A new edited collection examines Israelis’ view of Gaza, especially their blindness

Gaza: Place and Image in Israeli Space

The Palestine Project

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By Noam Sheizaf *

Timing is everything. The collection of essays Gaza: Place and Image in Israeli Space was published in July 2023. Now, two months or so into the war, a chasm stands between its authors and readers. The context in which the essays were written was two decades of siege and almost complete separation between Gaza and Israel. It is this separation which the book seeks to undermine. The essays are diverse but share a desire to understand Gaza as an Israeli place, as an object of the Israeli gaze, and of Israeli policy. But primarily the book demands its readers to simply consider Gaza, to understand that what happens there is significant and relevant to us as well. Except this critical and divisive aim has since been reached in a most violent and agonising way. This collection deals with Gaza as Israel’s ghost. But Gaza is now so palpably real in our lives that when I had read the book on the bus or while on reserve duty, I hid its cover. It was patently clear that the title and cover image — a young wheelchair-bound Palestinian slinging stones — might just tip somebody over the edge.

Gaza: Place and Image in Israeli Space’

This is an eclectic collection. It contains analysis of Israeli literature, cinema and art that deal with Gaza, as well as historical research, personal memoirs and journalism, alongside translated prose by Samah Ghassan, a Gazan writer. The book hints at what was to come, but most of its contributors could not have fathomed the horrors that took place on Simchat Tora, and what followed. In her opening essay, editor Omri Ben Yehuda relegates the notion of a Palestinian commando unit from Gaza invading Israel to ‘a realm of near-fantasy’. Another essay states that ‘the possibility of conquering Gaza Strip… does not sound credible’.

In sharp contrast to the current sense in Israel, the book is permeated by a sense of empathy for Gazans. October 7 and its terror are absent from the book. The desire to put forward a critical alternative to the hawkish discourse results in a near total disregard of Hamas. This is where the collection falls short. And yet, it not seem to outdated. Perhaps particularly because it focuses on us, Israelis, it provides some insight to assist in understanding the events, and especially highlights the question we still have not tackled since 1948, and with which the Israeli government refuses to contend even at this crucial moment: what kind of future do we imagine for ourselves and Palestinians in Gaza?

Postcard from a parallel universe

The Gaza Strip has been suppressed because it’s the very heart of the Palestinian problem, according to the authors. It was created alongside as a geographic zone during the War of Independence. ‘Unlike a space, a ‘strip’ is manmade and artificial, and it abides by its predetermined, doomed fate, to be stripped’, writes Right-winger poet Elhai Salomon in his interesting essay about the Jewish history of Gaza. He concludes with a quote from Yohai Hadad’s poem: ‘And Gaza will be conquered again. And my eye will shed a tear, for the casus belli children sleeping in their mothers’ arms, in the kibbutz, village, or township; they don’t know that their blood is consumed like a crimson rug; for sin has come this far’.

Most of the Palestinian residents of Gaza Strip are descended from refugees forced there in 1948, some of whom came from Jaffa, others from villages in the western Negev. Those refugees settled into neighbourhoods named after villages and townships they’d been driven out of, and their presence there turned Gaza into a symbol of the Palestinian plight. It was the Gazan refugees that bore out the Fedayeen insurgency of the 1950s — which were often villagers attempting to return to their lost lands and property, sometimes on murderous terrorising expeditions. The first Intifada broke out in Gaza’s Jabalia, a peak moment in Palestinian nationalism. Yasser Arafat’s family came from Gaza, as did the founders of Hamas.

Israeli culture wanted to see in Gaza its own antithesis: if Israel was a successful, open society, then Gaza was conversely a hostile, failing ghetto. ‘Israel and Gaza contain one another like babushka dolls: a small strip, unbearably crowded, its borders closed, its neighbours hostile, its names denoting history’, writes literature scholar Uri S Cohen. This is the origin of the saying, ‘why don’t you go to Gaza’, directed at anyone we may not like, or the aspiration first voiced by David Ben-Gurion that Gaza, perhaps along with the entire Palestinian issue, would simply disappear into the sea.

Gaza refused to disappear. Israel was severed from it in 1948, occupied it in 1956, and left it under great powers pressure that be a few months later, only to reconquer it in 1967, placing it under siege, but then two years later it changed direction and encouraged its residents to work in Israel, then went back to the siege policy from 1991, evacuated its forces from the towns in the Strip in 1994, and evacuated the Jewish settlements there in 2005. Now we are onto the next chapter: the massacre of October 7 has led to another occupation, and it looks like just in 1967, we’re slipping without too much thought to the model of direct occupation.

(Credit: Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu/AFP)

The public and the government are hoping the population of Gaza can be relocated to another country, or that a third party (Saudi Arabia? The United Arab Emirates?) take on civic and military responsibility for Gaza, similar to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. A fascinating essay by historian Omri Shafer Raviv about Israeli attempts to get rid of the population of Gaza Strip after 1967 pours cold water on any such fantasies. After the Six Day War, writes Shafer Raviv, the government hoped to thin out Gaza’s population and annex the Strip. And so was born the plan to transfer the Palestinians to the east, particularly by offering economic incentives. The military regime in Gaza was guided to deliberately avoid any economic improvement there (unemployment stood at 50 per cent), and small grants were offered to anyone willing to relocate to the West Bank, and from there to Jordan.

The start was promising: after some time they recorded a monthly rate of thousands of Palestinians leaving Gaza. Israeli demographers began debating whether this would be a sufficient tool for shrinking that population, or would it merely prevent its growth. Either way, Jordan quickly figured this out and prohibited incomers from Gaza. Once the Jordan option failed, the Israeli government signed an agreement with Paraguay to take 50,000 Gazans as workers with an option for permanent residence. Once again, out came the moneybags: Israel was meant to bear all the costs for the manoeuvre, and even to provide the immigrants an initial grant on top of a significant payout to the Paraguayan government. This attempt also failed. Meanwhile it turned out that cultivating economic decline and poverty had a positive effect on terrorist organisations, and so Israel changed direction and started encouraging Gazans to come and work in its own economy. Quality of life in Gaza improved dramatically, along with feelings of humiliation triggered by the contact between poor refugees and affluent Israeli society. That’s how the first Intifada was born.

A few of the essays in the book deal with various Israelis that travelled between Israel and Gaza at that time. Reading these against the background of the abductees now being returned home was bizarrely moving, like a postcard from a parallel universe. Among them stood out author Ronit Matalon, who published essays and photographs from the refugee camps during the First Intifada, as well as Haaretz journalist Amira Hass, who resided in Gaza in the 1990s. While Hass writes out of a deep identification with Palestinians, Matalon conveys the fragility of the encounter with Palestinians in Gaza and of the feeling that both sides are trapped in their own political roles while authenticity remains elusive. And still, her writing sharply contrasts the image of a shapeless dark and hostile lump that we are currently being shown of Gaza.

The most beautiful chapter in the book also deals with a character that moves between the two worlds. ‘Dad works in Gaza’ by Yuval Evri deals with the author’s father who had served as an employment branch officer in Gaza from 1973 to 1983. Nisim Evri, Iraqi born and a resident of Beersheba, had not completed his schooling, instead working at odd construction and painting jobs. The war and his enlistment into the civil administration in the Gaza Strip opened up a vast world of opportunities for personal and professional fulfilment, and for a reconnection with his Arab roots. The extent to which this piece moved me upon its many layers of meaning will have to wait for another time. In contrast with the book’s opening chapter linking the Palestinian struggle with the gap between the Israeli centre and periphery, using rather clumsy academic ties (and even goes further to link the Palestinian struggle with the Mizrahi or Ethiopian ones), Evri’s ‘Dad works in Gaza’ delicately encapsulates the Israeli complexity and the tragic role played by Mizrahi identity in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This tragedy is all the clearer under the current motto ‘together we will win’, in which the intricacies of one’s identity unavoidably fall by the wayside.

A distorted relationship

Since 1991, Israel started limiting the entry of Palestinians from Gaza into the Green Line territory. These restrictions have worsened over time. The unilateral Disengagement and evacuation of Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005 was the culmination of this process. After Hamas was prevented from realising its victory in the 2006 elections, it took over Gaza with a violent coup. That is how the era of siege and endless rounds of war began. Much like Jordan had done previously, Egypt responded to the closing of the borders by Israel by closing the Rafah Crossing, so that the Gaza problem doesn’t encroach upon its own territory.

(Credit: SAID KHATIB/AFP)

Israel for its part kept up various forms of control in Gaza. The currency there remains the Shekel. Most of the borders open or close by Israeli decree, while the airspace has remained in Israeli control. Even the population registry is monitored by the IDF via the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Israeli control over the entry of goods into Gaza had at one time reached the stage of calculating how many calories each Palestinian would need to survive. The only right people living in Gaza had left was to just survive. And during military operations, this right was taken away. Over half the population of Gaza is under 20 years old, not one of whom has ever known anything else. ‘You lucky thing, you have cancer’, says a Gazan girl to her friend after receiving a permit to leave Gaza for treatment, and so ends up, for the very first time in her life, seeing a mountain and an apple tree (an anecdote from Amira Hass).

Israel’s toxic relationship with Hamas also formed over the years of the ongoing siege. Israel needed Hamas to prevail there and cultivated it as a counterweight to the Palestinian Authority, and as a factor preventing by the fact of its control of Gaza any serious discussion of a Palestinian state. Israeli policy and the siege greatly assisted Hamas to tighten its grip. This collection of essays was written at a time when Gaza-Hamas was no more than a nuisance for Israel, and any discussion of it was secondary and mostly superficial, with the exception of Hass, whose contribution to the collection offers a historical and political overview of Gaza from the inside. Hass is the only Hebrew writer who can time and again open up a portal onto the soul of Palestinians. And since she adopts their point of view, what she writes is difficult and angers so many Israeli readers. This is a pity. Hass can teach us something that no tracking device or surveillance technology can capture, including important lessons for the Right, the Left, and even for Defence.

Hass points out how deeply embedded Hamas is in Palestinian society, despite the growing frustration among Gazans with its conduct. She notes the way in which Hamas’ military and technological growth and conflicts with Israel, have become central in its identity. Its ability to use Gaza’s residents’ resilience and determination for its own needs (for example by taking over the economy of the tunnels or the fence marches), as well as its indifference to its fate. ‘It is hard to imagine the minutiae of poverty, hunger, unemployment and desperation into which Gaza has descended as a result of Israeli policy, and that Hamas, with its efforts to militarise and brag about it, does nothing to alleviate’, writes Hass. An utterly despairing population prepared to die under a murderous leadership indifferent to its fate; Israel’s disregard both for the capabilities and the suffering of Palestinians: this is the background of the October surprise.

History does not stop

October 7 casts its shadow not only this collection of essays but over our entire existence as Israelis. More than anything, it seems as though time has stopped, as though everything led to this moment. But history doesn’t stop. Just like in 1948, 1967, and 1987, the Palestinian problem is reborn in Gaza now for the whole world to see. Refugees from northern Gaza already outnumber those of 1948 and most no longer have a home to return to. They will be at centre stage now. International bodies will possibly agree to give them some humanitarian or financial aid, but nobody will take on the responsibility for policing or processing their political demands. Even the separation between Gaza and the West Bank has come to an end, since Israel is uniting them under its renewed control.

Ultimately Gaza is no antithesis or babushka doll for Israel. Like the entire Palestinian problem, it exists both within and outside of Israel, within our control but also in opposition to us, the two societies entwined in each other in a perpetual violent escalation. Each shock is worse than the last. Each catastrophe seems more hideous and unfathomable. It will not stop. October 7 is not the end, it is also a beginning, but the beginning of what is the very question Israeli society continues to avoid.

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