Gaza Interrupted
November 14 2023

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 19 2023 on Counter Punch. It is republished with permission.

I was scheduled to go to Gaza last Monday. The visit would have been the next in the series of my annual, weeks–or months–long stays in Gaza for the past three decades as a social psychologist studying youth and families. A core lesson from this effort is that despite tremendous cost and pain, one will always fight for the right to have an identity, dignity, a homeland, and basic human rights and freedom.

Obviously, I canceled the trip in the face of Hamas’ staggering attack on Saturday, Oct 7, and the Israeli military’s response, which, even before the announced ground invasion, had already destroyed entire towns and neighborhoods in Gaza City.

The prevailing narrative circulating wildly now is the Oct 7 attack was unprovoked and antisemitic, a tale empty of any context. It bypasses a half-century of Palestinian efforts to free themselves from punishing Israeli military control. Here are some relevant points of that context, specific to Gaza.

Gaza—a term often used synonymously with the Gaza Strip—was conquered by Israeli forces in the 1967 Six-day War (along with the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai). Israel did not annex Gaza and make its inhabitants citizens of its state. Neither did it cede Gaza back to Egypt, as it did the Sinai. Instead, Israel formally designated Gaza as an Occupied Territory to be controlled by its military. Rather than encourage the territory’s economic development, Israel systematically undermined it through a process of “de-development,” a term coined by my colleague Sara Roy who has thoroughly documented this intentional debilitation.

Israeli military control of Gaza has only tightened since. It was against this control that the first intifada (Arabic for uprising) erupted 20 years later in 1987, lasting for six years. The mostly-youth-driven campaign of throwing stones against Israeli jeeps and tanks began first in Gaza. The uprising was met with the self-described Iron Fist of the Israeli military, which prides itself in its disproportionate force. During that movement, over 80% of homes were raided, typically in the early hours of the morning with soldiers humiliating parents and snatching a youth who had been seen throwing stones. Large majorities of young men (and significant numbers of women) reported being verbally abused, hit or kicked, shot at with tear gas, with greater than 25% hit with bullets, imprisoned, tortured, and had their throwing arms intentionally broken by military batons at the direction of the then defense minister Rabin. This history has been well-documented by my research teams and others.

When I began my immersion in Gaza in 1996, fully 30 percent of the Strip, including Gaza’s most fertile land, was inhabited by a few thousand Jewish settlers. Driving past these heavily guarded settlements on arid roads, we could see the gleaming emerald lawns being generously sprinkled with fresh water from the deep wells that only the settlers, not Gazans, were allowed to drill. Gazans were limited to using water from the already heavily salinized upper layer of the aquifer. I also personally witnessed shocking scenes of humiliation of Palestinians. One I’ll never forget was a group of handcuffed Palestinian men being dragged off a bus, shoved to their knees on the rocky ground by fully armed soldiers barely taller than their rifles and no older than men’s sons, screaming to the men that they are dogs.

Propaganda has misled that Israel’s 2005 withdrawal of its settlers and soldiers was a gift to Gazans, a generosity with which they should have created a successful society. This is despite Israel’s (continuing) refusal to allow an airport, or seaport, or the ability to export their goods and produce, or the freedom of its citizens and businesspersons to travel out of the Strip. Rather, the withdrawal was a strategic decision to expand, not reduce, control of Palestinian territory via shifting military personnel and equipment from Gaza to promote settlement expansion in the West Bank.

The military withdrawal of Gaza was merely a redeployment to the borders. The Israeli army surrounded the land border with fences and walls, guarded by sophisticated detection equipment, sniper towers and pillboxes. I have been near that fence countless times, that is, within 100 yards of it, the distance past which anyone risks being shot by sniper fire. The Israeli navy patrols the sea coast, restricting fishing, one of Gaza’s main economies, to ever narrower bands. Israel controls the cyber grid, and surveils the area constantly with drones. It controls all ingress and egress from the Strip and the passage of any commercial and humanitarian goods.

This continuing control is also evident by my need to have a permit from the Israeli military to enter Gaza (as everyone does), and, most profoundly when Israel, in response to the Hamas attack, simply cut off all water, fuel, food and medical supplies.

Hamas didn’t exist until 1987 when it was formed with Israel’s encouragement to crack the Palestinian unity evident during the first intifada. Nearly 10 years later, when I began staying, it was but a fringe group. The youth accompanying me on walks through Gaza would quietly refer to adherents as the “crazy bearded ones”.

In 2006 Hamas entered politics. I witnessed Gazan’s shock at its victory. Its election was an expression of desperation, virtually everyone explained to me. By then, Arafat’s government—the Palestinian Authority formed as part of the Oslo Declaration of Principles that ended the first intifada in 1993—had been in power for 13 years. Due to its corruption and Israel’s refusal to keep to the agreement of expanding Palestinian autonomy, the people felt no increase in the quality of their lives. It was time for new leadership and the only option was Hamas.

Rather than work with the new, legitimately elected government, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and virtually all Western powers, especially the United States, immediately instituted a full blockade of goods and supplies that is still in place.

The timing and reasons for Hamas’ attack parallel those that led to the outbreak of the first intifada: extreme marginalization and abandonment. This is evident by a host of factors, including the ultra-right Israeli government’s apparent intention to annex the West Bank, West Bank settlers’ increasing assaults on Palestinians, the continued desecration of Islamic holy sites, and the sequence of accomplished and pending “peace” agreements with Gulf countries, none of which has made the agreement conditional on fair treatment of Palestinians. All of this was piled on top of the dire living conditions in Gaza: massive rates of poverty and unemployment, the near complete absence of potable water, and desperately inadequate medical treatment. The vast majority of the population has never been able to step a foot outside of the bitty, 5 x 25-mile, strip.

It is easy to decry the brutality of Hamas’ methods. I was once chased and very nearly beaten with rusty metal pipes by its adherents. But even if Netanyahu were to succeed in his current mission of killing all members of Hamas (impossible, of course), it would contribute nothing to peace. That can only come when the millions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank are afforded the dignity, opportunity, and human rights that all humans merit.

About The Author: 

Brian K Barber, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of the University of Tennessee, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, and recent past International Security Program Fellow at New America. He has specialized in the study of youth in conflict zones, including South Africa, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and Egypt. His primary work has been in Palestine where he and his teams have studied 10,000 youth and families over the past three decades. He lives in Washington, DC, and is currently writing a narrative-nonfiction tracing to the present day the lives of Gazans he has known intimately since 1996.

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