Opinion piece by NCCAR board member Peter Larson which appeared Nov. 26, 2012 in Embassy*.
What do Gazans have against Israel?
Is it possible that they just ‘hate Israelis’ so much they are willing to repeatedly risk life and limb attacking Israel? Or are there other explanations?
“CODE RED! CODE RED!” screamed the loudspeaker about 50 metres from where I was sitting in my car studying a map.
The voice was female and loud. It was clearly telling me something important. But it was in Hebrew, a language I don’t understand.
“CODE RED” it yelled again. About 30 seconds later, the first Hamas rocket hit with a loud “BOOM!” Then a second one. I saw a plume of smoke rise about 275 metres away. (By now, I had figured out what the loudspeaker was saying.)
I was in Israel/Palestine for the third time in three years, examining the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For two weeks I had been travelling through the West Bank and inside Israel talking to many different people and organizations. But as I set off in my car to Sderot, a small southern Israeli town very near the Gazan border, I had no idea I would end up in the thick of a shooting war.
Though the rockets seemed to have a rather limited impact (my guess is they had the destructive power of a hand grenade), the experience quickly gave me a great deal of sympathy for both Israeli and Palestinian civilians who are exposed to threats raining down from above.
Although we now know that a ceasefire has been brokered by Egypt and the United States, many thoughtful observers doubt whether it will be permanent. Jonathan Spyer, of the Israeli think tank Gloria, argued recently that “the next round will surely come.”
Their pessimistic view raises a simple question that I have heard from several Canadians: why are the Gazans so angry and willing to engage in military confrontations with Israel? Given Israel’s overwhelming military superiority, why don’t they just give up?
After all, they have been clearly clobbered over and over again, most recently in 2009 in operation Cast Lead, when nearly 1,500 Gazans died and hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure was destroyed by the phenomenal Israeli firepower.
Is it possible that they just ‘hate Israelis’ so much they are willing to repeatedly risk life and limb in futile attacks against Israel? Or are there other explanations?
Gaza becoming unliveable
One big factor, no doubt, is the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and the degrading conditions Israel imposes on its residents. According to a recent UN report, Gaza will no longer be “liveable” by 2020, unless urgent action is taken to improve water supply, power, health, and schooling. The area is becoming steadily more polluted as sewage facilities have been severely damaged.
But an even more fundamental factor, which is surprisingly absent from most analyses in Canadian media, is that of the 1.6 million people in Gaza, more than two-thirds are refugees under the United Nations. In 1948, their families fled for their lives from Jaffa, Ramle, Lod, Beersheba, and dozens of other towns and villages in what was then Palestine and is now Israel.
In fact, some of them fled from the very spot where I was huddled in my car. Today this Israeli town is called Sderot, but up to 1948 it was the site of a small Palestinian village called Najd. In 1948, Najd was taken over by Jewish soldiers as part of Operation Barak, and the Palestinian villagers were driven out. They fled to Gaza for protection.
When the war was over, the new state of Israel did not allow the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Instead their lands were confiscated without compensation, by decree of the new Israeli parliament.
As a result, those who fled to Gaza remain stuck, landless and stateless in a tiny strip of land. (Gaza’s total surface area is only 15 per cent of the area of the city of Ottawa.) They have little work and little future. Israel does not even allow them to visit the West Bank to see their families. They live, in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a “prison camp.” Of course these refugees are angry. Who wouldn’t be?
What is Israel’s long-term plan for Gaza? Israel may be hoping that conditions inside Gaza become so bad that the Gazans will either die off or move away. Its current approach seems to be to hold tight and let the Israeli military put down occasional flare-ups of Gazan resistance. In fact, cynical Israeli military officers refer to repeated thumping of Gazans as “mowing the grass,” as in ‘We let the grass grow a bit, and then we cut it back.’
Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” By denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and villages, Israel is in contravention of that declaration for which Canada voted at the United Nations in 1948.
Sixty-four years after being created in a land where most of the occupants were Palestinian, the state of Israel has clearly not yet found a way to make peace with its neighbours. If Canada wants to help Israel have a lasting peace, it will have to explain to Israelis that they must recognize, once and for all, its expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 and deal with its obligations to the refugees.
Once that recognition takes place, the basis will be set for meaningful negotiations between Israel and Hamas, around resettlement or compensation for the refugees, and eventual recognition of the state of Israel.
Peter Larson is the chair of the National Education Committee on Israel/Palestine for the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations.
*Embassy Magazine is Canada’s influential foreign policy weekly (60,000 readers). It is the forum for debate on international issues for politicians, foreign policy experts, diplomats, aid workers, the military, leaders in trade and business and immigrant communities in Canada.