On Jan. 18, 2009, after 22 days of war, the lives of all Gazans were entangled and broken in the strip’s rubble-filled craters. People worked to retrieve the bodies which lay rotting under heavy slabs of concrete and mangled iron rods. Gaza’s overcrowded cemeteries now had to accommodate over 1,300 more corpses.
One year later, bombed-out buildings still stand, pockmarked and gutted, vestiges of more hopeful times, buildings morphed into unwanted monuments of war.
Little is allowed into the territory located on the Mediterranean Sea. But later this month, hundreds of international activists will attempt to enter the strip via Egypt to take part in the Gaza Freedom March. The march, as it is envisaged, will be a historic non-violent protest in a region known for a history of violence.
The world’s eyes will be, however fleetingly, upon these people of all races, creeds and nationalities who will have left the comfort of their homes to march, despite Israel’s siege, with hordes of Palestinians in Gaza—misery’s palm treed sanctum.
It can be dizzying to attempt to trace back in memory Gaza’s inexorable descent into hope’s abyss, but the world will need to if it is to understand why so many people since the war feel they can longer stand idly by watching civilians wither in this hell-disaster.
Gaza and the West Bank have been under Israeli occupation since the Six Day War—launched in 1967 when Israel’s air force attacked Egypt. The occupied Palestinian territories, constituting 22 percent of what had once been mandate Palestine, came under direct Israeli military control. Resistance to Israeli subjugation inside the territories was relatively passive until it boiled over in 1987 into what became known as the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
The Intifada erupted in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp after a traffic accident near the Erez crossing killed four Palestinians. Word spread that the car accident had been an act of revenge for the fatal stabbing of an Israeli shopping in Gaza the previous day. The car accident and the rumor it spurred may have been a catalyst but anger over Israeli repressions—in the form of house demolitions, mass curfews, extrajudicial killings and torture, to name but a few—had been brewing for years.
Palestinians in Jabalia say they could no longer tolerate the rule of the Israeli military authority with its constant patrols through the camp’s narrow alleyways, and the beatings the soldiers administered to anyone caught out at night. Palestinians were tired of the abuse. The abuse dished out by Israeli bosses in the morning, Israeli soldiers in the afternoons and military patrols at night, which marched through the garbage-strewn laneways and burst into people’s homes arresting young men and dragging them off to interrogation suites.
The men, who, as the cheap pool of indigenous labor went by the thousands to work in Israel for Jewish bosses, had seen what life was like on the other side of the checkpoints. Many of the workers were, in fact, from those very villages beyond Gaza in southern Israel where they were employed, for nearly 80 percent of Gazans are not from Gaza but are refugees from what is now Israel, never allowed to return home.
Once the Intifada had begun, Palestinians also turned on each other. Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the Israelis were summarily executed by the cesspool where Jabalia’s sewage accumulated and permeated into the sand. Children took over the streets and threw stones at anything that moved. No cars were spared. Tires burned in the streets.
The various Palestinian organizations painted their emblems on walls and distributed pamphlets. There were the nationalists, the communists, the Islamists and the secularists. Leaflets were distributed listing the names of Palestinian traitors or directing clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli forces throughout the occupied territories. Villages proclaimed themselves independent entities, refusing to recognize the authority of the Israeli administration. The Palestinians rose up, determined to shake off the yoke of colonial rule.
The photos of Palestinian youths taking on Israeli tanks and armored vehicles with stones became iconic. But the First Intifada is, in fact, better characterized by civil disobedience in the form of general strikes, boycotts of Israeli products and the refusal to pay the exorbitant taxes demanded of them from their occupiers.
The Israelis responded in brutal force. Soldiers were told to break the bones of Palestinian protesters—a policy encouraged by then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who later went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, for the signing of the Oslo Accords. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995 for being too soft on the Palestinians.
The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 605 at the beginning of the First Intifada citing Israel for violating the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. By the uprising’s end in 1993, over a hundred Israeli civilians and around 60 soldiers had been killed by Palestinians. Well over a thousand Palestinians had been killed by Israelis. The lopsided death toll has persisted to this day.
Tensions were again running at boiling point after the Oslo accords failed to bring meaningful change to the Palestinians—Israeli settlement construction and expansion on occupied lands continued unabated—and the Camp David Summit in 2000 ended without a settlement being reached. Barak’s offer, often misleadingly described as generous in the media, presented Palestinians with only a sense of sovereignty over East Jerusalem’s holy sites and real sovereignty only over 64 percent of the 22 percent left of mandate Palestine. Violence broke out in September when Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon provocatively visited the Temple Mount compound, site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, and considered the third holiest site in Islam, flanked by hundreds of riot police.
Protests were brutally repressed by Israeli security forces. Clashes spread throughout the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper. The death toll soared as Israel relied on its vastly superior military to quash Palestinian fighting, and Palestinian armed groups used suicide bombers to target Israeli civilians, military personnel and settlers.
The suicide bomber first came to Israel proper in 1994, some 27 years after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began, and about a decade after the tactic proved successful in pushing back the Israeli army to the South of Lebanon during Israel’s occupation of that country.
Hundreds of Israeli civilians perished during the Second Intifada. Though the Second Intifada was never officially declared over—unsurprising considering it had never had a central leadership to declare its start in the first place—violence had waned by 2008. Roughly 1,000 Israelis had died compared to a staggering 5,000 Palestinians.
But, significantly for Gaza, in 2006, Israel attacked Lebanon after two of its soldiers on a border post were kidnapped by Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. Violations of the so-called “blue line,” the border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel published by the U.N. after Israel’s withdrawal from the country in 2000, after 18 years of occupation, were frequent. Israel, in particular, had been crossing the blue line on average three times daily prior to its war on Lebanon. The kidnapping was the casus belli Israel had been waiting for to put into motion its pre-planned war. Some 43 Israeli civilians died during the destruction of Lebanon. Israel killed over a thousand Lebanese civilians. Amnesty International’s fact-finding mission to Lebanon after the war found the civilian deaths were the direct result of Israeli policy.