/ 3 December 2023

Gaza: The death of a historic city?

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This photo, taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip, shows smoke rising from buildings after being hit by Israeli strikes, as battles resume between Israel and Hamas militants, on December 1, 2023. A temporary truce between Israel and Hamas expired on December 1, with the Israeli army saying combat operations had resumed, accusing Hamas of violating the operational pause. (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

“How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people, how is she become as a widow … She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her …” 

Thus the prophet Jeremiah lamented the Babylonian destruction and depopulation of Jerusalem in 596 BC.

By a singular historical irony, Gaza City may be facing the same fate — demolition and population removal — by men and women who count themselves Jeremiah’s historical and cultural kin.

The orgy of blood and fire meted on Gaza since 7 October far exceeds a straightforward military operation to root out Hamas and its tunnels. Amid Benjamin Netanyahu’s threats to continue the “war” — “canned hunt” would be more accurate — when the temporary ceasefire is over, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have dropped 25 000 tonnes of high explosives on Gaza.

That equates to two Hiroshima-style atomic bombs on a narrow coastal strip the length of the road from Soweto to OR Tambo Airport. 

Gaza City, the only Palestinian city, has been the cauldron. Al Jazeera reports that of the 220 000 residential units damaged (40 000 destroyed) about a third are in the dense settlement of two million inhabitants. 

The IDF claims that the use of accurate smart bombs shows Israel’s commitment to safeguarding civilians. But defence analyst Elijah Magnier makes the obvious point that there seems to be little effort to confine their use to military targets.

The evidence for Hamas’ atrocities on 7 October seems overwhelming. But what has the hunt for the movement to do with the smashing of civilian services such as hospitals, educational facilities, water infrastructure and mosques? With the 40-foot-deep impact craters in the 100 000-inmate Jabalia refugee camp?

Israel’s scattergun approach was on show at Gaza’s biggest hospital, Al-Shifa, which it claimed was a Hamas command centre and sanctuary for its fighters. 

The Geneva Conventions may permit operations against hospitals enemy soldiers are misusing, argues Chatham House’s Louis Lillywhite. But he adds that Israel cannot automatically extrapolate evidence unearthed at Al-Shifa to all 22 hospital facilities in the Strip — in each case, it “must have clear evidence of Hamas misuse”.

Palestinians ride in the back of a vehicle as they move toward safer areas following the resumption of Israeli strikes on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 1, 2023, after the expiration of a seven-day truce between Israel and Hamas militants.(Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

To date, the evidence is hardly compelling: video of light arms discovered in a tunnel near Al-Shifa, and footage of the tunnel, which former Israeli premier Ehud Barak revealed was built as a bunker by the Israelis themselves. Surely not enough to warrant knocking out Al-Shifa’s power, storming and occupying sections of the hospital for 10 days, and, it is alleged, cutting off doctors’ communications, driving out medical personnel, removing bodies and arresting patients …

Lilywhite notes that the UN has reported 219 breaches of violence against, or blocked access to, hospitals by the IDF in Gaza and 10 in Israel. 

Nor have the military gains against Hamas fighters impressed. When hostilities started, the IDF estimated the strength of the Qassam Brigades at 30 000 fighters. To date, Hamas has confirmed losing four senior leaders.

If the war has not achieved much against Hamas, does it have another purpose?

Revenge for the 7 October humiliation and repairing the IDF’s damaged reputation for invincibility are factors. So, too, is the desire to protect troops by clearing dense urban neighbourhoods, a lesson learned during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

But the main goal, Magnier argues, “is to cause maximum civilian casualties and terrorise the Palestinians in Gaza to trigger a general exodus”. Non-combatants have been driven back and forth like sheep, denied the basic means of survival and in thrall to constant physical terror.

Hence Israel’s instructions to the Gazans of the north to move south for their own safety, while bombing southern towns such as Khan Yunis. The internet carries accounts of refugees — 1.7-million are displaced — fleeing desperately from north to south and back again.

A former Israeli premier once said he would like to see Gaza sink into the Mediterranean, and the dark fantasy of obliterating the territory persists among Israel’s genocidal ultra-rightists. Since 7 October, Netanyahu’s culture minister, Amihai Eliyahu, and a former diplomat, Dror Eydar, have suggested dropping a nuclear bomb on the Strip, while Likud member Moshe Feigglin has called for its “total destruction”.

Netanyahu rejected the proposal as “not based on reality” (note the absence of a moral objection). But among Palestinians it is widely feared that the Israeli end-game is the toned-down “ethnic cleansing” option of rendering Gaza City permanently uninhabitable and driving its inhabitants into tent cities in the Sinai. 

The US magazine Foreign Policy describes these fears as “not without merit”. Egypt has so far resisted, wary of complicity in the purging of fellow-Arabs and of seeding its own refugee quagmire. But for how long? Locked in a debt crisis, it is vulnerable to financial inducement.

Because of the advent of high-explosives, long-range artillery and the bombing aircraft, what one could call “urbicide” — the murder of cities — has become more common. It begins with the destruction of Paris after the Franco-Prussian War, when the night sky glowed red from the blazing quartiers and charred government documents fell like black rain. Leningrad, Dresden, Warsaw, Berlin, Hanoi followed.

Urbicide implies not just the mass tearing down of shelter and amenities, but an attack on a unique civic tradition and culture. One of the world’s oldest cities, Gaza is a historical cockpit that fell in different eras under Ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Crusader, Ottoman, British, modern Egyptian, Palestinian and now Israeli occupiers. Tradition has it that its Great Mosque was built on a Philistine temple devoted to the god Dagon, toppled by Samson in the Book of Judges.

Even during the years of Israeli blockade Gaza had a distinctive civic existence and sense of self. Israeli president Isaac Herzog has made the ridiculous and morally disgusting claim, inviting collective reprisals against the guiltless, that all Gazans were responsible for Hamas’s 7 October attack. 

But the idea that they are bloodstained ghouls who spend their lives plotting the slaughter of Israelis is a grotesque caricature — like people everywhere, the vast majority want to spend time with their friends and families in safety and comfort. They want to learn, entertain and express themselves, do useful work and earn a living. 

Before the madness of the war, United Nations Development Programme official Iman Husseini “led a modest life under generally difficult conditions … During the weekends we used to enjoy some leisure time going to restaurants overlooking the Mediterranean with our families and enjoying the tranquillity of the sunset.” Now she plays matriarch to 145 uprooted staff members and their dependents.

Two BBC pictures dramatise the import of the Israeli siege for ordinary citizens. One, from August last year, shows crowds frolicking in the surf at Gaza Beach. By November this year the vacant beach had been mutilated by Israeli earthmovers into a military staging-point.

Football is the national sport, played in the West Bank Premier League and Gaza Strip League. Gaza has competed in every Summer Olympics since 1996. There are — or were — gyms, a rugby union team and an equestrian club that builds on Arab horse-riding traditions.

Life for young Gazans (almost half the population is under 18) is excruciatingly difficult. After 16 years of blockade, with power and water truncated and minimal movement allowed in or out of the enclave, 70% of graduates are jobless.

Still, they want to reconnect with the world. Time magazine describes how some have reached out through a project of the nonprofit Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor that encourages young Gazans to record their personal experiences.

Called WANN (We Are Not Numbers) it pairs them with foreign mentors in crafting essays and poems about school, sport, weddings, the olive harvest, swimming in the sea, the artists and even women boxers of the Strip.

British trauma counsellor David Harries, who knows Gaza well, spoke in a phone interview about the engineering ingenuity of young Gazans.  Small businesses making hand-made goods, including patched-up Israeli armoured vehicles, could be found everywhere; one of his host families had assembled a classic car from “bits and pieces brought through the tunnels from Egypt”.

Harries said Hamas’s military wing grew more popular during invasions, but that the usual attitude was one of distant respect for the movement’s rather narrow-minded religious conservatism. “It can do brutal things, but only through the (armed) Qassam Brigades,” he said. It was mainly by offering order and probity, in contrast to the corrupt rule of Fatah, that the political wing had swept the 2006 elections.

However, Hamas had been forced to accept the moderation of its power because certain ministries, such as health, were under “uneasy” joint party control and through the continued sway of the Arab family. 

In all the accounts of the lives of ordinary Gazans, one can recognise oneself. This is much harder to do with the Israeli hospital invaders and highly trained jet fighter pilots who rain down high-explosive munitions on terror-stricken women and children.

How the Zionist project has cut them off from wider humanity and atrophied their sense of pity!

Drew Forrest is a former political editor and deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian.