Essam Al-Batsh and his nephew, Sobhi Al-Batsh, are the latest in a long line of reported Palestinian ‘militants’ killed by Israel. The civilians were both targeted while driving in a car in downtown Gaza on December 8. According to an Israeli army statement, “(They) were affiliated with a terrorist squad that intended to attack Israeli civilians and soldiers via the western border” (Reuters, December 8).
Another ‘militant’ had been killed two days earlier. Israeli military aircraft “had targeted two militant squads that were preparing to fire rockets into southern Israel,” according to the Associated Press. AP quoted Israeli official saying the army would “continue to take action against those (who) use terror against the state of Israel.”
It really doesn’t take much to kill a ‘militant’ in Gaza. Israeli military intelligence officers simply select a weapon and zoom in on their chosen person on any given day. This is not a difficult task, really, since the entire population of the Strip is besieged in Gaza’s open air prison. The same statement issued regarding the assassinated ‘militant’ can then be easily rewritten, using the same predictable justifications.
Israel’s excuses actually tell nothing of the history behind the phenomena of ‘militancy’. To know why some young men in Gaza decide to mask their faces and carry arms, they need to abandon the media’s reductionist characterization of Gaza’s armed struggle. This goes back much earlier than Hamas and Fatah, the 2006 selections, the 2007 siege, or the 2008-09 war.
The phenomenon began shortly after the Nakba – The Palestinian ‘Catastrophe’ in 1948, which saw the destruction of Palestine and the erection of today’s Israel. During this time, nearly a quarter million were evicted or forced to flee to Gaza. A displaced population then yearned to go home, and many wished to recover the lifesavings they had buried under patches of earth in their Palestinian villages. Some wanted to harvest their crops, and others sought family members that had gone missing during the forced march out of Palestine.
Once they crossed into newly established Israel, many refugees never returned. But the boldness of the ‘fedayeen’ – freedom fighters – now began to grow rapidly.
The refugees eventually began organizing themselves, with or without help from the Egyptian army, which was still stationed at the outskirts of Gaza and the southern borders of the Sinai desert. Groups quickly assumed names and became factions, and their members acquired military fatigues. The fighters used kuffiyehs – traditional headscarves – to cover their faces to escape the watchful eyes of Israeli collaborators, who were also growing in number.
Over time, Palestinian guerrilla commandos began carrying out daring strikes deep inside Israel. The fedayeen were mostly young Palestinian refugees, and some Egyptian fighters. Their operations grew bolder by the day, as they snuck into Israel, like ghosts in the night, with primitive weapons and homemade bombs. They would target Israeli soldiers, steal their weapons and return with the new weapons the second night. Some would sneak back into their villages in Palestine; they would ‘steal’ blankets and whatever money they had saved but failed to retrieve in the rush of war. Those who never returned received the funerals of ‘Martyrs’. Following every fedayeen operation, the Israeli army would strike Gaza’s refugees, inspiring yet more support and recruits for the young, but growing commando movement.
The phenomenon quickly registered among Palestinian youth in Gaza – not due to any inexplicable desire for violence, but because they saw in the fedayeen a heroic escape from their own humiliating lives. Indeed, the fedayeen movement was the antithesis of the perceived submissiveness experienced by refugees. It was a manifestation of all the anger and frustration they felt. They simply wanted to go home, and freedom-fighting seemed the only practical way of fulfilling this wish.
As refugees stayed put in their tents, and as more Palestinians were killed by Israeli military incursions and snipers, the numbers of fedayeen multiplied. In a historic visit to Gaza in 1955, then Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser promised to fight on until all of Palestine was liberated. Soon after, amid angry demands for action, Egypt decided to establish ten battalions of the National Guard, which were made up mostly of Palestinian fedayeen and led by Egyptian officers. It signaled an Egyptian attempt to take charge of the situation and control the scattered Palestinian leaderships and its armed factions. Cross-border skirmishes culminated, at times, into full-blown border battles. Israeli mortar attacks reached many areas in Gaza. There was no safe place to hide.
The factions changed names. The fedayeen wore different colored kuffiyehs. But in essence, little changed. Poverty persisted. Human rights continued to be routinely violated. Not a single refugee returned home. And three, if not four generations of fedayeen, carried on with the fight.
In some way, the media perception of these masked men also remained largely unchanged. The ‘militant’ has always been reported as an inexplicable irritant. At best, he served as a reminder, not of a poignant history that must be unearthed and understood, but of why Israel is, and will always remain, threatened by masked Palestinians. When a so-called ‘militant’ is brutally killed, little justification is offered. If any ‘militants’ respond to the killing, such retorts could possibly serve as a casus belli for an already planned Israeli military escalation.
It is important that we understand that ‘militancy’ in Gaza is not linked to any Palestinian faction per se, nor is it incited by a specific ideology or individual. The phenomenon had indeed preceded all the factions and individuals that dot Gaza’s political landscape. It was caused by the single event of the Nakba, and all the tragedies that manifested as a result of it.
Chances are, the ‘militants’ – or fedayeen, or even ‘terrorists’ by the standards of Israel and its supporters – will continue to exist as long as the conflict remains unsolved per the necessary standards of justice and fairness.
As for the media, it behooves reporters to dig a bit deeper than an image of the charred remains of an uncle and his nephew – and to see beyond the predictably false accusations that underlie official Israeli statements.