Israel’s bombing of Gaza is not about Hamas

Hospitals are struggling to cope, like in 2012's Operation Pillar of Defense.

Gigi Ibrahim

As the World Cup drew to a close on Sunday night, more Palestinians had been killed during the preceding week than goals scored throughout the tournament.

‘I’ve lost my words. Bombs rein down on my area. Behind the dining table, Leila and I sit close to each other. Death is what we are tweeting.’ Mohammed Suliman wrote early 13 July from Gaza City.

‘They [Israeli Air Force] make every effort to avoid hitting civilians, and innocents are hit because Hamas maliciously hides behind Palestinian civilians.’ Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister on 10 July.

In seven days, Israeli militants backed by a rogue government have killed 180 men, women and children and injured 1,230: by the time you read this article, the number will have risen, again.

On 8 July Israel’s military incursion into the West Bank, Operation Brother’s Keeper, initiated under the pretext of finding three missing Israeli teenagers – made way for an attack on Gaza called Operation Protective Edge. The reason for both operations freely admitted by Israeli officials, has been to cripple Hamas and in so doing, destroy any chance for a unity government between the West Bank’s Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Hamas leadership in Gaza.

‘No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself’

As soon as the latest murderous rampage began, the usual suspects immediately leapt to Israel’s defence: White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: ‘No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks.’ British prime minister David Cameron reiterated the nation’s ‘staunch support’ for Israel and even journalist Owen Jones wrote in The Independent that: ‘There is no defence for Hamas firing rockets into civilian areas’.

Who is supporting Gaza’s right to defend itself? Firing rockets into Israel might not be an effective strategy and it has been condemned by the PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. But it would be folly to look at the militant response in isolation without understanding the context of 66 years of Israeli aggression.

Shooting fish in a barrel

Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The Strip is 25 miles long and four miles wide; there are no sirens to warn people of bombs, no air raid shelters or safe rooms, previous Israeli airstrikes mean many buildings are already unstable, the Strip is undergoing ‘de-development’ and even before the latest attack, hospital supplies were at zero, according to the UN. This time the situation has been exacerbated by Egypt’s refusal to keep the Rafah border crossing open and transfer casualties out of the Strip. Only 10 patients have been allowed to cross the border so far. On 10 July a water pipeline serving 70,000 people was destroyed along with a well that had supplied water to 15,000 people. A sewage plant was badly damaged causing 25 million litres of raw sewage to spill into the sea.

Bombs, shells and naval missiles have fallen on 1.7 million Gazans on average, every five and a half minutes for the past seven days. Some 512 residential homes in Gaza have been either totally or partially destroyed by Israeli warplanes since 7 July. Thirty-nine schools and six hospitals have been damaged along with 21 mosques.

‘We stay together or we leave this world together’

These were the words uttered by Doctor Basman Alashi speaking to +972 magazine on 12 July. Alashi is the executive director of El Wafa hospital in eastern Gaza city. Fourteen patients remain at the hospital, too ill to survive an evacuation elsewhere. Strikes have shattered windows and blown holes in the ceiling but Alashi vows to stay with his patients, along with several members of International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the hope that their presence will discourage the Israeli Air Force from bombing the building. Netanyahu is correct in part, that there are human shields in Gaza, but not as he would have the world believe.

Early on 13 July, the IAF dropped leaflets over northern Gazan neighbourhoods telling them to evacuate the area of 100,000 residents. Around 17,000 residents have now fled to UNRWA shelters, but with vulnerable people already having been targeted, there is no guarantee that Israeli forces won’t bomb these buildings either.

Rockets are irrelevant

The occupying power’s bombardment of a trapped population constitutes a war crime. Israel has the Iron Dome system to protect its population from rockets – almost perfect after years of being trialled during flare-ups such as this. It boasts one of the world’s most powerful armies and receives millions of US dollars in aid which is spent largely on weaponry.

Norman Finkelstein puts it succinctly: ‘Gaza has no army, air force or navy. Israel is the fourth largest military power in the world. Resistance to occupation is allowed under international law. Israel’s occupation, siege and collective punishment of Gaza is not.’

Resistance in all forms is any oppressed people’s right to shout to the world, ‘we’re still here’ and to demand justice and change

As the Israeli offensive continues, the truth that has been there since the bloody creation of the state in 1948 shines under a temporary spotlight – Palestinians are punished into submission. In the West Bank, the Israeli government’s approach is devious: it controls Palestinian land with relative ease, thanks to the Oslo Accords and the lack of international condemnation. Resistance is silenced with jail terms, house demolitions and land grabs. Israel has little interest in densely populated Gaza and seeks to contain the Palestinians living there with the harshest measures it can get away with. Frustration among Gazans simmers constantly, occasionally reaching boiling point. It boiled over as Israel’s Operation Brother’s Keeper culminated in a West Bank wide crackdown. The rockets fired in symbolic protest by militant wings of parties such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad provide the perfect pretext for this latest round of collective punishment on a genocidal scale, with the blessing of most of the world’s politicians and media.

Israel’s oppression of Palestinians doesn’t start and finish with large-scale military operations: ‘normality’ for Gazans is ghetto life, for those in the West Bank, ethnic cleansing and colonization. Rockets or no rockets do not change this. The air, sea and land blockade of Gaza – now supported by Egypt – has gone on for seven long years. And when a ceasefire is implemented, Israel and its supporters will expect a return to the status quo. This is why resistance should not be denounced by those outside liberation movements: resistance in all forms is any oppressed people’s right to shout to the world, ‘we’re still here’ and to demand justice and change.

Until the world realizes that military operations in Gaza are about subduing the population into compliance with Israel’s quest to carry on as it pleases, the occupying state will continue killing and oppressing, unabated for decades to come.

Add your name to the petition calling on Ban Ki-moon to end the occupation of Palestine, for the wellbeing of the Palestinians and Israelis.

Update: According to Gaza’s Ministry Of Health: 746 Palestinians, including 165 children have now been killed as of 24 July – the 17th day of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.

Read our mini-series on Palestine.

How many Palestinians will die in the search for missing Israeli youths?

soldiers.jpg

Hundreds of homes have been raided since the start of Operation Brother's Keeper. © Ella David

Mustafa Aslan died on Friday afternoon after being shot in the head by an Israeli soldier at Qalandiya refugee camp near Ramallah a few hours previously. He was 22-years-old.

Mustafa is the third Palestinian victim of the Israeli authorities’ ‘search’ for three missing teenagers – two Israeli and one US-Israeli – who went missing on 12 June after leaving the illegal Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Etzion near Hebron. 

Earlier on Friday 20 June, 14-year-old Mahmoud Dudeen was killed in a village near the southern West Bank city of Hebron. 

The Israeli authorities claim that Palestinians kidnapped 16-year-olds Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah, aged 19, when the three while hitchhiking back to their home near Jerusalem.

The anguish of the parents of any missing child is impossible to comprehend. But the Israeli government has not launched Operation Brother’s Keeper out of concern for the families.

The alleged abduction is being used to justify the largest Israeli military operation in the West Bank since the bloody second Palestinian intifada (uprising) of 2000-04.

Pouncing on an opportunity

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the supposed attack. This hasn’t stopped the occupying government from jumping to conclusions: ‘Those who carried out the kidnapping of our youngsters are Hamas people,’ says Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu.

The timing is not coincidental.

Israeli officials are working to break up the Hamas party in the West Bank. This is a way to undermine the recently formed Hamas and Fatah unity government, which poses a real threat to Israel’s ‘divide and rule’ strategy of occupation. This is no secret. ‘We have two efforts ongoing in parallel,’ said Israeli military spokesperson Peter Lerner in a press conference on 18 June. ‘First is to bring back the boys, and the second is to take a toll on Hamas for its actions.’

Hamas greatly embarrassed the Israeli government when Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in 2006 in Gaza and released in 2011 only under a deal that saw the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the soldier.

Another reason for the occupying government’s escalation of violence is the growing resistance inside Israel’s prisons. Around 300 Palestinian political prisoners are on hunger strike, 100 of these entered their 58th day today. The panic of Israeli Prison Service has resulted in a bill speeding through parliament that, if it gets final approval on 23 June, would allow the force-feeding of the hunger-strikers – widely considered a form of torture.

An iron grip

Since Operation Brother’s Keeper began on 12 June, over 300 Palestinians have been abducted – a hundred for each missing Israeli.

Among those arrested are students, professors, activists, politicians, elderly Palestinians, and the director of the Palestinian Prisoners Center for Studies. Palestinians living in Israel have also been arrested and harassed. None of those arrested have so far been charged.

According to Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, 77 administrative detention orders have been issued, and this number is expected to increase over the coming days. Israeli Prison Service (IPS) last used this tactic during the second intifada, states Addameer’s report, when thousands of Palestinians were held without charge or trial.

Hebron has been the target of much of this week’s aggression. Always a site of tension, it is home to 300,000 Palestinian residents, while a few hundred Israeli settlers occupy parts of the old city heavily protected by the military. Despite no leads, Hebron has been in lock down over the past week; Israeli soldiers are trawling the streets. Some 800 homes have been raided and one home demolished.

Temporary checkpoints and road closures are impeding Palestinians’ already restricted freedom of movement within and between cities. A curfew has been imposed on Nablus and there are daily raids on homes, civil society organizations and offices across the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  

Numerous Palestinians have been injured, including 17-year-old Yazan Yacoub who was shot in the chest and stomach with a live bullet at Qalandiya checkpoint near Ramallah. He is in a critical condition.

The first Palestinian to die in Operation Brother’s Keeper was 23-year-old Ahmad Asabarin on 16 June. He was shot by Israeli forces in Jilazoun refugee camp near the city of Ramallah for throwing a stone at soldiers.

Air strikes are pounding the already besieged Gaza Strip resulting in injuries and the destruction of homes. The latest to be injured by strikes were four children and two adults early on 20 June.

Despite these punitive tactics the teenagers are still missing. The longer they are missing, the more Israeli officials can break down Hamas, imprison key community leaders and strain the already fragile relationship between leaders of the unity government.  

These three missing boys are pawns in a political game, and Israel is holding all the cards.

The land of milk and honey, and wanton destruction

‘An oasis of calm in the midst of chaos’ is how people often describe the Tent of Nations, a farm owned by the Nassar family in occupied Palestine. It is a unique place – sitting atop a hill to the west of Bethlehem and overlooking the village of Nahalin.

On 20 May – days before the Pope’s prayers at the separation wall and his call for peace – Dauod Nassar wrote this on the farm’s Facebook page:

The valley before...

‘Today at 8.00, Israeli bulldozers came to the fertile valley of the farm where we planted fruit trees 10 years ago, and destroyed the terraces and all our trees there. More than 1,500 apricot, carob and apple trees as well as grape plants were smashed and destroyed.’

The Nassars had recently found a document from the Israeli Civil Administration left on their property which declared that the trees were planted on ‘state land’, constituting trespass, and therefore should be ‘evacuated’.

On 12 May the family, who have owned the land since 1916, filed an appeal with Israel’s Military Court against the order; the trees were planted on private land for which they hold the documents, explains Bshara Nassar. They have been trying to (re)register their land with the Supreme Court since 1991 but the process has been delayed numerous times.

Under Israeli law, it is illegal to demolish structures or evacuate defendants while an appeal is being deliberated. The destruction of the trees a week after the appeal was filed violates these conditions and the Nassars have been advised to pursue compensation. But the damage has been done. The reason behind the tree-clearing is, says Bshara, ‘to facilitate the construction of a road that will connect the [Israeli] settlements.’

...and after

This is not the first time that the Nassar family have experienced threatened or real annexation of their land.

In 1991 the Israeli government declared the whole area, including the Tent of Nations, to be Israeli ‘state land’. Employing archaic Ottoman-era laws, the Israeli Civil Administration states that if Palestinians do not plant on their land for three years, they give up their right to it, even if they have been forbidden from accessing it. Using these methods, Palestinian land has been seized to construct the separation wall and build settlements. But the Nassars have cultivated their land for decades, meaning that, under the same Ottoman laws, this should exempt it from being turned over to the state.

Given that it is flouting its own regulations, it is clear how strategic the farm’s location is to the Israeli administration, and how desperately it wants it gone. It is surrounded by four illegal Israeli settlements and they continue to expand at an alarming rate. Were it not for the farm, it is likely that the surrounding Gush Etzion settlement bloc would have grown far larger.

The carrot and the stick

Israeli authorities are able to declare state ownership and annex the Nassars’ land relatively easily because the farm is situated in Area C – land under Israeli civil and military control.

Surveying the damage

Life in Area C means intimidation, harassment and insecurity. The family have remained steadfast in spite of numerous tactics to coerce them into leaving their land. One of these tactics is the Civil Administration’s cowardly bureaucracy whereby official documents are simply left somewhere on the 100-acre farm by Israeli soldiers rather than being handed to a family member. When the documents are then discovered by volunteers or family members days, even weeks, later, they often have little time left to appeal. As well as declaring that the land is state owned, previous documents have stated that the farm’s temporary structures (tents) are illegal.

Intimidation comes directly from the Israeli military – soldiers who, like those on Tuesday 20 May, come to destroy trees regardless of any due process in the courts. It also comes from Israelis from the nearest settlement – Neve Daniel – who have destroyed 800 trees and trespassed in recent years, acting with impunity.

Devastation

Then there are punitive measures: prohibiting the farm from connecting to the water and electricity grids, and roadblocks that prevent vehicles from accessing the main road. The roadblocks result in an otherwise 10-minute journey into Bethlehem taking half an hour via a ‘humanitarian tunnel’ – the road that the family, along with nearby villagers, are forced to take adjacent to an Israeli-only road.

The Nassars are forbidden to build on their land. Along with most other Palestinians living in Area C, they require permits from the Israeli authorities, which have only been granted in 6 per cent of cases over recent years rarely granted. Instead, the family relies on underground caves and temporary structures to house volunteers and farm equipment.

The final tactic the occupying power has resorted to in the hope of annexing the Tent of Nations is bribery. The family was offered a blank cheque a number of years ago for them to leave. Needless to say, they refused.

A just cause

Happier times - spring 2012

To counter the Israeli administration’s disdain for peace and justice, the Nassar family conduct themselves with humility and compassion through their slogan: ‘We refuse to be enemies.’ And support for the farm is growing daily – this devastating blow has simply inspired the Tent of Nations’ vast network of past and present volunteers, groups and churches over the world to offer up prayers, blog posts, awareness-raising and donations.

The Nassars are not alone in their struggle and resistance. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, in the South Hebron Hills and Bedouin communities in the Neqab desert in Israel are fighting demolition orders and eviction notices as the Israeli authorities seek to seize yet more land through declarations of state ownership and military firing zones.

'We refuse to be enemies'

The situation requires urgent action from all citizens who believe in human rights and who heed the Palestinians’ call for solidarity. Because by the time it becomes politically acceptable to voice support for Palestine, there may be no fruit trees left.

Get involved and find out more about communities living in Area C.

Ella David is a pseudonym. Ella spent three months in 2011 living and working at the Tent of Nations farm and has returned to Palestine several times since.

All photographs with the exception of the poppies image is from the Tent of Nations' facebook page. The poppies image is by Ella David.

The land of milk and honey, and wanton destruction

‘An oasis of calm in the midst of chaos’ is how people often describe the Tent of Nations, a farm owned by the Nassar family in occupied Palestine. It is a unique place – sitting atop a hill to the west of Bethlehem and overlooking the village of Nahalin.

On 20 May – days before the Pope’s prayers at the separation wall and his call for peace - Daoud Nassar wrote this on the farm’s Facebook page:

The valley before...

‘Today at 8.00, Israeli bulldozers came to the fertile valley of the farm where we planted fruit trees 10 years ago, and destroyed the terraces and all our trees there. More than 1,500 apricot, carob and apple trees as well as grape plants were smashed and destroyed.’

The Nassars had recently found a document from the Israeli Civil Administration left on their property which declared that the trees were planted on ‘state land’, constituting trespass, and therefore should be ‘evacuated’.

On 12 May the family, who have owned the land since 1916, filed an appeal with Israel’s Military Court against the order; the trees were planted on private land for which they hold the documents, explains Bshara Nassar. They have been trying to re-register their land with the Supreme Court since 1991 but the process has been delayed numerous times.

Under Israeli law, it is illegal to demolish structures or evacuate defendants while an appeal is being deliberated. The bulldozing of the trees a week after the appeal was filed violates these conditions and the Nassars have been advised to pursue compensation. But the damage has been done. The motive, says Bshara, ‘is to facilitate the construction of a road that will connect the [Israeli] settlements.’

...and after

This is not the first time that the Nassar family have experienced threatened or real annexation of their land.

In 1991 the Israeli government declared the whole area, including the Tent of Nations, to be Israeli ‘state land’. Employing archaic Ottoman-era laws, the Israeli Civil Administration states that if Palestinians do not plant on their land for three years, they give up their right to it, even if they have been forbidden from accessing it. Using these methods, Palestinian land has been seized to construct the separation wall and build settlements. But the Nassars have cultivated their land for decades, meaning that, under the same Ottoman laws, this should exempt it from being turned over to the state.

The farm is in a strategic location and the Israeli government wants it gone. It is surrounded by four illegal Israeli settlements and they continue to expand at an alarming rate. Were it not for the farm, it is likely that the surrounding Gush Etzion settlement bloc would have had extended far deeper into local Palestinian villagers' land than it already has.

The carrot and the stick

Israeli authorities are able to declare state ownership and annex the Nassars’ land relatively easily because the farm is situated in Area C – land under Israeli civil and military control.

Surveying the damage

Life in Area C means intimidation, harassment and insecurity. The family have remained steadfast in spite of numerous tactics to coerce them into leaving their land. One of these tactics is the Civil Administration’s cowardly bureaucracy whereby official documents are simply left somewhere on the 100-acre farm by Israeli soldiers rather than being handed to a family member. When the documents are then discovered days, even weeks, later, the Nassars often have little time left to appeal. As well as declaring that the land is state owned, previous documents have stated that the farm’s temporary structures (tents) are illegal.

Intimidation comes directly from the Israeli military – soldiers who, like those on Tuesday 20 May, come to destroy trees regardless of any due process in the courts. It also comes from Israelis from the nearest settlement – Neve Daniel – who have destroyed 800 trees and trespassed in recent years, acting with impunity.

Forelorn

Then there are punitive measures: prohibiting the farm from connecting to the water and electricity grids, and roadblocks that prevent vehicles from accessing the main road. The roadblocks result in an otherwise 10-minute journey into Bethlehem taking half an hour via a ‘humanitarian tunnel’ – the road that the family, along with nearby villagers, are forced to take adjacent to an Israeli-only road.

The Nassars are forbidden to build on their land. Along with most other Palestinians living in Area C, they require permits from the Israeli authorities, which have only been granted in 6 per cent of cases across the West Bank over recent years. Instead, the family relies on underground caves and temporary structures to house volunteers and farm equipment.

The final tactic the occupying power has resorted to in the hope of annexing Tent of Nations is bribery. The family was offered a blank cheque a number of years ago for them to leave. Needless to say, they refused.

Strength and solidarity

Spring at the farm

To counter the Israeli government’s disdain for peace and justice, the Nassar family conduct themselves with humility and sumud (steadfastness) through their slogan: ‘We refuse to be enemies.’ And support for the farm is growing daily – this devastating blow has simply inspired the Tent of Nations’ vast network of past and present volunteers, groups and churches over the world to offer up prayers, blog posts and donations.

The Nassars are not alone in their struggle and resistance. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, in the South Hebron Hills and Bedouin communities in the Niqab desert in Israel are fighting demolition orders and eviction notices as the Israeli authorities seek to seize yet more land through declarations of state ownership and military firing zones.

'We refuse to be enemies'

The situation requires urgent action from all citizens who believe in human rights and who heed the Palestinians’ call for solidarity. Because by the time it becomes politically acceptable to voice support for Palestine, there may be no fruit trees left.

Sign the petition calling on the Israeli government to compensate the Nassar family and replant the trees destroyed.

Ella David is a pseudonym. Ella spent three months in 2011 living and working at the Tent of Nations farm and has returned to Palestine several times since.

All photographs with the exception of the poppies image is from the Tent of Nations' facebook page. The poppies image is by Ella David.

'The soldiers are here': resistance in a Palestinian refugee camp

The Israeli military occupies a family's home in Aida camp.

Mohammed Al-Azza

My friend peers out of the window, trying not to be seen. ‘The soldiers are here,’ he tells me. It is three in the morning and I am half asleep, but the hazy glow in the house is making me nervous. The Israeli military are throwing light bombs. I wonder who they have come for this time, and how long it will be before those they have taken return. My friends make light of the situation, as they always do – in English at least – joking about the last time one of them was arrested in the wee hours. I am told to go back to sleep. I pace the room instead.

In Aida refugee camp, situated in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, a good night’s sleep is a luxury. This night raid, which was carried out by Israeli occupying forces, took place midway through a round of clashes between them and the Palestinian shabab (youth) in mid-January.

Tear gas engulfs the entrance to the camp. The key is the Palestinian symbol of return.

Ella David

A few weeks previously hundreds of soldiers had come to every home in the camp late at night and demanded entry. One family were woken to find 50 soldiers at their door. At six and eight years old, the youngest of the six children terrified by the intrusion have already seen more guns then most of their British counterparts will in a lifetime. The soldiers had come not to make arrests but to conduct something of a census, checking who lived where and with whom and ‘profiling’ the entire population.

Periods of calm in the camp are shortlived and tension is always simmering below the surface. On Friday 21 March, activists drilled a hole in a section of the wall which snakes and zigzags around Aida camp, cutting off inhabitants from Rachel’s Tomb – adjacent to the camp but now only accessible from Jerusalem. The eight-metre-high barrier not only cuts Palestine off from Israel: it also separates Palestinians from one another. A lone family lives on the other side of one part of the wall, on land part-owned by a family from Aida camp that all locals were able to use freely. The grey concrete mass is punctuated with lookout towers and checkpoints and its towering imposition over residents symbolizes the oppression of the Israeli occupation. Therefore resisting the wall is resisting the occupation: many Aida residents have had enough.

Tensions rose on Saturday 22 March as locals protested the killing of three Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp, a city in the north of the West Bank. So far in 2014 a Palestinian has been killed every 4.2 days; and just two weeks ago six people were killed in the space of 24 hours.

The Israeli military preparing for a new panel to close the gap in the wall.

Mohammed Al-Azza

Two days later, on Monday 24 March, soldiers came to the camp to replace the entire wall panel with concrete (left). During this time, snipers occupied a family home and the roof of the camp’s Lajee (refugee) centre. Armed with cameras, catapults and kaffiyehs, Palestinians shot film or threw stones. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) took aim with their M16s – some contained live ammunition, others fired rubber bullets and the rest were adapted to shoot teargas canisters. They hid behind helmets and bulky uniforms.

Two soldiers were slightly injured. In response, nine men from the same family were briefly detained. Three were taken to a police station in an illegal Israeli settlement for interrogation and were released shortly afterwards. An Italian journalist was hospitalized after a rubber bullet narrowly missed her eye and seven Palestinians were also treated for injuries caused by rubber bullets and live fire. There were numerous injuries due to teargas inhalation, including the hospitalization of a week-old baby.

And there were arrests. Lajee centre activities director Mohammed Alazraq, shot in the head with a rubber bullet back in January while in the Lajee building, was kidnapped on Wednesday 26 March at four in the morning. Soldiers forced entry into his home, overturning and destroying many of his belongings in the process. No-one knew where he had been taken for hours and no-one still knows for how long he will be gone. On 27 March, the day he should have been celebrating one year of freedom since his last release, he was without his liberty again.

Later that day, locals started a large fire using tyres next to the wall. In damaging a watchtower and part of the wall again, they were able to glimpse land on the other side for the second time that week. Two hours after the fire started, Israeli army helicopters were seen flying over the wall. ‘It feels like Aida is under siege,’ says a camp volunteer. ‘The Israeli soldiers have no respect for the people in this camp as human beings.’

What’s next for Aida camp? Home to some 5,000 people, it is one of 19 refugee camps in the West Bank and it is refusing to stay silent. The spirit of sumud (steadfastness) is strong, but it comes at a price.

Children look on as an injured man receives treatment.

Mohammed Al-Azza

Politically active Palestinians are routinely singled out as targets for violence and detention. Mohammed Al-Azza, a photographer and filmmaker who lives in Aida camp with his family has, like Alazraq, been shot in the face while inside Lajee centre. His courageous documentation of his neighbourhood and the international networks that he is building make him and his family vulnerable. But he says: ‘The people who want real freedom never give up. Despite your [Israeli military] attacks, the arrests, the killings… this wall WILL fall down.’

Resistance comes in all forms. Living in Aida refugee camp is as much of a political statement as it is a practical necessity. Sixty-six years since the creation of the Israeli Zionist state that caused, and is still causing, the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe), refugee camps in and outside of the country are reminders that generations of Palestinians are still waiting. The UN calls it Resolution 194 – the right of return to the land that Palestinians were expelled from in 1948 and which few can even visit today.

The soldiers were back in the camp yesterday, today and they probably will be tomorrow too. With violence escalating and time lapsing, questions become ever more urgent: why are the stone and the Molotov cocktail demonized but the MI6s and the rockets over Gaza legitimized as state defence? How long will it take before those who call Israel up on being a racist state are no longer deemed racist themselves? And when will the UN and other international bodies stop granting the Israeli administration impunity over its human rights abuses?

Martin Luther King wisely stated that: ‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’ Aida residents are demanding their freedom; those of us who stand with Palestine must offer our support as they bear this struggle with dignity, determination and hope.

With thanks to Mohammed Al-Azza for sharing his photos.

In Gaza, steadfastness is no longer enough

10,000 people were evacuated from their homes following severe storms.

Yousef Mashharawi

From the other end of a crackly telephone line, Abeer’s voice sounds tired and distant. ‘People in Gaza are reaching the maximum that they can cope with. Poverty, financial crisis, the Israeli siege, political isolation with Egypt, and now this: a natural disaster.’

Palestinians are known for their sumud (steadfastness), but the strain for the 1.7 million people on this tiny blockaded Strip is reaching the point where sumud is no longer enough.

Gaza, along with the occupied West Bank, makes up the Palestinian territories. It is often referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison since the Israeli government – with the support of the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Egypt and the ‘Quartet’ (the UN, US, EU and Russia) – imposed an economic embargo, siege and blockade in 2005 in an attempt to force Hamas out of power.

The UN estimates that by 2025 Gaza will run out of drinking water

The siege came after decades of occupation: first by Egypt from 1948-67; then, following the Six Day War, by Israel, which seized control of Gaza along with the Syrian Golan Heights, the West Bank (occupied by Jordan from 1948-67) and, temporarily, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsular.

Abeer, a young Gazan journalist, says that winter has become known as the bad season. ‘In December 2008, there was the Israeli Operation Cast-Lead [22 days of airstrikes that resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians]; in November 2011, there was Operation Pillar of Cloud [167 people were killed by airstrikes in the week-long military assault] and in winter 2013, it’s the storm, the electricity blackout, the sewage in the streets. Farmers have had their crops ruined: all this because of the war and natural disasters.’

But the only thing natural about the current crisis in Gaza is the rain.

Some 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes following heavy flooding on 12 and 13 December and have been staying in temporary shelters at schools and mosques. The UN estimates that it will take another week to remove all the floodwater from the streets, and while government officials are securing longer term accommodation for many affected, it may be months before everyone can return to their homes.

Blackout

From 1 November to 14 December, Palestinians in Gaza had no electricity for around 16 hours a day.

A mother and child take shelter after being evacuated from their flooded home.

Yousef Mashharawi

In better times, Gaza is still without power for eight hours a day.

On Saturday, normal electricity outage finally resumed, thanks to a donation of 450,000 litres of fuel donated by Qatar. Abeer feels that the donation is too little, too late, but it means that Gaza’s sole power plant is back on, for now. There is enough fuel to last for three months.

‘The electricity blackout caused raw sewage to flood the streets because it couldn’t be treated: treatment facilitates require electricity to function properly,’ explains Yousef Al-Helou, a Gazan correspondent for Real News Network. The icy flood water has spread the sewage and hampered clean-up efforts.

For eight years, the Israeli government has banned most goods from entering or leaving Gaza – including construction materials and even some medical supplies

The future looks bleak. The electricity switch-on is partial and temporary. The recent winds blew metal roofs away from homes already battered from last year’s airstrikes and the floods have caused yet more damage, but rebuilding without materials is impossible. The threat of an environmental and public health crisis is omnipresent and the UN estimates that by 2025 Gaza will run out of drinking water. Only five per cent of the water Gazans' extract from their coastal aquifer currently is safe to drink.

Collective punishment

For eight years, the Israeli government has banned most goods from entering or leaving Gaza – including construction materials and even some medical supplies. The current crisis has been caused, however, because Egyptian authorities have destroyed 95 per cent of the tunnels that Gazans used to transport materials, animals and people to and from Egypt.

The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is the only official way in or out of the overpopulated Strip. Closures decreased following Egypt’s 2011 revolution but since former Egyptian President Morsi’s removal by the Egyptian military on 3 July, openings have become increasingly sporadic: currently the crossing is open one to three days every two weeks. Yousef tells me that he waited for the crossing to open for 10 days before finally being able to leave in September. ‘Thousands of people are stuck on each side during a long closure’ he adds. Egyptian authorities are reportedly trying to pressurize Hamas into reconciling with the Palestinian Authority, but they have also accused Gazans of showing solidarity with Morsi.

Yousef is frustrated that Egypt's refusal to support and help Gazans by opening the Rafah crossing permanently has worsened the collective punishment imposed by Israel. 'Two thirds of Gazans are not affiliated to Hamas and yet they are punished by Israel, Egypt and the "international community" because of a political party [that, while unpopular, was democratically elected]. Meanwhile, no-one is putting pressure on Israel to end the siege.’

Severe flooding has mixed with the existing sewage water, increasing the risk of a public health crisis.

Yousef Mashharawi

The Israeli government controls the official electrical supply to Gaza, Yousef explains. ‘It became too expensive to keep powering our electrical plant after Egypt closed the tunnels where fuel was brought in more cheaply.

The plant produced 30 per cent of our electricity and 60 per cent came directly from Israel with 10 per cent from Egypt; the supply from Egypt has now stopped. The cause of the electricity shortages is because electricity supply is down by 40 per cent’ – and the political will for a solution is not there.

‘Is Hamas doing enough to help people during the current crisis?’ I ask Abeer. ‘It is doing all it can to support families, to give food [and on 20 December it announced that it will also give compensation] to the people whose homes have been flooded. But it is under siege by Israel and isolated by Egypt – it is so hard,’ she says. ‘Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh spent a night in a school with people affected by the floods to show his solidarity. The Palestinian Authority is in a similar position to Hamas but the response from them is always disappointing.’

An unnatural disaster

The cost of essentials is rising for Palestinians in Gaza. With rising inflation increasing the cost of bread, rice and cooking gas, many are finding it difficult to manage with a shrinking income. ‘Young, educated Gazans can’t find jobs,’ says Yousef.’ People can no longer afford to power their generators to make up the power shortfall due to the past six weeks of high use. Many families are being forced to use unsafe wood fires to cook food, and aid dependency is on the rise.

‘This is the season that people are meant to enjoy time with their families. All over the world, people are preparing for Christmas,’ says Abeer. ‘But there is no support from anyone.’

I ask her how people across the world can help. Abeer doesn’t know. ‘There needs to be a political solution,’ she sighs. Until that happens, Gazans struggle on – they have no choice.

What kind of peace?

A boy protests illegal settlements near Hebron.

Gary Wlash

Twenty years have passed since the signing of the Palestinian-Israeli Oslo Accords. Lauded as the first step to a lasting peace, they in fact left Israel with control over 60 per cent of the West Bank. Palestinians have defined Oslo ever since as a dark and regrettable moment in their history.

For many here, this anniversary makes the current round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), now entering their third month, all the more galling.

‘The Palestinians have no hope for a positive outcome,’ says Mousa Abu Maria, co-founder of the Palestine Solidarity Project in the West Bank city of Beit Ommar. ‘The US have encouraged this latest round of talks to de-legitimize the EU’s decision to boycott Israeli settlement products.’

In Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, those who I spoke to last August all felt that the talks will not bring change on the ground.

It seems that Israel agrees. The government’s actions have been overtly hostile, even if its words are of peace. Two days before the negotiations began, Israeli authorities gave the green light to the construction of 1,200 new settlement homes in the West Bank. The use of live ammunition against Palestinians by the Israel Defense Forces has increased, resulting in the deaths of four civilians during the last week of August. It begs the question whether Israeli officials are actively working to provoke the Palestinian Authority (PA) into abandoning the negotiations.

Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israeli forces agreed to withdraw gradually from the occupied West Bank and Gaza before handing full control over to a newly established PA within five years. Instead, Israel remains in possession of the majority of the land in the West Bank, where it has built illegal Israeli settlements and ‘military zones’, evicting whole villages, demolishing homes and intimidating local populations in the process.

For Palestinian officials, entering into new peace talks shows the world they are serious about achieving self-determination through a two-state solution. Israel’s relentless settlement building makes them fearful that time – and land – is running out.

But for most of the Palestinian population, the legacy of the Oslo Accords shows there will never be a just peace process while Israel holds all the cards. The majority also feel the PA does not represent them, making the peace process inherently undemocratic.

In the words of Noam Chomsky, ‘Of course, everybody says they’re for peace... The question is: “What kind of peace?”’

Waiting at the checkpoint

At 3 o’clock this morning, many Palestinian men were already awake and dressed, standing in a queue at Gilo checkpoint in Bethlehem in order to work on the other side of the separation wall. Approximately 4,000 people – mostly men between the age of 18 and 45 – have passed through this checkpoint every day, all year round, to get to their jobs in East Jerusalem or Israel since the construction of the wall began in 2002. Gilo checkpoint is just one of 500 roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank.

Workers wait in the dark, while in the light is the 'humanitarian' entrance.

Ella David

I arrived at the checkpoint just as it opened, at 4am. Palestinians who work in Tel Aviv had already been there for two hours to be first in line; they have over an hour’s bus journey ahead of them once they reach the other side of the wall. From 4 until 7, the race is on to get to work on time yet Jerusalem is – at least for Israelis living in nearby illegal settlements – a twenty minute ride away. But the Israeli occupation means that for Palestinians, this journey can take as long as it took me to get to Jerusalem from London, a distance of approximately 4,000 kilometres.

The workers’ entrance to the checkpoint consists of iron bars, a holey roof and is about one and a half metres wide – barely room for two men to stand side by side. It can only be described as a cage, leading up to the checkpoint’s turnstile. With a 30 per cent unemployment rate in the West Bank though, these men are considered lucky to have work. Many Palestinians are refused a permit into Israel and this also means that some have never been to Islam’s third holiest site, the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. Entering Israel illegally can result in fines and imprisonment.

Freedom for granted

Tourists don’t have to queue. There is a ‘humanitarian’ entrance for non-Palestinians, women and Palestinian men over 60 years old. Women make up a tiny percentage of the workers who come through the checkpoint every day – in a busy half hour today the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) record 665 men and 3 women coming through the turnstile.

I am able to walk back and forth from the entrance to the checkpoint when I feel like it, right next to the workers who can’t turn back even if they want to. I belatedly realize how this freedom of movement must have seemed to everyone else: it’s easy to be thoughtless when liberty is a given. I forgot my passport. The metal detector went off twice because I hadn’t taken some shekels out of my pocket and I didn’t even take my shoes off. No-one said a word. I wish they had.

The British government participates in the oppression of Palestinians. It is largely silent while Israeli authorities continue to violate UN conventions and instead of trying to amend for Britain’s mistakes of the past, Prime Minister David Cameron condemns proponents of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. A target of BDS is the British security firm G4S.

Private security takeover

Worryingly, many checkpoints are being taken over by private companies such as G4S. Instead of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) officials being in charge of the checkpoints with the limited accountability that this affords, outsourcing security guards further decreases state responsibility. For these checkpoints, there may be no use in phoning the ‘humanitarian hotline’ in Tel Aviv that international observers such as the EAPPI use to complain about soldiers, however ineffective this is. Private companies do not even have to let observers on to their premises meaning that abuses may take place unseen. ‘Workers have told us that soldiers are less aggressive when there is an international presence at checkpoints,’ an EAPPI volunteer says. Some of the men I talk to tell me that knowing international observers are there makes them feel supported.

From time to time, men queue jump by climbing up over the metal bars of the checkpoint and dropping down through gaps in the roof narrowly missing other men waiting in line. It doesn’t seem to faze anyone, instead there seems to be an understanding that some people are in a hurry. I wonder how many friendships are formed at the checkpoint. Once past the turnstile and inside the compound, there are more queues for security checks and those who take a moment’s rest to sit down on nearby benches are allowed back in the queue at the same spot they left.

Despite the indignity and the injustice of the checkpoint, it is also a business opportunity. A bustling economy thrives at Bethlehem’s busiest entry point into Israel; taxis and service (minibus) drivers ferry people to and from the entrance and coffee sellers and stallholders compete for trade. When I leave at 6am, one man gestures to me to take a photo: a photo of him posing behind bars. Another angrily shouts out: ‘Do you see the kind of life we have? Do you see?’

Mornings are a busy time for checkpoint stallholders and service taxis

Ella David

Accessing medical treatment

Four million Palestinians live under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. Six specialist hospitals are located in East Jerusalem, inaccessible to most Palestinians living on the other side of Israel’s separation wall. More than 39,000 Palestinians were denied travel permits to get to hospitals last year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The organization Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) says that this figure is proportionally equivalent to the entire population of Glasgow – a city in Scotland – being prevented from reaching their local hospital.

In Gaza, the situation is even more dire, the Israeli blockade of the Strip means that medical supplies are often prevented from reaching the one million population. During Israeli airstrikes, hospitals and ambulances are targeted. It is extremely difficult for Gazans to leave to go to external hospitals and medical charities such as MAP work with limited funds and resources.

'Free Oxford'

MAP launched a campaign last Wednesday asking residents of Oxford, a city near London: ‘What if Oxford was under occupation?’ A van with the question ‘What if you needed a permit to get to hospital in Oxford but were denied?’ is being driven around the city and 50,000 leaflets will be dropped through doors to encourage people to think about how they would feel if it were them living under military occupation. The campaign is also running in the London borough of Islington. ‘Our aims are to raise awareness and to generate support for MAP where it’s most needed. We want to ask people: “What if this was you and your child at a checkpoint? What would you do and how would you feel?”’ says William Parry, MAP’s Communication Officer.

The red line: challenging a convenient silence

IDF violence towards peaceful demonstrators is normal in Palestine

Ella David

‘The day you leave the army is the first day in your life that you are an adult civilian. That is when you start to think, you can pause.’

I am on a Breaking the Silence tour and we are driving from West Jerusalem in Israel, to our destination: the south Hebron hills in the West Bank, Palestine. Our guide, Yehuda Shaul, one of the founding members of the organization and its Foreign Relations Director, undertook Israel’s compulsory military service during the second Palestinian Intifada (‘uprising’), from March 2001 to March 2004, and he is telling us about his experience of serving in the second most powerful army in the world: the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004, shortly after the end of the Intifada, where the IDF fired one million bullets during the first month of the uprising alone. In the past nine years, over 800 former IDF soldiers have testified to the organization about what they did and what they witnessed in the occupied West Bank during their service. Awareness-raising tours are run monthly, and educational visits to schools and colleges in Israel are regularly conducted. A photography exhibition has also been shown in parts of the EU and US.

Explaining the aim of the organization, Yehuda Shaul tells me that the one thing they demand of Israeli society is ‘that you sit down and listen to what’s been done in our name; our testimonies provide a mirror to that. What are our moral boundaries? What is our red line as a democratic society?’

It is vital that Israelis themselves speak out and urge their peers to take their share of responsibility, instead of simply distancing themselves from the actions of their military and government

I wonder whether many of the one million Palestinians and refugees (mostly from sub-Saharan Africa) who are treated as second-class citizens in Israel would share his view that the country is a democracy. I get the impression from Shaul and from Breaking the Silence's mission statement that the organization was founded partly on the belief that the state of Israel had lost its way – particularly during the second Intifada – but that it remains, at its roots, a democratic and moral society. The violent manner in which Israel was founded and is maintained, however, calls into question the belief that the country ever had ‘moral boundaries’ or ‘standards’. The country crossed a red line when it massacred civilians and forced millions from their homes in 1948 and in the 65 years of nakbas (‘catastrophes’) that the Palestinian people have suffered since.

Yet in exposing the Israeli army’s treatment of Palestinians, Breaking the Silence members are able to question the status quo of the society that has formed them: ‘Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that which is done in its name.’ It it is vital, the organization believes, that Israelis themselves speak out and urge their peers to take their share of responsibility, instead of simply distancing themselves from the actions of their military and government.

Breaking the Silence doesn’t have an official position on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, preferring to let the truth from veteran soldiers’ testimonies speak for itself. The former combatants hold differing views: some believe the occupation should continue, but that the methods used to maintain it are too harsh; others campaign for the end of the occupation but hold ‘liberal-Zionist’ views, advocating the two-state solution which would keep Israel a Jewish and, therefore, undemocratic, state; and yet others believe in a single, democratic, secular state for all.

The taboo of speaking out

The one thing these Israelis do all have in common is that they chose to speak out. While some organizations and individuals working for Palestinian self-determination will not work with groups which appear to be normalizing the Israeli occupation by not actively condemning it or signing up to the principles of the international Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, Breaking the Silence’s lack of position means that anyone can feel free to take part and testify. And breaking the silence – whether before or after one’s military service – is a bold move in a society where the pressure to conform is huge and the price can be high. Sahar Vardi refused to serve in the army in 2008. ‘Criticizing the army is criticizing your brother, father, friends,’ she says. ‘Psychologically it becomes hard to do.’

‘Criticizing the army is criticizing your brother, father, friends. Psychologically it becomes hard to do’

Those who choose to go public about their refusal to undertake military service or who speak out after having served often experience intimidation. One refusenik I met had received death threats and the walls of her family’s home had been sprayed with graffiti. After going public with his refusal to fly missions over the Palestinian territories, former Israel Air Force pilot Yonatan Shapira found it impossible to get a job at home, so now works in the US for six months a year. Yet, while our tour guide says that ‘it is comradeship that keeps you in the army’, there is hope that soon it will be comradeship and a sense of solidarity with refusenik peers and with the Palestinian people that will keep people out of the army.

For many young Israelis, completing their compulsory army service in their early twenties is the first time they start to question the perceived truths in their society regarding Palestinians and the occupation: what they have been taught to believe at school, from family or friends and by society as a whole. The militarization of Israeli society is such that being a soldier is as much a part of growing up as taking an exam or going on a first date.

Military service is compulsory in Israel and few refuse

Ella David

Forty percent of people that Breaking the Silence members aim to share their testimonies with are young Israelis before they have been drafted. Yet ‘Breaking the Silence does not publicly support refusal’ says Vardi.

When a young soldier sees me reading one of Breaking the Silence’s books on a bus, he tells me that a member of the organization had spoken to him and his peers during army training. ‘I didn’t like them, trying to force their opinions onto us,’ he says. There is some credit to be given to the Israeli army for allowing young recruits to listen to truthful and unflinching accounts of working in the West Bank. For balance, however, this particular soldier had also heard a talk by an Israeli settler – part of the New Israeli Guardians organization – speaking of Bedouins taking ‘his land’.

Breaking the Silence, through its tours, talks, exhibitions and books, does not only hold a mirror up to Israeli society; it encourages us all to see our reflections in it. Many countries around the world are complicit in or have aided the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and so we are all responsible. The organization also urges us to examine our own ‘red lines’ as societies and as individuals, and to have the courage and humility to acknowledge when we have crossed this line.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop