Gaza's ongoing moral atrocity
Can anything change? Here's a look at some recent scholarship on Gaza and Hamas.
Some of the children killed by Israel in Gaza last week. Source: Al-Jazeera
“Israel bombed the Gaza Strip/Obama didn’t say shit.” - Lupe Fiasco
Israel unleashed yet another bombing campaign on the Gaza strip this week. Once again, Israel launched dozens of airstrikes into one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. Once again, dozens of innocent civilians including children - sixteen that we know of, this time - died a horrible, needless death. Once again, the bombing accomplished nothing of any significance, and once again the world stood by and watched.
In Washington, Biden administration officials quietly took credit for successfully managing the crisis and securing a ceasefire with Egyptian and Qatari assistance. No doubt, they viewed ending the violence after only a few days as a success, like after the May 2021 version. No matter how well they did or didn’t settling down this round of mayhem, the truth is that every American official who has worked on Middle East policy for the last fifteen years - to say nothing of Israeli, Egyptian, and other Arab officals - should feel shame over Gaza. The problem is not the episodic moments of bloody crisis when the world awakens to horrific images of bombardment and death. It’s the largely invisible, relentless effects of a draconian blockade which has made an already impoverished and overpopulated area into an open air prison, starved of electricity and nutrition, subjected to episodic slaughter, its young population trapped both physically and politically within a horror they have no ability to change.
It’s a strategic failure and a moral atrocity which has become so normalized and routinized that alternatives are rarely even considered. So it’s hard to view the ceasefire as any kind of success story. This isn’t an unfortunate unanticipated consquence of a policy designed for other purposes. Israel and Egypt both prefer to keep it that way, and the United States is evidently fine with it. Hamas — ostensibly the target of the policy — does just fine under the blockade, with its total control over smuggling and black markets giving it the means and the justification to repress any sign of dissent. As with the 1991-2003 sanctions on Iraq, Gaza’s endless human suffering represents the system working exactly as intended.
Is change possible?
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it — but, then, change always seems impossible right up until the moment it seems inevitable. The Arab uprisings should have taught us that — even if they also taught us that change is never easy and rarely produces the results for which activists hoped. It’s been almost exactly eight years since I published “Political Science After Gaza” in the wake of a previous round of violence:
Israel’s latest war with Gaza has already killed more than a thousand people, including hundreds of children, while showing few signs of significantly changing anything fundamental. The dynamics of its asymmetric conflict, half-hearted cease-fire talks, civilian suffering, American inefficacy, Arab impotence and apoplectic public arguments feels painfully familiar. Indeed, besides the immediacy of the stomach-churning images of death and devastation circulated over social media, much of the analysis of the war could probably be recycled from 2008 or 2012 without changing much beyond the dateline.
That very stasis might actually be masking interesting questions, however. How has this conflict remained so impervious to the dizzying turbulence happening everywhere else in the region? Why are we still having the same arguments in the same terms when so much has palpably changed? Which changes in regional and international politics are likely to seriously destabilize the situation and which will be comfortably absorbed into the status quo? Will we soon look back at the long years of relative stagnation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as something akin to the false stability of Arab authoritarian regimes circa 2010?
It all sounds awfully familiar. But that doesn’t mean things are the same. In that piece, I pointed to a number of things which might be changing. Some of them have largely come to pass, some have not, and others… well, let’s say the reviews are mixed. On the one hand, I noted that the anti-Islamism driving the political discourse of the UAE, Egypt and others after the 2011 Arab uprisings and the authoritarian resurgence after 2013 might have further emboldended Arab regimes to ignore inflamed public opinion and pursue tighter relations with Israel. That’s the Abraham Accords for you. I asked about the implications of the absence of any peace process aimed at a two state solution. We reached that point a long time ago. I wondered whether we might see a new Palestinian Intifada. Still waiting.
Finally, in that piece I predicted the growing potency of the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) as those other political horizons closed. That has clearly come to pass. In the most recent (March-April 2022) round of the Middle East Scholar Barometer survey which I run with Shibley Telhami, 60% of Middle East experts described the current Israeli-Palestinian situation as “akin to Apartheid” and 77% view that as the likely outcome without a two state solution. There have been meaningful shifts in US public opinion, especially on the left. The fierce backlash against BDS and the “Apartheid” discourse (and the unusual level of AIPAC spending against progressives in the Democratic primaries) is testament to its perceived potency.
Palestinian activism is another source of poential change, with a new generation mobilizing across both sides of the Green Line and generating power outside of traditional institutions and organizations. It’s quite clear that Palestinian activism, academic analysis and large swathes of public opinion have changed their view of the Israeli-Palestinian reality from a two state solution in the making to political action within a one state reality. I have always learned a tremendous amount from Ian Lustick about the dynamics and possibilities of territorial, political and conceptual change, particularly in the Israeli/Palestinian context — I recommend his recent book Paradigm Lost, as well as his comparative masterwork Unsettled States, Disputed Lands. Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Shibley Telhami and I published this POMEPS Studies collection on that theme based on a 2019 workshop and we have a book coming out soon called The One State Reality.
Read up on Gaza
If you’d like to read up on Gaza beyond the crises, here’s a few books and other publications for your reading list. There’s an enormous volume of human rights reports and outstanding journalism about Gaza, of course, but here I focus on the scholarly side of things.
Sara Roy’s classic book The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development remains a classic starting point for the systematic effects of Israel’s occupation. Originally published in 1995 and updated for the final time in 2016, Roy shows in detail how occupation and then blockade deformed Gaza’s economy and society. Her lifetime of research on Gaza has included several other books worthy of attention, including Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (2014) and Unsilencing Gaza (2021). All of her work centers the human reality of the Palestinians living in Gaza, beyond the abstractions and pointedly rejecting any suggestion of timeless or inexplicable poverty or radicalism.
Tareq Baconi, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance (2018), gives a sharply analytical, thoughtful and rich account of the politics of Hamas within Gaza. He shows clearly how Hamas has adapted the blockade of Gaza, instrumentalizing the conflict to sustain its own power and strategic objectives. Baconi’s recent article “Gaza and the One State Reality” did an especially outstanding job showing how the steady exclusion of Gaza from diplomatic discussions of two state possibilities lay at the core, not periphery, of the conflict. His ongoing work with the Crisis Group and other essays are always essential reading.
Open Gaza approaches the question of Gaza from an entirely different direction. Michael Sorkin, Deen Sharp and Sara Roy assemble an eclectic group of architects, social theorists, and students of urban politics to examine life in Gaza as it is actually lived. The book abounds with evocative descriptions and acute observations, neither pathologizing nor romanticizing the adaptations made by Gazans living under siege.
On Hamas within Gaza, Somdeep Sen places the discussion of Hamas and Palestinian resistance within the context of colonialism and postcolonialism in his recent book Decolonizing Palestine (2020). Through a mix of ethnography and postcolonial theory, Sen advances a controversial rethinking of the nature of Hamas’s “resistance” and its place within the Palestinian national movement. Jeroen Gunning’s 2008 analysis of Hamas in Gaza continues to be an exceptionally acutely observed analysis of the movement. And looking ahead, the young Gazan scholar Imad Alsoos has written several outstanding recent articles assessing the strategy, organization and ideology of Hamas - when that book is published, it should make a real impact and major contribution. And from a broader lens, Dana el-Kurd’s recent book shows how international support for the Palestinian Authority has insulated elites from public accountability, contributing to their long political paralysis.
Apologies to everything I left out — hopefully we can add more work to the reading list on this critically important and too often marginalized topic.
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