Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
This is the fourth of series of voices and reflections from GRAMNet members and colleagues in Gaza, or those with direct experience of researching in Gaza which we will be publishing on this site over the coming days.
I came back from London on Saturday only to pick up the news late. I saw the killing had been continued and destruction of places like the Islamic University and various Mosques in Gaza City had reduced a city I know well to rubble. More UNWRA schools have been attacked. I reminded myself that Israel was subsidized to the effect of three and a half billion dollars year. Military support goes to Israel constantly. I recalled that Israel claimed to be a Western democracy and frequently sent tennis and cricket teams over here to compete in European tournaments. I also had to remind myself that Israel claims to be complying with International Humanitarian Law as reassuring characters like Mark Regev regularly come on TV to tell us. I am tired of hearing the statement that Israel has the right to defend itself.
Ten minutes home and already I am looking at reports on the web. The smell of death is reported as hanging over the narrow strip of land like November fog. I see Obama stands by Israel even as it bombs schools and hospitals and I also see the Arab states are doing nothing but watching Palestinians die. Having not seen the news much over the past couple of days, I see endless reports on red lines having been crossed in International Humanitarian Law. It looks as though there has been almost no discrimination between combatants and civilians. What is not being said is that Protective Edge will radicalize the world and make it a much more dangerous place. I will not sleep; so I go through some old notes. It feels like I am involved in some sort of time bubble. The same experience on a loop …
What is the most puzzling is the world’s indifference. I asked myself why Egypt has been so quiet. What is the history behind this grotesque silence? For me so much of Palestine’s isolation goes back to the accommodation of the Arab world to the permanent war policies of Israel. Because Egypt was and remains the largest and most populous state in the Arab world, its decision to work with Israel at the end of the seventies, changed the entire region. It put Palestine in a particularly isolated position. What we are seeing right now is one consequence.
Abdul Fattah el-Sisi comes over like the ghost of Sadat. I found endless notes on Sadat and as I skimmed through some of these, I realize what the Camp David Accords were all about. Two events were game changing for the Middle East at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties. The first was Egypt’s switching of its alliances, away from the Soviet Union and towards Washington and the expulsion of the Shah in the Iranian revolution. Taken together, these changes indicated a shift of power. Power moved out the Arab world.
I remember the coverage of Sadat shocking his government in the seventies as he announced he would visit the Israeli Knesset, saying he would go ‘to the end of the universe to end the conflict and save the sons of Egypt’. How many times have we heard statements like this coming out of the Arab world as millions were sold policies that would further pauperize the region. At the time Sadat was seen as pushing the mother of all betrayals. I remember feeling that Sadat was selling the isolation and abandonment of the Palestinians. Sadat perfected a mode of speech that valorized the Palestinians at the very same that they were being stabbed in the back. At the time I remember Sadat trying to sell the deal to Hafez Assad but the Syria leader remained unconvinced. So much of Syrian politics were cohered around opposition to Israel. How could Assad abandon such a resource?
In 1977 Sadat went off to Jerusalem. He then addressed Israel’s Knesset stating conditions that everyone knew he was there to abandon, saying ‘there can be no peace without the Palestinians’. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria and South Yemen continued the pretence by suspending relations with Egypt whilst others stood on saying nothing. But no one observing the Arab League was being fooled. The period built up to the Camp David summit of September which produced ‘two agreements’: the first being the return of Sinai to Egypt while the second established ‘a format’ for negotiating a five year ‘autonomy regime’ for the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza. An agreement was then signed and by 1982 Israel had dismantled eighteen settlements. Nothing was said about the annexation of the Sinai being illegal in the first place. So another pattern was developing where occasionally Israel complies with international law and the world celebrates peaceful intent. Israel has been one of the most successful PR campaigns in history as one deceit after another has been sold to the Middle East, no doubt because of American sponsors. With the collapse of the Cold War of course this got progressively worse and we are seeing it all unfold now in Gaza.
Egypt was ostracized, boycotted and sanctioned in the Arab world but Sadat held on to his betrayal. Nasserites and the Muslim Brothers, as might be expected, expressed their objections and several gestures of government resignations followed as I recall. It was a done deal.
Palestinians had been abandoned. Rafah was closed more often than it was not; today the crossing remains almost permanently closed. The crossing is used as a very political tool by el-Sisi. It has been opened once recently for only a few hours when eleven patients were allowed to travel in order to get treatment for horrendous wounds. Right now thousands of Palestinians await transfer through the crossing so that they can get similar treatment. Alas Egypt only allows those with American passports to go through the border – no Palestinian ID’s or travel documents are accepted. I now think of the times I have been stuck in the Rafah terminal seeing the reception hall full of injured people, giving the appearance of a scene from the First World War.
Nothing moves Sisi however. He has to demonstrate his grip on power because so much of the Egyptian economy is based on the military maintaining its corrupt squeeze on the economy. So Sisi remains firm in his support for Israel and he is not moving. He would prefer to do business with Israel rather than stand next to the Palestinians when they are being hammered. This has been the way with Egypt since the death of Nasser.
Cleaning my teeth I then looked through different folders on the Palestine Papers (Al Jazeera 2002; Palestine Papers 2014). In the early eighties the Arab League endorsed the Fahd-Fez Plan where Israel was not even mentioned. The whole deal worked around Israeli power in a plan where Israel was not even mentioned! Imagine that …
Of course all the empty rhetoric on a future Palestinian state was there with East Jerusalem as its capital. But one year earlier Israel had passed the 1980 ‘Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel’ which was the ‘nod and wink’ to any negotiations of the future. The boldest statement in the Fahd-Fez Plan was the general statement of the ‘the right of all countries in the region to live in peace’. The Arab League adopted the plan and freed up Israel to march on the PLO in Lebanon …
The stated aims of Israel crossing the Lebanese border in June 1982 were to clear a 45 kilometer strip of land of fedayeen just north of the Israel-Lebanon border. Sharon saw things differently because of the change in regional power. He marched ‘the most moral army in the world’ on to Beirut, defeating and expelling Syrian forces and placing Israel’s Maronite Christian allies in control. Beirut became madness, which meant the situation created by Israel could not be controlled and American forces had to be brought to the rescue. I had a whole folder on the tragedy which followed when unarmed Palestinians were isolated by Israel so that the slaughter in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, recorded by Robert Fisk in Pity the Nation (accessed online 2nd August 2014) could commence:
‘What we found inside the Palestinian camp at ten o’clock on the morning of September 1982 did not quite beggar description, although it would have been easier to re-tell in the cold prose of medical examination. There had been medical examinations before in Lebanon, but rarely on this scale and never overlooked by a regular, supposedly disciplined army. In the panic and hatred of battle, tens of thousands had been killed in this country. But these people, hundreds of them had been shot down unarmed. This was a mass killing, an incident – how easily we use the word ‘incident’ in Lebanon – that was also an atrocity. It went beyond even what the Israelis would have in other circumstances called a terrorist activity. It was a war crime.’
Fisk went on …
‘We might have accepted evidence of a few murders; even dozens of bodies, killed in the heat of combat. But there were [Palestinian] women lying in houses with their skirts torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart, children their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were babies – blackened babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24 hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition – tossed in rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey.’
It is interesting to look at Sharon’s reasons for the murder in these camps. He argued that though the camps were made up of unarmed civilians, he said the PLO had left fighters in the camps. Echoing all the reasoning that is being made by characters like Mark Regev, it was said that the PLO hid amongst the ordinary refugee population. So once again we see the same rhetoric being used over thirty years later. All the statements made by the Israeli military about Gaza have been made many times before. Palestinians were betrayed by Egypt and the Israelis assisted in the mass murder of Palestinians years later as a result. Sharon who is now emulated by Netanyahu made endless statements about ‘finishing the job off’. Arab nations stood back then as they stand back now and watch the cull that has followed. Vengeance ran amok in 1982 just as it is doing in 2014 and as I now look at the news and see the bombed out buildings of the Islamic University of Gaza I shiver at how much the Israelis still get away with … Self deception might explain a lot of Israeli behavior but it explains nothing in terms of international indifference.
Whilst leaders of the different Arab states have stood by and watched yet another episode of genocide, ordinary people in Europe are deeply shocked by what they are seeing. Israel has tried to sell itself as the great defender of democracy in the Middle East far too many times. Which other democratic state has a history of land theft and constant war on a people like the Palestinians? I asked myself this question I ploughed through other notes. I knew I would not sleep and so I looked at Jon Snow’s Youtube piece, which Alison Phipps had been recommending.
I understood everything Snow said. It is one thing to listen to descriptions of what is happening in Gaza and it is another thing to be there and see young children covered in shrapnel wounds. It was now after 2 am and all sorts of faces came back to me. I worried about Nazmi, Hatem and Fahid along with their families. Endless faces that Snow had seen came back to me from my visit in 2012 whilst all hell was being unleashed on Gaza yet again. The scenes in Shifa came back to me when I saw people carrying children in bloody clothes. …
The thought that really haunts me in the middle of the night goes right back to Egypt in the late seventies. Palestinians were abandoned. They were isolated and left to deal with Israel on their own. The only thing holding the Israeli state back from full on genocide is the international community. The Israeli state simply thinks it would not get away with it but there is no doubt that in its push for a monoethnic state and society the Israeli state wants to ‘finish the job’ of 1948. Because they cannot go ahead with such a massacre and cannot go on to build an exclusively Jewish state without doing so. They want to constantly punish the Palestinians for the historic crime of Europe. I picked up a book by the side of my computer that I had been sent to review by Jean Pierre Filiu (2014) which has a page (70) marked; it relates to the thousands and thousands of Palestinians arriving in Gaza after being forced from their homes in the ethnic cleansing of 1948. I read an observation made by someone in Gaza as Palestinians appear from towns and cities up the coast. It reads:
‘We saw thousands of people arrive, all looking exhausted. They didn’t even ask for anything to eat or drink. When we offered them food, sometimes they refused it, sometimes they threw themselves on it as if starving. We had never seen anything like it. The streets, which were in general empty, suddenly pulsated with vast crowds who seemed to wander aimlessly: no-one knew where these people were going and from what or whom they were fleeing. The main street was packed with people going in both directions; some came by sea, arriving by boat down the coast from Jaffa, while others came on foot from places close by.’
What we are seeing on Al Jazeera and Chanel 4 right now is the consequence of 1948. Again it is a result of no one acknowledging the rights of Palestinians because so many in Europe and the United States were still getting over the Holocaust. So right now we are seeing yet another consequence of the same old story. It was now after 3-00 in the morning and I could not bear watching further coverage that seemed to go through a list after list of international crimes committed by Israel with near complete impunity. But the single thought that was still rattling around my head was that my friends, the Palestinians were on their own all over again. No one believes Israel could do anything wrong. It felt like I was watching Shatila 1982 all over again …
It would not be long before we heard of another inquiry being instigated into possible war crimes. It would give that same old song of ‘Gaza made us do it,’ ‘We had no option’ and ‘Israel had the right to defend itself’. Israel has deceived the world for over 60 years. They have lied and covered crimes through one war on the Palestinians after another. The lies are directed as much at their own society as societies of others around the world. Like a people of alcoholics they refuse to see the problem as theirs and not the Palestinians. We on the other hand have no excuse. Jon Snow says we are all implicated in Israel’s slaughter and it is not until we decide to do something to stop the killing of Palestinians that the madness will stop. We cannot believe that a people subject to the horrors of the Shoah could ever behave as the murderers we are seeing now. After the bombing of several UNWRA schools and UN refuge centers Chris Gunness, the representative of the UN in Gaza comes on the screen saying, ‘the international community should hang its head in shame’. Gunness is absolutely right. We learned nothing from the Holocaust and once again will live to regret never facing up to our indifference on Zionism …
I finally starting to think about bed well after 4-30 but instead of going to sleep I get up again and start thumbing through Finkelstein’s (2011) This Time We Went Too Far. He notes that after ‘Operation Cast Lead’, Judge Richard Goldstone said Israel had been seeking to ‘punish, humiliate and terrorize’ the civilian population in Gaza. This is the way Israel works. Goldstone’s report said Israel had committed numerous violations of customary and conventional international law. War crimes had been committed such as ‘willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment,’ ‘willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health,’ ‘extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawful and wantonly,’ and ‘use of human shields’ (Goldstone 2009, paras 46,50,60,937,961,987,1006,1171-75, 1935) but they had yet to be proved. After the report had been published I recall that it was put to Goldstone that his report had focused on Israeli violations of international law far too much. He replied ‘It’s difficult to deal with a state party, with a sophisticated army, with the sort of army Israel has, with an air force, and a navy, and the most sophisticated weapons that are not only in the arsenal of Israel, but manufactured and exported by Israel, on the one hand, with Hamas using really improvised, imprecise armaments’ (Moyers quoted in Finkelstein 2011:134).
I was in Gaza as part of a wonderful delegation of the US organization Code Pink when I, and others met Goldstone. He and his team were visiting villages and hearing evidence for the report. Israel had refused to cooperate in any way with the Goldstone Report. The team could not even travel through Israel to get into Gaza. Even at that stage the poor man looked hammered. Goldstone soon realized that there was more to standing up to Israel than knowing the law. I finally sat on the edge of the bed, starting to feel like I had had enough for one day. I thought to myself, the Palestinians will never give up. They want justice. Palestinians have endured too much for to give up. Often they have had to stand up to Israel completely alone. I then crawled to my bed, knowing I was exhausted but would not sleep. I woke up around six hours later and immediately moved over to the computer. I switched on the news: the killing continues …
Al Jazeera March 25th 2002: ‘Between Fez and Beirut, two Saudi initiatives for peace’ in the Palestine Papers on http://transparency.aljazeera.net/en/projects/thepalestinepapers/201218225348796889.html – accessed 1st August 2014.
Evron, Yair (1987) War and Intervention in Lebanon: The Israeli-Syrian Deterrence Dialogue. London: Routledge.
Filiu, Jean-Pierre (2014) Gaza – A History. Trans. From the French by John King. London: Hurst & Company.
Finkelstein, Norman, G. (2011) ‘This Time we Went Too Far’ New York: OR Books.
Fisk, Robert (2014) ‘Remembering Sabra and Shatilla’ – http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article4733.htm