Thursday, December 26, 2013

Slouching Towards Gaza

Phosphorus Bombs over Gaza City, January 2009
Two days after Christmas in 2008, the isolated and densely populated city of Gaza was visited by volley upon volley of deadly missile and mortar fire. The intense bombardment of "one of the most densely populated places on earth" (United Nations Development Programme) continued unabated for a period of three weeks. By the end of the assault, over 1,400 Palestinians had been killed and more than 5,000 wounded, many seriously. Between three and four hundred of the dead were children. A total of 13 Israelis were killed during the same time, four of them by the action of their own troops.

This post offers a fifth anniversary commemoration of that tragic and highly destructive event. It offers a substantive audio presentation recounting the pivotal events in the history of Israel/Palestine from 1947 to the present through the reflections of a number of informed and articulate commentators. This post also includes a modified version of an essay published in December 2010 as a two-year commemoration of the assault and the events leading up to it.

Slouching Towards Gaza can be streamed using the media player above. A broadcast quality mp3 file (192 kbps) is available for download here. CD quality (128 kbps) and LoFi audio are also available for download here.

Production Notes

The Voices

Chris Hedges (New York Society for Ethical Culture, January 2009)
Richard Falk (Middle East Monitor Conference, London, Dec. 2010)
Sara Roy (University of Sydney, Ideas, October 2008)
Tanya Reinhart (University of Sydney, Ideas, October 2006)
Mustafa Barghouti (TUC Radio, March 2004)
Edward Said (U. of California, Berkeley, March 2003)
David Ben-Gurion (June 1947, Talking History Archive, Dec. 2004)
Ilan Pappe (University of Bern, Switzerland, November 2012)
Robert Fisk (Interview with Cindy Sheehan, September 2010)
Eyal Weizman (KPFA, Against the Grain, April 2009)
Mads Gilbert (Unusual Sources, January 2010; Muslim Perspectives, January 2010; Sounds of Dissent, Nov. 2012)

The Poetry

Suheir Hammad. Gaza Suite. 1: Gaza
Vincent Di Stefano. Careful Now (Excerpt). Music composed and performed by Nico Di Stefano

The Music

Gilad Atzmon and Orient House Ensemble. Dal'Ouna on the Return
Rim Banna. The Wall
Yggdrasil. Al Dabaran
Sirocco. Nomads
The Ida Raichel Project. Azini (Comfort me)
Digital Samsara. C#
Jocelyn Pook. Migrations
Steve Kahn and Rob Mounsey. I See a Long Journey
The Herd. Kids Learn Quick
Digital Samsara. 7am
Outlandish and Sami Jusuf. Try not to Cry

Produced by
Vincent Di Stefano

With thanks to Maria Gilardin of TUC Radio for generously making available audio of Mustafa Barghouti and Edward Said lectures


Operation Cast Lead and the Dismembering of a People 

Phosphorus bombs at UN Complex, Gaza City, January 2009
In early January 2009, two lone voices braved the Australian media to offer a differing view to that given by Government spokespersons regarding Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day assault of Israel on Gaza that began on December 27th 2008. The first was that of Greens Leader, Senator Bob Brown. He urged Julia Gillard to speak out against the “violent and disproportionate action by Israeli leaders.” More pointed were the comments of Julia Irwin, Federal MP for the NSW seat of Fowler. In an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, she used metaphor to draw our attention to the travesty that was occurring in Gaza:

“It all reminds me of an old story from the days of the Roman Empire. The emperor
Nero was upset that his prized lions were being distressed by Christians, who ran away from them in the Colloseum. Nero ordered that at the next circus, a Christian was to be buried up to his neck in the sand to make things easier for the lions. When the lions entered the ring, the biggest and the meanest saw the hapless condemned, swaggered over and stood astride the Christian’s head, roaring for approval from the crowd. At that moment, the Christian craned his neck and bit off the lion’s testicles. The crowd was shocked. “Fight fair! Fight fair!” they yelled.”

Israel’s attack upon Gaza was met with a curious indifference by most of the so-called leaders of Western nations. As acting Prime Minister of Australia at the time, the ill-informed Julia Gillard refused to criticise, let alone condemn the actions of Israel. Supposedly speaking on behalf of the Australian people, she said: “Australia recognises the right of Israel to defend itself.” That comment was made on the third of January 2009, by which time it was widely known that 430 Gazans had already been killed and 2,300 wounded in 750 individual strikes carried out by air and by sea over the previous five days.

Five years ago, we witnessed a stone-hearted disregard of the humanity of those living in one of the most densely populated regions on the planet by an unspeakably powerful military force. How is it that politicians can so casually intone, “Israel has a right to defend itself”? Defend itself from what? From the miserable Qassam rockets that vent the rage of an immiserated group of Palestinian men, many of whose families have lost sons, daughters, freedoms and lands since the military occupation of Gaza by Israel that began in 1967? From the petulant stones hurled by boys and young men at the supremely armoured Merkava tanks that have blown apart their communities and knocked down their family homes?

There is much that underlies the grief and resentment that sears the minds of invulnerated Palestinians, much that has been ignored, suppressed and dismissed by those who would tell us what we should believe. Operation Cast Lead could not have happened without the widespread acceptance of a view that dismisses the essential humanity of the Palestinian people. How is it that so many in the West have come to perceive the Palestinians as a hostile race, a violent people, an unruly group with whom any reasoned and reasonable dialogue is impossible?

The late Edward Said spent most of his adult life in an impassioned quest to awaken our collective understanding to what has happened to the people of Palestine since their traditional lands were handed over to the newly created state of Israel in 1948 even as the embers of the Second World War had yet to cool. In a lecture delivered at the University of California at Berkeley eight months before he died in 2003, Edward Said reflected on the sorry fate of Palestinians since 1967:

“The thirty-five year old military occupation, now the longest and most brutally sustained in modern history has taken a terrific toll in the human condition of the Palestinians at every level. In fact, short of genocide itself, I cannot think of a single one of the human rights of the people that has not been violated with a kind of refined viciousness designed to dehumanise and break their spirit and humiliate them to a degree that is, even to someone who has been carefully but helplessly aware of what has been taking place, simply stupefying.

What has made it worse is how much of this has been wilfully shielded from witnessing eyes by propaganda about fighting for survival and against terrorism, claims that in any other instance, would defy the credulity of the most gullible intelligence.”

Things have changed little since Said voiced these thoughts. The past ten years have seen a deepening rather than an easing of the plight of the people of Palestine, and more particularly, of the inhabitants of Gaza.

Edward Said was no armchair academic. He was a driving force in the creation of the Palestinian National Initiative, a democratic movement committed to providing Palestinians with an alternative identity to that offered by Yassar Arafat and his Fatah inner circle. Among Said’s collaborators in that project was Mustafa Barghouthi, a Palestinian doctor. In an article written two weeks after Israeli troops pulled out of a ruined Gaza in January 2009, Barghouthi offers a weepingly beautiful portrait of the Palestinian people and a clear restatement of both their identity and the character of their struggle. He reflects: “The main reason so much effort is put into distorting the character of Palestinians is that if the world were to really know what is going on here, the collective emotion would shift from apathy toward our struggle to one of anger at our oppressor.”  

One cannot understand the grievousness of what has happened in Gaza without understanding the depth of dispossession and the degree of oppression to which Palestinians have been subjected since the United Nations partitioned the British-ruled Palestine Mandate in November 1947. According to UN General Assembly Resolution 181, Israel was to be apportioned 55% of the mandated territory while the Palestinians were to be apportioned 45%. That never eventuated. Even before the Israeli land acquisitions of the Six Day War in 1967, the new state of Israel had sequestered 78% of Palestinian lands.

Uprooted Palestinians
Between 1947 and 1951, more than 400 Palestinian villages were totally destroyed. As Jewish immigrants poured in from all over the world, nearly a million Palestinians were made homeless. Attacks by the Jewish army, the Haganah, and the ruthless Irgun, a militia group headed by Menachem Begin caused a massive exodus of Palestinians from their traditional lands. Reprisals occurred, the slaughters continued, waves of Palestinian refugees fled into neighbouring countries, and the Israelis took control of more lands. The slaughter of 120 Palestinians at Deir Yassin on April 9th 1948 and of 200 Palestinians at Tantura on May 15th 1948 were the earliest in a series of blood-lettings that extended from the Naqba, the Great Catastrophe, to the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982, the al Aqsa mosque massacre in 1990, the bloodbath at Jenin Refugee Camp in 2002, and most recently in the 1,400 Palestinian deaths that occurred during Operation Cast Lead.  

The Soured Election

The more direct antecedents of Operation Cast Lead lie in the Palestinian elections of January 2006. These elections were largely driven by the Bush Administration in co-operation with the newly elected Mahmoud Abbas, who took over the presidency of the Palestinian National Authority after the death of the decrepit and opportunistic Yassar Arafat, founder of Fatah. Investigative journalist Chris Hedges comments on life in Gaza at that time: “Gaza, ruled by warring factions, warlords, clans, kidnapping rings and criminal gangs, had descended into chaos under Mahmoud Abbas’ corrupt Fatah-led government”.

Things did not go according to plan in those elections. On January 26th 2006, Hamas won 56% of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. The US and Israel took immediate steps to “correct” the situation. Together with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, the US demanded that the new Hamas government agree to accept the terms of all previous agreements made with Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and to formally recognise Israel’s right to exist. Hamas refused. The spigot was immediately turned off. All aid was immediately terminated. The newly elected government no longer had the means to fund its $2 billion annual budget. With over half of the Palestinian population living on under $2 a day at the time, there was no possibility of generating funds through such conventional methods as tax revenues. 

Queues at Border Crossing
Israel lost no time. It immediately tightened its border crossings and blocked all movement of Palestinians into and out of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) summarily rounded up and “arrested” over 60 Hamas officials including new ministers and Legislative Council members. The Israeli government was clearly displeased with the outcome of the elections.

Soon after, the Bush Administration followed suit when it learned that Mahmoud Abbas was engaged in discussions with Hamas about the possibility of forming a unity government. Condoleeza Rice travelled to Ramallah to sort things out. In early October 2006, she instructed Abbas to do whatever was necessary to dissolve the Hamas-led government as soon as possible and to prepare the ground for a new election.

Several weeks passed and nothing had happened. Mahmoud Abbas was delivered a thinly disguised ultimatum by the US State Department. It read, “We need to understand your plans regarding a new [Palestinian Authority] government . . . You told Secretary Rice you would be prepared to move ahead within two to four weeks of your meeting. We believe that the time has come for you to move forward quickly and decisively.” (Quoted by David Rose, VanityFair, April 2008)

Tensions between Hamas and Fatah turned deadly as Hamas learned of the collaborations between Fatah and Washington. Fighting broke out on multiple fronts. By December 2006, dozens were being killed every month. Meanwhile, Condoleeza Rice had arranged a series of meetings and discussions with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. David Rose comments: “She asked them to bolster Fatah by providing military training and by pledging funds to buy its forces lethal weapons. The money was to be paid directly into accounts controlled by President Abbas.” 

Before year’s end, four trucks loaded with 2,000 Egyptian-made automatic rifles, 20,000 ammunition clips and two million bullets were quietly ushered from Egypt into Gaza through an Israeli-controlled crossing. Their deadly cargo was delivered to Fatah officials. At much the same time, the United Arab Emirates handed over cash payments of between 20 and 30 million dollars to Fatah.

The new hardware from Egypt was put to use within weeks. By early February, Fatah forces stormed the Islamic University of Gaza, which was viewed as a Hamas stronghold, and torched several buildings. Hamas responded by attacking Fatah-controlled police stations.

With Gaza on the verge of a full-blown civil war, King Hussein of Saudi Arabia quickly convened a meeting. Abbas and his US-appointed national security advisor met with a group of Hamas Leaders in Mecca. As a result of the meeting, Fatah members were offered several key posts in the Legislative Council, and a national unity government was formed. The Saudis agreed to pick up the tab for the Palestinian Authority’s bills, which had not been paid for over 12 months. The celebrations that followed were, however, to be short-lived.

Incensed at this development, the US drew up a plan to provide Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah forces with $1.27 billion dollars in military training, hardware and salaries over the following five years in exchange for an assurance that he would “collapse the government” in accordance with the wishes of the US and Israel. Details of this plan were unexpectedly leaked to a Jordanian newspaper on April 30, 2007. Within days, Hamas had become aware that a US-backed Fatah coup was in the making.

Fatah Militia
In mid May, five hundred Fatah National Security recruits crossed the Egyptian border in new outfits sporting new weaponry and driving new armoured vehicles. An observer commented: “They had new rifles with telescopic sights, and they were wearing black flack-jackets. They were quite a contrast to the usual scruffy lot.” Hamas fighters tried to intercept these new recruits as they crossed into Gaza but were pushed back by the tight discipline of the new Fatah recruits. By the end of May, Hamas and the newly armed Fatah security forces were at each other’s throats.

The camel’s back was completely broken on June 7th when the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that an even larger shipment of Egyptian arms was ready to be shipped to Fatah forces. DavidRose reports: “Abbas and Dayton [the US security co-ordinator for the Palestinians] had asked Israel to authorise the biggest Egyptian arms shipment yet - to include dozens of armoured cars, hundreds of armour-piercing rockets, thousands of hand grenades, and millions of rounds of ammunition.” With over 250 Hamas members having already been killed in the previous six months, Hamas decided to put an end to it there and then.

It was all over within a few days. The Fatah security forces were routed and ruthlessly cut down by Hamas fighters. Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the nascent and barely-formed Palestinian Authority-Hamas unity government a week later. Hamas claimed full control of Gaza on June 15th 2007. Those within Fatah who managed to survive the deadly battle of Gaza limped back to Abbas’ new stronghold, the Israeli-occupied territory of the West Bank. The US and Israel were satisfied that the West Bank and Gaza were now fully isolated from each other. And the blood spilt and damage done during that sad episode was but a minor prelude to what was to be unleashed on Gaza eighteen months later by the IDF in Operation Cast Lead.

Tightening the Stranglehold

Gaza was declared a ‘hostile entity’ by the Israeli Security Cabinet, and the blockade of Gaza was intensified. Israeli forces closed all portals of entry and Egypt followed suit at its northern border with Gaza. The movement of people and of goods into and out of Gaza was frozen. Overnight, Gaza had become totally ghettoised. Predictably, Hamas resumed its useless rocket attacks on southern Israel.

By December 2007, 90% of the functioning factories and workshops in Gaza had closed down. With the blocking of all imports into Gaza, there were simply no materials available to work with any more. The income of 70% of the population of the Gaza Strip had by then dropped to below $2 a day.

By June 2008, the situation of ordinary Gazans had become intolerable. The year-long Israeli blockade had cut off supplies of all the vital materials whereby civil society could be sustained. In desperation, Hamas sought ways of breaking the Israeli stranglehold of its borders. Through talks mediated by the Egyptian government, an agreement was reached whereby Hamas offered to end the firing of rockets into Israel in exchange for an easing of the blockade at the borders. A cease-fire was agreed upon on July 19th 2008. All Hamas rocket fire ceased immediately. But in the words of ChrisHedges, “Israel never upheld its end of the agreement. It increased the severity of the siege.”

A year earlier, in May 2007, nearly 11,000 trucks carrying goods crossed the Israeli controlled border-posts into Gaza each month. These provided essential materials – food, medicines, building materials, industrial supplies, educational items, clothing and technology – to serve the needs of Gaza’s one and a half million inhabitants. By October 2008, the number had dropped to under 3,000 trucks each month. During the month of November 2008, the month before Operation Cast Lead was launched, Israel allowed only 579 trucks to cross the border.

Israeli planners had learned well from the strategic course charted by George Bush Senior, Bill Clinton and George Bush Junior in Iraq. Weaken the enemy to the point of abject impotence through blockades and sanctions, and when they have become totally defenceless, unleash all hell with the deadliest military hardware this planet has ever seen. By the end of January 2009, the results in Gaza mirrored those in Iraq. Broken buildings, broken bodies and untold numbers of grieving mothers, fathers and children.

The Preparations

The cease-fire agreement of July 2008 between Israel and Hamas lasted only four months. It was broken by an Israeli military strike on Hamas on November 4th 2008. Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights reflected on the event: “A temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that had been in effect since 19 July 2008 had succeeded in reducing cross-border violence virtually to zero; Hamas consistently offered to extend the ceasefire, even to a longer period of ten years. The breakdown of the ceasefire . . . came about mainly as a result of an Israeli air attack on 4 November that killed six Hamas fighters in Gaza.”

The Israeli game plan had, however, been set long before the July cease-fire agreement. Israeli military planners bided their time until the opportune moment. That moment happened to coincide precisely with the day of the US elections, November 4, 2008. The Israeli military knew well that their attack would not appear on the front page of any newspaper outside of the Arab world.

On November 5th, the siege of Gaza became absolute. Israel completely shut down the borders. Predictably, useless rockets and mortars were once again launched across the border from Gaza into Israel. This was precisely what the Israeli military had counted on. 

The rest moved like clockwork. F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters were loaded with precision missiles and messy bombs; Israeli navy attack ships lined up off the Gaza coast-line; and earth-shaking battalions of Merkeva tanks were set rolling together with their well-armed ground troops as the pyrotechnics were about to unfold.

The Deadly Visitations

Israeli air-strike in Gaza City
In the days after Christmans 2008, volley upon volley of monstrous weapons shredded the skies of Gaza, a tiny, densely populated strip of land 8 kilometres wide and 45 kilometres long. On January 4th, the sour-mouthed Israeli President Shimon Peres said: “Israel’s aim was to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel.” That strong blow was relentlessly delivered. It resulted in the death of over 240 children under the age of sixteen, the death of hundreds of non-combatant men and women, the wounding of five thousand others and the creation of enduring psychological terror for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

The Israeli soldiers returned to their homes and barracks. The bloodied mess of broken bodies and broken roads and buildings was left for the people of Gaza to deal with. 

But who now remembers Gaza?

There is a peculiar cynicism hidden in the events leading up to Operation Cast Lead. Ariel Sharon callously oversaw the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. Two decades later, the haughty George Bush Junior lauded him as a “man of peace”. A year after that ludicrous statement was made, Sharon’s apparent prince-hood was confirmed in the minds of many by his order to dismantle all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and to evacuate the 7,000 Israeli “settlers” who had illegally claimed lands in Gaza under the protective mantle of well-armed Israeli Defence Force guards. 

The attack upon Gaza in December 2008 could never have happened without Sharon’s emptying of Gaza of its Israeli inhabitants four years earlier. The captive native population was thereby laid open to a continuous disgorgement of lethal weaponry by the Israeli military in Operation Cast Lead.

Israel has in recent decades become a major developer and manufacturer of sophisticated weapons. But most of its military hardware has been supplied over several decades by the US. After the Vietnam debacle in the 1970s, Israel stepped up to the pad as the next major recipient of US military aid. It has retained that position ever since.

Israeli fighter jets
Israel has been gifted over two billion dollars every year - most of it in the form of military “assistance” - by the US for decades now. The Bush administration alone provided over 21 billion dollars in “security assistance” during its time in office. In addition to these lethal gratuities, Israel has more recently signed contracts with US arms manufacturers for over 22 billion dollars of new military hardware. This includes a deal for 75 Joint Strike Fighters, 9 military transport aircraft and 4 combat ships.

Israel presently has 180,000 heavily armed regular troops in their armed forces, 140,000 conscripts, 4,300 impenetrable Merkava battle tanks, 10,000 light tanks and armoured cars, 500 missile-laden fighter jets, 1340 helicopters, three submarines, three destroyers and 40 smaller warships. And the full might of Israeli military force was projected into the tiny space of Gaza during the three week period from December 27th 2008 to January 18th 2009.

In February 2009, investigative journalist Conn Hallinan was to describe Gaza as "Death's Laboratory". Israel’s new weapons had caused injuries never before seen in the hospitals of Gaza. Many of these were the result of the widespread use of a new class of weapons called Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME). These were initially developed by the US Air Force and scientists from the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory nine years ago. DIME weapons consist of a high explosive core around which is wrapped powdered tungsten alloy in a carbon fibre container. On detonation, the tungsten sprays out explosively over a ten-meter radius shredding everything in its field. The resultant injuries are truly shocking.

DIME weapon leg injuries
Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert commented: “The muscles are sort of split from the bones, hanging loose, and you also have quite severe burns. . . . Those inside the perimeter of this weapon’s power zone will be torn completely apart. We have seen numerous amputations that we suspect have been caused by this.” He went on to say, “I’ve never seen anything as bad as that. I have been to many conflict zones. I was in Beirut in 1982 . . . but Gaza was the worst.”

A German doctor working in southern Gaza offered his own observations: “Initially, everything seems in order. . . But it turns out on operation that dozens of miniature particles can be found in all their organs.” Most of those who survive the shredding of their limbs succumb soon after to septicaemia and organ collapse. Habas Al-Wahid, head of emergency at a Gaza hospital observed that in several cases of DIME-caused injuries, the legs of the injured were sliced from their bodies “as if a saw was used to cut through the bone.”

Are these the intended fruits of human ingenuity, of our capacity for deep intelligence, of our mastery of the art of technological innovation?

The longer-term consequences of the use of tungsten-based weapons have yet to be realised. Like depleted uranium, which has caused numerous cancers and monstrous birth deformities in Iraq, aerosol tungsten will doubtless bring its own train of future woe. Conn Hallinan reports that it has already been implicated as a possible cause of leukaemia and other cancers.

The DIME weapons used in Gaza were either supplied directly to Israel by the US or were manufactured in Israel under US instructions. They have yet to be banned under the Geneva Conventions because - until Gaza - they had yet to be systematically “tested” on a living population. Despite all pleas to the contrary and claims of good conduct by Israel, the war upon Gaza, like all wars, was yet another act of profound lawlessness and deceit.

Suspected white phosphorus burns, Gaza 2009
The use of phosphorus-based weapons near populated areas has long been prohibited under international law. But this did not prevent the use of such weapons by Israel. Suspicions were raised early when, in addition to the hundreds of half-ton “conventional” bombs that rained upon Gaza every day, the characteristic spray of burning white phosphorus streaking through the sky began to be noticed in some of the airbursts. Within a short time, people arrived in casualty wards of Gaza with horrible burns that continued to smoke and smoulder even after they had been washed and bandaged.

During the first week of Israel’s offensive, journalists from the UK Times identified row upon row of American-made pale blue M825A1 white phosphorus artillery shells from high-resolution images of Israeli artillery units on the Israeli-Gaza border. Their reports were met with strident denials by IDF spokespersons. This echoed the Israeli denials three years earlier of having used phosphorus against civilian targets in Lebanon. They lied in August 2006 and they lied again in January 2009. But that is all part of how war is conducted by civilised nations in obscene times.

On 11th January 2009, IDF spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovich stated: “I can assure you we do not use any weapons that are prohibited by international law. There are other nations that use phosphorus bombs, and we have the right not to comment on this.” She was probably referring to the fact that both Britain and the US used white phosphorus in Iraq, especially during the Fallujah campaign. So the fact of one obscenity is thereby used to justify another.

Another weapon used in Gaza was the newly developed GPS-guided mortar. The GPS mortar was developed by the Israeli weapons industry working closely with the US company Alliant. GPS mortars are equipped with satellite navigation systems and are said to act with surgical precision. Yet they were found sorely wanting. Israeli journalist Amira Hass reported that during the second week of January, such a weapon missed its intended target by 30 meters and slammed into a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school where many women and children had sought refuge. It killed 30 of them outright. Another 10 women and children died of their injuries later. Many others sustained horrendous injuries.

After months of back-room negotiations, the US agreed to supply Israel with 1,000 GBU-39 bombs in September 2008. These new weapons had been developed and assembled by the Boeing Corporation. The GBU-39 is designed to penetrate deep into the earth before exploding. Arrays of these new weapons were delivered in early December. Within the first hours of the Israeli offensive, hundreds of GBU-39 bombs had been dropped on Rafa in an attempt to destroy the network of tunnels that enabled the movement of essential goods and materials from Egypt into Gaza.

Cold Spin

The assault upon Gaza was many months in the making. Steven Zunes reported in May 2009: “Israeli Defence minister Ehud Barak admitted that the Israeli invasion had been planned for months, back when a six-month cease fire was still in effect.”

Not a single Hamas rocket had been fired into Israel from the time the cease-fire was declared on June 18th 2008 and the deadly truce-breaking Israeli air attack in Gaza on November 4th 2008 that killed six Hamas members. Steven Zunes observes that in spite of the predictable and cynically anticipated resumption by Hamas of cross-border rocket fire, “not a single Israeli had been killed by rocket attacks for more than half a year prior to Israel launching its war on December 27.” The planning for Operation Cast Lead was well under way in March 2008. It was fully in place many months before the actual assault. The IDF was therefore militarily well prepared for the December 27 assault. So too was its public relations arm. Like the GBU-39 bombs at Rafa, silver-tongued commentators miraculously and simultaneously appeared in the major media outlets throughout the Western world.

In an impassioned piece entitled "Israel's Lies" published in the London Review of Books on January 29th 2009, Henry Seigman, former national director of the American Jewish Congress inveighed:

“Western governments and most of the Western media have accepted a number of Israeli claims justifying the military assault on Gaza: that Hamas consistently violated the six-month truce that Israel observed and then refused to extend it; that Israel therefore had no choice but to destroy Hamas’s capacity to launch missiles into Israeli towns; that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, part of a global jihadi network; and that Israel has acted not only in its own defence but on behalf of an international struggle by Western democracies against this network.

I am not aware of a single major American newspaper, radio station or TV channel whose coverage of the assault on Gaza questions this version of events. . . Middle East peacemaking has been smothered in deceptive euphemisms so let me state bluntly that each of these claims is a lie.”

Those lies were swallowed up whole by the Western world.

Even as the tanks began rolling and the bombs were exploding, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni instructed her minions to engage foreign language speakers everywhere to take “emergency measures to adapt Israel’s public relations to the ongoing escalation in the Gaza Strip.” (Julia Irwin, “Getting Away with Murder”, Sydney Morning Herald, 11/1/09) Within hours, the smooth-voiced Israeli spokesman Mark Regev and Martin Indyk, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, were everywhere to be heard on Radio National and the ABC network throughout Australia.

UK journalist Robert Fisk happened to be travelling through Canada at the time the offensive was launched. He noted that numerous articles attempting to justify Israel’s actions by asking readers to imagine the horror of coming under Palestinian rocket attack began to appear simultaneously in large-circulation newspapers. He commented: “I’m waiting for the same writers to ask how we’d feel if we . . . came under sustained attack from supersonic aircraft and Merkava tanks and thousands of troops whose shells and bombs tore 40 women and children to pieces outside a school, shredded whole families in their beds and who, after nearly a week, had killed almost 200 civilians out of 600 fatalities.”

US journalist Chris Hedges similarly railed: “The use of attack aircraft and naval ships, part of the world’s fourth-largest military power, to level densely packed slums of people who were hungry, without power and often water, people surrounded on all sides by the Israeli army, was fatuously described as a war. The news coverage held up the absurd notion that a few Hamas fighters with light weapons and no organization were a counterforce to F-16 fighter jets, tank battalions, thousands of Israeli soldiers, armoured personnel carriers, naval ships and Apache attack helicopters. It fit the Israeli narrative. It may have been balanced and objective. But it was not true.”

The attack upon Gaza was clearly part of a longer-term project for the complete subjection of Palestinians by Israel. The attack was not an act of self-defence against miserable Qassam rockets. As Ben White pointed out: “During the truce last year, rocket fire from the Gaza Strip was reduced by 97%, with the few projectiles that were fired coming from non-Hamas groups opposed to the agreement.” The breaking of the ceasefire by the Israelis on November 4th was a deliberate and provocative act that brought the expected response from Hamas. The Israelis bided their time in order to teach the Gazans a lesson for choosing Hamas during the 2006 elections. The ferocity and the duration of Operation Cast Lead was intended to destroy Hamas and to humiliate the Palestinians of Gaza who had deigned to chose Hamas as their representatives.

Even before Operation Cast Lead, the Gazans were already near-broken by the debilitating Israeli blockade of their border crossings. The compliant Mahmoud Abbas and his shadowy Fatah officials had been sequestered into what is left of the West Bank to make sure that the Palestinians there did not get too rowdy or emotional about what was happening in Gaza. Most Western leaders chose to look aside and chorused in unison about the Right of Israelis to Defend Themselves while the Israeli military set about systematically destroying every civil institution and every form of essential infrastructure necessary for the conduct of life, a life that for Gazans had already been made near intolerable.

There are probably also other factors behind Operation Cast Lead apart from the desire to destroy the will of the Palestinians of Gaza and to “catastrophise” their experience of life. In a more cynical vein, we would do well to remember that the Israelis have for many years coveted the huge reservoirs of undersea natural gas in Gaza’s territorial waters that were discovered by the British Gas Group about a decade ago. This side of things may come increasingly to light in coming time as Israel attempts to secure additional sources of energy during this time of dwindling reserves.

The Continuing Impasse

Gaza City, January 2009
During the 22 days of Operation Cast Lead, 20,000 buildings and 5,000 homes throughout Gaza were completely destroyed leaving over half a million metric tonnes of debris, much of which has yet to be cleared. The Israelis targeted every part of the territory’s infrastructure. Erin Cunningham observed: “Homes, businesses, factories, power grids, sewage systems and water treatment plants were reduced to piles of rubble across the Gaza Strip.”

Seven schools in Gaza were totally destroyed, and 135 were substantially damaged. The Al-Azhar University of Gaza was reduced to rubble. Hospitals, medical clinics and Red Crescent warehouses were all targeted, as was every police station and every building associated with Hamas activities. Over 250 civilian Palestinian policemen were killed during the 22-day operation. George Bisharat documents how Israeli military lawyers went so far as to authorise the bombing of a police cadet graduation ceremony, killing 63 young Palestinian men in a single strike.

Missile Attack on Gaza Police Cadet Graduation Ceremony
Even though 70% of Gaza’s agricultural system had been rendered useless by the Israeli border siege which had blocked the entry of pipes and pumps essential for irrigation, Israeli tanks and bulldozers set about ruining what little was left. Vast acreages of farming land including olive orchards, fruit plantations, chicken farms and other established farms throughout Gaza were systematically destroyed.

According to a particular view, Operation Cast Lead represented the face of a new and compassionate style of warfare where the dead are counted in the thousands rather than tens or hundreds of thousands; where the entire population is reduced to immiserated subjection rather than starvation unto death; where all the institutional forms necessary for the conduct of civil society are broken apart rather than being totally incinerated and destroyed; where all such actions are claimed to be fair and just and necessary for self-protection.

Among the first to speak loudly and passionately about the criminality of Israel’s actions was Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories. As the first Israeli bombs exploded on December 27th, Falk drew attention to the massive violation of international humanitarian law that was happening in Gaza. He called upon the United Nations to halt Israel’s actions and to immediately provide protection for the Palestinian people. But for decades now, neither the wishes nor the resolutions of the United Nations have tempered the actions of Israel towards Palestinians. Falk was later to write:

“The focus of legal debate should not be upon whether Israeli force was disproportionate. Of course it was. The focus should be on whether the Israeli attacks were a prohibited non-defensive use of force under the UN charter, amounting to an act of aggression, and as such, constituting a crime against peace. . . .

Israel initiated the Gaza campaign without adequate legal foundation or just cause, and was responsible for causing the overwhelming proportion of devastation and the entirety of civilian suffering” (Le Monde Diplomatique, 12/3/09).

Soon after, George Bisharat, professor of Law at the University of California published a series of articles in US newspapers detailing how international law had been brutalised by Israel in its 22-day assault upon Gaza. He describes how Israeli lawyers deliberately manipulate legal process to achieve their desired ends. Quoting Daniel Reisner, former head of Israel’s 20-lawyer International Law Division in the Military Advocate General’s office, he showed how powerful lawyers acting in concert can effectively change the rules:

“If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries. . . . International law progresses through violations. We invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it. At first there were protrusions that made it hard to insert easily into the legal molds. Eight years later, it is in the centre of the bounds of legitimacy” (“Israel: Transforming International Law by Violating It”, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/4/09).

Yet there are some lawyers who are more driven by ethical considerations than a will to serve political ideologies. In early February 2009, a group of eight American lawyers, all members of the National Lawyers Guild in the US visited and reported on their observations of the situation in Gaza. They confirmed that the IDF had fired missiles at UNRWA schools in Gaza City, Jabalyia and Bet Labiya. They expressed deep concern at the use of white phosphorus, DIME munitions and other prohibited weapons and at “the use of conventional weapons in a prohibited manner, specifically, the use of battlefield weapons in densely populated civilian areas.”

All eight members of the Delegation called upon both Israel and the US - which supplied most of the weapons used in the assault – to be held accountable for the criminality of their actions.

Remembering Gaza

The horror of Gaza cannot be dismissed as a distant phenomenon that does not concern us. We may withdraw into our own complacency and comfort, but in truth, no one is exempted from the pain visited upon innocent households. No one can evade the consequences of the destructive exercise of brutal force.  

The immense yet subdued anguish, the heavy-hearted impotence that weighs on so many, the outraged sense of justice at the grotesque disproportionality of the violence we have witnessed, the travestying of all norms of reasonable human conduct will neither pass nor be forgotten. 

The assault upon Gaza has done nothing to further the making of peace in Palestine. It has done much to deepen resentments that will find their own tragic and futile expressions in time to come. No cheek has been turned at any stage in the volleys of violence that have shaken the Holy Land for more than half a century. And little regard has been given to the humanity of the generations swept into a gathering maelstrom fired by a cold and calculated demonic determination.

There is more that could be said, and more, perhaps, that should be said about how the people of Gaza have been manacled since 1993 when Israel closed the borders and “managed” the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza; about the 44 year long occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem; about the wholesale separation and isolation of the Palestinians of Gaza from their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank; about the progressive cantonisation of the West Bank by the relentless construction of militarily-protected illegal “settlements”; about the “security barriers” that have drawn and quartered any semblance of autonomous life and culture for all Palestinians; about the forced impoverishment, reduced access to markets, and forfeited freedoms of all Gazans. The betrayal of Gaza represents not only a failure of justice, but also a failure of the human spirit.

Let us continue to remain vigilant regarding further movements in the Middle East as the seams that hold the phenomenal world together everywhere begin to stretch to their limits.   

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
[Originally published December 2010.
Modified December 2013] 


1. In his speech “Palestine: a Challenge to Humanity” delivered at Berkeley in 2004, and recorded by Maria Gilardin of TUC Radio, Mustafa Barghouthi, graphically describes life in Gaza and the West Bank under the policies of Ariel Sharon. Little has changed for the Palestinians during the past six years. Barghouthi speaks both as statesmen and as medical practitioner who has seen too many mothers, fathers and children torn apart by fierce weaponry

2. Edward Said was among the clearest of voices alerting us all to the plight of the Palestinians. His passionate advocacy for the Palestinian cause and his luminous intelligence are fully evident in a lecture presented at the University of California at Berkeley in February 2003 on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. This was the last major speech that Edward Said gave before his death. It was can be accessed here.

3. Political economist and long-time associate of Edward Said, Sara Roy offers a poignant and powerful portrait of the plight of Gazans in a lecture given at the University of Sydney in October 2008. A podcast is available here.
 4. The plight of the people of Gaza continues unabated despite a commitment by the Israeli Government on June 20th 2010 to ease its illegal blockade of Gaza. Yet very little has actually changed during the time since that commitment was made. For those who would maintain a continuing awareness of the reality lived by the inhabitants of Gaza, Eva Bartlett provides a highly informed watching brief through her powerful blog, In Gaza.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

On the Wisdom of Duration

Every artist, musician and scientist worth their salt knows that the only way to make anything of worth truly their own is through repetition. Archers, footballers, sabreurs and chess players also know this to be axiomatic. Meditators, dancers, surgeons and healers all understand that without constant repetition, one’s level of focus, attention and skill inevitably drop away.

Yet the present time conspires to have us all believe that transience is the new value by which we are to live. This is reflected in the acceptance of inevitable obsolescence in virtually all the fruits of technology; in the seamless daily media reports of crisis after crisis with little or no reflection, reconsideration or remembrance of the waves of influence that both create and reverberate from such crises; and in the obsession with speed and curtness of delivery that characterises our newly developed forms of electronic communication.

Mobile phone texting is creating new lexicons and grammars, while email has reduced textual communication to verbal transactions phrased in minimalist vocabularies. We have become travellers on an ocean of information that endlessly washes and occasionally storms through our lives. And if we are to accept conventional wisdom, it is all relevant. For today, at least. Tomorrow will bring its own new waves of relevance, and today’s relevancies will be forgotten. 

Phosphorus bombs over Gaza, January 2009
One of the consequences of this popular enshrinement of transience and ephemerality is a deepening loss of connectedness with our own origins and even with the definitive experiences of our age. Some school teachers still take it upon themselves to transmit a remembrance of the profound calamity that befell Europe during the Second World War in the hope that their students will come to realise the undermining and overturning of all values that occurred under Hitler’s Third Reich. Yet for so many young people, Vietnam, Cambodia, Timor and Lebanon are simply names of distant places. Something happened in Gaza five years ago, and something else happened there around this time last year, but that was way back then.

Without consciously cultivating a sense of memory and duration, we too easily fall into a soporific drifting through time. We shrug our shoulders at the hopelessness of it all, disconnect ourselves from the lived realities that assail others and are benumbed to the images of pain and calamity that daily irrupt into the popular media. 

We have lost our discernment, our capacity to know the difference between wisdom and folly, fairness and cruelty. We have lost our sense of outrage, our capacity to react to the abuse of vulnerable minorities by the powerful and the mighty. And we are in danger of losing our compassion, our capacity to feel the suffering of others.

It takes a strong act of will to remain abreast of the times, to maintain an inner brief to serve as active witness to the progressive and destructive forces that drive the experience of individuals, communities and populations during this time when we are all adrift. “To what end?” some may ask. That question cannot be answered without considering the further question of what we take to be truly important in human life.

If transience - the negation of duration and consequence - is the defining character of the times, then it follows that nothing really matters, apart perhaps, from those conditions and events that affect us personally. There is no sustaining story. We might as well just enjoy the ride.

If on the other hand, human existence is more than an ephemeron, more than the day-span between our first and last breath, more than the vapid efflorescence of a lifetime before the closure of eternal night, then we had better consider more carefully the purposes and intentions that we serve within the broader vistas of time.

The post-modernist relativisation of everything under the sun, with its curt dismissal of noble narratives and great stories as wishful projections of a railing but futile impotence, leaves us with nothing but our own desires and their satisfaction as the source of all meaning in human life and experience.

We need to look deeper, to examine and retrieve the understandings of the strong and questing minds that have preceded us whose traces have thankfully been carried into present time. We need to refamiliarise ourselves with the canonical texts and teachings that have provided nourishment and direction through the centuries of hardship and struggle endured by all peoples through all recoverable time. We need to recover the enduring archetypal myths of every culture that hold symbolic descriptions of the forces that move our lives and determine our futures. We need to reclaim the sources of wisdom that provide the moral directives that enable us to live together with some measure of peace, fellowship and mindful co-presence.

Such values will not and cannot emerge from the ten-second grab, from “official reports”, or from compliant journalists who serve the purposes of their political masters. Without active searching, one cannot uncover those sources committed to presenting historically informed, morally responsible and philosophically considered representations of the events and influences that determine the conditions of life and death for so many.

Without a grounding in such moral values as truthfulness, fairness, justice and service, all things become permissible. And that is precisely where we find ourselves in the present time.

Alberta Tar Sands Complex
Wars can be waged with brutal disproportionality and in total disregard of all existing laws that would safeguard non-combatants. Environments and ecosystems can be trashed and travestied without thought of longer-term consequences. Financial markets can be criminally manipulated so as to surfeit even further the obscenely wealthy and impoverish and immiserate the meek and the vulnerable. And public thought can be corralled and trivialised by a power-hungry and money-hungry mass media.

We need to refamiliarise ourselves with the enduring sources of discernment and morality in this time when everything has become permissible. We need to develop a will to understand more deeply the meaning of the present time.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
November 2013

Saturday, September 28, 2013

From Silent Spring to Seedless Summer. Industrial Agriculture and the Destruction of Honey Bees

When visionary biologist Rachel Carson titled her enduring gift to a civilisation in decline Silent Spring, she was talking about the possible destruction of much of the bird life on earth through the use of agricultural poisons such as DDT. Rachel Carson was among the first to alert us to the phenomenon of biomagnification, the process whereby agricultural chemicals can progressively accumulate in body tissues as they move through the food chain. The ideas and the facts that she presented in 1962 were met with hostility and cynicism by both the chemical industry and agriculture bureaucracies. Regardless, things slowly began to turn. Within 30 years of the publication of Silent Spring, the use of chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT, dieldrin, chlordane and lindane had been banned by many governments. Yet Rachel Carson’s essential message has yet to be fully understood.

During the past seven years, over a third of the honeybee population in the US has been wiped out. Most recently, bee-keepers in the US reported an average loss of 45% of their hives during the 2012/2013 winter. This catastrophic development has been given the name Colony Collapse Disorder. The destruction of honeybee populations is not restricted to North America. Bee colonies throughout Europe have been similarly affected, with significant losses occurring in the UK, France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany. An estimated 90 billion honeybees were estimated to have died between 2000 and 2008. By the end of that period, French production of honey had dropped by 60%.

Honeybees are the great pollinators of the plant kingdom. Without them, flowers wither without producing fruit or seed. Bees pollinate one third of all the plant foods that we eat. Their activity has become economically crucial during this peculiar era of “industrial” broad acre agriculture where single crops are planted from horizon to horizon. In North America, blueberries, extracts of which are used by many practitioners of herbal medicine as potent circulatory restoratives, are now grown on farms that may be as large as 10,000 acres in size. Such industrial scale agricultural practises are necessarily served by industrial scale pollination services. It takes a lot of bees to pollinate such crops. For many years now, large numbers of beehives have been routinely transported over vast distances and strategically placed on these massive farms so that pollination can take place in the crops.

The California almond industry, which produces 80% of the planet’s almonds is entirely dependent
on transported bees for pollination. Nearly one and a half million hives - representing some 40 billion honey bees - are trucked into California every year to service the 60 million almond trees planted in Central Valley.

Such practices are also commonplace in apple and cherry orchards, blueberry farms, cotton plantations, and in the large-scale farming of vegetable crops in the US and in other parts of the world.

Commercial bee-keepers in North America continue to reel as literally billions of their bees simply disappear from their hives every year. A typical healthy hive can support from 30,000–40,000 bees. Affected colonies are empty of bees, but can still contained eggs, larvae and honey. Each year, billions of bees leave their hives never to return.

Questing Notions

Opinions are divided regarding possible causes. Some have suggested that Colony Collapse Disorder is due to widespread infestation of bee colonies by Varroa mites and other parasites. Others say that viruses are responsible. Yet others are of the view that bees are no longer able to navigate through the haze of electromagnetic “smog” that has invisibly filled the earth’s atmosphere with a chaotic seething of short, medium, long and microwave radiations.

Many are convinced that the widespread use of pesticides has created the problem. What is absolutely clear is that bee populations are succumbing to present environmental stresses in a way that has not been seen before.

Much recent discussion has centred on the use of a newly synthesized class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are derived from the alkaloid nicotine. The German chemical company Bayer AG first produced and has been aggressively marketing imidacloprid, the first commercially used neonicotinoid compound, since 1991. Neonicotinoids are presently the most widely used group of insecticides in the US. Imidacloprid itself has become one of the best-selling insecticides in the world and at one stage was marketed in over 120 countries. But with the expiration of patent protection, cheaper generics became more widely available. Bayer chemists busied up and created a similarly active variant that they named clothianidin. Clothianidin was patented in 2003 and has been actively promoted ever since.

Both imidacloprid and clothianidin are strongly implicated in the widespread destruction of bee colonies in North America and Europe. These pesticides are commonly used both as leaf sprays and as seed dressings. Even when used to dress seeds, these chemicals are taken up by the growing plant and later appear in nectar and pollen when the plants begin to flower. Bees love nectar and pollen. The biomagnification of toxic pesticides as described by Rachel Carsen in 1962 remains as active today as it was when she wrote Silent Spring.  

It was clear that trouble was brewing as early as 1999. At that time, the French government banned the use of imidacloprid as an application for sunflower seeds. Four years later in 2003, they banned its use on sweet corn seeds. That same year, the French government refused Bayer AG’s application for approval of the newly patented clothianidin. Early reports suggested that, like its parent compound imidacloprid, clothianidin was possibly highly toxic to honeybees. Bayer promptly took their business elsewhere. In a more recent attempt to limit the loss of bee populations in member countries, the European Commission has adopted a proposal to restrict the use of neonicotinoids for a two year period starting from December 1st 2013.

Prevarication, US Style

After the French ban in 2003, the US Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) formally approved the use of clothianidin for the huge American seed market. But the approval given in 2003 was conditional on Bayer AG undertaking studies of the effects of long-term exposure of honeybees to clothianidin. As bee populations in North America continued to collapse, many began to ask whether the studies were ever undertaken at all. After months of failed requests for the release of documentation relating to studies on clothianidin, lawyers from the non-profit environmental support group Natural Resources Defence Council filed a lawsuit against the EPA on 18th August 2008 under the Freedom of Information Act. A week later, the German environmental group Coalition Against Bayer Dangers similarly brought legal action against the Chairman of the Bayer AG Board of Management. The German group was acting on behalf of German bee-keepers who claim they have lost thousands of hives and possibly hundreds of millions of bees as a result of poisoning by clothianidin. Bayer of course fielded such attacks with the best lawyers money can buy. The sale of neonicotinoid pesticides at the time was fetching Bayer AG a massive 800 billion Euros annually.

A recent statement by the EPA makes it clear that business will continue as usual and that there will be no restrictions placed on the use of neonicotinoids by US farmers despite continuing losses of bee populations and the recent decision of the European Commission.

It has been well established that clothianidin is a persistent pesticide that is carried over in soil residues to be taken up by crops planted in the next growing season. A number of Italian studies have established that pollen obtained from seeds dressed with imidacloprid contains significant levels of the pesticide. And it is now well known that neonicotinoids act specifically as potent neurotoxins in insect metabolism. These potent chemicals interfere with bees’ ability to communicate with each other. Remember Karl von Frisch’s extraordinary work that revealed to us the sophisticated dance language that enables bees to tell each other where they can find supplies of nectar. Neonicotinoids also have been shown to affect bees’ memory and navigation capabilities.

A Labyrinth of Causes

The problem is not simply one of a collapse of honeybee immunity through routine fumigation of hives with pesticides and fungicides and the administration of antibiotics, nor of the malnutrition of honeybee populations through forced feeding in vast chemicalised monoculture farm properties, or the overworking of bees to the point of collapse. The phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder is yet another tragic manifestation of the systemic denaturation of soils and crops, and the intoxication of numerous life forms through the practices of industrial agriculture.

Some light emanates from the activities of organic bee-keepers. At the height of the first wave of massive bee losses in North America, Sharon Lubchuk, a Canadian environmental activist and bee-keeper commented in 2007: “I’m on an organic bee-keeping list of about 1,000 people, mostly Americans, and no-one in the organic bee-keeping world, including commercial bee-keepers, is reporting colony collapse on this list." Her observation has been repeatedly confirmed by organic bee-keepers who are well out of the loop of industrial bee-keeping methods.

It is unlikely that a single cause is solely responsible for this catastrophic loss of honeybees in North America, Europe and elsewhere. What is clear however, is that regardless of Francis Bacon’s enjoinder 400 years ago that we should force nature’s secrets and extract her hidden bounties using whatever means human ingenuity can devise, there are limits that cannot be transgressed without serious, unexpected and often devastating consequences.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
September 2013