The blockaded and barricaded residents of Gaza performed a dramatic mass act of peaceful civil disobedience this week.
Breaking through a wall erected by Israel three years ago, they poured by the hundreds of thousands — old, young, men, women, children — into Egypt, into the long cut-off half of their town of Rafah … and shopped.
No one was killed. No shots were fired. Goats, cement, laundry detergent, televisions, milk and potato chips were purchased. One man who works with disabled people in Gaza bought air mattresses and pumps. Others bought soap, medicines, chocolate, Coca-Cola. The ordinary stuff of life.
Israel imposed a near-total blockade on Gaza last June after the Hamas takeover there. Last week, amidst heightened Israeli military attacks on Gaza, killing 30 Palestinians, and increased rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel, Israel sealed off Gaza entirely, though it backed off somewhat after international outcry.
We are talking here about a tiny strip of Palestinian land, 139 square miles housing 1.5 million people, almost entirely dependent on Israel for its economic life. Even before the latest closure, the blockade barred virtually all cross-border travel and trade, and deliveries of humanitarian aid were restricted.
Expressing sympathy for the residents of the Israeli border communities “under the barrage of Qassam missiles, mortar shells and sniper bullets,” the Israeli Communist Party said last week, “it is in no way a justification for a cruel siege which severely harms a million and half civilians — men, women and children.”
Aside from being immoral and a violation of international law, “from a practical point of view, increasing the bitterness and suffering in Gaza leads to an intensification of attacks on the Israeli side, not to their end,” the Israeli Communists pointed out.
“Unlike what we have been made to believe, residents of Sderot and residents of Gaza are not to be seen as opponents: both are victims of a stupid and vicious policy of the Government of Israel.”
(Israeli Communists and other Israeli peace and human rights groups organized a relief convoy and peace protest at the Israel-Gaza border, jointly with Palestinians.)
The Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted by the world community in the aftermath of World War II, specifically protects civilian populations in areas of conflict or occupation and forbids collective punishment of such populations. Article 33 says, “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.” It prohibits “collective penalties,” “measures of intimidation” and “reprisals against protected persons and their property.”
According to Wikipedia, “By collective punishment, the drafters of the Geneva Conventions had in mind the reprisal killings of World Wars I and II. In the First World War, Germans executed Belgian villagers in mass retribution for resistance activity. In World War II, Nazis carried out a form of collective punishment to suppress resistance. Entire villages or towns or districts were held responsible for any resistance activity that took place there. The conventions, to counter this, reiterated the principle of individual responsibility. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentary to the conventions states that parties to a conflict often would resort to ‘intimidatory measures to terrorize the population’ in hopes of preventing hostile acts, but such practices ‘strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice.’”
As humanists we oppose war and acts of violence against civilians by states or individuals.
Yet everything is not equal. Who could blame people living under such bleakness, caged and isolated — while those with power to do something, like our government, aid and abet the oppression, or just stand by — for lashing out at whatever is nearest at hand?
Langston Hughes, the great African American poet, asked five decades ago in his famous poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?