One year after a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas ended the third Gaza war in seven years, no one expects that this recent conflict will be the last. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain has described Gaza, with 1.8 million inhabitants crammed into a narrow strip of 141 square miles under tight Israeli suveillance, as “an open air prison or even concentration camp.” Although Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza 10 years ago, continuous hostility and the absence of a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas make another round of violence likely.
The expectation of another war explains in part why Gaza is still in ruins despite a commitment by international donors of $2.5 billion in reconstruction funds when the cease-fire was announced on Aug. 26, 2014. Donors have been reluctant to honor their pledges; Palestinians have continued their infighting; and Israeli approval of reconstruction permits has proceeded glacially. As a result, not a single one of the nearly 18,000 homes destroyed or damaged in Gaza is habitable; only one-fourth of the rubble has been cleared; 100,000 Gazans remain homeless; and unemployment stands at 43 percent. Meanwhile, international attention to Gaza’s misery has been supplanted by the rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war and Iran’s nuclear program.
The 51 Day War seeks to return the focus to the suffering of Gaza’s civilian population. Max Blumenthal, the author of a book about the Israeli occupation, arrived in Gaza on the 38th day of the war and began interviewing victims of the violence and their families. By the time the conflict ended two weeks later, Blumenthal reports that the “Israeli military had not only torn through the civilian population like a buzz saw...killing some 2,200 people—more than 70 percent were confirmed as civilians—and wounding well over 10,000; it had pulverized Gaza’s infrastructure,” including schools, hospitals and mosques. By comparison, Israeli losses amounted to 66 soldiers and six civilians killed and 576 wounded.
Blumenthal’s aim, however, is not to show this statistical disparity of suffering but to allow Gaza’s survivors to tell what happened to them. A witness described how his unarmed 23-year cousin returning to his home in Shujaiya to search for missing family members was killed by a sniper’s three shots when he waded into a pile of rubble. A man in Khuza’a recounted a tank commander’s shooting of an unarmed elderly man trying to escape the closed military zone. A man in Rafah said Israeli snipers used him as a human shield while they pinned him to a window and fired at his neighbors. An older Rafah man stated: “This didn’t start yesterday. When I build a house, the Israelis bomb it. When I try to make a living, they destroy my business. When I try to raise a child, they kill him.”
Blumenthal explains that the Israel Defense Forces had been planning a major assault against Gaza since late 2013. The I.D.F.’s assaults on Gaza stem from a military doctrine that uses massive force against the civilian population instead of targeting its guerilla foes. To maintain the status quo, the I.D.F. must, according to an Israeli journalist, periodically do “maintenance work in Gaza and to ‘mow the lawn,’” including regular assassinations of Hamas leaders and occasional invasions. What distinguished the 51-day war was the unprecedented amount of firepower the Israeli military deployed.
The kidnapping and murder in Hebron, in the West Bank, of three young Jewish hitchhikers on June 12, 2014, by “a rogue Hamas cell” furnished the Netanyahu government with a pretext to round up hundreds of Hamas members who had been released under a 2011 prisoner swap for an Israeli captive soldier. Although Netanyahu knew that the Jewish teenagers had been murdered, he continued to dispatch armed search parties and mounted a propaganda campaign against Hamas that included biblical and revenge rhetoric. When Jewish extremists killed and burned the body of a 16-year-old Arab high school student in retaliation, Hamas elements in Gaza began firing rockets into southern Israel. The Hamas leadership eventually took credit for further rocket attacks, and the war was on.
In an effort to avert war, Hamas proposed a 10-year truce, including the release of the prisoners that had been arrested after the killing of the three youths, the lifting of the siege and opening of border crossings, and withdrawal of Israeli tanks from the Gaza border. Hamas wanted relief from the siege; Israel wanted to preserve the status quo. Emboldened by the refusal of Egypt and the United States to consider these humanitarian demands, Israel flatly rejected them and insisted on a return to the status quo of siege and surveillance. Blumenthal shows that throughout the war, the Obama administration accepted Israel’s explanations for its actions at face value and continued to replenish I.D.F.’s supplies, while professing to be “heartbroken” by the suffering of Gaza children torn apart by Israeli shrapnel.
Blumenthal falters in his refusal to consider Hamas’s responsibility for the suffering of its people. He claims that unlike the I.D.F., Hamas focused its most lethal force on military targets. This argument strains credulity. The U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry in a June 2015 report, while finding Israel responsible for most of the possible war crimes, also cited Hamas’s firing of rockets at population centers and its execution of 21 suspected Gazan collaborators as violations of international law. Blumenthal glosses over these events and fails to hold Hamas responsible for its actions. Although Blumenthal’s sympathies are clearly with the Gazan people, one must ask whether they are being well served by a government willing to sacrifice so many of them. In the final cease-fire, the only concession to Hamas was the extension of Gaza’s fishing limit from three to six miles. Was this gain worth the human cost?