I mentioned earlier that I intended to have guest postings on various subjects, and this is the first in what I hope will become a series.
James Carr is an Irish professional whose work has taken him to many disturbed parts of the world, and here’s his assessment of the dreadful events now taking place in Gaza.
It is reported that Israeli citizens have taken to labelling the Gaza Strip somewhat sneeringly as Gazastan suggesting that it belongs more to the supposed backward (and predominantly Muslim of course) steppes of Central Asia than on the borders of a modern progressive ˜Western’ state like Israel. While such attempts to ridicule and diminish one’s enemy are by no means unusual at times of conflict, this appellation may be more revealing than might seem at first sight. Long before the dissolution of the USSR led to the proliferation of unstable and conflict-ridden ˜stan’ states, there was another notorious type of ˜stan’.
In 1970 the sanctions-beleaguered apartheid state in South Africa tried to polish up its ˜western’ democratic credentials and at the same time achieve the democratically impossible feat of ensuring that four million whites could continue to dominate a population of 26 million. Very simply, they created ten self-governing black homelands which they planned to be declared in time as independent states. In the event only four homelands – Transkei, Bophutstwana, Venta and Ciskei – achieved full ˜independence’ between 1976 and 1981. The Apartheid Government planned to transfer the great majority of the African population to these homelands on the basis of their tribal origin. Naturally these people were now no longer considered South African citizens and naturally therefore could not vote in South African elections. These unrealistic and non-viable states were termed ˜bantustans’, initially in a parallel to the partition of the Indian sub-continent, but later increasingly as a term of derision. Just as the outrageous Bantustan experiment highlighted the fundamental contradiction in the concept of a ˜white’ South African state, Gazastan is an unavoidable counterpoint to the miracle in the desert, the modern state of Israel.
The Gaza Strip has a population of more than 1.5 million in a total area of 320 sq km giving a population density of 4688 per sq km, one of the highest in the world. However only about one third of the land is arable and most of the population is packed into the major urban concentrations of Gaza City, Khan Younis and Rafah making the real density much higher. Israel controls almost all the borders of Gaza, its maritime waters and its airspace, which is not very relevant anyway since the Israeli Air Force bombing destroyed the runway at Yasser Arafat International Airport in December 2001. Israel returned control of the narrow southern border to Egypt in 2005 but the single crossing at Rafah has rarely been open due to a number of factors including the withdrawal of EU monitors in the aftermath of the Hamas election victory in 2006.
I worked in Gaza during the innocent days of the first Intifada when 10 casualties a day was considered appalling. At the time the entire strip was under Israeli occupation, as it had been since 1967, and living conditions, although far better than today, were still grim for the Palestinian population, with high unemployment, food and fuel shortages, constant intimidation and often arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings.
Supporters of Israel consider the use of the term concentration camp in relation to Gaza an outrageous parallel to the Nazi era, but of course concentration camps were not invented in Germany. They were invented in in British-run South Africa during the Boer war — another interesting parallel. So let’s not use the term. Just look briefly at some of the facts. About 1 million or 70% of the population are refugees or descendants of refugees from what is now southern Israel. Gaza was part of Mandate Palestine in 1948 and although administered by Egypt from 1948 to 1967 the population were never given Egyptian citizenship. The entire population is effectively stateless living in an entity whose legal status is highly ambiguous. Israel claims it no longer has the responsibilities of an occupying power since its withdrawal in September 2005. Since then, however, it has used the enormous powers at the disposal of a modern state to control virtually every aspect of life in Gaza. Especially after the victory of Hamas in the 2006 Legislative Elections, Israel has used this power to impose what is effectively collective punishment on the entire population of Gaza, declaring the strip ˜a hostile entity’, restricting fuel and food supplies and restricting movement between Gaza and the outside world including the West Bank. All Gaza electricity is supplied from Israel. You will remember the many TV appearances of Irishman John Ging, Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, pleading with Israel to permit the entry of essential humanitarian supplies.
So Gaza is not really a concentration camp. The Guards do not patrol inside the area. They do allow the population to arrange much of their own lives. However, people are generally not allowed to leave or to develop a reasonable economy, and the basic necessities of life are withheld at the whim of the invisible controlling power. The perimeter of the zone is patrolled by an aggressive military force. No, it is not a concentration camp. It is much more like the large urban zones established in the early 1940s by the occupying German authorities in places like Warsaw and Riga into which a demonised and disempowered ethnic group were ruthlessly corralled, contained, dehumanised and controlled.
Gaza is a ghetto.
Demonisation is a very important weapon in modern conflict and one of the most potent agents of demonisation is the word ˜terrorist’. Hamas is a ˜terrorist’ organisation; Gaza which it controls is a ˜terrorist’ entity and everything within the entity, whether human or infrastructure can be presented as a legitimate target.
But back in 1988 it was very different. Then the secular, non-sectarian Fatah was the ˜terrorist’ organisation and a new religious organisation called Hamas which means ˜zeal’ in Arabic was considered a suitable target for Israeli support. It was facilitated in the receipt of foreign funding and assisted by Mossad in establishing itself as a force in the occupied territories to fragment the united PLO-led front during the first intifada. When Arafat supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf conflict, the wealthy Gulf states switched their funding from the suspiciously progressive Fatah to the religiously conservative Hamas. In 1992, in another slightly weird parallel with South Africa, Arafat attacked Hamas as being the Zulus of Palestine comparing their activities to certain Zulu leaders who supported the apartheid Government against the ANC. Of course much has changed since the early 1990s. But however unwittingly, Hamas have served the long term strategic interests of the more right-wing elements in Israel quite well over that time, transforming the image of the Palestinian cause in the West from a populist national liberation struggle to an alien, fanatical and frightening fundamentalist jihad.
This demonisation of Gaza certainly distracts attention from the basic reason for Gaza’s existence. It exists primarily as a place to incarcerate the original inhabitants of what is now southern Israel without actually having to exterminate them or to give them any of the rights extended to the citizens of a state. It is also a place where Israel can continue to intimidate its neighbours by regularly venting its military power on an entity that possesses none of the protections of a state. It provides a fig-leaf of justification for the massive wall built by Israel within the Palestinian West Bank and it also helps us to ignore the outrageously disproportionate distribution of casualties, where 300 deaths is seen as a reasonable response to the mere threat of death to one’s own citizens. There is here of course an insidious racism that Israeli Jews are really European just like us, and of course their peace of mind and freedom to maintain a western standard of living are more important than the lives of the alien demonised Palestinians, who are clearly not like us. Yet I wonder how we would view the situation if we were imprisoned in an impoverished overcrowded ghetto where our living standards were constantly diminishing and our lives and those of our family and friends were constantly hostage to the arbitrary whim of an invisible foreign power?
Remember Warsaw and Riga and those marvellously panoramic movies celebrating the resistance and fortitude of their doomed inhabitants. And remember Human Rights are universal. Political crisis and rhetoric should never be accepted as an excuse for selective application of these universal principles.
Also on Bock :-