In July 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge – the third major assault on the Gaza Strip in six years, and the most deadly. One year later, a vitally important book by Max Blumenthal, author of Goliath, tells the stories of this brutal, one-sided war. The 51 Day War is available to order from Truthout today with a donation!
Mark Karlin: During the first decade of this century, you focused on domestic politics, including your book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party. Since then, you have concentrated on the development of an immoral and hateful occupying culture and public policy in Israel, resulting in your 2014 book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Now, you have authored the just-published The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. What caused you to shift your journalistic skills to the Israeli suppression and destruction of the Palestinians?
Max Blumenthal: I continue to focus on domestic social justice issues from mass deportations to the attacks on public schools to police brutality to the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism. But there came a time when I decided to step out of a role in which my work was useful to the Democratic Party and to take on a project of apartheid and settler-colonialism that had support from leadership in both parties. My work to expose the anti-democratic trends in Israel and on the radical direction of the pro-Israel lobby is in many ways just an extension of my work on right-wing movements in the US. In fact, there may be room in the future for a project that brings all my work together by explaining how Israel has become an ideological base of an emerging trans-Atlantic, right-wing alliance.
To answer your question directly: I had closely followed the situation in Israel-Palestine from a critical perspective for years before I “snapped” and decided to invest my journalistic energy into doing something about it. It was December 2008, and Obama had just been elected. Liberals of my generation were in a state of ecstasy. Writers I previously respected were convinced that Obama would not only transform America with his sheer presence, but that he would face down Israel and bring about peace in the region.
I flipped open my laptop on December 27, turned on the Al Jazeera English live stream and began watching coverage of the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s first major assault on the civilians of the Gaza Strip. Israeli F-15’s (made in the USA) had just attacked a graduation ceremony for traffic cops. They deliberately attacked police cadets who were parading around in their uniforms for the first time. At least 42 cadets were blown to pieces out of nowhere by precision guided missiles.
My work to expose the anti-democratic trends in Israel and on the radical direction of the pro-Israel lobby is in many ways just an extension of my work on right-wing movements in the US.
The scenes of young men writhing on the ground while rescue crews raced to clean up limbs and organs sickened me. This continued for three weeks, with a besieged population with nowhere to run simply being preyed upon. And of course, Obama said nothing. It wasn’t long before I started making contact with people involved in activism against the occupation of Palestine, including Jewish Israelis based in Tel Aviv, and spending the royalties I made off of my first book, Republican Gomorrah, to take extended reporting trips to Israel-Palestine. Once I signed the deal to write Goliath, there was no going back.
Your first sentence in the introduction to The 51 Day War refers to the remote-controlled machine guns atop the wall that confines Gaza. How do these machine guns symbolize how Israel militarily has made Gaza a killing field?
Those machine guns are a component of what’s known as the “Spot and Strike” system. They are operated from tens of kilometers away by an all-female unit of joystick jockeys in the Negev Desert. When one of these young soldiers spots what they consider to be a “terrorist” nearing the wall separating Israel from Gaza, they can eliminate him or her with the push of a button.
The late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called Israel’s war on Palestinian society “politicide,” or the calculated destruction of part or an entire community of people.
The Gaza Strip is controlled largely through dystopian systems like this that represent a Panopticon approach to occupation. Like any jailer, the Israeli military merely needs to control the 1 percent of Gaza that represents its perimeter. It monitors Gaza’s population from the sky with weaponized drones, from the sea with a naval cordon, and to its east with military patrols and concrete walls studded with remote-controlled machine guns. The Gaza Strip is perhaps the most heavily surveilled and controlled piece of land on planet Earth.
Following up on that question, you refer in your book to the Israeli doctrine of using “disproportionate force” against Gaza, including the decimation of the Gazan infrastructure. Israel claims that its military target is Hamas, but it appears from your account of the 51-day Israeli assault that its goal is the destruction of Gaza as a functioning society.
The late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called Israel’s war on Palestinian society “politicide,” or the calculated destruction of part or an entire community of people in order to deny them self-determination. In Gaza, the broader project of politicide has played out through the Dahiya Doctrine, which is the Israeli military’s designation for its policy of deliberately attacking civilians in order to turn them against their political leadership.
The military junta that controls Egypt under the leadership of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is more anti-Hamas than Netanyahu.
It has also been referred to by former Israeli Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz as “mowing the lawn,” or the perpetual maintenance of occupation through periodic and increasingly brutal attacks on the civilian sector of Gaza in order to lower its morale and gradually lower its will to resist. These criminal policies are not secret, and the military makes no attempt to hide them. Just this May, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon publicly pledged that “we are going to hurt Lebanese civilians to include kids of the family. We went through a very long deep discussion … we did it then, we did it in [the] Gaza Strip, we are going to do it in any round of hostilities in the future.”
Hasn’t Israel – which Prime Minister Netanyahu perennially blares is under attack by anti-Semites – ironically created a ghetto that is walled in and without any way of fleeing for most of its residents, except when the Egyptian Rafah Crossing occasionally opens?
Israel has become the premier administrator of ghettoes for racially outcast people. The Israeli journalist Amira Hass recently called Gaza a “concentration camp.” That the self-proclaimed Jewish state has embraced such policies is one of the great ironies of history, but it is also a natural consequence of maintaining a settler-colonial ethnocracy. In order to preserve its demographic majority of Jews, the state of Israel must contain the mostly refugee population of the Gaza Strip in what amounts to a permanent human warehouse. If those refugees are allowed to return to their land and homes in what is now Israel, they would compromise the ethnic purity of the state. That’s why they are referred to as a “demographic threat” by even liberal supporters of Israel. Anyone who supports Israel as a Jewish state must embrace the racist logic that holds that the birth of Palestinian children threatens Israel’s survival.
Speaking of the Rafah Crossing, how has the Egyptian government’s relationship to Gaza changed since the military coup came to power that undid “the Arab Spring”?
The military junta that controls Egypt under the leadership of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is more anti-Hamas than Netanyahu. Unlike the Israeli government, which seeks to weaken Hamas as much as possible without dislodging it from power, the Egyptian junta seeks to utterly decimate this Islamist movement that it views as the political cousin of its nemesis in the Muslim Brotherhood. And so Sisi has ruthlessly enforced the siege on the Egyptian side of Gaza, even demolishing the homes of Egyptians living on his country’s side of Rafah in order to destroy the tunnel economy that has sustained Gaza’s civilian society.
I quote an Israeli military official in my book who complained that Egypt’s siege of Gaza was too tight, which should give you an idea of how sadistic this regime is. The new Saudi king, Salman, is somewhat more favorable to Islamist political movements like Hamas than his predecessor was, and so we’ve seen some pressure on Egypt to open up Rafah. But for the most part, the vise continues to tighten on Gaza from both sides.
In your book, you cover the Israeli war on the media in Gaza, including the destruction of the Basha Tower, which housed many journalists. You mention how The New York Times and Bloomberg News didn’t even mention the bombing of the civilian complex, even though they had journalists who used it for their offices. Why do you think that the overt attack on journalists and their equipment for disseminating news was generally not mentioned in the Western press?
The deliberate Israeli attack on Basha Tower, which complimented its destruction of civilian residential high-rise buildings in the final stage of the 51 Day War, was the equivalent of a foreign army bringing down the Thomson-Reuters building in Times Square or the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. Basha Tower was the home of all of Gaza’s media offices and provided offices to its most prestigious reporters. It was where Bloomberg News employees worked from when they were in Gaza. And when it was blown to smithereens by Israeli fighter jets, we heard near-total silence from Washington and the EU. Why was this the case? Because Palestinian journalists are not worthy victims in the eyes of Western media.
When the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked by murderous fanatics, the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from Western leaders and opinion leaders was immediate. Charlie Hebdo’s staff was white like us, they spoke in a language we could relate to, which was explicitly secular and putatively liberal. And their assailants fit the image of those we associate with “terror”: dark-skinned Muslims. The Israeli air force might have been committing an act of state terror by destroying Basha Tower, but it didn’t fit within the West’s racialized parameters for understanding terrorism. After the 51 Day War, I attended a ceremony in Gaza City for the 16 Palestinian journalists who were killed covering the war. Besides me and my colleagues Dan Cohen and Jesse Rosenfeld, there were no other international reporters present. They had all moved on by that point to cover ISIS.
You quote a survivor of “Operation Protective Edge,” Mohammed Suleiman, as predicting that “in three months’ time, no one will be talking about what happened in Gaza.” In terms of no relief being in sight for the hellish nightmare in Gaza, isn’t he – as far as the mass media is concerned – correct?
Mohammed is a friend of mine and did incredible work during the war documenting the civilian death toll for the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza. After the war, he got a scholarship to study in Australia and had to leave his pregnant wife behind in Gaza, with the understanding that she would join him before the birth of their child. Months later, she was still stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare and could not leave. Why? Because the Israeli authorities who claim to no longer occupy Gaza feared she and her husband could return to resettle in the West Bank, where their child would be more of a “demographic threat.”
The roots of the crisis were right there, in extremely stark relief, in a shopping mall just a few kilometers from the walled-off Gaza ghetto.
It was only after international pressure that she was finally able to get a permit from the Israelis to reunite with Mohammed in Australia. The situation is far worse for most people stuck in Gaza. Few of the 18,000 homes Israel destroyed during the war have been rebuilt. Tens of thousands are still homeless. There has been no accountability for the criminals behind this destruction. And as Mohammed predicted, the Western media has moved on. In their silence, I consider them complicit in the next war on Gaza, which is almost inevitable.
How did you feel as a journalist when you passed back into Israel after the final ceasefire of the 51-day war?
I left Gaza for two or three days towards the end of the war and realized I made a huge mistake as soon as I was confronted by an Israeli news crew on the other side of the Erez Terminal at the Gaza border and bombarded with propagandistic questions about whether I had seen human shields and rocket launches from within civilian areas – all the practices the Israeli government used to justify their assaults on civilians but which they could never prove took place. After returning again for a week and deepening my connection to the place, forming friendships with young journalists and artists, spending a night with a fishing crew and exploring Gaza City, exiting into Israel was much more difficult – and not only because I knew this might be the last time I ever saw many of the people I had met.
I can vividly recall exiting Gaza with my colleague, Dan Cohen, and catching a taxi on the other side towards Ramallah in the West Bank. On the way, we stopped for food at a shopping mall in Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city. A few hours before, we had been hanging out in the rubble with people who had been dispossessed of everything. And now we were on the other side of the wall, in a gigantic mall that could have been in any California suburb, which had been built literally on top of an ethnically cleansed Palestinian town called Al-Majdal Asqalan.
The grandchildren of the original inhabitants of this formerly Palestinian town were dodging Israeli missile strikes in refugee camps in Gaza, and here I was, ordering a tuna sandwich and a Carlsberg from a waiter from Russia who’s been told that he was “returning” to his ancestral homeland. The roots of the crisis were right there, in extremely stark relief, in a shopping mall just a few kilometers from the walled-off Gaza ghetto.