Noam Chomsky on Gaza, the World’s Largest Open-Air Prison

A look at life under occupation.

Noam Chomsky

The ruins of a hospital in Gaza after being bombed by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. (CODEPINK Women For Peace / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Even a sin­gle night in jail is enough to give a taste of what it means to be under the total con­trol of some exter­nal force.

Gaza has the look of a Third World country, with pockets of wealth surrounded by hideous poverty. It is not, however, undeveloped. Rather it is "de-developed," and very systematically so, to borrow the term from Sara Roy, the leading academic specialist on Gaza.

And it hard­ly takes more than a day in Gaza to appre­ci­ate what it must be like to try to sur­vive in the world’s largest open-air prison, where some 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple on a rough­ly 140-square-mile strip of land are sub­ject to ran­dom ter­ror and arbi­trary pun­ish­ment, with no pur­pose oth­er than to humil­i­ate and degrade.

Such cru­el­ty is to ensure that Pales­tin­ian hopes for a decent future will be crushed, and that the over­whelm­ing glob­al sup­port for a diplo­mat­ic set­tle­ment grant­i­ng basic human rights will be nul­li­fied. The Israeli polit­i­cal lead­er­ship has dra­mat­i­cal­ly illus­trat­ed this com­mit­ment in the past few days, warn­ing that they will go crazy” if Pales­tin­ian rights are giv­en even lim­it­ed recog­ni­tion by the U.N.

This threat to go crazy” (“nish­tagea”) – that is, launch a tough response – is deeply root­ed, stretch­ing back to the Labor gov­ern­ments of the 1950s, along with the relat­ed Sam­son Com­plex”: If crossed, we will bring down the Tem­ple walls around us.

Thir­ty years ago, Israeli polit­i­cal lead­ers, includ­ing some not­ed hawks, sub­mit­ted to Prime Min­is­ter Men­achem Begin a shock­ing report on how set­tlers on the West Bank reg­u­lar­ly com­mit­ted ter­ror­ist acts” against Arabs there, with total impunity.

Dis­gust­ed, the promi­nent mil­i­tary-polit­i­cal ana­lyst Yoram Peri wrote that the Israeli army’s task, it seemed, was not to defend the state, but to demol­ish the rights of inno­cent peo­ple just because they are Araboushim (a harsh racial epi­thet) liv­ing in ter­ri­to­ries that God promised to us.”

Gazans have been sin­gled out for par­tic­u­lar­ly cru­el pun­ish­ment. Thir­ty years ago, in his mem­oir The Third Way,” Raja She­hadeh, a lawyer, described the hope­less task of try­ing to pro­tect fun­da­men­tal human rights with­in a legal sys­tem designed to ensure fail­ure, and his per­son­al expe­ri­ence as a Samid, a stead­fast one,” who watched his home turned into a prison by bru­tal occu­piers and could do noth­ing but some­how endure.”

Since then, the sit­u­a­tion has become much worse. The Oslo Accords, cel­e­brat­ed with much pomp in 1993, deter­mined that Gaza and the West Bank are a sin­gle ter­ri­to­r­i­al enti­ty. By that time, the U.S. and Israel had already ini­ti­at­ed their pro­gram to sep­a­rate Gaza and the West Bank, so as to block a diplo­mat­ic set­tle­ment and pun­ish the Araboushim in both territories.

Pun­ish­ment of Gazans became still more severe in Jan­u­ary 2006, when they com­mit­ted a major crime: They vot­ed the wrong way” in the first free elec­tion in the Arab world, elect­ing Hamas.

Dis­play­ing their yearn­ing for democ­ra­cy,” the U.S. and Israel, backed by the timid Euro­pean Union, imme­di­ate­ly imposed a bru­tal siege, along with mil­i­tary attacks. The U.S. turned at once to its stan­dard oper­at­ing pro­ce­dure when a dis­obe­di­ent pop­u­la­tion elects the wrong gov­ern­ment: Pre­pare a mil­i­tary coup to restore order.

Gazans com­mit­ted a still greater crime a year lat­er by block­ing the coup attempt, lead­ing to a sharp esca­la­tion of the siege and attacks. These cul­mi­nat­ed in win­ter 2008-09, with Oper­a­tion Cast Lead, one of the most cow­ard­ly and vicious exer­cis­es of mil­i­tary force in recent mem­o­ry: A defense­less civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, trapped, was sub­ject­ed to relent­less attack by one of the world’s most advanced mil­i­tary sys­tems, reliant on U.S. arms and pro­tect­ed by U.S. diplomacy.

Of course, there were pre­texts – there always are. The usu­al one, trot­ted out when need­ed, is secu­ri­ty”: in this case, against home­made rock­ets from Gaza.

In 2008, a truce was estab­lished between Israel and Hamas. Not a sin­gle Hamas rock­et was fired until Israel broke the truce under cov­er of the U.S. elec­tion on Nov. 4, invad­ing Gaza for no good rea­son and killing half a dozen Hamas members.

The Israeli gov­ern­ment was advised by its high­est intel­li­gence offi­cials that the truce could be renewed by eas­ing the crim­i­nal block­ade and end­ing mil­i­tary attacks. But the gov­ern­ment of Ehud Olmert – him­self reput­ed­ly a dove – reject­ed these options, resort­ing to its huge advan­tage in vio­lence: Oper­a­tion Cast Lead.

The inter­na­tion­al­ly respect­ed Gazan human-rights advo­cate Raji Sourani ana­lyzed the pat­tern of attack under Cast Lead. The bomb­ing was con­cen­trat­ed in the north, tar­get­ing defense­less civil­ians in the most dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed areas, with no pos­si­ble mil­i­tary basis. The goal, Sourani sug­gests, may have been to dri­ve the intim­i­dat­ed pop­u­la­tion to the south, near the Egypt­ian bor­der. But the Samidin stayed put.

A fur­ther goal might have been to dri­ve them beyond the bor­der. From the ear­li­est days of the Zion­ist col­o­niza­tion it was argued that Arabs have no real rea­son to be in Pales­tine: They can be just as hap­py some­where else, and should leave – polite­ly trans­ferred,” the doves suggested.

This is sure­ly no small con­cern in Egypt, and per­haps a rea­son why Egypt does­n’t open the bor­der freely to civil­ians or even to des­per­ate­ly need­ed supplies.

Sourani and oth­er knowl­edge­able sources have observed that the dis­ci­pline of the Samidin con­ceals a pow­der keg that might explode at any time, unex­pect­ed­ly, like the first Intifa­da in Gaza in 1987, after years of repression.

A nec­es­sar­i­ly super­fi­cial impres­sion after spend­ing sev­er­al days in Gaza is amaze­ment, not only at Gazans’ abil­i­ty to go on with life but also at the vibran­cy and vital­i­ty among young peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly at the uni­ver­si­ty, where I attend­ed an inter­na­tion­al conference.

But one can detect signs that the pres­sure may become too hard to bear. Reports indi­cate that there is sim­mer­ing frus­tra­tion among young peo­ple – a recog­ni­tion that under the U.S.-Israeli occu­pa­tion the future holds noth­ing for them.

Gaza has the look of a Third World coun­try, with pock­ets of wealth sur­round­ed by hideous pover­ty. It is not, how­ev­er, unde­vel­oped. Rather it is de-devel­oped,” and very sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly so, to bor­row the term from Sara Roy, the lead­ing aca­d­e­m­ic spe­cial­ist on Gaza.

The Gaza Strip could have become a pros­per­ous Mediter­ranean region, with rich agri­cul­ture and a flour­ish­ing fish­ing indus­try, mar­velous beach­es and, as dis­cov­ered a decade ago, good prospects for exten­sive nat­ur­al gas sup­plies with­in its ter­ri­to­r­i­al waters. By coin­ci­dence or not, that’s when Israel inten­si­fied its naval block­ade. The favor­able prospects were abort­ed in 1948, when the Strip had to absorb a flood of Pales­tin­ian refugees who fled in ter­ror or were force­ful­ly expelled from what became Israel – in some cas­es months after the for­mal cease-fire. Israel’s 1967 con­quests and their after­math admin­is­tered fur­ther blows, with ter­ri­ble crimes con­tin­u­ing to the present day.

The signs are easy to see, even on a brief vis­it. Sit­ting in a hotel near the shore, one can hear the machine-gun fire of Israeli gun­boats dri­ving fish­er­men out of Gaza­’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al waters and toward land, forc­ing them to fish in waters that are heav­i­ly pol­lut­ed because of U.S.-Israeli refusal to allow recon­struc­tion of the sewage and pow­er sys­tems they destroyed.

The Oslo Accords laid plans for two desali­na­tion plants, a neces­si­ty in this arid region. One, an advanced facil­i­ty, was built: in Israel. The sec­ond one is in Khan Yunis, in the south of Gaza. The engi­neer in charge at Khan Yunis explained that this plant was designed so that it can’t use sea­wa­ter, but must rely on under­ground water, a cheap­er process that fur­ther degrades the mea­ger aquifer, guar­an­tee­ing severe prob­lems in the future.

The water sup­ply is still severe­ly lim­it­ed. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNR­WA), which cares for refugees but not oth­er Gazans, recent­ly released a report warn­ing that dam­age to the aquifer may soon become irre­versible,” and that with­out quick reme­di­al action, Gaza may cease to be a liv­able place” by 2020.

Israel per­mits con­crete to enter for UNR­WA projects, but not for Gazans engaged in the huge recon­struc­tion efforts. The lim­it­ed heavy equip­ment most­ly lies idle, since Israel does not per­mit mate­ri­als for repair.

All this is part of the gen­er­al pro­gram that Dov Weis­glass, an advis­er to Prime Min­is­ter Olmert, described after Pales­tini­ans failed to fol­low orders in the 2006 elec­tions: The idea,” he said, is to put the Pales­tini­ans on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

Recent­ly, after sev­er­al years of effort, the Israeli human rights orga­ni­za­tion Gisha suc­ceed­ed in obtain­ing a court order for the gov­ern­ment to release its records detail­ing plans for the diet.” Jonathan Cook, a jour­nal­ist based in Israel, sum­ma­rizes them: Health offi­cials pro­vid­ed cal­cu­la­tions of the min­i­mum num­ber of calo­ries need­ed by Gaza­’s 1.5 mil­lion inhab­i­tants to avoid mal­nu­tri­tion. Those fig­ures were then trans­lat­ed into truck­loads of food Israel was sup­posed to allow in each day … an aver­age of only 67 trucks – much less than half of the min­i­mum require­ment – entered Gaza dai­ly. This com­pared to more than 400 trucks before the block­ade began.”

The result of impos­ing the diet, Mid­dle East schol­ar Juan Cole observes, is that about 10 per­cent of Pales­tin­ian chil­dren in Gaza under age 5 have had their growth stunt­ed by mal­nu­tri­tion. … In addi­tion, ane­mia is wide­spread, affect­ing over two-thirds of infants, 58.6 per­cent of school­child­ren, and over a third of preg­nant mothers.”

Sourani, the human-rights advo­cate, observes that what has to be kept in mind is that the occu­pa­tion and the absolute clo­sure is an ongo­ing attack on the human dig­ni­ty of the peo­ple in Gaza in par­tic­u­lar and all Pales­tini­ans gen­er­al­ly. It is sys­tem­at­ic degra­da­tion, humil­i­a­tion, iso­la­tion and frag­men­ta­tion of the Pales­tin­ian people.”

This con­clu­sion has been con­firmed by many oth­er sources. In The Lancet, a lead­ing med­ical jour­nal, Rajaie Bat­ni­ji, a vis­it­ing Stan­ford physi­cian, describes Gaza as some­thing of a lab­o­ra­to­ry for observ­ing an absence of dig­ni­ty,” a con­di­tion that has dev­as­tat­ing” effects on phys­i­cal, men­tal and social well-being.

The con­stant sur­veil­lance from the sky, col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment through block­ade and iso­la­tion, the intru­sion into homes and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and restric­tions on those try­ing to trav­el, or mar­ry, or work make it dif­fi­cult to live a dig­ni­fied life in Gaza,” Bat­ni­ji writes. The Araboushim must be taught not to raise their heads.

There were hopes that Mohammed Mor­si’s new gov­ern­ment in Egypt, which is less in thrall to Israel than the west­ern-backed Hos­ni Mubarak dic­ta­tor­ship was, might open the Rafah Cross­ing, Gaza­’s sole access to the out­side that is not sub­ject to direct Israeli con­trol. There has been a slight open­ing, but not much.

The jour­nal­ist Laila el-Had­dad writes that the reopen­ing under Mor­si is sim­ply a return to sta­tus quo of years past: Only Pales­tini­ans car­ry­ing an Israeli-approved Gaza ID card can use Rafah Cross­ing.” This excludes a great many Pales­tini­ans, includ­ing el-Had­dad’s own fam­i­ly, where only one spouse has a card.

Fur­ther­more, she con­tin­ues, the cross­ing does not lead to the West Bank, nor does it allow for the pas­sage of goods, which are restrict­ed to the Israeli-con­trolled cross­ings and sub­ject to pro­hi­bi­tions on con­struc­tion mate­ri­als and export.”

The restrict­ed Rafah Cross­ing does­n’t change the fact that Gaza remains under tight mar­itime and aer­i­al siege, and con­tin­ues to be closed off to the Pales­tini­ans’ cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic and aca­d­e­m­ic cap­i­tals in the rest of the (Israeli-occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries), in vio­la­tion of U.S.-Israeli oblig­a­tions under the Oslo Accords.”

The effects are painful­ly evi­dent. The direc­tor of the Khan Yunis hos­pi­tal, who is also chief of surgery, describes with anger and pas­sion how even med­i­cines are lack­ing, which leaves doc­tors help­less and patients in agony.

One young woman reports on her late father’s ill­ness. Though he would have been proud that she was the first woman in the refugee camp to gain an advanced degree, she says, he passed away after six months of fight­ing can­cer, aged 60 years.

Israeli occu­pa­tion denied him a per­mit to go to Israeli hos­pi­tals for treat­ment. I had to sus­pend my study, work and life and go to sit next to his bed. We all sat, includ­ing my broth­er the physi­cian and my sis­ter the phar­ma­cist, all pow­er­less and hope­less, watch­ing his suf­fer­ing. He died dur­ing the inhu­mane block­ade of Gaza in sum­mer 2006 with very lit­tle access to health service.

I think feel­ing pow­er­less and hope­less is the most killing feel­ing that a human can ever have. It kills the spir­it and breaks the heart. You can fight occu­pa­tion but you can­not fight your feel­ing of being pow­er­less. You can’t even ever dis­solve that feeling.”

A vis­i­tor to Gaza can’t help feel­ing dis­gust at the obscen­i­ty of the occu­pa­tion, com­pound­ed with guilt, because it is with­in our pow­er to bring the suf­fer­ing to an end and allow the Samidin to enjoy the lives of peace and dig­ni­ty that they deserve.

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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