I can only imagine the horror in Gaza today as Israel intensifies its assault of that overcrowded, impoverished strip. It is a continuing nightmare story of pain and loss, of trauma and devastation. The heartbreaking numbers by themselves tell part of the story— with hundreds killed, thousands wounded, tens of thousands without homes, and now 600,000 without water. But the story of Gaza is more than these numbers and this current assault.
Even in earlier times, Gaza could be a nightmare. In the early 1990’s I spent time in Jabalia— a sprawling refugee camp that is home to more than 80,000. During 25 years of Israeli occupation, nothing had been done to improve the infrastructure of the camp. The roads were unpaved, sewage ran into puddles in the streets and flowed directly into the sea, leaving the beaches polluted. The defining characteristic of the place was grinding poverty. In 1994, the then Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, visited Gaza after completing a tour of South Africa. Upon his return, he told an audience that what he saw in Jabalia was worse than Soweto.
During the years of direct occupation, Israel treated Gaza as one might a prison camp. Palestinians were seen as nothing more than cheap labor, with restricted rights and severe constraints on their movements. When they resisted, the results were horrifying brutality. During this period, thousands of homes were destroyed, hundreds were illegally deported, prisoners were tortured, and daily life was filled with fear of the occupier.
During the occupation, Jewish-only settlements built in the heart of Gaza had access to land and water that was denied to Palestinians, as was access to some of the Mediterranean’s loveliest beaches. I will never forget the pictures after Oslo of the joy on the faces of young Palestinians frolicking for the first time on these once forbidden beaches.
From 1967 to 1994, Israel had de-developed the West Bank and Gaza making the economies of both territories largely dependent on Israeli imports, exports, and employment. As a result, the single largest source of wealth for Palestinians in Gaza was day labor work in Israel. These were low-paying jobs in construction, agriculture, and service— but since Israel did not allow an independent Palestinian economy to develop, they provided the only means of support for hundreds of thousands of people.
If the work was demeaning, getting to work proved to be an even more humiliating experience. Because Israeli law prohibited Palestinians from spending the night in Israel, prospective laborers had to gather near the border each morning by 6:00 a.m. to see if they would be selected. Once selected, they went through security. I visited the cattle chute security screening structures erected at the border and watched an unbelievable scene unfold before me as Palestinians were herded through the chutes holding their ID’s over their heads as young armed Israeli soldiers straddled the chutes above them shouting at Palestinian men to hold their papers higher and “don’t look up at me, keep your head down.”
When Israel decided to close the borders in the mid-1990’s, tens of thousands of Palestinians lost access to employment. And because Israel did not allow Palestinians to freely import raw materials and export finished products, there were no new jobs created in Gaza for those who lost their access to day-labor work in Israel. Throughout the next decade, youth unemployment in Gaza hovered between 70-80 percent— meaning that for three-quarters of all young men under the age of 30, there was no work and no prospect of work, no income and no chance of a normal life.
When Israel evacuated Gaza in 2005, it replaced its direct control with indirect control, making it complete with the total blockade they later imposed on the Strip. Since then, Israeli bombardments of and incursions into Gaza have become biannual affairs. The current assault is the fifth since 2006. Israelis euphemistically call these onslaughts “mowing the lawn”, as in, “putting the natives back in their place.” Each time, the devastation has taken a horrendous toll in human life and the psyches of the once again traumatized Palestinians.
I recently read two separate “smart” papers produced by Washington think tanks about ISIS. The authors were arguing against U.S. involvement making the case that we should use caution lest our intervention reinforce or reward either the Iraqi or Syrian strongmen (Maliki or Assad) who were responsible for the emergence of this extremist group that now controls sections of both countries. ISIS, they argued, is the product of these regimes— their brutal repression and systematic denial of rights, their dehumanization of their subjects and the despair that change might be possible that they have created by their hard-headed resistance to reform.
As I read these pieces, I thought of the decades-long nightmare that is Gaza and its despairing people. I thought of Hamas and its extremism and use of terror. Like ISIS, Hamas owes its lineage to the brutality of the occupation and despair of the Palestinian people. Like average Syrians and Iraqis, Palestinians want to live normal lives. They want to be able to provide for their children and see their children’s children grow and prosper. But for decades now, they have been denied the fulfillment of these simple human aspirations. It is not, as the Israelis would say, that the Palestinians have chosen death. Rather, it is that the Israelis have never allowed them the chance to choose life. Like people everywhere, give Palestinians hope and freedom, independence and peace and they will choose life.