When Chris Gunness, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency’s (UNRWA) spokesman, sat down to speak to Al-Jazeera on June 30, the events of the day proved to be too much. “The rights of Palestinians, even their children, are wholesale denied, and it’s appalling,” he said, before stopping, placing his head in his hands, and weeping live on air.
His emotion was in reaction to the bombing of the UNRWA-run Jabalia Primary School for Girls earlier that morning. The school was hit by three explosions, killing at least 19 and injuring 125 as they slept. Scenes were harrowing in the extreme—puddles of blood in the playground, a blackboard surrounded by blood-stained bedding—but it is when one considers that those killed and injured were some of the 3,300 seeking refuge within its walls following evacuation orders from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that the event seems even more gut-wrenching. These were people having to play a constant game of ‘hide-and-seek’—and, as the bombing demonstrated, there was simply no place for them to hide.
Much discussion regarding the proper allocation of blame has focused on Hamas’s “violation of the civilian sphere,” with claims that the group “hides” its weapons, its personnel and its tunnel entrances in or around schools, hospitals, apartment blocs and playgrounds—something which recent reports from UNRWA have confirmed. Pro-Israeli pundits tend to take this as evidence for Hamas’s ardent disrespect for human life—an attempt to ensure worldwide outrage should Israel ever target them. “Hamas chooses to use these protected areas for military purposes in order to shield itself from IDF strikes—and to draw international condemnation of Israel if the IDF is forced to respond,” said the IDF on its official blog.
But this is not necessarily some sort of “diabolical plan,” as Moshe Arens described it in Haaretz. The truth is that in a country as small and as densely populated as Gaza—1.8 million in territory just 25 miles (41 kilometers) long and 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) wide—it is all but impossible for the militant group to isolate itself from civilian life. There simply isn’t space. Militants live with their families, in apartment blocs surrounded by tens of other families. “Gaza is a very narrow strip of land believed to be the most densely populated on the face of the earth,” says British–Palestinian academic, Dr. Azzam Tamimi. “To talk about civilian and military distinctions is a luxury the people of Gaza cannot afford.” Even Hillary Clinton alluded to this point in a recent interview with one TV station. “Surgical strikes” in such a context thus become an impossibility—and massive collateral damage an inevitability. Warning notes may enable a humanitarian narrative to exist within the safe context of the newsroom, but they are of little practical use in Gaza where there is nowhere to escape to, and where advance warnings of a few minutes simply may not be enough. “With temporary shelters full, and the indiscriminate Israeli shelling, there is literally no place that is safe in Gaza,” argued prominent members of Palestinian civil society (including academics, public figures and activists) in a statement released on July 22.
Especially in the chaos of heavy shelling and the dangerous uncertainty of a crowded warzone, the line between “fighter” and “civilian” seems in danger of being blurred beyond belief. While a recent New York Times article points towards the disproportionate numbers of young Gazan men “of militant age” killed, using these statistics to imply that we have overestimated Israel’s incursion into the civilian sphere, it seems important to remember that this is also simply the demographic most likely to be out and about during a conflict—and not necessarily with a gun in hand. Testimonials recently published by Amnesty International paint a disturbing picture of the threats to the lives of paramedics, volunteer medics and ambulance drivers, who attempted to carry out their duties during the Israeli incursion, but too often ended up as part of the death count.
This is the reality of Gaza, where the population is seemingly endlessly punished for its choice in the 2006 election: 2009–2010, 2012, 2014—history keeps repeating itself. “Gazans are put in a state of constant fear by the Israelis—and they cannot do anything about it,” says Rawan Yaghi, a Palestinian student who studied at the Islamic University of Gaza, which was targeted in Israeli airstrikes on August 2.
Of course the military atmosphere also comes from within, from the higher echelons of the Hamas government keen to emphasize this aspect of their identity with regular military parades through Gaza’s streets. But to many Gazans, it is the blockade and the incursions that seem to strip away their civilian rights most completely—no matter who they are, or where they go, they cannot escape the war around them. While this feeling was no doubt thrown into sharp definition during Operation Protective Edge, the sad truth is that it runs deeper.
In Operation Brother’s Keeper the IDF engaged in what is best described as an “organized rampage” across the West Bank—one which saw civilian areas transformed into sites of military activity in the blink of an eye, the military essentially imposing collective punishment on the entire population. In the hunt for three kidnapped teenagers, over 1,000 homes were raided (some even demolished), offices such as that of the Palestinian Authority’s media center in East Jerusalem were stormed, civil society organizations such as Bethlehem’s Ibdaa Cultural Center were invaded, and respected educational establishments such as Birzeit, Al-Quds and Ahlia universities became military zones in lock-down.
Simply put, the military’s actions were less an attempt to retrieve three missing boys, and more an effort to impose fear through demonstrating the constant power it holds over the Palestinian population and territory. And it is the case even in “peacetime”—or the closest to “peacetime” that is possible in the Palestinian territories. Consider again the educational sphere, where the protracted conflict repeatedly impinges on the student experience: “So many times we would be in class, suddenly hear a loud noise, and discover there were confrontations between students and Israelis right outside the university,” one human rights undergraduate at Al-Quds University told us. “We would see them shooting and throwing tear gas bombs, with a lot of the students on the ground unable to breathe properly. Sometimes we couldn’t leave class until the situation was stable. Other times the university closed for days.” Or consider the normally mundane area of real estate. As one 2013 documentary showed, choices about where to rent or invest in the Gazan property market tend to center less around size of kitchen than around proximity to neighborhoods likely to be shelled in the event of the next war.
In the Palestinian territories today, exclusively civilian space simply does not seem to exist. And this is the very nature of the occupation (a term which should still be applied to the Gaza Strip, despite the Israeli withdrawal in 2005): the rule of a stronger state, constantly encroaching on civilian space in a bid to demonstrate its power and to force Palestinians into quiescence. This is not just a war-time measure. It is a standard method of power control used constantly, elaborately, and perhaps even unconsciously, stripping Palestinians of any sense of, or hope for, self-government.
While Hamas is certainly also implicit in the conversion of civilian spaces to military ones and its militarism absolutely cannot be condoned, in such a tiny piece of densely populated land it is near impossible for the group itself to be separated from the society and infrastructure around it. In response to Operation Protective Edge, the world has begun to question whether one violation gives licence to another. Hamas has blurred the line between the civilian and the military in Gaza. But in the aftermath of the destruction of schools, hospitals, homes and shelters, and as we face the frightening reality of a sky-high civilian death toll, we may ask whether Israel has not deleted it completely.