Sometime in the mid-1990s, I bade farewell to the Gaza Strip. In thrall to the great illusion, sweet and dizzying, that were the 1993 Oslo peace accords, I was sure that Gaza was about to be liberated from Israel’s occupation. The fate of that stretch of land mattered to me very much. There were nearly 700,000 Palestinian refugees there at the time, many already second- and third-generation. Most lived in camps, in disgraceful conditions.
Two decades later, Gaza is even worse off. The number of refugees there has almost doubled, reaching 1.3 million, out of a total population close to 1.9 million. Its residents are even less free. In fact, they have been under blockade by Israel — with help from Egypt — after the militant group Hamas took power in 2007. Unemployment has reached nightmarish figures: more than 46 percent overall in late 2017, and close to 65 percent for people under 30. Israel continues to tighten its hold, building an underground wall into the sandy soil to block tunnels that Hamas has dug.
This Friday, like the three Fridays before, thousands of Gazans faced off hundreds of Israeli soldiers across a fence. They are expected to gather again for more protests every Friday until May 15, the day that commemorates what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe: the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 — which meant the loss of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages.
The Gazan protesters, most of them barehanded, wear cheap and tattered clothing. Behind them are Palestinian ambulances, waiting for the next casualties. Some demonstrators have tires, ready to be set on fire; others hold mirrors, hoping to temporarily blind the soldiers of one of the world’s strongest, best equipped armies on the other side.
Israel, being Israel, is deploying unbridled force against a helpless population. Dozens of snipers, backed by tanks, fire live ammunition against demonstrators whose only weapons are their own bodies — and maybe a tire or a mirror. Israel has always acted like this in Gaza, because it can; the West Bank, by comparison, seems like an island of moderation and enlightenment. And most Israelis, it seems, couldn’t care less.
For Gaza is the lesser child of the Israeli occupation, and also the lesser child of the world. Gaza is far from the holy sites, far from the elegant hotels and fashionable bars of Jerusalem and Ramallah, and far, too, from what little attention the world still pays to the Palestinian problem. Israel uses that remoteness effectively. Although it has moved out of Gaza, its occupation hasn’t stopped. The jailers who once worked inside that prison now operate outside it, which is more comfortable for them anyway.
The Israeli government ramped up its abuse after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. It couldn’t have wished for more than Hamas’s rise: No one would expect it to negotiate with those fundamentalists. The rest of the world has boycotted any talks with them — though for reasons not entirely clear. It speaks with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, but it won’t speak with Ismail Haniya, the political leader of Hamas.
So Israel is permitted everything in Gaza. And it has turned the territory into its training field, a giant lab — for gauging the reactions of the nearly two million people it keeps under siege there, and for testing its innovative weapons, as well as the limits of what the world will let it get away with.
This practice started with the retaliation operations of Unit 101 in the 1950s, payback for Palestinian terrorist attacks. It continued during the brief occupation of Gaza in 1956, during what Israel calls the Sinai Campaign (aka the Suez Crisis), and it resumed again during the early days of occupation after 1967, when Ariel Sharon — then an army commander, later the prime minister — set up death squads in Gaza.
It’s no coincidence that the First Intifada broke out in Gaza in 1987. And it’s no coincidence that Israel has embarked on three savage military offensives there over the past decade, killing thousands of people, wounding tens of thousands, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and sowing unbelievable ruin. This would not have been possible in the West Bank, if only because there are too many Jewish settlements there now, abutting Palestinian villages.
The test case was Operation Cast Lead. In just over three weeks in December 2008 and January 2009, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, Israel killed 1,434 Palestinians in Gaza, many unarmed — compared with 14 Israelis, most of them soldiers, killed by Palestinians. The ratio is gruesome: about 100 to 1.
The world was put to the test then. Had it taken substantial action against Israel, the country might not have dared be so brutal again. A United Nations investigation known as the Goldstone Report cast heavy blame on Israel (and some on Hamas). Still, Israel read past the lip service and understood that it would have to pay nothing, not even for acts suspected of being war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Just three years later, in November 2012, it embarked on Operation Pillar of Defense, which was relatively restrained. But two years after that came Operation Protective Edge — the most brutal of its assaults on Gaza, which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians.
The decade-long siege of Gaza is an unparalleled collective punishment. Israel’s methods, disproportionate under international law, are carefully planned and considered. At one point, the military justified restrictions on food imports into Gaza by calculating the number of calories a person there needed daily to survive.
No wonder living conditions have only gotten worse over the years. Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization, estimates that the number of Palestinians who were allowed to leave Gaza, including for medical treatment, averaged under 6,000 a month last year — less than half the monthly average for 2016 or 2015. A United Nations report was already warning in 2012 that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020, and matters have only gotten worse in the meantime.
But the fate of these almost two million human beings forced to live in a vast cage — most of them youngsters with no past, no present and no future — mainly because of Israel’s inhuman policies, doesn’t seem to touch the country’s conscience. Israelis live in denial; they barely even talk about Gaza. Much of the local media, betraying its mission, hardly covers life there: No matter what, Gaza is simply characterized as a hive of terrorism and a constant threat to our security. “Go to Gaza!” is a common Hebrew curse.
After the failure of the Camp David summit meeting of July 2000 and then the Second Intifada, in 2000-05, many Israelis lost both hope in peace and interest in the Palestinian tragedy. Israel has turned right, and nationalistic, even racist. Yet the truth is that Gaza is a disaster zone, and one of Zionism’s greatest victims.
Gideon Levy is a columnist for Haaretz. This essay was translated by Dena Shunra from the Hebrew.