It was a pivotal moment in the nonviolent struggle for civil and human rights. Speaking at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. uttered words that would profoundly influence the course of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” He was taking a public stance against the war that would place him in opposition to his government in Washington. He had agonized over this decision. In “this dreadful conflict,” he admitted, there is always a danger of being “mesmerized by uncertainty,” but he would not let the uncertainty still his voice: “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
During a celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday last January, Michael Ratner, a lawyer and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, applied King’s words to the silence that had engulfed many in the United States regarding the plight of the people of Gaza. For too long American Jews, including himself, along with most other Americans had stood by silently or with marginal protests in the face of the “massive violations of Palestinian rights carried out by Israel.” One reason for the silence is a hesitation to criticize a people who for centuries had been victimized by anti-Semitism, culminating in the horror of the Shoah, who have been assaulted by suicide bombers in the Holy Land and who are now the targets of random rocket attacks from Gaza. In addition, public criticism of Israel often leads to accusations that the critic is anti-Semitic or a “self-hating Jew.” Yet as long as the silence continues, so will the brutal and inhuman treatment of Palestinians continue, especially of the people of Gaza.
A recently released report by the United Nations fact-finding mission that investigated the three-week war in Gaza that began in late December 2008, called Operation Cast Lead, has found strong evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both Israel and Hamas. It also points to the complicity of the international community in repeatedly extending impunity to the actions of Israel’s military forces. The commission was led by Richard J. Goldstone, an internationally respected South African judge. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Judge Goldstone, who is Jewish, described his reluctance to accept the U.N. role, though he finally accepted “because my fellow commissioners are professionals committed to an objective, fact-based investigation.” The report gives detailed analyses of dozens of possibly criminal incidents, in keeping with one of Goldstone’s stated aims: “to show the human side of suffering and give a voice to victims so they are not lost among statistics.”
Now it looks as if the report itself may be “lost among statistics.” Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, said Israel has mounted a campaign to show that the report is “biased, one-sided and political.” Daniel Ayalon, deputy foreign minister of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, insists that Israel was correct in refusing to cooperate with the mission because some of its members believed the Gaza operation “was not one of self-defense, but an Israeli aggressive action,” and now Israel must make “the report dissipate.” Similar comments have come from Washington. Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, characterized the report as “unbalanced, one-sided, and basically unacceptable,” and Congressman Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, asserted that its authors were living in a “self-righteous fantasy land.” Should the U.N. report be passed over in silence, it would indeed be a betrayal.
An Economy Destroyed
In the last several months I have visited Gaza a number of times as part of a nongovernmental organization that assists nursery schools there. Several times I have toured the northern Gaza Strip, where most of the factories of Gaza were located. Every one of them had been completely leveled. Wherever we looked there was scarcely a building standing that had not been severely damaged by shelling, including mosques and homes and schools. Herds of farm animals lay dead in the fields, agricultural lands were ruined, chicken farms bulldozed. Gaza’s productive capacity, limited to begin with, was completely destroyed. Over the months when I visited, the debris has been cleaned up and the people whose homes were destroyed and who were unable to find space with relatives had moved to tent villages. They are still there. No reconstruction has taken place because no building materials can be brought into Gaza.
None of our nursery schools were destroyed, but classes were doubled in size because other nearby schools lay in ruins. I noticed one youngster just staring at his desk while his 48 classmates worked at different projects. A teacher explained that he had not spoken in the four days since classes resumed. During the fighting he had been clinging to his father who was running to a safer neighborhood, but his father was shot dead. The screaming youngster had to be literally pried away from his dead father—he did not want to let go. Israel shelled some areas of Gaza for more than 20 consecutive hours. What does such violence do to people, especially to children?
I asked Sabah, the N.G.O.’s contact person in Gaza, whether the Israeli incursion had led to greater or lesser support for Hamas. She was hesitant, then as she started to answer she broke into tears: “It makes no difference. It is all so hopeless. No matter what kind of face we put on to the outside world, within us there is no hope—nobody cares.” Few people see the price the ordinary Gazan is paying to live through such pervasive violence.
Reduced to Destitution
Some people do care and do speak out. The Jewish academician Sarah Roy, senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, cites Gaza as an example of a society “deliberately reduced to a state of abject destitution,” its proud and productive population reduced to “aid-dependent paupers.” The almost total destruction of Gaza’s economy has caused the poverty rate to soar. Well over 90 percent of Gazans are dependent on humanitarian aid for basic needs. Israel may be the primary agent of this subjugation, but it has acted with the implicit consent, if not approval, of the United States and much of the international community.
Only one-quarter of the food needed to meet Gazans’ basic nutritional needs is permitted to pass through the siege implemented by Israel. Many commodities are banned by Israel, like refrigerators, washing machines, needles, candles, matches, sheets, blankets, cutlery, tea, coffee, light bulbs and shoes. The siege has conveyed to Gazans that they do not count in the eyes of the world.
Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at Oxford, relates poignantly: “I write as someone who served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I utterly reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism.” He describes the situation in Gaza not as a case of economic underdevelopment but rather as “a uniquely cruel case of de-development” in which the vast majority of the population lives in “abject poverty and unimaginable misery.” These living conditions are “an affront to civilized values, a powerful precipitant to resistance and a fertile breeding ground for political extremism.”
In January 2006, despite all the obstacles, the Palestinian people held a fair democratic election that brought Hamas to power. Nevertheless, led by Israel and the United States, most of the world refused to recognize the Hamas-led government, branding Hamas as nothing more than a terrorist organization. This campaign has demonized the group so effectively that economic sanctions are imposed, in Shlaim’s words, “not against the occupier but against the occupied.” Israel’s public relations programs have successfully conveyed the notion that Palestinians, especially Hamas, are terrorists who reject coexistence with Israel, whose nationalism is a form of anti-Semitism and whose Islamic faith is incompatible with democracy. In fact, most Palestinians are people with normal aspirations, no better and no worse than other national groups, who want to live in freedom and dignity in a land they can call their own.
Hamas is by no means innocent. With the fruit of its electoral victory snatched from its grasp and having few other alternatives, it resorted once again to the weapon of the weak: terror. The launching of Qassam rockets with the hope of striking civilian targets cannot be condoned. It is also a foolish, self-defeating strategy. The killing of civilians and the intent to kill civilians are wrong. These norms apply, however, not only to Hamas but also to Israel. Operation Cast Lead was basically a war against a civilian population. Shlaim describes Israel’s treatment of the inhabitants of Gaza as “one of unbridled and unremitting brutality.”
Breaking the Silence
In assessing the conduct of Israel over these years, Shlaim comes to the difficult conclusion that Israel has become a rogue state, a state that “habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practices terrorism—the use of violence against civilians for political purposes.” For Shlaim, Israel’s real aim with Palestinians has never been peaceful coexistence but military domination. The brutality of Israel’s military is matched by the eloquent spin of its public relations experts. The core messages handed out to the media are that Hamas broke the cease-fire agreements, that Israel’s objective is the defense of its population and that its forces take the utmost care not to hurt innocent civilians. The military incursion into Gaza belies the statements of the Israeli government. The testimony of many Gazans, the investigations by independent human rights groups, the stories circulated by the Israeli group Breaking the Silence (Israeli soldiers who speak about their actions)—all indicate that serious war crimes were committed.
Yet the siege continues. Each week a group of officers in the Israel Defense Forces meets to decide which foods to allow into Gaza. The list of items can change from day to day. The quantity is strictly monitored and allows for a very slim margin of error for maintaining basic nutrition. The officers insist that their calculations are statistically accurate, provided there is an equal division of the food supplies sent to Gaza. Yet they assume that the food distribution is not going to be equal. The result? Many Gazans are receiving less than the required minimum calories. The officers meet regularly with humanitarian organizations and listen to their complaints and requests but deny there is a humanitarian crisis. A senior officer insists that this is not a siege policy but a restriction of “luxury” products to Gaza. Yet the list of luxuries changes regularly. Pasta and beans and pumpkins have all been classified as “luxury” items.
The Israeli journalist Hadas Ziv asks why the Health Ministry’s recommendation for Israeli infants and toddlers (soft fruit like bananas and avocados, cooked chicken and beef and cheese cubes) does not apply also to Palestinian infants and toddlers. These items are all banned from entering Gaza. In the view of many observers, this policy of Israel is tantamount to either starvation or collective punishment, both violations of international law. More important, it forces Gazans, especially children, to work in the tunnels under the southern border at Rafah to bring in what they need. It is dangerous work but also lucrative. Hamas controls the tunnels and takes a percentage of the profits. Once again the siege is strengthening the ones it was intended to weaken.
A Call to Action
What can be done? I offer two brief suggestions.
Join the Jewish Fast for Gaza, a group begun by two American rabbis calling on all Jews and people of conscience to fast for Gaza on the third Thursday of each month. (www.fastforgaza.net). Its goals are: to lift the blockade of civilian goods and services into Gaza; to provide humanitarian and developmental aid to the people of Gaza; to call on Israel, the United States and the international community to engage in negotiations without preconditions with all relevant parties, including Hamas, to bring an end to the siege; and to encourage the American government to engage Israelis and Palestinians vigorously in negotiations for a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Get involved in a sustained nonviolent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. As one Israeli activist put it: Convince your friends, your churches, your mosques and your synagogues to boycott products from Israel, especially from the settlements. This program is not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish. It is a program to support the many Jews and other people of conscience who oppose the oppressive policies of the State of Israel. Speak to your politicians and to local government officials. Write letters to your local newspaper. Be alert when shopping in your local supermarket, or have a talk with its manager. Sanctions and divestments from corporations like Caterpillar and Motorola have made headlines, but you do not have to wait for decisions of the stockholders or for President Obama to implement a new policy on Israeli settlements.
Israel pays far too little heed to international law unless it is under pressure to do so. Such pressure should come from you and me, from anyone who cares about truth and justice, about peace and reconciliation, about a future for the State of Israel. There comes a time when silence is betrayal. We will always be mired in uncertainty and our vision will always be limited, but we must speak out and we must take action.