Send them to Gaza, Israel's penal colony

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Gideon Levy's picture
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By deporting Palestinians to Gaza, Israel would officially be admitting, for the first time, that the besieged Strip is a prison, the largest in the world

An hour’s drive from Tel Aviv: a ghetto. Possibly the largest ghetto in the world, with about two million people. The latest figures from Gisha, Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement (an Israeli NGO): Gaza unemployment is at 43 percent; 70 percent of Gazans need humanitarian assistance; 57 percent live in the shadow of food insecurity.

And then there is the disturbing report from the UN back in August 2015 entitled: “Gaza in 2020: a liveable place?” By that time, the damage to water infrastructure will be irreversible, and even now the water is undrinkable.

GNP per capita: $1,273, which is lower than 25 years ago, and possibly the only GNP figure worldwide that just keeps on falling. Another 1,000 doctors and 2,000 nurses will be needed for the besieged and collapsing health system; where will they come from?

The Al Nuseirat health faculty? Students going abroad to study at Harvard? Egypt tightened the exit and entrance restrictions at Rafah; the world has ignored its obligations to Gaza, and Israel exploits both – Egypt’s intransigence and the world’s indifference – to continue its siege on Gaza, in tandem with the Egyptian siege on Gaza from which Israel’s draws encouragement and legitimacy.

Three hours of electricity a day. Sometimes six. In the rain and the cold, or the heat: winter and summer. Then 12 hours or more without electricity, until the next three hours, or six. Every day. Almost two million people. A million of them are refugees and the children of refugees, due directly or indirectly to Israel’s actions.

Almost a million are children. Few people can imagine this. Few Israelis feel any guilt about it. Few Israelis seem to care at all about it. Hamas – you know.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a novel idea now: to this accursed place, he wants to banish the families of the knife-wielding or car-ramming assailants from the last several months.

From now on, not only will any girl or boy with a knife or a pair of scissors be executed on the spot, as has happened increasingly of late whether it was necessary or not; from now on, their families will be punished too. They will pay.

Netanyahu has already consulted his new attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, for an official opinion: if the AG allows it, that’s great from Netanyahu’s standpoint. If the AG refuses, Netanyahu can always blame the Israeli justice system again for preventing him from defending the nation’s citizens from terrorism. Win-win.

Israeli public opinion offers broad support for Netanyahu’s crazy ideas: most Israelis support every Draconian punishment he devises against "terrorists" and their families. Collective punishment contravenes international law? Israel gets a pass. Israel gives no consideration to international law, an important and righteous instrument but, for Israel, irrelevant.

In principle, there is an issue of far greater consequence than Netanyahu’s demagoguery, as he has attempted in recent months by any means and at any price to satisfy the extreme right wing in an atmosphere of intense ultra-nationalism. Netanyahu knows that Israel’s security services have no real way of countering the lone wolf attacks of this latest round of rebellion against the occupation.

He hears from the IDF and the Shin Bet that when dealing with lone assailants, most of them very young and with no logistical or military infrastructure behind them, no political movement or organisation of any kind involved in their mostly spontaneous and unplanned attacks – Israel’s big, strong army has nothing with which to respond. Nothing by way of intelligence, to prevent or thwart these attacks. And Israel’s sophisticated technological weapons won’t help, nor will its army of Palestinian informants; nor the American stealth aircraft or the German submarines.

To counter the teenage girl with scissors and the teenage boy with a kitchen knife who get up one morning and decide to go and commit an attack, no army in the world has anything whatever. There is no military solution to nearly 50 years of despair. But Netanyahu must be forever showing that he “is doing something,” as the Israeli public wants, and not sitting there wringing his hands about the daily or almost daily attacks that show no sign whatever of waning or being suppressed, even when most of them culminate in the death of their perpetrators and relatively low losses on the Israeli side.

So, one more time, let’s bring out that rusty old response of razing the homes of the perpetrators’ families. According to B’Tselem, Israeli has already demolished or sealed 31 such homes since the beginning of October 2015. Of these, 14 were actually the homes of neighbours, destroyed together with those of the perpetrators’ families, but no one in Israel is concerned about that either.

With the imprimatur of Israel’s judicial system, there is a collective punishment for everything. Some, though not all, security experts argue that this is a deterrent to terrorists, but during the entire history of the intifadas, that claim has never been proven. On the contrary, anyone familiar with the Palestinian atmosphere knows that home demolitions have actually motivated more and more young people to commit attacks, as revenge. When someone is willing to pay with his life, when his despair is so deep, the idea of his family’s home being demolished will not deter him.

Meantime, the rage just intensifies among the ruins of the destroyed houses. A few days ago, I visited two destroyed homes, belonging to families of assailants in the village of Dura, south of Hebron. Nineteen people were left homeless after the Harub and Masalma families’ houses were demolished. 

Wandering around among the ruins was Khaki Harub, age three, the younger brother of Mohammed Harub, a 22-year-old Palestinian who killed two Israelis in a shooting at the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank and was arrested by Israeli forces. “I want to kill a Jewish soldier,” the toddler told me. When I asked him why, he said, “Because they wrecked my house.” Khaki, whose name in Arabic means “that’s my right,” will never forget the ruins of his home. He will grow up on that memory.

Now Netanyahu wants to get tougher with the families and expel them to Gaza. Netanyahu won’t be the first Israeli prime minister to take this step. During the first and second intifadas, Israel expelled Palestinian activists to Jordan, to Lebanon, to Gaza and to other countries. The biggest expulsion actually took place under the government of Yitzhak Rabin.

On 17 December, 1992, after the abduction and murder of an Israeli border policeman, Rabin ordered the expulsion of no less than 415 activists from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to Lebanon. The Israeli judicial system was not unanimous in support of this extreme step and ruled that it was illegal, but on an appeal by the deportees the High Court allowed it, and the 415 activists were expelled to Lebanon. There, at Marj al-Zuhur, on an icy Lebanese mountain in subfreezing temperatures, evolved the Hamas leadership that runs the organisation to this very day. Problematic not just from a juridical standpoint, then, expulsion has also never proven itself effective from Israel’s standpoint. Whether it has weakened terrorism at all is highly doubtful.

But Netanyahu wants to take this another step further or, one could say, another step backward. Now we are not talking about terror operatives, but about their families, who are under no suspicion of wrongdoing themselves. If Israel’s judicial system allows this to happen – and the Israeli judicial system generally authorises every whim of the security services – families, including aged parents, and women and children, of those who have harmed Israelis will be uprooted from their homes and expelled to Gaza.

Under any fair judicial standard, of course, this mini-transfer could not withstand scrutiny. It violates any notion of natural justice. It would uproot innocent people from their homes, their communities, their livelihoods and their roots, and turn some of them into refugees for the second or third time in the history of their families.

Moreover this expulsion will of course do nothing of value to combat terrorism. Like other, similar steps, this one is mainly intended for internal Israeli consumption: to show the vengeance-hungry public in Israel that their government is punishing, with a vengeance. This step has no other purpose. It could easily turn into an option that Israel will invoke repeatedly, without restraint.

Incidentally, there is something else in all this that merits our attention: Israel would officially be admitting, for the first time, that Gaza is a prison, the largest one in the world, of course. Sending the families of these perpetrators to Gaza is framed as punishment, and the choice of Gaza as a penal colony of Israel, its very own Devil’s Island, is also a confession that Gaza is viewed as a prison camp, a huge open-air cage. Israel, while claiming that the occupation of Gaza ended, is proving that the prison remains a prison, while its wardens have simply preferred to go outside and guard it from there.

The toddler Khaki Harub now wanders around in shock among the ruins of his house in Dura in the South Hebron Hills. When I visited there, among the debris, his father gave him a shekel to buy candy, as if to help the child forget his anger and frustration in front of the newly arrived Israeli.

If it were up to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli would not make do only with the demolition of little Khaki’s family home: it would send him to Gaza, whatever fate may be in store for him there, under total siege, without electricity and without water fit to drink, in a place which in four more years will be unfit for human habitation. The name “Gaza” is related, in Hebrew, to the name “Azazel” – in the biblical tradition, the place where a scapegoat was flung off the mountain to its death. 

Gideon Levy is a Haaretz columnist and a member of the newspaper's editorial board. Levy joined Haaretz in 1982, and spent four years as the newspaper's deputy editor. He was awarded the 2015 Olof Palme human rights prize and was the recipient of the Euro-Med Journalist Prize for 2008; the Leipzig Freedom Prize in 2001; the Israeli Journalists’ Union Prize in 1997; and The Association of Human Rights in Israel Award for 1996. His new book, The Punishment of Gaza, has just been published by Verso. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinians in Gaza read books as they stage a demonstration called 'Gaza reads' against Israeli violations in West Bank and Jerusalem, on 3 March, 2016 (AA).