A ritual of violence that Israelis have already forgotten

The collapse of any logic in Israel's Gaza policy has become accepted without a shred of discomfort, rendering the yearly bloodletting an act of fate.

Palestinian resistance groups launch rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel, May 10, 2023. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)
Palestinian resistance groups launch rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel, May 10, 2023. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

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There’s nothing to see here, please move on. The latest war on Gaza — five days of Israeli airstrikes that killed 33 Palestinians, Islamic Jihad leaders and civilians alike, and rockets that killed an Israeli civilian and a Palestinian worker in Israel — was just the most recent purification ceremony, a bloody seasonal ritual of violence, where ministers, officers, and Knesset members across the Zionist political spectrum mutter sacred mantras about security necessities and unite in their disregard for Palestinian life.

Israelis won’t remember that the first aerial attack of what they called “Operation Shield and Arrow,” which took place two weeks ago and killed three Palestinian men who were presented to the Israeli public as senior members of Islamic Jihad — as well as their children, wives, and neighbors (known in Israeli parlance as “collateral damage”) — set off a spiral of violence that would only grow wider as the days wore on.

Israelis will fail to remember because the story actually began a week earlier, with the death of Palestinian political prisoner Khader Adnan, who died while on hunger strike, and after a bout of rocket fire into Israel from Gaza, which wounded a foreign worker. Or perhaps it all began right at the end of the previous onslaught, last August. How does one decide what constitutes the “beginning?” After all, this has become routine — a kind of natural phenomenon. It may be difficult to remember that these outbreaks of violence with Gaza are built into the policies put forth by successive Israeli governments.

Like a child who plucks off the wings of a fly, resting his chin on his palm and observing the result, Israel has been mentally and physically abusing the residents of the Gaza Strip since it locked the door and threw away the key during the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. The outbreaks of violence are part of a strategy of coercion and control: the bomb and the carrot. But violence is only one part — critical, yet not necessarily the main means of abuse. Part of the desperation in Gaza is the disparity between the residents’ accumulated collective trauma compared to the oblivion outside the strip. Seasoned CNN journalist Ben Weidman agreed with a Gaza resident he spoke to whose home was destroyed when the latter told him: “Journalists come, take pictures and go home!” But the fear, the distress, the despair, do not subside in Gaza when the roaring jets no longer pulverize the ears of the residents, when the cameras are shut off and the journalists leave.

Routinely, and especially since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel prohibits the movement of Palestinians to and from the strip, with very few exceptions. For more than seven years, Israel prevented goods from moving between the Palestinian territories, claiming that doing so posed an imminent security threat. The ban was, in effect, a collective punishment that succeeded in handicapping Gaza’s economy (the daily wage in Gaza is one third of that in the West Bank; the unemployment rate is 3.5 times that of the West Bank). Until not long ago, workers from Gaza were entirely barred from entering Israel.

Palestinian mourners attend the funeral of Islamic Jihad commander Ali Ghali and his brother Mahmoud, who were killed in an Israeli strike on Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, May 11, 2023. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)
Palestinian mourners attend the funeral of Islamic Jihad commander Ali Ghali and his brother Mahmoud, who were killed in an Israeli strike on Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, May 11, 2023. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

The stated goal of these actions was to weaken and eventually overthrow Hamas. The tight closure would so immiserate the lives of Gazans that Hamas — which manages civilian life in the Strip but is designated a terrorist organization by Western countries — would face an uprising. This policy serves all circles of Israeli interest: first and foremost, internal politics, since there is no single issue that brings Israelis together quite like the demonization of Palestinians, and certainly those who live in Gaza. It also serves Israel’s policy of differentiating between Gaza and the West Bank, a goal that is helped quite substantially by internal Palestinian political divisions, and is concurrently intended to erode the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, while leaving the Palestinians of Gaza voiceless.

By turning Gaza and the West Bank into two distinct, disconnected entities, the former can be defined as a kind of toxic, non-political issue from which Israel recuses itself, not even pretending to be interested in any political solution. This finding appeared in the State Comptroller’s report investigating “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. The comptroller was amazed at how, in the 16 months that had passed from the establishment of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government until the fighting broke out, his cabinet held not a single significant political discussion on Gaza. When Netanyahu was asked by the comptroller why he did not consider a political alternative to the war, his answer was simply that there was none. By implication, the yearly bloodletting ceremony in Gaza is rendered an act of fate. There is no collective Israeli memory when it comes to Gaza, because there is simply nothing to remember. This is how it is.

These bursts of violence are an act of terrorism. A constant threat of unexpected violence, like the one we witnessed earlier this month, powerful and disproportionate, endangering everyone. Children have grown into adults under the constant hum of drones; they know how to distinguish the whistle of an artillery shell from the whisper of a missile from the air; they know that every morning could be their last, even if all they wanted was a life of normalcy in a narrow strip of land the length of a marathon.

In this story of fate, only the rituals remain — the air raids, the targeted assassinations evoking panic, the death, and the acrid combination of Israel’s victim mentality and calls to wipe out entire Gazan neighborhoods. But, somewhere along the process of besiegement and “mowing the lawn,” Israel’s so-called policy underwent a 180-degree shift. Already in 2014, Israeli leaders began talking about the need to “rehabilitate” Gaza. Under international pressure, Israel established a very detailed procedure for monitoring the entry of goods, under full Israeli control, cynically called the “Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism.” Suddenly, it became possible and plausible to send trucks full of goods for the short trip from Gaza to the West Bank.

Now, the number of workers leaving the Gaza Strip for Israel and the West Bank is reaching the quota — for the time being, up to 20,000 work permits have been granted — after years of the government claiming that doing so was a security non-starter. All of a sudden, Israeli commentators are praising Hamas for its restraint, while military analysts opine that this restraint is a direct result of Israel’s generous permit policy. The collapse of the very concept that brought about misery and starvation to Gaza’s population has become accepted in Israel without a shred of discomfort.

More than 800,000 of Gaza’s children do not know a reality without a strict blockade. A survey conducted last year in Gaza found that four out of five children there report that they live with depression, sorrow, and fear. That over half of the children have contemplated suicide. Sixty percent harm themselves, 80 percent wet the bed, 59 percent have gone mute following bouts of violence.

Unlike four-year-old Hajar Khalil Salah Al-Bahtini, 12-year-old Mayar Tariq Ibrahim Izzuddin, eight-year-old Ali Tariq Ibrahim Izzuddin, and the 10-year-old Layan Bilal Mohammad Abdullah Mdoukh, who were killed at the beginning of the month, these children are not collateral damage. They mark the success of Israel’s policy.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.