“Five killed in clashes in West Bank and Gaza”: Language and the crimes we permit

“Five killed in clashes in West Bank and Gaza”: Language and the crimes we permit

by Scott Kennedy

  As I entered the powerful new museum of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in
Jerusalem in early November, I was confronted by these words:  “A
country should be judged not only by what it does, but also by what it
  Kurt Tucholsky, WW1 veteran and pacifist, journalist and social critic
whose books were burned by the same Nazi regime that stripped him of
his citizenship, wrote the statement after Germany adopted the
anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws. His sobering contention was brought
vividly to mind during my visit to Gaza, Palestine ten days later. Gaza
is a 140 square mile area packed with 1.5 million people. In Gaza I
observed not only the consequence of our nation’s toleration of certain
policies and practices. I also saw how language is used to obscure and
distance us from the evil that we tolerate.

  Barely two hours after entering Gaza on November 18th, I watched an
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Apache Helicopter hover eerily above the
densely populated Bedouin town of Beit Lahiya in the Northwestern Gaza
Strip, population 40,000. Bursts of cannon fire from the helicopter
reverberated across the Northern Gaza, rattling the fourth story
windows of the Al Awda Hospital in nearby Beit Hanoun as I squinted in
the bright sunlight to make out the helicopter. A cloud of smoke
briefly obscured the helicopter against the bright blue sky and then
quickly cleared. A few moments later, another round was fired into the
heavily populated residential area below.

  Back at my hotel later that afternoon, I spoke with William Dienst, an
American family and emergency physician in the West Bank and Gaza for
the fourth time, who had rushed to nearby Kamal Adwan Hospital with
Palestine Medical Relief Society colleagues where wounded were received
from the helicopter attack. Still shaken by the experience, Dr. Dienst
described witnessing the lifeless body of Thaer Al Masri, a 16 year old
boy killed by a large caliber gunshot wound through the neck. He was
also involved in the hospital trauma team’s successful resuscitation of
a 20 year old male suffering from a large caliber gunshot wound to the
left chest. Unfortunately, this young man died later due to ongoing
internal bleeding.

  Dr. Dienst commented wryly that the helicopter attack would no doubt
be featured in the evening news as another “clash” between Israeli and
Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip. “How can it be a ‘clash,’” he
asked, “when the forces are so drastically unequal and the outcome so
predictable?” I later read news accounts about heavy shooting by
helicopters targeting Beit Lahiya that day and “armed clashes” between
“militants” and the IDF. The report said there was one fatality—
Thaer El Masri aged 16 years. Sure enough, that night the ticker
running across the bottom of the international news television screen
read, “Five killed in clashes in West Bank and Gaza.”

  Five Palestinians killed, that is. Like clockwork. Or shooting fish in
a barrel.

  I thought again of Tucholsky’s quote. The people were killed with
advanced military weaponry in many cases, such as the Apache helicopter
that killed two young men in Beit Lahiya while I watched, was developed
in the USA, manufactured in the USA, provided to Israel by the USA and
paid for in most cases by US tax payers. For those who may be
interested in knowing the impact that our country has on people
overseas, language commonly used to describe can make it difficult to
find out and masks what is truly going on. In this case, “clashes” 
reinforces images of two somewhat equal parties engaged in conflict. In
fact the might of one of the most powerful militaries in the world is
arrayed against an essentially defenseless civilian population in Gaza.

  Certainly Palestinian violence has targeted and killed Israeli
civilians. Perhaps equally reprehensible, Palestinian paramilitary
groups. firing thousands of home made Qassam rockets (HMRs) over the
separation barrier surrounding Gaza, spread terror in Israeli
communities such as Sderot, even though these rockets are crudely built
and poorly aimed and often hit Palestinian areas or strike harmlessly
in the nearby desert. Even during direct Israeli military occupation of
Gaza, before the “disengagement” in August of 2005, Israeli troops
could not stop the firing of HMRs from Gaza. The Palestinian Authority
and its security forces are much more poorly equipped to stop them. The
dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza and pullout of Israeli troops
actually was intended to give the Israeli military a freer hand in
attacking those firing the rockets, with little effect.

  The targeting and killing of Israeli civilians is often broadcast in
such a way to reinforce the impression that Palestinian violence
constitutes a mortal threat to Israel’s continued existence. As of July
5, 840 Palestinian rockets were fired towards Israel from within Gaza. 
Meanwhile, during the same period, Israel fired 8,300 shells and
rockets into Gaza, nearly ten times the number of Palestinian rockets.

  In the past five years, Palestinian HMRs and mortars have killed ten
Israelis in Israel (including several Arab citizens of Israel) and
seven Israelis in illegal Jewish settlements within Gaza, for a total
of 17 deaths. In slightly more than four months, on the other hand, 
Israeli forces have killed 400 Palestinians in Gaza. More than 40% of
those killed were civilians and more than 60 of those killed were
children. We are told that Palestinians target civilians and the
Israelis only kill civilians by accident. This may sound reassuring, 
but the Israelis killed more civilians in one “accident” ten days
before my visit, than the Palestinians have killed with all their
Qassam rockets in more than half a decade.

  In June 2006 fighters from Hamas captured an Israeli soldier just
across the border from Gaza. This soldier’s capture plus the continuing
“threat” of the HMRs provoked massive Israeli military retaliation. 
Israeli forces launched a series of “incursions,” in fact a re-invasion
and occupation of Gaza. They called the invasion “Summer Rains” and
said its purpose was to free the captured Israeli soldier and to catch
or kill those responsible. The Israeli military action was a typically
calculated overreaction to any act of violence by Palestinians

  As part of “Summer Rains,” the IDF specifically targeted Beit Hanoun
during a month-long assault named “Clouds of Autumn.” The focused siege
concluded on November 7th as troops withdrew from the town. The very
next day, according to an IDF spokesman, an Israeli artillery barrage
targeted a spot from which Qassams were launched. A technical error
resulted in shells striking a Palestinian residential area in the dead
of night, killing 19 and wounding more than 40 Palestinians sleeping in
their homes. On my first day in Gaza, I visited the site of the

  At the Beit Hanoun apartment building, smoke and fire had blackened
the concrete around windows and several gaping holes through which I
could see collapsed walls and ceilings. I met a Palestine Red Crescent
ambulance worker across the street from the building who had helped
transport the casualties of the shelling to the hospital. He presented
several young girls who survived the shelling. Their heads, necks and
exposed arms showed cuts and bruises from shrapnel and flying concrete. 
Many members of their family had been killed. My guide warned against
entering the building because the anger against Americans in the
building and neighborhood was running so high.

  Later, at Al Awda (“the Return”) Hospital, doctors showed me photos of
the Palestinian victims of Operations Summer Rains and Autumn Clouds
and shrapnel removed from their bodies. Several pieces of twisted metal
clearly bore the marking “made in the USA” and legible serial numbers. 
Just a few days prior to my arrival in Gaza, the US vetoed a UN
Resolution condemning the bombing in Beit Hanoun. Ironically, the
director of the hospital was telling me how much more difficult it has
become to persuade Palestinians to distinguish between the American
people and our government when suddenly shooting from the helicopter, 
described above, interrupted our conversation. It is no wonder that the
Palestinian people are outraged, he explained, at American backing for
Israel’s ongoing aggression in Gaza.

  The fighting in and around Gaza is sometimes seen as a “war” between
Israel and Palestine. But it is not a war. What’s going on in Gaza is
an American financed slaughter.

  In my two days visiting Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, Jebaliya Camp, Gaza
City and Rafah, I saw plenty of evidence of the widespread devastation
left by Israeli forces. There were dozens of sites, either single plots
or entire city blocks, where houses were crumpled and rendered
uninhabitable. I was appalled by the widespread destruction of the
public infrastructure. During the 1950s Ariel Sharon had cut a grid of
wide roadways through the refugee camps to provide Israeli troops ready
deployment in the population centers. Still I saw that the corners of
buildings at many intersections were slumping, apparently inadvertently
wrecked as tanks turned the corners during this summer’s invasion. 
Power and telephone polls had been snapped off. Much of the curbing and
medians were chewed up by heavy treads. Many streets evinced damage by
Israeli tanks and other vehicles. Sewage pipes were damaged and
effluent was pooling in some streets.  Broken-back bridges sagged on
major streets and highways.

  In Rafah, we saw a barren expanse of concrete heaps and dirt mounds
along the three-meter high metal and concrete barrier marking the
Egyptian border. Israeli forces demolished more than 700 homes in the
the Tel al Sultan residential zone of Rafah alone. In all, an estimated
2,000-3,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed to create the
Philadelphi corridor, making tends of thousands of Palestinians
homeless. The great wasteland covered many acres of what used to be
housing. Dr. Dienst and I asked to be taken to the location where
American peace activist Rachel Corrie was crushed and killed by an
Israeli bulldozer in March of 2003. The local police had some
difficulty identifying the site. The streets and alleyways and block
after block of residential buildings were all gone and they could
hardly recognize the site after recent rains. Such ruin is justified as
a necessary part of Israel’s “war on terror.” The heavily armed
security detail asked to have a photo taken with us at the site of
Corrie’s death. They don’t want Rachel Corrie, or themselves, to be
  In other towns in Gaza, I was impressed to see municipal workers
repairing power and telephone lines and cleaning streets. I had read
that public employees had not been paid for more than eight months. 
Having served in local government during recovery from a major
earthquake in my home town, I was left shaking my head at the thought
of how very long it would take to repair the infrastructure of Gaza and
at what great price. How will Gaza ever recover?

  At one point during the summer, Israeli over flights created
round-the-clock sonic booms and air strikes destroyed Gaza’s only power
station. This single act reduced available electricity to Gaza by more
than 65% and crippled the water and sewer treatment facilities. Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly commented to his cabinet, “Nobody
dies from not having electricity” and “no one in Gaza should sleep.” 
Relief and human rights organizations began to raise a cry about the
onset of malnutrition and hunger and the impact of acute stress and
trauma, especially on children. An adviser to Olmert responded, “The
idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of
hunger.”  People in Gaza clearly understand that their suffering is not
accidental or “collateral damage” caused by IDF operations to stamp out
terrorism. The deprivation, suffering and death of the civilian
population is an intentional strategy, imposed as conscious policy.

  Such comments by Israel’s leaders are outrageous, if not obscene. Yet
they are digested without comment by mainstream newspaper editorial
writers in the U.S. Even the most progressive of anti-war American
elected officials gladly fund Israel’s military underwriting such
practices. The Bush Administration raises only the most muted
objections or exercises its veto to stifle international objections. 
Our nation may not be directly involved in inflicting punishment on
families, neighborhoods and entire cities in Gaza, but the collective
punishment we fund is illegal according to international humanitarian
law and the Geneva Accords, to which both Israel and the US are

  So too, when the Israelis rounded up and handcuffed more than 4,000
men from 16 to 45 years of age from Beit Hanoun, held and interrogated
them in a makeshift detention on the beach by Beit Lahiya, Israel
counted on our nation looking the other way.

  According to US and Israeli spokespersons, the civilian population of
Gaza will be deprived of food and water and basic services to force a
change in the Palestinian government from Hamas to one more amenable to
American and Israeli wishes. Israel’s gratuitous destruction of Gaza’s
public infrastructure is all fair game. Civil war will be fomented
among the Palestinians as an explicit means of achieving the US goal of
bringing down Hamas. The US public is comforted by the reassuring
notion that the “clashes” and “accidents” are inevitable outcomes of
Israel fighting a war for its very survival. But is not part of
Tucholsky’s point that nations should be judged by the consequences of
their actions, not only by their intentions?

  When we talked that first afternoon in Gaza, Doctor Dienst described
his last several nights there. Soon after 11:00 p.m., he explained, 
Israeli helicopters slide down the Mediterranean coast and position
themselves above one of the teeming refugee camps or crowded towns of
Gaza. From the safety of their perch in the sky, the helicopters pummel
Palestinian houses, reducing concrete block homes up to four or five
stories high to a pile of rubble. The homes typically house several
generations and a dozen or more members of a Palestinian family. 
Israeli artillery may be employed from just outside the narrow breadth
of Gaza to do the job. At other times, the Israelis send in ground
forces with tanks and Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozers. The attack may
target a “wanted” person. But demolition of houses is also a favored
form of collective “punishment” imposed on the extended families of
those Palestinians accused of being “terrorists,” or “militants,” 
depending on your point of view. By what right is such a heavy penalty
inflicted on their families and neighbors.

  “Just step out on your balcony,” Dienst encouraged me. “You can watch
the fireworks from there.”

  That night, I left the window in my hotel room overlooking the beach
open so that any shooting would wake me up. I slept the night
undisturbed, however, and asked at breakfast what had happened. I
learned that a remarkable act of nonviolent civilian resistance had
deterred the nightly Israeli assault. In order to reduce civilian
casualties, the Israelis have made phone calls to warn residents that
their home will soon be destroyed. Sometimes people are told the
demolition will occur the next day. Other times the family has thirty
minutes or less to remove items of value from their home before it is
flattened. All the inhabitants may flee immediately, not knowing when a
rocket might strike. There are reports of families that received the
warning call and then nothing happens. They are left uncertain if they
are victims of a malicious prank or if it is in fact safe to return to
their home.

  The night of my visit to Gaza, hundreds of unarmed Palestinians
thwarted the IDF’s announced plans to destroy a residence in Jebaliya, 
the world’s largest refugee camp with 100,000 residents packed into a
little more than 1/2-square mile. Several dozen people swarmed onto the
roof while hundreds of women surrounded the targeted building. When
Israeli helicopters arrived and surveyed the scene, they decided
against an attack. A slew of civilian casualties would not look so good
following international outrage about the Beit Hanoun massacre two
weeks earlier. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in
Jerusalem, “the IDF counter terrorist operation had to be canceled due
to the proximity of the civilians—demonstrating vividly that the
Palestinians know that Israel values their lives more than the
Palestinian terrorists do.” This statement, while it plays well in the
American press, would sound odd to the Palestinian residents of Gaza
that has suffered more than 150 civilian fatalities and seen thousands
made homeless and tens of thousands traumatized by Israeli forces in
the preceding four months.

  I met some of those made homeless when I visited the remains of the
800 year old al Nasr Mosque in Beit Hanoun. Several hundred unarmed
women had surrounded the mosque and successfully prevented capture of
up to 15 targeted men being sought by an Israeli ground force who had
sought refuge inside. According to IDF officials, the militants had
fired at Israeli troops from inside the mosque. The crowd surged
towards the Israeli soldiers who fired and killed two women and wounded
dozens more. The Israelis then retreated and the men escaped.

  But the victory was short-lived. Israeli forces returned and
demolished the mosque, leaving only the minaret in tact. They also
demolished several nearby houses where military authorities said
weapons were found. 40 people were made homeless, including several
women who sat speechless on the rubble of their homes or wept
inconsolably staring at the ground as I approached the scene.

    I cannot imagine the circumstances in which people of the United
States would accept destruction of homes because a family member was
accused (not even convicted) of committing a crime or planning to
commit a crime or alleged crimes were being committed in the
neighborhood, about which a person may not even be aware or over which
have any control. I expect authorities would find quite a few weapons
in US neighborhoods if American homes were threatened with widespread
and arbitrary demolition by a foreign power. 

  Acts of unarmed civilian resistance by Palestinians, such as
surrounding the mosque and defending the home in Gaza, were just two of
many examples of imaginative and courageous active nonviolence about
which I saw. I visited several promising community projects in Khan
Younis and Rafah: an employment center for female victims of domestic
violence, cultural centers, health clinics and schools. People continue

to nurture a civil society in Palestinian areas, what Gandhi would call
“constructive works,” despite the formidable obstacles they face and
the repeated disruption of their activities. So the range of
Palestinian nonviolence stretched from daily constructive work to build
and strengthen civil society, to persistent advocacy for human rights
and democracy, to dramatic acts of popular resistance.

  Still, I realized that the decision of unarmed civilians in Gaza to
defend a threatened home is much as anything an act of despair in the
face of indifference by the United States and the world to what is
happening in Gaza. So too the firing of rockets continues for the media
and psychological impact as much as any actual damage done. The
difference is, I think, that the futile military gestures further
delegitimized the Palestinians’ standing in world opinion and undercut
Israeli peace forces, while the nonviolent acts of resistance
strengthen the Palestinians’ legal and moral cause and strengthen
allies in Israel and abroad. Unfortunately, even though word of this
bold act of popular resistance’s immediate success spread like wildfire
through Gaza and the international media, very little is said in the US
media about either the ongoing overwhelming military assault on the
civilian population of Gaza or the brave acts of popular defiance
undertaken by its civilian population.

  Palestinians were troubled when a prominent international human rights
organization declared that such use of “human shields” to protect
“suspected militants’ homes” was a war crime. I wondered how civilian
homes, even those belonging to an extended family of a person targeted
for assassination or those accused of crimes, had become legitimate
military targets in the eyes of the world?

  Why would an international human rights organization condemn the
desperate act of unarmed civilians attempting to stop the wanton
destruction of their homes and families?

  The Israeli military does its deadly work in Gaza with little or no
interference from other nations. For their part, the Palestinians will
use tactics such as swarming threatened targets with unarmed civilians
again, if only because they have no military force capable of stopping
the Israeli juggernaut. So I wasn’t surprised when a second house was
saved from demolition by similar mass civilian action a few days later.

  These tactics confront the Israelis, on the other hand, with a very
tough choice. They must either risk injury or death of its soldiers by
sending in ground forces to effect the demolitions, or use artillery or
rockets without warning or despite the presence of many civilians, 
likely resulting in far more civilian casualties. Few observers expect
that the Israelis are willing to foreswear their widespread practice of
collective punishment and home demolitions. The growing nonviolent
action may well have contributed to Israel’s recent decision to enter
into a cease-fire in Gaza. Hopefully negotiations will get back on
track as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, short of genocide, does not
lend itself to a military solution.

  Those few people in the US who have given it any thought at all, seem
to think that Israel has withdrawn from Gaza. “Clashes” are portrayed
as battles between two warring parties. The reality is that Israel
continues to exercise systematic and comprehensive control of nearly
every aspect of Palestinian life in Gaza. A Palestinian college
professor whom I met in Gaza, for example, has been married for a
decade to a South African woman. His wife can only join him in Gaza on
a three-month tourist visa like that I receive when visiting. The
Israelis won’t let his wife live in Gaza, more than a year after their
“disengagement” from Gaza. Of course, he is welcome to join the ranks
of Palestinians who finally give up and leave, permanently forfeiting
the possibility of returning to their homes and families.

  Preventing a married couple from living together is a small, perhaps
banal, example of Israel’s continuing domination of Gaza. The IDF also
controls the air over Gaza, all of its borders with Israel and Egypt, 
and the Mediterranean coast. Commercial crossings from Gaza into Israel
were closed about 20% of the time before official “disengagement.” 
Since August 2005 the commercial border crossings have been closed 60% 
of the time, devastating commerce. Fishermen cannot sail more than a
few hundred yards from the shore. Israel controls most water and all
electricity in the Palestinian area. The Israeli military enters Gaza
at will to demolish homes and other buildings, to impose curfews, 
enforce economic sanctions, and to assassinate those they consider a
threat. All of these actions converge in creating a severe humanitarian
crisis in Gaza, and have, if anything, only justified in the eyes of
many Palestinians continuing rockets attacks on Israel.

  As I was driven back to the Erez border crossing to exit Gaza, a white
shape hanging in the blue sky over the northernmost border with Israel
caught my eye. I remarked that at home, such balloons advertise a car
sale or boost a furniture store’s perennial going out of business sale. 
In Gaza, this and several other pilot-less lighter-than-air balloons
surveil the activities of Palestinians below and provide direction for
military assaults by Israeli forces into the Palestinian territories
inside their separation barrier.
  For nearly six decades of belligerent military occupation of Gaza, 
the Israeli military has assaulted, degraded and destroyed the private
property and public infrastructure of Gaza with impunity. These
practices are routine despite the so-called “disengagement” of Israel
from Gaza in August of 2005. The Gazans have no effective means of
self-defense. Palestinian security forces have no weaponry capable of
counteracting Israel’s tanks, artillery, aircraft and overwhelming
force of men under arms. Their facilities have also been flattened, 
vehicles destroyed and forces decimated by ongoing Israeli offensives. 
Palestinian authorities are even less capable of stopping occasional
attacks aimed at Israel. Meanwhile, the international community does
little or nothing to stop ongoing attacks on Gaza. It’s almost
impossible to get into Gaza to even see what is going on. When the UN
finally takes action, the US wields its veto power to shield Israel
from any sanctions or its economic and diplomatic might to minimize
international pressure.

  When looking at the ruins of al Nasr Mosque, several Palestinians
whose homes had been bulldozed beseeched me to tell others “in America” 
what had happened to them. They demonstrated the widespread and
seemingly irrepressible faith among Palestinians that if Americans only
knew what was going on in Gaza, then surely we would stop sending the
weapons that Israel uses to control and attack the civilian Palestinian

  I didn’t have the heart – or the courage – to explain that most
Americans simply don’t care to know what is done with our money or what
is made possible by our nation’s diplomatic and economic support. Or, 
if they do know, they don’t care enough to do anything about what is
going on in places like Gaza. Many otherwise thoughtful people in the
United States, people with a demonstrated commitment to human rights
and social justice, defend whatever actions Israel may take, regardless
of international law and despite devastating consequences for a
defenseless civilian population such as the Palestinians in Gaza. Glib
slogans are offered in defense of actions that they would not support
or want to pay for anywhere else. This degree of indifference is
constructed through a concerted effort to prevent the U.S. public from
really knowing what is going on.

  Whatever the case, the United States sends $10 million a day to
Israel. Our support and tolerance of what goes on there flows
essentially unchallenged through Congress and unnoticed by the public.

  Kurt Tucholsky says a country “should be judged ... by what it
tolerates.”  If that be true, in light of what I saw happening in Gaza, 
the United States and all of us who live, vote or pay taxes here, have
a lot to answer for.


[Scott Kennedy coordinates the Middle East Program of the Resource
Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, California. He was elected to
three terms on the Santa Cruz City Council and served twice as mayor. 
Kennedy was elected national chairman of the Fellowship of
Reconciliation and founded and chaired the FOR’s Middle East Task
Force. He has traveled to the Mid East four dozen times since 1968 and
most recently in November 2006 when he co-led a delegation for the
Interfaith Peace-Builders http://www.interfaithpeacebuilders.org