Trapped, Bloodied, and Besieged in the Gaza Strip

For a month now, the Palestinian territory of Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, has again come under heavy attack by Israel and its U.S-funded military might. According to Israel, the military operation, referred to as "Protective Edge," was launched in response to continuous rocket fire by Hamas, the controlling wing of the democratically-elected government of Palestine. Israel maintains it is only defending itself, and that the purpose of their latest assault is to disarm Hamas and destroy so-called "terror tunnels," which Israel claims Hamas uses to infiltrate and attack Israeli towns and cities. While the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), the military forces of Israel, is relentlessly bombarding Gaza with missiles and artillery shells, Hamas is fighting back and recruiting, launching more rockets into Israel and striking the IDF inside and across the border. Several humanitarian ceasefires and truces have been short-lived, some lasting only hours or minutes. Palestinian deaths and injuries have mounted precipitously, with no end in sight.

Since the beginning of Israel’s invasion, more than 1,800 Palestinians have been killed, mostly civilians, including over 300 children. Approximately 63 IDF soldiers have been killed. An estimated 9,000 Palestinians have been wounded, including nearly 3,000 children. Hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, with around 300,000 currently being housed in UN schools-turned-shelters. It is a severe humanitarian crisis that is only deepening and worsening. People are struggling to meet their basic needs – food and clean water are in short supply. Electricity is only available for a couple of hours a day. Public infrastructure has been destroyed. Rubble covers the streets. A world of diverse and vibrant color has been transformed into shades of grey and red across Gaza. The levels of human suffering and unspeakable cruelty are almost too much to comprehend.

Israel argues that it is taking special precautions to protect civilians, in part by employing a so-called "knock on the roof" technique (either a telephone call or small explosion) to warn when a large strike is about to occur in a specific location. However, because of Gaza’s limited shelters (some of which have been purposely attacked by Israel) and the seven-year Israeli siege of Gaza, such an escape is extremely difficult if not impossible. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said, "the people of Gaza have nowhere to run." As the Gaza Strip is an area only about the size of Detroit, with a population of nearly 2 million, Ki-moon’s assessment of the mobility of Gazans is clearly not an exaggeration.

One talking point of the Israeli government and its supporters has been that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. Even if this accusation were true (note that Amnesty International among other credible groups have debunked the charge), it does not justify the intentional and indiscriminate bombing of schools, hospitals or shelters, though Israel has done so with impunity. The IDF has also targeted and struck beaches, parks, mosques, markets, power plants and media outlets, killing scores of civilians in the process. The UN and International Criminal Court (ICC) must send a clear and unequivocal message to Israel that governments, no matter how powerful and influential they or their allies might be, will be held accountable for such atrocities. No nation should be above the law.

The UN has taken notice, criticizing some of Israel’s destructive actions. Citing attacks against homes and hospitals, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said there is a “strong possibility” that some of Israel’s strikes may be war crimes. On July 23, the UN Human Rights Council voted in favor of launching an international, independent inquiry into the possibility that Israel violated international humanitarian law and international human rights during its assault on Gaza. Of the 47 members of the Council, 29 nations voted in support of the inquiry, passing the resolution. Seventeen countries abstained, mostly European nations. The United States was the only country to vote against the resolution.

Among the latest deadly strikes by Israel was one outside a UN shelter in Rafah on August 3. The action was strongly condemned in a statement released on behalf of the UN Secretary-general It read in part: "the attack is yet another gross violation of international humanitarian law, which clearly requires protection by both parties of Palestinian civilians, UN staff and UN premises, among other civilian facilities…This attack, along with other breaches of international law, must be swiftly investigated and those responsible held accountable. It is a moral outrage and a criminal act."

History reveals that when people are oppressed and their lands are stolen through repeated invasion and illegal military occupation, their access to basic needs is blocked, and their dignity is eroded, sooner or later they resist. Blaming Hamas for the apartheid and slaughter in Gaza defies logic, justice and morality. Israel’s excuse that it is simply defending itself fails to hold up under scrutiny – the brutal nature of their military offensive over the past four weeks should be evidence enough; however, it only scratches the surface of the persecution long endured by Palestinians. Israel’s aggression in and usurpation of Palestinian territories is deliberate and systematic, mirroring imperial and colonial land grabs throughout history.

The major media have painted Israel’s war against Gaza with the brush of moral equivalence – leading Americans to believe that Israel is acting merely to protect its citizens. The Obama administration and the U.S. Congress staunchly defend Israel and continue to fund its war machine – the US has given Israel roughly $121 billion in military aid since the state’s founding. Today the US sends Israel about $3.1 billion annually, or $8.5 million per day. And as demonstrated by a recent vote for a resolution supporting Israel, even so-called progressive Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have sided with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Zionist lobby. Having backed the apartheid government of South Africa and other repressive regimes, the US is once again finding itself on the wrong side of history.

Hamas’ rocket fire into Israel is wrong and counterproductive, despite the fact that most of the rockets either never reach populated areas or get erased by Israel’s "Iron Dome" missile defense system (which, incidentally, the United States Senate voted on August 1 to allocate $225 million in emergency funding). In addition, Hamas must recognize the right of Israel to exist. No question. Irrespective of Israel’s continued military occupation and theft of Palestinian lands and confinement of its people in conditions tantamount to an open-air prison, Hamas’ current policy toward Israel cannot be condoned and must change. Until then, Israel will continue pointing to Hamas as the justification for its ongoing appropriation of Palestine’s lands and extermination of its people and will continue gleaning sympathy and support from different world powers.

Israel’s actions in Gaza are criminal and affront to humanity. Stories of entire families being shattered, literally and figuratively, have come out of Gaza since Israel’s offensive began. People of conscience have a moral obligation to overcome their fear of being accused of anti-Semitism and find the courage to denounce Israel’s war against a mostly defenseless civilian population. Apartheid, genocide and ethnic cleansing must be called out and stopped no matter who is committing it or why it is being committed.

Americans can speak out nonviolently through protest but also via boycott and divestment (BD) – – from banks, pension funds and businesses that deal commercially and financially with Israel. The BDS movement, which also includes government sanctions (e.g., arms embargo), can still be effective in the modern world. In an interview with Z Communications, renowned intellectual and political activist Noam Chomsky argued that "Divestment from US firms is particularly significant because it not only punishes Israel for its crimes, but focuses attention on the crucial US role in supporting them, a necessary focus if there is to be any hope of real progress." Chomsky emphasizes, however, that "BD initiatives will have only limited effect." He believes government sanctions will also be needed before Israel acquiesces and ends its policy of aggression toward Palestine.

Temporary ceasefires and short-term truces are not enough. A long-term political solution is urgently needed, and must include Hamas’ recognizing Israel’s fundamental right to exist, as well as an end to the blockade, the removal of Israel settlements from the West Bank, and a two-state solution according to the 1967 lines. The Palestinian people want a peaceful two-state solution and no more war. Israeli citizens do, too. The more the world turns a blind eye to the tragic situation, the more anger and frustration get fueled across the Mideast. When Israel’s current assault on Gaza finally ends; when the smoke clears and all the Palestinian and Israeli dead have been buried, neither Israel nor Hamas will be any safer, as violence begets violence and terror begets terror. It always has and it always will.

Brian J. Trautman is a military veteran and an instructor of peace studies at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, MA. He is also a peace activist involved with a number of groups, including Veterans for Peace and Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice. On Twitter @BriTraut.