Slouching Toward a Palestinian Holocaust

16 July 2007
The recent developments in Gaza express an unmistakable and deliberate intention on the part of Israel to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty that endanger its collective survival.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
- William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

There is little doubt that the Nazi Holocaust was as close to unconditional evil as has been revealed throughout the entire bloody history of the human species. Its massiveness, unconcealed genocidal intent, and reliance on the mentality and instruments of modernity give its enactment in the death camps of Europe a special status in our moral imagination. This special status is exhibited in the continuing presentation of its gruesome realities through film, books, and a variety of cultural artifacts more than six decades after the genocidal events ceased. The permanent memory of the Holocaust is also kept alive by the existence of notable museums in several countries devoted exclusively to the depiction of the horrors that took place during the period of Nazi rule in Germany.

Against this background, it is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as ‘holocaust.’ The word is derived from the Greek holos (meaning ‘completely’) and kaustos (meaning ‘burnt’), and was used in ancient Greece to refer to the complete burning of a sacrificial offering to a divinity. Because such a background implies a religious undertaking, there is some inclination in Jewish literature to prefer the Hebrew word ‘Shoah’ that can be translated roughly as ‘calamity,’ and was the name given to the 1985 epic nine-hour narration of the Nazi experience by the French filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann. The Germans themselves were more antiseptic in their designation, officially naming their undertaking as the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Qestion.’ The label is, of course, inaccurate as a variety of non-Jewish identities were also targets of this genocidal assault, including the Roma and Sinti(‘gypsies), Jehovah Witnesses, gays, disabled persons, political opponents.

It has always been controversial to extend the reach of ‘holocaust’ beyond this historical memory of Nazi genocide. There are those who believe that it is a violation of this memory to suggest any comparability with other experiences of collective suffering. Yet I share with others the view that in certain circumstances, especially in situations of neglected perceptions of genocidal behavior, the provocative linking of a given set events with the Jewish experience of Nazism is called for. Iris Change did this with some powerful effects, referring to the Japanese massacre of civilian residents of Nanking, China in 1937, as ‘the forgotten holocaust.’ The same language has been used in reference to the strategic bombing campaigns of the Allied Powers in World War II that devastated German and Japanese cities, culminating in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is against this background that I am suggesting that the dire and worsening situation in Gaza threatens to produce a new holocaust.

Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not. The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express an unmistakable and deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty that endanger its collective survival. The suggestion that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the-making represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these current genocidal tendencies from culminating in mass tragedy. If ever the ethos of ‘a responsibility to protect,’ recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain, suffering, and most of all, from total collapse through starvation and disease. But it would be unrealistic to expect the UN to do anything even in the face of this severe crisis, given the pattern of US support for Israel and taking into account the extent to which European governments have lent their weight to recent illicit efforts to crush Hamas as a Palestinian political force regardless of the human burdens inflicted on the Gazans.

Even if the pressures exerted on Gaza were to be acknowledged as having genocidal potential and even if Israel’s impunity under America’s geopolitical umbrella is put aside, there is little assurance that any sort of protective action in Gaza would be taken. There were strong advance signals in 1994 of a genocide to come in Rwanda, and yet nothing was done to stop it; the UN and the world watched while the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnians took place, an incident that the World Court described as ‘genocide’ a few months ago; similarly, there have been repeated allegations of genocidal conduct in Darfur over the course of the last several years, and hardly an international finger has been raised, either to protect those threatened or to resolve the conflict in some manner that shares power and resources among the contending ethnic groups. But Gaza seems in some respects morally worse, although mass death has not yet resulted. It appears to be worse because the international community is watching the ugly spectacle unfold while some of its most influential members actively encourage and assist Israel to proceed with its approach to Gaza. Not only the United States, but also the European Union, is complicit, as are such neighbors as Egypt and Jordan apparently motivated by their worries that the democratic strength displayed by Hamas may add to their own problems associated with the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood within their own borders. It is undoubtedly relevant that Hamas, founded by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, immediately declared itself to be the Gaza extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is helpful to recall that the liberal democracies of Europe paid homage to Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games, and then turned away tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. I am not suggesting that the comparison should be viewed as literal, but to insist that a pattern of criminality associated with Israeli policies in Gaza has actually been supported by the leading democracies of the 21st century.

To ground these allegations, it is necessary to consider the background of the current situation. For over four decades, ever since 1967, Gaza has been occupied by Israel in a manner that turned this crowded area into a cauldron of pain and suffering for the entire population on a daily basis, with more than half of Gazans living in miserable refugees camps and even more dependent on humanitarian relief to satisfy basic human needs. With great fanfare, under Sharon’s leadership, Israel supposedly ended its military occupation and dismantled its settlements in 2005. The process was largely a sham as Israel maintained full control over borders, air space, offshore seas, as well as asserted its military control of Gaza, engaging in violent incursions, sending missiles to Gaza at will on assassination missions that themselves violate international humanitarian law, and managing to kill more than 300 Gazan civilians since its supposed physical departure. In essence, Israel’s ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005 was a redeployment of IDF ground forces and the removal of settlements without genuine ‘disengagment,’ as claimed, and certainly without giving up the realities of control. These developments were at the time cleverly pitched by Isreal and the United States to the outside world as courageous and unilateral peace moves taken at Tel Aviv’s initiative, but the most tangible result has been to turn Gaza as a totality into a virtual free-fire zone. As a recent expert observer, Jennifer Loewenstein, wrote in the last issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies, the Israel removal of its physical presence from Gaza “did nothing to alleviate the misery and in fact tightened the noose around the Gaza..”

As unacceptable as is this earlier part of the story, a dramatic turn for the worse occurred when Hamas prevailed in the January 2006 national legislative elections. It is a bitter irony that Hamas was encouraged, especially by Washington, to participate in the elections to show its commitment to a political process (as an alternative to violence) and then was badly punished for having the temerity to succeed. These elections were internationally monitored under the leadership of the former American president, Jimmy Carter, and pronounced as completely fair. Carter has recently termed this Israeli/American refusal to accept the outcome of such a democratic verdict as itself ‘criminal.’ It is also deeply discrediting of the campaign of the Bush presidency to promote democracy in the region, an effort already under a dark shadow in view of the policy failure in Iraq.

After winning the Palestinian elections, Hamas was castigated as a terrorist organization that had not renounced violence against Israel and had refused to recognize the Jewish state as a legitimate political entity. In fact, the behavior and outlook of Hamas is more complex and diverse. From the outset of its political existence in 1987, Hamas seemed ready to work with other Palestinian groups, especially Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas, to establish a ‘unity’ government. More than this, their leadership revealed a willingness to move toward an acceptance of Israel’s existence if Israel would in turn agree to move back to its 1967 borders, implementing finally unanimous Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

Even more dramatically, Hamas proposed a ten-year truce with Israel, and went so far as to put in place a unilateral ceasefire that lasted for eighteen months, and was broken only to engage in rather pathetic strikes mainly taking place in response to Israeli violent provocations in Gaza. As Efraim Halevi, former head of Israel’s Mossad was reported to have said, ‘What Isreal needs from Hamas is an end to violence, not diplomatic recognition.’ And this is precisely what Hamas offered and what Israel rejected.

The main weapon in this period relied upon by Hamas, and other Palestinian extremist elements, were Qassam missiles that resulted in producing no more than 12 Israeli deaths over the last six years. While each civilian death is an unacceptable tragedy, the ratio of death and injury for the two sides in so unequal as to call into question the security logic of continuously inflicting excessive force and collective punishment on the entire beleaguered Gazan population, which is accurately regarded as the world’s largest ‘prison.’

Instead of trying diplomacy and respecting democratic results, Israel and the United States used their leverage to reverse the outcome of the 2006 elections by organizing a variety of international efforts designed to make Hamas fail in its attempts to govern in Gaza. Such efforts were reinforced by the related unwillingness of the defeated Fatah elements to cooperate with Hamas in establishing a ‘unity government’ that would be representative of Palestinians as a whole. The main anti-Hamas tactic relied upon by Israel and the U.S. Governement was to support Abbas as the sole legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, to impose an economic boycott on the Palestinians generally, to send in weapons for Fatah militias and to enlist neighbors in these efforts, particularly Egypt and Jordan. Washington appointed a special envoy, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, to work with Abbas forces, and helped channel $40 million to buildup the Presidential Guard, which were the Fatah forces associated with Abbas.

This was a particularly disgraceful policy. Fatah militias, especially in Gaza, had long been wildly corrupt and often used their weapons to terrorize their adversaries and intimidate the population in a variety of thuggish ways. It was this pattern of abuse by Fatah that was significantly responsible for the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections, along with the popular feelings that Fatah, as a political actor, had neither the will nor capacity to achieve results helpful to the Palestinian people, while Hamas had managed resistance and community service efforts that were widely admired by Gazans.

The latest phase of this external/internal dynamic was to induce civil strife in Gaza that led a complete takeover by Hamas forces. With standard irony, a set of policies adopted by Israel in partnership with the United States once more produced exactly the opposite of their intended effects. The impact of the refusal to honor the election results has after 18 months made Hamas much stronger throughout the Palestinian territories, and put it in control of Gaza. A public opinion poll in July 2007 taken by a pro-Fatah Palestinian newspaper suggests that if elections were held at present, the Abbas leadership would win 13.47% of the votes, while the Haniya Hamas leadership would receive 51.47% of the votes, with the remainder going to a variety of other Palestinain political personality. Such ‘blowback’ is reminiscent of a similar effect of the 2006 Lebanon War that was undertaken by the Israel/United States strategic partnership to destroy Hezbollah, but had the actual consequence of making Hezbollah a much stronger, more respected force in Lebanon and throughout the region.

Israel and the United States seemed trapped in a faulty logic that is incapable of learning from mistakes, and takes every setback as a sign that instead of shifting course, the faulty undertaking should be expanded and intensified, that failure resulted from doing too little of the right thing, rather than is the case, doing the wrong thing. So instead of taking advantage of Hamas’ renewed call for a unity government, its clarification that it is not against Fatah as a political formation representing a portion of the Palestinian people. “We have fought against a small clique within Fatah,” declared Abu Ubaya, the military commander of Hamas. Israel seems more determined than ever to foment civil war in Palestine, to make the Gazans pay with their wellbeing and lives to the extent necessary to crush their will once and for all, thereby severing forever the destinies of Gaza and the West Bank, leading to two antagonistic bantustans that are supposed to quell the struggle for Palestinian self-determination.

The insidious new turn of Israeli occupation policy is as follows: push Abbas to rely on hard-line no compromise approach toward Hamas, highlighted by the appointment of an unelected ‘emergency government’ to replace the elected 2006 leadership. The emergency designated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, selected to replace the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, as head of the Palestinian Authority, has only a scant popular following. It is revealing to recall that when Fayyad’s party was on the 2006 election list its candidates won only 2% of the vote. Israel is also reportedly ready to ease some West Bank restrictions on movement in such a way as to convince Palestinians that they can have a better future if they repudiate Hamas and place their bets on Abbas, by now a most discredited political figure who has substantially sold out the Palestinian cause to gain favor and support from Israel/United States, as well as to help Fatah prevail in the internal Palestinian power struggle. To promote these goals it is conceivable, although unlikely, that Israel might release Marwan Barghouti, the only credible Fatah leader, from prison provided Barghouti would be willing to accept the Israeli approach of Sharon/Olmert to the establishment of a Palestinian state. This latter step is doubtful, as Barghouti is a far cry from Abbas, and would be highly unlikely to agree to anything less than a full withdrawal of Israel to the 1967 borders, including the elimination of West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.

This latest turn in policy needs to be understood in the wider context of the Israeli refusal to reach a reasonable compromise with the Palestinian people since 1967. There is widespread recognition among both Israelis and Palestinians, and on the part of informed world opinion, that a real peace process would require Israeli withdrawal, establishment of a Palestinian state with full sovereignty on the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as capital, and assurances of sufficient external financial assistance to give the Palestinians the prospect of economic viability. It is unfortunate that there is no Israeli leadership in sight that has the political backing needed to pursue this vision and no grassroots Israeli push to negotiate such a solution, which would result in an ugly encounter with the settler community, and so the consensus on the contours of a solution the conflict languishes in the closet of unavailable diplomatic option. And so we must expect that the struggle will continue indefinitely with likely spurts of violence on both sides, but with the Palestinians, as they have throughout, bearing the brunt of the burden.

The Israeli approach to the Palestinian challenge is based on isolating Gaza and cantonizing the West Bank, leaving the settlement blocs intact, and appropriating the whole of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. For years this sidestepping of diplomacy has dominated Israeli behavior, including during the Oslo peace process that was initiated on the White House lawn in 1993 by the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat. While talking about peace during the Oslo years, the number of Israeli settlers doubled, huge sums were invested in settlement roads linked directly to Israel, and the process of Israeli settlement and Palestinian displacement from East Jerusalem was moving ahead at a steady pace. Significantly, also, the ‘moderate’ Arafat was totally discredited as a Palestinian leader capable of negotiating with Israel, being treated as dangerous precisely because he was willing to accept a reasonable compromise. Interestingly, until recently when he became useful in the effort to reverse the Hamas electoral victory, Abbas was treated by Isreal as too weak, too lacking in authority, to act on behalf of the Palestinian people in a negotiating process, one more excuse for persisting with its preferred unilateralist course. These considerations also make it highly unlikely that Barghouti will be released from prison unless there is some dramatic change of heart on the Israeli side. Instead of working toward some kind of political resolution, Israel has built an elaborate and illegal security wall on Palestinian territory, continuously expanded the settlements, made life intolerable for the 1.5 million people crammed into Gaza, and pretends that such unlawful ‘facts on the ground’ are somehow a path leading toward security and peace.

On June 25, 2007 leaders from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority met in Sharm El Sheik on the Red Sea to move ahead with their anti-Hamas diplomacy. Israel proposes to release 250 Fatah prisoners (of 9,000 Palestinians currently held) and to hand over Palestinian revenues to Abbas on an installment basis, provided none of the funds is used in Gaza, where a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds day by day. These leaders agreed to cooperate in this effort to break Hamas and to impose a Fatah-led Palestinian Authority on an unwilling Palestine population. Remember that Hamas prevailed in the 2006 elections, not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank as well. To deny Palestinian their right of self-determination is almost certain to backfire in a manner similar to earlier hard-line efforts, producing a radicalized version of what is being opposed. As some commentators have suggested, getting rid of Hamas could mean establishing al Qaeda!

Israel is currently stiffening the boycott on economic relations that has brought the people of Gaza to the brink of collective starvation and desolation. The latest figures suggest an 80% poverty level, with more than 60% of Gazans unemployed or under-employed. This set of policies, carried on for more than four decades, has imposed a sub-human existence on a people that have been repeatedly and systematically made the target of a variety of severe forms of collective punishment. The entire population of Gaza is treated as the ‘enemy’ of Israel, and little pretext is made in Tel Aviv of acknowledging the innocence of this long victimized, yet still stubbornly resisting, civilian society. To persist with such an approach under present circumstances is indeed genocidal, and risks destroying an entire Palestinian community that is an integral part of the Palestinian ethnic whole. It is this prospect that makes appropriate the warning of a Palestinian holocaust in the making, and should remind the world of the famous post-Nazi pledge of ‘never again.’

About the authors

Richard Falk

Richard Falk is a former IPS/TNI fellow, an American professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, writer, and appointee to two United Nations positions on the occupied Palestinian territories.

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