Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… A people is herded off its ancestral lands onto tiny, overcrowded and often infertile wastelands by a newly arrived occupier. Their economy is squeezed and blockaded at every turn. Their culture and language mark them as somehow less than completely human. Their remaining lands are routinely stolen by religiously inspired “settlers.” Their strongest leaders are assassinated and their most promising youth face indiscriminate kidnapping and long imprisonment without legal recourse. Every attempt to resist is met with overwhelming, technologically superior military force.
Of course, this history is familiar to the Indigenous peoples of North, Central and South America; it is the essential theme to the history of this hemisphere since the arrival of Columbus. But it’s also the subject of current events, though one will rarely hear it described as such in any media coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The good news, as I write, is of the ceasefire – brokered by the US and Egypt – between Israel and the militant Hamas movement that rules the tiny territory of Gaza and its desperately poor population of 1.5 million. The depressingly familiar bad news is that the origins of this conflict will continue to be washed away in a repetitive deluge of propaganda and rhetoric.
In fact, almost every aspect of this Israeli offensive is subject to Orwellian double-speak, right down to the name the Israel government chose for its military intervention: “Operation Pillar of Defense.”
Orwell taught us that the language of power turns truth on its head, beginning with the famous phrase, “War is peace.” In this case, Israel’s defense began with the missile assassination of the Hamas military chief in Gaza, incinerating him in his car on the main street of Gaza City. And this, knowing full well that the killing would prompt Hamas to retaliate with the relatively feeble means at its disposal – launching a wave of notoriously inaccurate homemade rockets into Israel proper – which in turn justified the completely disproportionate Israeli air and missile attacks on the long-suffering people of Gaza.
And yet, you’d be hard pressed to see anyone characterize this as anything other than a defensive operation against Palestinian terrorism.
In the meantime, the official dehumanization of the Palestinian people proceeds. Israel’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, was cheered by many when he insisted in the country’s news media that, “The Israel Defense Forces has to expand the fighting, deepen it … to destroy the water and electricity infrastructure, the roads, the transportation and communications, and send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” Hard to believe, but the government’s transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, made Yishai sound like a moderate when he commented, “the tear of one Jewish child is too much, even if it means that all Gazans must be evacuated to the Sinai Desert.”
And so it goes. Meanwhile, the desperation of people in Gaza will continue long after the missiles and rockets stop flying. Gaza has for decades been subject to a form of collective punishment. Because Israel enforces a land, sea and air blockade against Gaza, meagre food, medical and building supplies must be smuggled in at high cost. If nothing changes, the UN says the territory will be unlivable by 2020. According to the Israeli leaders quoted above, this is the publicly stated long-term goal.
This is not, it should be emphasized, a majority opinion of the Jewish population of Israel. Indeed, critical Jewish voices within Israel are far more insightful than anything we can hear or read in Canada or elsewhere around the world. As an editorial in the newspaper Haaretz observed, “Destroying Gaza’s already meagre civil infrastructure isn’t only inhuman and a war crime, it doesn’t do Israel any good. Israel has tried it more than once. It has demolished roads and bridges, destroyed power stations and water supplies and turned the lives of Gaza’s 1.5 million people into hell.
“As a result, Hamas has only grown stronger, the people’s suffering has worsened and with it the hatred for Israel. Israel should seek the complete opposite: Gaza’s prosperity.”
But don’t hold your breath. Enabling the religious radicals in Gaza helps Israeli hawks avoid dealing with Palestinian moderates who actually would recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist in any negotiation to establish a lasting peace that can only be achieved by Palestinian statehood.
As the eloquent – and brave – Israeli writer Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz recently, “The Palestinian people want to be free of the occupation. Life is like that sometimes. But how to accomplish that? At first they tried doing nothing. For 20 years they were idle, and indeed nothing happened. They then tried rocks and knives, the first intifada. And still nothing happened, except for the Oslo Accords, which did not change the fundamental nature of the occupation. After that, they tried a vicious intifada: again, nothing. They made a stab at diplomacy; still nothing, the occupation went on as before.”
Now, Levy notes, the Palestinians are split, with the moderate Fatah government in the ever-shrinking West Bank, and the radical Islamists of Hamas running Gaza. “One hand fires Qassam rockets at Israel, the other turns to the United Nations. Israel crushes both of them. In between, the Palestinian people also try nonviolent protest, and are met with rifle butts to the face, rubber-tipped bullets and live fire. And again, nothing. The Palestinians try three different approaches, weapons, diplomacy and nonviolent resistance, and Israel says no to all three.”
There are also much shorter-term considerations for the current Israel government, something few have commented on outside the country: the governing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was facing a difficult campaign in national elections scheduled for January 22. Massive demonstrations in recent months against his right-wing economic policies have paralyzed cities like Tel Aviv.
Thus, creating a crisis and emerging as the heroic defender of the Jewish people – not so subtly casting himself as a “Pillar of Defense” – is a classic electoral strategy. Predictably and sadly, the investment in blood has paid off in political dividends for Netanyahu, who has seen his approval ratings jump in polls conducted during this conflict.
Our own government’s unquestioning support of Netanyahu’s aggression is par for the course. As we have chronicled here many times, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is engaged in his own long-term campaign to whittle away at and eventually eliminate the land base and distinct culture of First Nations in Canada, though, perhaps thankfully, without the air strikes and assassinations. But the result will eventually be the same. Once again, for those who refuse to forget, history guides current events.