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As Gaza burns

As Gaza burns – once again – an important essay turns up in the New York Book Review. It happens with this conflict: a piece of writing that penetrates the hopeless evil. Last time it was Rachel Corrie’s emails; this time its Nathan Thrall’s One man’s quest to find his son.

Nathan Thrall is a journalist who has been based with a human rights organisation in Jerusalem and who has gradually realised the hopelessness of monitoring abuses in the West Bank and Gaza. Instead he has written this long essay, based around the death of a kindergarten-aged boy on a school bus which suffered a head on collision with a settler-driven vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road. When the news of the accident reaches his father, Abed, a tortuous journey begins involving detours, checkpoints, confusion as to possible hospitals the boy may have been taken to, ID problems of access, until he eventually discovers the charred corpse of his son.

The author uses the incident to unpack the dense bureaucracy of the apartheid regime that Israel has imposed on Palestinians. We can forget that (as in South Africa) the running of an apartheid state requires bureaucracy at every level of society: ID cards, residence permits, travel permits, work permits, building permits, school systems, health systems, policing, tax, roads, walls and borders, checkpoints, judicial and prison systems… it becomes immensely complex, absurd  and oppressive.

But as well as revealing this, the essay articulates the history of the desire behind the system: the desire to rid the land now called Israel of Palestinian Arabs, a desire, in fact, for ethnic cleansing. In 1948, four out of five Palestinian inhabitants were made refugees. In 1967 one in four of those remaining were expelled. Nevertheless, the higher Palestinian birth rate means half the population are Arab. The Israeli dilemma becomes then, ‘ On one hand the inability to erase the Palestinians; on the other, the unwillingness to give them political and civil rights.’ The compromise solution to this dilemma has been  the building of Jewish settlements, walls and roads, in order to fragment the Palestinian population, so that it lives in scattered pieces and cannot organise as a collective. And then to impose various decrees, laws and restrictions onto these Bantustans. And the contrast of wealth and infrastructure between the settlements and the Palestinian fragments is huge. Anger and despair builds. In a final irony, the task of administrating daily life in these areas of extreme oppression is given to a local Palestinian ‘authority’.

But the traditional task remains: Jews must take over the land and while that task is being achieved, international efforts to resolve the conflict must be ‘parried and delayed’. As Thrall relates, there is now a historical narrative to the attempts to realise this desire, expressed by the 19th century Zionists as follows: To take possession in due course of Palestine and to restore to the Jews the political independence of which they have been deprived for two thousand years.  This entailed firstly an infiltration of settlers and then the lobbying for a state. But how to justify a small number of Jews, mainly from the Russian Empire, taking over Palestine against the will of the majority?  Jews may have deserved a safe haven , but that does not give a right to dispossess, and even so, the original Zionist agenda was not a response to persecution but rather a resisting of the assimilation of Jewish identity.

Partition was accepted as a step toward obtaining the whole of Palestine and after the establishing of Israel the project of colonisation really began. Land and houses were confiscated, curfews imposed, political parties banned and Palestinians constantly humiliated. Because it had become an absurd contradiction, there was a change from a secular, semi- socialist vision of ‘Jewish redemption within the salvation of humanity’, to a religious nationalism based on the bible.  And this vision had to be fundamentalist for it would be undermined by any acceptance of a Palestinian right to self determination, which would also mean the acceptance of the refugees’ right to return and that a minority has not the right to impose on a majority.

The basically fantastic claim that the bible constitutes a land deed and that a group has the right to reclaim a territory after a two thousand year absence has to be maintained at all costs. All the secular ethical arguments have to be rejected. Accordingly, the state of Israel has never recognised the existence of an Israeli nationality. Israel is, instead, the state of the Jewish people, viewed as a single nation and spread throughout the world. The children of a non Jewish mother and a Jewish father are not Jewish, are not citizens, and whoever disconnects Jewish nationality from its religious foundations is a traitor. Israel cannot therefore entertain a liberal, secular, democratic agenda. It is necessarily an apartheid state, financed by the US government

And Abed mourns for his son.

The essay can be read at: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2021/03/19/a-day-in-the-life-of-abed-salama/

Flabbergasted

It’s not often I’m flabbergasted, but the fining of two New Zealand women, one Jewish, the other Palestinian, by an Israeli court for causing distress to three Israeli teenagers because they were instrumental in Lorde’s cancelling of her Tel Aviv concert is truly extraordinary. Instrumental because they wrote an open letter to Lorde suggesting she not play Tel Aviv because it would give moral support to Israel’s continuing oppression of the Palestinians.

It’s truly extraordinary because there exist in Gaza a million teenagers living in extreme distress, unable to move freely, reliant on food aid, homes bombed to rubble, unable to access education, subjected to extreme surveillance, sniped at, aware that drones flying overhead might, at the slightest provocation, release a missile, lacking water and electricity, without employment or hope, condemned to living in the largest prison on the planet, bereft of access to justice from a state forged from the theft of their land and possessing the third largest military in the world, a military heavily subsidised by the US, who has recently cut its aid programme to Gaza.

gaza 2

Israel prioritising the three teenagers distress at missing a concert over the situation in Gaza is an act of extraordinary arrogance, an arrogance that exposes their belief that the Palestinians are subhuman, something akin to feral cats and able to be killed with impunity. This impunity is justified by the past suffering of Jewish people, mainly at the hands of Europeans, which culminated in the Holocaust, a dreadful event for which the Palestinians bear no responsibility. But this event becomes an excuse for any Israeli action, no matter how vicious.

It is like the bully justifying murder, rape and theft because he suffered a traumatic childhood, in fact,  by now, because his parents or grandparents suffered a traumatic childhood. The boycott and divest movement threatens the bully’s excuses: his supposed keeping of order in the playground, it questions his right to exist in his current form, and It questions his right to beat up and steal from his victims. The bully is used to inspiring respect and fear, but like all bullies, Israel suffers from a deep insecurity and a corrupt psyche. It is a society in a state of moral decay. No wonder its leaders admire Trump.

Of course there are many Israeli citizens who are equally disturbed by this decay and this corruption. Unfortunately they remain a minority.

And the real threat to the two admirable Kiwi women, is not this puerile fine, but the possibility of the Israeli special forces clandestinely turning up on their doorstep. It has happened before. This is a bully that will stop at nothing.

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