of the 2014 Gaza attacks, India, which was once a stalwart defender of the Palestinian cause, also seemed to have bought into the American–Israeli narrative when a Ministry of External Affairs statement called upon “both sides” to exercise maximum restraint.

But who are the “both sides”? There are the Israelis—as the occupying power— which has now taken to massive bombing raids on Gaza; and there are the Palestinians, among whom are a slew of militants whose resistance is hardly of the same calibre as that of the occupying power. India’s language here erases the political and military differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It fails to note that Israel is a recognised occupying power since 1967—with obligations under the Geneva Conventions that it has flouted—and that the Palestinians are a people under occupation. If this elementary political distinction is not made, it appears as if this is a conventional war in which “both sides” can be held to account and should be forced in tandem to a ceasefire.

Yet, this asymmetry of power has often gone unacknowledged even in the so-called “peace process” attempted between Israel and Palestine from time to time. Reflecting on “unequal nature” of the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, which resulted in the mutual recognition of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), S S Tabraz (2010) wrote:

Since the Palestinian recognition of Israel was not conditional on the end of occupation or their exercise of sovereign rights in the territories, Israelis, under the Oslo framework, were well within their legal right to deny Palestinian national rights and dismantle the occupation because these provisions were simply not there in the framework.

According to Tabraz, the reason why this distortion could remain hidden can be explained by the absence of one basic prerequisite—justice. The conflicting notions about justice were never reconciled in the agreements. Instead, there was a marked conviction that the question of historical justice must be avoided. Therefore, the failure of the Oslo “peace process” stems from its failure to acknowledge “the subject of historic injustice and who is its perpetrator.” In doing so, it also fails to recognise and accept the victims’ narrative, one which is already denied and delegitimised by their victimisers.

The tragic irony of the dominant discourse is not that it does not recognise Palestinians but that it punishes them when they resist the consequences of this nonrecognition. It not only puts the unequal disputants in an exceedingly unequal contest, it also puts those who support the peace process and those who oppose it in the state of mutual exclusion. 

The fundamental fiction that the Oslo Accords weave, wrote Tabraz, is a false symmetry in which the conflict is presented as an intractable struggle between two national movements with competing claims over the same piece of territory.

Another layer of asymmetry between Israel and Palestinians is the sheer disproportionate nature of the so-called “retaliation” by Israel for real and perceived acts of violence by Hamas. In the context of the 2021 air strikes by Israel in Gaza, an EPW editorial (2021) noted:

Israeli air strikes have targeted civilian residential areas and infrastructure, razing homes and hospitals alike. It has also attacked buildings that house international media organisations and COVID-19 testing laboratories. All this in the name of “fighting against terrorism” and “right to self-defence.” Anyone who has followed the trajectory of the Israel–Palestine conflict, knows that Israeli claims form a part of the larger agenda to blame Palestinians, victims of its decades-long occupation and persecution.
Israel’s claim that its air strikes inside Gaza were in retaliation to Hamas’s rockets is a classic example of how Israeli narrative devises manipulation to its defence. To state the fact, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets inside Israel. But does that justify Israel’s indiscriminate bombings of civilians inside besieged Gaza? In fact, current Israeli aggression is nothing more than yet another escalation in its decades-old policy of collective punishment of people resisting the occupation and for fighting the right to self-determination. If we forget that crucial context, we will very much miss the larger picture and end up buying the logic of an occupier.

It is worth noting that Israel’s targeting of Palestinian civilian areas is nothing new—it is part of its well-worn tactic of “collective punishment” and “retribution.” It sees such “retribution” as a presumptive right. An EPW editorial (2008) explained

In September 2007, Israel effectively went to war with 1.5 million civilians by declaring Gaza an “enemy entity”.
Israel has felt at liberty to raid Gaza at will and destroy all the apparatuses of governance in that besieged land, in retaliation for every perceived act of violence against it.

While Israel has not been able to distance itself from the reality of Palestinian civilian casualties, it has shot down attempts to bring it to account for the violence. Prasad (2015) highlighted:

A report from the Israelis on 14 June admits the “harm to the civilian population,” but then says that this was the result of “unfortunate—yet lawful—incidental effects of legitimate military action.” 

An important part of Israel’s strategy in avoiding international fallout from its treatment of Palestinians is its propaganda that effectively erases the asymmetries of power and violence between the parties.

Tabraz reiterated the ubiquity of the narratives perpetrated by Israel, with what Noam Chomsky had termed as “thought control.”

Noam Chomsky (1986) describes it as a system of “thought control” in one of his seminal assessments of Arab-Israeli peace process during the mid-1980s. Taking into account important terms like the “peace process”, “rejectionism”, “extremism”, “terrorism” and “retaliation”, etc, that inform all the cognitive categories of this discourse, Chomsky shows how this system of thought control provides a context in which these terms acquire dominant meaning based on what is being elided rather than what is being said.

Peace, for example, is one such term. To say everyone seeks peace is a meaningless statement unless it also answers the important question on whose terms it is being demanded, argued Tabraz.

A public discourse that condemns Palestinians for rejecting peace remains silent over the fact that it is on American/Israeli terms that the peace is sought and hence does not question the obvious implication of this peace for the Palestinians which, for Chomsky, “happen to deny them the right to national self determination, but unwillingness to accept this consequence demonstrates that the Palestinians do not seek peace”. The discourse does not even find it necessary to ask similar question to US and Israel if they are ready to seek peace.

It is with this context of narrative framing that one notes the impunity enjoyed by Israel, which has continued into 2021.

The international community, the United Nations (UN) in parti­cular, has failed to do its duty so far and stop Israel from extending and intensifying its occupation and committing repeated war crimes.

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