Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Gaza and us

Really, this is a Hamas show, manufactured in large part as a tactic against the Palestinian Authority
Palestinians take part in weekly clashes along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Jabaliya, on May 4, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Palestinians take part in weekly clashes along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Jabaliya, on May 4, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

We are several weeks into actions on the Gaza border with Israel which their organizers have termed, “the march of return.” The announced goal of the actions, as the name states, is the emptying out of Gaza of 70 percent of its 2 million residents whose ancestors fled or were expelled from Israel during the War of Independence and their “return” to what is now and has been since 1948, the State of Israel.

The goal is not improving the lives of Gazans, much less making life there tenable. The goal is that of all Palestinian governing and military factions, whatever their differences: undoing the creation of the State of Israel, which they all term, “the nakba,” or “the catastrophe.” Not just that of Gazans, of course, but of all the Palestinians on the West Bank, and in refugee camps in Jordan; Syria (God help them, bombed mercilessly by Assad); Lebanon; and elsewhere. The “march” events are set to culminate on “nakba day,” on May 15.

Despite the clear message about the intent of the events, reporting about them, in particular by many influential Jewish commentators and groups, has persistently portrayed their motivation as relief of the desperate conditions for civilians in Gaza and the desire to break the “Israeli blockade” of the Strip. It is striking that the stated goal of the organizers is not taken at face value, while another, reflecting the wishes and vision of commentators, is imposed.

The other persistent claim about the actions on the Gaza-Israel border is that they are spontaneous and non-violent. To address the first assertion first, that the actions are spontaneous: this is either a piece of yawning ignorance or of willful distortion. The notion that anything organized in Gaza could or would be done without Hamas control flies in the face of the most elementary familiarity with realities in the Strip. But, no need to speculate. Hamas openly takes credit for the demonstrations, hailing the “martyrs” wounded or killed in them. Yet reporting persists in depicting the actions as some kind of popular uprising.

As the “march of return” was being announced (spontaneous, yet planned?), some prominent Jewish commentators, including Bradley Burston, hailed it as the long-sought, liberal, non-violent Palestinian uprising to which Israel could not but respond with accommodation (Burston, “Palestinians’ New Doomsday Weapon Has Israel Scared to Death,” Haaretz, April 20, 2018). Looking at that writing now, its wishful thinking and confusion of desperate hope with sober assessment, is breathtaking.

The actions which were to mark the “march” were announced from the beginning. The border was to be stormed, with every effort made to break through and penetrate into Israel. Whose lines of course, are guarded by an army whose purpose, like that of the army of any state, is to protect its borders and the civilians behind them from military actions like these.

Non-violent? “Demonstration”? Then of course, came the projectiles of rocks, Molotov cocktails, and kites, some bearing swastikas, flying incendiary devices to ignite Israeli fields and forests, which they have done, causing millions of dollars of damage. One fire yesterday took firefighters six hours to contain; thousands of dunams were burned to the ground, leaving huge, blackened spaces where forests previously stood. Hamas’ “peaceful” “protesters” are now launching 15 of these kites daily, having found them hugely effective. Israeli farmers are demanding army action against the “unarmed” “demonstrators” who are incinerating their fields and Israel is developing counter measures — and reaching a decision that such projectiles will be considered the same as Hamas mortars and rockets. It would be foolish to hope that Israel will not be blamed for taking counter measures to stop this military arson, which now has its own name, “kite terror”: forget the associations of innocent sport in the wind. Or, we will hear — “But there have not (yet) been human casualties, or deaths.” Apply the same standards anywhere else. Anywhere. Else.

Israel announced from the beginning that it would not permit violation of its border or attacks on its forces or installations. I heard those announcements repeatedly, on radio and TV, by the IDF Chief of Staff and by the politicians who lead the government of Israel. The Israel Air Force dropped thousands of leaflets over Gaza to that effect, as well. Nothing in Israel’s record could have led anyone to expect anything but this policy.

But of course, Hamas knew and knows all this. A controlled, staged conflict between desperate civilians in Gaza and the Goliath, Israel, was and is the point, since obviously, Gazans will not be “returning” to Israel via marches or any other means. It was a perfect set up for Israel to be portrayed, as indeed, has played out, as needlessly, wantonly, violent, leading to UN resolutions and hoped for commissions of inquiry, etc. Certainly, a lot of bad press for Israel.  But not enough provocation for all-out war, which a weakened Hamas does not wish at the present.

In any crime, investigators since the Romans have asked, “cui bono,” or “whose benefit,” as an obvious starting point. In the case of the “march of return,” which side benefits from scenes of violent clashes, casualties, fatalities? Israel’s military is many things, including fallible; but patently stupid, not. The standing orders were clear: no one penetrates the border; anyone approaching it in the context of the announced goal of penetrating it; anyone hurling projectiles at IDF soldiers, let alone Molotov cocktails, will be stopped, by tear gas if possible; by bullets if necessary. In the climate of cooked media reporting about Israel, Israel has no benefit, only harm, in Gazan casualties, let alone deaths. Hamas, on the other hand, glories in every such instance.

And hurls its valiant action and heroic leadership (not that Hamas’ leaders are anywhere to be found at the border fence), in the face of the PA.

As the weeks have passed, the silence from the PA and in the West Bank about this “march of return” has been deafening. But silence speaks. This is a Hamas show, manufactured in large part as a tactic against the PA since the collapse of the latest efforts at Palestinian political unity and the ensuing war the PA has declared against Gaza, cutting off support for electricity, water, to the Strip’s, residents– to fellow Palestinians. The war of words between PA President Abbas and Hamas’ leadership has been as incendiary as the burning projectiles hurled at Israeli soldiers and flown by kite over the border.

As many analysts have pointed out, Hamas has suffered severe setbacks in recent years and months, in particular. Its major investment since the 2014 war, in sophisticated attack tunnels kilometers long, warrens of winding passageways under the border and below civilian Israeli settlements, replete with lighting, ventilation, and communications apparatus, has largely been lost to new Israeli measures of detection and destruction. Israel has been sealing the tunnels — wholly inside Israel — with cement, and detonating others. It has been a major blow to Hamas. Egypt is none too friendly with the organization, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood banned in Egypt, and itself has destroyed tunnels from Gaza into Sinai, through which weapons were being smuggled. Back to other measures Egypt has taken against Gaza shortly.

All surely recall the assassination a bit over a week ago of a Gazan engineer in Malaysia and the reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere, about the sophisticated military applications, including military drones and underwater attack technology, whose development this engineer and other scientists from Gaza were pursuing there. Hailed as a martyr by Hamas, his body was given a formal military funeral in Gaza. Ten masked members of Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, its armed wing, formed an honor guard at the mourning tent for this engineer, whom banners hung at the site termed the “engineer commander” of the Brigades and “our martyr to God” (“Middle East Intrigue in a Killing in Malaysia,” International New York Times, April 27, 2018).

The thought that Hamas is orchestrating “non-violent” “demonstrations” to protest living conditions in Gaza would be laughable if this self-delusion, and the perpetuation and wide consumption of this nonsense, were not so pernicious, giving Hamas a pass.

So, what does all this have to do with “us”? That is, with Jews, in Israel and abroad who actually are appalled by those living conditions, by the outrage which is the Gaza Strip? People who take seriously Judaism’s charge to be ethical; who take seriously the lessons of Jewish history, when no one cared or did anything about, Jewish suffering? Who are troubled by the challenge of power, immense power, political and military, which the State of Israel wields?

Voices from such people, commentators and academics and regular, concerned people communicating on Facebook, have called for Israel to cease its “blockade” of the Strip. Elaborate arguments, such as that made by Peter Beinart, (“American Jews Have Abandoned Gaza — And the Truth,” Forward, May, 3, 2018), dissect and dismiss positions articulated by Israel and some of its defenders and place the blame and the responsibility squarely on Israel for the plight of Gazans.

I read Beinart’s piece, throughout much of which I involuntarily shook my head in stupefaction. Then I found it highly recommended as “the piece” to read, in J Street’s newsletter, which also quoted Senator Bernie Sanders as an authority on both the problem underlying the current situation, and its putative solution: Israel’s “blockade” of Gaza, and the need to lift it, unilaterally, now.

Sanders lost all credibility for me, not that he had much, when he announced, at the beginning of the “march of return” events that he would dismiss out of hand any reporting by the Israeli military about them. Now, I can understand and would expect someone in a position of responsibility to say that s/he would view all reporting by all interested parties, all of them–critically; that s/he would seek reports from all angles and weigh them. But to dismiss those of the Israeli military categorically and before events had even unfolded, is nothing but unadulterated, ideologically driven, rigid bias. The kind that says, “I have my position; don’t confuse me with the facts.”

There seems to be a desperate need to see Israel as solely, or very largely, responsible for the human misery and privation in Gaza. For Israel to have Uber-Agency, and for others to have little or none. And to prescribe “ethical” actions that Israel must take, unilaterally, regardless of any reality on the ground, in order for Israel to live out some idealized, fantasy standards that bear no relation to facts or reality. Here or in any other country.

It seems to be more about “us” and our needs than about “them” — Gazans — and theirs.

Because, as the Israeli Palestinian journalist, Khaled Abu Toameh has been pointing out  (see, in particular, his “Palestinians: the Real Gaza Blockade,” Gatestone Institute, May 2, 2018), Egypt is the main culprit in the shortages of supplies in Gaza and the lack of freedom to get out of the Strip. Tons of supplies pass through Israeli checkpoints into Gaza daily. I will not argue that each and every Israeli decision in this regard is justified militarily; I am sure there are mistakes and sometimes, pettiness, stupidity, and meanness, as we know exist in checkpoints on the West Bank. But it is simply a distortion, again, either out of naïve ignorance or the willful kind, to nail the misery in Gaza on Israel. As Abu Toameh notes, Israel’s checkpoints into Gaza are largely open while Egypt’s, at the Rafah Crossing, are almost always closed. The Egyptians could care less about Gazans.

Of course, we would expect Hamas to focus exclusively on Israel. It also makes personal sense for the leaders of Hamas to do so. Egyptian control of the Strip until 1967 was known as particularly brutal, and Egypt can make life for the leadership of Hamas very unpleasant, or end it. Not wise, therefore, on these narrow grounds, either, for Hamas to protest Egyptian policy.

But what about “us” — we Jews, who want to see the privation of and in Gaza end? Why do we not point the finger, rightly, at Egypt, and at Hamas, but persist in this myopic navel-gazing; the perverse insistence on all-Israel culpability?

Of course, Israel is a ready address, for Jews in particular. But if this is not to be about “us” but about them — Gazans; if this is not primarily about our own need for purity but about actions that could actually have a practical effect, that is a sorry excuse.

Egypt has embassies, and consulates. Hamas doesn’t, but the PA does. And yes, of course, the PA and Hamas are at each other’s throats. But let us not put a fine point on it. Target Hamas at PA installations; make their (the PA’s day). And put the onus on Hamas, where it belongs.

And not “only” for its unspeakable, cynical, ruthless behavior to its own population, imprisoned by Hamas terror and totalitarianism and its myopic, fanatic commitment to military actions against Israel rather than to a civil life for its citizens. Put the onus on Hamas for its unspeakable behavior with regard to four Israeli civilians, Jewish, and Bedouin, who crossed the border into Hamas-stan Gaza years ago and who have not been heard from since.  Here are the three names we know: Abera Mangistu, a young Ethiopian Jew, who is mentally ill; Hisham al-Sayed; Juma Ibrahim abu Ghanima. There have been no visits to any of them by the Red Cross or a similar organization. No contact with family. Nothing. Including no mention, none, by any report I have seen, certainly none in Beinart’s piece, about this egregious violation of human rights and human decency. Why?

Then there are the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 war, one of them, after the cease fire, when Hamas continued to launch attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, killing and maiming several. The two soldiers whose remains are being held for ransom are Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.

Why not a word, not one, in any pious pleading by well-meaning Jews, about this?

Because, it would seem, of the ingrained, obsessive, and distortive focus on Israel to the exclusion of facts to the contrary; see again, the reporting by Khaled Abu Toameh, whose bitterness about the wanton disregard for Gazans, and for Palestinians altogether, including tens of thousands barrel-bombed by Assad in Syria to no international notice, fairly jumps off the pages of his reporting. All while the staged, violent scenes at the Gaza-Israel border continue to get frenzied attention.

When news of Natalie Portman’s decision to boycott the Genesis Award event here emerged, I expressed my disappointment at her waste of an unparalleled opportunity to come here and confront Netanyahu openly, publicly, which might actually have accomplished something, not least, help for his floundering opposition. Instead, she chose to bask in pious disconnection; moi, I will not sully myself by proximity to Netanyahu. As if it was about her. Which it quickly became.

I fear there is altogether too much of this in the communities of those who care about Israel and want to see it do better, the best it can under tremendously difficult circumstances.

It is time to take down the self-referred mirrors and look at realities on the ground here. And take meaningful action that would actually make a difference.

Including to the Israeli electorate, which looks at the spectacle of boycott and knee-jerk, selective, biased condemnation, and tunes out. Or worse, takes this tired routine as proof that only right-wing policies are worthy of support.

Putting the onus where it belongs — on Hamas; on Egypt; as well as on Israel — is not only the right, the ethical thing to do. It would actually make a difference here. In Israel, and in Gaza.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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