The tragedy that has been continually unfolding in Palestine for the past 75 years recently took a dramatic turn when Palestinian armed groups broke through the steel gates closing off Gaza and entered Israel on 7 October 2023. While the details of what occurred are gruesome, but also very unclear, their actions led to a further escalation by Israel, with senior figures in the Israeli government vowing revenge in terms that are tantamount to an incitement to commit genocide. The massive loss of human life and deliberate targeting of civilians has been accompanied by feelings of incredulity. People are asking: How could this happen? In this article, human rights and legal mobilisation scholar Jeff Handmaker provides some context.
Even for someone like myself who has been closely following the situation in Palestine for more than 25 years, the human cost of what we have been seeing in the past few days has been difficult to fathom. Veteran Ha’aretz journalist Amira Hass in describing the sheer scale of what’s currently happening noted that:
In a few days, Israelis went through what Palestinians have experienced as a matter of routine for decades, and are still experiencing – military incursions, death, cruelty, slain children, bodies piled up in the road, siege, fear, anxiety over loved ones, captivity, being targets of vengeance, indiscriminate lethal fire at both those involved in the fighting (soldiers) and the uninvolved (civilians), a position of inferiority, destruction of buildings, ruined holidays or celebrations, weakness and helplessness in the face of all-powerful armed men, and searing humiliation.
Hass’s statement captures why it is so challenging for Israelis and Palestinians (and their supporters) to recognize the other’s humanity. Israelis find it hard to see the other’s humanity, as they have been promised that they would be safe and secure behind colonial borders and have only now experienced atrocities at this scale. Palestinians also find it hard to see the other’s humanity as they have never suffered the illusion that they were safe and secure behind colonial borders and have been experiencing atrocities at this scale for more than 75 years.
The Hamas attack didn’t come out of the blue
It is important in this context to understand what was behind the attacks by Hamas-affiliated groups, purportedly in response to Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinians who remain under occupation in the Gaza Strip. It was purportedly also linked to the Israeli government’s open support of settler colonialism in the West Bank, as well as brutal attacks against largely peaceful demonstrators during the “Great March of Return” in 2018 and recent provocations around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. One should remember what life in Palestine looks like at present, particularly in the Gaza Strip, and how it got there.
To begin with, Gaza is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, with more than two million people living in an area of approximately 362 square kilometers (smaller than the Caribbean island of Curacao, which has a population of 153,000). Moreover, Gaza has been subject to a strict military blockade since 2007 that has limited the freedom and opportunities of Palestinians in a fundamental way. It is frequently described as an open-air prison, and many have called the oppressive governance of the area by Israel as nothing other than an apartheid state. This is why the attack on 7 October has been referred to by commentators such as Israeli journalist Amira Hass as part of a “cycle of violence” that “shouldn’t surprise anyone”. In other words, it should be seen in context and not as an isolated event.
Reacting to a long history of domination and oppression
To grasp the deeper context of the current violence, it’s also important to understand three key historical moments, none of which obviously excuse the committing of international crimes. Each of these historical moments has involved extensive human rights violations and international crimes in the context of Israel’s long record of domination and oppression of Palestinians.
The first key moment was in 1948, when Zionist founders of the State of Israel committed a series of operations which, according to scholars such as Walid Khalidi, Ilan Pappe, and Nur Masalha, amounted to a mass expulsion and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of historical Palestine. This is referred to by Palestinians as the ‘Nakba’, or ‘Catastrophe’. Approximately one-third of uprooted and dispossessed Palestinians ended up living in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, assisted by the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies. Around one-quarter of these refugees today reside in refugee camps in Gaza, comprising around two-thirds of the population of Gaza.
The second key moment was the Israeli military’s capture of additional territories in 1967, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Golan, and Gaza. This resulted in further and forced displacement, movement restrictions, and other daily restrictions as Israel established settlements in the occupied territory. Israel withdrew the settlers 38 years later but has continuously maintained its occupation of the Gaza territory by air, sea, and land.
The third and most recent moment is Israel’s blockade of the territory starting in 2007 in its current, extreme form, whereby it has been extremely difficult, and at times impossible, for Palestinians living in Gaza to access medicine, building materials, food, humanitarian assistance, and even electricity and water. Patients requiring advanced medical care that the overstretched hospitals in Gaza cannot provide have limited options due to the blockade, and as a result, many – including children – have died of easily treatable ailments. According to Physicians for Human Rights, the deteriorating healthcare situation has been particularly straining for women in Gaza. The ability of students to study abroad has also been extremely limited. Moreover, according to the United Nations, during the course of several brutal military operations, Israel has killed more than 6,400 Palestinians.
While these were key moments in what many commentators have characterized as Israel’s settler-colonial and apartheid regime against Palestinians, it is impossible to explain all dimensions. Suffice it to say that numerous documented violations that have been committed throughout these periods are currently the subject of an international criminal investigation by the International Criminal Court, albeit greatly delayed.
From oppression to onslaught
This brings us to 9 October 2023, when the government of Israel announced a “total” blockade of the Gaza Strip, including cutting off the electricity, food, and water supply to the area. Gazans were warned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they are to pay an “immense price” for the actions of Hamas and have warned Palestinians to “get out of there [Gaza] now” as the Israeli military was going to “turn all Hamas hiding places … into rubble”.
Of course, Netanyahu knows full well that Palestinians in Gaza have nowhere to go; Israel’s military has even bombed the one remaining exit route, the Rafah Crossing, and has refused to set up a humanitarian corridor. Thus, at a bare minimum, Israel’s actions amount to the war crime of collective punishment, directed at a captive population with nowhere to go. And with 300,000 Israeli reservists having been called up to serve in active military duty, fears are that the consequences for the people of Gaza could be far greater than they have ever been before.
A prelude to genocide?
Some years ago, Richard Falk, a Princeton University professor and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, was said to have characterized the ongoing siege of Gaza as a “prelude to genocide”.[i] It is immensely worrying that more and more parties are starting to believe that Falk’s sober prediction might be coming true. Human rights NGOs have long referred to the oppression of the Palestinians and the control of Gaza as a crime against humanity.[ii] However, it is especially recent events and public proclamations of retaliation by Netanyahu as well as by military commanders referring to Gazans as ‘human animals’ and vowing to give them ‘hell’, that are making Falk’s claim seem more and more believable.
Taken together, the evidence suggests there are very well-founded fears that what we are now witnessing are very explicit intentions to accomplish the genocide of the Palestinian residents of Gaza. Rather than simply asking how this could happen and extending unconditional diplomatic support and military aid to Israel, observers of this carnage should also ask themselves how the carnage can be stopped. The answer is certainly not to commit further atrocities.
[i] These developments should also be seen in light of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh in September 2023, in which Israel also played a central role in and for which there have been limited consequences for the government of Azerbaijan, could readily be seen as a prelude to genocide in and of itself.
[ii] While Gazans have long characterized what they are experiencing as a ‘slow-motion genocide’ that has created an almost uninhabitable situation for many of its two million inhabitants, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’tselem and others have characterized as the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza as an apartheid regime, which like genocide is also a crime against humanity. Reinforcing these concerns, a group of eight renowned Palestinian research institutes and human rights organizations, including Al Haq, have further explained how Israel’s discriminatory and exclusionary policies are an explicit and expansive tool of settler-colonialism and ‘structural and institutionalized racism’.
The article was first published here.