Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

Occupied Gaza

Repeatedly we hear the accusation that the war in Gaza is a result of what Secretary General of the UN Antonio Gutteres referred to as the “suffocating occupation” by Israel. This echoes many similar assertions by others who have ignored the inconvenient truth that Israel ceased occupying Gaza by September 2005. In fact, many Israeli settlers who resisted the withdrawal were forcibly removed by the IDF, an action that caused a great deal of social unrest within Israel, even though most Israelis overwhelmingly supported the end of the Gaza occupation. 

Unfortunately, there is still an occupation of Gaza, but not by Israel. It began, a year after Israel’s departure with the Gaza election in 2006 of Hamas (although in no single district in Gaza did it win a majority of votes). This Islamist group, which as we now see, offered Gazans one person, one vote, one time, has not allowed the Gazans another election in the seventeen years since then. Without giving its citizens a voice in its disastrous decisions during its time in power, Hamas, rather than providing for the Gazans basic needs of peace, security, and a livelihood has used Gaza’s many financial grants, tax funds, and resources for its own extremist agenda. Today, with its top leaders insulated in luxury suites in Qatar, while 47% of its population is unemployed and 80% lives in poverty, Hamas blames all their failings on their Israeli neighbors while pursuing above all else their goal, shared with other extremists, of wiping Israel off the map. The brutal slaughter of Israeli civilians (many in favor of peace), babies, entire families, and the elderly, as well as the abductions of innocents from their homes and cars, were done with the guidance, training, encouragement, and financial support of Iran, who shares Hamas’ desire to destroy Israel. And it is now supported by Hezbollah as well as anti-Israel demonstrators in the rest of the world.   

Nothing exemplifies the insidiousness of the Hamas occupation more than the network of tunnels and missile launchers Hamas has built with precious Palestinian resources. Starting under the Israeli occupation during the 1990s, this subterranean network beneath and within civilian residential areas has grown exponentially since. A decade ago, as reported in the press, Israeli authorities discovered a tunnel from Gaza into Israel 1.5 miles long and 66 feet underground. Estimates put the cost of that tunnel that required 800 tons of concrete that otherwise could have been used for civilian housing and infrastructure at some $10 million. These tunnels have expanded exponentially into an “underground city” beneath Gaza, at a cost of many more millions, all stolen from the Palestinian citizens of Hamas-occupied Gaza and used for war against Israel and now also for holding Israeli hostages. 

Current estimates put the military budget in Hamas’ Gaza at $350 million. Hamas imposes unofficial fees on smuggled goods and other activity, for a combined income of up to $450 million per year. Like all dictatorial occupying regimes, they use the lion’s share of Gaza’s wealth for their agenda. 

Imagine what could have been done to improve the lives and economy of the Palestinians in Gaza with all this money.  Had Hamas truly held a concern for the liberation of Gaza and for the people they claim to lead albeit in authoritarian occupation they would instead have extended a hand of peace to Gaza’s neighbors Israel and Egypt and could have created a Singapore of the Middle East.  With its beautiful beaches, eager to work population, and so many young people (median age at 18), Gaza could have been a shining place of hope on the Mediterranean. 

Instead, Hamas and its partners Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah Iran, and other extremists obsessively attacked and terrorized Israelis, held Gaza’s people hostage as human shields while stealing money and building materials, turning its neighbors Israel and Egypt from likely allies into states that were forced to close their borders and blockade their coastlines while building an iron dome over their skies for protection. In return Hamas made Palestinians suffer, far more than the Israeli occupation had. This is not the first time a failed state has blamed its poor leadership on the Jews.

Photo Samuel Heilman, by permission

Does Israel have any responsibility here? Of course, led by a Prime Minister and his various coalitions who wanted to forget about Palestinian hopes for a life in their own state that might emulate the Israelis, increasingly right-wing Netanyahu governments were happy to watch as Hamas squandered its “human capital,” and the Palestinian Authority sunk into a corruption and authoritarianism not unlike Hamas (also avoiding free and fair elections). Palestinians were left with no real leadership, and no hope about their future. Netanyahu’s Israel avoided negotiating in good faith with the Palestinians, undid the peace progress of the Rabin and Peres governments, and happily characterized Palestinians as uninterested in co-existence despite the polls that showed otherwise. Since the rise of the current extremist Netanyahu coalition, which divided Israelis from one another as it worked to undermine democracy in Israel (emulating their Palestinian neighbors) the numbers of those on both sides of this conflict believing co-existence is possible have dropped. Now only a minority of Palestinians and Israelis (one third of each) still believe in two states sharing the land between the Jordan River and the Sea. 

Only a change of leadership on both sides can stop this spiral of hate. It’s time to free both Israelis and Palestinians from the folly and mendacity of its leaders who have brought us to this edge of destruction in the 75th year of Israel’s fragile independence. Those who have brought us to the brink cannot and will not lead us away from it. Netanyahu must go home along with his current government, and the Hamas regime must be dismantled, while the Palestinian Authority must yield to new leaders and new ideas.

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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