It is hazardous to write about current events in the Holy Land, since they change rapidly and publication dates are distant. I write in the midst of the invasion of the Gaza Strip launched by Israeli forces under the name Operation Summer Rains. The stated goals of the invasion are the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit and an end to the senseless firing of Qassam rockets from northern Gaza, many of which have struck cities in southern Israel. If Hamas cannot or will not stop these attacks, then Israel understands that it has every right to send in its military to halt them.
On the other hand, there is very little that Hamas can do to stop the arrests (which they might call “kidnappings”) of Palestinians by the Israel Defense Forces, which occur almost daily. On July 11, the day before Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, elite I.D.F. forces went into southern Gaza and seized two men they declared to be militants. During successive midnight raids in early July, two young Palestinian women living in the Beit Sahour suburb of Bethlehem were taken from their homes, which had been surrounded by Israeli jeeps. The most that the grieving families could learn was that the women were “wanted.”
Principles of International Law
Before considering details of this Israeli military offensive, it will be helpful to recall certain principles of international law that are often passed over when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, there is no such thing as a permanent legal occupation. Occupation often takes place in wartime, but it should end as quickly as possible. The United Nations’ Resolution 242 called for Israel’s withdrawal from territories occupied during the June 1967 war, rooted in the principle of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Second, nothing should be done to change the character of the occupied territory, and during the period of occupation the rights of the occupied population must be protected. Any policy of the occupying power that infringes on the rights of the occupied people or that changes the status of the occupied territory is forbidden by international law as established under the Geneva Convention. Third, according to that same convention no person can be punished for an offense that he or she has not personally committed. Collective punishments, along with measures of intimidation, are prohibited. Reprisals against the occupied population and its properties are likewise prohibited.
Assault on Gaza
Within this framework, I examine here some of Israel’s strategies in Operation Summer Rains. On June 27, 2006, Israel launched its massive invasion of Gaza, primarily targeting civilian infrastructure. Prime Minister Ehud Omert of Israel was quoted as saying that the purpose of such measures was to “apply pressure” to the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. One of the first targets was Gaza’s only electrical generator, which supplied more than half of all electric power to the Gaza Strip. Next, three key bridges were destroyed, the Interior Ministry building in Gaza City was severely damaged, and bombs struck both a university campus and a school.
The results of this attack on Gaza’s civilian population have been devastating, yet governments in the Western world remain silent or nod their approval. (James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, calls the response from the West the “Genovese Syndrome,” referring to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese on a street in Queens, N.Y., while at least 37 neighbors who heard her cries or witnessed the repeated stabbing did nothing.)
For Gaza’s civilians the attacks mean no light, no electric fans, no television, no refrigeration, no electricity to charge cell phones and no computers. The sewage system is backing up, and hospitals cannot use essential medical technology because their generators have no gasoline. Patients are simply unhooked from vital machines when they no longer function. This catastrophe follows four months of no salaries for doctors, nurses, teachers and police—all of them public servants essential to the operation of any civil society. Israel, with the tacit approval of the United States as its principal ally, is deliberately and intentionally creating misery and chaos among Gaza’s 1.4 million inhabitants. Almost daily, the people suffer from sonic booms along with powerful sonic bombs, a calculated and terrifying form of collective punishment, especially for children. As one Gaza couple put it, “Our children wake up screaming.” An American journalist operating in Gaza told me that he never knew sonic booms could be so frightening.
Gilad Shalit’s father, Noam Shalit, had appealed to the Israeli government to accept an exchange of prisoners for the release of his son, whom he describes as “a soldier sent by his government to the front lines.” And he adds: “In the end it will be necessary to pay a price for Gilad’s freedom. I don’t understand why the government is delaying negotiations on this price.” Noam Shalit’s voice was wise and restrained, but a voice crying in the wilderness. One of his major requests was that no lives be lost in obtaining his son’s freedom. The Israeli government chose to ignore the father’s plea. A price has already been paid in the deaths of more than 100 Palestinian fighters and civilians and of one Israeli officer as of this writing. Whether brute force alone, without any negotiations, can win Gilad Shalit’s freedom remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, such force must be condemned.
Criticism of the reinvasion of Gaza has come from many Israeli peace activists, as well as from Jewish individuals and groups from abroad. No group put it quite as bluntly as did Gush Shalom, the self-described “hard core of the Israeli peace movement,” which called the military operation no longer “collective punishment, but rather torture, collective torture.” It decries the almost complete clamp-down on Palestinians in Gaza coupled with “the ongoing hellish noise of the sonic booms interspersed with real bombardments, targeted and collateral killings. Meanwhile the majority of people in this overcrowded, impoverished part of the world are without electricity—meaning not only sitting in the dark but also that water pumps can’t work; sewers might collapse.”
One tireless Israeli activist, Dorothy Naor, wrote that she is “speechless with grief, with frustration at not being able to do anything to stop Israel’s atrocities.” She pleads for people and governments abroad “to stop Israel’s government and military from continuing to commit war crimes and from its senseless refusal to recognize that the Palestinians will not disappear, that they have rights, that they are human beings no less than Israelis.” Such dissenting opinions in Israel may receive scant attention in Western media and may have little effect on Israeli policy, but they are voices that will not be silenced, and they keep alive the precious commodity of hope.
Mona Elfara is a Palestinian physician who lives in Gaza City. By regular online postings she has been trying to inform relatives and friends of the ongoing effects of the Israeli incursion. Here is her account in English, slightly edited, of the events of June 30, describing the effects of the sonic booms:
How can I let you know what are my personal feelings? During these raids, if I am sleeping, my bed shakes tremendously; my daughter jumps to my bed, shivering with fear. Then both of us end up on the floor. My heartbeats go very fast, and I had to pacify my daughter. Now she knows we need to pacify each other, she feels my fear. If I am awake, I flinch up and scream loudly, I cannot help myself. O.K., I am a doctor and mature middle-aged woman with wide experience and an activist too, but with this booming I go hysterical. After all, we are all humans, and each has her own threshold. Hearing the sound of breaking windows is frightening too. Many tin roofs in the refugee camps collapsed on the heads of families. As a result of this booming, hospitals received a large number of psychologically traumatized children.
It may well be reports like this that have led Gush Shalom to describe the Israeli incursion as “collective torture.”
Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist, has been relentless and courageous in probing his government’s policies. He fears a growing tendency in his country to stop asking questions and to accept passively decisions of the government: “Without asking questions, Israel is morally collapsing.” Levy raises his own questions: “Do we really want peace? Do we really want to live in a just and sympathetic country? Or is the sad truth that the greed for territory and power has blinded and deafened us so that we are no longer able even to ask?” He believes that too many Israelis are content to justify the brutal use of force with the simple response, “They started it.” Israel can cause electricity blackouts, lay sieges, bomb and shell, assassinate and imprison, kill and wound civilians, including children and babies, but “they started it.” Levy counters by saying simply, “We started....” He reminds his readers: “We started with the occupation. And we are duty bound to end it. There is no violence worse than the violence of the occupier, using force on an entire nation.” A state that has taken the steps that Israel has taken, writes Levy, “is no longer distinguishable from a terror organization.”
Levy is by no means alone in pointing to the violence that occupation represents. Yitzhak Frankenthal is a founder of the Bereaved Parents’ Forum in Israel and head of the Arik Institute for Reconciliation, named for his son, who had been killed in a Palestinian terror attack. In early July Frankenthal reminded his readers that Palestinians have lived under an oppressive occupation for 39 years: “Nothing I could hope to write about it would accurately reflect the reality as it is on the ground.” The experiences of his Palestinian friends coping with the occupation parallel those described by many other human rights groups in Israel. The occupation—with its checkpoints, closures, curfews and security wall—controls almost every aspect of daily life for the Palestinians. “It is time that we awoke from our illusions,” Frankenthal writes, “and fully understand that occupation is the worst form of terror.”
Many other voices could be cited, voices of men and women who love Israel and desperately want it to succeed as a Jewish state. It will be difficult, however, to convince Israel’s government of the moral and political bankruptcy of their policies. Mainline Jewish organizations in the United States will not allow those policies to be seriously questioned. One can argue convincingly that the Palestinian cause is backed by international law, but that makes little difference because Israel is backed by the United States. That is why Jewish organizations like Tikkun, the Jewish Alliance for Peace and Justice and the Jewish Voice for Peace are raising their own profile and asking members to write to newspapers and to politicians to protest the violations of human rights under Operation Summer Rains. Theirs is a call to all who love and respect Judaism, who love Israel and understand the vital role it plays in Jewish self-understanding. I hope that many people will hear their pleas. It is never too late to turn away from violence and to examine seriously the suggestions for negotiations that have been expressed in recent weeks.