For the third time in five years, Israel is engaging in a large-scale assault on the Gaza Strip. In three weeks of indiscriminate bombardment, it has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and injured more than 6,000, the vast majority of them civilians, and an appalling number children, who make up most of Gaza’s population, and who, even when not physically maimed, have been terrorized in their hundreds of thousands. Forty-seven Israelis — almost all of them soldiers — have been killed in turn.
On top of the casualty figures, the scale of material devastation is enormous. The UN estimates that the homes of more than 3,600 families have been heavily damaged or totally destroyed, leaving 22,000 people homeless. Israel claims that it has warned people to flee; more than 200,000 have done so, which would be reckoned a human calamity in Chicago or London but, happening in Gaza, raises scarcely an eyebrow around the world. According to the UN, however, Israel has blanketed almost half of the territory with such warnings, and it has refused to let people out of Gaza to seek shelter, so in fact terrified families have essentially nowhere to go, and have been cut down by Israeli shrapnel and flechette darts when they flee. The overwhelming majority of Gazans are now effectively cut off from water, sewage and electrical services — in a modern urban environment, in the middle of a hot Mediterranean summer.
All of this, we are relentlessly told by Israel’s once well-oiled but nowadays creaking and spluttering propaganda machine, is to prevent rocket attacks into Israel. Time and time again, in 2008-9, in 2012 and again now, it has meticulously been documented that the surest way to prevent rocket attacks on Israel is for Israel itself to abide by ceasefire obligations that, each time, it disregards. Time and time again, however, Israel and its dwindling band of supporters in Europe and the U.S. weave tangled webs of hopelessly convoluted and mendacious distortions of simple chronology, vainly attempting to reverse the relationship of cause and effect, and to rewrite the sequence of events on the fly.
The current flareup, as on previous occasions, is the direct result not of the rocket attacks about which we have heard so much but rather of massive Israeli provocations: in this case, the extraordinary intensification of Israeli harassment of Palestinians in the West Bank, involving the shooting in cold blood of unarmed civilians — including children — and the arbitrary arrest and detention, over a two-week stretch, of almost a thousand Palestinians on the flimsy pretext that they were somehow involved in the kidnap of three young Israeli settlers whom the government knew (though it cynically used press censorship to withhold the news from its public) to have been murdered within hours. The West Bank violence culminated in the kidnapping and burning alive of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish activists whipped into a frenzy by their own government, which finally, by way of relief, turned to Gaza once again as a convenient outlet for Israeli anger and frustration, Hamas having provided by then the necessary pretext in the form of all-too-predictable rocket attacks in response to the dramatic Israeli escalation in the West Bank.
We’ve seen this movie before, in 2008-9 and 2012, and we all know how it ends. No matter how much ordnance Israel unloads on the people of Gaza, and no matter how many families it shatters or lives it gratuitously cuts short, it will be yet another ceasefire — not sheer mindless violence and not Israel’s stentorian proclamations — that will restore a provisional and restive calm.
It will be provisional and restive because calm, in itself, will do nothing to address the underlying cause of the current violence. Having corralled 1.8 million people into what is in effect the largest prison on earth, having subjected the people of Gaza to years of withering siege punctuated by random bombardments that has reduced their lives in essence to a collective version of Waiting for Godot, Israel seems to think that life ought to carry on as normal on the beaches and in the discotheques of Tel Aviv.
This delusional attitude is the extension of the same warped view that allows the Israelis to continuously subject Palestinians to violence, which takes many forms, and unfolds not merely in bombs and shells but mostly at the level of a mutilated and restricted everyday life, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as Gaza and countless refugee camps. This attitude is also the direct consequence of the thoroughly mainstream Israeli view that strips Palestinians of rights, of agency and even of humanity, reducing them merely — as one Israeli parliamentarian recently approvingly put it — to “snakes,” or at least to an abstract “demographic threat” that needs to be contained by any means necessary. The very existence of Palestinians, their ongoing presence as a Christian and Muslim majority in the combined space of Israel and the occupied territories — a land in which there is only one state, which identifies itself as exclusively Jewish — is the problem to which both mundane and extraordinary violence seems, for Israel, to be a kind of solution.
Well, it’s not. Israel has been trying to eradicate the Palestinian “threat” for six decades, and it has failed, and will continue to fail. No amount of violence will resolve the underlying contradictions, or diminish the Palestinian claim to justice, equality, and rights.
Saree Makdisi, a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, is the author of “Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.”