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Politicians' version of Gaza: lazy, blind and dangerous

By Stuart Rees - posted Thursday, 22 November 2012


Two campaigns are being waged over Gaza. One concerns the rockets from Gaza and the use of excessive force to try to eradicate the Hamas government. Such violence leads not only to loss of life and numerous injuries but also to continuing, corrosive fear on both sides of the border.

The second campaign is the opinion war in which the Government of Israel invests a fortune to win hearts and minds to a particular version of history. In Australia the comparative success of that campaign leads to television and radio interviews with Mr Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli government, who wrings his hands, and mouths the usual platitudes about merely defending ourselves, never wanting to harm civilians and always wanting to return to something called the peace process.

Regev, however is the semi-respectable version of Israeli opinion. Other commentary from that country repeats the notion that all Gazans could be eliminated, by a Holocaust if necessary. That abhorrent perspective implies that such Palestinians are sub-human, a view fomented by the centuries old , violence for ever, kill or be killed ways of thinking. .

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But it is the Regev version of events that is swallowed wholesale by politicians such as the US President, the British Foreign Secretary, the Australian Prime Minister and her followers. At best their repetition of Regev-like comments is a lazy way of thinking. At worst it displays a refusal to consider the last 65 years history of the Palestine /Israel conflict. If such politicians and the media representatives who enable them to broadcast the same old mantras would only reflect on the events which underpin the Gaza/Israel/Palestine violence, they'd be making a modest contribution to public understanding of what a just outcome could look like in this age old conflict.

The siege of Gaza has been underway for over five years. In consequence, that narrow strip of land, about the size of the eastern suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne, has become the largest prison in the world. I've been there. I've witnessed the Gaza citizens' lives. They have been collectively punished for electing Hamas in 2006, in what western observers at the time concede was a free and fair election!

I have no brief for Hamas but I also know that some brave citizens of southern Israel who are most at risk from rockets fired from Gaza have pleaded with the Netanyahu government to cease the idea that military retaliation provides security. There are other principled, non-violent ways to address this conflict. The essential formula for non-violent solutions is that justice for the Palestinians equals security for Israelis.

But let's return to the a more detailed picture of Gaza than we are hearing. This 'largest prison in the world' houses approximately 800,000 children who are too easily included in the sweeping claims about Palestinian terrorists . For years, those children and their families have faced greater threats of death and injury than their Israeli contemporaries just a few kilometers away. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem shows that Israel keeps Palestinians in Gaza under lock-down and treats them as target practice. Nine Palestinians die from Israeli bullets in any one year compared to one Israeli from Palestinian attacks.

Getting involved in body counts begins to sound like a literary tit for tat comparable to the predictable militaristic assumption that violence will solve anything. But if politicians are to display any semblance of balance or humanity, they should comment, at least occasionally, on the disparity in lives lost. For example, in Operation Cast Lead in 2007/2008, 1,400 Gazans died, most of them non-combatant civilians, disproportionately women and children. In the same period of slaughter, 14 Israelis died, most from friendly fire – an Israeli/ Palestinian ratio of lives lost of 1:100. In the latest bombing of Gaza, by Tuesday 20th of November 2012 100 Palestinians , 24 of them children, had been killed and three Israelis had lost their lives. I'll leave readers to work out that ratio.

However dangerous the armed wings of Hamas, they have no army, no air force and no navy. They face the most powerful military forces in the Middle East whose military arsenals can quickly be re-supplied by the government of the United States.

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My experience of negotiations to achieve just resolutions to conflicts teaches that unless there is some semblance of equality of resources among protagonists, the chances of negotiations to realize justice will not succeed. Yet with regard to Palestine, too many western politicians refuse to consider this massive inequality. Instead they push the empty notion that security might be achieved by more punishment to teach offenders a lesson, by more fire power to frighten a besieged people into submission.

In these comments about a one-sided, history-blind version of events over Gaza , I am also drifting into the use of the very language – 'win' , 'punishment', 'teach a lesson', 'body counts' , 'military retaliation' – which polarizes and guarantees only more conflict. As an alternative to such language, the plea for reflection on history and for a pondering of the formula that justice for the people of Palestine would contribute to security for Israelis merits attention.

Politicians' commentaries could be constructive if they reflected, just a little, on history, on the human costs of the prolonged siege of Gaza and even on the brave requests for dialogue from citizens in southern Israel. Surely not too much to ask ?

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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