Grief in Gaza: Who’s to Blame?

15 January 2009

As violence in the Middle-East shows no sign of abating, both sides have reason to feel aggrievedFarah Jassat, Newnham:

Gaza. Some will spit this word out with contempt and fear, others will lament its tragedy. Far too many will acknowledge the unfolding crisis with a cowardly silence. This last month, however, the streets of central London have echoed with the outrage felt by the British public on behalf of the Palestinians.

Braving the icy December temperatures, protesters wrapped up and marched. One old man carried a placard which bore the words:

“YOU take my water, burn my olive trees, destroy my house, take my job, steal my land, imprison my father, kill my mother, starve us all, humiliate us all, BUT I am to blame: I shot a rocket back.”

To understand the sentiments of those protestors and millions across the globe, one must view the Palestinian crisis in context. Since Israel’s creation in 1948, it has forcibly and illegally expanded its borders by three and a half times its original size, in flagrant violation of international law.

The Gaza Strip, smaller than the Isle of Wight, is amongst the world’s most densely populated areas. Its inhabitants are trapped on all sides, by the Mediterranean or by Israeli and Egyptian barbed wire. 2008 statistics showed that Israeli territorial encroachment has caused 6 million Palestinians to become refugees so far.

Israeli policies across Palestine include checkpoints, house demolitions and the West Bank ‘security’ wall which is seen by many as the symbol of the unofficial apartheid taking place across the region.

The tragic and unprecedented military aggression that is currently being documented on the News was preceded by a ruthless 18 month siege. Oxfam reported that, in the month before the incursion, only 137 trucks of food were provided to feed 1.5 million; the UN stated that poverty had reached an “unprecedented level.”

It is conveniently forgotten that Israel first broke the temporary ceasefire with Gaza on 4th November and rejected Hamas’s offer of a long term ceasefire following withdrawal to legal borders. It is within this context that Hamas fired back, causing the deaths of 16 Israeli citizens. At the time of writing, 952 Gazan citizens have been killed since Israel began its attack on December 27th. A further 4,200 have been injured and 90,000 have been forced to flee their homes. The massacre continues.

It is important to remember also that this is not a war between equals. The Israeli army is the 5th most powerful in the world. They have at their disposal tanks, F-16 jets, Blackhawk and apache helicopters, whilst Palestinian resistance are armed with Kalashnikovs and homemade Qassam rockets.

Of course, Israel can only afford such military largesse because it is the single largest recipient of US foreign aid, despite comprising 0.001% of the world’s population.

The sentiments reflected on the old man’s placard are thus perfectly understandable. He, and thousands others, are not justifying the deaths of Israeli citizens – rather I think his message highlights the hypocrisy of Israeli rhetoric regarding the safety of its citizens when the government itself has been the perpetrator of systematic state terrorism.

Nelson Mandela has said: “Palestinians are not struggling for a ‘state’ but for freedom, liberation and equality, just like we were struggling for in South Africa. Israel has deprived millions of Palestinians of their liberty and property. It has perpetuated a system of gross racial discrimination and inequality. It has systematically incarcerated and tortured thousands of Palestinians, contrary to the rules of international law.” Nothing has changed!

Farah Jassat is a 1st year historian and Co-Editor of the Islamic Society Magazine

Daniel Isenberg, Pembroke:

On 1st September 1939, a popular Democrat president voiced an “urgent appeal” against “bombardment from the air of civilian populations”. Soon, no doubt, a president, elected with even greater fervour, and of whom there are colossal expectations, will offer a similar message to the Middle East.

FDR’s call fell on deaf ears, and so too would an identical message from Barack Obama. There is, however, a fundamental difference: Roosevelt’s plea was dependent upon “the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents”.

The customs of traditional warfare no longer apply in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Hamas has no tanks; no pips on lapels; no neatly ordered ranks of soldiers. This may appear to paint Hamas as the underdog that we Britons so love to support. But we must not be swayed by this portrayal of what is, in reality, a calculating, destructive organisation, which is backed by the West’s most formidable enemy and cynically preys upon the population that voted it into power for the sake of its own survival.

A clear divide between the anti-western triangle of Hamas-Iran-Syria and the US-backed Jordan-Egypt-Fatah bloc has emerged. At the start of the conflict, the surprisingly balanced view of the Arab media indicates the increasing recognition in the Middle East that Hamas is not a fair representation of Arab values.

Hamas was indeed elected to government in Gaza. Yet government does not come with immunity; rather it burdens Hamas with accountability and gives it responsibility for the citizens of Gaza.

Hamas, however, has ignored this. Its raison d’être is the destruction of Israel. Accordingly, its survival is dependent upon a drawn-out, intensified conflict. It is unsurprising that Hamas puts this priority before the needs of the Palestinian people, whose best interests necessarily include a stable peace with their neighbour.

Utilising civilian infrastructure for military needs is crucial to Hamas’ strategy: launching rockets from a mosque in the Jabaliya refugee camp and the storage and firing of weapons from schools only benefits the terrorist organisation. Not only do militants become more difficult to target, but the regrettable, yet inevitable, loss of civilian life stokes the flames of the conflict.

Hamas MP Fathi Hamad, even admits that they “formed human shields of the women, the children, the elderly and the mujahideen”. How can Israel be compared to those who have so little regard for the lives of their own people?

Israel is doing its utmost to minimise civilian casualties. This may seem a far cry from all the images of destruction, but with 3,823 people per square km, it is remarkable that in the first eleven days of conflict, the IDF managed to limit civilian casualties in Gaza to 12%. The IDF not only warns civilians of imminent targets by air-dropped flyers, it makes telephone announcements, and sends text messages. Israel has even allowed the safe passage of 15,000 tons of humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip. Compare this with the 6,500 rockets that Hamas has fired into Israel since 2005, sent with the sole aim of civilian destruction.

Israel, like any other democratic government, cannot tolerate 500,000 of her citizens living in daily fear of terrorist attacks. Moreover, the Palestinians living in Gaza deserve a brighter future than the stranglehold of Hamas. As our attention turns to Obama’s inauguration, one can only hope that a new presidency will bring with it a genuine effort to remove the primary threat to Middle East peace: Hamas.

Daniel Isenberg is a 2nd year historian.