Letter to an Israeli friend

Not long after Israel launched ‘Operation Protective Edge’, an Israeli friend living in Tel Aviv accused me of ‘siding with terrorists’. The following is my response.

By now, I expect you are fully aware of the apocalyptic scenes coming out of Gaza. In case you aren’t, I hope the following will give you some idea of what the Israeli army – spurred on by the government, by politicians, by journalists, by academics, by the lynch mobs in the streets – has successfully achieved in just six weeks. From the beginning, we can now surmise, its sight has been set on nothing but blasting Gaza, an area of land several times smaller than my own city of London, back to the Stone Age. On 26 August, the the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 2101 Palestinians have been killed. Of this dreadful figure, 1460 (69%) are civilians, 493 (23%) are children and 253 (12%) are women. The number of casualties is even higher. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 11066 (mostly civilians) have been wounded, including 3374 children.

But this is still not the entire picture, which it is imperative for you as an Israeli Jew to know because these crimes are being committed in your name. In other words, the state has already implicated you in its actions whether or not you are aware of them. Since 8 July – in just 51 days – this regional power has bombarded Gaza by plane, helicopter, drone, artillery, tank, ship and other weaponry. It has dropped almost 20,000 tonnes of explosives on Gaza, roughly equivalent to the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. It has displaced over 485,000 people with 240,000 fleeing to already overcrowded UN shelters. It has destroyed 16,000 homes. It has damaged 21 hospitals, 167 schools, 108 mosques, 52 fishing boats, 18 charities, five universities, five high-rise buildings, and eight water and waste plants. Electricity supplies have also been cut off after the bombing of Gaza’s only power plant. Recently, the United Nations predicted an outbreak of serious diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which have not been seen in Gaza for decades, as a direct result of Israel’s destruction of basic and essential health services.

As I write to you, Israel and Hamas have agreed to a ceasefire to which, I must point out, half the Israeli cabinet remain opposed. And given Israel’s long history of breaking agreements with Palestinians, how long will it be before this one is also rendered meaningless? How long before Israel launches another war and Palestinians must resume counting dead bodies? Who, when the time comes, will answer for these crimes against humanity, for the children that lie dead in Shujaeya, in Rafah, in Khuza’a? Will it be you?

Yet for all the cruel force and unyielding power of the Israeli army, this tiny corner of the Mediterranean will always haunt you for it is here that the stray wreckage of your national memory – the Nakba you choose to forget – lies buried. Long before Israel, there were Najd and Huj, two Palestinian villages located fifteen and fourteen kilometres north-east of present-day Gaza City. On 13 May 1948, soldiers from the Israeli Negev Brigade’s 7th Battalion arrived in Najd, expelled the inhabitants to Gaza, and then looted and destroyed their houses. On 31 May 1948, Huj suffered the same fate; its inhabitants, too, expelled to Gaza. Four years later, the city of Sderot was founded on the site of these villages and populated by newly-arrived Moroccan, Kurdish, and Iranian Jews. More recently, their numbers have been swelled by Jewish immigrants from Romania and Russia. 1948 connects directly with the rockets that land on Sderot, this city built to erase hundreds of years of non-Jewish history. Try as they might to escape the inferno, this year of rupture will always torment Sderot’s present inhabitants. They know – how can they not? – those rockets come from the children of the very people they displaced and then pretended had never existed. They also know that the children of Huj and Najd, whom you dismiss as terrorists, will always remember where their ancestors’ bones lie buried. Their memories of homeland are more immediate than yours and, so, they will never relinquish them. And why should they?

So, you will understand my surprise when I received your message congratulating me for ‘siding with the terrorists’. When, in all our discussions, did I give you this impression? When I told you that the discourse of ‘two sides’ is indefensible and false? When I laughed as you told me that Palestinians must also take responsibility for their own lives? When I told you that the peace process is really an obstacle to peace? Or, was it when I told you – perhaps you heard it as a confession – that Palestinians, like Jews, have human rights? If this means that I have sided with terrorists, then I must tell you about another group of terrorists with whom I sided when I first read about them during a history lesson two decades ago.

It is spring 1943 and the residents of the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw are staging an armed uprising against the Nazi occupation. For four years, more than 400,000 Jews had been confined to an area of about one square mile, sealed off by walls, barbed wire and constant military surveillance. Anyone trying to escape was shot on sight. Just as the Israeli government’s blockade of the Gaza Strip controls what goes in and out, including Gazans’ daily calorie intake, the Nazis also maintained total control over what went into the ghetto. Food was in short supply. Disease and starvation killed thousands every month. Faced with the prospect of forced deportation to concentration camps, several Jewish resistance groups created two armed units, the Jewish Combat Organisation and the Jewish Military Union. At the time of the uprising, the total number of fighters was around 800. At some point, they established contact with the Polish Home Army and obtained guns and explosives. As well as these weapons, the Jews fought their oppressor with third-rate rifles, homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails. As the Nazis began to destroy the ghetto – like Gaza, a densely populated civilian area – it was discovered that the fighters had stored their munitions in synagogues, private houses and underground tunnels. In fact, it was also discovered that residents of the ghetto had constructed underground bunkers in preparation for the uprising. So, when the Nazis entered the ghetto on 19 April 1943, the eve of Passover, with the intention of liquidating the inhabitants, they found it empty: everyone was hiding in the bunkers and tunnels. During this time, the fighters issued the following manifesto to the people of Poland: ‘Long live the fraternity of blood and weapons in a fighting Poland! Long live freedom! Death to the hangman and the killer! We must continue our mutual struggle against the occupier until the very end.’ It took the Nazis almost a month to break the resistance. Just as Netanyahu boasts of the destruction of ‘terror tunnels’, SS general Jürgen Stroop reported that his forces had destroyed over 600 bunkers. For months after the ghetto’s liquidation, Jewish groups remained in hiding and continued to fight the Nazis. They weren’t about to relinquish their memories of homeland.

What would you say to Mordecai Anielewicz who commanded the Jewish Combat Organisation? Would you be able to hold his gaze and call him a terrorist? Would you accuse him of using human shields because he hid his arsenal in people’s homes? Would you say that the destruction of the Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street, one of the wonders of nineteenth century Polish architecture, was a legitimate target? Of course, your answer is no because, according to the logic of your Zionist posturing, the infinite humanity of the Jews is matched only by the abject inhumanity of the Palestinians. So, the former have every right to resist oppression by any means necessary; but in the case of the latter, whom Zionism has stripped of their homeland and subsequently their place in history, even the possession of the most mediocre weapon justifies brutal retaliation by the state.

Not long after the murderers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir were arrested, a reporter for one of Israel’s television networks asked a Jewish woman in Tel Aviv what she thought should to be done with them. Her reply – ‘They should get two life sentences. One for murder. And one for bringing shame on the Jewish people.’ – demonstrates the extent to which Palestinians have always been absent from the Zionist imaginary. That woman was not merely a ‘voice on the street’. She captured perfectly the Israeli zeitgeist, namely that the kidnapping and brutal murder of  a 15-year-old boy is only meaningful when it might disrupt Jewish honour. Palestinian suffering is not enough to call them into reality. As with all white supremacist ideologies from Wounded Knee to Jallianwala Bagh, the Palestinians do not signify except as an obstacle in your presence. And, so, you can blame them for making you kill their children – not just the 493 killed in the last month or so, but also the hundreds of thousands killed since the Nakba. It is entirely their fault.

And Zionism is a white supremacist ideology. Conceived in the nineteenth century as a result of and in response to the emergence of a range of European nationalist and colonialist ideologies, Zionism was manufactured by and for Askhenazi Jews. Zionism was never a liberation movement for all Jews even though it has spared nothing to render the terms Zionist and Jewish interchangeable. The very soul of Israel has always been the property of the Ashkenazi. This is why Zionism’s colonisation of historic Palestine has not only been framed by a discourse that seeks to elide Palestinian presence and subjectivity but also by numerous attempts to separate Arab, Iranian and African Jews from their Arab, Iranian and African identities. Hence, the flag you wave will always be smaller than the one waved by your Mizrahi or Ethiopian neighbour; and Palestinians will continue to be arrested for waving their flag. It is also why the woman in Tel Aviv will never be able to identify herself in this disaster, nevermind take responsibility for its outcome.

This is a war against innocent civilians. It is Israel’s culture of death. It is a continuation of the Nakba. The aim is to cleanse the land of its non-Jewish inhabitants, to eradicate the next generation of Palestinians, in preparation for a Jewish lebensraum. Like every other Israeli Jew, you know this is what is happening. The racism that has swept across the country is devastating to behold. Israeli Jews march through the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv chanting ‘Death to Arabs’ with no consideration of the evil inherent in this statement. A renowned Israeli scholar argues that the sisters, mothers and wives of potential Palestinian terrorists should be raped as a method of deterrence. Knesset members call for a war against all Palestinians, and the deputy speaker outlines his plan for the expulsion of Palestinians out of Gaza and into concentration camps in the desert. The Palestinian deputy mayor of Haifa is almost beaten to death by a Jewish lynch mob. A Palestinian teenager is burnt alive. These are not simply the misdeeds of rogue anti-social elements. This is a wave of hatred and violence that is supported by large numbers of the Israeli public. Most disquieting is the celebration of Palestinian death and suffering, whether it be cheering from the hilltops of Sderot as bombs fall upon Gaza, or joyous outbursts on social media. One day, your leaders and heroes will stand trial for all their crimes, and the statement ‘I am a Zionist’ will be as loathsome and reprehensible as ‘I am a Nazi’.

This has nothing to do with ‘siding with terrorists’. It is about human rights. It is about an illegal occupation and a mediaeval blockade. It is about checkpoints, house demolitions, resource theft, four different IDs for Palestinians and one for Jews. It is about the illegal Wall that cuts through Palestinian land. It is about the everyday racism against non-Jews. It is about Israeli militarised nationalism and the rise of the far right. It is about Jewish politicians calling for an anti-Arab holocaust, lynch mobs, price tagging, young Jews radicalised by their political and religious leaders, political activists held in Israeli prisons, children kidnapped from their families by soldiers in the middle of the night, the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure, the difference in public spending between East and West Jerusalem, separate and better roads for Jewish colonies in the West Bank. It is about the Nakba and the refugees. In time, even you will realise that terrorists are not made in Gaza. They sit in the Knesset in Jerusalem.

*An edited version of this article was published by Ceasefire Magazine.