Civil unrest continues to grip the Middle East. Adding to the battle to remove Syria’s Russian-backed Assad and the political infighting following the ousting of dictators in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen is a recent flare up in Gaza, leaving more than 160 Palestinians dead before a fragile ceasefire took hold just before Thanksgiving Day.
Politics can often mirror geography, especially in a land considered holy by three major religions. The lowest geographical point on earth is the Dead Sea, a critical juncture point of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. But not far away sandwiched between Israel and Egypt is the narrow strip of Gaza, which is perhaps the lowest moral point in the current political strategy of the Israeli government and its vaunted IDF.
To say that the Gaza Strip is over populated and under resourced is an understatement. An estimated 1.7 million Palestinians live in a beleaguered area of 141 square miles, isolated and walled off like a Bantustan oasis. Before the 1948 creation of the state of Israel, this was a sparsely populated area with few resources to attract settlement, but some 200,000 Palestinians fled here at the time. Formal occupation of Israel, following the 1967 6-day war, officially ended in the mid-90s with the Oslo Accords. But there has been no peace in Gaza, whether under the control of the PLO or Hamas.
Pundits flood the airwaves with condemnation of Hamas, as though calling it a terrorist organization means open season on any Palestinian living in Gaza. So why does Hamas not sue for peace, given the obvious fact that a slew of puny missiles lobbed at Israel only brings more retaliation? A potent symbol of peace in the “Holy Land” is the olive branch. Students still read about this peace symbol in Virgil’s first century BCE Aeneid, so the need for such a symbol has certainly been around along the shores of the Mediterranean for a long time. Defenders of Israel’s continuing bombing strikes and assassinations in Gaza argue that Israel has a right to defend itself because Hamas is out to somehow destroy Israel. Hence Israel’s expensive prophylactic “Iron Dome” symbolically trumps an olive branch on the cable news. But it is hard to expect Palestinians to wave olive branches when there are so few olive trees left standing in Gaza. The recent “Pillar of Cloud” military campaign that rained down on Gaza occurred during the height of the olive harvest and processing season.
The destruction of the limited agriculture in Gaza, including olive orchards, is a greater long-term problem for staying alive than the periodic raids by Israeli planes. Consider the following data point: “All of Gaza’s 10,000 smallholder farms were damaged in the 2008-09 onslaught, half a million trees uprooted and more than one million chickens were killed along with sheep, cattle and goats. The Israelis destroyed 60 per cent of the agricultural industry in Gaza, causing $268m in losses.” The latest destruction disrupts agricultural production and irrigation even further.
If the bombs fail to kill a Gazan child, malnutrition may soon do so. How can food be put on the table with unemployment rising toward 50 percent? Potable water is so scarce that supply is reduced to a miniscule 20 liters per person a day, while in Israel the supply is 300 liters per capita. Add to this volatile humanitarian mix the lack of medicines and proper health care and it is hard to imagine any olive branches being held aloft soon by Palestinians in Gaza, especially by the generation lucky enough to survive into the next decade or so.
Anyone who thinks the current human tragedy pitting Israelis and Gazans against each other is a result of religion needs to read some Marx; I mean Karl, as tempting as it might be to think of Groucho. Hamas is first and foremost a political entity, representing what it means to be a disenfranchised Palestinian and not out to make a new Islamic caliphate. Similarly, the rightwing government of Netenyahu operates on principles suggested by Machiavelli rather than Maimonides. Religious rhetoric stokes the fire, including Teavangelical Christian scenarios that see the creation of Israel and its battles with the surrounding neo-Canaanites as a welcome sign for the return of Jesus and yet more biblical-style warfare. If indeed the Jesus of the Gospels did return, I suspect he would not praise those who turn ploughshares into drones but shed tears over the endemic poverty of the Gazans.
Daniel Martin Varisco is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar. His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (University of Washington Press, 2007). He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net), the online journal of the Middle East Section of the AAA. His regular blog is Tabsir: Insight on Islam and the Middle East (www.tabsir.net).
The lowest geographical point on earth is the Dead Sea, a critical juncture point of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. But not far away sandwiched between Israel and Egypt is the narrow strip of Gaza, which is perhaps the lowest moral point in the current political strategy of the Israeli government and its vaunted IDF.