Gaza and the politics of forgetting

Photo: flickr/Adam Nieman

As the current war on Gaza has entered its third week, approximately 800 Palestinians have been killed. While Stephen Harper has pledged to remain "[steadfast] in support of Israel's right to defend itself," the Prime Minister's Office does not appear to be concerned about the mounting death toll in Gaza, or the fact that, as of yesterday, OCHA (The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), reported that 33 per cent of civilian deaths are children. Instead, the Conservatives are busy creating websites to fundraise for Israel. 

This unconcern for Palestinian lives extends to other political parties, as Liberal and NDP leaders have also reiterated Israel's right to defend itself against aggression, but failed to simultaneously mention the right that Palestinians have to resist colonial occupation. And herein lies the crux of the problem: the latest violence in Gaza is conveniently disconnected from the reality of occupation.

After militarily occupying Gaza since 1967, in 2005, Israel removed its settlements from the Palestinian territory, and withdrew its military to the borders, but it did not end its occupation of an area considerably smaller than the entire Island of Montreal, and one of the most densely packed places on earth. In fact, what Israel did was shift the occupation from a typical settler-colonial model to an atypical and, as some have noted, vertical one. 

As Lisa Hajjar explains, Israel's occupation of Gaza continues to the present day because "(a) Israel continues to exercise 'effective control' over this area, (b) the conflict that produced the occupation has not ended and (c) an occupying state cannot unilaterally (and without international/diplomatic agreement) transform the international status of occupied territory except, perhaps, if that unilateral action terminates all manner of effective control."

Due to the fact that Israel maintains control over Gaza's borders, airspace and territorial waters, in addition to water, electricity and phone services, it cannot be earnestly claimed that "effective control" has been relinquished. 

Amid this ceaseless occupation, worsening living conditions, and the well-documented historical "de-development" of Gaza, Palestinians in the Strip democratically elected Hamas in 2006. Almost immediately, Israel punished Palestinians in Gaza by imposing economic and political sanctions. The following year, Israel declared the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity."

This declaration was significant, as it effectively transformed Gaza into a state of exception where normal rights do not apply. Within this liminal space, Palestinian bodies are viewed as obstacles to be destroyed or controlled in the maintenance of the colonial order.

In Wasted Lives, Bauman explains how those designated as outside the body politic, often referred to as "others," are viewed as superfluous, alien bodies "gnawing at the healthy tissues of society and sworn enemies of ‘our way of life' and ‘what we stand for.'" All Palestinians are, therefore, the omnipresent threat, be it "demographic" or otherwise. 

The historic regulation and fragmentation of Palestinian bodies and land, not only in Gaza, but also in all of the occupied Palestinian territory, is a necessary strategy to continue Israeli domination and occupation.

In Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability, Giroux reminds us that the body is an "object of power" that "needs to be 'regularized', subject to those immaterial means of production that produce ways of life that enlarge the targets of control and regulation." In the occupied Palestinian territories, life can be administered and regulated in order to ensure that Palestinians continue to be controlled. Through the blockade of Gaza that included the closure of border crossings, limits on provision of fuel and electricity, limits to legal fishing areas, buffer zones along the border with Israel, a no-go area in the North, and severe restrictions on the movement of people, Gaza was transformed into a veritable open-air prison where few had actually committed any crimes. 

While the blockade was designed to "strangle" and isolate Hamas, it had the opposite effect. Israel's strategy backfired and Hamas only cemented its control and support of Palestinians in Gaza. The International Crisis Group reported in March 2008, that "The policy of isolating Hamas and sanctioning Gaza is bankrupt and, by all conceivable measures, has backfired… Economic conditions are ruinous, generating anger and despair…Those intending to undermine Hamas have instead given it an assist."

The terrible conditions in Gaza led the head of UNRWA to remark that "Hungry, unhealthy, angry communities do not make good partners for peace." 

The tunnels that Israel has somehow managed to use as a pretext for the current invasion of Gaza ex post facto, are another product of Israel's skewed logic. When Israel banned the import of basic items into Gaza, including cement, irrigation pipes, tar, plaster, A4 paper and even chocolate, and attempted to reduce the flow of goods to a "humanitarian minimum" in order to put Palestinians "on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger," they also created the conditions necessary for such desperate attempts at reaching the outside world.

It was only after the blockade in 2007 that the makeshift system of tunnels was transformed into a major commercial enterprise. As Nicholas Pelham notes, the tunnels, became a "key driver of upward mobility and social change, empowering previously marginalized groups…."

John Holmes, the United Nations under secretary general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, remarked in 2010 that "the situation without the tunnels would be completely unsustainable." It is fair to assume, then, that the existence of the tunnels, first discovered by Israel in 1983, are predicated upon Israel's perpetual occupation of Gaza. 

And, while international aid has become necessary for Gaza's survival, this assistance simultaneously obfuscates Israel's own legal responsibilities toward the occupied Palestinian population. This means that Israel can bomb Gaza, kill civilians and destroy vital infrastructure without worrying about the financial costs attached to rebuilding. Moreover, as Qarmout and Beland (2012) note, "…assistance has, inadvertently and unintentionally, increased Gazans' dependence on humanitarian aid, impeded economic development, and enabled Israel to maintain its occupation…" The abysmal conditions in Gaza in March 2008 led the head of UNRWA to state that Gaza was on the verge of becoming " the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and -- some would say -- encouragement of the international community." 

Within this surreal narrative, the U.S. can pledge $47 million in aid to Gaza while simultaneously funding Israel's invasion, effectively supplying it with weapons, technology and the political support needed to carry out the destruction it later pays to fix. While U.S. support might currently appear normalized, if Israel is found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as it was in 2008-2009, the U.S., along with countries like Canada who offer unconditional support, should be deemed complicit in the slaughter of innocents. 

Seven months prior to the death and destruction wrought on Gaza by Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, a coalition of aid agencies and human rights organizations presciently warned "Peace will not be achieved by locking 1.5 million people into a prison of spiralling poverty and misery. Failure to end the policy of isolation will only continue the cycle of increasing poverty and extremism in Gaza rather than bring an end to it." Given the ongoing occupation and control of Gaza, this warning continues to be relevant, but also conveniently ignored by Israel. 

It is no surprise that the current invasion of Gaza began shortly after a Hamas-Fatah unity government was formed. The United States' recent admission that it would work with the new government, greatly concerned Israel, as it knows that any rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah, blessed by the U.S., could confer international legitimacy on Hamas. This legitimacy is a serious threat to Israel, as it destroys its self-appointed powers of deterrence and removes the longstanding excuse for colonization and occupation of Palestinian territory. As philosopher Giorgio Agamben remarks, "A system that can only function in a state of emergency must preserve the emergency at any cost." Without the Hamas boogeyman, Israel doesn't have a leg to stand on. 

When Harper says, "The indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel are terrorist acts, for which there is no justification," we have to recall the history of colonization in Palestine. And when Israel asserts, ad nauseum, its right to defend itself from rocket attacks, we must remember that self-defence is not a viable excuse when you have colonized someone else's territory for 47 years.

In short, the spectacle of invasion should not make us forget about the otherwise torturous banality of Israel's ongoing occupation. 

Paul Di Stefano is an educator, activist and researcher from Montreal, Canada.

Photo: flickr/Adam Nieman

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