My two children graduated from the United Nations school in New York. Maybe that’s why the news of the 40 people killed at the United Nations school in Gaza hit me so hard. I’m as blasé as the next person about pictures of children’s bodies lined up on the ground. We’ve probably all thought, “Those could be my kids.” This time the idea was a little more vivid than usual.
The crowd that gathered outside New York’s City Hall on Wednesday included a lot of Jews like me. We were there to protest Mayor Bloomberg’s enthusiastic support for what the Israeli army is doing in Gaza. For years now many American Jews have been begging the US government not to use us as an excuse for sending Israel the helicopters and the F-116s and then, when the army made the predictable mess with them, offering Israel diplomatic immunity in the Security Council. On Wednesday it was cold and rainy, and we all had better places to be. But it was unbearable to think we were represented by people like Bush and Bloomberg who lay all the blame on “terrorists.” “New Yorkers know what terrorism is all about,” Bloomberg said from near the Gaza border. “If we were threatened in New York, we would do everything in our power to protect our citizens.” What is 9/11 doing here? Considering the inequality of arms and the inequality in the number of victims, a better analogy for Gaza and Israel would be David and Goliath.
In international law, and as a matter of human decency, the Israeli government has a responsibility to protect not just its own citizens, but also the Palestinians in Gaza. Though the Israeli army left in 2005, it has never stopped controlling everything that goes into or out of Gaza. It has stopped fuel and medicine from going in, thereby creating what is called a “humanitarian crisis.” One also hears Gaza described as “hell on earth.” I grew up with that phrase. In the 1950s it was applied to the concentration camps. I know, I know. Holocaust analogies are supposed to be taboo. But when a whole population is fenced in and deprived of food, water, and electricity, when anything that moves risks being shot, and when you can also get blown up without moving at all, like the people seeking shelter at the United Nations school, it’s natural enough that language like this will be applied.
There were signs at the protest on Wednesday that used the word “genocide.” It’s probably not the right word. The Israelis are not trying to kill every single Palestinian. They are merely trying to crush Hamas and humiliate the Palestinians, accepting the deaths of a few hundred civilians as collateral damage along the way. That’s bad enough. And the numbers are going up.
Who’s to blame? Hamas fired the rockets, and that’s wrong. But Israel kept Gaza in a state of siege, and that’s wrong too, and then retaliated against the Gazans for democratically electing Hamas. There is no end to the blame game. What’s clear is that according to the Anti-Genocide Convention of 1948, a civilian population can never be punished collectively, as Israel is now punishing the Gazans, for the actions of militants in their midst.
It’s also clear that none of this had to happen. According to Israeli government figures, the number of rockets fired out of Gaza in July, August, September, and October 2008 was, respectively, 1, 8, 1, and 2. In the two months before the cease-fire, the numbers had been 149 and 87. In other words, the cease-fire was working. It was broken on November 4-5 when Israel launched air and ground attacks against Hamas while the attention of the world was focused on the US election. Whatever started this new and massive round of atrocities, it was not a few more rockets, rockets that may not have been fired by Hamas at all. Israel’s government is clearly pursuing other strategic objectives.
If you care about Israel’s security, and I hope you do, then you will not want to encourage the pursuit of these objectives. Driving the one-and-a-half million people of Gaza to new heights of fury and despair will not stop the rocket attacks. It will not ensure the well-being of Israel’s citizens in the long run. No one who cares about peace and justice for everyone in the region wants US military aid going to people who unashamedly turn their guns on civilians. For myself, I don’t want any of my tax dollars going to a government that shells schools and hospitals, keeps the press from reporting on what it is doing, and even takes the cellphones away from its soldiers so as to stop the truth from spreading. During the long and callous years of the Bush presidency, we may have forgotten what respect for human rights looks like. Now we should ask President-elect Obama to suspend all aid to Israel until it complies with the pertinent UN resolutions.
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