Gaza: Some Secrets Few Will Say Aloud

Is everyone in Gaza crazy? Did they deserve what happened to them?

I was flying through the Phoenix airport this summer, stopped for lunch, and found myself sitting next to two men who were loudly discussing the recent Israeli bombing of Gaza. "They deserved what they got." "Israel should bomb them back to the stone age." "Gaza is nothing but a den of terrorists." I quickly figured out that I had to change tables. Besides. This was Arizona and I was in "conceal-carry" central.

So I thought: should we step back and get a wide view of this place. How did Gaza become what it is? And what is it like to live there? The news media hasn't the patience to explain this and if they did, it might surprise their audiences. No one can deny that Israel has a right to self-defense and it cannot tolerate waves of rockets threatening its cities. But is there more to the story?

There is:

(1) Refugees. It is little-known that when Israel became a nation in 1948 it expelled about 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. Israeli historians Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé have now overturned the myth that they left voluntarily. This is what some call Israel's "original sin" in that it pursued ethnic cleansing to redress demographics that were against them. Many Palestinians fled to the West Bank and surrounding Arab nations (and were never allowed to return home). Others fled south to Egypt and the oasis of Gaza. Today Gaza has about 1.7 million people and over half are descendants of these refugees. So, as Cambridge historian Colin Chapman has said, "the rockets that Palestinians have been firing from Gaza have been landing on areas from which their parents and grandparents were driven out in 1948." Take Ashkelon. This is an Israeli town about 35km north of Gaza. But wait. In 1948 the town had about 12,000 Arab residents and a thriving textile industry. But during that war it was shelled fiercely by Israel and a forced expulsion pushed all but 1000 Arabs into Gaza. Some slipped back home and they were rounded up and kept in camps until an expulsion order in 1950 removed all but about 20 families. Then most of these people then ended up in Gaza too. And the town? It was repopulated by incoming Jewish families. The Gaza refugees haven't forgotten this.

(2) Casualties. As of this week (Aug 28) about 2,000 Gaza Palestinians are dead and over 10,000 have been wounded. And on the Israeli side: 67 (mostly) soldiers have died. According to the UN, of these Gaza casualities, 1400 were Palestinian civilians. And of those injured, 3000 were children. 1000 of these children will have life-long disabilities. It is no wonder that we've seen UN staff express outrage at what they see. But the UN has taken its own losses. 30 of their Palestinian staff were killed and 11 UNRWA personnel were killed.

This is remarkably disproportional and it explains the limitations of the military arm of Hamas, the ruling government of Gaza. And it makes ludicrous the claim that Hamas could destroy Israel. It also underscores Israel's world-class military (sustained by U.S. technology and funding) and its effective "Iron Dome" anti-missile defense system which rendered Hamas' missile-barrages relatively ineffective.

However Israeli bombing of Gaza has been a staple of the region for years. In 2008-09 another bombing campaign (Operation Cast Lead) did the same thing killing 1400 people there. In 2012 (Operation Pillar of Cloud) repeated it (133 killed). And since the election of Hamas in 2005 (and its complete takeover in 2006), Israel has pursued a policy of assassinating Hamas political leaders with rockets and has successfully killed hundreds. But at the same time, it has killed many innocent civilians as well. Which has led to worldwide criticism. The bottom line: Israel has been actively bombing Gaza for a long time. Of course Israel will argue that these are preemptive strikes on those whom they judge to be terrorists. But many have argued - as in the present war -- that the deaths of civilians have crossed a moral line. And besides, who gets to decide that this or that person is a "terrorist" and worthy of assassination?

(3) Conditions on the Ground. Gaza is perhaps one of the worst places to live imaginable. Period. Its population density is one of the world's highest and its living conditions are shocking. For eight years Israel has had Gaza under a crippling blockade. And it is severe. The problem is that building materials that could reconstruct Gaza can also be used to build tunnels. And so steel, gravel, pipe, concrete, etc. have not come in. But there is more. Israel also limited the importing of food and has been accused of calculating calories in order to keep Gaza's economy on the brink of collapse. To make life miserable, inexplicably at one point shaving cream and soda were blocked. And chocolate. Chocolate? Most of the tunnels that Israel decries are not "terrorist tunnels" used to attack Israel. They are economic. They sneak in everything from cars to chocolate. I even saw a photo of donkeys coming through the tunnels from Egypt.

But there is more. About 70 percent of the people in Gaza are food dependent. Over 60 percent of the water there is undrinkable. And thanks to the destruction of Gaza City's only power plant, electricity is off. This means pumping fresh water into the system is a problem as is the removal and treatment of sewage. And this means disease. Lots of it. Unemployment? 45 percent -- one of the world's highest. And the list could go on. Add to all of this the remarkable bombing of population centers recently and you have an environment rife with hopelessness, anger and despair. Exactly the sort of breeding ground for any organization -- religious or otherwise -- that offers some degree of empowerment and revenge.

(4) The Consequences. I have visited Gaza prior to the current round of fighting. And it is stunning. And it is no surprise that numerous Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace are leading the way condemning what is happening in what they call "the world's largest open air prison." People of conscience don't just see the rockets flying out of Gaza, they recognize that hope has taken flight as well. As a man there told me: "When you're already dead, you're not afraid of dying." That worldview is a prescription for genuine terrorism.

And perhaps this is the consequence. Conflicts like this reinforce anger. Toxic anger. They simply do not pacify a population. I see photos of children who have been shredded by Israeli shrapnel and I wonder. What will these children be like when they grow up? How does one recover from the traumas they have witnessed? Lesser traumas in the west harm people for the balance of their lives. What happens to a little girl who watches her family cut to pieces by a bomb?

Israel contributed richly to what Gaza is today. And failed Palestinian leadership contributed as well. Even Egypt is complicit. Gaza has been a jointly built horror of unspeakable proportions. Gaza is not a lively neighbor-nation sitting next to Israel who just happens to hate the Jewish state. It is a camp surrounded by an army and threatened regularly by one of the world's elite militaries. We should expect that militant groups like Hamas will exploit the anger there. I have a feeling that if any of us were born in Gaza we would feel uncontrollable anger. We would find it utterly unacceptable. What if the situation was reversed and Gaza was filled with Jews who were surrounded by an aggressive Arab army and a crushing blockade. Would the world's reaction be different?

But the real challenge is what happens next. How do we fix Gaza and not simply end the fighting? If we don't fix it this tragedy will repeat itself in another five years.

Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at Wheaton College in Chicago, IL. He writes extensively on the Middle East and has traveled frequently to countries from Iraq to Libya. He is also the author of numerous books and articles on theology as well. His recent publications on Israel/Palestine include Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to Holy Land Theology (2010) and Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians (2013).