Why Gaza is the world's largest open-air prison

Gazans have been singled out for particularly cruel punishment

Why Gaza is the world's largest open-air prison

Even a single night in jail is enough to give a taste of what it means to be under the total control of some external force.

And it hardly takes more than a day in Gaza to appreciate what it must be like to try to survive in the world’s largest open-air prison, where some 1.5 million people on a roughly 140-square-mile strip of land are subject to random terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade. Such cruelty is to ensure that Palestinian hopes for a decent future will be crushed, and that the overwhelming global support for a diplomatic settlement granting basic human rights will be nullified. The Israeli political leadership has dramatically illustrated this commitment in the past few days, warning that they will “go crazy” if Palestinian rights are given even limited recognition by the UN.

This threat to “go crazy” (“nishtagea”) – that is, launch a tough response – is deeply rooted, stretching back to the Labour governments of the 1950s, along with the related “Samson Complex”: If crossed, we will bring down the Temple walls around us.

Thirty years ago, Israeli political leaders, including some noted hawks, submitted to Prime Minister Menachem Begin a shocking report on how settlers on the West Bank regularly committed “terrorist acts” against Arabs there, with total impunity.

Disgusted, the prominent military-political analyst Yoram Peri wrote that the Israeli army’s
task, it seemed, was not to defend the state, but “to demolish the rights of innocent people just because they are Araboushim (a harsh racial epithet) living in territories that God promised to us.” Gazans have been singled out for particularly cruel punishment.
Thirty years ago, in his memoir “The Third Way,” Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer, described the hopeless task of trying to protect fundamental human rights within a legal system designed to ensure failure, and his personal experience as a Samid, “a steadfast one,” who watched his home turned into a prison by brutal occupiers and could do nothing but somehow “endure.”

Since then, the situation has become much worse. The Oslo Accords, celebrated with much pomp in 1993, determined that Gaza and the West Bank are a single territorial entity. By that time, the US and Israel had already initiated their programme to separate Gaza and the West Bank, 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.

Displaying their “yearning for democracy,” the US and Israel, backed by the timid European Union, immediately imposed a brutal siege, along with military attacks. The US turned at once to its standard operating procedure when a 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 attacks. These culminated in winter 2008-09, with Operation Cast Lead, one of the most cowardly and vicious exercises of military force in recent memory: A defenseless civilian population, trapped, was subjected to relentless attack by one of the world’s most advanced military systems, reliant on US arms and protected by US diplomacy. Of course, there were pretexts – there always are. The usual one, trotted out when needed, is “security”: in this case, against homemade rockets from Gaza.

Breaking the truce

In 2008, a truce was established between Israel and Hamas. Not a single Hamas rocket was fired until Israel broke the truce under cover of the US election on November 4, invading Gaza for no good reason 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 – himself reputedly a dove – rejected these options, resorting to its huge advantage in violence: Operation Cast Lead. The internationally respected Gazan human-rights advocate Raji Sourani analysed the pattern of attack under Cast Lead. The bombing was concentrated in the north, targeting defenseless civilians in the most densely populated areas, with no possible military basis. The goal, Sourani suggests, may have been to drive the intimidated population to the south, near the Egyptian border. But the Samidin stayed put.

A further goal might have been to drive them beyond the border. From the earliest days of the Zionist colonisation it was argued 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, and perhaps a reason why Egypt doesn’t open the border freely to civilians or even to desperately needed supplies.

A necessarily superficial impression after spending several days in Gaza is amazement, not only at Gazans’ ability to go on with life but also at the vibrancy and vitality among young people, particularly at the university, where I attended an international conference.

But one can detect signs that the pressure may become too hard to bear. Reports indicate that there is simmering frustration among young people – a recognition that under the US-Israeli occupation the future holds nothing for them. 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’s when Israel intensified its naval blockade. The favourable 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 months after the formal cease-fire. Israel’s 1967 conquests and their aftermath administered further blows, with terrible crimes continuing to the present day.

The restricted Rafah Crossing doesn’t 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 (Israeli-occupied territories), in violation of US-Israeli obligations under the Oslo Accords.” The effects are painfully evident. The director of the Khan Yunis hospital, who is also chief of surgery, describes with anger and passion how even medicines are lacking, which leaves doctors helpless and patients in agony.

One young woman reports on her late father’s illness. Though he would have been proud that she was the first woman in the refugee camp to gain an advanced degree, she says, he “passed away after six 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 sit 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 ever dissolve that feeling.” A visitor to Gaza can’t help feeling disgust at the obscenity of the occupation, compounded with guilt, because 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's most recent collection of columns is ``Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance.'' Chomsky is emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.)

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