ODVV Interview: The prolonged siege of Gaza is...
Dust has settled on the most recent chapter of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, which ended on May 21 with a fragile ceasefire the tenacity of which is shrouded in uncertainty, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is once again grabbing the headlines and experts are hashing out an intractable dilemma that has been mutating the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East for seven decades now. As Israel unleashed havoc on the besieged Gaza Strip in what it dubbed Operation Guardian of the Walls, at least 256 people were killed and hundreds of others sustained chronic injuries. Massive destruction of civilian facilities and stoking of racial tensions were only some of the upshots of Israel’s recourse to aggression amid the spiraling impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on a population reeling from occupation and dispossession.
The international community was almost unanimous in decrying Israel for its role in making a fraught situation in the Gaza Strip more complicated, even though the familiar talking points around Israel’s “right to self-defense” were rolled out here and there, eclipsing the depth of the human catastrophe unfolding in the most densely populated coastal sliver in the world. Life in Gaza is a paragon of the broader mishaps of the Palestinian people across the occupied territories. Unemployment rate has exceeded 27 percent, at least 64 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and a staggering 1.4 million residents of the region are food insecure. This is the scenario the Israeli blockade in place since June 2007 has begotten, and international organizations are now warning Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank amounts to the crime of apartheid.
Atalia Omer is a professor of religion, conflict, and peace studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of the books “When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice” and “Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians.” Prof. Omer is an internationally-recognized expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Prof. Omer to discuss the bloody 11-day conflict, the insolvability of the Israeli-Palestinian gridlock, the standing of international law on the crisis and the new US administration’s position on relations with Israel. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in reaction to the recent Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip that such attacks could amount to war crimes if they are indiscriminately targeted at civilians. She also said she hasn’t seen evidence that buildings bombarded by Israel were used for military purposes. What do these remarks by the high-ranking UN official indicate? Are the international organizations going to be more stringent in holding Israel accountable over its conduct and policies?
A: Bachelet’s statements are correct and Israel has most certainly, and once again, committed war crimes in Gaza violating a whole spectrum of international law and rules for the use of force including of course disproportionality and indiscriminate use of force resulting in horrific collateral damage.
The residents of the besieged Gaza Strip have no shelters to run to, no Iron Dome to intercept bombardment and no ability even to become refugees and escape the Strip to Egypt, for example. There is a long history of international actors, including the United Nations and other mechanisms identifying Israeli practices of annexation, collective punishment and other violations of international law and conventions, but Israel has continued with impunity. Partly, this impunity is enabled through the veto power of the United States in the United Nations and partly through unconditional military and financial aid from the US. Even during the recent assault on Gaza, the Biden administration approved a sell of precision bombs to Israel. These are the same bombs used in the aerial bombardment.
At the same time that the military sell was approved, even if challenged by some actors within Congress, the US blocked the UN from issuing condemnations of Israel. The role of the military-industrial complex cannot be bracketed here. Gaza has often been used as a “lab” to test weapons. Israel, as I already mentioned, has violated international law in various ways, from the practice of collective punishment to annexationist policies.
We cannot restrict our analysis of the violations of international law only to Gaza but must situate our analysis of Gaza within the broader story of Palestine and Palestinians. Israel has, for years, inflicted collective punishment on civilian populations. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention defines collective punishment as a war crime. Israel has also violated Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states that it is illegal for an occupying power to “deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The settlements in the territories occupied in 1967 therefore constitute war crimes as also stated in the UN Security Council resolution 242 often cited as a reference point, which Israeli actors like to play a semantic game with regarding the supposed lack of a definite article in the English version which therefore only indicates that Israel needs to withdraw from “occupied territories” not “the.” The French version, however, is more definite.
Security Council resolution 448 declares the illegality of the settlement. In 1980, Israel officially annexed Jerusalem and the Security Council resolution 478 declares this annexation a violation of international law which must be rescinded. Resolution 497 also states that the annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights is illegal, even though it was sanctioned by Pompeo, a Christian-Zionist Secretary of State during the Trump administration. Likewise, the 710-km Separation Wall or Apartheid Wall is a form of an additional land grab where only 15 percent of the wall is within the Green Line.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion regarding the legality of the wall stating the wall is contrary to international law. Regarding Palestinian refugees, numbering around 5 million, Israel has violated Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is the violation of its stipulation about forced transfer. While Israel has refused the right of return of Palestinians, Security Council resolution 194 states that Palestinian refugees should be permitted to return.
The siege on Gaza since 2007 is too a violation of international law and this is regardless of the periodical aerial bombardments and land invasions, which constitute the only moments where the plight of Gazans reaches international attention even if the normal is also a state of violence and gross violation of international and humanitarian law and conventions.
Gazans are constantly at the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Israel is even controlling their per capita caloric intake and restricts traveling even for children requiring cancer treatment. There has been for a long time an international consensus regarding the illegality of the blockade but no significant pressure was exerted on Israel to compel its policymakers to reverse and reframe their policies. Gaza is occupied – it’s an open-air prison – regardless of the supposed unilateral disengagement staged by Ariel Sharon in 2005.
One of the problems is that the disengagement from Gaza is enabling Israel’s manipulation of the concept of self-defense as if Gaza is a sovereign state south of Israel and not an occupied land or ghetto. In reality, the rockets fired from Gaza need to be read through the lens of resistance to a violent occupation or a colonial force rather than as an act of aggression against Israel.
And so, to return to your question, whether recent declarations naming Israeli actions as war crimes and crimes against humanity will be impactful in constraining Israeli aggression, such declarations can only be impactful if they will also entail actual sanctions and, at the very least, conditioning of military and financial aid by the US. When one takes a long historical outlook, it is clear that the US has been a patron of Israel since World War II and especially after 1967.
Before that, Great Britain was highly complicit in facilitating the convergences between Zionism as a political nationalist movement and settler colonialism. A critical point of reference in this history is of course the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Another one is the UN recognition of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust or the Shoah. The Palestinians, in other words, paid for the crimes of Europe and Nazism in which they took no part.
Gaining clarity on the role of international actors and imperial and neo-imperial forces in the region is key to understanding their roles in potentially censuring Israel and its now blatant Jewish supremacist ideology. While very strong forces continue to attempt to control the narrative about Palestine and Israel using the language of self-defense to describe an assault by a colonial force against a colonized community that practices violent forms of resistance but also, in the case of the great March of Return mobilized by Gazans, nonviolent forms of resistance, the walls of deception seem to be collapsing with the raw images that circulate through alternative and social media platforms.
It is much harder to control the narrative now which also of course generates a lot of doubling down with the weaponization of anti-Semitism as a key mechanism in Euro-America. This weaponization which has now taken the form of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition, adopted by governments, universities and other high-level institutions and entities, equates anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Importantly, this definition was challenged by many, including Jewish and Israeli scholars who drafted an alternative called the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. This declaration challenges ideological conflations designed to silence debate about Palestine and Israel, and beyond the issue of free speech and open debate it erases the very legitimacy of Palestinian collective identity.
These developments and the manipulation of anti-Semitism is relevant to whether international actors and mechanisms will act in ways that recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian struggles and historical grievances. To be clear, real anti-Semitism increases globally. Israel – and especially belligerent Israeli policies – only make Jews less safe in the world, especially considering the Israeli political elites’ comfort with various autocrats and strongmen such as Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump whose Zionism does not preclude their anti-Semitism. On the contrary, they go together.
Q: A September 2015 report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development asserted that continued Israeli raids on the Gaza Strip have debilitated the already vulnerable infrastructure of this beleaguered coastal enclave, accelerating the process of its de-development. For instance, over the past 14 years, only a quarter of the Gaza households have had access to running water, limited to only a few hours per day. Why is Israel seeking to keep Gaza impoverished and overstrained?
A: The prolonged siege on Gaza constitutes an ongoing form of violence and a violation of international law and humanitarian norms. Gaza has also served as a tragic and criminal lab for the military-industrial complex in which Israel is a major partner, along with the US. The fact is that the siege, and that Gaza is an open-air prison, is not a matter for dispute but rather a clear position, as you note, of the international community. However, unfortunately, Israeli and pro-Israel actors seek to spin the blockade as somehow necessary for Israel’s security. This is a deeply faulty and unethical argument that relies on engrained orientalist tropes. In reality, Israel has engaged in a policy of fragmentation for decades with the intention to diminish the capacity of Palestinians to rise up and resist in a sustained way.
Since the 2006 election of Hamas, the policy of fragmentation and separation of Gaza from the West Bank enabled the Israeli entrenchment of the occupation of West Bank and East Jerusalem, disassociating it from the ongoing occupation of Gaza, despite the disengagement of 2005. Israel, however, has an apparent interest to enforce division and keep Gazans and Hamas without access to the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority that has functioned as a subcontractor to the occupation. Gaza is a form of ghetto non-contiguous from the other Palestinian ghettos that the Israeli framework of apartheid defines in different ways across the geopolitical space.
One important point to note is that treating Gaza in isolation from Palestine and the Palestinian struggle broadly itself denotes an internalization of the logic of Israeli occupation and fragmentation. In other words, now in the aftermath of yet another assault and a return to the normal violence, the international community shifts to a humanitarian approach, disconnecting the plight of Gazans from the broader Palestinian national struggle for freedom.
Q: Based on a study done by the Arab American Institute on May 20, the day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was announced, a majority of 51 percent of Americans, including 62 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Liberal-leaning respondents, believe the United States has to halt its unrestricted military and financial aid to Israel, should Israel carry on with its settlement construction policy. Is this critical approach to US-Israel relations a new trend in the United States? Do the American politicians understand the US public’s sensitivities regarding the Israel-Palestine conundrum?
A: Indeed, it appears that some shifts are happening from the ground up in the US with more people able to see with clarity the struggle and humanity of the Palestinians. It looks like Palestinians increasingly are permitted the right to narrate their story, to recall Edward Said’s critical observation years ago when he decried how only the Zionist Israeli narrative was allowed to report realities on the ground. Hence, the story of Gaza begins with self-defense and not with a prolonged colonial occupation.
Shifts are happening on the level of Congress, as Representatives such as Betty McCollum who represents Minnesota’s 4th District, introduced a bill to limit US military aid to Israel. Similarly, even before the current escalation, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren expressed a need to condition US aid, and of course we saw unprecedented mobilizations by emerging forces within the Democratic Party, on behalf of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar as well as the American-Palestinian Rashida Tlaib, against the unconditional aid to Israel. Such voices express shifting dynamics among Americans.
The leadership is still very beholden to the entrenched Israeli narrative which of course also intersects with the US own War on Terror and its orientalist underpinnings. For many younger Americans in particular, the connections between the protest cry “Black Lives Matter” and “Palestinian Lives Matter,” too is very clear. The mobilization of Black Lives Matter really offers a moment of clarity that is shifting views on the ground. People make connections between the total disregard to Palestinian lives and the racial reckoning the murder of George Floyd initiated.
However, there are still critical forces that prevent a greater level of responsiveness by major political actors. One which I have already mentioned relates to the weaponization of anti-Semitism. A second force is the Christian-Zionist, mostly white Evangelical lobby that has directly influenced the devastating moves by the Trump administration including the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and the so-called normalization accords with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and others. In recent years in particular we identify convergences between the settler ideological Jewish bloc in Israel and the US and the Christian-Zionists in the US. They bypass other actors such as American Jews critical of Israeli policies and exert a lot of domestic pressure on American politicians.
Unfortunately, in recent years an unconditional support of Israel has become a Republican issue as well as a divisive issue within different generations and factions within the Democratic Party. Biden’s repeated support of the Israeli narrative of self-defense reflects these dynamics and the fear of the Democrats to lose to Trumpism. Still, the shifting public understanding of Palestinian experiences and struggles is very significant and does give a sense of possibility for the future, challenging the Israel exception to an otherwise a declaration that post-Trump US foreign relations will be oriented by human rights. It is not in this case and I offered some reasons as to why.
Q: Classifying the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Gaza as apartheid, which you also made a reference to earlier, is a prevalent analogy deployed by political science scholars. A joint initiative of the University of Maryland and George Washington University surveying 521 American scholars of Middle East studies reported that 59 percent of the participants believe the present state of Israel-Palestine relations resembles “a one-state reality akin to apartheid.” What are the solutions ahead of the international community to confront the crime of apartheid? Is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement a viable redress?
A: Whether the entire geopolitical space from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea is an apartheid or not is really no longer open to belief and is no longer an opinion open for a rebuttal. Apartheid is a descriptive category in international law and the two recent reports issued by human rights organizations, namely Human Rights Watch and the Israeli B’Tselem, provide ample and undisputable evidence to support this analysis. This is important in order to finally pave pathways for thinking in different ways about peace with justice.
For decades, the peace formula known as the two-state solution was based on a principle of ethnoreligious national separation or segregation or on highly undemocratic principles of belonging and non-belonging. Centralizing human rights and mechanisms to redress historical injustices is critical for undoing this ethnocentric logic that has informed peace over decades. The BDS came to the foreground as a call from Palestinian civil society in 2005 precisely because of the disillusionment with the peace process that only contributed to entrenching the occupation with the Palestinian Authority acting as a subcontractor and developing a relation of economic and political dependency rather than independence and agency.
The BDS call came as an appeal to the international community to challenge through the time-honored nonviolent tactics the Israeli narrative. Unfortunately, the emergence of BDS and the assimilation of the Palestinian struggle into a broader international and global anti-colonial movement for social justice met with concentrated efforts to brand BDS as anti-Semitism.
While people who partake in BDS targeting Israel may be anti-Semitic, they are not by definition anti-Semitic, but the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition specifies exactly that and thus potentially is criminalizing the practice of BDS. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, to recall, offers an alternative and challenges this ideological conflation of BDS with anti-Semitism and Judaism with Zionism. BDS tactics and mobilizations nonetheless have gained some success which explains why the Israeli Hasbara or propaganda is so concerned with controlling debates on university campuses and elsewhere.
I wrote about this in my recent book “Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians”. In my view, the most significant aspect of the BDS is the sanctions on the level of policy actors and international and intergovernmental mechanisms. For Israel to really shift its practices, it needs to endure real ramifications for its Jewish supremacist and apartheid policies.
As I noted, such crimes including the crime of settling occupied land, were met with total impunity. A promising development is the International Criminal Court’s recognition of Palestine for investigating war crimes. However, it is not sufficient to bring the legal arguments and conclusions but also a significant change will necessitate a political will and social movement’s continuous pressure from the ground up, and it is there where we identify important shifts.
Q: After coming to power earlier this year, the US President Joe Biden reversed some of the controversial policies of his predecessor on Israel-Palestine, for example by restoring the US financial aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), pledging to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, D.C., and reaffirming his commitment to the two-state solution. Do you consider these turnarounds to be strategic shifts that reclaim the rights of the Palestinians or will the influential Israeli lobby in America block the efforts by Biden and progressive Congress Democrats to change the status quo?
A: The Biden administration so far has not signaled a departure from decades of US complicity with the occupation of Palestine. It did not reverse the relocation of the embassy nor the so-called normalization accords that Palestinians interpret as yet another betrayal by regional players. The normalization basically enables Israel once again to continue its occupation with total impunity while benefiting from economic, military, and strategic alliances and diplomatic relationships regionally.
Such normalization is no longer a prize for good behavior but rather a reward for bad behavior. Orchestrated by the Trump administration, this normalization intended to exclude and totally diminish the reality of Palestinians and their political claims. Such intentionality is also very clearly reflected in the campaign to discontinue US contributions to UNWRA as you noted. As noted earlier, the leadership of the Democratic Party is facing challenges from within its ranks and especially from those who entered the political game in and through the social movement mobilizations that connected the struggles of black and brown people in the US, and other marginalized communities, and the Palestinian struggle which is now framed in terms of a struggle of an indigenous community against a settler colonial force.
With Israel aligning itself with global white supremacy and the wave of ultra-nationalism – a movement also marked by disregard to democracy and democratic norms – it becomes easier to see it as a perpetrator of violence rather than a victim entitled to self-defense. Still, the moves of the Biden administration so far do not reflect any significant departure from the longstanding American policy in the region and the special friendship with Israel.
I already noted the domestic concerns about white Evangelicals. The Biden administration is more comfortable framing Gaza as a humanitarian cause rather than a human rights and national struggle that is connected to the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank as well as to occupied East Jerusalem.
Q: In the wake of the recent Israeli attacks, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip was exacerbated acutely. Nearly 60,000 Gaza residents had to flee their homes, and 47,000 of them are now being sheltered in UNRWA schools. Due to the intensification of hostilities, a further 160,000 residents of Gaza Strip were driven into food security. Do you think efforts by the international community will have concrete impacts to improve the dire living conditions of the embattled Gaza Strip?
A: I agree that the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is horrific. It adds utter devastation to an already unlivable and desperate situation due to the prolonged siege. It is of course important to channel funds to redress the humanitarian catastrophe, including providing medical capacities.
However, it is absolutely critical to avoid thinking of Gaza only and exclusively through the lens of humanitarianism. The latter is more comfortable for the international community responding to the devastation there as if it were the outcome of a natural disaster. Once again, the outcome of the Israeli policies of fragmentation facilitates isolating the devastation in Gaza from a broader need to pressure Israel by withdrawing the international cover of impunity it has enjoyed and which has enabled its ever-expanding Judaizing practices which now illuminate the convergences between racist ultra-nationalism going back to Kahanism or transfer ideology and racist view of Jewish blood and land purity and the messianic settler theology that informed the early post-1967 settlement movement which is now entrenched in the political echelon.
This is once again to recognize the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza but also to underscore the need to refrain from isolating Gaza and Gazans as a humanitarian issue, because such framing contributes to depoliticizing the Palestinian claims and struggles and also their humanity.
Q: What have been the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip? It is reported that as a result of the Israeli aerial attacks during the 11-day conflict, the only medical center for the treatment of COVID-19 patients was razed to the ground, and the most distinguished physician of the region, Ayman Abu al-Ouf, involved in curing the coronavirus-infected patients, was killed. What are the responsibilities of Israel, referred to as the occupying power in the United Nations documents, when it comes to the health and wellbeing of the Gaza Strip residents under these critical conditions?
A: Indeed, Israel was rightly accused prior to the current escalation for a blatant form of medical apartheid. While Israeli citizens were rapidly vaccinated with Israel at the forefront of mass vaccination rollout, it systematically neglected vaccinating non-citizen Palestinians who are under its rule as per the aforementioned B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch reports.
Once one accepts the reality of the occupation as still ongoing despite rhetoric otherwise regarding Gaza, it is certainly the case that Israel is responsible as an occupying force for redressing concerns with public health. Hence, arguments that Palestinians are at fault for disregarding their people’s health and Israel’s claim that it is not responsible for their public health and safety is cynical at the very least.
It is devastating that buildings that house international media and health professionals and clinics were destroyed as collateral damage. As you indicated, no proofs were provided for the supposed Hamas presence in those structures and even if they were there, such assaults with the knowledge that so many civilians are there unable to escape is not accepted under any circumstances and international norms.
Q: The United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo has said in case a long-term panacea is not found for the question of Palestine, recurrent episodes of conflict and confrontation involving Israel and Gaza should be expected, resulting in the unwarranted death of innocent civilians. What is your prediction of the situation in the region in the next 10 years?
A: I agree that the cyclical nature of such assaults is predictable and is indeed by design. As many analysts and commentators noted, this current escalation reflects a predictable script and intentionality, concerning how events in Jerusalem were unfolding where Israeli forces brutally violated a very delicate status quo regarding sacred spaces and sacred times, brutal violation that converged with the images from Sheikh Jarrah and the looming dispossession of Palestinians, highlighting the realities of the ongoing Nakba all Palestinians are experiencing, albeit differently.
If the US will remove its unconditional enabling of Israeli policies and will indeed centralize a human rights’ approach to its involvement with Palestine and Israel, then change domestically in Israel may also happen, potentially a demonization of the settler, ultra-nationalist discourse. If Americans who have become politicized on this issue and are making deeper and deeper connections to the anti-racism reckoning will continue to exert pressure and at least focus on conditional aid, this can have a real impact on the ground because the US is the imperial or neo-imperial patron of Israel.
However, as noted, Trumpism, which is outliving Trump, is thriving on the convergences between white nationalism and Christian-Zionism with Israel functioning as a republic cause – this is Israel as a fetish, not a real place. One can only reflect on the troubling images from the insurrection of January 6. In between Nazi, Christian and Confederate symbolisms, one also saw Israeli flags. This exposes what many of the Jewish critics I engaged for my recent book had recognized in 2016, namely that Israel and Israelism do not make them safe. On the contrary, now with Trumpism and its marriage with Israelism, they are significantly less safe as real anti-Semitism is on the rise together with other forms of racism including Islamophobia.
The entrenchment of Israel as a partisan issue in other words can go either way in terms of influencing dynamics on the ground in the Palestine-Israel question. The US is one if not the one critical arena where the next 10 years in Palestine-Israel may be determined because this is where we see the struggle of narratives, on the one hand but also, on the other, the main party enabling Israeli impunity.
Of course, the real change will have to happen from within and by the people most affected. By removing from the equation the cover of impunity and the influence of Christian-Zionist lobbies and their agenda, Israelis and Palestinians who recognize pathways for centralizing a human rights approach for living together and redressing historical injustice on multiple levels can be empowered and affect shifts on the ground where now any form of Palestinian-Israeli engagement is often understood as a violent manipulation of the concept of coexistence or peace as a different name for violence, so long as the principle of Jewish supremacy informs the entirety of the geopolitical space.
I think it is not a small thing that Israeli human organizations such as B’Tselem call the entirety of the geopolitical space apartheid undergirded by Jewish supremacy. Defining it as such is not only intended to highlight a pathological reality and a violent one that needs to be redressed but also by calling it what it is, it opens the space and political and sociocultural imagination to new horizons that will centralize human rights and will not participate in a zero-sum understanding of histories.
By: Kourosh Ziabari