Gaza, the Middle East and Everything: The geometry of death

Gaza, the Middle East and Everything: The geometry of death

The hostilities in Gaza offer a chance to put the current death and destruction into a larger historical context – and allow J. BROOKS SPECTOR to sigh that things are not likely to get much better in the near future.

Half a decade ago, one afternoon, the writer sat on a bleak hillside in West Bank, somewhere between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, together with a group of actors from an Arab children’s theatre company. While having a snack and a cool drink, and discussing the allure of actresses like Charlize Theron and Milla Jovovich, one of the actors then pointed out the prominent features on the surrounding hills.

Within sight, there was a small Palestinian Arab village, one of those unauthorised Israeli settlements, and then, still further over, an officially “authorised” settlement as well. But there were also Byzantine ruins (or maybe they were from the Crusades or both, it wasn’t entirely clear), and there even seemed to be evidence of a Roman ruin as well – even though that was hard to make out for certain in the late afternoon haze. If there had been an archaeologist with us, he or she probably could have pointed out evidence of yet earlier settlements and societies as well, all around us.

People have been arguing over this bit of territory for thousands of years – and the conflicting claims for priority of place and the meaning of ownership go in all directions. Historians have described it as a part of the “Fertile Crescent” between Egypt and Mesopotamia, but it always seemed to have been a hard land to survive on in the absence of much care and attention to the fragile land. But together with all the reminders of long-past, competing civilisations, there have also been conflicting narratives about those societies and their inhabitants and their spiritual urges.

While growing up, the author became acquainted with a largely coherent, compelling narrative of the larger story of this land. Expanding on the well-known Biblical story, the straight line of history spoke sequentially of Christian crusaders fighting against Muslim conquerors of the Holy Land; then the gradual collapse of the Ottoman Empire as eventual successor to the Caliphate; then, eventually, the post-World War I League of Nations mandates in the region; the relocation of the scarred Jewish remnant after the Holocaust; the United Nations’ Palestine partition plan accepted by Jews but rejected by Arabs; and then a sequence of wars – first for Israeli independence, then the Suez crisis, and on to the 1967 and Yom Kippur Wars.

Such a history was built naturally on a saga of the return to the Holy Land, even if it elided around some of the more complex parts of a historical narrative. It largely left unspoken the origins of the Zionist movement as one of three responses to the growing ferocity of anti-Semitism in Europe in the late 19th century. For some, the salvation for Europe’s oppressed Jews lay in the ideologies of socialism and communism. A second was a growing movement to migrate to America (and, to a lesser degree, to Canada, Argentina, South Africa, and elsewhere) to begin a new life freed from societies that made political and economic survival dependent on being of the right ethnic or religious group. The third alternative was journalist Theodore Herzl’s inspiration that Jews would never find a safe harbour anywhere other than in a bit of geography they could call their own.

To turn Herzl’s dream into reality, the British government first offered the possibility of settlement in what became Uganda, then Madagascar was proposed – with both offers part of the larger imperial strategies of the European great powers. It took World War I and the dire circumstances of Eastern European Jewry; the lobbying of the British government by influential chemist Chaim Weizmann to encourage Britain to issue what became known as the Balfour Declaration with its stated government support for a new Jewish homeland in the Middle East; and then the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of French and British League of Nations mandates from the former Ottoman territories to give tangible political expression to Herzl’s idea.

In the meantime, of course, this process was coming into a collision with a growing sense of Arab nationalism in the region. By 1948, the British summarily decamped from Palestine, handing over the impending disaster to the UN, amidst the growing sectarian fighting and terror attacks. The resulting UN partition plan was accepted by most Jewish organisations but rejected by the leadership of the Arab community, and then fighting broke out in earnest, including attacks on the nascent Jewish state from all the neighbouring Arab states.

The resident Palestinian Arab population was, alternately, encouraged to fight by some Arab figures; to flee their homes (often as a result of threats or armed attacks); to leave home temporarily on the grounds they would come back to repossess lands then held by Jews; or, in some cases, to stand fast and accept guarantees of safety from the Israeli forces. Thousands of resident Palestinians did flee – the genesis of the current large population in Gaza and the populations of the sprawling refugee camps located from Lebanon to Jordan. The result has become the seemingly intractable issue to any settlement of the refugees’ claims for a return to where they had come from, or some kind of an equitable settlement in place of lost lands. (On that same trip a few years back, writer also saw a poignant installation art project in the old part of Haifa, where the now-vanished doors of houses that had once belonged to Palestinian Arab families were painted onto the walls of still-standing buildings to serve as a reminder of all the ghosts that haunted those streets.)

By the time the UN-brokered ceasefire took hold, the original partition plan was overtaken by the results of the fighting. The new Israeli nation had gained some ground, Egypt held the area that became the Gaza Strip, and Jordan had seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem, before finally losing control of those territories after the 1967 war.

While many have insisted on seeing the not-so-hidden hand of the US in all this, it needs to be recalled that the original big power supporter of the new Israel was actually the Soviet Union – seeing Israel as a toehold in a region still largely dominated by the West, or as a kind of ideological brother-in-arms with its familiar socialist traditions. By the same token, American policy makers – especially those in the State Department and the Pentagon – largely hoped to stay clear of any entanglement with Israel for fear of antagonising the feelings of Arab rulers in the region and their oil resources. (The US had pushed very hard, after all, for the British, French and Israelis to retreat from Egypt in the 1956, rather than endorse the invasion). And, of course, the primary arms supplier to Israel, for many years to come, remained the French.

From an alternative viewpoint, of course, the narrative could read rather differently. From the Crusades onward, Arabs could read the West’s growing involvement in the region as a thousand-year effort to search out and take advantage of Eastern weakness, slowly but surely subjugating Arab lands, gaining economic and political advantage there, and eventually seizing physical control over the region by the early twentieth century. History, read that way, would situate the Zionist enterprise as just one more tool to inject a largely alien presence into the Arab world, taking advantage of its growing weaknesses, making a mockery of efforts for Arab solidarity, and blocking any resurgence of the proper place in the world of a strong Arab nation. Israel’s victories in the wars since 1948, and thus its expansion over a subject population, post-1967, simply became confirmation of this larger historical and political process.

Not a few Arabists have tried to show links from such feelings joining up with such factors as a deep-rooted sense of despair over Arab weakness in the region; this region’s continuing inferiority in modern economic and scientific progress in spite of oil wealth; its inability to achieve stable forms of government beyond repressive authoritarianisms as something in the nature of Islam itself; and its failure to allow for the development of secular democratic institutions – and the often-violent sectarian clashes within many of the nations within the region such as between Shiites and Sunnis. Still others point to the largely artificial boundaries set by the Sykes-Picot vision of 1916 that arranged the modern Middle East without regard for the realities or wishes of the inhabitants and their deep divisions and divergent histories, and the conflicts therein, as the region’s real original sin. The geyser of petroleum revenues have simply compounded the region’s problems, scholars argue, rather than helping solve them, with much of the wealth held by authoritarian rulers rather than allowing more representative governments make such decisions.

Now add into this mix the sense by modern Israelis that every war, every battle, every missile launched against it can easily spin into the existential moment for their nation. That becomes the moment when the supremely unpalatable becomes inevitable as the country faces a modern Masada moment – so named for the mountain fortress in the Judean wastelands where Jewish soldiers made a last suicidal stand against Roman legions.

Seemingly endless, largely fruitless negotiations with its Arab interlocutors over secure boundaries, Israel’s “right to exist”, the inability to achieve normal relations with its neighbours, a reasonable approach to a settlement of the refugee conundrum, and a cessation of hostilities towards Israel by non-state groups like Hamas, have all contributed to a growing hard line stance by many Israeli politicians and political groups. This is true even as true hardliners probably only really represent about a third of the country’s citizens, with another third seeking a way forward to a final accommodation and the remainder uncertain over what is best.

This is the case even as many modern Israelis seem to have come to the unhappy conclusion that although their situation is difficult, it will just continue as it has been, with occasional hostilities part of the cost of living in a tough neighbourhood. Concurrently, if survey data is to be respected, a growing number have come to the conclusion that the two-state solution – an Israel and an independent Palestine as neighbours – is increasingly unlikely, even as they simultaneously also recognise the demographic time bomb confronting them by holding onto effective military and political control over the West Bank and its burgeoning Arab population.

For many, an officially supported expansion of Jewish housing in the West Bank, especially around Jerusalem – and even the non-sanctioned settlements deeper into the West Bank for some people – are all a form of short-term political insurance – even if such things are ultimately a roadblock to a real settlement further down the road. For many Israelis, their opinion of the political leadership of the Palestinians increasingly conforms to a version of former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s quip that the PLO (the group that has effectively morphed into the Palestinian Authority) has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity and so things will just rumble along as they are.

But even as it is true Israel has evacuated all its settlers from their previous armed settlements in the Gaza Strip, that congested region has remained effectively cordoned off from normal international connections – an orphan ward with no precise, entirely agreed-upon international legal status. In the meantime, its population has largely fallen in with the ideas of Hamas, the militant political movement labelled a terrorist organisation by a significant number of other nations (including the US).

The current wave of hostilities was effectively kicked off by the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers by persons not conclusively identified but assumed to be Hamas-related. This led to retaliation by the Israeli military, attacking hideouts of suspected Hamas leaders, and weapons caches and rocket launching sites by Israeli jets. Then there was a retaliatory killing of a Palestinian teenager, and retaliation by Hamas with the firing of hundreds of rockets into Israel proper. The imbalance of the casualties – often children and others clearly not in the fighting – and the intensity of the Israeli response leading to over a hundred fatalities in Gaza, in turn, has provoked a significant international outcry on the part of many around the globe.

Middle East experts are predicting that, just as in previous bloody clashes, the Israelis will punish Hamas, but will be unable to finish it off, in part because the group can so effectively melt into the general population in Gaza. By the same token, Hamas, despite the intensity and increasing reach of its rockets, will be unable to deliver any form of major black eye to Israel’s forces or population centres. The casualties will mount in Gaza, however, in part because Hamas’ tactics include placing its rocket launchers in the midst of major population concentrations, virtually guaranteeing Israeli retaliatory airstrikes will also produce civilian casualties – the often-cited collateral damage. This, in turn, will only harden Hamas’ hold on the population.

While no Hamas rockets have yet inflicted major damage or significant casualties, in large part due to the effectiveness of the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system procured from the US, it may still only be a matter of time before one of those rockets does hit a school or a market – in Israel or even the West Bank. Thus, this political and military stalemate will largely continue until an angry ceasefire is finally put in place, yet again, as before.

But why is this latest round of hostilities provoking such anger around the world – especially in contrast to the truly horrific death toll and multitudes of refugees from Syria? After all, the Syrian catastrophe has driven millions from their homes, caused well over 160,000 fatalities, and inflicted astounding damage to some of Syria’s – and the world’s – most important cultural-historical sites. This, after all, represents a body count that is orders of magnitude more terrible than even the current devastation that is Gaza.

And yet there is no massive international protest movement against a catastrophe that seems unstoppable. There are no major public rallies; there are no angry social media campaigns; and there is little or no furious debate in international forums about Syria’s self-imposed Armageddon. What is missing in all this? For starters, it seems true from much of what this writer has seen that many protesting Israel’s actions are in some way responding to the drumbeat of those ideas behind the rhetoric of a millennium-long western invasion of the Arab world discussed earlier? One almost gets the feeling that some are hoping for a Hamas rocket to find its target and generate a hospital’s worth of casualties to even up the scoreboard somehow – as if that would end the current hostilities. There is also some kind of feeling at work that Israeli military methods that effectively punish the community as a whole run counter to its self-expressed membership in a global moral community that doesn’t engage in such barbaric efforts.

Or is there also – being woven into the discussion somehow – just a tinge of garden variety anti-Semitism as well? Some of the social media postings that talk of pig-Jews and Jewish Nazis, the cartoons and caricatures depict goose-stepping Nazis with Stars of David on their sleeves, and callers to talk radio stations speak about a secret plot for world domination by the Jews as revealed by “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” that notorious fake concocted by Czarist secret police back at the 20th century should give real critics of Israeli policies pause.

One thing is certain, sadly, there is no secret formula for a settlement that will make all parties agree to end the fighting permanently; to come to some kind of larger peace accord; and to allow people in the area to get on with the quotidian business of normal life. With this unhappy truth on the table, despite any international mediator’s efforts or any diplomatic negotiator’s furious shuttle diplomacy, it seems more likely that the corrosive grinding away will continue until Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis all conclude it is in all their respective interests to sort out a modus vivendi that can work. DM

Photo: A cloud of smoke rises after an Israeli attack on Gaza City, 11 July 2014. EPA/MOHAMMED SABER

For further reading, among the millions of pages written about this region at its problems, look at these recent articles:

  • The tragedy of the Arabs A civilisation that used to lead the world is in ruins—and only the locals can rebuild it at the Economist;
  • Is Hamas Trying to Get Gazans Killed? At
  • Palestine’s Right to Defend Itself, a column by Ibrahim Sharqieh at the Brookings Institution website.

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