Gaza is no Warsaw Ghetto

Historian says inaccurate comparisons weaken the Palestinian case against occupation.

The Gaza-Warsaw comparison was inevitable, especially after the war started [GALLO/GETTY]

Within days of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, critics of the war, on blogs and in the mainstream media, began to compare the situation of Palestinians in Gaza to that of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War.

In the last few years comparisons between the Israeli occupation and apartheid in South Africa had become increasingly acceptable around the world, including in Israel.

However, the carnage caused by Israel’s latest war has apparently rendered the apartheid comparison too weak to evoke the full horror of what Palestinians have suffered.

Israelis have suffered as well, but the levels of death and destruction on each side is so mind-numbingly lopsided – at least 1,300 versus 13 dead – that simply juxtaposing them seems almost nonsensical.

The Gaza-Warsaw comparisons have not just been made, predictably, by Hamas leaders such as Mahmoud al-Zahar.

They have also been made by Arabs and Muslims around the world, by anti-war movements in Europe and the US, on the opinion pages of major US newspapers, by  Richard Falk, the UN Human Rights Rapporteur, by Jewish members of the British parliament, and even by some American Jewish and Israeli critics of the war.

Images from Gaza have been juxtaposed next to images from the Warsaw Ghetto, with the aim of demonstrating the similarities between the two.

Evoking memories

It was inevitable that the Gaza-Warsaw comparison would be made, especially once the war started. It is so difficult to get the mainstream media in the West, and particularly in the US, to pay attention to the suffering of Palestinians, that many seem to have concluded that only the most powerful comparisons will get peoples’ attention.

There are, indeed, disturbing similarities between the two situations.

Pictures of the Warsaw Ghetto have been shown next to those of Gaza [GALLO/GETTY]

The Warsaw Ghetto was composed of Jews forced out of their homes and herded into one small section of the city.

Gaza is composed largely of refugees and their descendents, most of whom were forced to flee their homes during the 1948 war.

Like the Ghetto, in the last decade the Gaza Strip has been surrounded by a barrier that has literally imprisoned 1.5 million in a territory that has become one of the most densely populated in the world.

Once the war started, Gazan civilians were trapped within a war zone, while Israel – crucially, with Egyptian help – had full command of the territory in and around Gaza. This situation prompted comparisons with the absolute Nazi control of the Ghetto and its surrounding area during the uprising.

Increasing restrictions on food, water and medical supplies by the Israeli military, and severe levels of malnutrition and unemployment  “evoked” memories of the Nazi’s slow strangulation of the Ghetto, as Richard Falk described it.

Even the tunnels of Gaza have been compared to those used by Jews to smuggle food and other essential goods into the Ghetto from the “Aryan side”.

Psychological harm

These comparisons reflect an intolerable situation that is not just a humanitarian disaster, but has included the systematic commission of war crimes, and through them, crimes against humanity. The fact that the situation in Gaza has existed for decades has deepened the suffering, and the level of culpability.

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Indeed, the UN has reported that 50 per cent of Gaza’s children have become so scarred by the occupation and siege that they have no will to live. An occupation that causes this level of psychological harm warrants not just the world’s condemnation, but the prosecution of those responsible for administering this state of affairs.

But thank God, Gaza is not the Warsaw Ghetto. Even after the latest war, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank remain rooted to the soil, not buried beneath it.

Hamas’s Mahmoud al-Zahar has described Israel’s attack on Gaza as “total war”. This language is clearly intended to link Israel’s actions in Gaza to genocide, and particularly Germany’s total war against the Jews during the Second World War, in their effect if not their intention.

If such a comparison has merits, the Gaza-Warsaw comparison would similarly hold true, giving the accusations of a Palestinian Holocaust merit.

The February 29, 2008 warning by Matan Vilnai, Israel’s deputy defence minister, that Palestinians risked “bringing an even bigger Shoah” (the Hebrew word for Holocaust) upon themselves if they did not stop firing Qassam rockets into Israel, reveals that Israeli officials are well aware of the magnitude of the suffering they have inflicted on the people of Gaza.

Defining genocide

Yet, however horrific the situation in Gaza, it does not meet the definition of genocide used by the main bodies that prosecute such crimes, such as the European Court of Human Rights, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice.

All of these bodies define genocide as involving the intention to bring about the “physical-biological destruction” of a large enough share of an “entire human group” (national, ethnic, racial or religious) as to put the group’s continued physical existence in jeopardy.

The Warsaw Ghetto was used by the Nazis to confine Jews into the smallest possible space, eventually in preparation for their ultimate extermination – which became official Nazi policy within a year of the ghetto’s creation.

Out of an initial population of over 400,000 Jews, 100,000 had died of disease and starvation by the time the uprising began in 1943. To be comparable, by 2007 over 300,000 Gazans would have to have died from similar causes.

Ultimately, more than 300,000 Jews were shipped to the Treblinka extermination camp and murdered. At most, only about 200 Jews survived the uprising.

Ninety-eight per cent of Warsaw’s Jews perished. More broadly, about 63 per cent of Europe’s pre-war Jewish population were killed during the Holocaust.

The roughly 6,500 Gazans killed by Israel since it unilaterally withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005 equals 0.4 per cent of the population of the Strip.

In comparison, upwards of 75 per cent of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, about 800,000 people, were murdered during the 100 days of genocide in 1994. Over 200,000 Bosnian Muslims (10 per cent of the pre-war Muslim population) were killed by Serbs between 1993 and 1995.

The Gazan death toll would have to be more than 20 times greater to approach Bosnia, 175 times more to approach Rwanda.

Historical context

Pointing out that the suffering endured by Gazans is not comparable in scope to the Holocaust or other well-known genocides, does not diminish it. However, it is crucial to provide accurate historical context to the current conflict, for two reasons.

If Gaza is today’s Warsaw, then Palestinians have no hope [GALLO/GETTY]

Firstly, the use of highly charged historical comparisons that do not hold up to scrutiny unnecessarily weakens the Palestinian case against the occupation.

In a propaganda war in which Palestinians have always struggled to compete, handing Israel’s supporters the gift of inaccurate or exaggerated comparisons does not help this struggle, particularly not in Israel and the US, the two most important battlegrounds in this conflict.

To cite just one example, Israel and its supporters still use the exaggerated casualty figures of the early days of the 2002 siege of Jenin – hundreds were claimed to have been massacred, “only” 56 people were ultimately found to have died – to support their argument that Palestinians “lie” about the human toll of Israeli attacks.

When the argument is shifted from the basic illegality and intolerability of the occupation to an argument over numbers in which Palestinians seem to overstate their case, Israel has created more room to continue the occupation.

Egyptian complicity

It also has to be recognised that the sealing of Gaza has occurred with the complicity of Egypt. While Israel remains the de jure occupying power of the Gaza Strip, the Gaza-Egypt border has remained closed or open depending on the wishes of the Egyptian government – something Israeli officials regularly point out, and millions of protesters against Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, across the Arab world affirm. 

Egypt allowed the crossing to remain open for several days when Hamas blew up part of the wall in January 2008. It has since kept it largely sealed despite the dire humanitarian situation, putting its relationship with Israel – and more importantly, with the US – ahead of the welfare of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.

Indeed, the collusion of Israel’s neighbour, Egypt, and its biggest patron, the US, in ghettoizing Gaza creates a triangular network of responsibility that has no parallel with the Nazi control over Warsaw, and Poland more broadly.

The second and more important reason for developing a more accurate historical model for Gaza is that comparing Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto diminishes Palestinian agency.

If Gaza is today’s Warsaw, then Palestinians have no hope. There is no solution, no new strategies worth considering besides nihilistic violence that invites a far more deadly response.

Such a view, which has long characterised Hamas’s worldview, limits if not closes the horizons of political action by Palestinians, making it harder to come up with more creative strategies to resist and even transcend the occupation.

Ultimately, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the inertia of hopeless violence produces ever more intense responses.

Politicide, not genocide

After visiting Gaza in 2003, Oona King, a Jewish British politician, compared Gaza and Warsaw, explaining that they are “the same in nature but not extent”.

However, it is impossible to separate the extent of Nazi policies in and surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto from the nature of the ghetto, since each determined and reinforced the other.

The Warsaw Ghetto was essentially a holding pen for livestock headed for slaughter.
The Gaza ghetto is a “concentration camp” – as Cardinal Renato Martino, the Vatican’s justice and peace minister, termed it – intended to force Palestinians to accept a rump state with a few trappings of sovereignty, bisected by huge Jewish settlement blocs, severed from East Jerusalem, and without hope for returning anything but a miniscule percentage of refugees to their homeland.

This intolerable situation was labelled by the late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling as politicide. Its goal is clearly to make the creation of a viable Palestinian state all but impossible to achieve.

But Gaza in 2009 is not Warsaw in 1943. It is worth remembering that the Jewish uprising did little if anything to stop the Holocaust.

The Gaza ghetto has its own historical roots and therefore the possibility of a different trajectory and, hopefully, a more positive denouement than did Warsaw.

Only with a clear and objective understanding of the roots, nature and purpose of the Gaza ghetto, and of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza more broadly, can a different and more positive ending to the Palestinian – and Israeli – narratives be written.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and the soon to be published An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera