On Friday, 16 January, Mohammed Shurrab and his two sons, Kassab and Ibrahim, took advantage of the daily lull in the Israeli assault – the ‘three hours’ promised by the IDF – to travel from their plot of land in the eastern part of the Gaza Strip back to their home in Khan Younis. They were driving a red Land Rover. On the road, soldiers in a tank waved them on. Later, in the village of Al Fukhari, in a street lined with small houses and gardens, their vehicle was shot at by soldiers stationed on the roof of a local home. Kassab was killed instantly. Ibrahim lay bleeding beside his father; he died at midnight. Mohammed Shurrab had called for help on his cellphone, but the army prevented ambulances from entering the area until 23 hours after the shooting. The closest hospital was two minutes’ drive away.
Eight days later I visited the house from which the shots were fired. The women had already cleaned up the garbage the soldiers had piled up inside. But they hadn’t yet cleaned the walls of graffiti. On one wall I found two inscriptions in Hebrew: ‘The people of Israel live’; ‘Kahane was right.’ Meir Kahane’s party called for the expulsion of the Arabs from Israel if they didn’t give up their demands for national expression within the state.
The Joha family home in the Zaytoun neighbourhood in the south-east of Gaza City was also used by the army for several days. Soldiers ordered the family to leave their house on 4 January. Like dozens of other frightened neighbours they scrambled from house to house, seeking shelter from the incessant gunfire. On 5 January 80 people – some carrying white flags – decided to march north-west towards the city centre. The procession was led by Mouin Joha, an agricultural engineer, who pushed his ageing mother on a cart he’d found in a nearby garage. His 15-year-old son, Ibrahim, walked beside him; according to his mother he was waving a white flag. And then two shots were fired from another commandeered house. One bullet hit the ground just in front of the push-cart. Another hit Ibrahim. The Red Crescent failed in its attempts to co-ordinate ambulance access to the area with Israeli forces. Ibrahim died the next day.
When I visited the Joha home two weeks later, the house had been wrecked: concrete shards and broken furniture; electrical appliances riddled with bullets and thrown downstairs from the upper floors; shredded clothes, a smashed computer. There were shell holes in the walls on the third and fourth floors. The family asked me to translate the soldiers’ graffiti. In one room: ‘The Zionist conqueror was here.’ In another: ‘We’re here to annihilate you.’
Denial of access to medical personnel was one of the persistent themes of the Gaza offensive. In various places people told me that soldiers, having ordered them to leave their homes and make their way to the centre of Gaza City, warned them not to evacuate the wounded – ‘or else you’ll be hit by a drone-fired missile’. In some places soldiers shot at ambulances. Seven doctors and other paramedics were killed; others were wounded by missiles, shells or direct fire.
The nature of the offensive reflected the highly permissive rules of engagement (which the army and its spokesmen do not reveal to the public): the killing of families in or near their homes with bombs, missiles or shells; the bombing of tall buildings (where residents often crowded into one corner on the ground floor); the devastation of factories; the ruin of agricultural land.
Wherever they stayed the soldiers left behind piles of refuse: not just empty bags of provisions, not just spent ammunition packs, sleeping bags and other military gear, but plastic bottles filled with urine and ‘waste disposal bags’ containing human faeces. In many cases they smeared shit on floors, walls, mattresses. Some of the people I talked to say they can’t return to their own homes even after having cleaned them. The stench clings to the walls.
Khaled Abed Rabbo, whose two daughters were killed in front of him outside their home, told me that this was ‘not the army we once knew’. Many Gazans said the same thing. They recalled the soldiers they had known in the first intifada, patrolling the cities and refugee camps before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Abed Rabbo, however, was not even thinking of the first intifada, but of March 2008, when during a limited ground offensive in his neighbourhood in eastern Gaza, the army took over his house and used it as a base for three days. He said that had been bearable, and the soldiers had been polite. This time, the house was destroyed after the family left, blasted by dynamite. Thousands of houses have been wrecked or levelled, along with cowsheds, mangers, chicken-coops, barns with livestock still inside, hot-houses, orchards; the border areas were hit especially hard.
As the army advanced, tens of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes, under fire from helicopters, tanks, drones, behind a heavy screen of smoke produced by white phosphorus bombs and fires ignited by the bombing. In describing their flight, Gazans use a term that often attaches to 1948: Hijra, ‘migration’, a word once applied only to the Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina, the founding event of historical Islam. But in 1948 its meaning changed: it referred to the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland. In 2009, Palestinians have been displaced by only a few kilometres, and many have already returned to their homes, but their use of this loaded word says something about collective feeling.
Israel has finally breached the few limits it formerly set up for itself as an occupying state, and defied all the restrictions of international law that would require it to provide for the safety and welfare of the occupied population. It claims that disengagement ended the occupation and that Gaza is now an independent entity. Contrary to conventional wisdom, disengagement did not begin in 2005 with the evacuation of the settlers and the withdrawal of soldiers. It began in 1991, when, four years into the intifada, Israel instigated its closure policy (similar to the pass system under apartheid) and denied the Palestinians freedom of movement between the West Bank and Gaza, and within Israel. Unopposed by the international community, closure eventually turned into a policy of demographic separation, dividing Palestinians from Palestinians and Palestinians from Israelis.
The immediate consequence of the separation policy was to disconnect Gaza from the West Bank (and Palestinian East Jerusalem), from its population, its education centres and health services, from jobs in Israel and from family members and friends. No wonder Israel now defines Gazans who live in the West Bank as ‘illegal sojourners’ unless they have an Israeli permit to be there. The tight siege imposed in Gaza over the last two years has merely exacerbated the situation. The separation policy of the 1990s (along with the rapid expansion of Jewish colonies in the West Bank) was designed to destroy the foundation of a future Palestinian state.
Israel suppressed the second intifada with lethal means that it did not dare use in the first, not just because the Palestinians had now acquired guns, or because of the suicide bombings, but rather because since the creation of the Palestinian Authority, Israel has treated the ‘other side’ as sovereign and independent – when it wants to. As if the PA enclaves were not under occupation. Thanks to this very effective propaganda, most Israelis believe that the creation of the PA resembles the founding of an independent state – an ungrateful one at that, attacking little, peace-seeking Israel. They find it easy enough to ignore the fact that Israel continues to control – both directly and indirectly – all parameters of sovereignty and independence: land, borders, resources, water, population registry, economics, construction, education, health and medical services.
The unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the fact that Hamas spun it as a victory – the result of armed resistance – allowed Israel to claim that the occupation of Gaza had ended. With Hamas’s electoral success in 2006 and Abu Mazen’s support for Israeli efforts to topple the elected government, Israel has found it even easier to present Gaza as an independent political entity. At the same time, Israel has intentionally exaggerated the threat that Palestinian weaponry posed to the state and its citizens. This exaggeration plays into the hands of armed Palestinian organisations which would like to present themselves and the ‘armed struggle’ as a threat to the occupation in an effort to win Palestinian support (hence Hamas’s claim to have killed dozens of Israeli soldiers and also to have been assisted by angels).
Propaganda aside, Gaza was and remains an occupied territory, like the West Bank. The problem with the siege was not and is not food: that is the one and only thing Israel did allow in (evidence, it claimed, of its ‘humanitarian’ intentions). The population of Gaza has never starved: UNRWA expanded programmes giving a direct supply of food to refugees; other humanitarian aid organisations followed suit; Hamas has encouraged the tunnel economy between Gaza and Egypt, and handles provisions itself; and the hamulah structure of society ensures persistent mutual aid. What the siege has done is reduce an entire society to the status of beggars, denying it nearly all productive activity, suffocating it in an open-air prison, disconnected from the rest of the world. The denial of the right to a livelihood, and the denial of freedom of movement: that is the essence of the siege, the foundation block of the separation policy. The closure policy is an assault on the human dignity of the Palestinians, and especially those in Gaza. Now, Israel has shown that the cage can also be a deathtrap.