Building with mud — as we’ve been doing in California for the last four days — is an ancient tradition in the Middle East. I’m told the people of Gaza revived some of their traditional natural building methods over the last few years after the Israeli military destroyed hundreds of homes and public buildings in the bombings and invasion of 2009 — and then embargoed rebuilding supplies. As we finish up our beautiful project, I’m thinking of them: the warm, welcoming people I met there almost ten years ago.
Now once again the Israeli military is bombarding the most densely populated region on earth. Already they have killed over 321 civilians, including dozens of innocent children who had no voice in the underlying politics (http://imemc.org/article/68429). And Israel is calling up its reserves, beginning a ground invasion.
The ostensible reason, the murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, is a horrible crime, and its perpetrators should be brought to justice. But arresting hundreds of Palestinians, assaulting the West Bank as Israel has done in the last weeks, and now bombing Gaza, wiping out whole families and indiscriminately murdering people who had no part in this crime — it’s compounding crime with mega-crime, murder with mass murder.
The real reason, the underlying politics: Hamas and Fatah recently made peace with each other, which is a step forward for Palestinians and therefore a perceived threat to the right-wing Israeli political interests. Here’s a bit of Palestinian politics 101: Hamas and Fatah are two factions, the two major political parties in Palestine. Fatah, the new face of the old Palestinian Liberation Front, was long headed by Arafat, who started off as Israel’s most-hated terrorist enemy but ended up being the one who signed the peace accords in Oslo back in the ‘90s that were supposed to usher in the two-state solution. Unfortunately, after the accords were signed, Israel continued to colonize the West Bank with illegal settlements — basically gated, heavily guarded Israeli enclaves built on land confiscated from Palestinians without compensation in territories that were supposed to be part of an eventual Palestinian state. They then surround those settlements with a network of private roads for Israelis only, military checkpoints, and heavy control that interferes with everything from access to farms, jobs, and education to emergency medical care.
Fatah runs the Palestinian Authority, the government of the West Bank, which often collaborates closely with Israeli authorities. They are the “peace” party, also noted for high levels of corruption.
Hamas are the hard-liners, the ones who say, “We want all the land back.” They have refused to recognize the Israeli state, tend to be more strictly Muslim, and they won the elections in Gaza, after the Israelis withdrew unilaterally in 2005. And if you’re wondering what the hell that means, here’s the short explanation. Picture Gaza: a tiny strip of desert, with Israel on two sides, Egypt on the other, the Mediterranean the fourth wall. Up until that time, the Israeli military directly controlled Gaza. Internal checkpoints meant you couldn’t go from Rafah, in the south, to Gaza City without risking hours or even days of delay when the checkpoints would suddenly close. A few hundred fanatic Israeli settlers had established strongholds in the center of Gaza, and in order to protect them the military made life hell for a million and a half Gazans. When I was there in 2003, the military were clearing a larger buffer zone with Egypt by bulldozing the homes of Gazans whose families had lived in that area from time immemorial — without compensation. Rachel Corrie was killed standing in front of a bulldozer to prevent it destroying a home. Israeli snipers regularly fired on the town, and tanks blew shell-holes into family homes.
In 2005, Ariel Sharon basically said, “We’re out of Gaza. Now we’ll control you from without, and we’ll abandon any responsibility for your lives or well-being.” They evacuated four small Israeli settlements, and proceeded to tighten the borders so that virtually no one could get in or out without their permission. Fishing boats are not allowed to go out to sea, students are not allowed to leave the country to study, the sick are not allowed out to seek medical care. Goods are strictly controlled, and not much is permitted either in or out, so Gaza’s economy was destroyed.
When the Israelis pulled out, Hamas and Fatah fought bitterly. Hamas ended up in control of Gaza. In response, the Israelis invaded Gaza in 2009, killing 1400 people and destroying hundreds of homes and public buildings. Then they tightened the blockade, allowing even fewer things in and increasing the poverty and misery in that crowded strip of desert land.
But a few weeks ago, Fatah and Hamas reached a peace accord between them. Clearly, this could be a good thing for Palestinians, offering a more united voice in negotiations, a softening to Hamas’ hard line, and possibly a counterbalance to the Palestinian Authority’s corruption and collaboration.
The murder of the three teens, who disappeared while hitchhiking in the West Bank, was apparently done by extremist fanatics who objected to the reconciliation and wanted to sabotage it. Their interests coincided with the Israeli extreme right who also wanted to sabotage the alliance, and proceeded to use the murders as a pretext for mass arrests and incursions in the West Bank and mass bombing and murder in Gaza.
Why do I bother giving you all this background? Because most people in the US don’t know it, and conventional reporting on this issue is so bad and so biased that a 2004 study by the Media Group at Glasgow University found that many people were unsure who was invading whom, and some thought the Palestinians were refugees from Afghanistan! (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3829967.stm)
Diane Sawyer on ABC News actually misidentified pictures of Gazans under Israeli fire as Israelis under Palestinian fire (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/10/diane-sawyer-apology-palestine-error_n_5576247.html?utm_hp_ref=diane-sawyer), possibly the most blatant example of the bias that always portrays Israelis as the victims of Palestinians, and ignores or discounts Palestinian suffering.
But the Palestinians are suffering, although they are an amazingly resilient people. Murder is a terrible crime, and the murder of the three teens is indefensible. But responding to murder by mass murder is also a terrible crime, illegal under international law, indefensible by any true standard of morality. The Israeli authorities must be held to account, and the blanket support by the US for the Israeli government’s campaign of terror must end.
What can we do? The most effective strategy so far in putting pressure on Israel to conform to international standards of law and justice has been the BDS movement: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It is time to stop buying goods made in Israeli settlements, like the SodaStream products, or supporting corporations that supply the Israeli military in their illegal operations, like Caterpillar which makes the bulldozers that destroy homes. We can pressure our own institutions to divest from these corporations, as the Presbyterians recently did, and we can pressure our government to end its three billion dollars of yearly military aid. There are also many, many demonstrations we can join, letters to write–all the ways we can bring political pressure to bear.
Don’t be silenced by the shrill voices who shriek “Israel-hater” at every criticism. Holding Israel to internationally-recognized standards of law and justice is an act of respect.
As an American Jew born in 1951, I was raised to love a vision of an Israel founded as a refuge for victims of anti-Semitism, racism, and fascism, that stood for equality and intellectual freedom and mutual care. Much later in life, I reluctantly came to see that shining ideal, like most ideals, was tarnished, founded on stolen land. But Israel’s current policies have eroded the best of everything it might have exemplified, and unleashed a really nasty fundamentalism, a racist, fanatic hatred of Palestinians and an intolerance of dissent that poisons life in Israel as well as Palestine. My Israeli friends are enduring twin fears right now: fear of the rockets coming their way from Gaza, albeit so far they have killed no one, and fear of the right-wing Israeli fanatics who recently savagely beat Israeli peace protestors in Tel Aviv–something your news media most likely did not report!
In any case, Israel is not a person one can either love or hate. Some of Israel’s policies I applaud; others I detest. There are many individual Israelis I love dearly, as I also dearly love many Palestinians. They are far more similar than they are different, right down to the astounding ability of grandmothers of both peoples to stuff you with much more food than you really want to eat, when they have food. I would like to see them all live in peace, and the best hope for that is for all of us to exert every pressure we can bring to bear on the Israeli government to step off the path of aggression and onto the path of negotiation and diplomacy.