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Lost in the Rubble

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I often visited Nizar Rayan, who was killed Thursday in a targeted assassination by Israel, at his house in the Jabaliya refugee camp when I was in Gaza. The house is now rubble. It was hit by two missiles fired by Israeli F-16 fighter jets. Rayan, who would meet me in his book-lined study, was decapitated in the blast. His body was thrown into the street by the explosions. His four wives and 11 children also were killed.

Rayan supported tactics, including suicide bombings, which are morally repugnant. His hatred of Israel ran deep. His fundamentalist brand of Islam was distasteful. But as he and I were students of theology our discussions frequently veered off into the nature of belief, Islam, the Koran, the Bible and the religious life. He was a serious, thoughtful man who had suffered deeply under the occupation and dedicated his life to resistance. He could have fled his home and gone underground with other Hamas leaders. Knowing him, I suspect he could not leave his children. Like him or not, he had tremendous courage.

Hamas, he constantly reminded me, began to target Israeli civilians in 1994 only after Palestinian worshipers were gunned down in a Hebron mosque by a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein. Goldstein was a resident of the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement. He entered the mosque dressed in his army uniform, carrying an IMI Galil assault rifle and four magazines of ammunition. He opened fire on those in prayer, killing 29 people and injuring 125. He was rushed and beaten to death by the survivors.

“Before the massacre we targeted only the Israeli military,” Rayan said. “We can’t sit by and watch Palestinian civilians killed year after year and do nothing. When Israel stops killing our civilians we will stop killing their civilians.” 

Rayan was a theology and law professor at Islamic University in Gaza. He was a large man with a thick black beard and the quiet, soft-spoken manner of someone who has spent much of his life reading. On the walls of his office, black-and-white photographs illustrated the history of Palestinians over the last five decades. They showed lines of trucks carrying refugees from their villages in 1948. They showed the hovels of new refugee camps built after the 1967 war. And they showed the gutted and razed remains of Palestinian villages in what is now Israel.

Rayan’s grandfather and great-uncle were killed in the 1948 war that led to the establishment of Israel. His grandmother died shortly after she and her son, Rayan’s father, were driven from their village by Jewish fighters. His father was passed among relatives and grew up with the bitterness of the dispossessed—a bitterness the father passed on to the son and the son passed on to his own children. 

Israeli militias in 1948 drove some 800,000 Palestinians from their homes, farms, towns and villages into exile in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring countries. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” details the deliberate Israeli policy of removing Palestinians from their land. 

“There was not a single night that we did not think and talk about Palestine,” Rayan said the last time I saw him, his eyes growing moist. “We were taught that our lives must be devoted to reclaiming our land.”

Rayan spent 12 years in an Israeli jail. His brother-in-law blew himself up in a suicide-bomb attack on an Israeli bus in 1998. One of his brothers had been shot dead by Israelis in street protests five years earlier. Another brother was expelled to Lebanon, and several more were wounded in clashes.

His sons, according to their father, strove to be one thing: martyrs for Palestine. 

“I pray only that God will choose them,” he said.

Hamas, which assumed power in free and fair elections, insists that the real goal of Israel is to break the will of the Palestinians in Gaza and destroy Hamas as an organization. Since Israel unleashed its air and sea campaign, at least 430 Palestinians have been killed, including 65 children, and 2,250 others have been wounded, according to Gaza medics. The bombardment has demolished dozens of houses and raised fears of severe food shortages and disease in the enclave, where most Gazans depend on foreign aid.

“The protection of civilians, the fabric of life, the future of the peace talks and of the regional peace process has been trapped between the irresponsibility of the Hamas attacks and the excessiveness of the Israeli response,” Robert Serry, the U.N. envoy for the Middle East, told reporters in Jerusalem.

The Israeli assault began on Nov. 4, when Israel broke the truce that Hamas had observed for several months. Israel then blocked food supplies delivered by the United Nations Relief Works and World Food Program. It cut off diesel fuel used to run Gaza’s power station. It banned journalists and aid workers from entering Gaza. The U.N. World Food Program called the situation in Gaza appalling and said that “many basic food items are no longer available on the market.” 

All this is being carried out by a modern military against a population with no capacity to resist.

The Israeli leadership has warned that this will be a long campaign and hinted that it may be followed by a ground invasion. Israeli tanks are massed on Gaza’s border. The continued pounding of Gaza and the rising death toll are sure to ignite the rage of Palestinians outside Gaza. Israeli police forces are already positioning themselves to deal with what they euphemistically have labeled “spontaneous terrorism,” meaning public outbursts of support for Gaza that could turn violent. Israeli police used tear gas on Friday to quell demonstrations by Palestinians in annexed east Jerusalem. Four Israelis have been killed by Palestinian rockets since the latest resumption of violence.

Barack Obama’s only comment on the one-sided slaughter under way in Gaza was: “If my daughters were living in a house that was being threatened by rocket attacks, I would do whatever it takes to end that situation.” He repeated word for word the Israeli cliché used to justify an Israeli policy that Richard Falk, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory and a former Princeton University law professor, has labeled “a crime against humanity.” If self-defense applies to Israel, why doesn’t it apply to the Rayan family? Why doesn’t it apply to the Palestinians? It is Israel, not the Palestinians, which defies U.N. resolutions and international law by occupying and seizing ever-larger chunks of Palestinian land.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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