The Palestinians of Gaza have been under a tight blockade since June 2007 when Hamas consolidated its control over Gaza’s security. The blockade, aims at forcing Hamas out of power, has been strongly supported by the Bush administration, and reluctantly by the Mubarak’s government in Egypt. After Israel decided to tighten the blockade last week, by cutting the supply of fuel used to generate electricity, Palestinians broke out of the walls that separate the Gaza’s portion from Egypt’s portion of Rafah. Deprived of life’s essentials, including food, medicine, and fuel, Palestinians desperately flooded the stores of Egyptian Rafah to buy every thing they could lay hands on.
The collapse of the 7-miles-steal wall that separated Gaza from Egypt creates new dynamics in the region. It is now the responsibility of the Egyptians to push the Palestinian back inside Gaza’s fences, and to make sure that they comply with the blockade requirements. Egypt has already sent a reinforcement of riot police to push the Palestinians back to their enclave against widespread demands by the Egyptian public to keep the borders open. Mubarak is engaged in careful cost-benefit calculations to make sure that the Gaza situation does not destabilize his government. The question he confronts is quite clear: should he succumb to pressure from Israel and the US government and invoke the wrath of his people, or should he comply with popular pressure at the expense of loosing the two billion dollars his government receives annually from the United States?
Palestinians are likely to resist efforts by the Egyptian police to close the borders, and to use the skills they learned in the past decades under Israeli occupation to maintain their freedom. The Palestinians of Gaza could only be contained, though, at a high price that would include further radicalization of the people of the Middle East.
Israel has, for long, been using heavy-handed tactics to force the Palestinians to accept its efforts to expand settlements to the Palestinian territories it occupies since 1967. Israel has been busy in creating new facts on the ground, hoping that despite their current fierce resistance, Palestinians would ultimately accept the “facts on the ground.” As it was engaging in prolonged negotiation to withdraw the Occupied Territories, Israel continued to build settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza during the nineties. It has, in the last seven years, further escalated its effort to create a strong Israeli presence.
Israel’s ability to ignore blatant human rights violations against the Palestinians drives from the great support it receives from the World Jewry and Western societies. Western Jews, emancipated and empowered by the Enlightenment, are inspired by a long history of anti-Semitism that became pronounced in nineteenth-century Europe, and culminated in the Holocaust in mid-twentieth century. Many members of the Jewish American community, who were actively involved in the civil liberties movement, are ill-at-ease watching events unfolding in the Middle East. Despite their disapproval of harsh and inhumane Israeli policies toward Palestinians, they are reluctant to criticize Israel for the fear that such criticism would undermine Western support.
The important questions that ultimately matter for finding a lasting solution in the Middle East are two: Is silence the best approach to support the Jews in the Holy Land? And is force the best approach to dealing with Palestinians demands for equal rights?
There has been little public debate on the plight of the Palestinians and the Israeli policies responsible for Palestinian misery. The dominant discourse tends to shift the blame from Israel, the occupying force, to the Palestinians. Very few Americans have in the past challenged blaming the victim argument. With the deterioration of social and economic conditions, few leading Americans gathered their courage to question Israeli actions against Palestinians.
Jimmy Carter, former US president who sponsored the Camp David talk that led to the Peace Accord between Egypt and Israel, discussed in details Israel aggressive policies against the Palestinians in his recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. As a result, Carter has been demonized as anti-Semite in talk shows and commentaries. John Mearsheimer of Harvard University and Stephen Walt of the University of Chicago received even harsher treatment upon publishing for discussing the impact of the lobbying activities of pro-Israel hawks on the moral standing, and potentially on the economic and political interests, of the United States.
Even Jewish leaders who spoke against Israeli excesses have not been immune to pressures and attacks. Edgar Bronfman Sr, the president of the World Jewish Congress, was traumatized for writing a letter to President Bush in 2003 urging him to persuade Israel to curb construction of its controversial “security fence”. His critics accused him of “perfidy” and argued that “it would be obscene at any time for the president of the World Jewish Congress to lobby the president of the United States to resist policies being promoted by the government of Israel.”
Likewise, Seymour Reich the president of the Israel Policy Forum, was denounced and accused of being “irresponsible,” for advising Condoleezza Rice in November 2005 to ask Israel to reopen a critical border crossing in the Gaza Strip. His critics insisted that “there is absolutely no room in the Jewish mainstream for actively canvassing against the security-related policies . . . of Israel.” The severity of the attacks forced Reich to announce that “the word ‘pressure’ is not in my vocabulary when it comes to Israel.”
Stifling of debate is dangerous because it undermines all efforts to explore a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thereby allowing things to deteriorate to the point of crisis. Jewish peace and tranquility cannot be achieved at the expense of Palestinian suffering. If history, including the recent history of European Jews, teaches us anything it should be that oppression and force can never break the resolve of a people to live in dignity, but can only complicate the possibility of reconciling the parties locked up in bloody confrontation. After decades of marginalization and mistreatment, the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are more determined than ever to confront their occupiers. And the Palestinians in the refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries are more eager to return to their homeland, which has become for the second generation of Palestinians born in the Diaspora a Promised Land of a sort.
Yasmine Ali captures the sentiments expressed by Palestinian children during her visit to a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon in 2000. These sentiments included a short essay posted on the school magazine wall. "Palestine is a very, very beautiful land,” the essay by an elementary school student reads. “There is a sea of chocolate in Palestine… Children are always happy in Palestine… Women don’t gossip in Palestine… The streets are very clean in Palestine … It is always Eid ["Feast Day"] in Palestine … Parents don’t die in Palestine." Evidently, Palestine is no more a Promised Land only for Jews, but for exiled Palestinians as well.
Clearly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intractable, and the future of the conflict is unpredictable. People of conscious on all sides of the issue have, though, a heavy moral duty to fulfill: to ensure that the solution to the conflict is fair and humane, and that the human rights of all involved are respected and protected. Relying on disparity of power and on efforts to keep the situation in the Holy Land away from public debate can only exacerbate an already dire situation, and ensure the continuation of anguish and suffering.
The blockade against Palestinians in Gaza is a form of collective punishment and must not be allowed to stand. Collective punishment was banned by the Fourth Geneva Convention, and we must not allow it to slip back in. All people of conscience should speak up and demand humane treatment for the long-suffering Palestinians. Silence is not an option, because those who choose silence allow extremist voices to decide the future.