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Tony Karon: Change Gaza Can Believe In

January 22, 2009

Tony Karon

Lest President Barack Obama’s opportunistic silence when Israel began the Gaza offensive that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians (more than 400 of them children) be misinterpreted, his aides pointed reporters to comments made six months earlier in the Israeli town of Sderot. “If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” Obama had said in reference to the missiles Hamas was firing from Gaza. “I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

Residents of Gaza might have wondered what Obama would have done had he been unfortunate enough to be a resident of, say, Jabaliya refugee camp. What if, like the vast majority of Gazans, his grandfather had been driven from his home in what is now Israel, and barred by virtue of his ethnicity from ever returning? What if, like the majority of the residents of this refugee ghetto-by-the-sea, he had voted for Hamas, which had vowed to fight for his rights and was not corrupt like the Fatah strongmen with whom the Israelis and Americans liked to deal?

And what if, as a result of that vote, he had found himself under an economic siege, whose explicit purpose was to inflict deprivation in order to force him to reverse his democratic choice? What might a Gazan Obama have made of the statement, soon after that election, by Dov Weissglass, a top aide to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, that Israel’s blockade would put him and his family “on [a] diet”?

“The Palestinians will get a lot thinner,” Weissglass had chortled, “but [they] won’t die.”

Starting last June, the Sderot Obama would have noticed that, as a result of a truce brokered by Egypt, the rocket fire from Gaza had largely ceased. For the Jabaliya Obama, however, the “Weissglass Diet” remained in place. Even before Israel’s recent offensive, the Red Cross had reported that almost half the children under two in Gaza were anemic due to their parents’ inability to feed them properly.

Who knows what the Jabaliya Obama would have made of the Hamas rockets that, in November, once again began flying overhead toward Israel, as Hamas sought to break the siege by creating a crisis that would lead to a new ceasefire under better terms. He might well have had misgivings, but he would also have had plenty of reason to hope for the success of the Hamas strategy.

Ever committed to regime change in Gaza, Israel, however, showed no interest in a new ceasefire. As Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Fox News, “Expecting us to have a ceasefire with Hamas is like expecting you to have a ceasefire with al-Qaeda.” (Barak apparently assumed Americans would overlook the fact that he had, indeed, been party to just such a ceasefire since June 2008, and looks set to be party to another now that the Gaza operation is over.)

A canny Sderot Obama would have been all too aware that Israel’s leaders need his vote in next month’s elections and hope to win it by showing how tough they can be on the Gazans. Then again, a Sderot Obama might not have been thinking much beyond his immediate anger and fear — and would certainly have been unlikely to try to see the regional picture through the eyes of the Jabaliya Obama.

Nonetheless, not all Israelis were as sanguine about the Israeli offensive as the Sderot Obama appears to have been. “What luck my parents are dead,” wrote the Israeli journalist Amira Hass in Haaretz. Survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, her mother and father had long hated the Orwellian twists of language in which Israeli authorities couched their military actions against Palestinians.

Certainly, Israel’s three-week-long military operation appears to have done little more than reestablish the country’s “deterrent” — quantified in the 100-1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths.

“My parents despised all their everyday activities — stirring sugar into coffee, washing the dishes, standing at a crosswalk — when in their mind’s eye they saw, based on their personal experience, the terror in the eyes of children, the desperation of mothers who could not protect their young ones, the moment when a huge explosion dropped a house on top of its inhabitants and a smart bomb struck down entire families…

“Because of my parents’ history they knew what it meant to close people behind barbed-wire fences in a small area…. How lucky it is that they are not alive to see how these incarcerated people are bombarded with all the glorious military technology of Israel and the United States… My parents’ personal history led them to despise the relaxed way the news anchors reported on a curfew. How lucky they are not here and cannot hear the crowd roaring in the coliseum.”

The passions of the crowd may have been satisfied. Or not. Certainly, Israel’s three-week-long military operation appears to have done little more than reestablish the country’s “deterrent” — quantified in the 100-1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths.

Hamas remains intact, as does the bulk of its fighting force. And if, as appears likely, a new truce provides for a lifting, however partial, of the economic siege of Gaza, and also for the reintegration of Hamas into the Palestinian Authority — which would be a blunt repudiation of three years of U.S. and Israeli efforts — the organization will claim victory, even if the Obamas of Jabaliya refugee camp, now possibly without homes, wonder at what cost.

If President Barack Obama is to have any positive impact on this morbid cycle of destruction and death, he must be able to understand the experience of Jabaliya just as much as he does the experience of Sderot. Curiously enough, he might be helped in that endeavor by none other than the man who directed Israel’s latest operation, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Asked by a journalist during his successful 1999 campaign for prime minister what he’d have done if he’d been born Palestinian, Barak answered simply and bluntly: “I’d have joined a terrorist organization.”

Read more about Obama’s Gaza Opportunity at TOMDISPATCH.COM

Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME.com where he analyzes the Middle East and other international conflicts. He also runs his own website, Rootless Cosmopolitan.

Copyright 2009 Tony Karon

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