Slaughter in Gaza: the lessons of history

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A picture taken from the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza Border on August 20, 2014, shows rockets being fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza strip into Israel. (Photo: AFP-David Buimovitch)

By: Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta

Published Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The guns used to attack Gaza may fall silent for a while and resume firing later, but this will not change a pattern that has lasted 66 years. The bloodshed will not come to an end without knowing how and why it started and how to deal with it.

For the last six weeks, pictures of dismembered children and women were shown around the world by the new uncensored medium of social media. The number of casualties were flashed on TV screens as the daily barometer of death and destruction. Shy voices have been rising slowly, calling the carnage a massacre or even genocide. This social media explosion, curtailing the influence of regular media, has a tremendous effect on understanding the Palestinian struggle against Israel. People are now asking questions: who are these people? Why has this chronic conflict lasted so long?

There is nothing in Palestine’s geography that is called the “Gaza Strip.” This “strip” was created by Israel.

In the spring and summer of 1948, Israel completely uprooted the inhabitants of 247 Palestinian villages in southern Palestine and herded them into a narrow sliver of land on the coast, thenceforth known as the Gaza Strip. Thus the largest and longest-lasting refugee concentration camp in the world was created, and these refugees have since become the target of regular Israeli attacks.

On Christmas day of 1948, Israeli forces attempted to split the crowded strip in two and empty it of its refugees, but on that occasion they were repelled and the Russian general leading the attack was killed. During the following year, Israel attacked the strip in several border attacks and shrank its area from 550 km2, as designated by the Armistice Agreement of February 24, 1949, to its present area of 360 km2. Before the recent fighting, this sliver of land was further reduced; 44 percent of it is a no-go zone.

In January 1949, Israel bombed by air the refugees’ food distribution centers in Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah at peak time, killing over 200 refugees. The Red Cross witnessed the event and described it as “a scene of horror.” My uncle, Mohammed Abu Mughaisib, was one of the victims.

On August 28, 1953, Ariel Sharon, commander of the notorious Unit 101, which was responsible for several deadly raids on refugee camps along the Armistice Line, attacked Bureij camp and killed 43 men, women and children in their beds.

On November 2, 1956, Israel mowed down over 250 civilians in Khan Younis, two of them were brothers of my sister-in-law. Their bodies lay strewn in the streets – like those in Shujayeh today.

In 1971, Ariel Sharon bulldozed whole streets of the refugee camps in Gaza and reduced them to rubble.

The same policy of incurring tremendous loss of life on the refugees has been abundantly clear in the last two attacks on Gaza in 2008-2009 and 2012. And now again through Israel’s latest war on Gaza.

This policy is not only implemented in Gaza. The Jenin camp in the West Bank and the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon were subjected to it as well, to mention only a few.

Today there are published calls in Israel to “concentrate” Palestinians in newly-created camps and “exterminate” them under the justification of, “When Genocide is Permissible.”

Why is there an Israeli determination to eliminate the Palestinians? The reason is clear: the Palestinian refugees are the body of the war crime of Palestine’s ethnic cleansing. Refugees must disappear and Palestine must become as the Zionist slogan had it, “a land without people.”

The doctrine of eliminating or subduing Palestinians as the only way to build Israel on Palestine’s land was established early on, first by Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the leading ideologues of the Zionist movement. In his seminal work of 1923, The Iron Wall, he wrote:

“This [Zionist] colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs.”

The policy was followed by Moshe Dayan 33 years later. Mourning a settler who was killed near Gaza in April 1956 on the land of the refugees, Dayan gave a candid speech which became the guiding light for subsequent Israeli military operations against Palestinian refugees. He said:

“For eight years now, they [the Palestinians] have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and have watched how, before their very eyes we have turned their land and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled, into our home…We are a generation of settlement and without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house…That is the fate of our generation. This is our choice – to be ready and armed, tough and hard – or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short.”

Sixty-six years after al-Nakba (The Catastrophe), the dispossessed Palestinians are still in refugee camps yearning to return to their homes across the barbed wire. Not far from Dayan’s eulogy lies the colony of Sederot built on the land of Najd and Huj villages. The 10,000 refugees from these villages live in refugee camps 3 km away. When they aim poorly-guided rockets on Sederot they are throwing them on the occupants of their land, reminding them that they still insist on returning home.

Why should they not return? The UN affirmed their right of return 135 times since 1948. The refugees are now crowded in the tiny Gaza Strip, 1.3 percent of the area of Palestine, at a density of 7,000 persons per km2 while the settlers on their land have a density of only 7 persons per km2. Meanwhile, the refugees’ land in the Israeli-occupied rural areas is still empty.

While Netanyahu, following in the footsteps of Jabotinsky and Dayan, continues to attack Palestinian refugees in bouts of death and destruction, it is clear that Palestinians will never surrender and will not vanish overnight. This stalemate can only be broken by a determined action on the part of the international community – some of whom bear a heavy historical responsibility for creating the suffering of Palestinians in the first place – to take the only possible course and apply the principles of justice, international law and UN resolutions. As a measure of urgency Israel must release its grip on the jugular vein of the Palestinians living in Gaza, and remove its air, land and sea blockade. Gaza must breathe.

Dr. Salman Abu Sitta is founder and president of the Palestine Land Society, a member of Palestine National Council and the author of over 300 papers and articles on refugees and several books including The Palestinian Nakba 1948 (1998, reprinted 2000); The Return Journey (2007); The Atlas of Palestine 1917-1966 (2010).

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