For the third time in less than six years, Israeli airstrikes are pounding Gaza. That means six-year-old Palestinian children have lived through 3 major Israeli military assaults in their short lives. Every few years now, the same nightmare replays, along with the familiar news chorus of Israeli propaganda: Hamas is to blame for all of it, including civilian Palestinian deaths, because it hides behind civilians who support the organization.
It must be said: there is something deeply disturbing about propagating such justifications that paint an entire people as a terrorist entity, because it renders them disposable and their lives without value. At the time of writing, the death toll in Gaza stands at more than 130, many of them civilians—many of them women and children–with a ground invasion underway. Israel has targeted mosques, homes, a center for disabled people and essential infrastructure. And it will likely only get worse.
Israel says it has no choice but to defend itself, that no nation would tolerate rockets raining down on its civilian population. Indeed, the indiscriminate and crude rocket fire from Palestinians, the warning sirens and time spent in bomb shelters must be traumatic and inconvenient for Israelis. And the rockets are reaching ever deeper into Israel. Palestinian rocket fire has killed 24 Israeli civilians since 2004 according to B’Tselem, although no Israeli deaths have occurred since the most recent escalation began. But in the last 6 years alone, more than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces (counting the most recent conflict).
Moreover, it must be kept in mind that Israel is an oppressive and occupying power; it can’t in good faith claim self-defense. The rockets flying from Gaza indicate that something is deeply wrong. And so it’s time to ask: what is wrong? In short, nearly fifty years of Israeli occupation, more than 60 years of dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the failure of the peace-process to deliver justice.
Although there are signs this is changing, U.S. media coverage often fails to address the underlying root causes of the violence and give adequate time to Palestinian narratives and experiences. Thus, it’s prudent to dig a bit deeper to understand the larger context from which the current crisis emerged.
Occupation Breeds Violence
In the weeks leading up to Operation Protective Edge three Israeli teenagers were abducted and brutally murdered. The teens, Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar were taken from Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank. The heavily fortified settlements are illegal according to international law—their very presence in the West Bank, protected by the Israeli military, has rendered the two-state solution a near impossibility. This is because the mission of the settlers is nothing short of ethnically-cleansing lands and dispossessing assets currently held by Palestinians in order to annex them into Eretz Israel. Towards this end, Israeli settlers regularly assault Palestinians with impunity; they vandalize Palestinian homes, businesses, and religious sites, destroy their livelihoods, and redirect critical resources in an attempt to drive them off their land. This is the context that this violence emerged from.
And rather than treating this most recent incident as a crime and investigating it as such, Israel’s intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, imposed a gag order that prevented Israel’s national press from reporting on any details about the case. Israel immediately blamed Hamas but offered no proof, and Hamas denied responsibility. Despite this Israel launched the most extensive military operations in the West Bank since 2002.
According to a recent report by Euro-mid Observer for Human Rights, within three weeks Israel conducted nearly 400 incursions into the West Bank, including 2,400 raids on homes and businesses and “medical centers, media offices, schools, universities and currency exchanges.” It seized nearly $3 million in cash and property and arrested hundreds of Palestinians, the report said. Welcome to life under Israeli occupation.
Israel sold “Operation Brother’s Keeper” as a rescue mission to find the missing boys and locate their killers. But Max Blumenthal and Israeli media later reported that Israeli police and intelligence likely knew within hours that the teenagers had been killed because one of them managed to call the police. U.S. officials who recently analyzed a recording of the phone call say that sounds heard on the tape are consistent with the sound of shots fired from a silenced firearm. This information was kept from the public because of the gag order.
The Israeli government, all the while knowing the teenagers were likely dead, stoked growing and dangerous anti-Palestinian sentiment among the Israeli public. Mobs of Israelis were filmed in Jerusalem wandering the streets chanting “Death to the Arabs.” Clashes erupted all over the country. Ron Gerlitz reported numerous cases of Jewish Israelis beating and attacking Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Before long, 16-year-old Palestinian Muhammad Abu Khdeir was abducted by Jewish Israelis, beaten, and then burned alive in a revenge attack. In the mayhem of ongoing clashes in the wake of Abu Khdeir’s death, his 15-year-old American cousin Tariq AbuKhdeir was brutally beaten by Israeli police, though he denies involvement in the clashes.
Israeli Violence Against Palestinian Children
For a few brief moments, the U.S. media covered these incidents, exposing the everyday reality that many Palestinians face, particularly children. But it’s important to note that these were not isolated incidents—racism and violence against Palestinians is systematic under Israeli occupation. Even the children are not spared.
Since 2000, Israeli military forces and settlers have killed More than 1400 Palestinian children, according to statistics gathered by Defense for Children International Palestine. The overwhelming majority of these children were killed in Gaza.
And since 2010, the Israeli military has seized and arrested 2500 Palestinian children, according to a recent report by the Euromid Observer for Human Rights. Israeli soldiers sometimes take children from the streets, but often they surround homes with military tanks in the middle of the night, blast open the front door, storm in heavily armed with masks on their faces and rip them from their beds with no explanation, the report said.
Once in custody Palestinians children are “interrogated, threatened and often beaten” — a startling seventy-five percent of the time this treatment meets the definition of torture, said the report. Moreover, the Israeli military also has a well documented track record of using Palestinian children as human shields during military operations, and many Palestinian children are subjected to physical violence perpetrated by Jewish Israeli settlers. All Palestinians, not just children, live with and face these dangers under Israeli occupation on a regular basis. And they have done so in the face of virtual silence about these issues from consecutive U.S. administrations.
Gaza Under Siege
All of these dangers play out to a much greater degree in Gaza, which has been increasingly isolated and subjected to closures by Israel since the early 1990s. The isolation reached new levels in 2006 when Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade of Gaza after Hamas prevailed in democratic Palestinian elections. Israel tightened the blockade in 2007 when Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Fatah, after a U.S. and Israeli supported coup attempt by Fatah failed to remove Hamas from power.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza as a result of the Israeli siege, exacerbated now by three major Israeli military assaults, is dire. According to the U.N., in 2012 unemployment rates in the densely populated territory reached nearly 35 percent among the workforce. Forty-four percent of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents suffer from food insecurity, 80 percent rely on aid and ninety percent of Gaza’s water is unfit for drinking.
Although Israel would like us to believe it’s done everything to avoid the current bloodshed and offered Hamas calm in exchange for calm, it’s critical to call this what it is— a blatant lie. Israel and Hamas entered into a cease-fire in November 2012 following Israel’s last assault on Gaza. The agreement stipulated that all hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis would end, and that Israel would ease the blockade and facilitate the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza.
Yet Israel committed more than 200 violations of the agreement, according to statistics gathered by the Palestine Center. It never took meaningful steps to end the siege, even when Hamas stopped the rocket fire. This is the context the Palestinian rockets emerge from—they are an attempt to extract concessions from Israel given the inability of the international community or the peace process to do so.
The Bigger Picture
What lies underneath all of this is a story of Palestinian dispossession—a struggle for land and resources, national rights and belonging. According to U.N. statistics, 70 percent of Gaza’s population is refugees or descendants of refugees expelled from their homes in what is now Israel during the hostilities in 1948 before Israel declared statehood.
The latest carnage in Gaza should make clear that Israel has little interest in a just settlement with the Palestinians to right that wrong. With the Muslim Brotherhood under lock and key in Egypt and a new Egyptian president who hopes to keep it that way, Israel can make a definitive move to oust Hamas from power.
It has several reasons for doing so. First, 1.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie just off the coast of Gaza. It’s safe to assume that Hamas would have little interest in striking a gas deal with Israel, which has historically confiscated Palestinian resources for its own needs to the detriment of Palestinians. As The Guardian recently reported, Israel has tried unsuccessfully thus far to gain control of Gaza’s natural gas reserves.
Second, if Palestinians were to control that resource, and consequently benefit economically from it, it would strengthen Hamas significantly. Israel has long preferred dealing with Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is much more pliable in Israel’s favor, and thus more likely to bend to Israel’s will. And that is the endgame here—a solution to the “Palestinian problem” on Israel’s terms, which translates into keeping as much Palestinian land and resources as possible, but with a minimal Palestinian population and minimal responsibility for this population.
This is not a secret, and never has been. But despite its incessant claims to the contrary, Israel does have another choice. It can deal with the root causes of the conflict by accepting the Palestinian unity government, negotiating fairly with the Palestinians, ending the crippling and inhumane siege of Gaza and taking meaningful steps to end its nearly 50-year-long military occupation of Palestinian land. But this is simply not the option it has chosen to exercise.
Until and unless there is recognition of and respect for Palestinian humanity and their inherent rights as an occupied people deserving of self-determination, the bloodshed and violence will continue. Without any accountability mechanism to persuade Israel to take this approach in negotiations, the way forward remains murky. In the meantime, analysts and journalists can do their part by treating Palestinians as actual human beings, deserving of safety and security, whose lives have value. The more we hear about Palestinians from Palestinians themselves, the better.