Author Archives: NM

Israeli and Palestinian Violence

Many writers have noted some of the obvious asymmetries of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the lopsided casualty figures, the crude rockets vs smart bombs, the young men throwing stones at tanks. But there is another asymmetry that is seldom discussed by American commentators. Like all the conflict’s asymmetries, this one attains its greatest clarity only when the bombs are falling. But unlike the others, it has little to do with the bombs themselves.

Last August, as Israel was conducting another large-scale military campaign in Gaza, and as the casualties continued to mount, America once again found itself in the midst of a debate on moral justification. Of course, I use the word ‘debate’ very loosely here. The national conversation in America on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hardly qualifies as a debate. It largely consists of a flock of old foreign policy hands writing round after round of apologetics for Israeli brutality. But certainly a conversation of sorts occurred and, for me at least, the most interesting thing about the conversation was actually what was missing.

American characterizations of the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians seem to have an almost choreographed quality. They are carefully designed to work around the conflict’s central element; to ignore the source of its misery. The key is to avoid, at all costs, any analysis of underlying circumstances, even if this forces you to discuss other very uncomfortable issues, like the conduct of the latest military operation. Even here, Israel’s position is indefensible. Over 2000 Palestinians were killed. Around 70% of those killed were non-combatants, including 495 children. Their deaths make a mockery of Israeli claims regarding the avoidance of civilian casualties. But defending the indefensible has always been a hobby of the American foreign policy commentariat, and so we were gifted with an exhibition of American columnists explaining to us why Palestinian civilians were really responsible for their own deaths. This, conveniently, absolved the people dropping the bombs of any responsibility, and even more conveniently, absolved the people providing the bombs (That would be us. God forbid Americans should be made to consider their culpability in such destruction).

In the end however, this central conceit, this careful avoidance of the conflict’s fundamental element, infects all discussions of the issue, even those outside the bounds of the last campaign. So American opinion writers speak about roadmaps for peace as if the two adversaries were both sovereign nations. They talk about “outbreak[s] of violence” as if peace reigned in the interim. They deplore the casualties and ignore the policies that created them. As a result, the American public is largely ignorant of the central asymmetry of the conflict and the journalists who write columns for major American newspapers are certainly in no hurry to change that.

Before his death, Edward Said wrote about precisely this problem. He castigated Western commentators for ruminating on the conflict’s violence while utterly ignoring the most pervasive example: the occupation. This refusal to even acknowledge the most salient fact of life for Palestinians is typified by the prolific use of the phrase “outbreaks of violence.” The entire notion of a peace shattered by “outbreaks of violence” is an absurdity. The status quo for Palestinians is life under occupation, and occupation is itself an act of violence. Every second of every day, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank live under the control of a foreign military regime that violates numerous tenets of international law. Every second of every day, Israel is involved in an enduring act of violence against millions of Palestinians. The conditions in Gaza created by Israel’s blockade serve to ridicule Israel’s claims that it no longer occupies the territory (Claims that have been thoroughly refuted under the standards of international law), and its occupation of the West Bank is no less oppressive.

From a 2010 report by the American Friends Service Committee, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient:

In the occupied Palestinian territories nearly every facet of life is controlled by Israeli military policies. These policies not only restrict movement, but also isolate and harass the civilian population. The state of siege, which relates in this context to fully or partially preventing residents from entering or leaving a certain area, while isolating the area from other parts of the West Bank is marked by closures, regular curfews, roadblocks, checkpoints, electric fences, and walls, in addition to other obstacles which affect the normalcy of Palestinian daily life…

During curfews, Palestinians remain under sustained house arrest, sometimes for days and weeks on end. Businesses are closed and life is largely forced to a halt…

The movement restrictions have had devastating effects on the Palestinian economy and access to healthcare. Palestinians are often forced to wait for hours at checkpoints, keeping them from school and jobs, and making daily planning a challenging task…

At the end of October 2009, there were a total of 578 closure obstacles within the West Bank (excluding border/Green Line crossings), including 69 permanently staffed checkpoints, 21 “partial checkpoints,” and 488 unstaffed obstacles…At some checkpoints, especially in Nablus, Israel occasionally prevents men of a certain age group, usually 16-35, from crossing…

But the pervasive restrictions on freedom of movement are only the tip of the iceberg. From Amnesty International’s annual report for 2013:

In more than 60% of the West Bank, known as Area C, the Israeli army continued to control planning, zoning and security and regularly demolished Palestinian homes. Some 604 structures, a third of them homes, and including 36 water cisterns, were destroyed, resulting in the forced eviction of some 870 Palestinians from their homes and affecting at least 1600 others. Israeli settlers continued to attack Palestinian residents and their property with virtual impunity.

Palestinians in the occupied territories have virtually no rights under the Israeli military regime. They can be arbitrarily arrested and held without trial for years using a legal maneuver called administrative detention. According to Amnesty International, “More than 320 Palestinians from the OPT were held without charge or trial in administrative detention during the year.”

The routine violation of Palestinian civil rights is just one feature of Israeli occupation. Perhaps even more damaging is the effect it has on the Palestinian economy. This is especially true in Gaza, where Israel’s blockade, in force since 2007, has plunged the territory into grinding poverty and endangered Palestinian access to food and medical care. Human Rights Watch noted that “[t]he number of Gaza residents registered with UNRWA living in “abject poverty” tripled since 2007 to 300,000.”

From a November 2013 Guardian article describing the results of Israel’s blockade of Gaza:

Gaza is facing a power crisis as a result of a shortage of fuel, with blackouts lasting 12-16 hours a day, according to Oxfam. Raw sewage has flooded streets in some areas of Gaza City following the closure of Gaza’s only power plant on 1 November, which made pump stations inoperative. Factories have been forced to cut production, leading to layoffs, and hospitals are running on emergency reserves…

More than 80% of Gaza’s 1.7 million inhabitants are in need of humanitarian aid and 65% of families are expected to be food insecure by the end of the year.

Remember, this is not a description of conditions in the immediate aftermath of an attack. The AFSC report does not document the results of Israeli military operations. The Guardian article describes conditions a year after Israel’s 2012 military operation in Gaza. Amnesty International’s annual report is the same. These are not descriptions of unusual circumstances. These accounts describe the conditions in Palestine when things are “normal.” These are the circumstances of daily life for Palestinians living under Israel’s 48-year-long occupation.

Back to the AFSC report:

In most of the Gaza Strip, salinity levels in water wells are above the limit established by the WHO and nitrate concentrations exceed WHO guidelines…

Only 7% of available water in Gaza meets WHO standards…

Only in 16% of Palestinian communities does the per capita supply of water exceed 100 liters per day, which is the minimum amount recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO)…

The UN, measuring the deterioration of Gaza under Israeli control, estimates that the territory will no longer be livable by 2020. Israel has used its complete control of Gaza’s borders, coastline, and airspace to turn the territory into an open-air prison, only to later express surprise at the Palestinian reaction to horrific living conditions. This is the status quo in Palestine. This is what is happening when the bombs are not falling and American commentators are off discussing other things. This state of affairs is not the result of a natural disaster. It is not a cultural problem. It is the direct result of Israeli policy. This is how Palestinians experience the occupation; the violence that Israel is engaged in every day.

Here we finally arrive at the central difference between Israeli and Palestinian violence and the conflict’s central asymmetry. It is not found, as many American liberals contend, in the large ratio of Palestinian casualties to Israeli casualties. Nor is it found in a comparison between the advanced US-provided weaponry Israel uses to the primitive projectiles the Palestinians manufacture themselves. The central difference between Israeli and Palestinian violence is that Israeli violence is in service of perpetuating its illegitimate rule over Palestinians while Palestinian violence is in service of resisting it. Israel’s violence cannot be morally justified in any meaningful sense for precisely this reason. It is a tool of oppression. The fact of the occupation itself makes a mockery of the Israeli claim to self-defense. You cannot be involved in the occupation of another people, an ongoing act of aggression, and then claim self-defense when the people you are oppressing lash out. Hamas can be fairly described as odious in many ways, from its military tactics to its governing methods, but Hamas is the inevitable result of a people living under a crushing daily burden. Its religiosity and rhetoric of resistance are a mental refuge for people who have lived through decades of abuse and harassment inherent to life under Israeli occupation. This does not absolve Hamas for the way it uses violence. There is no justification for the harming of civilians, which is a violation that has been committed by both sides. But just war theory recognizes the moral right of occupied people to resist occupation. It does not recognize a right of war by those engaged in an illegal occupation. Israel cannot claim moral justification when it is the Israeli occupation that is the most pervasive form of violence in the arena and the primary source of all others.