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Noam Chomsky’s reflections on his visit to Gaza (25-30 October 2012)

 

Impressions
of Gaza

 

Even
a single night in jail is enough to give a taste of what it means to beunder
the total control of some external force. 
And it hardly takes more than a day in Gaza to begin to appreciate what
it must be like to try to survive in the world’s largest open-air prison, where
a million and a half people, in the most densely populated area of the world,
are constantly subject to random and often savage terror and arbitrary
punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade, and with the
further goal of ensuring that Palestinian hopes for a decent future will be
crushed and that the overwhelming global support for a diplomatic settlement
that will grant these rights will be nullified.

The
intensity of this commitment on the part of the Israeli political leadership
has been dramatically illustrated just in the past few days, as they warn that
they will “go crazy” if Palestinian rights are given limited recognition at the
UN.  That is not a new departure.  The threat to “go crazy” (“nishtagea”) is
deeply rooted, back to the Labor governments of the 1950s, along with the
related “Samson Complex”: we will bring down the Temple walls if crossed.  It was an idle threat then; not today.

The purposeful humiliation is also not new, though it
constantly takes new forms.  Thirty years
ago political leaders, including some of the most noted hawks, submitted to
Prime Minister Begin a shocking and detailed account of how settlers regularly abuse
Palestinians in the most depraved manner and with total impunity.  The prominent military-political analyst
YoramPeri wrote with disgust that the army’s task is not to defend the state,
but “todemolish the rights of innocent people just because they are Araboushim
(“niggers,” “kikes”) living in territories that God promised to us.”

 

Gazans have been selected for particularly cruel
punishment.  It is almost miraculous that
people can sustain such an existence.How they do so was described thirty years
ago in an eloquent memoir by Raja Shehadeh (The
Third Way
), based on his work as a lawyer engaged in the hopeless task of
trying to protect elementary rights within a legal system designed to ensure
failure, and his personal experience as a Samid,
“a steadfast one,” who watches his hometurned into a prison by brutal occupiers
and can do nothing but somehow “endure.”

 

Since Shehadeh wrote,the situation has become much
worse.  The Oslo agreements, celebrated
with much pomp in 1993, determined that Gaza and the West Bank are a single
territorial entity.  By then the US and
Israel had already initiated their program of separating them fully from one
another, so as to block a diplomatic settlement and punish the Araboushim in
both territories.

 

Punishment of Gazans became still more severe in January
2006, when they committed a major crime: they voted the “wrong way” in the
first free election in the Arab world, electing Hamas.  Demonstrating their passionate “yearning for
democracy,” the US and Israel, backed by the timid European Union, at once
imposed a brutal siege, along with intensive military attacks.  The US also turned at once to standard
operating procedure when some disobedient population elects the wrong
government: prepare a military coup to restore order.

 

Gazans committed a still greater crime a year later by
blocking the coup attempt, leading to a sharp escalation of the siege and
military attacks.  These culminated in
winter 2008-9, with Operation Cast Lead, one of the most cowardly and vicious
exercises of  military force in recent memory,
as a defenseless civilian population, trapped with no way to escape, was
subjected to relentless attack by one of the world’s most advanced military
systems relying on US arms and protected by US diplomacy.  An unforgettable eyewitness account of the
slaughter – “infanticide” in their words – is given by the two courageous
Norwegian doctors who worked at Gaza’s main hospital during the merciless
assault, Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse, in their remarkable book Eyes in Gaza.

 

President-elect Obama was unable to say a word, apart from
reiterating his heartfelt sympathy for children under attack – in the Israeli
townSderot.  The carefully planned
assault was brought to an end right before his inauguration, so that he could
then say that now is the time to look forward, not backward, the standard
refuge of criminals.

 

Of course, there were pretexts – there always are.  The usual one, trotted out when needed, is
“security”: in this case, home-made rockets from Gaza. As is commonly the case,
the pretext lacked any credibility.  In
2008 a truce was established between Israel and Hamas.  The Israeli government formally recognizes
that Hamas observed it fully.  Not a
single Hamas rocket was fired until Israel broke the truce under cover of the
US election on November 4 2008, invading Gaza on ludicrous grounds and killing
half a dozen Hamas members.  The Israeli
government was advised by its highest intelligence officials that the truce
could be renewed by easing the criminal blockade and ending military
attacks.  But the government of Ehud
Olmert, reputedly a dove, chose to reject these options, preferring to resort
to its huge comparative advantage in violence: Operation Cast Lead.  The basic facts are reviewed once again by
foreign policy analyst Jerome Slater in the current issue of the Harvard-MIT
journal International Security.

 

The
pattern of bombing under Cast Lead was carefully analyzed by the highly
informed and internationally respected Gazan human rights advocate
RajiSourani.  He points out that the
bombing was concentrated in the north, targeting defenseless civilians in the
most densely populated areas,with no possible military pretext.  The goal, he suggests, may have been to drive
the intimidated population to the south, near the Egyptian border.But the Samidin stayed put, despite the
avalanche of US-Israeli terror.

A
further goal might have been to drive them beyond.  Back to the earliest days of the Zionist
colonization it was argued across much of the spectrum that Arabs have no real
reason to be in Palestine; they can be just as happy somewhere else, and should
leave – politely “transferred,” the doves suggested.   This is surely no small concern in Egypt,
andperhaps a reason why Egypt does not open the border freely to civilians or
even to desperately needed materials

Sourani
and other knowledgeable sources observe that the discipline of the Samidin conceals a powder keg, which
might explode any time, unexpectedly, as the first Intifada did in Gaza in 1989
after years of miserable repression that elicited no notice or concern,

Merely
to mention one of innumerable cases, shortly before the outbreak of the
Intifada a Palestinian girl, Intissar al-Atar, was shot and killed in a
schoolyard by a resident of a nearby Jewish settlement.  He was one of the several thousand Israelis settlersbrought
to Gaza in violation of international law and protected by a huge army presence,
taking over much of the land and scarce water of the Strip and living “lavishly
in twenty-two settlements in the midst of 1.4 million destitute Palestinians,”
as the crime is described by Israeli scholar Avi Raz. The murderer of the
schoolgirl, Shimon Yifrah, was arrested, but quickly released on bail when the
Court determined that “the offense is not severe enough” to warrant detention.  The judge commented that Yifrahonly intended
to shock the girl by firing his gun at her in a schoolyard, not to kill her, so
“this is not a case of a criminal person who has to be punished, deterred, and
taught a lesson by imprisoning him.” Yifrah was given a 7-month suspended
sentence, while settlers in the courtroom broke out in song and dance.  And the usual silence reigned.  After all, it is routine.

And
so it is. 
As Yifrah was freed, the Israeli press reported that an army patrol
fired into the yard of a school for boys aged 6 to 12 in a West Bank refugee
camp, wounding five children, allegedly intending only “to shock them.” There
were no charges, and the event again attracted no attention. It was just
another episode in the program of “illiteracy as punishment,” the Israeli press
reported, including the closing of schools, use of gas bombs, beating of
students with rifle butts, barring of medical aid for victims; and beyond the
schools a reign of more severe brutality, becoming even more savage during the
Intifada, under the orders of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, another admired
dove.

My
initial impression, after a visit of several days, was amazement, not only at
the ability to go on with life, but also at the vibrancy and vitality among
young people, particularly at the university, where I spent much of my time at
an international conference
.  But there too one
can detect signs that the pressure may become too hard to bear.  Reports indicate that among young men there
is simmering frustration, recognition that under the US-Israeli occupation the
future holds nothing for them.  There is
only so much that caged animals can endure, and there may be an eruption,
perhaps taking ugly forms — offering an opportunity for Israeli and western apologists
to self-righteously condemn the people who are culturally backward, as Mitt
Romney insightfully explained.

Gaza
has the look of a typical third world society, with pockets of wealth
surrounded by hideous poverty.  It is
not, however, “undeveloped.” Rather it is “de-developed,” and very
systematically so, to borrow the terms of Sara Roy, the leading academic
specialist on Gaza.  The Gaza Strip could
have become a prosperous Mediterranean region,
with rich agriculture and a
flourishing fishing industry, marvelous beaches and, as discovered a decade
ago, good prospects for extensive natural gas supplies within its territorial
waters.   

By
coincidence or not, that is when Israel intensified its naval blockade, driving
fishing boats toward shore, by now to 3 miles or less.

The
favorable prospects were aborted in 1948, when the Strip had to absorb a flood
of Palestinian refugees who fled in terror or were forcefully expelled from
what became Israel, in some cases expelled months after the formal cease-fire. 

In
fact, they were being expelled even four years later, as reported in Ha’aretz(25.12.2008), in a thoughtful
study by BeniTziper on the history of Israeli Ashkelon back to the Canaanites.  In 1953, he reports, there was a “cool
calculation that it was necessary to cleanse the region of Arabs.” The original
name, Majdal, had already been “Judaized” to today’s Ashkelon, regular
practice.

That
was in 1953, when there was no hint of military necessity.  Tziper himself was born in 1953, and while
walking in the remnants of the old Arab sector, he reflects that “it is really
difficult for me, really difficult, to realize that while my parents were celebrating
my birth, other people were being loaded on trucks and expelled from their
homes.”

Israel’s
1967 conquests and their aftermath administered further blows.  Then came the terrible crimes already
mentioned, continuing to the present day.

The
signs are easy to see, even on a brief visit. 
Sitting in a hotel near the shore, one can hear the machinegun fire of
Israeli gunboats driving fishermen out of Gaza’s territorial waters and towards
shore, so they are compelled to fish in waters that are heavily polluted
because of US-Israeli refusal to allow reconstruction of the sewage and power
systems that they destroyed.

The
Oslo Accords laid plans for two desalination plants, a necessity in this arid
region.  One, an advanced facility, was
built: in Israel.  Thesecond one is in
Khan Yunis, in the south of Gaza.  The engineer
in charge of trying to obtain potable water for the population explained that
this plant was designed so that it cannot use sea water, but must rely on
underground water, a cheaper process, which further degrades the meager aquifer,
guaranteeing severe problems in the future. 
Even with that, water is severely limited.  The United Nations Relief and Works Agency
(UNRWA), which cares for refugees (but not other Gazans), recently released a
report warning that damage to the aquifer may soon become “irreversible,” and
that without remedial action quickly, by 2020 Gaza may not be a “liveable
place.”

Israel
permits concrete to enter for UNRWA projects, but not for Gazans engaged in the
huge reconstruction needs. The limited heavy equipment mostly lies idle, since
Israel does not permit materials for repair. 
All of this is part of the general program described by Israeli official
DovWeisglass, an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after Palestinians
failed to follow orders in the 2006 elections: “The idea,” he said, “is to put
the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” That would not
look good.

And
the plan is being scrupulously followed. 
Sara Roy has provided extensive evidence in her scholarly studies.  Recently, after several years of effort, the
Israeli human rights organization Gishasucceeded to obtain a court order for
the government to release its records detailing plans for the diet, and how
they are executed.  Israel-based
journalist Jonathan Cook summarizes them: “Health officials provided
calculations of the minimum number of calories needed by Gaza’s 1.5 million
inhabitants to avoid malnutrition. Those figures were then translated into
truckloads of food Israel was supposed to allow in each day…an average of only
67 trucks – much less than half of the minimum requirement – entered Gaza
daily. This compared to more than 400 trucks before the blockade began.” And
even this estimate is overly generous, UN relief officials report.

The
result of imposing the diet, Mideast scholar Juan Cole observes, is that “[a]bout
ten percent of Palestinian children in Gaza under 5 have had their growth
stunted by malnutrition….in addition, anemia is widespread, affecting over
two-thirds of infants, 58.6 percent of schoolchildren, and over a third of
pregnant mothers.” The US and Israel want to ensure that nothing more than bare
survival is possible.

“What
has to be kept in mind,” observes RajiSourani,“is that the occupation and the
absolute closure is an ongoing attack on the human dignity of the people in
Gaza in particular and all Palestinians generally.  It is systematic degradation, humiliation,
isolation and fragmentation of the Palestinian people.” The conclusion is confirmed
by many other sources.  In one of the
world’s leading medical journals, The
Lancet
, a visiting Stanford physician, appalled by what he witnessed,
describes Gaza as “something of a laboratory for observing an absence of
dignity,” a condition that has “devastating” effects on physical, mental, and
social wellbeing.“The constant surveillance from the sky, collective punishment
through blockade and isolation, the intrusion into homes and communications,
and restrictions on those trying to travel, or marry, or work make it difficult
to live a dignified life in Gaza.” The Araboushim must be taught not to raise
their heads.

There
were hopes that the new Morsi government in Egypt, less in thrall to Israel
than the western-backed Mubarak dictatorship, might open the Rafah crossing,
the sole access to the outside for trapped Gazans that is not subject to direct
Israeli control.  There has been slight
opening, but not much.  JournalistLaila
el-Haddad writes that the re-opening under Morsi, “is simply a return to status
quo of years past: only Palestinians carrying an Israeli-approved Gaza ID card
can use Rafah Crossing,” excluding a great many Palestinians, including
el-Haddad’s family, where only one spouse has a card.

Furthermore,
she continues, “the crossing does not lead to the West Bank, nor does it allow
for the passage of goods, which are restricted to the Israeli-controlled
crossings and subject to prohibitions on construction materials and export.”
The restricted Rafah crossing does not change the fact that“Gaza remains under
tight maritime and aerial siege, and continues to be closed off to the
Palestinians’ cultural, economic, and academic capitals in the rest of the
[occupied territories], in violation of US-Israeli obligations under the Oslo
Accords.”

The
effects are painfully evident.  In the
Khan Yunis hospital, the director, who is also chief of surgery, describes with
anger and passion how even medicines are lacking for relief of suffering
patients, as well as simple surgical equipment, leaving doctors helpless and
patients in agony.  Personal stories add
vivid texture to the general disgust one feels at the obscenity of the harsh
occupation.  One example is the testimony
of a young woman who despaired that her father, who would have been proud that
she was the first woman in the refugee camp to gain an advanced degree, had
“passed away after 6 months of fighting cancer aged 60 years. Israeli
occupation denied him a permit to go to Israeli hospitals for treatment. I had
to suspend my study, work and life and go to set next to his bed. We all sat
including my brother the physician and my sister the pharmacist, all powerless
and hopeless watching his suffering. He died during the inhumane blockade of
Gaza in summer 2006 with very little access to health service. I think feeling
powerless and hopeless is the most killing feeling that a human
can ever have. It kills the spirit and breaks the heart. You can fight
occupation but you cannot fight your feeling of being powerless. You can’t even
dissolve that feeling.”

Disgust
at the obscenity, compounded with guilt: it is within our power to bring the
suffering to an end and allow the Samidin
to enjoy the lives of peace and dignity that they deserve.

 

Noam
Chomsky visited the Gaza Strip on October 25-30, 2012