"The question is just when": Max Blumenthal on war in the Gaza Strip's past — and its future

Author of "The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza" tells Salon what he saw in the rubble of a land under seige

Published June 27, 2015 10:30AM (EDT)

Cover detail from the book "The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza"        (Nation Books)
Cover detail from the book "The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza" (Nation Books)

If for whatever reason you are one of the very few people on this Earth who wants to go into, rather than get out of, the Gaza Strip, you may want to know what to expect.

Because although it's been just a bit less than a year since the Israeli-Gaza conflict of 2014 — or "Operation Protective Edge," as the Israeli Defense Force called it — came to a halt, you shouldn't expect to find a society rebuilding. No, according to "The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza," the new book from Max Blumenthal, the journalist behind 2013's incendiary "Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel," what you'll see instead is mountains of rubble, barely any less than there was at the conclusion of the war.

Based on his contacts in Gaza as well as his own first-hand reporting, Blumenthal's book does two things, neither of which are especially welcome in U.S. politics and the mainstream media. Blumenthal not only provides a methodical breakdown of the run-up to the conflict — one that differs in crucial respects from the narrative most commonly found in American media — but also offers a more detailed accounting of what was happening behind the fog of war. He also tries to answer some of the still-vexing questions about the war: Why did it last so long? Why so many civilian casualties? And what was even accomplished?

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Blumenthal to discuss the book, the history of Gaza many Americans don't know, why he believes the war was an almost deliberate result of longstanding Israeli policy, and why he believes it won't be the last. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

You argue that last summer's war cannot really be understood in isolation, that one has to see it in a larger context. For example, why do you think the situation today is a consequence of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" from Gaza in 2005?

The withdrawal of religious nationalist Israeli settlers (who numbered about 9,000) from the Gaza Strip was celebrated by liberals, because they saw these fanatics being forced by Israeli troops from an area that Israel [had] occupied. This actually should have been a scenario, this unilateral withdrawal, that anyone who had any concern for the people in the Gaza Strip would have opposed, because the agenda was very clear and out in the open. It was to remove [Israel] from the obligations of the Geneva Convention regarding the Gaza Strip, to claim that it was no longer occupied.

What did that new footing do for Israel?

It enabled it to establish a panopticon-style system, where it controls the exterior; the sky, the sea; and can place the Gaza Strip under a very high-tech siege, a robotically-controlled siege. Secondly, it allowed Israel to retrench its control of the major settlement blocks around East Jerusalem. They received a letter from George W. Bush [requesting] the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and guaranteeing these gigantic settlements on top of the Palestinian aquifer — which cut deep into the heart of the West Bank and will eventually separate the West Bank from itself — will remain in permanent Israeli hands under any US negotiated peace agreement. That’s point number two.

And point number three?

Point number three is that withdrawal, in the words of then Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, allows the military more “freedom of action” in the Gaza Strip. If there aren’t Jewish Israelis in the Gaza Strip, that allows you to start using 150-mm artillery shells during these barrages of the border regions; that allows you to use 2,000-pound fragmentation bombs. As soon as the withdrawal took place, you started seeing the use of experimental weapons, like dime weaponry. Gaza started to become a laboratory for the Israeli weapons industry, and for the entire mechanism of control that Israel’s trying to market and export to the word as field-tested.

I just want to make one more point: we have to understand to what the Gaza Strip is, in the grand scheme of things — not just since 2005, but since 1948.

What do you mean?

Seventy-two to 80 percent of the Gaza Strips’ population qualify as refugees. That means that they are the descendants of people who, during “the Nakbah,” between 1947 and 1948, were forcibly expelled from what is now Israel. These people can’t be allowed to return to their homes under the Right of Return — which is guaranteed to them under UN Resolution 194 — because they’re not Jewish. If they come back, Israel’s Jewish demographic majority will be compromised.

That is how the rulers of Israel, who also rule all Palestinians, see it. They see the population of the Gaza Strip as a demographic threat. So the Gaza Strip is a human warehouse for a surplus population — it’s anachronistic in the modern world. A population is being warehoused because they are of the wrong ethnicity. That’s why the Gaza Strip resists. To me, that is really the essence of the crisis.

Your mentioning the demographic angle brings me to Arnon Soffer, whose colleagues nicknamed him “The Arab Counter.” Who is he? Why is he important?

Arnon Soffer is a chief adviser on demographic engineering — i.e., how to forcibly engineer a Jewish majority in areas under Israeli control — to successive Israeli governments. He conceived of not only the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, but also the separation wall. In each case, he said that they wouldn’t lead to greater national security for Israel, but they would lead to the maintenance of a Jewish [demographic] majority. He’s obsessed with maintaining a threshold of 70 percent. His last name, Soffer, means “counter” in Hebrew; so his colleagues at Haifa University refer to him as “Arnon, the Arab Counter.”

He anticipated that his policy recommendations would reduce Israel’s national security, all in the name of maintaining a demographic majority?

Listen to his words. As he was explaining the need for the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, he said, “When 2.5 million people live in a closed off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. These people will be even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane, fundamentalist Islam. Pressure at the border will be awful; it’s going to be a terrible war. If we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.”

He said that to the Jerusalem Post — and this is when he was a close adviser to Sharon. Sharon credited Soffer with convincing him to disengage [from the Gaza Strip]. It was printed in Israel, but not in the U.S.. I don’t endorse Soffer’s racist language or ideology, but what he said has come true. What we saw last summer with Operation Protective Edge was the fulfillment of his bloody prophecy: “kill, and kill, and kill every day.” That is what the Israeli army did for 51 days.

What caused last summer’s conflict? What lit the spark and caused that 51-day war?

The war was an extension of an ongoing campaign to destroy the Palestinian national movement.  It’s what the Israeli sociologist Barruch Kimmerling called “politicide,” which is the destruction of an entire political identity. He’s extrapolating out of the term “genocide,” which is the destruction of an entire people. I think it’s a really accurate distillation of the long-term Israeli strategy.

In which ways?

I don’t think that Israel has any intention of physically exterminating Palestinians by the hundreds of thousands. It simply wants to eliminate them as a national movement, and make them into wandering Arabs who are either confined to Bantustans in the West Bank; a human warehouse in the Gaza Strip; fourth class citizenship and providing menial labor in Israel proper, or just simple refugee status. But with no political leadership, and no nationalistic goal.

That requires enormous violence. That’s what we’re seeing take place in the Gaza Strip. This war represents the frustration of the Goliath that Israel has become. It is an extension of the war that began in 1948, and even before then. It’s the war of a settler-colonial movement against an indigenous people which is, after decades of trauma and many military failures, increasingly under the influence of Islamism. They’re resisting their dispossession, as every other indigenous group has.

The war also reflects the unfettered support Israel has received from from the military junta of Egypt (which is even more determined than Israel to destroy Hamas) and from the world's lone superpower, the United States.

What role did the United States play during the war?

During a conflict in which Israel had already killed hundreds of children — about 590 children were killed, total — and in which it had already destroyed several cities in the Gaza Strip — and we’re not talking just buildings, not even neighborhoods; we’re talking about 20 percent of the Gaza Strip, wiped off the face of the Earth — Barack Obama reauthorizes Israel, in order to replenish its stock of mortar and artillery rounds, to dip into a supply of weapons that the Pentagon maintains inside Israel. The Obama administration did this without a second thought.

At every turn, and in order to prevent Hamas from receiving any political gains, the administration prevented actual diplomacy from taking place. All of Hamas’s conditions were humanitarian; they wanted an airport in the Gaza Strip, a sea port, permits for people to get out — things that everyone takes for granted. But the Obama administration, through Secretary of State John Kerry, collaborated with the military regime in Egypt to prevent any of these demands from being fulfilled. That continued the war, kept the casualty rate skyrocketing, and gave the Israeli military latitude to ratchet-up the violence.

This happened before Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had that big, public row — but even still, it doesn’t fit the description we’re often given of Obama being less enamored with Israel than his predecessors.

When Barack Obama had his play-fight with Netanyahu, it was remarkable to me to see Democratic members of Congress coalesce behind him, to see groups of J Street support him, to see so many prominent liberals take his side. It wasn’t because they were upset that Netanyahu had just engaged in a campaign of unprecedented violence against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip; it was because he was insulting their president, and the leader of the Democratic Party. Barack Obama, at the end of his second term, after basically letting the leader of a country that’s barely the size of New Jersey insult him in public for years, was simply trying to save face.

Now that this play-fight is over, we’re seeing an initiative [in Congress] to increase the annual aid to Israel from $3 billion to $4.5 billion. We’re seeing the White House promise more weapons. We heard Barack Obama compare Zionism to the civil rights movement. I don’t understand where Obama has mistreated Israel, or “abandoned” Israel, in [former Israeli ambassador] Michael Oren’s words. What we’re seeing is a mock conflict that papers over the real dynamic of [the U.S.] endlessly supplying [weapons to] the world’s only settler-colonial state with a nuclear army.

Let's go back to Gaza for a moment, since that's the overwhelming focus of the book. For readers who don't know, what are some distinguishing characteristics of the population in Gaza? And what is life like in the Gaza Strip?

Increasingly, the Gaza Strip is populated by the young and the very young. About 50 percent of the population in the Gaza Strip — which is 1.8 million people; it’s one of the most densely populated areas in the world — is under the age of 18. Of those under the age of 18, a disproportionate number are under the age of seven, which means these children have known nothing but war. A fatalistic attitude about these wars is actually leading people to have more children. Because their children keep getting killed.

The pressure on the public sector in the Gaza Strip, which is actually fairly well-maintained for a developing country that’s under siege, is enormous. Israeli bombardments have destroyed the septic sanitary systems. There is no electricity. There are no services. For the past year, people in the Gaza Strip have been living with four to eight hours of electricity a day. That makes it really hard for young people to do their schoolwork.

There's an entire generation of Palestinians who have never met a Jew that didn't approach them with a gun pointed at them, or approach them and attack. Many, if not most, of the young people I've met have lost family members, have seen limbs blown off in front of their eyes, have had their homes destroyed, have lost friends. What that trauma does to you is, it makes you want revenge. You want a way to restore your dignity. You want to resist. It’s a terrifying scenario.

Why "terrifying"?

Not because Palestinians are anti-Semitic and will attempt to kill Jews. I don’t see that. It’s terrifying because Judaism is being represented to those Israel is occupying as a religion of pure force, and a religion of domination. To me, this is the exact opposite of what Judaism represents and what it means to most of the Jews I know. If you go to the Gaza Strip and talk to men over 50, most of these men have worked in Israel; they knew Jewish Israelis and had relationships with them, friendships with them. And they have a different attitude.

If you meet young people, like the kind I describe [in the book], the attitude is frightening. Israelis are simply faceless monsters who’ve come to kill them. How are you going to build a future together based on that? I believe that the right-wing government of Israel is actually trying to deepen this divide. It started with the physical separation, through the siege. And it leads to a psychological separation that has terrifying implications for the future of Palestinian society, Jewish-Israeli society, and the whole world.

And, unfortunately, it sounds like there’s little reason not to expect another war like last summer’s is in the short- or medium-term future.

It may not come as soon as I’d thought, because Israel is reportedly in negotiation with Hamas to at least stave off another conflict. That may be because they don’t want any military activity on their southern border while they’re clashing with Hezbollah on the northern border; it may be because Israel’s military-intelligence apparatus, in which there’s more strategic thinking [than in the civilian government], sees Hamas as a force of stability in Gaza. They actually want Hamas to be there because Hamas is governing. Hamas actually uses its own military units to prevent rocket launches during ceasefires.

But these wars are inevitable as long as Israel remains a Jewish state. As long as it remains a Jewish state, it has to maintain its artificial demographic majority through violent means; by warehousing people, by occupying and controlling them, or by excluding them as refugees. Avigdor Lieberman, the former Israeli foreign minister, has said that a fourth war in the Gaza Strip is inevitable — just as a third war in Lebanon is inevitable. The question is just when.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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