Gaza: Warsaw Revisited

Dozens of Israeli warplanes bombed and rocketed the besieged Palestinian coastal enclave of Gaza on Saturday, December 27, and Sunday, December 28 killing more than 280 and wounding more than 700, including many civilians, women, and children.

“We fear this attack is only the first of a bloody series that will aim to destroy the Gaza Strip and its population. The International Community must gather forces now, speak with one voice and end the bloodbath in Gaza. Urgent action is needed now!” said Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative.

“The Gazans have been virtually tortured for nearly a year by Israel, left without even the most basic necessities being made available under the siege. It was already the worst humanitarian crisis in the world subjected to frequent attacks. Now it is a massacre,” said Barghouthi, speaking from his office in Ramallah.

Successive waves of U.S.-manufactured-and-supplied Israeli F-16 jet fighter-bombers and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters hit a variety of targets in the 139-square mile Gaza Strip, which an Israeli siege and blockade has turned into the world’s largest open-air prison. Israeli air attacks against Palestinian security forces, which lack weapons with which to effectively defend themselves and the 1.5 million Palestinian civilians who live in the densely populated area, killed, among others, twelve traffic police officers in training and 20 children, many of them on their way home from school when Israeli jets came roaring in from over the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and loosed their bombs and rockets.

At Gaza’s hospitals, overwhelmed doctors and nurses have few medical supplies with which to treat hundreds of seriously wounded victims fortunate enough to survive the devastating surprise air attacks. The Israeli blockade has long prevented the import of painkillers, antibiotics, and other drugs as well as spare parts for life-saving medical equipment and the hospitals’ electrical generators.

Israeli officials sought to justify their government’s siege of Gaza and the air strikes by presenting them as a necessary response to rockets aimed at neighboring Israeli towns, attacks launched by militants inside Gaza, but the militants’ unguided and largely ineffectual rockets had neither killed nor injured any Israeli since the cease-fire ended on December 19. A Sunday, December 28 article in the leading Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that, “Sources in the defense establishment said Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for the operation over six months ago, even as Israel was beginning to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.”

In a December 14 Sunday Times article, Marie Colvin reported that the Israeli siege and blockade had reduced some Gaza families to eating grass.

“‘We had one meal today – khobbeizeh,” said Abu Amra, 43, showing the leaves of a plant that grows along the streets of Gaza. ‘Every day, I wake up and start looking for wood and plastic to burn for fuel and I beg. When I find nothing, we eat this grass.’

“Abu Amra and her unemployed husband have seven daughters and a son. Their tiny breeze-block house has had no furniture since they burnt the last cupboard for heat. ‘I can’t remember seeing a fruit,’ said Rabab, 12, who goes with her mother most mornings to scavenge. She is dressed in a tracksuit top and holed jeans, and her feet are bare.”

The report noted that conditions for most Gazans had deteriorated dramatically in the past month, since a truce between Israel and Hamas, the ruling Islamist party in Gaza, broke down.

Nearly 500,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Gaza’s eight refugee camps are dependent on food, health care, education, and emergency aid services provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

“The economy has been crushed and there are no imports or exports,” John Ging, UNRWA director in Gaza, told Colvin.

“Two weeks ago, for the first time in 60 years, we ran out of food. We used to get 70 to 80 trucks per day, now we are getting 15 trucks a day, and only when the border opens. We’re living hand to mouth,” said Ging.

According to the official UNRWA web site, the “Agency has been forced to implement austerity measures over the last few years due to lack of funds: financial contributions have not increased sufficiently to keep pace with inflation and a rising refugee population. This has resulted in a reduction in services as is evident in the fact that average annual spending per refugee has fallen from about $ 200 in 1975 to around $110 today.”

Israel’s siege of and attacks on Gaza are not without precedent. The U.S.-initiated U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iraq (1990-2003), a well-nigh comprehensive trade and financial embargo against the government of Saddam Hussein, is widely reported to have caused the deaths of some 500,000 Iraqi children under 5 years of age by 1996. But not since Adolph Hitler’s Nazi war machine laid siege to the Warsaw ghetto has the world witnessed such a persistent and systematic attempt by a military force to starve and punish a captive urban civilian population as in Gaza.

Though the Israeli blockade of Gaza is reminiscent of the Nazi attempt to eradicate Jews in Warsaw, the circumstances differ significantly. For instance, when Nazi bureaucrats established food rations insufficient to support life among occupied peoples and captive populations, Germany was at war and trade was severely restricted. According to Charles G. Roland, author of Courage Under Siege: Disease, Starvation and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto, “Germany itself had a serious shortage of food. Even in the capital city, Berlin, the heart of the Third Reich, food was scarce as early as the end of 1940.”

There are no food shortages in Israel. In fact, just the opposite is true. Israelis have enjoyed a thriving economy even as their government has sought to punish and starve Palestinians. The Israeli government has free trade agreements with the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. According to the latest public reports in The World Factbook published by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA): “Israel has a technologically advanced market economy with substantial, though diminishing, government participation. It depends on imports of crude oil, grains, raw materials, and military equipment. Despite limited natural resources, Israel has intensively developed its agricultural and industrial sectors over the past 20 years. Israel imports substantial quantities of grain but is largely self-sufficient in other agricultural products. Cut diamonds, high-technology equipment, and agricultural products (fruits and vegetables) are the leading exports. Israel usually posts sizable trade deficits, which are covered by large transfer payments from abroad and by foreign loans. Roughly half of the government’s external debt is owed to the US, its major source of economic and military aid. Israel’s GDP, after contracting slightly in 2001 and 2002 due to the Palestinian conflict and troubles in the high-technology sector, has grown by about 5% per year since 2003. The economy grew an estimated 5.4% in 2007, the fastest pace since 2000. The government’s prudent fiscal policy and structural reforms over the past few years have helped to induce strong foreign investment, tax revenues, and private consumption, setting the economy on a solid growth path.”

The CIA’s report omits any mention of Israel’s burgeoning arms industry. According to a March 2005 report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, “Israel’s defense exports have reached $3 billion annually, which makes it a significant player in the global export market in certain areas.”

The World Factbook‘s overview of economic conditions in Gaza notes that, “High population density, limited land access, and strict internal and external security controls have kept economic conditions in the Gaza Strip – the smaller of the two areas under the Palestinian Authority (PA) – even more degraded than in the West Bank. The beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 sparked an economic downturn, largely the result of Israeli closure policies; these policies, which were imposed to address security concerns in Israel, disrupted labor and trade access to and from the Gaza Strip. In 2001, and even more severely in 2003, Israeli military measures in PA areas resulted in the destruction of capital, the disruption of administrative structures, and widespread business closures. The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in September 2005 offered some medium-term opportunities for economic growth, but continued Israeli-imposed crossings closures, which became more restrictive after Hamas violently took over the territory in June 2007, have resulted in widespread private sector layoffs and shortages of most goods.”

The CIA’s report fails to mention that Hamas won a landslide victory in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, and that Israel’s reaction, actively supported by the U.S. government, has been a relentless effort to delegitimize that freely elected government and, through the use of punishing sanctions and an air, sea, and land blockade, to force political changes that suit ultranationalistic, aggressively militaristic Right-wing regimes in Tel Aviv and Washington.

During World War II, wartime censorship and the fog of war largely hid from public view the atrocities Nazi Germany committed against Jews in Warsaw. Chillingly similar Israeli policies in Gaza are no secret, but only because Israeli censorship and an Israeli public relations campaign, which renders submissive and complicit U.S. mainstream media organizations unable to report on events in the Middle East in an unbiased manner, have been insufficient to completely obscure and decontextualize Israel’s efforts to prevent 1.5 million captive Gazans from obtaining sufficient supplies of food, medicine, and fuel to support life.

A Sunday, December 28, report on Meet the Press was all too typical of U.S. mainstream media coverage of the crisis in Gaza. During a stultifying interview with Tzipi Livni, NBC’s David Gregory tossed the Israeli Foreign Minister softball questions and suggested that, “the replacement of Hamas by Fatah, by more moderate leaders, appears to be the only answer.” He might have been reading from a list of talking points supplied by the Israeli foreign ministry’s propagandists. Gregory did not tell his audience that Livni unsuccessfully attempted to form a government after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, fighting corruption charges, submitted his resignation in July. He did not mention that Livni is now in a close race for the office of Prime Minister against Likud Party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, or that an election is scheduled for February 10. Nor did Gregory so much as hint that domestic political considerations might color the Israeli leadership’s decision to launch an attack on Gaza. Meet the Press provided no alternative perspective by a Palestinian spokesperson. Crafted to keep American audiences ignorant, the NBC report/interview, like most U.S. mainstream media coverage of events in the Middle East, was a sham and an insult to the profession of journalism and to any reasonably well-informed American citizen’s intelligence.

Any Israeli ground attack in Gaza that results in large numbers of casualties will be widely compared to the April 19 – May 16, 1943 Nazi campaign, with over 2000 soldiers, mostly Waffen SS, SS Ordnungspolizei, and SS Sicherheitsdienst troops under the command of SS General Jürgen Stroop, to end the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Nazis had walled off and sealed the ghetto in November 1940 and refused to allow in enough food to support life. Jews were forbidden to leave on penalty of being shot on sight. The Israeli blockade of Gaza, where 80 percent of the population lives and dies on less than $2 per day, is strikingly similar. Stroop’s SS troops attacked with tanks and other armored vehicles, artillery, and flame throwers. Some 1,200 starving Jews armed only with pistols, rifles, a few machine guns, grenades, and Molotov cocktails held out for 28 days as the SS troops systematically burned and blew up buildings and leveled the ghetto. Some 13,000 Jews were killed. Do Israeli leaders intend a similar extermination campaign in Gaza, as the entire world watches? Small wonder the Bush administration has reportedly warned Israeli leaders to avoid civilian causalities while publicly blaming Hamas for Israel’s wildly disproportionate use of deadly force.

Speaking for President George W. Bush on Saturday, December 27, Gordon Johndroe said, “These people are nothing but thugs, so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas that indiscriminately kill their own people.” The inarticulate White House spokesperson was with the president at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where Bush, purportedly a reformed alcoholic, has spent approximately one-third of his disastrous presidency, on vacation.

Writing in The Guardian (UK) on May 8, 2008, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter characterized the Israeli siege as, “… a terrible human rights crime in Gaza, where a million and a half human beings are being imprisoned with almost no access to the outside world. An entire population is being brutally punished.”

Carter implored Europeans and others to speak out against U.S. support of and complicity in Israeli crimes.

“It is one thing for other leaders to defer to the US in the crucial peace negotiations, but the world must not stand idle while innocent people are treated cruelly. It is time for strong voices in Europe, the US, Israel and elsewhere to speak out and condemn the human rights tragedy that has befallen the Palestinian people,” wrote Carter.

Popular disgust with and opposition to Israeli war crimes are on the increase around the world. Western support for Israeli war crimes has always been unconscionable; it is no longer acceptable. The Anti-Apartheid Movement eventually led to the end of the Apartheid government of South Africa. Like the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which began in London in 1959 as a consumer boycott organization known as the Boycott Movement, the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement for Palestine ( is gaining strength. Israeli atrocities, like the blockade of and deadly attacks on the defenseless, captive civilian population of Gaza, serve only one good purpose: They stiffen the resolve of activists everywhere who fervently desire and work for a world in which peace and prosperity are based on justice and equality under the law.

Call and write to your elected officials to demand immediate and substantive changes in U.S. foreign policy. Join the Global BDS Movement. Become an activist in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement for Palestine.

The future, if we are to have a future, belongs to those who work for justice, equality, and peace!