When ‘bombs respond to rockets’ someone has buried the lede

“Israeli military bombs Gaza after rocket strike” – The Guardian

A security guard refuses to allow a customer to enter a supermarket.  A small group clings to the individualistic rights that the overwhelming majority have agreed to forego.  A government crashes its own economy.

Those stories only make sense if you know that a pandemic has overturned normal life.  Covid is the lede, the indispensable point which inverts the apparent rights and wrongs of these stories.  Without the lede, you would draw the wrong conclusion from each of the stories.

So it is with these recent headlines, Israel Strikes Hamas Targets After Rocket Launches or Israel hits Hamas targets in Gaza in response to rocket fire

There goes Hamas again, disturbing a quiet morning and provoking the Israeli military for no apparent reason.

Israel’s occupation and illegal blockade of Gaza is the lede, the sine qua non that makes sense of the story.  Again this morning, Gazans woke up with countless weapons of aggression pointing at them, with concrete walls and fences and drones and warships surrounding them, with technology and scarcity and deprivation combining to diminish their life chances.  They woke up trapped on a firing range.

Try writing the story that way.

“Still dispossessed, illegally blockaded and deprived of their basic human rights, Gazan Palestinians continue to resist. Fighters fired a number of rockets which landed in an Israeli field.  Israel, still flaunting international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dispatched warplanes to fire grossly larger explosive missiles into Gazan cities.  They claim to have blown up something that was in some way related to the governing authority, but they provided no evidence.”

Given all that; given an occupied people’s legal right to armed resistance (which the International Criminal Court must weigh against the illegality of firing rockets that cannot be aimed); given that the casualties and rubble of this occupation have been overwhelmingly Palestinian; and given the wildly different realities of threat arising from the exchange of fire being reported … why does the media begin with, and implicitly blame the whole mess on, a rocket? 

There would be no rocket if there were no occupation and blockade. To start the story with the rocket is to have normalised all the generations and tonnage of damage done to date. Gazan resistance is a response to Israel’s occupation.  Why not start there, by asking why Israel maintains the abysmal conditions which give rise to armed resistance?

To be clear, I regard Hamas as an unpleasant product of Israel’s occupation.  Having lived under their rule for four years, I believe that they constitute a secondary oppression for Gazans. As a peace-loving, life-loving person, I regard every exchange of fire as a failure of human reason and empathy.  However, responsibility for those failures is not equally shared.  Neither are the harms, and neither are the threats implied by these exchanges of fire. Stand next to the hole made by a rocket and the crater left by a one-ton bomb.  Neither one is nice but you would never, ever mistake one for the other.

Yet, again and again, the media treats Israel as a normal society while treating resistance as the disturbance of normalcy. Why not take law basic human equality as the norm, and challenge Israel’s deviation from that standard?  

 What’s wrong with us, that we think ‘normal’ can or should consist of Gazans accepting life prospects and living conditions that we, ourselves, would never tolerate for our children?

The current normalcy is predicated on Gazans being jolted awake by bombs and missiles landing in crowded neighbourhoods.  Have you ever heard a good-sized bomb explode near enough to make your building shudder, make the doors leap inward from their hinges and turn the windows to spiderwebs? Gazans wake up this way, times beyond counting.

In the mornings after those nights, we used to gather at the desks of colleagues who lived near the sites of missile attacks, bringing cups of strong Turkish coffee and whatever chocolate was at hand.  We would ask if they still had windows, and whether their children had gotten back to sleep.  After each shock, recovery was measured by the number of children who were willing to sleep in their beds, and the number who would only sleep beneath their beds for safety in case the planes came back.  Thunderstorms were an agony for children and their sleep-deprived parents.

The Israeli air force’s ability and willingness to fire into Gazan homes and streets keeps the violence far from Israeli children’s beds or Tel Aviv beaches, while ensuring that there is no square inch of safe civilian space in the Gaza Strip. Nowhere is not dangerous. To be in Gaza is to be hypervigilant because the car in front of you, the apartment down the hall, the road beneath your feet, or your neighbour’s son may be targeted without warning, in the next minute.  Most young Gazan adults have never been free to leave the Strip.  They have lived every minute on this firing range.

That is the lived ‘normal’ which our media declines to mention.  And it is the normalcy that proponents of Israel’s occupation are keen to elide by speaking only of Hamas rather than the whole human community of the Gaza Strip.  Gaza is not Hamas, and Hamas is not Gaza.

When the story begins with that rocket, it asks Gaza, ‘Why do you disturb the peace?’  With its lede, the story would ask why Israel perpetuates these unforgivable conditions. 

But why resist that way? Why poke the Israeli bear?  When I asked them, my Palestinian colleagues sighed that the world only notices Gazans when they fight.  As soon as there is quiet, the rest of us turn quickly away until Gazans find some way to remind us, “We’re still here.”

I wonder if they are right.  Is it our quiet morning that the rocket unsettled – is that why our media seems more ready to condemn the resistance than the injustice?

Marilyn Garson

Palestine policy in a rules-based world

Beit Lahiya, Gaza Nov 2012, Marilyn Garson

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged APEC to ensure fair access to Covid vaccines, as a step toward a ‘rules-based’ Pacific region.  As a small, remote country, Aotearoa-NZ depends heavily on those rules. We have moral, legal and self-interested reasons to act and speak for a rules-based world and when we do, our voice carries.

We should use our voice now, while we are all staring at our contradictions.  Covid shows that our health is indivisible – while the old, morally vacant politics have eroded our ability to act collectively on health, climate, inequality, violence, or the massive flows of refugees driven from their homes by from great hardship.   Self-interest lies in restoring our international institutions.  Institutions are not just buildings, they are agreed behaviours and rules.  We need to reinvigorate especially those agreements which underpin our institutions of law, equality and science. 

Why should Palestine be on our agenda?  Israel’s forever-occupation is a product of the old power politics. Our donor and policy choices make us actively complicit: we are part of the Palestine problem.  In May we all watched the intentional destruction escalate once more:  over 260 Gazan lives lost and 13 in Israel, half a billion dollars of infrastructure and housing wrecked, one-fifth of Gazans left without running water, and ongoing expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem. 

On the ground things are only worse, but the excessive violence has finally broken into the mainstream media.  The New York Times, Vanity Fair and others are publishing real images of Gazans’ experience.  Even staid diplomatic voices now declare that states must change their diplomacy in order to bring solutions about. 

And where does Aotearoa stand?  Contrast these two statements.  Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon used to appeal for humanitarian aid to Gaza. Now he speaks of cause, law and responsibility.

“Israel has pursued a policy of incremental de facto annexation in the territories it has occupied since 1967… This is not a conflict between equals… a powerful state is controlling another people through an open-ended occupation, settling its own people on the land in violation of international law and enforcing a legal regime of institutionalised discrimination. Calls for a return to unconditional bilateral talks every time there is a fresh flare-up in fighting will only serve to perpetuate the status quo if these root causes are not addressed. What has become increasingly clear in recent years is Israel’s intent to maintain its structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation… a situation that arguably constitutes apartheid. It is now time for the international community to recognise and confront the consequences of Israel’s policies and actions in this regard.”

Compare that with our Foreign Minister, Hon. Nanaia Mahuta, writing on December 14, 2020:

“Successive New Zealand Governments have been clear that Israeli settlements are a violation of international law.  On 23 June 2020, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rt Hon Winston Peters issued a statement highlighting this and warning that annexation would also breach international law and have negative implications for the peace process… New Zealand has a warm relationship with the Palestinian Authority, but our policy to date has been one of non-recognition of Palestine, on the basis that it lacks sufficient control of its territory to constitute a state…  New Zealand will continue to pursue a principled and balanced approach to the Middle East Peace Process including support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Illegality without consequence.  Blind, bystanding balance.  We can’t recognise Palestine because, well, because it’s so successfully and perennially occupied, for reasons that we warmly decline to analyse.

Is that really where our principles lead us?

Rather than waiting for justice to sprout like magic beans, we could ground our voice in the institutions of law and equality.  International law and the Geneva Conventions are institutions of principle. They oblige our constructive intervention on behalf of all people in a rules-based world.  

Law and treaty and convention are only meaningful if they are supported by action when they are breached. This report by the UN Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk outlines the sources of states’ legal obligations to act on the many breaches in Palestine, and it notes the characteristics of actions that have helped elsewhere.

Lynk reiterated just last week that Israel’s West Bank settlements, which have transferred 680,000 Israeli settlers onto occupied Palestinian land, should be classified as war crimes.  

“The illegality of the Israeli settlements is one of the most settled and uncontentious issues in modern international law and diplomacy. Their illegality has been confirmed by the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, the International Court of Justice, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention and by many international and regional human rights organizations… [but] the international community has been remarkably reluctant to enforce its own laws.”

We sponsored UN Resolution 2334 in 2016 to reiterate that illegality, but we have done nothing to make our action meaningful.  We speak up for principled fair access to Covid vaccines in the Pacific, but we have not spoken to Israel’s legal (and moral) failure to provide Covid vaccines to the people of occupied Palestine.  And so on. 

The rules-based order we seek requires more than that.

Ardi Imseis is a Canadian law professor and former Senior Legal Counsel to the Chief Justice of Alberta. He has made an excellent argument to go further and recognise the State of Palestine.  He elaborates Palestine’s qualification to be recognised, and outlines the legal and institutional value of regarding both Palestine and Israel as sovereign and territorially inviolable. In a world of state-based institutions, a State of Palestine would have access to “a number of legal principles that, by definition, can only apply to states and which are therefore the bedrock of the modern international legal order.”  Recognition would also “serve as a holding operation … to halt the ongoing colonization by the occupying power” of Palestinian territory and Palestinians’ lives. 

Alternative Jewish Voices has called for us to recognise Palestinians as a people with equal standing to speak about their resources, lives and aspirations.  Recognition would help to bring about the preconditions for any number of states to be governed in the interest of all citizens.  Isn’t that what our government says that it wants?

Early in our own uneven work of decolonisation, Aotearoa-NZ would bring a grounded, hopeful voice to the project of doing Palestine policy differently.  We would add to the external pressure for constructive change.  Surely that is where our values lead us. How much impact would it make, to uphold the laws that we sign or to act in the interest of a rules-based world? Absurdly, in all the decades of this occupation, it hasn’t been tried. 

No single policy will please the Jewish community, because we are not monolithic.  A quarter of the American Jewish voters – and a third of those aged under forty years – surveyed by the Jewish Electorate Institute now call Israel an apartheid state.  Locally, we are as deeply divided.  However, we are not the object of the policy and we must not be an excuse for inaction.  Israel’s forever-occupation is not about us.  As Sara Roy writes,

“Israel’s struggle against the Palestinian people is fundamentally about their presence and their representation to the world.  It is about diminishing if not removing their certainty by depriving them of agency and capacity and condemning them for their own privation.  Palestinians have resisted.  Yet, their resistance is not enough… They must be seen as a civil society with aspirations no different from ours.  They must be seen as the solution to the problems of their region.” 

In our Jewish community, in Aotearoa and in Palestine, there can be no future based on erasing a nation.  We need to embark on the work of listening, making good the harm that has been done, imagining and constructing a future together.  There is no other way forward – and that is the vision to which our national policy should speak.

Marilyn Garson

A future-facing Palestine policy will turn from power to justice

Photo by Marilyn Garson – water behind bars in Gaza

Weeks after the bombardment of Gaza, analysts are asking how to weaken Hamas, rather than writing that one-fifth of Gazans now live without running water to wash their hands during a Covid epidemic.  Israel’s blockade is obstructing precisely the materials needed to repair the infrastructure that Israeli planes bombed in May.  

Those analysts think that the aftermath of bombardment must be the restoration of the status quo ante – a resumption of the way things were before.  As a UN member and donor state, Aotearoa-NZ acts the same way.  We have one eye on Israel’s status quo interests, and the other eye closed.  We have no policy for Palestinians except as the objects of Israel’s regime. 

Even former UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon wants such policies to change.

“Israel has pursued a policy of incremental de facto annexation in the territories it has occupied since 1967… This is not a conflict between equals… a powerful state is controlling another people through an open-ended occupation, settling its own people on the land in violation of international law and enforcing a legal regime of institutionalised discrimination. Calls for a return to unconditional bilateral talks every time there is a fresh flare-up in fighting will only serve to perpetuate the status quo if these root causes are not addressed. What has become increasingly clear in recent years is Israel’s intent to maintain its structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation… a situation that arguably constitutes apartheid. It is now time for the international community to recognise and confront the consequences of Israel’s policies and actions in this regard.”

What if we based our policy on justice?  What might a future-facing policy be, and where can we begin? 

One eye on power: stabilising injustice

As a UN member and a small donor state, our government waits for two states to sprout from decades of systemic injustice (Alternative Jewish Voices takes no position on any number of states. That is a decision for citizens to make).  In the meantime, we relate to Israel as our equal in legitimacy and sovereignty, needing no action from us to bring any solution closer.

Far from criticising Israel’s “structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation,” as a donor we agree to defray Israel’s costs, and manage the humanitarian results.  We do this particularly in Gaza, the stubborn heart of Palestinian resistance and the target of Israel’s purest punishment.

Our interest in the status quo makes Palestinians appear as disruptors, destabilisers.  We send them the most passive forms of assistance.  Elsewhere, aid recipients are told to work for their food, while to Palestine refugee camps we send relief food. We tell educated, eager Palestinian workers to wait quietly.  We do not invest in food production or food sovereignty.

A sack of flour requires no political analysis.  Passive relief sees only impoverished people.  It  does not ask what made them poor, why Gaza has scattered economic activity rather than any coherent economy to speak of, or why Palestinians are so determined to overthrow the status quo.  A sack of flour can sustain life, but without analysis it says nothing about change.

Because we screen out the politics of cause and reduce Palestinians to a humanitarian problem, we find ourselves speaking absurdly. Palestinians must recognise the Israel which excludes them, while Israel need not recognise Palestinians’ most basic human rights.  We speak of Israel’s right to self-defense while the defense of Palestinians – who bear the overwhelming share of casualties – goes unspoken.  We speak of Israeli civilian space while we discount Gazan civilian protections. We deny Palestinian statehood because Palestinians do not fully control their territory.  Yes, exactly, and Ban Ki Moon has done a good job of explaining why that is so.

Policy grounded in law

When pressed, our leaders fall back on a learned helplessness.  They ask for the violence to stop, and they throw up their hands as if there were nothing we could do.

We greatly underestimate the role we already play.  Rewards – and peace proposals – have been cast in donor states’ neoliberal terms, asking Palestinians to forfeit their rights and their politics in exchange for investment in a normalised, occupied life.  See for example Toufic Haddad. Donors and diplomats reward the political and business elites who take up that offer. We ignore their illegitimacy and their obstruction of other leadership.

We overlook entirely the leverage we would have if we upheld the laws and conventions that we have signed.  Surely, any just policy begins by upholding the law.

UN Special Rapporteur and Associate Professor of Law Michael Lynk wrote in his October, 2019 report (A/74/507)

“No occupation in the modern world has been conducted with the international community so alert to its many grave breaches of international law, so knowledgeable about the occupier’s obvious and well-signalled intent to annex and establish permanent sovereignty, so well-informed about the scale of suffering and dispossession endured by the protected population under occupation, and yet so unwilling to act upon the overwhelming evidence before it… [T]he international community possesses a great deal of power to ensure a positive, durable and just solution to the occupation.” 

Lynk details the record of illegality, the treaties which oblige us to act today, and the characteristics of countermeasures that have worked elsewhere. The law is ours and we have neglected it.

When states are negligent in their duty, civil society leads – and civil society is not beholden to power politics.  America has no veto here.

Irish government and opposition parties recently adopted a unanimous motion condemning what they called Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank.  A Sinn Fein foreign affairs spokesperson called it “a true reflection of the strength of feeling in this country at the treatment of the Palestinian people by the apartheid state of Israel.”

Civil society can lead government to the podium to speak about justice.  Let’s do that. Let’s begin with a parliamentary debate that requires our elected representatives to publically state their positions.

If we ceased bowing to power and instead upheld international law, we would merely be meeting our obligations.  As a small state heavily reliant on a rules-based order, we would also be acting in self-interest.

Laws are a start, but they are technical minimums. Justice and morality are more aspirational than that.

A future-facing policy for Palestinians, especially for Gaza

Our current policy views Palestinians through the eye of Israel’s security regime. We have adopted the view from outside the blockade wall.  That wall lumps two million Gazans into a single enemy object, to be subdued by means of violence and hunger management. 

The very nicest thing you can say about that view is that it doesn’t work.  It doesn’t even stabilise. No one is deterred, no one runs out of weapons or stops using the weapons they have.  Less politely, our policy notices only two kinds of Palestinians, the violent and the victims.  It denies that a society of recognisable, whole persons lives behind those walls. We do not ask what it means to be stateless, to never travel 50 or more kilometers, or to be born behind walls as one million Gazans have been born – condemned before birth, because they are Palestinian.

Shame on us for wearing the wall’s dehumanising blinders so meekly.

A future-facing policy must see Palestinians as whole human beings: parents, people of every gender, professionals or job-seekers or students, people who live with chronic illness or physical disability, manufacturers and artists, scientists and poets, political actors and agents of their own future, citizens as of right and integral partners to any solution.  Why have we no policy that addresses Palestinians as whole people?

When we open both eyes and identify with Palestinians, we see how differently they live.  For me Gaza’s waste is particularly bitter because, as a society, Gaza has so much of what it needs to thrive: mutual assistance, social cohesion under terrible pressure, one of the world’s highest literacy rates.  Their achievement delineates the thing that is being withheld: their right to live normally.  Justice would place this set of rights at the center of our policy. We would not stabilise Gazans’ avoidable deprivation. We would demand their decent life prospects as we demand prospects for ourselves.

Water offers our policy-makers a starting point.

We in Aotearoa-NZ argue about water as taonga and commodity, its management and beauty and quality, our access and enjoyment and consumption.  We agree that water is essential, a basic human right, necessarily shared.

The World Health Organisation says that every person needs 100 litres of water per day, for consumption and other uses.  West Bank Palestinians have access to only 90.5 litres of water each day.  650,000 illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank receive six times more water than 2.8 million West Bank Palestinians.  

In 2018 Gazans had access to 83 litres per capita, just 80% of the water that we all need to live.  Click here and scroll down to Fact Sheet #187 (6/29/21) to read how extensively Israel’s May 2021 bombardment damaged Gaza’s water infrastructure. One in five Gazans no longer has running water at all, while each Israeli consumes 230 litres per day.  Statistics and further detail here.

There is water in the space between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.  The problem is that Israel has forcibly fragmented the space, giving Israelis vastly greater entitlements than Palestinians – including entitlement to the water resources on occupied Palestinian land.  The problem is not an absolute lack of water. The problem is the endless, violent denial of Palestinian rights and sovereignty.

Donors, I’m sure, are right now negotiating the entry of additional truckloads of bottled water to Gaza and paying all the requisite fees in Israeli currency. They are stabilising the regime that permitted Gazans only 80% of the water they need to live. I welcome every delivery, ever drop, because water is urgently needed to sustain life – but this is not good enough.

The withholding of the human right to water is not altered by those stabilising trucks. Each truck reinforces Israel’s structural power to deprive. The blockade will not be fixed at the margins. 

A policy of water justice would begin with Palestinians’ equal, non-negotiable right to clean water.  It would refuse to engage normally with any regime that differentiates water rights ethnically.  It would recognise the national right of Palestinians to manage the water resources on land that we and the UN recognise as Palestinian land, temporarily occupied.

Finally, alongside law and rights, a justice policy would reach for the holistic justice of belonging.

Our stabilising policies don’t promote transformational work.  We acknowledge our own colonial legacy but we do nothing to promote Palestinian (or Israeli) decolonising projects. Our policy should enable the inclusive voices that are narrating a better way forward.

Alternative Jewish Voices supports the kaupapa and the mahi of the One State Democratic Campaign as a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis about decolonising their shared future.  We read authors like Noura Erekat who writes that, unlike settler-colonising erasure, the Palestinian demand to fully belong is a broadening, inclusive vision.

We in Aotearoa-NZ are so well placed to speak from ongoing experience about this possibility, this abundance of belonging. If we articulated a Palestine policy in that voice, it would carry so much further than our aid budgets.

Marilyn Garson,

Alternative Jewish Voices

Ceasefire, but we cannot let this go the same way

Photo Marilyn Garson, from a reclaimed rubble sea wall, Gaza City

I lived in Gaza from 2011, through the attack of 2014, and for one year after. I am not Palestinian, but some of the things I remember will be relevant in the coming months.

The bombardment was shattering. There followed a winter of soul-destroying neglect by donor states. Tens of thousands of Gazans remained in UNRWA shelter-schools.  Many more families shivered in remnant housing, on tilting slabs of concrete, in rooms with three walls and a blanket hung in lieu of a fourth, persistently cold and wet. 

Recovery?  America sold Israel $1.9 billion in replacement arms. The World Bank assessed Israel’s bomb damage to Gaza at $4.4 billion.  Of the $5.4 billion that donors pledged to reconstruct Gaza, in that critical first year the International Crisis Group calculated that the donor states actually came up with a paltry $340 million

Aid is an insufficient place-holding response, but it is needed now.  This time, it cannot happen the same way.

In the workaday business of delivering the material needed to rebuild, the blockade allows Israel to choose the chokepoints of reconstruction.  Having bombed, Israel is allowed to carry on the assault by slow strangulation.

In 2014 they were allowed to impose a farcical compliance regime for the cement that was needed to rebuild the 18,000 homes they had damaged or destroyed.  UNRWA engineers were required to waste their days sitting next to concrete mixers.  International staff spent hours of each day driving between them to count – no shit, count – sacks of cement.  100,000 people were homeless and cement was permitted to reach them like grains of sand through an eye-dropper.  Not a single home was built through the remainder of 2014.

Perhaps this time Israel will choke off the supplies needed to re-pave the tens of thousands of square meters of road they have blown up; it will be something.  We have watched an attack on the veins and arteries of modern civilian infrastructure.  If the crossings regime is allowed to remain in place, we will be leaving the Israeli government to decide unilaterally whether Gazans will be permitted to live in the modern world. 

This time, it simply cannot go the same way. 

I was as frightened by the way the bombs changed us.  1200 hours of incessant terror and violence had re-wired our brains. The lassitude, the thousand-yard-stares, the woman from Rafah who clutched her midsection as if she could hold her twelve lost relatives in place.  I and my team of Gazan over-achievers struggled to finish any task on time.  Eight months later I found research on the anterior midcingulate cortex to help us understand how bombardment can alter the finishing brain. Every step seemed to be so steeply uphill. 

Even more un-Gazan, we often struggled alone.  The very essence of Gaza is its density.  In its urban streets you know the passersby with smalltown frequency.  Gaza coheres with the intentional social glue of resistance.  After the bombardment, people seemed to float alone with their memories. The human heart returns to the scene of unresolved trauma, and our hearts were stuck in many different rooms.

The good people who listened and cared as professionals or as neighbours, were themselves suffering.  Parents compared notes through those months: how many of their children still slept beneath their beds in case the planes came back?  Over everyone’s heads hung the knowledge that there had been no substantial agreement beyond a cessation of firing. 

I felt I was watching people reach for each other, and for meaning. Young Gazan men stood for hours, waving Palestinian flags over the rubble of Shuja’iyya while residents crawled over the rubble landscape in search of something familiar. Bright pennants sprouted across the bombed-out windows of apartments.

Not everyone found meaning. Suicide and predatory behaviour also rose. Hamas cracked down on dissent violently, while more-radical groups made inroads among young people who may have felt they had no other agency.  

The aftermath was all these things at once. When I left Gaza in late 2015, it felt poised between resuming and despairing. Since then, it has gone on for another six years.  This bombardment picked up where the last one left off: in 2014 the destruction of apartment blocks was Israel’s final act and this time, it was their opening salvo.

This time, we cannot let it go the same way.

I had to learn to harness my sadness and outrage.  If we are to make it different this time, we need to do that.

In the first weeks after the 2014 bombing, I could only rage at the blockade wall but the wall stood, undented. I didn’t know how to look further, and as a Jew I was afraid to look further. I began to read books on military accountability. Those principles helped to focus my gaze beyond the wall.

Now as then, we have witnessed a barbaric action, comprised of choices.  Individuals are accountable for each of those choices.  It is neither partisan nor, must I say it, antisemitic to call them to account ceaselessly.  Accountability takes the side of civilian protection.  If one belligerent causes the overwhelming share of the wrongful death and damage, then that party has duly earned the overwhelming share of our attention.  Call them out.

Loathe the wall but rage wisely at its structural supports: expedient politics, the arms trade that profits by field-testing its weapons on Gazan Palestinians, any denial of the simple equality of our lives, the hand-wringing or indifference of the bystander.  Those hold the wall up.

Prior to this violence, Donald Trump had been busily normalising Israel’s diplomatic relations – good-bye to all that.  Normalise BDS, not the occupation of Palestine.  Apply sustained, peaceful, external pressure as you would to any other wound.  BDS firmly rejects an apartheid arrangement of power, until all people enjoy equality and self-determination.

See and reject the single system that classifies life ethnically between the river and the sea.  When you recognise a single systemic wrong, you have recognised Palestinians as a single nation.

A statement by scholars of genocide, mass violence and human rights last week described the danger: “[T]he violence now has intensified systemic racism and exclusionary and violent nationalism in Israel—a well-known pattern in many cases of state violence—posing a serious risk for continued persecution and violence against Palestinians, exacerbated by the political instability in Israel in the last few months.”

In other words, this isn’t over and we will not let it go the same way.

The risk to Gaza now is the risk of our disengagement before we have brought down the walls.  That is the task; nothing less.  This time, Gaza must go free. 

Marilyn Garson,

Alternative Jewish Voices

Hamas is not Gaza, and Gaza is not Hamas

A few simple facts to distinguish between the Israeli government’s claim that it is ‘bombing Hamas’ and the actual bombs that are landing on the Gaza Strip.

May be an image of fire and sky
photo credit: AFP

The Israeli armed forces are not dropping bombs on Hamas, because Hamas is not a place.  They are dropping bombs on Gaza, which is one of the most densely populated places on this earth.  The language of ‘bombing Hamas’ gives us the soothing impression that the bombs land in a distinct, guilty, non-civilian Hamas-place.  No such location exists in Gaza.

Israeli space also densely mingles the civilian with the military.  The headquarters of the Israeli Ministry of Defense stands in the commercial centre of Tel Aviv.  Uniformed and / or armed Israelis can be seen on every sidewalk of Israel’s cities and towns. The government of Israel has long justified its aggressive force-protection stance by labelling its army as civilians in uniform.  Yet Israel demands its full share of civilian protections.

Israel places police stations in every neighbourhood, yet it just blew up ‘dozens’ of Gaza’s police stations as ‘Hamas targets.’

I heartily wish that every combatant would stand at a distance from every non-combatant in this world, truly I do.  Until that happens, we must not allow anyone to discount the safety of Gaza’s civilian space as it is being discounted in this bombardment.

I have grappled with my dislike of Hamas in print and through four years of living under Hamas’s rule.  I am no defender of theirs.  I consider Hamas to be an unfortunate product of Israel’s occupation.

However, in Israel’s official speech, “Hamas” becomes a deadly strategic convenience that confuses our understanding of civilian Gaza.  So, a few simple facts.

Hamas is the governing authority in the Gaza Strip. It employs teachers, rubbish collectors and countless other non-combatant civil servants.  Those people are civilians.  The homes of combatant and non-combatant Hamas employees hold families.  Those families are civilians.  The family members of Hamas combatants have not forfeited their civilian protections. The children of Hamas combatants have the same protected status as any other child.

Human Rights Watch studied Israel’s targeting of Hamas persons in their family homes across Gaza in 2014.  Its findings are titled: “Unlawful Israeli Airstrikes Kill Civilians: Bombings of Civilian Structures Suggest Illegal Policy.”

 

Hamas rockets did not start this.  Nakba started this.  Blockade.  Repeated bombardments and deprivation.  Now Sheikh Jarrah has triggered an uprising that Hamas joined with its rockets.  History books don’t begin their explanations with today’s events, and neither should our media.

Rockets do not let Israel off the hook for its bombs.  No number of rockets can relieve Israel of its legal obligations regarding Gazan civilians – not for one instant – because Israel’s obligations are not to Hamas.  In the laws of war and occupation, belligerents are not responsible to each other.  Each belligerent is independently responsible and accountable for its actions.  One violation does not release anyone else from their legal obligations.  

Israel fires at will and has time to make its choices.  It chooses to bomb overwhelmingly at night, exacerbating the fear and depriving everyone of sleep.  Israeli planes and drones and tanks and gunships could fire just as well in daylight because Gaza has no defensive weapons. 

We must hold Israel accountable for its choices. To understand what that means, here’s a good enquiry into military accountability for the deaths they call collateral.

I do not celebrate the rockets, because I hate weapons of war – but I do not equate the weapons of the powerful and the powerless.  Rockets make a hole in the ground.  Bombs blow up apartment buildings and essential infrastructure.  Common sense would never confuse them, and neither should our government in its official statements.

I am aghast when I see the wreckage, the shattered bodies and the now-homeless survivors, the petrified children and the grieving parents who will have this horror imprinted on their minds forever. When an unvaccinated, trapped populace flees before one of the world’s most powerful (vaccinated) military machines, I am speechless at the notion of Israel’s restraint – let alone its claim to victimhood. 

Just look, and you will see who is the aggressor and who in need of defense.

When I speak about Gaza, people sometimes tell me that they hesitate to stand up because they’re afraid that they might disrespect the Holocaust. 

Standing up to protect our fellow human beings does not disrespect anyone.  Indifference disrespects the memory of every person who ever needed us to act.

We honour history by living with moral courage.  A trapped community is under assault by one of the most powerful militaries on earth.  Stand up for it.

Help Gaza. Do you understand – we end this.  We own the laws of protection.  Israel always, only stops when it is told to stop by other states. Israel’s Office of the Comptroller assessed that the 2014 war was fought without a meaningful strategy.  They bombed until the world stopped them.  Now they are doing it again.

Jacinda Ardern, we beg you to tell them to stop. 

Marilyn Garson  

Alternative Jewish Voices

Standing together on Nakba Day in sadness and solidarity, outrage and radical hope

May 15, at Wellington’s Nakba Day gathering, we joined Palestinians and many others in outrage and (in the words of another speaker) radical hope. These remarks will be Alternative Jewish Voices’ Nakba Day statement.

Kia Ora,

Thank you – shukran – for inviting me. 

The protests in NZ are furthest from Palestine, so, from the ends of the earth we are with you, seeking your protection, your freedom and all of our futures – because I will only be free when we are all free and safe.

My name is Marilyn Garson, and I am a co-founder of Alternative Jewish Voices.  I’m here with my co-founder Fred Albert. We are with friends and we bring messages of support from more Jewish friends up and down the Island.  We are with you, in sadness and in solidarity.  To each of the Palestinians here today, we wish safety and justice for your families.

Nakba Day and Sheikh Jarrah are both about family homes.  A few generations ago, our antecedents, seeking shelter, took the homes of others.  They drove Palestinians out their homes and built a militarized regime of occupation and apartheid.  Until we resolve it on that level, the Nakba will continue to be an event in the present tense. Israeli settlers are still trying to force Palestinian families out of their homes in the West Bank, in Sheikh Jarrah.  The settlers have ethnic laws and overwhelming force on their side, but their impunity has abruptly ended.

There is no way back to their status quo, because their status quo caused the absolute horror that we see unfolding. 

Let me say that I dread violence, I dread anyone’s violence.  But I do not equate the actions of the powerful and the powerless.  I hate the weapons of war but I see the cause, the power disparities and the proportions of harm.  The Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem tracks the casualties of this Israeli regime. Through the past 20 years, the casualties have been 88% Palestinian – and those have been grossly, disproportionately Gazan. 

As a Jew, I do not know how it has felt to be Palestinian through those years.  I do not narrate the experience of those years.  I listen while you tell me what those years have meant.

But I do know how it feels to sit beneath the bombs in Gaza.  I worked in Gaza through the last war.  I sat beneath four years of bombs, and my body will remember them forever. The bombs that Israeli forces are dropping in Gaza are larger by an order of magnitude than the rockets.  Nowhere on this earth are the power disparities greater than in the repeated bombardments of Gaza.  They are not bombing Hamas, because Hamas is not a tidy, separate, non-civilian place.  No, they are bombing Gaza.  One of the most powerful militaries on earth is bombing in overwhelmingly civilian cities, where a million children are trapped behind a wall.  Gazans are fighting to claim their most basic human rights, to walk free and drink clean water. When buildings are falling around them, when unvaccinated civilians flee from a vaccinated army, when we all know there is no safe place behind that wall – you tell me, who is the aggressor, and who is in need of self-defense? 

I plead with our government to act. Jacinda Ardern, Nanaia Mahuta, where are you?  Gaza is in great danger – we need you to stand up and help them. Occupied people are legally protected people and we need you to enforce the laws of protection. 

To our fellow Jews we say, surely this is not the Israel you had in mind.  So please join us.  Standing here, together, you can see the future.  This madness will end when we admit what we have done, when we listen, restore, return – then we can begin to transform this mess together.  We who hold the power, we start by saying:  “Our lives have equal value.  Jewish supremacy is not our Judaism.  I will not have it done in my name.”

Occupation is not our Judaism – not in my name.  Apartheid is not our Judaism – not in my name.  Bomb a million children behind blockade walls – never, never in my name.  That is not our Judaism.

Our Judaism says: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: justice, justice you shall pursue

We join you to do the work of seeking justice together.

B’Shalom – Ya’tik al afiyah – Nga mihi nui.

Alternative Jewish Voices of NZ

— We are grateful to everyone for their warm welcome, and to our friends at Wellington Palestine for their hard work

Image credits: Tommy-Morum Kelly

In Gaza, the bombs had names on them

Again but differently, that terrifying open-ended escalation.

In 2014, Israel’s final, gratuitous act in Gaza was its bombing of two residential apartment buildings.  In 2021, it is their opening gambit.  They have picked up where they left off – but it’s different this time.  UNRWA which sheltered 293,000 displaced people in 2014 has been gutted by Trump while Gaza’s health, water and other essential infrastructures have been hollowed out by Israel through the years.  Where will people go for shelter?

This time, there is Covid on one side.  Israel has vaccinated its military and systematically refused to meet its legal obligations to vaccinate the Palestinians whose land it occupies.  Gazans in distress, in relatives’ homes, in hospitals, will be unable to socially distance.

It is different within Israel, too.  Rockets are reaching further and causing casualties. There is an uprising in Lod.  I dread the violence, everyone’s violence.  I am afraid for my family, I am worried and sad for everyone.

Still, I cannot understand this unless I distinguish between the equal rights of civilians to safety, and the grossly unequal Israeli regime that has placed them all in such danger.  With that distinction, I know there is no way back to the status quo ante, because the status quo caused this. 

Generations of settler-colonial occupation, racially differentiated laws and life prospects, forced expulsion and violence with impunity – that was the status quo. Palestinians have abruptly overturned it.  Rejecting the forced expulsion of families from Sheikh Jarrah and incensed by the paramilitary violation of their sacred space, 80,000 Palestinians faced down the soldiers and prayed at Al Aqsa Mosque.  With that, the status quo was over.  There is no way back.

So I sit with my fears, I dream about a post-racial society that has dealt with its crimes, and I send my best to clear-eyed strangers.

But I will not sit still while Gaza is under bombardment.  That is different.  The wall makes that different.

Two million people are trapped within an illegal blockade, crowded together in a pandemic, lacking reliable supplies of clean water or electricity.  Most of all, they lack any way to move to safety.  You cannot protect civilians behind a wall.  I know this.  I was part of the UNRWA emergency response team that could not keep displaced Palestinians safe enough from Israel’s bombardment in 2014.

My heart is racing today as it used to race then.

Gaza is so small that the bombs have names on them.  First the sound smacks into your chest and the earth shudders, and a moment later the curtains flap inward from the rushing air.  You turn to each new pillar of smoke and dust and flame, and you ask, “Who do I know there – which of my friends lives there?  Who have I lost?”  And even if you don’t know anyone in that neighbourhood, the density of Gaza means that the bomb had someone’s name on it.  Someone has lost.

No matter how many bombs fall, you do that every time.  You peer into every pillar of smoke and strain to know who is gone.  The number of explosions does not blunt a single one of them.

And then neighbours race toward the rubble and the fires.  Neighbours come to dig with a shovel or with their bare hands, to search for survivors or to carry the remains of their friends and families for burial.  When the other sounds abate, you hear the screams of relatives who are tormented by their wait.

The wall, the blockade makes Gaza different.

Occupied people are legally protected people.  The law makes their protection our responsibility, and the people of Gaza need us to live up to our responsibility right now.

So speak up.

Nakba is an event in the present tense – in Jerusalem and in Gaza

I woke up to the news and fear cut into me for my family in Israel.  Where are they right now?  I felt one moment of the fear that Palestinians live with.

No false equivalence: nothing about this is equal.

In video, Israeli police are heavily armed and armoured, backed by courts of ethnic law.  Palestinians stand their ground wearing T-shirts.  An armed charge into an unarmed crowd is not a ‘clash,’ it is an assault.

Israeli soldiers have been vaccinated and most Palestinians have not. To hell with Israel’s legal responsibility. They knew that no state would hold them to it, and no state has.

But look – Palestinians are changing the script before our eyes.  They are taking authorship.

On May 8, 80,000 Palestinians came to Al Aqsa Mosque. Israeli police had violated their holy place and they came to reclaim it. They overwhelmed the roadblocks and the paramilitary police and faced them down with their bodies and their prayers.

Palestinians protested in Ramallah and Jaffa, in Gaza and in Haifa.  They are unstitching the Green Line.  Palestinians and their allies are protesting around the world.

Thousands of Israelis have been filmed dancing this morning, delirious at the sight of fire in the Al Aqsa Mosque.  In 2014, Israelis sat on the hillsides of Sderot to watch the bombardment of Gaza.  I think their desensitized madness has spread; the soullessness that comes from wielding overwhelming violence with impunity.

Wait, look again. In Gaza there is danger of a different magnitude. 

Gazan fighters fired rockets to join the uprising, to protest the forced expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. I am not fond of rockets, but having seen both rockets and bombs in action, I would prefer to stand near a rocket than a one-ton bomb.  A rocket makes a hole in the ground, while the airborne bombs of the IDF make the earth tremble.

Israel conducted airstrikes in Gaza on Monday evening, following rocket fire from Gaza that caused damage to one Israeli vehicle, and “lightly injured” one Israeli civilian, according to an Israeli army statement.” 

Israeli bombs killed 20 Gazans overnight. They killed nine children, and injured scores of people. Let that attest to the relative value placed on one Israeli vehicle and twenty Gazan lives.

International governments condemned the rockets and elided the rest.

Israel, still drunk on its Trump license, may believe it can bomb Gaza with impunity.  Gazans, with clarity and unfathomable endurance, with Covid rampant behind a blockade wall, may feel they have less and less to lose.

This is a formula for catastrophe. We must not let it play out again. Gazans are not  symbols to be held up as proof after the fact.  They are human beings under assault right now, and they need our protection.

Do not tut-tut them all to step back equally, because the inequality of the status quo ante was the cause:  a regime of dispossession, apartheid, blockade, ethnically determined lives and life prospects.

We need to respond to the cause and the crimes. We need to demand that our governments uphold the laws they sign in our names to clear the way forward – not back. Intervene, protect, invoke the law, end the Nakba.

Saturday may be Nakba Day, but Nakba is an event in the present tense until we – yes we, calling on law and justice with every means available – bring it to an end.

Marilyn Garson

When a stone confronts a rifle

When a person holding a stone confronts soldiers who are armed with rifles, ask yourself why they are willing to do that.

On May 8, 80,000 Palestinians came to stand in front of rifles and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque.  They overwhelmed the rifles with their numbers and spirit.  We stand with them.

We deplore Israel’s violation of sacred space during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. We are horrified by the mob violence and the paramilitary police who enable it. This is not a ‘clash’ between two opinions, this is occupation and apartheid at work. 

We reject Israel’s campaign to dispossess the Palestinians, including current efforts to evict families from Sheikh Jarrah.  The New York Times notes, “A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, said Friday that the evictions ‘would violate Israel’s obligations under international law’ prohibiting the forced transfer of residents from occupied territory…. [Aryeh] King, the deputy mayor, said ‘of course’ [the evictions] are part of a wider strategy of installing ‘layers of Jews’ throughout East Jerusalem.” 

We say, stop the evictions, and get the Israeli settlers out of occupied East Jerusalem.  This is ethnic cleansing.

Israel’s refusal to vaccinate the Palestinians whose land it occupies in Gaza and the West Bank has been condemned by UN Rapporteurs as “discriminatory and unlawful.” Covid is rampant and we plead with our governments to provide the lifesaving assistance that Israel is withholding. 

We call for an end to Israel’s impunity.  These are crimes.  We must begin to respond to them as crimes. 

We hold the Palestinian protestors in our thoughts.

 — International Jewish Collective for Justice in Palestine

Alternative Jewish Voices makes this statement as a member of the IJCJP.

To our fellow NZ Jews we ask, is this the Israel you had in mind?

If not, where is your protest? Why are you silent??

Tell it to a judge: why Gaza needs to be heard in a court of law

Tell it to a judge.

I am not Palestinian but I was a witness to the assault of 2014.  I want its alleged war crimes to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Those warriors who were ‘brave’ enough to direct an assault on a trapped populace should be brave enough to account for their choices in a well-lit courtroom. 

Why is a court of law important?

Because the menace that underpinned the assault of 2014 is still present: the dehumanization of Palestinians.  Walled off and vilified, anything can be done to the people of Gaza. A trial will amplify their story of being under intensive attack behind a wall.  Let Gazans tell their story.

Because people will still be living with the memory and the imprint of this war.  The body remembers the singed smells that linger on your skin, the sight behind your eyelids of neighbours racing toward rubble to rescue neighbours, the sound of children with chattering teeth. The drifts of white dust in the corners of window sills.  The screams of people in the streets, seeking shelter before nightfall –  but there is no shelter behind a wall.

Because courts prosecute individuals, not nations.  Individuals make choices, and are accountable.  Individual responsibility lets everyone else get beyond blaming whole states. Someone wrote the doctrines, chose the weapons and the targeting parameters and the order of battle.  They should be judged for their handiwork. 

Because of the 18,000 homes destroyed, the 100 family homes targeted in the first week, and the millions of tons of rubble that altered the very landscape of the Gaza Strip.  In 51 days, Gazan forces fired roughly 6000 rockets and artillery shells while Israel’s armed forces acknowledge dispatching 5000 tons of munitions to fire at a trapped populace.  The tonnage and the stated doctrines of disproportionate force like the Dahiya Doctrine await judgement.

Because someone knew that the UN shelter-schools were filled with displaced Palestinians. They knew, because I told them.  As a member of the UNRWA team operating those shelters, one of my tasks was to confirm the pre-existing protections of each flagged United Nations school building that was sheltering displaced people.  Over and over they were told. Those schools were clearly marked on military maps. Everyone knows their location and their signature colours. Someone in Israel knew and fired at them anyway. Seven times they fired, killing 44 Palestinians and injuring 227.  Let those people explain their actions to a judge.

Because the earth trembled with the tonnage of bombs that the IDF used to destroy the homes of 92,000 Palestinians in Shuja’iyya, and because of the quieter killings in Khuza’a.  The stories of Gaza’s neighbourhoods need to be heard and responsibility assigned.

Because of the 73 medical facilities, the ambulances and every other illegal target. Because of the civilian infrastructure destroyed, the water pipes and the power plant, and all the gratuitous hardship that Gazans endured.  The lesson of the war, they said later, was that Israel no longer saw any civilians in Gaza at all.  A court must restore Gazans’ civilian status and protections.

Because of the 293,000 displaced Gazans who endured such trying conditions in 90 UNRWA shelters – because there was no safer place behind that wall.

Because 6,000 airstrikes and 14,500 tank shells and 35,000 artillery shells equates to 100,000 kg of explosives every day, day after day. Israeli forces killed 2251 Gazans including 1,462 civilians, a third of whom were children.  The human consequence of the IDF’s choice to inflict such massive violence must be heard.  Battlefield explosive weapons must not rain down upon crowded cities with impunity again. 

Because beneath those bombs in Gaza, the minutes were interminable.  There was nowhere to flee, no way to help, nothing to do but wait for the next bomb through nights when there were more bombs than minutes. Let a trial record and weigh the harm of those 51 merciless days and nights of minutes of witness.

Because some debased Israelis sat on hillsides eating popcorn. They watched the bombs land on human beings and homes as if it were entertainment.  Around the world, many, many others turned away and did nothing.  Perhaps both sets of people will be shaken to realize that they were enjoying, or averting their eyes from, a crime.

Because what is demonstrated in Gaza with impunity today, is normalized elsewhere tomorrow at the expense of other inconvenient human beings. The assaults upon Gaza are relevant even here, because New Zealand is buying military robots that were tested on the trapped people of Gaza and the West Bank.  Is this who we aspire to be?

Because as a Jew, I have heard the rationales for that massive violence. “It’s necessary.” “Kill all the little snakes.”  “This time we’ll finish the job.”  Now I want to hear the evidence and the verdict on this ethno-nationalist project of ours.

Our world must not value human life so differently when the life is Palestinian. Because our lives are of equal value, Gazans must be heard in court. 

Marilyn Garson