Cease Fire, Resume Genocide: An Interview with Dr. Jacob Smith*

Dr. Jacob Smith (name changed) is a North American physician who has visited Gaza several times, working at several hospitals there in both clinical and training roles. I spoke with him about the medical system in Gaza and the state of Gaza under the current, post August-2014 intensified siege.

Justin Podur: Describe your work in Gaza’s medical system.

Jacob Smith: I was initially asked several years ago by the Ministry of Health in Gaza to participate in a needs assessment for one of the subspecialties. At the time I knew very little about Gaza, wasn’t involved in politics, and knew very little even about the history of the region. As a physician what I saw was a tremendously poor humanitarian situation that was in large part man-made. Most times humanitarian crises result from earthquakes, tornadoes, natural disasters. This disaster is entirely man-made. The health system is the area I’m exposed to most. But it’s one small nidus of a multifactorial problem. The health system needs work, but so does the water system, so does rebuilding people’s homes, there are huge needs in every area. Politically, the most important thing would be getting the borders open so people can export and import – these are simple things that people in a Western society simply take for granted. The blockade prevents medical supplies, medications, training of doctors. The actualization of an independent, sovereign people requires that they can interact with other people. To be able to be empowered to overcome poverty and other challenges, is really not something that they can do under blockade.

JP: Give us some examples of how the siege plays out in the medical system.

JS: I’ll give you an example of what happened in the last offensive. Some specialized treatments like cancer treatment, kidney dialysis, and blood transfusions are only available in Shifa hospital in Gaza City. These treatments are regular, life-saving, and necessary to prolong people’s lives. In the last offensive, people from Northern Gaza were unable to get to Gaza City for these treatments because the road network was destroyed. Those people simply died. Just like that. Another very simple example: when I was there a few years ago, I met a young man in his early twenties who had been exposed to white phosphorus. As a complication of that, he ended up being in the intensive care unit quite a long time. I saw him several years after his exposure, which was probably during Cast Lead in 2008/9. He has chronic illness, he’s unable to find work. During his time in intensive care, the hospital lost power, so he’s lucky to even be alive, but he is a casualty of white phosphorus. In the most recent Israeli offensive a lot of the equipment just stopped because of power cuts. If you’re on a respirator and the power dies, you die. And during the most recent offensive, people who were the sickest – in the intensive care unit – intermittently, the power went down, and you had to hope the generators kicked in. Otherwise the person died. It was that simple. During the offensive, the one time when critical supplies need to come in, this is the time that none of the supplies were available. People were ingenious, trying to find solutions, but there are limits to that. Many people died from things that were easily preventable.

JP: I think it would be worth our time for you to tell us a bit about Palestinian ingenuity. It’s a part of the story people rarely get to hear about.

JS: Just to give you an example, when I visited the dialysis unit, one thing they have is old equipment that is essentially breaking down, broken down to the point where anywhere else, it would be thrown out. But because of the needs, the major hospital in Gaza has designed a system where there are now five shifts – for perspective, you should know no North American facility runs more than three shifts – they run five shifts and they have modified the regime to assure that every patient’s needs are met. They’ve modified the scheduling system to ensure there are nurses available 24 hours a day. I’ve never heard of that happening anywhere else. Another well-publicized example. When the power runs out, many of the Palestinian people will use cooking oil in their cars, which works effectively. The hospitals do the same when they run out of diesel. They use cooking oil to fuel the generators. There are countless examples of running out of electricity supply in the hospital, and setting up someone’s car battery so that the intensive care unit, OR, and the ER can continue to operate. Now there’s a big push, and one of the most empowering programs now is to empower each of the hospitals with solar power similar to as has been done in a couple of hospitals in Haiti. You’ll find countless examples. The level of knowledge of medical students, in terms of book knowledge, was higher than my North American students. But the Palestinian students don’t have the opportunities to go on exchange, develop experience and training outside of Gaza. They have everything they can get in Gaza – they are brilliant students – but they are stuck under the blockade.

JP: And as inventive as the Palestinians are, the occupation is also endlessly inventive in attacks and deprivations. How do they raise the costs for internationals to try to help in Gaza?

JS: So long as the blockade continues, Gaza is in a situation where they really need international help. So long as they are blocked, they need foreign aid, they need NGOs, they need money, reconstruction of hospitals, homes, UN buildings, everything. And yet at the one time that they need the world more than ever before, the world is grossly absent. And it is not simply that the world doesn’t want to be there. Israel (and, it must be said, Egypt) has made it almost impossible to get in and out of Gaza. If you’re an NGO and you’re trying to determine the most productive use of your time and money, you’ll go to a place that’s easier to get in and out. It is hard to get in, hard to get out, it’s intentional delays to deprive people of the ability to do good work. If you apply to go through Israel, they’ll delay or refuse your COGAT permission. Many have been refused without explanation and aren’t allowed back – for no reason. Mads Gilbert is an example.

I know of doctors who have been rejected multiple times, spent thousands in legal fees, took their case to the Supreme Court of Israel, and were finally granted permission through the Supreme Court of Israel. Even after getting permission from Supreme Court, the border officials make entry and exit especially difficult and humiliating.

When I was leaving Israel via Ben Gurion, the authorities insisted I write my facebook, home address, work address, phone numbers. I had my luggage dumped on the floor, every item in my bag was swabbed, I had to go through the X-ray twice, I was strip searched, and had my private parts patted down. This is routine for anyone entering and exiting Gaza for medical relief work. You are intentionally made to feel like a criminal, like you’re doing something wrong by going to Gaza, that the mere act of being present there makes you a criminal. As you go through it, even if you know that’s happening, human nature dictates that you’ll start to think, well, there are a lot of places that need humanitarian work, you’ll be inclined to go somewhere else next time, which means you’ll have done exactly what the Israelis wanted you to do. As a physican, most physicians will feel they have better things to do with their time. And that’s a part of why development has happened at a snail’s pace.

And consider me, as a white North American physician, I’m not used to this treatment, but part of the sadness is, if I was Palestinian, this would happen all the time, I wouldn’t be telling this story, and much worse would happen to me – I’d be detained, or jailed, or tortured, and no one would know.

JP: You mentioned Egypt. It’s not just Israel making it difficult for people to get in. It’s also the Sisi dictatorship in Egypt.

JS: I visited Gaza when Morsi was president of Egypt. At that time, the Rafah border crossing was mostly open. There was also a tunnel system that served as a lifeline of medical supplies into Gaza. It was easier for people to go in and out via Rafah for specialized medical care. That said, it was still not accessible to everyone. It was accessible to people who had the means – in a territory where there is more than 50% unemployment, that was still a major barrier. But now, in the Sisi era, it’s simply impossible to get out. Several years ago, during one of my visits, you could see NGO people everywhere: UN, MSF, Red Crescent from Turkey. They were everywhere, there were projects, there were people. Now they are almost invisible.

Much of the money that was pledged, the overwhelming majority, has never got in. Reconstruction efforts are essentially nonexistent. The hospitals that were most visible from the international perspective – in Gaza City – were rebuilt first. Not because they were strategic for human health, but because they were the most likely to please Israel, to help Israel’s international reputation. The pediatric hospital, which was bombed in August 2014, was rebuilt first.

So far, the reconstruction effort is going at a rate that will take 100 years to repair the damage just from the most recent conflict, never mind the conflicts before that. The most basic necessities are in short supply. The majority of the water is undrinkable because of damage to water treatment plants and lack of sewage treatment. Electricity outages range anywhere from 12 to 20 hours a day. Because of the displacement of over 100,000 people, many of these people are living in congested housing. We’re seeing a very high rate of people living in close proximity. People are literally dying of diarrhea, children have died of hypothermia because they can’t get heat in their homes.

Each of the things that I’m describing, we’re talking about an area where the average person in Gaza lives on less than $1500 per year. If you move less than a mile away in Israel, that figure is over $35,000 per year. The reason this exists is entirely man-made. The people within Gaza are motivated, determined to be independent and have their own health care system that they develop and that they optimize. The reason this is not happening is solely because of the occupation and a blockade that forbids supplies, and rather than the very rapid genocidal campaign of the war, after the ceasefire none of the conditions have been respected.

My dream is that Gaza would have an independent health care system that would be run by Gaza that wouldn’t be dependent on foreign aid, not dependent allowing supplies in through the occupier. That’s completely possible. The desire, the expertise, the determination, are all there on the Palestinian side. But on the Israeli and Egyptian sides, there is opposition. And internationally, those who want to help haven’t been strong enough to overcome this opposition. One of the most frustrating things for me, is, to see the potential. I have to perceive things as, what’s the potential if we overcome those barriers. That has to be the way that we think. What’s the ideal situation? A health system designed by, for, and managed by physicians and leaders in Gaza. They are more than capable of doing it if the world allowed them.

This content was originally published by teleSUR at the following address:
http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Cease-Fire-Resume-Genocide-An-interview-with-Dr.-Jacob-Smith-20150311-0031.html. If you intend to use it, please cite the source and provide a link to the original article. www.teleSURtv.net/english

Pillar of Defense Deaths until November 18

A map of deaths from Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation, inspired by the UK Guardian’s map of “incidents”. I added a timeline and removed anything that didn’t result in deaths, on the basis that war is mainly a collection of deaths, and not a collection of “incidents”. The geographical information could be more accurate, and I am happy to correct if anyone sends me corrections (I’ll also be updating as time goes on, using Maan News’s excellent feed). 2D version without timeline:

3D version with timeline (requires google earth plugin), or download the KML file to your computer and view it in google earth.

And the Google Fusion Table, another easy way to get this data, below.

Thanks to Jon Elmer for putting me on to the relevant data sources.

Israel’s Flotilla Massacre

Overnight, Israeli commandos attacked an aid flotilla in the high seas, some 65km from Israel. The commandos killed at least 10 people and injured dozens of others, mostly Turkish nonviolent activists bound for Gaza who were aiming to break Israel’s siege with humanitarian supplies. Israel attacked all of the ships in the flotilla, but the killings seem to have happened on the flagship Mavi Marmari.

Continue reading “Israel’s Flotilla Massacre”

Not a ceasefire


Israel used the word “disengagement” in 2005 to mean continued occupation, control of movement, periodic massacre, and blockade. Now Israel is using the word “ceasefire” to mean continued ground occupation and supervised societal collapse. The word used is irrelevant. Calling it a “ceasefire” is a simple lie. This will be a ceasefire that features continued fire. Other dangerous illusions abound.

Continue reading “Not a ceasefire”

Let’s not have a false sense of security

Numerous analysts have said that “Israel will not allow a full-blown humanitarian crisis in Gaza”. First of all, I am not sure how they would define a “full-blown” crisis. Can the current crisis reach “half-blown” status at least? The place is rubble. Sanitation, electricity, and drinking water facilities are destroyed. Hospitals are destroyed. The systems were brought to the breaking point by blockade and then pushed over the cliff by systematic destruction. If people are starving, how would anyone know? They shoot journalists and bomb UNRWA, after all, including reserve food stocks and supply convoys. And the world’s journalists and the UN mostly apologize for getting in the way of the bombs (while condemning the Palestinians for doing the same).

Here’s another one I wouldn’t assume: “Israel must withdraw eventually”. Why is that? They occupied Gaza for years in the past. They want to see to it that Gaza cannot govern itself and that society there collapses completely. What better way than to continue to do what they are doing? Is it out of their reach financially, militarily, politically, or diplomatically? On the contrary. This operation was an experiment in what it was possible to get away with, and they have gotten away with it all. The next phase is the closely supervised destruction of the innovations Gaza used to survive for so long: the remaining infrastructure (schools, hospitals, roads, plumbing, electricity) the tunnels, the police, United Nations aid, the ability to share whatever was brought in through Hamas’s social networks and organization (the social networks will be dismantled through arrest and assassination of leaders and terror attacks on civilians). The Israelis destroyed it. Now they must look after their investment and see that it stays destroyed.

All they need to achieve this is what they have already got: the compliance of the Western and Arab regimes. If these regimes allowed (when they didn’t cheer) a month of high-tech high-intensity massacre, why would they shrink from months of occupation and starvation? And even if they did shrink, how would they accomplish anything effective to stop it? With a totally destroyed infrastructure, continued sanctions, and Israel’s one-sided war against the UN in effect, we are well into “full blown humanitarian crisis”, unless some unforeseen change in the balance of forces occurs.

It bears repeating that it would be easy enough for the US to deal with this. They could say no more weapons for Israel unless Israel leaves Gaza, ends the blockade, and allows complete freedom of movement for people and goods; no Israeli authority over Gaza’s airspace, sea lanes, passage of its people to the West Bank or any other country, or its border with Egypt. This is so minimalist that it is painful to argue for it, but it is all the same completely inconceivable that even this supposedly hope-and-change-oriented administration would do it.

Grassroots efforts to change the balance of forces and impose some cost to the indecency of Western political leaders on this issue are racing against time. The Palestinians are without protection.

The Sup on Palestine

Whatever the value of this path that I’m on, wherever it leads, Subcomandante Marcos’s words were a major part of putting me on it. The Chiapas of the Zapatistas is one of the first places I visited and reported from and worked in and it was not that long a two years from Chiapas to Palestine (my first trip to Colombia in between). And so it’s fitting that it’s from Marcos and the Zapatistas that I find the words that I will go back to over and over for, in his words, that little ray of light in the darkness.

“Maybe our thinking is very simple, and we’re lacking the nuances and annotations that are always so necessary in analyses, but to the Zapatistas it looks like there’s a professional army murdering a defenseless population.”

When this all started on December 27 I wrote a Palestinian friend thinking exactly of Marcos’s words which I had taken on so completely I only realized I was paraphrasing him after I sent her my note. Gabriel Garcia Marquez asked him what his image of poverty is, and he says a child who died in his arms, and how he felt:

“Impotence, rage. The whole world falls in on you, that everything you believed and everything you did before is useless if I can’t prevent this death, this unjust, absurd, irrational, stupid… “

That was just what I felt, when this all began again. In this week’s piece Marcos asked:

“Is it useful to say something? Do our cries stop even one bomb? Does our word save the life of even one Palestinian?”

“We think that yes, it is useful. Maybe we don’t stop a bomb and our word won’t turn into an armored shield so that that 5.56 mm or 9 mm caliber bullet with the letters “IMI” or “Israeli Military Industry” etched into the base of the cartridge won’t hit the chest of a girl or boy, but perhaps our word can manage to join forces with others in Mexico and the world and perhaps first it’s heard as a murmur, then out loud, and then a scream that they hear in Gaza.”

“We don’t know about you, but we Zapatistas from the EZLN, we know how important it is, in the middle of destruction and death, to hear some words of encouragement.”

“I don’t know how to explain it, but it turns out that yes, words from afar might not stop a bomb, but it’s as if a crack were opened in the black room of death and a tiny ray of light slips in.”

Turn off the Canadian Media, Please

If national media help make a nation, then we all need to stop reading and listening to conventional Canadian media if we want to make a decent Canada. Benedict Anderson, perhaps the leading scholar of nationalism, wrote that the daily newspaper (along with other innovations like novels, maps, censuses, museums) played a key role in creating national consciousness. People in a country like Canada use their own media – public (CBC) and private (CanWest, TorStar, CTVglobemedia) – to know what is happening in their own country. Media are also an important part of forging a national identity. They are supposed to represent the broad spectrum of Canadian opinion. When they present information on the rest of the world, they do so from a Canadian perspective and have the Canadian audience in mind.

And today, if you want to have the first idea what is happening in Israel/Palestine (or most of the rest of the world), the best thing to do would be to turn them off completely.

In the face of a major ongoing crime like that of Israel’s siege and assault on Gaza, Canadians turn to the Canadian media in good faith to try to learn and understand what is happening, who is to blame, and what they might be able to do to help the victims. On each of these counts, the Canadian media fails. But the days when Canadians would be stuck listening to local radio, picking up the local print newspaper, or watching local television packaged by Canadian media corporations for their consumption are over. There is, for the time being, media choice. And given the choice, on Israel/Palestine, it would be foolish to turn to the Canadian media.

These days I actually don’t have the stomach to do an exhaustive survey of Canadian coverage of these massacres. I have done such surveys in the past (see my letter to the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter from a few years back), and I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about how to democratize the mainstream Canadian media and pressure it to be more open. These days, though, I mainly follow my own advice. A friend of mine, Brooks Kind, spent some time going through the least biased of the Canadian media, CBC radio, over the past two weeks. He found that the CBC suppressed crucial facts, presented an unrepresentative spectrum of opinion, and falsified the historical record. The suppressions and omissions are in the service of the perspective of the US and Israeli governments (and Canadian politicians), but they are no less false for that. With the reminder that I am picking on the CBC not because it is the worst, but because it is by far the best, here are just a few examples.

First, remember that the pretext for Israel’s attack is that Hamas refused to renew the June 19/08 ceasefire and started rocket attacks in December/08. But Israel violated the ceasefire in two ways. First, by continuing to starve Gaza (as Israeli officials openly admit and have done for years), and second, by attacking Gaza on November 4/08 and killing six Hamas people. Why is this important? There is a pattern here: Israel has repeatedly broken truces, ceasefires, and peace talks with spectacular assassinations that involve killing large numbers of people. This has been a pattern for many years, and has included the assassinations of many of Hamas’s leaders (Abd-el-Aziz Rantisi, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, and many, many others). It is an explicit part of Israel’s strategy to provoke its opponents and get pretexts for further attacks. But this timeline, and the November 4/08 attack by Israel, is not part of the ‘boilerplate’ provided when the attack on Gaza is reported in the Canadian media.

Second, Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, has been making very strong statements about Gaza in recent months. Falk is an acclaimed scholar and a highly credible source. He works for the United Nations, which Canadians supposedly have special respect for. When Falk traveled to Israel, he was detained, strip searched, and deported. Israel’s contempt for the United Nations could hardly have been more starkly revealed. Except, perhaps, when the Israelis killed a Canadian UN observer (Paeta Derek Hess-von Kruedener) in Lebanon in 2006, along with 3 others (Du Zhaoyu of China, Jarno Makinen of Finland, and Hans-Peter Lang of Austria). Or, perhaps, when the Israelis bombed the UNRWA school in Jabaliya on Jan 3/09, killing 43 Palestinians and wounding 100. Unlike much of the UN, whose main response to these killings might as well be to apologize for getting in the way of the bombs, Falk has provided urgent warnings to the world about the seriousness of the situation. But Falk’s story is not given any prominence in any Canadian media. An entire story on the UN aspects of the situation quotes Israel’s envoy to the UN and Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and others, but not the important and strong voice of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Territories.

And then, of course, there are the cliches, the horrible cliches of this conflict. Like this story about how
"World leaders call for Mideast ceasefire as more civilians die." They just "die", these civilians. The lead reads "World leaders called for a ceasefire in the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas as civilian casualties climbed in the Gaza Strip." The "casualties climbed", the "civilians died", of their own accord, with no help from the Israelis. Israeli officials are allowed the grace of their titles ("Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak") but Mahmoud Zahar from the elected Hamas government is called "Gaza’s Hamas strongman" (there are no Western strongmen).

Just before the current massacres, on December 8/08, Radio Canada’s ombudsman found that the CBC had erred in running a very factual documentary called "Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land" (3PL). The ombudsman Radio Canada erred in broadcasting because "militant pro-Palestinian groups were involved in researching" it. Who were these groups? FAIR (www.fair.org), or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, whose principal activity is to act more or less as Radio Canada’s ombudsman should, pointing out inaccuracies and unfairness in US media coverage of critical topics. "Factual errors" pointed out by the ombudsman include that the film "speaks of the occupation as being illegal, but Miville-Dechene points out that this has never been clarified by the courts". This merely suggests that the ombudsman lacks the most cursory understanding of international law. And possibly, an understanding of what constitutes a factual error. In any case, the Quebec Israel Committee (QIC) said that, by changing its policies to prevent documentaries like these from being seen by Canadians, "Radio-Canada has strengthened its credibility and has become a better news organization." The more "credible" a media outlet is to an outfit like the QIC, the better off Canadians would be in turning it off altogether. What is good about this situation is that all Radio-Canada can really do is prevent Canadians from seeing 3PL on Radio-Canada. They can’t prevent Canadians from seeing it altogether (in fact, you can watch it at the Media Education Foundation site or on Google Video. The natural response is the right one: turn off Radio-Canada.

A last example. The rally against the Gaza massacres that happened in Toronto (as well as many cities in the world) on January 3, 2009. I was at the rally. I have been to a lot of rallies over the years. Many of these, I must admit, have been very small. Activists learn how to assess (and yes, unfortunately, sometimes to inflate) numbers at demonstrations. But to say that the January 3, 2009 rally had "more than 1000 people", as CBC did, is simply preposterous. They may as well have said "more than one". There were easily 10,000 people there – unless someone can show me how you can fill Yonge Street between Bloor Street and College Street in Toronto with a thousand people. And no, at no point was the march single file.

In the past, when I, and others like me, have made points like these to Canadian journalists, they reply that we are leftists and biased and merely want them to be biased the way we are. But the above are mostly matters of fact and of professionalism, not of analysis or opinion.

I am willing to declare my biases. I write for ZNet (www.zcommunications.org/znet) and work as an editor for it. I wouldn’t do either if I didn’t think people should read it, and I wouldn’t criticize the mainstream media if I thought it did a good job. ZNet is a site for analysis. It features analysts who write on other sites, like the Electronic Intifada‘s (www.electronicintifada.net) Ali Abunimah, Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies (http://www.ips-dc.org/staff/phyllis), Jonathan Cook, Ha’aretz’s own Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, other Israelis like Neve Gorden and Jeff Halper, as well as folks who write mainly for ZNet. If you’re distrustful of the "alternative media" and fear that folks from the region will be biased, try the mainstream (liberal) UK papers, whose openness to diverse analysis puts the Canadian press to shame. Guardian’s Comment is Free (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree) section has had Leila el-Haddad, Nir Rosen, Seamus Milne, and plenty of others that don’t see the light of day in the Canadian press. Reading these analysts reveals the incredible mediocrity of the Canadian punditry when it addresses international affairs.

But analysis is not news, and people do need news. Not only do they need news, but they need a variety of perspectives, and the Israeli perspective is a very important one. There is, however, a difference between what the public relations line of a state at war and the actual perspective and debates in that state. In other words, if you want the Israeli perspective, you can get it directly, in the Israeli press: read Haaretz (www.haaretz.com) and the Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com). They are available in English, and they are much more frank about Israel’s aims and practices than the Canadian media are. Why read what the Israeli military wants Canadians to read, when you can read what they want Israelis to read?

If you want news about how Israeli destruction looks to its victims, there is nothing better than the IMEMC (www.imemc.org), which is a genuine news outlet run by Palestinians, in the Occupied Territories, with as high professional standards as you could want. These are journalistic heroes, and the first place I go.

If you want news that is actually balanced, with "supporters of Israel" and "pro-Palestinian" voices represented, as well as actual reporting from the ground, use al-Jazeera (www.aljazeera.net/en).

[Aside: I can’t use the phrase "supporters of Israel" without reminding readers of Chomsky’s note in Fateful Triangle, where he said "supporters of Israel" should more aptly be called "supporters of the moral degradation and eventual destruction of Israel". "Pro-Palestinian" is another strange term, since it seems that thinking that a group of human beings are, in fact, human beings, makes you "pro-Palestinian", rather like how agreeing with the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change makes you an "environmentalist".]

If you want to make your own decision about how many people were at a demonstration or what its message was, you might as well go directly to the people involved: they all have their own websites. The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (www.caiaweb.org) has one, the Canadian Arab Federation (www.caf.ca) has one, and so on.

Let me rephrase my point here. Modern Western armies, like those of Israel, the US, and Canada, think of information as part of warfare. They expend tremendous time and resources mobilizing support for their violence. They do this by controlling information, disallowing independent journalists (as Israel is doing), using embedded journalists, and running a massive public relations machinery designed specifically to deliver arguments and propaganda for the foreign press and for foreign consumption. There is a special machinery just for Canadians, and a special strategy to sell war in Canada. There was one for the Iraq war, there is one for the Afghanistan war, and one for Israel’s wars as well. What is so unusual about the media environment today is that all this expense, all this media machinery, can be circumvented by anyone in its target audience by the simple click of a mouse. So click away.

The Canadian media are a biased little niche of pro-Israeli spin, and should be seen that way. There are times when the Canadian media are useful for news about Canada, if read critically. Even for Canada, there are reasonably good alternatives for analysis, commentary, and features (dominionpaper.ca, rabble.ca, briarpatchmagazine.com), and plenty of direct information from politicians (the political parties have their own sites, as do many individual polticians, activist groups, and so on). Still, read critically, the Canadian media can be a good source on goings on in the country.

But on Israel/Palestine, please, find more serious sources.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. His blog is www.killingtrain.com.

This kind of war

The current crisis in Gaza began with Israel’s breaking the ceasefire with Hamas on November 4, 2008. The five-month ceasefire was unsustainable for two reasons. First and most importantly, because it condemned the Palestinians of Gaza to a slow and wasting death: part of the ceasefire was the continuation of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. As part of this blockade, Palestinians could not leave the territory. This included, in high-profile cases, students who had obtained admission and visas to study abroad, but also people who later died because they could not receive treatment for cancers and other medical problems. Remember that the Gaza strip is 360 square kilometers, with 1.5 million people. The people have skills, strong social cohesion, and traditions of hospitality, but the area is not self-sufficient and the economy cannot function without free movement of people and goods in and out. Leave aside that the moral right and legal right of Palestinians to self-defense was denied by the prevention of arms supplies (to even mention this as a possibility is to break a taboo). Every other aspect of life was also disrupted by the blockade. Education was disrupted as Israel refused to allow paper, ink, books, and other supplies in. Health care was disrupted as Israel refused to allow medical supplies. Nutrition and normal child development was disrupted both by the refusal of Israel to allow food supplies, but also by the use of sonic booms, which the Israeli air force uses to frighten the population, and periodic bombing and assassinations.

At this point, Israel is not even allowing Palestinians to leave, so displacement is not the goal, at least for the time being. On the other hand, when body counts rise into the thousands or tens of thousands, Israel might then allow the Palestinians to flee further massacres, and be lauded for its generousness by the international community.

The second reason the ceasefire was unsustainable was deeper. So long as Israel is unwilling to negotiate a political settlement and share the land, with the US on side and with shedding Palestinian blood being a source of political credibility in Israeli society, Palestinians have no choice but to resist. If they are not starved and bombed, they will be more effective at resisting their own displacement and colonization. With each step Israel takes to try to dismantle Palestinian resistance, a genocidal logic advances. Palestinians have been walled in and blockaded. Now they are bombed and invaded. When they have been thrown off their land and into neighbouring countries, they are attacked in those countries, in their refugee camps. Indeed, the people of Gaza are mostly refugees who were thrown off lands in what is now Israel. If they were displaced from Gaza, into Egypt, what would stop Israel from attacking them there? Would being displaced twice offer more protection than being displaced once?

Once the ceasefire ended, Israel was at war. This was a war of choice, and a war it had prepared for extensively on diplomatic and military levels.

The diplomatic scenario was favourable to Israel in several ways. Palestine had been further divided. The West Bank was controlled by Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority collaborates with Israel. The PA is currently maintained in power because the elected Hamas parliamentarians are in either PA or Israeli prisons and because Israeli security forces, as well as the PA, arrest scores of people in the West Bank every week. Gaza was controlled by the elected Hamas leadership. Israel could focus on one enemy and leave the suppression of the Palestinians of the West Bank to the PA. Israel has rounded up hundreds of Palestinian children in the West Bank and shot and killed many demonstrators there in recent weeks, but these violations have become routine and barely register next to the more spectacular massacres of dozens at a time in Gaza. Hizbollah in Lebanon, who in 2006 interrupted a pattern of massacre and strangulation that Israel was conducting in Gaza (“Summer Rains”), have domestic constraints preventing them from intervening in support of the Palestinians, which would bring more thousands of dead to Lebanon in a new Israeli air campaign, against which Hizbollah has no defenses. Egypt has been more co-operative with Israel than ever before, keeping the Rafah crossing sealed and, at the official level, blaming Hamas for bringing the massacres on themselves. According to Hamas, Egypt also told them that Israel was not planning an attack – which gave the Israelis the surprise that helped them to massacre over 200 Palestinians in a single day at the start of their air campaign. As usual, Israel can count on unconditional official US support from all parts of the political spectrum, which seems to be enough to prevent any useful intervention by anyone else in the world. Many progressive governments, including the most progressive ones, Venezuela and Bolivia, have condemned the atrocities, but have not taken any further steps to try to diplomatically isolate Israel or support Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS), which might be part of a strategy that could stop Israel. Street protests have been large, in some parts of the world unprecedentedly so. But without any official political expression, these protests can be dismissed and ignored as the February 15, 2003 protests against the invasion of Iraq were ignored.

On the military level, some basic points. Calling the current conflict a ‘war’ is more of an analogy than a description, because the word ‘war’ still evokes the idea of armies meeting on a battlefield and contesting territory. Israel has all of the weapons of war, but it does not really have an opposing army to fight. It can take any territory it wants and easily kill anyone trying to contest it. It can hit, and destroy, any target, anywhere Palestinians live, at will. One compilation by the al-Mezan Centre in Gaza from December 31/08 presented 315 killed (41 children), 939 injured (85 children), and 112 houses, 7 mosques, 38 private industrial and agricultural enterprises, 16 schools, 16 government facilities, 9 charity offices, and 20 security installations. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) figures to December 31/08 were 334 killed (33 children), 966 injured (218 children), 37 homes, 67 security centres, 20 workshops, as well as 40 invasions in the West Bank, killing 3 Palestinians and arresting/kidnapping hundreds more.

Skimming the IMEMC site, here is some of what Israel destroyed since the attack started.

December 27-28/08
-Palestinian Police Headquarters
-Rafah Police Station
-Saraya Security Compound
-Beit Hanoun municipal building
-Rafah governorate offices
-A police jeep in Gaza City
-The Palestinian Ministry of Prisoners’ Affairs
-Greenhouses in Alqarrara
-Charity offices throughout Gaza
-A medical storage facility
-A fuel station in Rafah
-A fuel truck in Rafah
-A police station in Gaza City (al-Shujaeyya)
-al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City
-Houses in Gaza City and Jabaliya refugee camp
-Hamas’s al-Aqsa TV station in Gaza City
-Hamas’s Asda’ media office in Khan Yunis
-Tunnels in Rafah
-An apartment in Tal-Alhawa in Gaza City
-A car in Nuseirat refugee camp
-The Islamic University in Gaza (several buildings, including the female students’ residence)
-A mosque in Jabaliya
-A fishermen’s dock at Gaza shore

December 29/08
-A house in Jabaliya (killing 5 sisters, all children).
-A blacksmith workshop in al-Zeitoun neighbourhood in Gaza City
-A house in Khan Younis
-A house in Abasan town
-The Ministry of the Interior in Gaza

December 30/08
-The Ministries Compound
-The Popular Resistance Committees center in Gaza City
-A house in Beit Lahia
-Another fuel truck in northern Gaza
-The UNRWA school in al-Qarara
-Houses in Rafah
-A house in Jabailya
-A sports club in Tal AL Hawa
-A police station in Beit Hanoun
-Bani Suheila City Council
-Training grounds for the Al Qassam Brigades
-The mosque of Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque in Al Bureij
-Al Khulafa’ Mosque in northern Gaza
-The governor’s office in northern Gaza
-The Ministries Compound in Tal Al Hawa in Gaza completely destroying it (including the Ministry of Finance, Interior, Education)
-A military camp that was previously used by Force 17, loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.
-A dairy in Gaza City
-A workshop in Beit Lahiya
-Another home in northern Gaza (killing two children)
-The Rafah-Egypt border crossing
-The house of a Fatah leader in al-Mighraqa
-A house in Beit Hanoun (killing two children)
-A house in al-Maghazi refugee camp

December 31/08
-Ambulances in Gaza City (killing a doctor, a driver, and a medic)
-The oxygen refilling plant in Gaza City (used by hospitals in Gaza)

Jan 1/09
-Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza City
-The Ministry of Education in Gaza City
-The Ministry of Justice in Gaza City
-A house in Nuseirat refugee camp
-A workshop in Rafah
-A picnic park in Rafah
-Tunnels in Rafah
-A clinic in Rafah
-A house in al-Maghazi
-Nizar Rayan’s home, killing him, his wives, and all of their children (16 people total)

Jan 2-3/09
-An apartment building in al-Qarara
-A house in Jabaliya (killing 2 children)
-A house in al-Boreij refugee camp
-A mosque in Jabaliya
-The American School in Gaza City
-A house in al-Shujaeyya
-A house in Gaza City
-Fishing boats in Gaza City
-A car on the Gaza Valley bridge
-A police station in Gaza
-At least 20 homes in Gaza

Israeli bombing strategy has been to bomb the same targets repeatedly. This means not only more thorough destruction of the infrastructure, but also additional killing of medical personnel and residents who try to help the first round of victims.

Israel’s actions are not constrained by the opposing army but by two political considerations: First, how much killing can it do before it begins to face the threat of diplomatic isolation? Disallowing journalists and observers is part of Israel’s strategy to deal with this, as it was for the US in Iraq. Israel’s ground invasion has been accompanied by a total blackout even of Israeli reporters. Given the intensity of its intelligence and the precision of its weapons, Israel is able to choose the death toll, with some precision. At least some of the current killing is likely designed to push the limits and see how far Israel can go before eliciting any serious reaction.

The second consideration is, can Israeli military casualties be kept low enough that the Israeli public continues to support war? To deal with the latter, Israel uses airpower and artillery to destroy from a distance, and opened its ground invasion at night. Since it has long since dismantled Gaza’s electricity infrastructure, its soldiers are the only ones who can see at night through their infrared goggles – Gaza’s people, civilians and anyone who might want to try to defend them, are in complete darkness.

Israel’s active military is estimated to be some 170,000. With universal conscription, it has some 2.4 million people between 17-49 years old fit for military service and everyone has had some training. Its military budget is 9% of its substantial GDP, totaling some $18.7 billion. It receives about $3 billion per year from the US. It has about 1000 main battle tanks, 1500 lower quality tanks, over 1000 artillery pieces, over 500 warplanes, about 200 helicopters, 13 warships, and 3 submarines. It has the latest unmanned aerial vehicles and can gather very precise intelligence using aerial photography and satellites.

Hamas is mainly a political organization, but it has an armed wing that has the capacity to improvise rockets and explosives and to train fighters with small arms. Hizbollah in Lebanon had some success against Israeli ground forces in 2006 partly because of armaments: they were able to destroy Israeli tanks with anti-tank missiles and fight against Israeli soldiers at night with night-vision goggles. Hamas almost certainly does not have access to such weaponry. In 2002, when Palestinian fighters defended Jenin from Israeli forces, they improvised some explosions but ran out of ammunition and supplies and were ultimately defeated when Israel leveled the central part of the camp with bulldozers.

Because calling it ‘war’ is basically metaphorical, the notion of a ‘military casualty’, as opposed to a civilian death, on the Palestinian side doesn’t make much sense. If a soldier or even a militant is killed in battle, he is counted as a military casualty. If that same soldier is killed in his house by a missile from the sky or a shell from kilometres away, he is the victim of an assassination. If his entire family and various other people are killed because they were in his proximity, they are victims of murder. There are other words that can describe it, such as ‘collateral damage’, but murder is the most accurate, something that would be clear if racism against Palestinians were not so pervasive.

Israel invites us to dehumanize ourselves by estimating how many of its victims were ‘militants’ and how many ‘civilians’. In this game, Israel claims everyone it has killed was a militant and those who were not are victims of the militants because they hide among civilians. The United Nations has accepted the broad parameters of the game, estimating at one point that one fifth of those killed were civilians. The details can then be quibbled over. But no one would accept this game if it were not Palestinians who were being killed. No one tries to divide the victims of Hamas’s rockets or, in years past, suicide bombings. No doubt many of these were off-duty soldiers, since Israel has universal conscription. But everyone understands that these were civilians and killing them, a crime (an act of terrorism, no less). Most people understand that subdividing the young victims of a suicide bombing at a cafeteria based on whether they were active duty or reservist soldiers would be a pretty disgusting thing to do. But the same simple logic fails when attempted to extend it to Palestinians at a marketplace or school or hospital or university, all of whom are legitimate targets of murder unless proven otherwise (and Israel allows no one to see the evidence to prove anything in any case).

Though there is some uncertainty about Hamas’s military capability, the invasion of Gaza will not likely be a replay of Lebanon 2006. Palestinians might be motivated and have little to lose, but they cannot compete with Israel’s weaponry. Indeed, the reason the Israelis were surprised in Lebanon was that they had gotten used to fighting lightly armed and helpless opponents. Israel knows how to occupy Gaza. Before the 2005 ‘disengagement’, their forces operated from fortified settlements and cut Gaza in three parts, blocking the three main north-south roads with armor. They used extensive aerial surveillance and cameras from towers to watch every square inch of Gaza and snipe at people, including children, at will. They came out of their bases in massive armored force and with air support to bulldoze houses and neighbourhoods, after first using artillery and air strikes. Helicopter gunships would make short work of any lightly armed militants, who (unlike Hizbollah) have nothing capable of shooting one down. They can create their own no-go zones and minefields using cluster bombs, making even more of Gaza’s tiny area uninhabitable – and making the concentration camp that much more concentrated.

If everything goes Israel’s way, as it seems to be going, the next question is how Israel will decide if it has won. It can probably destroy many tunnels and, by occupying the area, silence the rockets. It can probably also conduct house-to-house searches and massacres, and will probably attempt to capture or kill the elected Hamas leadership. Since most countries refuse to recognize Hamas’s government and many have accepted Israel’s request that it be listed as a terrorist organization, there is nothing protecting these leaders’ lives any more than the lives of the people who voted for them (or against them). With its soldiers back in Gaza, Israel will be able to return to its noble project of starving the Palestinian population, this time with an even more destroyed infrastructure and from up close. As Alex de Waal pointed out about Darfur, ‘starve’ is a transitive verb: it is something one people does to another.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. He was in Gaza in 2002. His blog is www.killingtrain.com.