The bombing may have ended, but life in Gaza is hardly back to what any of us would think is normal. For in Gaza the alternation between bombardment and ceasefire does not mark the difference between war and peace, but rather the oscillation between one kind of violence and another.
The key to understanding this is recognising the fact that Gaza and Israel are not two states engaged in a temporary border dispute, or protecting their sovereignty, or exercising their right to self-defence. Gaza is not a state; as the UN Security Council has repeatedly affirmed, it is militarily-occupied territory – and it remains under Israeli control. In bombing Gaza, then, Israel was not striking the territory of another state. It was bombing people for whose welfare it is legally accountable as the only sovereign power that exercises control over their lives – including everything from determining how their names appear on identity cards and in the official population registry, to how much electricity they receive and how much food they are allowed to eat.
Bombs and rockets easily make headlines and grab global attention, but they distract us from the quieter, longer-lasting and – in the long run – far more destructive reality that grinds away at everyday life in Gaza, and has done so for so long that individual bombings and ceasefires are almost beside the point. Even when they take place, manifest acts of violence such as bombing or rocket fire are merely extensions of the underlying and continuous conditions of violence out of which they emerge – conditions determined by the nature and extent of Israel’s control over Gaza.
To get a sense of that control, you have to step past official proclamations and screaming newspaper or television headlines to the silent and all but invisible bureaucratic processes that define day-to-day life in Gaza.
Consider, for example, the fact that several years ago Israeli officials prepared a set of fine-tuned calculations determining exactly how many calories per day would be required to keep Gaza’s 1.7 million people hovering at the edge of starvation: neither consuming enough to prosper, nor actually crossing the line into outright famine. The magic number they came up with is 2,279 calories per person per day. The Israelis multiplied this figure by the total population and then broke the result down into the number of truckloads of calories per day – minus a number allowing for food produced in Gaza – that they would allow into the territory. Israel even drafted lists that specify particular kinds of food that are allowed into Gaza (pasta did not make the list until 2009, for example).
This obsessive Israeli calorie-counting is only one aspect of a larger strategy designed to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge”, as the US Embassy in Tel Aviv explained in a leaked cable from 2008. And the resulting catastrophe has unfolded precisely according to Israeli calculations: international human rights organisations and United Nations agencies have repeatedly warned of the effect of Israel’s draconian controls on life in Gaza as reflected in a spectrum of measures from rampant food insecurity to the stunting of growth in children and adolescents.
Seen with the optic through which Israel views Gaza (and the Palestinians in general), human life is, far from something to treasure, a force to be controlled, channelled, blocked and cut off as necessary.
Why? Because most of the population of Gaza is constituted by refugees or the descendants of refugees driven from their homes elsewhere in Palestine in 1948 to make room for the creation of a Jewish state. Israeli politicians from across the spectrum (as well as Israel’s current ambassador to the United States, writing in Commentary magazine not long ago) speak openly of the “demographic threat” the Palestinians pose to Israel. According to this political logic, Palestinians had to be displaced in 1948 – and they have to remain displaced now, in Gaza among other places – because their sheer number would alter the state’s demographic composition if they were allowed back home to their ancestral towns and villages inside what is now Israel.
The threat that Gaza poses to Israel, in other words, is not simply rockets, but an abundance of human life itself. For to reduce a people to a “demographic threat” is to lose sight of them as people in the first place. They then become merely a living force, like a weed or a cancer (rhetorical terms that, not coincidentally, flourish in the Israeli political lexicon), whose growth needs to be kept in check, if not cauterised or eliminated altogether. Sometimes that checking involves bombing or shooting; more often, it involves grinding down, restricting, smothering.
The people of Gaza are not just a form of self-reproducing protoplasm, however. They are men, women and (mostly) children with – as the great English essayist, William Hazlitt, once put it in not dissimilar circumstances – thoughts and feelings, and interests and passions, and purposes and affections, and a right and a will to be free. These people need far more than a ceasefire: they need a just peace.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. He is the author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.
Follow him on Twitter: @sareemakdisi