Revolution #119, February 10, 2008

From A World to Win News Service

The Great Jailbreak in Gaza—Escape to Where?

Photo shows Palestinians in Gaza on January 25, streaming across the Gaza/Egypt border at Rafah after huge sections of the border barrier were demolished. Israel had imposed a complete blockade of fuel, electricity and food, on top of a year of partial blockades that had already inflicted record levels of hunger, disease and unemployment among Gaza’s 1.5 million people. [Photo: AP]

January 28, 2008. A World to Win News Service. Just when Israel was squeezing its hardest to regain control over Gaza, as a central element in the Annapolis plan for American hegemony in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians—as much as half of Gaza’s 1.5 million population—broke free. [Revolution editors’ note: The “Annapolis plan” refers to what came out of the conference on the Middle East that took place last November. For analysis, see the A World to Win News Service article “Annapolis—A Short Balance Sheet” in Revolution #112, available online at]

It was a great week in Rafah, a sight that delighted people all over the world. But then the sunny, cold weather gave way to drenching rains and the roads turned to mud, and some harsh truths about the wider world began to sink in.

When Palestinians in Gaza first marched to the border with Egypt and demanded that it be opened January 22, Egyptian police attacked them with batons, water cannons, tear gas and gunfire, wounding four. In the early hours of January 23, simultaneous explosions tore large holes in the concrete and metal wall over much of its length. Rafah residents with construction machinery started to tear down and clear away more of it. By daylight, tens of thousands of people were streaming through, not just from Rafah but all of Gaza. Since Israel had told Egypt it could station only a few hundred troops at the border, the Egyptian authorities couldn’t stop them without action far more drastic than they dared to take this time, although they had opened fire with automatic weapons against smaller groups in the past. Over the next few days they used electric prods and clubs against the crowds, but when they tried to close the border they were met with stones and gunfire. More sections of the wall were toppled, until finally people were pouring through in such great waves, in trucks, cars and on foot, that a reporter called it “a seismic and unstoppable reordering of the facts of the Middle East.” (The Observer, January 27)

People said it was like a festival. Many brought children dressed up as if for a party. They bought what Israel has denied them. Above all they bought food: flour for bread, rice, sugar, milk, fruit and vegetables, cheese (such a long time since they’d seen cheese!), biscuits and other packaged food, chickens (and chicken feed—kept out by Israel), goats, sheep and camels for future sustenance. They bought medicines to keep diabetics, heart patients and other sick people from death. They bought heating fuel to heat their freezing homes, diesel oil to run generators and hold off the dark, and petrol for the motor vehicles that had almost disappeared from the streets. They bought much concrete. One young man said that the cement would allow him to build a house and get married; another family pointed out that without it people in Gaza have not been able to build proper graves in the sand. They bought cigarettes and satellite dishes and chocolate and soft drinks.

Many didn’t buy anything at all, or stayed after they had spent their money. They were just enjoying a few days out of prison. Quite a few—and not just youth—had never been able to leave Gaza before in their lives. Others reunited with family and friends they hadn’t seen in years. A few tried to go deeper into Egypt and through that to other countries for medical care or to attend a university or just to get away once and for all.

About a million of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are registered with the UN as refugees from elsewhere, driven out of their homes by the Zionists when Israel came into existence in 1948. A sparsely populated desert at that time, the UN Partition Plan that created Israel had allocated it to Palestine. What made it matter to Israel was the need to control its population. Israeli troops seized it in the 1967 war and occupied it for the next 38 years. When the mass uprising known as the second Intifada began in 2000, they built a wall between Gaza and Egypt and sealed that border more tightly than ever.

When Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza in 2005, they retained control of Gaza’s coastal waters and airspace and of course its boundaries with Israel as well. Travel was banned between Gaza and the Palestinian communities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Although Israel said it had turned over control of the border with Egypt to the European Union, it kept effective control, screening the goods coming in and out and stopping most people from crossing. The Israeli army moved back into Gaza to close the border in June 2006, opening it slightly from time to time until they had Egypt shut it in June 2007 following the Hamas takeover of the government in Gaza.

Prelude to Genocide”

In September 2007, Israel declared Gaza an “enemy entity”—not Hamas, but Gaza’s entire population. The Israeli lockdown put an end to most economic life in this isolated strip of land 41 kilometers [about 25 miles] long and 6-12 kilometers [about 4.5 to 7.5 miles] wide. About 75 percent of the population depends on UN and World Food Program (WFP) rations. When Israel decided to cut Gaza off from the rest of the world on January 17, they announced that they would allow enough food in so that people wouldn’t starve. But UN rations are packaged in plastic bags and Israel forbids the importation of plastic into Gaza. The WFP couldn’t get fuel for its vehicles. A situation of chronic malnutrition—even before this almost 18 percent of children were undernourished and 70 percent of infants anemic—became an emergency.

By January 21, Gaza’s only electrical power station had to close down for want of fuel, leaving at least half a million people in the dark. Hospitals had to run their backup generators as best they could and hope that they wouldn’t run out of fuel or fail due to the embargo on spare parts. Death threatened premature babies in incubators, kidney dialysis patients and others. The Israeli authorities failed to give permission to leave Gaza to many hundreds of patients urgently needing treatment abroad.

Princeton University legal scholar Richard Falk called this “a prelude to genocide.” He based this judgement on the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, including clause d: “Deliberately inflicting on [a national, ethnical, racial or religious group] conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part…” The UN Human Rights Council’s Special Envoy John Dugard denounced the blockade as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which calls it a war crime to inflict collective punishment (punishing or intimidating an individual) “for an offense he or she has not personally committed.”

The U.S. Hand in the Crime

Many Palestinians believe, with good reason, that the U.S. gave Israel the green light to commit this crime. After all, Israel cut off supplies to Gaza the day after Bush left the region. When the UN Security Council was presented a resolution expressing humanitarian concerns for the people in Gaza, the U.S. blocked it.

Whether U.S. permission was explicit or implicit, the Gaza lockdown certainly followed from the Annapolis conference and Bush’s Middle East visit. The U.S. push for a “two-state solution” came not out of any sudden concern for justice but the strategic considerations of the American empire. It was supposed to solve the contradiction between unshakeable U.S. support for Israel as a Jewish state—under present conditions the U.S.’s most reliable outpost and gendarme in the region, and in the long-term perhaps the only country it can fully rely on—and at the same time allow U.S.-dependent Arab regimes in the Middle East to join a united front to isolate and perhaps topple the Islamic Republic of Iran, without earning so much wrath from their own people that these rulers themselves are toppled. It is a plan to achieve the same goals the U.S. has pursued with its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and its threats of war against Iran—to beat back the challenge to American ownership of the whole Greater Middle East, focusing on the Islamic fundamentalist forces that have put themselves forward as the main obstacle to that.

PLO and Hamas

Through a combination of bludgeoning and bribery over the years, the U.S. got Al Fatah, once the most powerful Palestinian liberation organization, to go along with the creation of a carved-up and crippled Palestinian “mini-state” on less than a fifth of historically Palestinian soil. But everyone knew that the PLO’s rival Hamas and Gaza was a big sticking point in this project.

Everyone might know that, but exactly why this is so is a complicated and multi-layered question. One dimension is that even if a Palestinian “mini-state” comes into existence—and there are reasons to doubt it—Israel intends to subjugate and carve up Palestine even further. For instance, it has continued its land grab in what little land the Palestinians have left to them, building new “Israeli only” roads whose main purpose is to surround and cut off Palestinian towns and villages from each other. The relationship between the oppressor and oppressed is not going to change, whether or not some sort of puppet Palestinian state is established. The potential of the Palestinian masses to rise up against such oppression has long been proven—as it has been proven again now in Gaza. So Israel (and the U.S.) consider it vital not just to get the acquiescence of a few Palestinian sell-outs, but to humiliate the people and crush their spirit. Even when it comes to Fatah head Abu Abbas, Israel both holds him up as their chosen representative of the Palestinian people and repeatedly humbles him.

Another dimension is Hamas itself. Hamas poses no threat to Israel’s existence and not all that much to its tranquillity. No one was killed by the escalation of rocket attacks on the Israeli settler city of Sderot in January that was supposedly the reason for sealing off Gaza, after a long unilateral cease-fire by Hamas. (An apparent Palestinian sniper did kill a farmhand just over the Israeli border.) The Israeli army killed about 40 Palestinians during the same few weeks. Rockets have killed a total of 12 Israelis over the last six years. According to the Israeli peace organization B’Tselem, Palestinians killed 24 Israelis in 2006 and ’07, while the Israeli army killed 816 Palestinians during those two years.

In fact, Hamas has no strategy for defeating the Israeli army and has never tried to do so. That’s not even part of its thinking. The purpose of its rockets is to force Israel to negotiate with it and accept its government. Nor is the Israeli army protecting anyone from Hamas. Hamas has offered Israel a cease-fire many times, including during the most recent lockdown: no more rockets fired in exchange for no more Israeli incursions into Gaza and “targeted” assassinations of Hamas leaders and their wives, children and parents. Some prominent imperialist advisors, such as Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, have criticized Israel’s refusal to accept the offer.

But there are bigger stakes and larger issues that have made Israel reluctant to make this kind of a deal. Both dimensions mentioned above are involved. The biggest problem with Hamas, as far as Israel is concerned, is its links with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a major source of support, as well as the Moslem Brotherhood of Egypt that it grew out of. Hamas has been attempting to find a place for itself within the boundaries of the present world order, including Israel’s existence. But their Islamic fundamentalism is not just a guise to win people over. In fact, many Palestinians, including in Gaza, don’t like their religious fundamentalism. Hamas has its own ideologically-related aims, and unlike the U.S. and Israel, the maintenance of the present order is not necessarily their highest goal. This is why Bush, speaking in Abu Dubai in January, placed Hamas (and Hezbollah in Lebanon) on the same plane as his amalgam of the Iranian regime and Al-Qaeda.

Mubarak—American’s Egyptian Tyrant

These questions also help explain the complex role of the Egyptian government in all this. On the one hand America’s Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak considers the Moslem Brotherhood the main danger to his regime, but on the other, it has been his preferred opposition. It is legally banned and its members periodically arrested, but it is also allowed to sit in Mubarak’s hand-controlled parliament. This contrasts with the far more ferocious attempts to crush secular opposition forces. The latent strength of this kind of opposition burst forth in what some observers called an “historic” massive illegal rally in support of the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, although Mubarak’s secret police have concentrated repression on them ever since.

During the days before the Gaza wall came down there were major demonstrations in several Egyptian cities supporting the Palestinians, some of them seeking to link up with the deep currents of dissatisfaction among the masses. It seems that at a certain point, when he couldn’t stop the Palestinians, Mubarak felt that temporarily tolerating their visits into Egypt could take some of the pressure off his government from both the Brotherhood and the secularists. This, too, is linked to larger questions, since Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country, has played a key role in the Arab world. This situation has brought out the Mubarak regime’s narrow base and great vulnerability for all to see. It has also underlined one of the main reasons the U.S. staged the Annapolis conference in the first place—a grave concern for the way a passionate support for the Palestinian people among all the region’s peoples continues to connect this fault line to others that threaten the existence of all the hated Arab regimes the U.S. keeps in power.

The Gaza jailbreak was beautiful because despite whatever role Hamas played in organizing the breaching of the wall, what shone through was the possibility of the Palestinian masses to take their own initiative, their hunger to do so, and the way that such initiative could begin to change the whole equation. It may be too soon to conclude that it killed the Annapolis process, as some people would like to believe, but it did show that a whole different kind of dynamic process far more favorable to the people’s interests could arise.

But the Palestinian people are out in dangerous waters. Israeli, Egypt, Hamas and Fatah are already manoeuvring, in various ugly combinations, to find some way out of this crisis at their expense. Mubarak’s government has cut off lorry deliveries to the whole Sinai Peninsula, forcing Palestinians to compete with Egyptians for the few goods left in stores there. Police are blocking Palestinians from going further into Egypt, and have detained thousands. Iranian president Ahmadinejad rang up Mubarak during the midst of this crisis, offering to restore diplomatic ties, and it’s not hard to imagine what he offered in return for weakening the U.S.’s united front. Hamas has its own interests in wanting to prove to Mubarak that it can be entrusted with border control, a subject its leadership is about to discuss with Mubarak. According to reports from sources as diverse as the Tel Aviv Haaretz, Al Jazeera,andBBC, on January 28 blue-uniformed Hamas security personnel began to help Egyptian police put up barbed wire along the wall. Fatah seems ready to go along with Israel’s offer to resume deliveries of some supplies, in still lethally small quantities (slightly more than half the petrol and less than 20 percent of the diesel fuel for the Gaza power plant than it was letting through last October).

The mood in Israel is one of revenge for the embarrassment. Already they’ve assassinated the Hamas military commander in Gaza accused of having organized the demolition of the wall. Israel’s chief rabbi, who claims to represent the Ashkenazi (European-origin) religious Jews, called for all Gazans, and by implication all Palestinians, in the West Bank and in Israel itself, to be removed to “a wonderful new modern country” in the middle of the desert in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.

The mood is reportedly turning sour in Gaza.

None of the forces that claim to represent the Palestinian people can possibly provide a leadership that would seek and serve the common interests of Palestine, the peoples of the region and the vast majority of the people of the world. Yet this is exactly the kind of orientation and strategy that is urgently needed in this situation, especially as the U.S.-Iran conflict and all that is tied up with that casts a long shadow over all the players.

“We were like birds in a cage,” Adel al-Mighraky told an American reporter when returning to Gaza after a trip to the Egyptian side with his grandson. “Once the door is open, birds will fly away as fast as they can—this is what we did. But what kind of bird has to go back to its cage after it was freed?”

What’s really needed is for such a breakout to not only bring great pleasure and inspiration, as important as that is, but to become part of a movement and process aimed at truly breaking out of the present world order and all its relationships once and for all.

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