Under pressure

Most communities fragment under pressure, as we are abruptly finding in Aotearoa.  Gazans are constantly awareness that they are powerless before an overwhelming, uncaring threat – yet somehow, in extremis Gaza coheres like contact cement.

November 14, 2012 was the first night of an eight-day bombardment and I was alone in my apartment on the 14th floor. With each explosion nearby, my building and my stomach lurched further than I would have expected.

Worst was the helplessness. Gaza has no defensive weapons, so Israeli planes circled and bombed at will. I sat and waited – BOOM, lurch, correct – sat and waited. I tracked each plane across my ceiling and thought, this is what the fish sees in its barrel.

My Palestinian team members called with practical advice.  Did I know to leave the windows slightly open to diminish the chance that they would blow inward?  Had I plugged in every device to charge while there was electricity? In two of their households, parents were distracting their small children by teaching them to dance to the peculiar backbeat of the naval shelling that was pouring into Beach Camp, an undefended refugee camp just north of me.

Two of my male colleagues called me. They each lived nearby. Each man offered to leave his family, collect me, and bring me home to live with his family through the war. One of those men had enduring professional differences with me, yet he pressed me especially to take shelter with him.  No one, he insisted, should be alone beneath the bombs.

I’ve thought of him often through Covid. Imagine calling up the people you dislike, and pleading with them to lock down with your family through the worst, open-ended stress.  Imagine checking in with your nemesis daily because you are sharing an experience more profound than your dislike. Rather than turning on each other, rather than assuming that personal responsibility is sufficient in a collective crisis, Palestinians knew, ‘I will be well while I am caring for you, too.’

In 2013, I was appointed to a task force.  Israel’s blockade of Gaza produces deep poverty, and 800,000 Gazans were then in need of relief food (today, more than 1,000,000 Gazans need relief food).  Budgets were not keeping pace with need.  Our task force had to devise policy and operating systems to prioritise the food entitlements of 800,000 human beings behind a wall. Disrupted by the war of 2014, it took the task force 16 months to devise, implement, code, train and roll out a new system.  When Covid struck, the system enabled food distribution, rather than collection.

Our thorniest ethical question was this: what happens when a parent secures their family’s entitlement by giving false information?  In a situation of scarcity and malnutrition, what policy response is fair?

Fair to whom, we wondered.  Fair to a fiercely protective parent? Fair to the neighbour who did not lie? How could civic order be maintained, if not by punishing dishonesty?  How else should the system preserve its integrity? What was the point of having policy if entitlement could be forged? What would happen to neighbours if trust broke down? Round and round we went, trying to devise fairness behind an indefensible wall.

The man who broke through our stuckness was a self-described trouble-maker with lifelong radical credentials. “Wait,” he pleaded, “stop.  Who is this policy for?  Who are we responsible to?  Food policy is a policy for children’s nutrition, so why are we arguing about adults?  What is fair for the children?”

We devised our solution from caring rather than punishment, aiming to harness shared values. Our system was despised and mistrusted, as would be any mechanism to cope with insufficient resources. However, it nourished children first  and we could devise no more decent response to Israel’s indecent deprivation of Gazans.

Surviving in a situation willfully designed to harm them, Gazans made goodness their intentional, hourly work. In so doing, they refused to be defined by the violence of others and got on with the business of making the better world they had in mind.  They chose to act as if they had already won.

Their choices choices feel relevant now, as the language of outrage seeps into our social fractures.  People I care about are being drawn onto uncharacteristically angry and absolute ground.  This is going to call for every bit of transcendence we have. 

Marilyn Garson

8 thoughts on “Under pressure”

  1. just sent it on. it is humbling and wonderfully inspiring



    On Tue, Nov 9, 2021 at 1:22 PM Sh’ma Koleinu – Alternative Jewish Voices (NZ) wrote:

    > Marilyn Garson posted: ” Most communities fragment under pressure, as we > are abruptly finding in Aotearoa. Gazans are constantly awareness that > they are powerless before an overwhelming, uncaring threat – yet somehow, > in extremis Gaza coheres like contact cement. November 14″ >


  2. “Gazans are constantly awareness that they are powerless before an overwhelming, uncaring threat – yet somehow, in extremis Gaza coheres like contact cement.”

    In my view, facts on the ground do not support this idea:
    1- From looking at the tremendous firepower hamas shows against Israel, and from listening to their leaders calling confidently and publicly to slit the necks of the Jews, I wouldn’t say they feel ‘powerless’ .
    2- Based on the excessive use of force and ‘routine’ (in Amnesty International words) use of torture by hamas to oppress dissent, I wouldn’t say Gazans ‘cohere’.
    3- Given that hamas denies freedoms to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (likely to be ~10% of the population), declaring social cohesion in Gaza doesn’t seem right to me.
    4- The continuous summary executions by hamas tells the story of how Gazan ‘unity’ is being achieved: by promoting fear. Whoever has lived under a totalitarian regime understands what I mean.
    5- I do, however, firmly believe most Gazans are united in their desire to see an end to hamas rule and regain their freedom.
    Please take a look here at Amnesty International Human rights report on Hamas: https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/middle-east-and-north-africa/palestine-state-of/report-palestine-state-of/


    1. I’m well aware of Hamas’s abuses, which are secondary effects of Israel’s blockade. I’ve written repeatedly about that, including here in Counterpunch with Michael Lynk: https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/10/if-the-gaza-blockade-is-bad-does-that-make-hamas-good/ However, Hamas is not Gaza and Gaza is not Hamas. My subject was Gazans’ unified resistance to Israel’s blockade. Believe me, they cohere whether they support Hamas or not.


      1. Secondary effects? The blockade is Egyptian. The Egyptian blockade is illegal. Egypt is in peace with Gaza. Gaza and Israel are in an armed conflict. Hamas acknowledges this, refuses to recognise the right of Israel to exist, and both sides refuse to talk to each other. Hence, the Israeli blockade is a legitimate act of war. Israel is not required to help her enemy in any way. In spite of all that, Israel enables humanitarian help to the Palestinians in Gaza. Egypt should lift its unlawful blockade. You know all this. You lived there.


      2. The UN General Assembly and Security Council, the International Court of Justice, the Red Cross, human rights and legal NGOs all agree that the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip are occupied Palestinian territories. That means that Humanitarian Law and the laws of occupation apply in the occupied territories. Occupied people are legally protected people. Israel is Gaza’s occupier because it effectively controls the Gaza Strip, period. Egypt is also, absolutely, to be condemned for participating.


  3. Incorrect. Effectively, Gaza has an elected sovereign government that declared war on Israel. Israel is unwillingly applying a legitimate blockade of Gaza in times of war. The UN Security Council doesn’t even discuss this legitimacy. It is obvious to all. As long as Hamas chooses, it will continue. There is no alternative to this. Israel will not risk her security. Instead, Gaza and Egypt are in peace. Egypt’s blockade is illegal because blockades are only allowed in times of war. Moreover, opening any border in times of war is not operational, or feasible. Opening the border with Egypt will bring prosperity to Gaza. After all, Gazan and Egyptians share history, family ties, traditions, language and lifestyles, and are at peace.

    I believe that blaming Israel for this may sound ‘progressive’, but it isn’t. It is reactionary, obsolete, and mostly useless. I believe that people who claim to care about Gazans should put their efforts where their mouth is, and fight to stop the Egyptian blockade on Gaza. That’s the logical, moral and practical solution. Hard, I know. After all, we all live encroached by our own prejudices cemented during years and years of vicious cycles of biased reasoning.


    1. It’s not me with whom you are disagreeing. It’s UN General Assembly and Security Council, the International Court of Justice, the Red Cross, human rights and legal NGOs.


      1. Incorrect. I am not disagreeing with the Security Council because the Security Council sides Israel. The ICJ does the same thing: the Israeli blockade is NOT illegal. The other bodies you mention are irrelevant to the topic we are discussing. So basically, I remain puzzled by your attitude towards the suffering in Gaza. I simply don’t understand it. But never mind; your blog does a good job in exposing different opinions. Shalom!


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