Gaza: A little context

By Stephen Gowans

Unlike press reports which almost never provide context, I’ll begin with context. Figure 1 shows the percentage of British Mandate Palestine seized by Jewish forces through war, terrorism and ethnic cleansing, and the remaining territory (about 15 percent) that now comprises the Palestinian territories. In 1947, Arab Palestinians formed a two-thirds majority. Even so, the UN, over the objection of the Arab majority, pledged 56 percent of Mandate Palestine to a Jewish state. The Jews, most having arrived after WWI, comprised only one-third of the population (about 510,000 people) and owned only six percent of the land. In late 1947 and into 1948, through a systematic program of ethnic cleansing, and by barring the return of the 800,000 Arabs who fled or were forced from their homes, Zionist forces established Israel on 80 percent of the territory that comprised Mandate Palestine. In 1967, Israel seized Gaza and the West Bank – the only parts of Mandate Palestine they had failed to conquer in 1948 – and brought them under military occupation.

Figure 1. The encroachment of the Jewish state on Palestinian territory.
Figure 1. The encroachment of the Jewish state on Palestinian territory.

Hamas grew out of the first intifada (shaking off) of 1987. The intifada was an attempt to shake off the Israeli military presence in Gaza and the West Bank. It began in Gaza’s refugee camps, home to Palestinians and their descendants who had been driven out of what was now Israeli territory, or had fled, and were prevented from returning. Their return would undermine the demographic reality the Zionist forces had painstakingly created in 1947 and 1948 – a Jewish majority. The camps were bedeviled by mass unemployment and grinding poverty. The average family of five lived in cramped quarters with an outdoor toilet. (1)

Hamas grew to prominence in the camps for a number of reasons. First, it built up support by providing social services. Second, it profited from the material support it received from Israel. By building up Hamas, a religious-based, social services organization, Israel hoped to weaken the secular, politically-oriented PLO. Third, the PLO lost support when it pledged to end armed struggle and recognize Israel.

Hamas is criticized in the West for five reasons.

1. Because it is an Islamic organization. The West, however, had few qualms about Hamas’s religious character when the organization was being built up as a way to divert support from the secular PLO. In fact, it was Hamas’s religious character (thought to inspire passivity rather than militancy) that recommended it as an organization to be nurtured.

2. Because it will not recognize Israel. To do so would legitimate the UN’s immoral and illegitimate partition of Mandate Palestine and the ethnic cleansing which cleared the way for the formation of a Jewish state. Hamas, and many others, seek the end of a Jewish state on Palestinian territory. The US and other Western powers describe this as seeking the destruction of Israel, which it is, metaphorically, but for purposes of manipulating public opinion, the words “destruction of Israel” are carefully chosen to suggest the goal of physical obliteration. Palestinians who refuse to legitimate the crimes of 1948 by recognizing Israel do not seek Israel’s physical destruction per se, but seek to restore their legitimate claim to the land they were driven from, a goal which, if successful, would mean the end of a Jewish state (i.e., Israel’s destruction.)

3. Because Hamas engages in terrorism. Israel has a large arsenal of combat aircraft and tanks to oppress the Palestinians. “Terrorism” is the word the powerful use to discredit the resistance of the oppressed. Hamas would gladly swap its crude and largely ineffective rockets for Israel’s tanks and combat aircraft.

4. Because it “took over” Gaza. An Israeli security official told The New York Times that,

“What happened in Gaza a year ago was not really a coup. Hamas’s takeover was a kind of natural process. Hamas was so strong, so deeply rooted in Palestinian society through its activities in the economy, education, culture and health care, and Fatah was so weak, so corrupt, that the takeover was like wind blowing over a moth-infested structure.” [2]

5. Because it unilaterally abandoned the ceasefire. On the contrary, despite the ceasefire, Israel refused to lift the bloackade of Gaza (one of the conditions of the truce), killed 1,300 Palestinians in the nearly three years since Hamas came to power, and in November conducted three raids on Gaza, killing 12. [3]

Figure 2 shows the gross imbalance in deaths over the first eight days of Israeli terror bombing compared to Israeli deaths from Palestinian rocket attacks. This imbalance is emblematic of the yawning gap in casualties in all confrontations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Israel kills, maims and imprisons many; Palestinians barely make a scratch.

Figure 2. Comparison of number of deaths over the first eight days of Israeli air strikes.
Figure 2. Comparison of number of deaths over the first eight days of Israeli air strikes.

Echoing his Secretary of State who attributed the recent outbreak in violence to Hamas, US President George W. Bush castigated the oppressed. In his January 2 radio address, he said,

This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas — a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria…In response to these attacks on their people, the leaders of Israel have launched military operations on Hamas positions in Gaza.

The first eight days of Israeli air strikes – “with air strikes averaging one every 20 minutes” – has created “a humanitarian crisis and more,” according to Max Gaylard, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinians. [4]

Contrast the reaction to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where 450 lay dead, close to 2,000 are wounded, where electricity has been cut off by Israel, and where medical services are stretched to the limit, with the calls for military intervention in Zimbabwe in response to a cholera outbreak (a not uncommon event in Third World countries.)

The defrocked priest of peace, Desmond Tutu, who urged the West to intervene militarily in Zimbabwe to solve its humanitarian emergency, has not called for a military intervention in Israel to prevent the massacre of Gazans. He hasn’t even called for Washington to cut off its billions of dollars in annual military aid to Israel. Instead, he is calling for dialogue and confidence building measures, and for “Israel’s need for security (to) be understood by all sides.” [5]

1. Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
2. New York Times, June 15, 2008.
3. Chris McGreal, “Why Israel went to war in Gaza,” The Observer (UK), January 4, 2009.
4. Rory McCarthy, “’Critical emergency’ after air strike every 20 minutes,” The Guardian, January 3, 2009.
5. Vaclav Havel, El Hassan bin Talal, Hans Kung, Desmond Tutu, Karel Schwarzenberg and Yohei Sasakawa, “Humanity’s stake in Gaza,” The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), January 4, 2008.

3 thoughts on “Gaza: A little context

  1. Thanks for this. Though the diagnosis is clear, the strategic question regarding the course of remedy(ies) remains lingering unanswered. Your thoughts would be welcome.

  2. Stephen provides us with an excellent reminder of some of the background facts of the longstanding and brutal Zionist occupation of historic Palestine. In the spirit of providing context, here are a few interesting quotes:
    a)”We must expel Arabs and take their places.” – David Ben Gurion, First Prime Minister and Defense Minister of Israel,1937, BenGurion and the Palestine Arabs, Oxford University Press, 1985
    b)We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation, and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population.” – David Ben-Gurion, May 1948, to the General Staff. From Ben-Gurion, A Biography, by Michael Ben-Zohar, Delacorte, NY 1978.
    c)“If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country…Why would they accept that?” -David Ben Gurion
    d)“Let us not ignore the truth among ourselves…politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves… David Ben Gurion, quoted on pp 91-2 of Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle, which appears in Simha Flapan’s “Zionism and the Palestinians” pp 141-2 citing a 1938 speech.
    e)“It is the duty of Israeli leaders to explain to public opinion, clearly and courageously, a certain number of facts that are forgotten with time. The first of these is that there is no Zionism, colonialization, or Jewish State without the eviction of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands.” – Ariel Sharon, Israeli Foreign Minister, addressing a meeting of militants from the extreme right-wing Tsomet Party, Agence France Presse, November 15, 1998.

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