For Americans, Gaza Is An
‘In our time,” wrote George Orwell in 1946, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” British colonialism, the Soviet gulag and America’s dropping of an atomic bomb, he argued, “can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face.” So how do people defend the indefensible? Through “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” By obscuring the truth.
So it is, more than 70 years later, with Israeli policy toward the Gaza Strip. The truth is too brutal to honestly defend. Why are thousands of Palestinians risking their lives by running toward the Israeli snipers who guard the fence that encloses Gaza? Because Gaza is becoming uninhabitable. That’s not hyperbole. The United Nations says that Gaza will be “unlivable” by 2020, maybe sooner.
Hamas bears some of the blame for that: Its refusal to recognize Israel, its decades of terrorist attacks and its authoritarianism have all worsened Gaza’s plight. Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority bears some of the blame too. So does Egypt.
But the actor with the greatest power over Gaza is Israel. Israeli policies are instrumental in denying Gaza’s people the water, electricity, education and food they need to live decent lives.
How do kind, respectable, well-meaning American Jews defend this? How do they endorse the strangulation of 2 million human beings? Orwell provided the answer. They do so because Jewish leaders, in both Israel and the United States, encase Israel’s actions in a fog of euphemism and lies.
The fog consists, above all, of three words — “withdrew,” “security” and “Hamas” — which appear to absolve Israel of responsibility for the horror it oversees.
Start with “withdrew.”In May, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, defended Israel’s shooting of mostly unarmed protesters by declaring that, “We withdrew entirely from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, removing every Israeli resident, home, factory and synagogue. We are not responsible for the well-being of the people of Gaza.” American Jewish leaders echo the claim. “Israel withdrew totally” from Gaza, wrote Kenneth Bandler, the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations, last year. Thus, Palestinians rushing toward Gaza’s fence with Israel are the equivalent of Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande. “No nation,” insists the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, “would tolerate such a threat” to its “sovereignty.”
These are anesthetizing fictions. Yes, Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers in 2005. But Israel still controls Gaza. It controls it in the way a prison guard might control a prison courtyard in which he never actually sets foot.
First, Israel declares parts of Gaza off-limits to the people who live there. Israel has established buffer zones — it calls
them Access Restricted Areas — to keep Palestinians away from the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. According to the United Nations, this restricted area has ranged over the past decade from 100 to 500 meters, comprising as much as one-third of Gaza’s arable land. People who enter these zones can — and over the years have been — shot.
In addition to barring Palestinians from much of Gaza’s best land, Israel bars them from much of Gaza’s water. In 1993, the Oslo Accords promised Gazan fisherman the right to fish 20 nautical miles off the coast. But since then, Israel has generally restricted fishing to between three and six nautical miles. (Occasionally, it has extended the boundary to nine nautical miles). Since sardines, which the United Nations calls Gaza’s “most important catch,” “flourish at the 6 NM boundary,” these limitations have been disastrous for Gazan fisherman.
The second way in which Israel still controls Gaza is by controlling its borders. Israel controls the airspace above Gaza, and has not permitted the reopening of Gaza’s airport, which it bombed in 2001. Neither does it allow travel to and from Gaza by sea.
Israel also controls most land access to Gaza. It’s true that — in addition to Gaza’s two active border-crossing points with Israel — it has a third, Rafah, with Egypt. But even here, Israel wields substantial influence. Asked about Hamas’s desire to repatriate the body of a dead operative via Rafah, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett boasted, “Could we prevent it? The answer is yes.”
This doesn’t excuse Egyptian leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who to his discredit, has largely kept the Rafah crossing closed since he took power in 2013. But even when Rafah is open, it isn’t a significant conduit for Gazan exports. As Sari Bashi of Human Rights Watch explained to me, there is little market in Egypt for goods from Gaza, both because those goods are expensive for Egyptian consumers and because transportation across the Sinai is difficult. So when it comes to goods leaving Gaza, the Strip is largely under Israeli control.
Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, Israel controls Gaza’s population registry. When a child is born in Gaza, her parents register the birth, via the Palestinian Authority, with the Israeli military. If Israel doesn’t enter her in its computer system, Israel won’t recognize her Palestinian ID card. From Israel’s perspective, she will not legally exist.
If Israel doesn’t recognize your Palestinian ID card, it’s unlikely to allow you into, or out of, Gaza. And because Israel sees Palestinians as a demographic threat, it uses this power to keep the population in Gaza — and especially the West Bank — as low as possible. Israel rarely adds adults to the Palestinian population registry. That means that if you’re, say, a Jordanian who marries someone from Gaza and wants to move there to live with her, you’re probably out of luck. Israel won’t let you in.
Israel is even more zealous about limiting the number of Palestinians in the West Bank, where it still has settlers. So when Palestinians move from Gaza to the West Bank, Israel generally refuses to let them update their addresses, which means they can’t legally stay. Israel can even prevent chil-
Why are thousands
of Palestinians risking their lives by running toward the Israeli snipers? Because Gaza
is becoming uninhabitable. That’s not hyperbole.