First, a story—a true one. On February 28, 1994, in a funeral eulogy for an American-born Israeli who had been beaten to death by a Palestinian mob a few days before, a certain Rabbi Perin declared, “A million Arabs are not worth one Jewish fingernail.” The world was shocked by the statement when it was reported in the New York Times, and the Israeli prime minister himself denounced it. The murdered Israeli was Baruch Goldstein, who, on February 25, 1994, had stepped into a mosque carrying an assault rifle and killed 29 Palestinian men and boys bowed in prayer before his gun jammed. He was then killed with iron bars by surviving worshipers.
Now in Gaza, a more modest version of the stunning ratio suggested by Rabbi Perin, the worth of the million and the worth of the one, is being enacted. The tally to this date in the mutual killing taking place in Gaza and the adjoining Israeli territory since the end of December is 979 Palestinian dead and 13 Israeli dead, a proportion of 75 to 1. Of the Palestinian dead, 292 were children and approximately 75 were women. In one Palestinian family, five sisters, ages 4 to 17, were killed; in another, two sisters, ages 5 and 12 were killed. A 2,000 pound bomb dropped on the home of a Hamas leader killed not only him but his four wives and 13 of his 17 children.
Of the total of 13 Israeli dead in the current phase of the decades-long conflict, three were civilians, killed by rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli territory beginning December 19, when a six-month cease-fire agreed to by Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza expired. To “teach Israel a lesson,” Hamas had summoned up the heaviest weaponry in its arsenal: an assortment of crude rockets with notoriously wild aim. To “teach Hamas a lesson” in turn, Israel launched day and night bombing attacks on all of Gaza, of less than pinpoint accuracy, starting two weeks ago, on December 27. In the first four days of the new lesson, those aerial attacks killed more than 400 Palestinians, of all sizes and all places in Gaza society, and made rubble a familiar sight throughout the city. Those 400 and more Palestinian deaths stood as first payment for the three Israelis who had been killed by Palestinian rockets.
Gaza, be it noted, with three times the population of Vermont and 1.5 percent of Vermont’s land area, is one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The people of Gaza are most of them refugees of the 1967 war, and their descendants. They don’t merely live and survive as best they can in Gaza. As life-long refuges, they are locked in place by the Israeli military, who since decades past have exercised total control over what persons and what goods will enter and leave the territory.
Especially since the imposition of the stricter blockade of the last 18 months, Gaza has come to resemble an open-air prison where a million-and-a-half virtual inmates, cut off from the rest of the world, struggle to piece together an existence.
The effect of the blockade on the health of the population of Gaza has been severe in the extreme. In the period before the new outbreak of violence a couple of weeks ago, investigators found that 75 percent of Gazans were undernourished. The children of Gaza, who number 58 percent of the population and whose bodies persist in wanting to grow, have been the greatest sufferers: 46 percent suffer from acute anemia, 45 percent have an iron deficiency, and 18 percent have been stunted in their growth. Because of lack of fuel, provision of electricity and water has been sketchy and scarce. And now, since the assault by Israel, beginning on December 27, the condition of Gaza has gone from calamitous to catastrophic: a humanitarian disaster, in the view of both the International Red Cross and the United Nations Relief Agency, who have a certain expertise in these matters.
With such punishing effects on the civilian population, the continuing Israeli blockade of Gaza, now of 18 months duration, constitutes “collective punishment,” a belligerent action that besides being abhorrent to most people is expressly forbidden under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the controlling international law on the conduct of war.
So who started it? Who first violated the six-month cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza, that began on June 19, 2008?
Was it Gaza and Hamas? During the period of the cease-fire, from June 19 to December 19, 2008, rockets continued to be fired from Gaza into neighboring Israeli communities, with their usual vague aim and murderous intent. But their numbers had dropped dramatically, even according to the Israeli military. Hamas claims that those rockets were fired by rogue parties over whom it had no control.
Whoever fired them, there were no deaths resulting from them in the period of the cease-fire. But whether deaths resulted or not, all Israelis within range of Gaza’s rockets have lived for months in states of daily anxiety.
Hamas, for its part, accuses Israel of violating the cease-fire in two different ways. It claims that the tight blockade of Gaza maintained by Israel for the past year and a half, and including the period of the cease-fire, had become unendurable. It has claimed that the protracted blockade, with its punishing effects on the health of the population at-large, was in itself an illegal action both under the rules of the Fourth Geneva Convention and under the terms of the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire of June 2008, and that of itself it constituted a casus belli that gave Hamas the right to pick up arms in its own defense.
Hamas makes also the more punctuated claim that Israel had openly violated the mutual cease-fire on November 4, 2008, 50 days before Hamas formally declared an end to its own observance of it, when Israeli troops broke into Gaza, killing six Palestinians and carting off six others.
With its back to the wall because of the blockade, and lacking planes, helicopters, and tanks of its own, Hamas resumed the only form of warfare it was capable of, the frank terror of rockets aimed in the direction of nearby Israeli communities.
It is these current rocket attacks from Gaza which, taken together with similar attacks carried out over the last eight years have inflicted a total of 28 Israeli civilian deaths, that Israel has cited as grounds for attacking Gaza now, from the air and sea and ultimately by land, with overwhelming force. The death counts are eloquent of a great moral equation that I leave it to the reader to judge: those 28 Israeli deaths in eight years of on-and-off Palestinian rocket attack on the one hand; and 979 Palestinian deaths, suddenly, in the little more than two weeks of the blitzkrieg that Israel is currently waging on Gaza.
Enter also into the moral equation also the enormous damage done to the housing and civic structures of Gaza—schools, hospitals, university buildings—and the psychological effects on the children of Gaza who, while enduring cold and hunger, have been witnessing death all around them, and are emotionally petrified by the mayhem raining down on them, from which there is no escape within the confines of crammed, crowded, and locked down Gaza.
Will the people of Gaza and the Hamas government they saw fit to elect two years ago, now under day and night attack of breathtaking severity, “learn the lesson” that Israel seeks to teach them? While at the same time and in the same spirit of rough pedagogy, Hamas tries to teach Israel a parallel lesson with its scatter-shot of rockets.? So far, not. Neither side, in its outrage, chooses to understand the rough “lesson” the other side is teaching. It is as though the human brute had lost its tongue and its power of reason.
Gaza under punishment, I submit, locked down, sealed in, half starved, terrified, and overpowered as it is now, with elements still resisting, is acquiring an eerie resemblance to the Warsaw ghetto of the 1940s: a resemblance still small, but increasing.
In a comment on the current bombing of Gaza, Titus North, an American professor of political science, called attention to the anomaly of Israel. “A state founded by Holocaust survivors,” he wrote, “should be a beacon of morality, not a black hole for it.”
That terrible loop the course of history has taken, with descendants of the historic victims of the Holocaust now wearing the jackboots of the dominant warrior, is a bitter thing for a Jew like myself to contemplate.
Postscript: A few days ago, Congress pledged its “unwavering support for Israel” in this hottest of little wars. While at the same time, in capital cities throughout the world, people have been demonstrating in the tens and hundreds of thousands, to express their outrage at the violent disproportion of Israel’s response to the provocation of the rocket attacks that keep coming from Gaza.
My word to our representatives in Washington: By making the United States Israel’s Siamese twin in this affair, joined to it at hip, and ankle, you not only fail to reflect the views of a great part of your constituency, but also expose us to the kinds of international anger and hatred that Israel is incurring throughout the world, with the lord knows what consequences for our own safety and standing in the world.
Jules Rabin is a writer, political critic, and longtime resident of Marshfield, Vermont.