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Colonial Experiments in Gaza

[Debris of home demolished by Israeli air strike in Operation Cast lead, January 2009. Image from Wikimedia Commons.] [Debris of home demolished by Israeli air strike in Operation Cast lead, January 2009. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

[In view of Israel's assertions that its current attacks on the Gaza Strip are an exercise in legitimate self-defense, Jadaliyya re-posts an analysis Israel’s attacks on Gaza authored by Samera Esmeir initially published in 2012.]

Once again Israel, still the occupying power of Gaza, has unleashed its war machinery on occupied Palestinians. Since the start of the second intifada in 2000, this ritual has become compulsive and repetitive. Israel initiated its new round of bloody violence by targeting Palestinian resistance fighters who, Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz explained, Israel will “hunt like beasts.” In this new round of war, shelling and bombardment--or "hunting," to use Katz’s colonial vocabulary-- have been met with rockets that attempt to retaliate for the siege and violence imposed on Gaza, to assert Palestinian resilience, and to resist in some fashion decades of occupation.

Many commentators have noted that the initial declared objectives of this bloody ritual were limited in nature. The Israeli attacks did not aim to eliminate Palestinian resistance entirely, but rather to minimize it, as Ehud Barak stated on the first day of the war (14 November). Both Binyamin Netanyahu and Barak did not want to promise their constituencies results they knew they were incapable of delivering. But because such “minimization” could have been achieved by other means of pacification available to an occupying state (such as the negotiated truce that Hamas already agreed to), one has to wonder whether Palestinian resistance has been the sole, or real, target of this war. Instead, and similar to its earlier militaristic ventures in Gaza, Israel sought to demonstrate its mastery over the land, the air, the sea, and the people of Palestine, as well as to test its international alliances and enmities through their responses to its colonial aggression. Netanyahu and Barak also seek to score political points to enhance their respective prospects in the upcoming Israeli elections.

The above objectives are diverse and not entirely compatible. But they share a logic that instrumentalizes Gaza as the ground on which Israel tries to pursue its domestic, regional, and international military and political objectives. Gaza has become the literal testing ground for Israel’s various experiments, as well as for the fulfillment of the personal ambitions of Israeli politicians. The transformation of Gaza into a laboratory for colonial and imperial hegemony in the region is made in Israel. As an occupying power, Israel transformed Gaza into such a laboratory by imposing on it different forms of confinements culminating in the siege imposed and maintained since 2006. 

Confinement lessens the checks on Israel’s military operations and decreases the deterrence and self-defense that Gaza can offer against the Israeli war machine. The horror of this latest war therefore lies not only in the destruction it engenders, but also in its condition of possibility: Here is a population held hostage that Israel attacks when it wishes in order to achieve political ends that have little to do with Gaza itself. The horror is in the careful and measured instrumentalization of the Palestinian population and in the logic that the colonized are expendable for any end. 

This is why opposition to this war should not only condemn the deadly violence and destruction it engenders. The Israeli military machine has destroyed many parts of Palestine since 1948, from the bombardment and ethnic cleansing of entire villages during the 1948 war to the conquest of the remainders of Palestine in 1967 to the invasions and onslaughts of the past forty-five years. All of these campaigns of destruction necessitate opposition. But this current war on Gaza reveals its particular fragility and its susceptibility to Israeli experimentation more so than other parts of Palestine. 

Although Gaza is walled off and isolated, it is not detached from the rest of Palestine. The particular forms of confinement, destruction, and experimentation in Gaza are constitutive of Israeli colonial rule. This rule maintains and reproduces itself through the fragmentation of Palestine and the Palestinian people into different population groups—those in exile, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in the Galilee and the Triangle, and so on. The proliferation of Palestinian populations has resulted in diffuse “solutions” to diverse populations—solutions that do not consider the possibility that the very production of discrete populations and separate solutions is the main achievement of Israeli colonial rule. Gazans, like camp refugees elsewhere, have become objects of humanitarian aid. Palestinian citizens of Israel demand equality and the transformation of the state into a democracy with equal rights for all citizens. Palestinian residents of the West Bank are in some sense the recipients of development funds from international donors and business communities, while Jerusalemites seek to strengthen their legal status as residents to avoid their deportation or forced relocation. The siege on Gaza and the experimental wars this makes possible are only the most visible and violent means through which Israel consolidates its colonial rule. 

The siege on Gaza also has other effects. A territory of 365 square kilometers (141 square miles) with a population of 1.5 million, Gaza’s inhabitants have nowhere to flee, as they have been confined in what has become the world’s largest prison. Further, the siege under these conditions of demographic density makes the principle of distinction between civilian and combatant utterly useless, effectively turning all Palestinians into combatants or killable as “collateral damage.” Netanyahu declared on the first day of the war that Israel will not target civilians, and military aircraft dropped leaflets admonishing people to stay away from likely targets. Even if we accept (naively, perhaps) that Israel makes careful attempts to spare the lives of Palestinian civilians, the very siege it imposes and the population density make it impossible to spatially separate civilians from combatants. Netanyahu's moralizing discourse fails, not because it is hypocritical but worse, because he, like other Israeli politicians, has made its realization impossible. 

If Barak insisted on the limited goals of the war on its first day, Israeli officials subsequently announced that Israel will not end its assault until Hamas “begs” for a ceasefire. This desire to humiliate the Palestinians and crush all resistance testifies to the larger objective of this war—to remind all concerned that Israel makes the rules. Meanwhile, rockets fired from Gaza into Israel remind us that Israel cannot continue to make the rules for Palestinians as it wishes, and that using Gaza as a laboratory for testing power relations in the region will not be permanently tolerated. Absent any political pressure to lift the siege of Gaza, to end the occupation of Palestine, and to allow the refugees to return, these rockets are the only means through which Palestinians aim to establish some measure of deterrence against Israel and to declare that they are not to be instrumentalized whenever the occupying power, Israel, chooses to do so, whether in the form of occupation, war, or expulsion. 

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