It's About Occupation

My old landlord in Damascus is from the Golan. Christian, he fled with his wife and children from Quneitra, the region's capital, after the city fell to Israel at the end of the June 1967 war.

"Our house, it was between the hospital and the church," he told me one day in September. These are dark landmarks, some of the only two structures left standing in a ghost town that the Syrian government has not rebuilt since Israeli withdrawal in 1974. The city lies in the UN-monitored demilitarized zone, untouched as a kind of war memorial and propaganda real estate to the "Zionist aggression," abutting the 40 years-occupied Golan Heights.

I've met cab drivers with the same story, old men and young men who moved with their fathers or sons to Damascus when the Golan fell.

Contemporary media reports and a later UN investigation in 1974 faulted "Israel's deliberate destruction and devastation of the town," which included systematic looting (apparently anything that could be detached or unscrewed, even light bulbs, was taken by soldiers and contractors) followed by bulldozing and dynamiting. Quneitra was also a target of constant shelling between Syria and Israel for six years between the 1967 and 1973 wars.

What does Quneitra have to do with Gaza today? It expresses the truth a conflict that becomes more hopeless with every crudely launched rocket from Gaza, every section of the apartheid wall weaving through the West Bank, every "highly efficient" Israeli strike: Arab land is occupied by Israel and has been for 40 years.

One of the tropes of media coverage of Israel/Palestine is that violence there is "endless," part of a constant "cycle," worst of all "ancient." Of course it is not ancient. Anyone with a cursory reading of Palestine's history understands the conflict in the context of the last hundred or so years: the emergence of Zionism as a formidable nationalist ideology; the colonial breakup of the Ottoman Middle East after World War I, with Britain awarding a dangerously unspecified part of Palestine to the Zionists; under Britain's mandate, increased Jewish colonization, both geographic and economic, alongside the resistance and reactionary violence of Palestine's majority Arabs; the war of 1947-49, resulting in the forced expulsion of close to a million Palestinians from their homes. All of which instigated the first two decades of conflict between the State of Israel, Palestinians both in historic Palestine and the wider Arab world, and neighboring Arab states.

Everything changed with Israel's sure victory in 1967, when it occupied Arab land and people and began a program of colonization ("settlements") now integral to the state. It is this last detail that media reports and commentators continually slight, focusing instead on Israel's efforts in the bankrupt peace process of the 1990s, for example, and more recently in the evacuation of Gaza, which more than anything was about turning international attention away from continued land-grabs and brutalization on the West Bank.

As Johann Hari posted here recently on the withdrawal of Gaza, which Israeli leaders now cite on international news as evidence of their interest in peace and Palestinian statehood, the current onslaught notwithstanding:

Ariel Sharon's senior advisor Dov Weisglass was unequivocal about this, explaining: "The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that's necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians... Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."

So much has been written already on Israel and Gaza, quickly dissecting motives and blame, opinions everywhere. But the history of the conflict should not be distorted, no matter the din of government rhetoric and media apologies.

On the timing of these attacks, Tzipi Livni told "Meet the Press" "Oh, why now? Because after Israel decided to leave Gaza Strip a few years ago and we got Hamas in return."

One ought to be able to square that simplicity with recent and less recent history -- Israel never really left Gaza, even if the few settlements were dismantled -- with special regard toward a million and a half refugees there who have been without adequate aid -- food, medicine, electricity -- for years.

Just before this past weekend Sara Roy at Harvard published an account of Gaza's suffering in the London Review of Books, "If Gaza falls...". While it's about the humanitarian crisis related to the ongoing blockade, it now reads far more ominously given the last few days.

"The breakdown of an entire society is happening in front of us, but there is little international response beyond UN warnings which are ignored.... How can keeping food and medicine from the people of Gaza protect the people of Israel? How can the impoverishment and suffering of Gaza's children - more than 50 per cent of the population - benefit anyone?"