In­con­ve­nient Truth

For Amer­i­cans, Gaza Is An

Forward Magazine - - Opinion - Peter Beinart

‘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.

With­draw

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.

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