Why Gaza Matters to Us

By Adrienne Maree Brown Jan 02, 2009

On December 30, I attended a rally/memorial for Gaza in Dearborn, Michigan. Dearborn is home to the largest community of Arab and Arab-American people within U.S. borders. I went with two young women who have focused on Palestinian human rights, and were in Palestine last year doing work with youth to develop a creative and nonviolent response to the wall, and a third young woman who is learning about the situation much as I am. One point of the conversation on the way to the rally focused on how, in the Geneva conventions, collective punishment is a war crime. The tactics used by Israel in response to the use of rockets by Hamas—sound bombs, blocking food and medical supplies into the area, and now days of air strikes—these are forms of collective punishment, effecting and killing children, women, civilians, elderly. I am including (click for more) the best piece I have read so far that frames the situation in Gaza, and encourage you to consider it and pass it along. I welcome thoughts and responses, welcome others to move out of silence! When we arrived to the area near the rally and memorial, the streets were lined with clusters of people. We met up at an Arab bakery, got warmed up. Whole families were in attendance, together. One of the women who’d been to Palestine last year says it was that way there, that you are expected to understand your political situation and be involved at any age. As soon as we got to the actual rally, we saw sign with a shoe taped to it, one of the more humorous I’ve seen in a while. Most folks were holding Palestinian flags. There were chants – "Free, free Palestine!", "1, 2, 3, 4 – Stop the Killing, Stop the War!!", and "Muslims/People, United, Will Never Be Defeated" by a side group. Several chants were happening at a time, reminding me that its hard to be organized in grief, under attack. The waves of powerlessness keep you chaotic. We didn’t stay for very long, and I was overwhelmed by the need to do more, overwhelmed by the jaded tones of Palestinian voices knowing that it is too late, the blood is everywhere. I don’t know how it feels to be Arab, seen as a terrorist monolith, with displacement and massacre of my people approved of by the major super powers of the world. It would seem that to be Palestinian, now, means that sophisticated technology is being used to build walls through your land, tear down your home, bomb and strike you; and if you respond with rockets, you are called a terrorist, and expendable. I do know that the majority of people of color in the U.S. came here either because they were stolen from their own lands and brought to work here, or displaced from their homelands by war, poverty or persecution, and driven to be in this space. Many of us had our cultures erased or diluted in this process, and have forgotten what it means to be connected to the ancestral land of our people. I can’t overemphasize the depth of this loss of culture and place; I know it makes it hard for many people in the U.S. to even understand the displacement that has been happening in Israel-Palestine since 1948. I know that most of the people I surround myself with every day look back on the massacres of Native Americans as a point of irreconcilable grief and shame in the founding of the U.S. It is not enough to say it was sad but, "Oh well, that’s how history progresses." It’s the part of history that keeps us from the future we want. The cowboys vs. Indians games many of us were taught to play as children are fabled re-imaginings of colonization, much like the current heroes vs. terrorist stories being presented today around the world, amplified in Israel and the U.S. It is shameful, and sensational. How many times must we allow the same thing to happen before we learn no good can come of it? We get to a point like this when we look at history in a shallow way, or in a reactive way. It’s very hard, with the Holocaust of Jewish people in our recent collective history, to clearly see what is happening in Israel now. And yet, this is very clearly a cycle of trauma playing out—to avoid extinction, a campaign was launched for Israel as a place for a people without a place…unfortunately, the place was inhabited, and the struggle of those inhabitants with the growing settler population and expansion of Israel has been a bloody mess since then. In July 2008, Barack Obama (then a presidential candidate) voiced the key argument from the Israeli government—Hamas is firing rockets at civilian Israeli homes and they must defend themselves. This is a short sighted analysis. The fact is that Palestinians have been under attack since 1948, attacks on their homes, farmland and right to exist. Their efforts to exist, to participate as a democratic society up against a force increasingly funded and armed by the U.S. has so far earned Palestinians no right to defend themselves. Palestinians, in response, democratically elect a body that promises to fight and defend their homeland. Ceasefires and negotiations are all shadowed by the constantly constructed Wall, the ongoing displacement and enclosure of Palestinian civilians, the growth of checkpoint culture, the denial of a right to return which would mean a right to truly coexist. What is deeply needed is a truth and reconciliation process, with ownership taken on all sides. Instead, as is happening more and more with nations that obstruct the desires of the U.S. and its allies, the small and violent and desperate attempts at warfare (in reaction to extinction of their culture and people) by a smaller body are labeled terrorism, and they are marked for obliteration by a larger body that gets the OK to do so with the silence and lack of action by economic global partners. This happened in Germany during World War II, this happened during the founding of the U.S., this happened in South Africa during Apartheid. Friends know that I tend to root (and organize and mobilize) for the underdog. But this has been hard to write about or maneuver, as I’ve had Jewish friends who I respect tell me I don’t understand, that it is more complicated than I am seeing. History is certainly overwhelmingly complex, and I don’t believe that good vs. evil is the way of the world – but I do believe that humans participate in evil actions, can slowly become complicit in evil policy, driven by fear. It is beginning to feel, to me, that those friends of mine simply cannot accept the reality of what is being done in their name, by their families, by their people. I am an American citizen, it is hard to sleep knowing the things my country is doing around the world, and I work on many levels to change the course of this country, recognizing the privilege/responsibility of citizenship I was born into. As an American, I am part of the funding body of all that Israel does, and from that vantage point, this is not so complicated: Gaza is a massacre, checkpoints and walls and limiting medical and food supplies – these are signs that an apartheid is happening, and the Israeli government is evolving Zionism into something akin to an Afrikaner or even Nazi politic, even as thousands of people in Israel join hundreds of thousands around the world to protest this murderous direction. The more that Palestinians are pushed against a wall, the less likely peace is possible. The United Nations shares much of my analysis, perhaps as uselessly. Even President Jimmy Carter has referred to Israeli’s current political approach as apartheid. The governments of 3 countries (the US, Egypt, and Israel) are allowing this moment – having denied the Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere adequate food and medicine for months, largely impassable borders on both sides (Egypt’s government has held a closed border against the desires of it’s people), and now after rockets were fired – apparently more for prison break style attention than impact – it gives Israel the opportunity to obliterate these people, one walled prison at a time. Many Palestinians in other parts of their homeland stay quiet, not wanting to bring the murderous eye onto them. The Palestinian rights activists I talk to are numb, bitter and hopeless; others of us try to rally something more than grief and confusion – wishing we could change the course of this. As people of color who have our own various histories of resisting the erasure of our cultures from this planet against the spread of military-corporate assimilation, we must stand with the Palestinians, speak out, and take action. The anger and mourning we feel should drive us to break the cycle of domination vs. extinction. Fear, including the righteous fears of Jewish people who want to exist, and the righteous fears of Palestinians that they will be relegated to life in a walled prison and never allowed to be home – these fears are not going to create a world in which peace is possible. We must approach the Israeli people as brothers and sisters who have gone astray in the wake of their own trauma, help them to clean the blood from their hands, and come home to the human family. Gaza and the Ghetto In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland in what it termed initially a “defensive war”. The invasion was in part justified by the Nazi desire to reunify what it considered historic German territory and to claim Lebensraum for a race that considered itself superior to those that surrounded it in Central and Eastern Europe. Not only the Jews, but the Slavic races, were considered inferior, less than human, and regarded as populations that could be transferred to make room for Aryans. It was, of course, the Jews who bore the brunt of Nazi racism. By 1940, the Nazis had begun to concentrate Poland’s Jewish population into ghettos in the main cities prior to their planned transport to the camps. In Warsaw, the largest of these ghettoes, three or four hundred thousand Jews were enclosed in less than 5% of the city, walled in by a 10-20 foot high wall, and gradually strangled by starvation and the shortage of all goods, including fuel and power. Malnutrition and disease was rampant and the exits and entrances of the ghetto were closely controlled. Resistance was subject to collective punishment: tens of Jews could be murdered in retaliation for the least act of defiance. In 1943, in the face of imminent transportation and the annihilation of the Jewish population, the remaining Jews in Warsaw organized combat brigades. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. Despite the overwhelming force of the German Army and the utter inadequacy of their own weaponry, they fought a desperate struggle in the name not only of the Jews of Poland but of Poland’s right to resist fascism and occupation. “It is a fight”, they proclaimed to the Poles beyond the ghetto walls, “for our freedom, as well as yours; for our human dignity and national honour, as well as yours….” An inspiration to resistance movements throughout Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is remembered less as a lost cause than as the heroic struggle that it was. Though crushed by German armour and military power, in hand-to-hand and street-to-street fighting, the Jewish resistance in Warsaw stands as a symbol of the right of an oppressed people to resist occupation, collective punishment, genocide and ethnocide. Yet imagine if the policy of appeasement had continued and Nazi Germany had made good its claim to occupy land that it considered part of the historic homeland of its people. Suppose Poland had gradually been settled, as was planned, with German families who might for the most part have desired to make peaceful and prosperous lives for themselves on the new lands they believed were rightfully theirs. Suppose Pearl Harbour had never happened, and the United States had not entered the war against the Axis powers: France and Britain would have concluded some form of peace with Hitler’s Germany, probably on the face-saving pretext of fighting a global war against Soviet communism, while the small nations of Eastern Europe would have been abandoned to their fate. Germany, instead as being seen as a nation of Nazis and war criminals, would have been understood as the bulwark of Europe’s defense against the Soviet Union, while the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Polish resistance that supported them would have been remembered, if at all, as the “bandits” that the German generals knew them as. History, as we know, is rewritten by the victors. Gaza too is a ghetto. One and a half million Palestinians, most of them refugees dispossessed of the lands and homes that were theirs for centuries, inhabit the most densely populated square miles of the Middle East if not the world. They are hemmed in by security walls and barbed wire fences, unable to move in or out without the permission of Israel, the occupying power. They have lived in a permanent state of siege, unable to conduct free trade with the rest of the world, virtually unable to visit the West Bank, unable even to fish in the sea off their coasts, subject to perpetual surveillance and control by land, sea and air. Their hospitals lack even the most essential medicines; power and water are controlled by the Israeli government; all goods that enter or leave this virtual prison camp do so by permission of the occupying power. The siege of Gaza has been one long collective punishment inflicted upon the population for their temerity in having elected, in free and open elections, a party, Hamas, that Israel and their ally, the United States and European Union, condemn as terrorists. Their principal crime is to deny the right to exist of a state that has dispossessed their people, occupied their lands, denied their historical existence, subjected them to ethnic cleansing, torture and collective imprisonment, destroyed their olive groves, walled them in behind a “security fence” designed to impede movement and access to farm land, schools, universities and places of work. And all these measures have been openly declared, by an Israeli minister in government, to be designed to suffocate Gaza into submission. All this, the siege and its terrible effects on a civilian population struggling to survive in the most inhuman conditions imaginable, was ongoing before the current Israeli assault on the population of Gaza, its police force as well as old people and school children, infants and invalids. This is not an act of “defense” on the part of Israel, but a bloody continuation of a war of offense, differing only in the intensity and publicness of its brutality and in its abrupt, bloody and systematic nature. It is a war of collective punishment against a population whose resistance is less in its occasional and mostly harmless retaliatory rocket attacks than in its simple refusal to give in. It is an offensive war, like the 2006 and 1982 wars against Lebanon, and against a people whose right to resist occupation is inscribed in international law. It is a war whose crimes—once again–include the indiscriminate, because inevitable and foreseen, slaughter of civilians, including infants and children, attacks on non-military institutions including mosques, a university and a television station, and the deliberate planning of an assault whose proclaimed ends far exceed the suppression of the purported casus belli, the rocket launching sites. It is a war designed to destroy the civil infrastructure of Hamas and to break the will of the Palestinians in Gaza to continue their resistance. The right of the Palestinian people to resist is as indubitable as the right of the Jews of Warsaw to resist the Nazis, or of the Polish or French people to fight against their occupation by the Nazis. Israel is not the West’s proxy in the so-called global war against terrorism. It is a state that itself inflicts terror, and does so with a force and brutality far exceeding anything available to the most violent of terrorist organizations. It is a state whose colonial aim, to occupy and to settle land historically occupied by another people in order to provide unlimited Lebensraum for its own ethnic group, is evidenced every day in the continuing expansion of the illegal settlements on the West Bank. It is an apartheid state, whose self-declared constitution as a “Jewish State for a Jewish People” should have no more international legitimacy than South Africa’s “white state for a white people” or Northern Ireland’s “Protestant State for a Protestant people”, both of which finally fell to a combination of military and civil resistance and international opprobrium. It is long beyond time for Israel, now the exception in every respect among nations, to be held accountable to the norms of international law. It is time for Israel to be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other state that bases its polity on sectarianism and racism, that has established one set of laws for one ethnic group and another for the rest. It is time for Israel to by judged by the international law that everywhere condemns extended occupation, condemns collective punishment, war against civilians, population transfers or ethnic cleansing, dispossession of the occupied people and the settlement of their lands. It is time for us to name Israel what it is so long as it continues to pursue the most extreme of Zionist visions: a colonial, apartheid state with neither legitimacy nor a deserved place among the community of democratic nations. It is time for us to cease the appeasement of Israel. Even the most ardent of appeasers of Nazi Germany never supplied Germany with arms or foreign aid, with fighter planes with which to bomb civilians, never labeled the resistance to Nazism “terrorism”, never actively participated in the German stranglehold on the ghettoes where it confined its subject populations. “Constructive engagement” did not work with South Africa; numerous U.N. General Assembly resolutions that have expressed the virtually unanimous international condemnation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its wars against its neighbors have not worked. It is time for the truth about Israel to be disseminated, even against the most effective control of the western media by Israel’s lobbyists. It is time for all who care about justice and peace, for human rights, for the fate of the innocent and the oppressed, the stateless and the dispossessed, make our voices heard. Let it not be said that in their most extreme hour of need, the Palestinian people were abandoned by the world, as the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were abandoned in 1943. David Lloyd, Los Angeles, December 30, 2008