Divide and torture

The military onslaught on Gaza may have halted but the economic and political onslaught continues. Ewa Jasiewicz reports on a people under siege

May 24, 2009 · 12 min read

Israel’s winter assault further disfigured the Palestinian body politic. If the Gazan limb had been kept alive on a drip of international aid, with the West Bank strapped down for economic shock therapy, December and January’s events saw both repeatedly shocked, with Gaza flattened after 22 days of bombardment.

In spite of Israel’s destruction of communications masts in the northern Gaza strip, the blockade of basic journalistic materials for Palestine’s main news agencies and attacks on reporters – killing five – news, images and voices from Gaza continued to stream forth into ’48 Palestine, the West Bank and the world. People across the globe were collectively traumatised as they watched more than a million and a half people locked into a ghetto bombed with phosphoric bombs, tank shells, flachete shells, surveillance aircraft, warships, F16s, F15s, Apache and Cobra helicopters and M16 machine guns for three unrelenting weeks.

Holding onto humanity

A typical torture technique used by many a state is to torture prisoners alongside each other. In Pinochet’s Chile, prisoners were locked in special cages stacked one on top of another; family members were forced to witness and listen to the torture being meted out to others in their family. The humanity of the witness is used to traumatise them, the overbearing force of the torturer re-inscribed on the body and the memory of the tortured and the witness. ‘You cannot stop this,’ is the message, ‘unless you give us what we want.’

The human urge and need to stop the pain of another is unrealised and its frustration exploited. The man-made powerlessness of both is used to terrorise both into submission and to reject their own humanity, to try to de-sensitise and numb the painful need to stop the torture.

So around the world, the students occupying their universities, those praying and collecting funds in mosques, churches and synagogues, throwing shoes at Israeli embassies and businesses, marching in the streets, smashing up arms manufacturers, and those taking up arms to militarily resist the torture – their own and that of a people – are fighting for their own humanity.

Today the torturing and the traumatisation continue. The media spotlight may have passed, but Gaza remains under siege with thousands physically unable to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as aid is prevented from reaching the homeless and patients blocked from leaving the country for urgently needed treatment.

Israel’s land grab

Off the news agenda is Israel’s de-facto land grab and ongoing injuring and killing of civilians by snipers, gunfire and bombing from naval ships. Approximately 11 have been killed and 71 injured since the ‘ceasefire’ on 18 January. Fighters have also continued to launch operations.

The 500-metre buffer zone around the Israeli border fence has in effect been extended to one kilometre. Approximately 100 homes were totally destroyed in the border areas of Beit Hanoun and 160 homes close to the border in Khoza’a. People still cannot reach their belongings without being shot at. Farmers and residents continue to be targeted and are leaving their land and homes.

I accompanied Manwa Tarabeen, mother of six, to her bulldozed home in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, to collect belongings last month. After being shot at she declared, ‘I’m not coming back, I don’t want to be killed. We’re going to move to Jabaliya or inside Beit Hanoun.’

17-year-old Wafa Al Najar from Khozaa, eastern Gaza, was shot in the left kneecap while trying to visit her bulldozed home for the first time since the war. Her family say children are being shot at as they walk to the Khoz’a Martyrs elementary school on a daily basis. In Faraheen, Anwar Al Bureim, 27, was shot in the neck and killed while picking peas. Earlier this month in Faraheen, Israeli snipers hit 20-year-old disabled Mohammad Al Ibrahim in the leg while he was being accompanied by international activists. The result is that farmers are wrenching up their irrigation pipes, clearing their land and clearing out.

Principles of liberation

The blood pressure being exerted on the Palestinians of Gaza is not just about getting them to renounce Hamas, the government that they voted for two years ago, but to renounce the principles it represents – a liberated Palestine, with Jerusalem as its capital, a contiguous state with the right of return for refugees. They seek a de-Osloisation of the Palestinian struggle, according to Professor Haidar Eid of Gaza’s Al Aqsa University. ‘Israel’s massacre told us, if you don’t renounce these principles, then we will kill your children.’ Israel’s siege and continuous attacks, on both the armed and unarmed Palestinian resistance, are intended to contort the meaning of the principles of liberation held for 60 years, ‘(to) distort something so it seems to mean something it was not intended to mean’, so that holding on to these principles – represented for many by Hamas – won’t bring liberation, but further collective isolation and torture.

Abo Mahmoud al Eid, a former Palestinan Authority employee, lost his son and six neighbours – all civilians – when they were hit by a missile from a drone while eating chocolate and drinking tea outside a local shop in Jabaliya. He told me: ‘The war on Gaza can be summed up in two words. All the fighters underground, all the civilians overground.’ After the loss of his son, he has vowed to join the armed resistance if Gaza is invaded again. ‘I was sitting in my home, not doing anything, not even working, not part of any group, but I tell you now, if Gaza is invaded again, both me and my sons will be in the front line of resistance,’ he says. The resistance groups declared losses of just over 100 fighters between them – structures of command and fighters still intact, even if the tunnels they used to hide and operate from are not.

It could all happen again. The far right holds the balance of power in the Israeli parliament. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beitenu party and newly appointed foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, implied during the offensive that Gaza should be bombed with nuclear weapons. He recently said: ‘I want the State of Israel to remain a Zionist, Jewish and democratic state.’ If his vision is realised, more than a million Palestinian Muslims could be ‘transferred’ to the West Bank or Gaza, a process mentioned by successive Israeli ministers, including former foreign affairs minister and Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni.

Attendees at Beitenu rallies chant ‘Death to the Arabs’. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared the job of removing Hamas from Gaza still undone, and Lieberman recently told Y-Net Israeli news ‘[Hamas] is a fanatic religious movement supported by a fanatic religious Iranian regime. So if we want to stop rockets from Gaza, there is no choice but to uproot the Iranian regime in Gaza.’ With men such as these in power, captives in the open prison of Gaza and the 11,800 in the prisons of ’48 Palestine and the bantustans of the West Bank face a future of torture.

No aid

UN Relief and Works Agency chief John Ging said in February that food aid for just 30,000 people was reaching Gaza – when 900,000 are dependent on it. Food aid consists of rice, sugar, dried beans, tomato paste, flour, corn oil, lentils and a few tins of corned beef.

Thousands are still living with relatives, spending days in makeshift tents that are washed away in heavy rain, waiting for humiliating handouts. Construction materials have been banned from entry, including steel for badly needed water tanks. Less aid has been reaching the strip than before the war. Islamic Relief has been paying more to store medicines it has been unable to truck into Gaza in warehouses inside Israel than the cost of the actual medicine.

The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the UK’s Department for International Development unveiled a 44-page Palestinian National Early Recovery and Reconstruction Plan (NERRP) at the Sharm al Sheikh donors’ conference in March. Neither Hamas authorities or civil society organisations were consulted or shown the plan, according to Gazan economist Omar Shaban, president of the PalThink think tank. ‘There has been no public debate or discussion,’ says Shaban. ‘We want Gaza businesses and civil society to be involved in deciding how and what is rebuilt and where. We should be participants and not recipients.’

The proposals within the plan are to be ‘fully synchronised’ with the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PRDP), first published in 2007. Like the NERRP, the PRDP was written in collaboration with the DfID, together with the World Bank. Both promote a classic neoliberal shock therapy programme that will see checkpoint and apartheid-walled free trade zones, de-regulation, and privatisation of public services, including electricity and water in the West Bank. Gaza’s reconstruction is set to spearhead this re-asserted ‘national’ PRD Plan, propelled by billions of dollars of foreign investment.

Palestine as a whole and Gaza in particular have been institutionally weakened by the occupation. In 1998, Gaza was a donor country, supporting Ethiopia and Sarajevo. Now, the Hamas authority has been usurped by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and United Nations Development Programme, which effectively run Gaza economically. In the West Bank, the PA is overshadowed by powerful Palestinian companies such as Jawwal, PalTel, the Consolidated Contractor Company and the Palestinian Investment Fund (PIF). ‘These companies are more powerful than the PA, they are stronger than the political system,’ says Shaban.

Reconstruction and destruction

I asked the minister of social affairs in Gaza, Ahmed al Kurdi, how the reconstruction process could pan out and whether privatisation could happen here.

‘All the funds earmarked for reconstruction are set to go through World Bank and United Nations projects – nothing will be paid into the public sector,’ he says. ‘These institutions will take some 20 per cent in overhead and administration costs. Nation states will be prioritising their own companies for reconstruction. The Japanese government want to reconstruct a school for us, for example, but they want the contract carried out by a Japanese company.’

‘Gaza could be reconstructed tomorrow,’ he continues. ‘We have 60 per cent unemployment, we have the money, we have the skills. The problem is we are occupied and under siege, and the plan has always been to keep Gaza and the Palestinians dependent on aid and donations.’

Dr Faisal Abu Shala, a Fatah minister in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and participant in the reconciliation negotiations in Egypt this March, thinks Hamas has set the Palestinian struggle back decades. ‘Hamas didn’t stick to international commitments, it de-recognised the PLO. We were on our way to statehood and now we are being shunned by the international community. When they took over Gaza, we let them, despite their attacks on us.’

Ahmed al Kurdi disagrees that the PA was on the road to real autonomy. ‘For 15 years they were doing everything Israel wanted them to do,’ he argues. ‘But what happened? Israel kept building settlements and attacking us and stealing our land.’

But Dr Faisal believes success is still possible, despite the building of 3,500 new housing units in East Jerusalem, and demolition orders for 1,000 Palestinian homes. Fatah believes in the international community’s agency to rein in Israel: ‘The negotiation didn’t succeed because Israel is not interested in the solution, the international community is part of the solution.’

NGOs, politics and peace

Some groups in the 130-strong Palestinian NGO Network recently rejected project funding from their international partners, saying they wanted political pressure and advocacy against Israeli war crimes instead. Families living in the ten Red Cross and governmental refugee camps, based mostly in the north, repeatedly state, ‘We don’t want aid, we need our rights, we need a political solution.’ Speaking to an audience of European parliamentarians at UNRWA’s headquarters – one of the tens of delegations touring Gaza after the Israeli onslaught – Sharhabeel Al Za’eem, the founder of Sharhabeel legal consultants was blunt: ‘Our case is not a humanitarian one, this is a purely political issue.’

Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee for the Red Cross, said recently, ‘Humanitarian action can be no substitute for an honest and courageous peace process involving all states, political authorities and organised armed groups that can influence the situation. Reconstruction is unlikely to succeed unless there is a prospect of a lasting peace.’

But what kind of peace? Many believe that post Oslo, Palestinian civil resistance committees have been inexorably pacified by and subsumed into western models of social peace that neutralise political demands and resistance in favour of ‘stakeholder dialogue’ and ’roundtable discussions’ that falsely equalise interests and imbalanced power relationships.

This process legitimises the silence of the international NGO community in the face of war crimes, and separates humanitarian issues from political issues and solutions. Under this rubric, the occupation of Palestine is normalised, and Palestine pathologised, forever broken and needing fixing, with all state-level narratives cleansed of reference to occupation and injustice and the perpetrator never challenged.

The Palestinian NGO Network has been consistently challenging the Fatah-Hamas political polarisation in Palestinian society. The Gaza reconstruction process is no exception. It says: ‘If the formation of a “government of consensus” is not possible in the near future, the reconstruction process should be overseen by a national committee representing all stakeholders, mainly from the civil society and the private sector. The national committee should be supported by specialised technical committees from ministries in Gaza and the West Bank.’

The entire process cannot be divorced from the context of the militarily occupied bantustans and ghettos in which it is taking place. But the internal politics, manipulated by apartheid Israel, also need scrutiny when answering ‘what kind of peace?’, ‘what kind of justice?’ and ‘what kind of reconstruction?’ What is certain is that the Palestinian economy is as much a battleground as Palestinian land and political representation.

The future of boycotts after Ukraine

Calls for state and civil action against Russia are an important shift in Western political discourse, writes Ben Jamal

Laboratories of the extreme

Jake Woodier speaks to Eyal Weizman about the political nature of architecture and its use in constructing truths and challenging power

Egypt at 100

Heba Taha explores the drastic political transformations of the Egyptian state 100 years since independence

Israeli apartheid: an international consensus

Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign Ben Jamal explains the impact of Amnesty International naming Israel’s apartheid crimes

The uses and limits of celebrity solidarity with Palestine

Famous voices can shape public opinion on Palestine, argues Raoul Walawalker, but walking back solidarity statements does more harm than good

Political blackness and Palestinian solidarity

The question of Palestine has become a black political litmus test, argues Annie Olaloku-Teriba, defining the very nature of black identity and politics

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...