November 2, 2009


Captives: What really happened during the Israeli attacks? (Lawrence Wright, November 9, 2009, The New Yorker)

Gaza is a place that Israel wishes it could ignore: the territory has long had the highest concentration of poverty, extremism, and hopelessness in the region. Gaza makes a mess of the idealized two-state solution because it is separated from the West Bank, the much larger Palestinian territory, not just physically but also culturally and politically. In 2005, the RAND Corporation proposed integrating a future Palestinian state with a high-speed rail and highway system that would connect the West Bank and Gaza. Former President Jimmy Carter told me that, in 2005, he and Ariel Sharon had agreed to promote a land swap between the Israelis and the Palestinians that would provide a corridor between the two halves of Palestine.

Such potential solutions have been poisoned by the frustration that both Israelis and West Bankers feel toward Gaza. The political distance between the two Palestinian entities has caused many Israelis to start talking of a three-state solution, rather than two. “Hamas in Gaza is a fact of life until further notice,” Yossi Alpher, a political consultant and a former Mossad officer, observed. “All our ideas about dealing with them have failed.” Shavit and other Israeli intellectuals have proposed that the Egyptians deed a portion of the Sinai to Gaza, to make the Strip more viable—“a semi-Dubai,” as Shavit terms it. The Egyptians have expressed no interest. “Egypt’s strategy for Gaza is to make sure it’s Israel’s problem,” Alpher said.

Hamas, which was founded in Gaza during the intifada of 1987, has come to embody the fears that many Israelis hold about the Palestinians. Its charter declares, “There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by jihad.” The document, which is in many respects absurd and reflects the intellectual isolation and conspiracy-fed atmosphere in Gaza at the time, cites the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the anti-Semitic forgery, and links Zionism to the Freemasons, the Lions Club, and “other spying groups” that aim “to violate consciences, to defeat virtues, and to annihilate Islam.” Part of the paradox of this conflict is that many Palestinians who firmly embrace the two-state solution have voted for Hamas.

In Restobar, Shavit pointed to a spot a few feet away. “In March, 2002, there was a beautiful twenty-five-year-old girl dead on the floor, right there,” he said. A suicide bomber had targeted the café, which was then called Moment. That month, eighty-three Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians. Jerusalem was in a panic. Shavit was living nearby at the time, and on the night of March 9th he heard the bomb explode.

Running to the café, he saw mutilated bodies scattered on the sidewalk. People had been blown across the street. The dead girl was lying near the doorway. Inside, at the bar, three young men were sitting upright on the stools, but they were all dead. “It was as if they were still drinking their beers,” Shavit recalled. Eleven Israelis died, and more than fifty were injured. Hamas proclaimed it a “brave attack” intended to “avenge the Israeli massacres against our people.”

The Hamas attacks derailed the peace process initiated by the Oslo accords and hardened many Israelis against the Palestinian cause. Photographs of Gazans celebrating the Moment bombing confirmed the dehumanized state of affairs. Gaza became “Hamastan” in the Israeli newspapers. In 2007, after Hamas solidified its control of Gaza, the Israeli government declared Gaza a “hostile entity,” and began enforcing a blockade on a population that was already impoverished, isolated, and traumatized by years of occupation.

Hamas was not weakened by the blockade. Instead, the collective punishment strengthened its argument that Israel wanted to eliminate the Palestinians. The only thing that Gaza has that Israel wants is Gilad Shalit, but Hamas says that it will not free him until Israel releases fourteen hundred individuals, four hundred and fifty of whom have been convicted of terrorist killings, including the men who planned the Moment bombing. [...]

Gaza is a sea of children. The average woman there has 5.1 children, one of the highest birth rates in the world. More than half the population is eighteen or younger. “We love to reproduce,” Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, told me on a searingly hot July day, as hundreds of young boys in green caps shouted slogans at a Hamas summer camp. Hayya, a former professor of Islamic law, has six children; a seventh was killed by an Israeli bomb.

There is very little for children to do in Gaza. The Israeli blockade includes a ban on toys, so the only playthings available have been smuggled, at a premium, through tunnels from Egypt. Islamists have shut down all the movie theatres. Music is rare, except at weddings. Many of Gaza’s sports facilities have been destroyed by Israeli bombings, including the headquarters for the Palestinian Olympic team. Only one television station broadcasts from Gaza, Al Aqsa—a Hamas-backed channel that gained notice last year for a children’s show featuring a Mickey Mouse-like figure who was stabbed to death by an Israeli interrogator. The mouse was replaced by a talking bee, who died after being unable to cross into Egypt for medical treatment. The rabbit who followed the bee passed away in January, after being struck by shrapnel from an Israeli attack.

The main diversion for children is the beach, and on Fridays, after noon prayers, the shore is massed with families. Unlike the topaz waters off Tel Aviv, here the sea is murky, a consequence of twenty million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage that is dumped offshore every day. The main water-treatment plant is broken, and because of the blockade the spare parts that would fix it are unavailable. Fishermen with nets wade into the surf as kids romp in the stinking waves.

Israeli authorities maintain a list of about three dozen items that they permit into Gaza, but the list is closely kept and subject to change. Almost no construction materials—such as cement, glass, steel, or plastic pipe—have been allowed in, on the ground that such items could be used for building rockets or bunkers. While Hamas rocket builders and bomb-makers can smuggle everything they need through the secret tunnels, international aid organizations have to account for every brick or sack of flour. Operation Cast Lead—a three-week-long Israeli attack on Gaza, which began in December, 2008—has left Gaza in ruins. “Half a year after the conflict, we don’t have a single bag of cement and not a pane of glass,” John Ging, the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, told me in July. (Later that month, Israeli authorities announced that they would allow the U.N.R.W.A. a limited amount of steel and cement. Ging says that that has yet to happen.) Humanitarian supplies that suddenly have been struck from Israel’s list of approved items pile up in large storage warehouses outside the Kerem Shalom crossing, and international aid worth billions of dollars awaits delivery. “For the last two school years, Israeli officials have withheld paper for textbooks because, hypothetically, the paper might be hijacked by Hamas to print seditious materials,” Ging complained. (Paper was finally delivered this fall.) When John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Gaza in February of this year, he asked why pasta wasn’t allowed in. Soon, macaroni was passing through the checkpoints, but jam was taken off the list. According to Haaretz, the I.D.F. has calculated that a hundred and six truckloads of humanitarian relief are needed every day to sustain life for a million and a half people. But the number of trucks coming into Gaza has fallen as low as thirty-seven. Israeli government officials have told international aid officials that the aim is “no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 2, 2009 6:34 AM
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