There’s a lesson to be learned from the last few months of war and peace in the Gaza Strip—but it’s not a terribly hopeful one.
The story begins in late March, when Palestinians started flocking to the border fence between Israel and Gaza as part of the Great March of Return, a weekly nonviolent protest against the horrors of the past (the Nakba) and the pain of the present (the blockade of Gaza). It continues into the deep spring and summer as Palestinians died by the dozens—including more than 50 on May 14 alone—murdered by Israeli snipers as they marched toward the border fence. As they died, the international community expressed horror but did little to stop the carnage. By mid-August, more than 160 had been killed, and thousands wounded—but, outside of Gaza, few were still counting.
Cut to early November. As the protests continue, so does a phenomenon that has grown up alongside the march and caused several million dollars’ worth of damage to Israeli farmland: the release, by some young people, of arson kites over Israel’s south. This desperate resort to symbolic instruments of armed struggle yields a result that Gaza’s simultaneous and overwhelming commitment to nonviolence fails to produce: Israel, after months of intensifying its siege of Gaza in retaliation to “the provocations” of the Great Return March, considers a bilateral cease-fire, negotiated with the help of Egypt and Qatar, that would eventually culminate in lifting 70 percent of the blockade, easing it in stages until the border arson stops. However, as soon as the launching of incendiary kites is halted, the cease-fire efforts falter.
The deal almost falls apart—and war almost breaks out—when Israeli forces, disguised as medical-aid workers, slip into the Strip to carry out an undercover raid that leaves eight people dead. As rockets fly over Israel, the international community jumps in, with Egypt negotiating a cease-fire. Once again, reports suggest, Israeli promises to ease its blockade.
What is to be learned from all of this? No doubt a lot. But one lesson that has been hard for many Palestinians to escape is that, while the world shrugs at Gaza’s commitment to nonviolence, its people’s occasional turn toward armed-resistance with primitive homemade projectiles garners tentative improvements to their impoverished society—usually in the form of temporary increases in the flows of humanitarian aid.
To acknowledge all of this is not to celebrate violence, or to minimize it, as some will no doubt claim, so much as to explain—and, in the process, to dispel an enduring myth.
According to this myth, the besieged population of Gaza is often said to have a choice: either to embrace peace and nonviolent forms of expression—and thereby reap the rewards of progress and prosperity—or to continue fighting with “counterproductive” violence. But the gray reality of the last months speaks to the complexity of this black-and-white scenario.
The truth is that since Israeli initiated its blockade of Gaza in 2007, Palestinians have exhausted most means of both violence and peace to earn their freedom—and neither option seems to have minimized their misery. Still encircled, still encaged, the people of Gaza live in the grips of a humanitarian nightmare so harsh and unrelenting that the United Nations has warned that the small coastal enclave will be uninhabitable by 2020. Yet there is one difference the people of Gaza have observed between the opposing paths of war and peace: The world at least listens to them when they go loud and disruptive about their slow death.
Consider three of the most recent assaults on Gaza—in 2008, 2012, and 2014. After other countries intervened, each ended with a mutual cease-fire understanding between Israel and Hamas, the ruling authority in Gaza. They also ended with a crucial commitment from Israel to ease the blockade in return for preventing the launching of improvised projectiles on Israel and restoring calm. In such instances, Hamas then took the initiative and set up an efficient field-control unit specifically commissioned to thwart attempts by individuals and minor armed groups to attack Israel during cease-fires. However, time and again, Gaza’s reward for this significant move was absolutely nothing. The blockade was never lifted, and Gaza’s “living” conditions continued to become increasingly worse with each passing day.
For the people of Gaza, this suggests that once Gaza takes the initiative to abide by international demands for tranquility, the sense of urgency within the Israeli and international communities—the commitment to take further actions that permanently de-escalate the situation and assuage the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Gaza—disappears completely. In the quiet that follows, the Gazans’ cries for rescue fall on deaf ears.
The international community justifies its idleness during these periods by maintaining a strict no-contact policy towards the authorities in Gaza. “We can’t talk to Hamas,” the Europeans and Americans insist. But reality reveals the opposite: They obviously can and do talk to Hamas, but only when a war or an armed escalation is taking place, or when Hamas captures Israeli soldiers. Then the international community hastens to Gaza, one after the other, to restore stability.
There is a catch, however, to these stabilization efforts—one that goes beyond the obvious horrors and suffering used to achieve them—and it is this: The international community’s counterinsurgency efforts always deem stability synonymous with restoring the old miserable status quo that led to the explosion of violence in the first place.
Each time, international actors make only the barest efforts to supply Gaza with the aid its people so desperately need, and only the slightest pressure is exerted on Israel to expand Gaza’s fishing zone from three miles to six miles. Perhaps Gaza’s electricity is improved temporarily from four hours a day to six to eight hours a day, so that Gazans slip back into passivity. But the blockade—the fundamental, enduring outrage that keeps people locked in the world’s largest open-air prison and effectively obliterates the enclave’s economy—remains firmly in place.
With such a fragile stability, balanced on a such an inherently destabilizing status quo, it becomes easy to predict the future of this situation: Gazans gradually sink again into despair and begin to challenge their slow death with whatever means they possess. For this refusal to die quietly, Israel then further tightens its grip on the caged city by cutting the supply of electricity and aid and closing the fishing zone again.
As pressure becomes unbearable and Gazans begin to throw homemade projectiles on Israel to call for rescue, Israel pounds the besieged city and obliterates whatever little improvements have been constructed since the last cease-fire. Only then does the international community interfere to restore the old unacceptable status quo, and the cycle repeats itself. Over and over and over.
To break out of this trap, two things are essential. First, to paraphrase the words of writer and political analyst Yousef Munayyer, Gazan nonviolence should be met by global non-silence. If armed resistance is frowned upon, then the international community should instead buttress Palestinian nonviolence by showing solidarity and support for it. When Palestinian protesters march peacefully into Israeli bullets for weeks at a time in a desperate attempt to draw the world’s attention to their suffering, then it is essential for people of conscience to listen—and then amplify their cries for relief and justice.
And this leads to the second, and most important, need: Israel must lift the blockade that is strangling Gaza. Asveteran Israeli journalist Gideon Lev recently wrote, echoing the cries of the entire Gaza population: “Only a complete lifting of the Gaza blockade will solve Gaza’s problem, which is also Israel’s problem, and only a direct dialogue with Hamas can bring this about.” Until then, the people of Gaza will remain caught in a gray zone, between war and peace, where only misery is constant.