The no-man’s-land that surrounds the entrance to the Gaza Strip from Israel is a surreal space. Most of the time, it is a hot, flat, quiet place. Tumbleweeds might appear if there was movement in the air and it existed in the Midwest of the United States 200 years ago. But in the Mediterranean of today, the air is still. Only the exposed walk from where the taxi must leave its foreign passenger to the Israeli security point produces a disturbance in the torpor that surrounds this zone.
To convey something of the wrongness of this space, you have to imagine the quiet indolence that attends this entrance to a human cage. Nobody outside shouts. Nobody objects. Nobody notices. Instead, Israeli bureaucrats in uniforms ask their routine questions, examine passports, scroll through computer files, and peer down at visitors with suspicion and disregard, disdain, haughtiness, and boredom—a combination of attitudes difficult to manage but perfected by the Israeli security official. Perhaps not so unlike state officials anywhere. But these are not people being surly as they slowly process drivers’ licenses or grudgingly issue passports. They are maintaining a blockade on a population of 1.8 million people—a crime under international law.
Most of the time Palestinians living in Gaza can go to the corner grocer, buy their kids some milk; they can drive a little ways to their desk job or try to hawk their strawberries and cabbage at the best price in the loudest voice. But whatever they do, they cannot leave Gaza. They can’t get out to Israel or Egypt, or anywhere else. They cannot accept the scholarships to British universities and live out their plans for higher education; they cannot see their aunties in Jordan or New York; they cannot go on business trips or get top-notch chemotherapy or take some vacation days to be Maid of Honor in their best friend’s wedding in Florida. These are humans living in a cage controlled by Israel and ignored by most of the world.
1.8 million live patrolled and contained like this—that’s about the population of Hamburg, or Detroit in its heyday. It is difficult to convey the utter wrongness of this city-sized prison-house to someone who has not experienced or witnessed the daily indignities and frequent atrocities of the occupation. Only the pinnacle of human creativity could help one imagine it. It needs a Jim Jarmush film-set, with lighting that’s not quite right, where strange things happen, things are somehow off, and nobody seems to notice. And a melting Dalí clock—to convey the slow creep of time when every day brings more of the same caged existence with no apparent hope for escape. Only Hannah Arendt’s moral clarity and Graham Greene’s sardonic, slicing prose could adequately condemn the banality of this evil, the routinization of the occupation’s violence and the calm general acceptance of the humiliations it inflicts on so many people. Maybe Shakespeare could pierce the fog of obfuscating propaganda anddisinformation that spews forth from the governments so intent on justifying this unjustifiable human cage (Israel, the United States, Egypt, for example).
Our lazy swilling of government propaganda, our silence in the face of these wrongs is inexcusable, because the facts are all there for the knowing, all clearly laid out. Human rights organizations, humanitarian workers, the United Nations, journalists, scholars have documented with care and in detail the many dimensions of injustice that shore up the Israeli occupation and holds 1.8 million residents of Gaza hostage. They have been telling us for almost half a century about the ways military occupation crushes Palestinian lives, and corrupts Israeli society. And we have known for a quarter of a century that Palestinians’ lives have been curtailed even further, their prospects dwindling day by day.
Their fate, their horizons of movement and maybe of imagination, have been steadily shrinking since 1987, when Israel began to impose the regime of strict separation, cutting the Gaza Strip off from the West Bank and the rest of the world. Year by year, means of egress were reduced, made more arbitrary; a bureaucratic system of “permits” was imposed, and even individuals holding such permission were not always allowed through. Palestinian students from Gaza were entirely banned from going to the West Bank, and travel between the two territories became impossible for most. Fewer and fewer foreigners were allowed in to witness the slow suffocation of the people of Gaza. The election of Hamas to lead the Palestinian government in 2007 made easier an even tighter siege on “The Strip,” a 10km wide and 45km long sliver of land. Materials as diverse and dangerous as gravel, needles, chocolates, and crayons were also banned.
These details may be boring, but they illustrate what it’s like to live subject to the whims of an arbitrary power that may or may not open a gate to let people out or food and supplies in. Perhaps it is not just boring, but actively discomforting to remember the 2008-09 Israeli attacks on the people of Gaza when, in three weeks, approximately 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including some 300 children; 5,300 were injured, the vast majority civilians and hundreds of Palestinian houses were completely or partially destroyed.
It can be hard to see how numbers—1,400, 300, or 5,300—mean destroyed sitting rooms full of rubble, babies left unfed, teenagers left uneducated, families decimated, waves of grief; or that such numbers refer to that young woman without her masters degree, that young man sitting mad on a corner without a job, that mother depressed, that father dead.
It takes only a moment’s consideration to realize that 300 dead children means 300 families unraveled and oceans of tears. The Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (also known as the Goldstone Report) describes these death tolls and numbers wounded in great detail. This document caused a brief ripple in the calm acceptance of Gaza’s besieged state and Israel’s violent control of the place and its people, not only because it condemned Israeli actions outright, but also because the report was headed by a respected Jewish juror (Richard Goldstone).
Who can imagine the grief, the outrage, the piercing pain, of losing even a single loved one in the flash of a bombed moment, let alone losing 22?
This report described the effects of Israeli military violence against the people of Gaza, (just as it described Hamas war crimes), and recorded Israel’s systematic demolition of structures ‘including houses, water installations, such as tanks on the roofs of houses, and of agricultural land’without any military or security justification. This UN report, like many other human rights reports, also recorded the killing of 22 people from a single family when Israel shelled their home in Gaza City.
Who can imagine the grief, the outrage, the piercing pain, of losing even a single loved one in the flash of a bombed moment, let alone losing 22? It seems impossible to imagine, but it happened. So did the death on 17 July 2014 of four Palestinian cousins playing football on a Gaza beach, with no justifiable military target in sight. So did the deaths of 16 Palestinian women, children, and UN staff sheltering in a UN building. So did the deaths of 41 Palestinian minors and 14 senior citizens. (As of July 26, 2014, a total of over 1,033 Palestinians have been killed and about 5,900 wounded—the vast majority civilians; further, 3 civilians have been killed in Israel, one a Thai worker).
If those numbers still prove difficult to grasp, organizations like B’Tselem (an Israeli human rights NGO) have pages upon pages on their website dedicated to testimonies from the dramatically broken people living with the remainders of those numbers, including Bassam Khatab’s account of the missile that killed his 5-year-old son in his home of Deir al-Balah. That’s a Gaza town whose name means Monastery of the Date Palm, a town whose Facebook page features a picture of middle aged men dressed in fluorescent vests and sun hats—they’re the emergency crew that’s working around the clock to fix the disrupted water and plumbing and whatever else that’s destroyed by Israeli bombing. The town wishes for its Facebook page visitors “security and peace.”
So many in the West fail to grasp these daily catastrophes, which so many Palestinian families must endure, from living in a cage to dying in a cage. It seems that a lack of imagination is part of what lets people ignore what is going on, and thus encourages this abhorrent situation to persist. As the United States government shovels $8.5 million tax dollars a day to a foreign government actively imprisoning and killing civilians, the mood of most U.S. citizens seems to be characterized by a stubborn, apathetic refusal to consider the Palestinian plight—the horrors and frustrations of living under an unrelenting blockade. It is this apathy that allows these tragedies to continue, to be repeated every few years, and to pass without notice or condemnation.
[This piece originally appeared in a special weeklong series on the Stanford University Press blog, and is reposted here in partnership with SUP blog. The entire 10-part series can be found on the SUP blog.]