NOAM CHOMSKY

Even a single night in jail is enough to give a taste of what it means to be under the total control of some external force. And it hardly takes more than a day in Gaza to begin to appreciate what it must be like to try to survive in the world’s largest open-air prison, where a million and a half people, in the most densely populated area of the world, are constantly subject to random and often savage terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade, and with the further goal of ensuring that Palestinian hopes for a decent future will be crushed and that the overwhelming global support for a diplomatic settlement that will grant these rights will be nullified.

The intensity of this commitment on the part of the Israeli political leadership has been dramatically illustrated just in the past few days, as they warn that they will “go crazy” if Palestinian rights are given limited recognition at the UN. That is not a new departure. The threat to “go crazy” (“nishtagea”) is deeply rooted, back to the Labor governments of the 1950s, along with the related “Samson Complex”: we will bring down the Temple walls if crossed. It was an idle threat then; not today.

The purposeful humiliation is also not new, though it constantly takes new forms. Thirty years ago political leaders, including some of the most noted hawks, submitted to Prime Minister Begin a shocking and detailed account of how settlers regularly abuse Palestinians in the most depraved manner and with total impunity. The prominent military-political analyst Yoram Peri wrote with disgust that the army’s task is not to defend the state, but “to demolish the rights of innocent people just because they are Araboushim (“niggers,” “kikes”) living in territories that God promised to us.”

Gazans have been selected for particularly cruel punishment. It is almost miraculous that people can sustain such an existence. How they do so was described thirty years ago in an eloquent memoir by Raja Shehadeh (The Third Way), based on his work as a lawyer engaged in the hopeless task of trying to protect elementary rights within a legal system designed to ensure failure, and his personal experience as a Samid, “a steadfast one,” who watches his home turned into a prison by brutal occupiers and can do nothing but somehow “endure.”

Since Shehadeh wrote, the situation has become much worse. The Oslo agreements, celebrated with much pomp in 1993, determined that Gaza and the West Bank are a single territorial entity. By then the US and Israel had already initiated their program of separating them fully from one another, so as to block a diplomatic settlement and punish the Araboushim in both territories.

Punishment of Gazans became still more severe in January 2006, when they committed a major crime: they voted the “wrong way” in the first free election in the Arab world, electing Hamas. Demonstrating their passionate “yearning for democracy,” the US and Israel, backed by the timid European Union, at once imposed a brutal siege, along with intensive military attacks. The US also turned at once to standard operating procedure when some disobedient population elects the wrong government: prepare a military coup to restore order.

Gazans committed a still greater crime a year later by blocking the coup attempt, leading to a sharp escalation of the siege and military attacks. These culminated in winter 2008-9, with Operation Cast Lead, one of the most cowardly and vicious exercises of military force in recent memory, as a defenseless civilian population, trapped with no way to escape, was subjected to relentless attack by one of the world’s most advanced military systems relying on US arms and protected by US diplomacy. An unforgettable eyewitness account of the slaughter - “infanticide” in their words - is given by the two courageous Norwegian doctors who worked at Gaza’s main hospital during the merciless assault, Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse, in their remarkable book Eyes in Gaza.

President-elect Obama was unable to say a word, apart from reiterating his heartfelt sympathy for children under attack - in the Israeli town Sderot. The carefully planned assault was brought to an end right before his inauguration, so that he could then say that now is the time to look forward, not backward, the standard refuge of criminals.

Of course, there were pretexts - there always are. The usual one, trotted out when needed, is “security”: in this case, home-made rockets from Gaza. As is commonly the case, the pretext lacked any credibility. In 2008 a truce was established between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli government formally recognizes that Hamas observed it fully. Not a single Hamas rocket was fired until Israel broke the truce under cover of the US election on November 4 2008, invading Gaza on ludicrous grounds and killing half a dozen Hamas members. The Israeli government was advised by its highest intelligence officials that the truce could be renewed by easing the criminal blockade and ending military attacks. But the government of Ehud Olmert, reputedly a dove, chose to reject these options, preferring to resort to its huge comparative advantage in violence: Operation Cast Lead. The basic facts are reviewed once again by foreign policy analyst Jerome Slater in the current issue of the Harvard-MIT journal International Security.

The pattern of bombing under Cast Lead was carefully analyzed by the highly informed and internationally respected Gazan human rights advocate Raji Sourani. He points out that the bombing was concentrated in the north, targeting defenseless civilians in the most densely populated areas, with no possible military pretext. The goal, he suggests, may have been to drive the intimidated population to the south, near the Egyptian border. But the Samidin stayed put, despite the avalanche of US-Israeli terror.

A further goal might have been to drive them beyond. Back to the earliest days of the Zionist colonisation it was argued across much of the spectrum that Arabs have no real reason to be in Palestine; they can be just as happy somewhere else, and should leave - politely “transferred,” the doves suggested. This is surely no small concern in Egypt, and perhaps a reason why Egypt does not open the border freely to civilians or even to desperately needed materials

Sourani and other knowledgeable sources observe that the discipline of the Samidin conceals a powder keg, which might explode any time, unexpectedly, as the first Intifada did in Gaza in 1989 after years of miserable repression that elicited no notice or concern,

Merely to mention one of innumerable cases, shortly before the outbreak of the Intifada a Palestinian girl, Intissar al-Atar, was shot and killed in a schoolyard by a resident of a nearby Jewish settlement. He was one of the several thousand Israelis settlers brought to Gaza in violation of international law and protected by a huge army presence, taking over much of the land and scarce water of the Strip and living “lavishly in twenty-two settlements in the midst of 1.4 million destitute Palestinians,” as the crime is described by Israeli scholar Avi Raz. The murderer of the schoolgirl, Shimon Yifrah, was arrested, but quickly released on bail when the Court determined that “the offense is not severe enough” to warrant detention. The judge commented that Yifrah only intended to shock the girl by firing his gun at her in a schoolyard, not to kill her, so “this is not a case of a criminal person who has to be punished, deterred, and taught a lesson by imprisoning him.” Yifrah was given a 7-month suspended sentence, while settlers in the courtroom broke out in song and dance. And the usual silence reigned. After all, it is routine. And so it is. As Yifrah was freed, the Israeli press reported that an army patrol fired into the yard of a school for boys aged 6 to 12 in a West Bank refugee camp, wounding five children, allegedly intending only “to shock them.” There were no charges, and the event again attracted no attention. It was just another episode in the program of “illiteracy as punishment,” the Israeli press reported, including the closing of schools, use of gas bombs, beating of students with rifle butts, barring of medical aid for victims; and beyond the schools a reign of more severe brutality, becoming even more savage during the Intifada, under the orders of Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin, another admired dove.

My initial impression, after a visit of several days, was amazement, not only at the ability to go on with life, but also at the vibrancy and vitality among young people, particularly at the university, where I spent much of my time at an international conference. But there too one can detect signs that the pressure may become too hard to bear. Reports indicate that among young men there is simmering frustration, recognition that under the US-Israeli occupation the future holds nothing for them. There is only so much that caged animals can endure, and there may be an eruption, perhaps taking ugly forms - offering an opportunity for Israeli and western apologists to self-righteously condemn the people who are culturally backward, as Mitt Romney insightfully explained.

Noam Chomsky visited the Gaza Strip on October 25-30, 2012.

–chomsky.info