Palestinians don’t count

What’s happening in Gaza would not be possible in any other context. But the Palestinians have been demonised so long that there’s a sizeable chunk of the political class prepared to justify any action against them. In Salon today, Glenn Greenwald takes as an example the output of the execrable Marty Peretz, the editor of the New Republic, who described the reaction in Gaza to the hundreds of deaths as ‘whining’. Any public figure in the US who mocked Israelis mourning their dead as ‘whiners’ would promptly face dismissal — and rightly so. But, as we saw in Iraq, Arab deaths simply don’t count.

Greenwald continues:

One can travel from the farthest right fringe of the GOP to the heart of the Democratic Party leadership and hear exactly the same thing:  Israel is always right.  Israel must not be criticized.  Israel never bears any blame.  Any action taken by Israel is justified.  No matter the situation, that just gets repeated over and over like some hypnotic bipartisan mantra.

How different is it in Australia? Not very.

The most common spin on the looming full-scale assault on Gaza holds that Israel is merely responding to the Hamas rocket launches that violated an earlier cease fire.

Even on its own terms, this is simply not true. Here’s Zvi Barel writing in Haaretz.

Six months ago Israel asked and received a cease-fire from Hamas. It unilaterally violated it when it blew up a tunnel, while still asking Egypt to get the Islamic group to hold its fire. Are conditions enabling the return of a ceasefire no longer available? Hamas has clear conditions for its extension: The opening of the border crossings for goods and cessation of IDF attacks in Gaza, as outlined in the original agreement. Later, Hamas wants the cease-fire to be extended to the West Bank. Israel, for its part, is justifiably demanding a real calm in Gaza; that no Qassam or mortar shell be fired by either Hamas, Islamic Jihad or any other group.

Essentially, Israel is telling Hamas it is willing to recognize its control of Gaza on the condition that it assumes responsibility for the security of the territory, like Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. It is likely that this will be the outcome of a wide-scale operation in the Gaza Strip if Israel decides it does not want to rule Gaza directly. Why, then, not forgo the war and agree to these conditions now?

More importantly, the recent attacks need to be understood in the context of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, of which, in some respects, they are simply a continuation. In August, Amnesty International wrote:

The blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip over a year ago has left the entire population of 1.5 million Palestinians trapped with dwindling resources and an economy in ruins. Some 80 per cent of the population now depend on the trickle of international aid that the Israeli army allows in. This humanitarian crisis is man-made and entirely avoidable.

Even patients in dire need of medical treatment not available in Gaza are often prevented from leaving and scores of them have died. Students who have scholarships in universities abroad are likewise trapped in Gaza, denied the opportunity to build a future.

The Israeli authorities argue that the blockade on Gaza is in response to Palestinian attacks, especially the indiscriminate rockets fired from Gaza at the nearby Israeli town of Sderot.  These and other Palestinian attacks killed 25 Israelis in the first half of this year; in the same period Israeli forces killed 400 Palestinians.

However, the Israeli blockade does not target the Palestinian armed groups responsible for attacks – it collectively punishes the entire population of Gaza.

In April 2008, Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the UN Secretary General, called on Israel to restore fuel supplies to Gaza and allow the passage of humanitarian assistance and commercial supplies.

“The collective punishment of the population of Gaza, which has been instituted for months now, has failed,” he said. […]

Israel has banned exports from Gaza altogether and has reduced entry of fuel and goods to a trickle – mostly humanitarian aid, foodstuff and medical supplies. Basic necessities are in short supply or not available at all in Gaza. The shortages have pushed up food prices at a time when people can least afford to pay more. A growing number of Gazans have been pushed into extreme poverty and suffer from malnutrition.

Some 80 per cent of the population now depends on international aid, compared to 10 per cent a decade ago. The restrictions imposed by Israel have resulted in higher operational costs for UN aid agencies and humanitarian organizations. Food assistance costs the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) US$20 per person per day compared to less than US$8 in 2004.

Gaza’s fragile economy, already battered by years of restrictions and destruction, has collapsed. Unable to import raw materials and to export produce and without fuel to operate machinery and electricity generators, some 90 per cent of industry has shut down.

The fuel shortage has affected every aspect of life in Gaza. Patients’ hospital attendance has dropped because of lack of transport and universities were forced to shut down before the end of the school year as students and teachers could not continue to travel to them.  Fuel-powered pumps for wells and water distribution networks are often not working.

Medical facilities in Gaza lack the specialized staff and equipment to treat a range of conditions, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. In addition, hospitals are now under ever greater pressure, as they face shortages of equipment, spare parts and other necessary supplies as a result of the blockade.

Note, if you will, that the above comes not from some wild-eyed Leftist manifesto but from the most respected human rights organisation in the world. Yet its description of an ongoing crime (collective punishment) against the Palestinian people prompted no international response whatsoever. Imagine if the Palestinians had developed a secret weapon by which they could inflict malnutrition on the population of Israel and prevent sick Israelis receiving treatment. Now imagine that the Palestinians deployed this machine – but declared they would stop doing so when Israel elected a new leadership. Does anyone really suppose that the world would remain as indifferent as it did to the Gaza blockade?

We might ask the same question about the recent attacks. Here’s another Israeli account of the carnage:

Training camps of the Izz-al Din al-Qassam and interrogation and detention centers were deserted when they were bombed. But police centers in the Strip, which give services to people, were teeming. No one believed that they would be bombed.

In the afternoon, they were still looking for bodies in the debris. Khalil Shahin rushed to the police station in the center of the Strip. “A huge building, and all of it on the floor,” he said. Some 30 people were killed there. He knew that his nephew, a civilian, was killed when he went to clear up some matter at the station.

At first, teacher Umm Salah thought the explosion was a sonic boom. The whole building shook, all the glass, but the smoke and the clouds of dust, and the wails of ambulances, made clear that something much more horrible had taken place. The glass wounded a number of pupils. There were those who cried, there were those who were silent.

She found her son in the maelstrom in the street. He had been taking a math test when the bombing began. They went back home together, finding his younger brother with their 70-year-old grandmother. The grandmother tried to hide her fear as she took care of her grandchildren.

“There’s been no electricity, nor gas, nor flour or bread nearly all of the past week,” Umm Salah said. “And suddenly the electricity came back. I turned on the television, I saw the images, I turned it off and sent the kids to do their homework.”

This targeting of police stations – basic pieces of civil infrastructure – has been elided into the official narrative of precision strikes against the Hamas leadership. Would anyone accept that ordinary American policemen were responsible for the decisions of George W. Bush? Of course not. But when it comes to Arabs, the rules are, as always, entirely different.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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