The events of the last week in the Gaza Strip have elicited concern and outrage in equal parts around the world. The faith community, including the Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus of Jerusalem, has been outspoken in voicing their concerns over the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem—one of the events that precipitated this violence—and their outrage over the death and casualties this move has precipitated. Christian leadership on this issue is particularly important given the approximately 100,000 Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel today, the majority of whom are Orthodox or Roman Catholic.
Since March 30 more than 95 Palestinians have been killed at protests taking place along the Gaza border wall with Israel, including 58 on Monday, December 14—and nearly 7,000 have been hospitalized for injuries sustained during the protests, half of whom (3,598) from bullet wounds. The statistics are shocking, and if broken down further the casualties include more than a dozen children under the age of 16.
But these numbers, these figures, these definitions (is a child a human being aged 16 and below or 18 and below?) and our focus on them is also shocking. We use these figures to bolster, confirm, and support a position we know to be morally and ethically correct: that the Palestinian people deserve a homeland of their own, that they deserve equal access to Jerusalem and the right to designate their capital in East Jerusalem.
How did we get here?
Although the Israel-Palestine conflict is often portrayed through an emotive lens as a religious conflict, it is in truth a conflict over resources: over arable land and access to and control over religious sites. Land is at the heart of this conflict, and so it is lamentably fitting that the current phase of the bloodshed in Gaza began with the Palestinian commemoration of Land Day on March 30, 2018.
Land Day is a product of the occupation of Palestine and the turbulent relationship of the Israeli government to its Palestinian population. In 1976 the Israeli government announced a plan to expropriate 20,000 dunams of land in the Galilee for state purposes; approximately one-third of the land intended for expropriation was owned by Palestinian citizens of Israel. On March 30, 1976 thousands protested in a general strike, which was emulated in Palestinian communities in Lebanon, in the West Bank, and in the Gaza Strip.
From 1976 onwards March 30 has been commemorated as Land Day (Yom al-Ard or Yom Ha-Adama) in Palestinian communities around the world, including through general protest and strike action in the West Bank and Gaza. This year, March 30 marked the kick-off of six weeks of protests in the Gaza Strip in the lead-up to the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14 (which has been expertly addressed here and here) and Nakba Day on May 15.
Why are things different this year?
Land Day is commemorated each year; however, 2018 marked a shift in the way in which the events were linked with other. This shift is linked to significant geopolitical events occurring in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), Jerusalem, Israel, and the region more broadly. As well, deliberate US action has dramatically shifted US policy to the peace process and Palestinian refugees.
The Gaza Strip, home to 1.9 million Palestinians, will be uninhabitable by 2020. This is not new knowledge; it is something that has been brewing since the siege of Gaza began back in 2007. The reality of it, however, is slowly becoming apparent. There is no clean water in Gaza, there is on average 4 hours of electricity each day, and over one half of the population (over 800,000 people) relies on food aid. While the situation has been bad since 2007, it has become steadily worse, with no relief or indications of change.
In combination with the steadily declining ability to live in Gaza, the current US administration has taken two unprecedented steps: they have revoked two-thirds of the funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides food aid, shelter assistance, health care, schooling, and job assistance to the 1.3 million registered Palestinian refugees living in the Gaza Strip (70% of the total population); and they also announced that the US embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The motivations of these decisions can be, and have been, debated. But they are clearly linked to perceptions by the current administration of the need to “keep” campaign promises and pander to a particular segment of the current administration’s base: American Evangelicals who embrace “Christian Zionism.”
The quick succession of these announcements, in December 2017 and January 2018, dramatically altered many Palestinians’ perception of the US investment in the peace process and their hope for any kind of resolution under the current administration. These announcements were also significant factors in the unprecedented six weeks of protests along the Gaza/Israel border wall.
I am sure this piece will be criticized for not explicitly addressing and decrying the horrific anti-Semitic remarks made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in late April, or the outright description of Hamas as a terrorist organization. It might also be criticized for not addressing the current political disarray in Israel, as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s future hangs in the balance awaiting a decision on his criminal indictment, or the current revolt being undertaken by coalition partners United Torah Judaism and HaBayt HaYehudi (the Jewish Home) regarding the exemption of Haredim from military service.
Instead, what this piece tries to do is to focus on Gaza and the people living there, the human toll of the siege, of these US government decisions, and of the ongoing conflict. Even in this attempt I fall into the trap decried in my introduction: I focus on the numbers. The numbers are the rational, logical approach to explain why the embassy decision was wrong, the human impact of revoking two-thirds of UNRWA’s funding, why the people of Gaza are protesting in the tens of thousands, and why they are willing to take the risk of death in order for their voices to be heard. That is the truth here: there is no other outlet for the people of Gaza. Their option is to use their bodies as a signal of their distress, their hopelessness, and their resignation to having no control over their own future—even at the risk of dying. This is the true human cost of the ongoing conflict.
There is strength in this approach, to viewing this conflict through the human lens. Each of those nearly 100 people who have been killed during their participation in the protests is someone’s child, and many of those killed have their own children. “More than 95 Palestinians have been killed,” becomes more than 95 families that have lost a loved one, a brother or sister, son or daughter, ripped from their families for protesting for their right to exist, their right to a home, their right to exist on this land.
The human beings that constitute these numbers number quoted above: 1.9 million people live in Gaza, including several thousand Christians, which is the same as the population of the entire state of Nebraska—albeit in approximately 0.2% of the square mileage of the state of Nebraska.
If any of the above statements about water, electricity, or food aid were true of the population of Nebraska, the conversation would differ dramatically.
Why should it not be the same for Gaza?
Dr. Herman’s next article for Orthodoxy in Dialogue will address the question of Israeli Settler Colonialism.
Lyndall Herman holds a PhD in Middle Eastern and North African Studies from the University of Arizona, where she defended a dissertation entitled ‘Recreating’ Gaza: International Organizations & Identity Construction in Gaza. She currently teaches two courses, Middle Eastern Humanities and the Middle East after the Arab Spring, at the University of Arizona and Cochise College. She has previously worked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip, USAID in a range of posts, the One World Trust, and Conciliation Resources.
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