A few weeks ago I bought the book "The General's Son" by Miko Peled. Peled is an Israeli. His father – Matti Peled – was one of the most respected Israeli Generals fighting in the 1967 Six-Day-War at the side of people like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. As a colonel in the preceding 1956 war against Egypt, when Israel conquered the Gaza Strip and Sinai, Peled had been made military governor of the Gaza Strip. As his son writes: "This was a defining role for him, and it influenced his entire life."
In 1953, when Matti Peled was still a young lieutenant colonel, his visions were clear. His army, he publicly said, was preparing for war "in order to complete the conquest of the Land of Israel and to push Israel's eastern border to its natural location on the banks of the Jordan River." It is a view that many right-wingers in Israel's cabinet and society hold to this day.
After the experience as governor in Gaza in 1956 and the bloody, albeit short war in 1967, Peled's views however changed. He had seen too many atrocities not only from the enemy but from his own army too, atrocities that chilled the blood.
A week after the Six-Day-War in 1967 was over, as Miko Peled recounts in the book about his father, an Israeli army officer showed up in the neighbourhood at the Rafah Refugee Camp in Gaza, leading a company of soldiers and a bulldozer. The soldiers ordered everyone to come out of their houses and an inspection began. Finally the women and children younger than 13 were sent back home. The men however – around 30 of them including a 13 year old boy and a 86 year old man – were taken away far enough so that their families could not see. Then the soldiers lined the men up against the wall and shot all of them. As they lay on the ground, the officer went from body to body and shot each person in the head.
As if this crime was not atrocious enough, what then came horrified those who were eye-witnesses from afar. The bodies of the dead men and the dead child were laid in a row on the ground and the bulldozer began driving over them, going back and forth several times until the bodies were unrecognisable. When the families finally were allowed to the scene, they could only tell who was who by the clothes they wore.
When I read this story in Peled's book, horrible pictures of Srebrenica showing torn clothes on badly crushed bodies came back to my mind to haunt me. But more pictures started to form in my mind, pictures of bulldozers shovelling heaps of humans into piles in Bergen-Belsen, when the Allies had freed the concentration camps and were at shock over the amount of killed people they found. While the numbers of dead, both in Srebrenica and Bergen-Belsen, outnumber those of the crime Peled writes about by far, the use of bulldozers on the dead and the incredible vileness of the killing act evoke pictures that are hard to take. How low, I wondered reading this horrible story, can anyone sink to perform such atrocious acts on humans? And how, in anyone's right mind, can one then – as Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu keeps repeating – speak of "the most moral army of the world"?
Matti Peled, the respected Israeli army General and former Governor of Gaza was shocked when he, much later, learned about this "massacre", as he termed it. He personally went to Gaza, spoke to the victim's families, inspected the place were the killing and bulldozing had taken place and was utterly disturbed. When Miko Peled, after learning of this story decades later, confronted his mother with it, her reply came immediately: "Yes, I remember this. Your father was so upset he couldn't sleep for weeks. He wrote to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and to Minister Haim Bar-Lev about it, but they did nothing. This changed him completely."
Egypt refuses medical aid to Gaza
When I had bought Peled's book a few weeks ago, the current war on Gaza was not yet waging. I managed to read a few chapters and then was distracted by the real atrocities currently happening on the ground, where by now over 1300 people, almost 80% of them civilians and including more than 300 innocent children, have been killed in indiscriminate bomb attacks by Israel. I couldn't continue to read about the horrors of the past seeing the horrors that now once more happened day after day before the world's eyes.
One night, worn out by witnessing the attacks going on for the 12th consecutive day, and feeling helpless knowing that yet more children would die in the next hours and I could not do anything against it, I picked up Peled's book almost indifferently at 4 a.m. to find some distraction. A ridiculous notion of course, seeing what his book was about. But what I then came across was more than just a simply distraction.
When I opened the book randomly, it fell open on page 164 and I started to read about an effort Peled undertook in 2008 to get into the Gaza Strip to deliver medical aid.
As Gaza was sealed off from the Israeli side at the time, the only possible way to enter and deliver the badly needed aid was via Egypt. So, after having flown all the way from America via Amman to Cairo, together with a Palestinian-Arab friend with whom he had successfully worked on aid projects for Gaza and the West Bank for years, he set off for the Rafah border crossing, trying to enter Gaza from the Egypt side. He was in for a bad surprise. The border was closed and Egypt refused them entry into Gaza.
The border officials, from the soldier up to the officers, were not only denying them entry, they were also exceptionally rude and assaulting. As Peled writes: "Our (Egyptian) guide and driver were in shock at the lack of courtesy displayed by these officials. They knew we had come all the way from America to help people in Gaza and that we had medical equipment to deliver. They were as appalled as we were by the fact that the Egyptians were no more helpful than the Israelis."
In the end, Peled and his companion, who had both invested enormous amounts of time and money to help the people of Gaza in need of medical supplies, had to give up and fly back to Amman. "As it stood," he writes, "the Egyptian government appeared to be committed, along with Israel and the U.S., to maintaining the siege on Gaza."
This was 2008. Today we write 2014, but what Peled described was nothing short of a déjà vu for me, seeing that on the same day I read this a convoy with Egyptian activists that had left from Cairo for Gaza with medical supply was stopped by the Egyptian army half way across the Sinai and after hours of unfriendly debates was forced to turn back and give up their mission, returning deeply frustrated in the evening to Cairo, while the wounding and killing in Gaza went on and the medical supplies were badly needed there.
It seems, nothing has changed from 2008, and one can't help but wonder, if the stories we hear today are not just repetitions of stories we already witnessed.
What is most striking about this incident that Peled describes from back then is what it tells us about today.
The argument that Egypt is currently so staunchly opposed to help Gaza because they blame Hamas, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (ousted out of power by the Egyptian army under now President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi), for the terror attacks by Islamists in Sinai, loses credibility in the wake of Peled's report. In 2008 no such terror in Sinai had endangered Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and had little power in the political, public sphere. What was no different then to today however were the interested parties involved: Israel and the U.S., which paid Egypt's army billions of Dollars over the years to behave like a good boy should. And Egypt only too readily complied.
A true déjà vu. Nothing, as the denial of medical aid into Gaza by activists now again shows, has changed. The Egyptian government appears to still be "committed, along with Israel and the U.S., to maintain the siege on Gaza."
People have nowhere to go and die in hundreds
Three weeks after Peled and his friend had been turned away by the Egyptian army at Rafah crossing in 2008, the war on Gaza, dubbed by the Israel army "Operation Cast Lead", broke out. Within a period of eight hours the Israeli air force dropped 100 tons of bombs on Gaza and caused incredible devastation in the densely populated area. It was the beginning of 21 days of indiscriminate air attacks assisted by ground forces, turning the Gaza Strip into a place of hell and killing more than 1,400 people including hundreds of innocent children and women, wounded thousands and displaced thousands more with nowhere to go. A picture that we see right this day today, as almost 200,000 people in Gaza have fled their homes to seek shelters in U.N. buildings – where they've been repeatedly bombed by Israel with many dead –, and where hospitals – if they have not been bombed into rubble, as has already happened – despair over the incoming injuries they can't cope with anymore at this scale and the immense numbers of casualties – many of them being children as young as 5 months old who die in what Israel's army and government daily describe the "war on terrorists".
With the narrative that Israel had been "dragged into this escalation by Hamas" and the reiteration that Israel was only "defending" itself legitimately against the rockets from Gaza, being "sorry" for the civilian casualties that go with it, Israel currently makes sure that once more the international community finds no decent words for the ongoing bombing of a densely packed, populated strip of land, where people have nowhere to go and no place to flee to when the bombs rain down and can only die in the hundreds. Which they do.
A terrible déjà vu.
Paging through Peled's book describing the Gaza war of 2008, I read: "To make things worse, Israel claimed that notices were given to the local population that the attack was imminent and that people should leave areas that were going to be bombed." The same exact technique Israel uses today knowing full well that in reality this cannot work and has cost more than 1,400 lives during Operation Cast Lead and further hundreds of lives in the following Gaza war in 2012. It keeps costing lives even today, as those 'warnings' ahead of a bombing often only come a few minutes, sometimes not more than 57 seconds before an air strike, making it impossible for whole families, especially old or ill people, to get out of the house in time before the deadly bomb hits. In consequence the death toll in Gaza since the outbreak of this new war keeps rising in harrowing numbers and Israel shows no willingness to do anything to prevent so many civilians getting killed.
Cheering Gaza strikes with popcorn and drinks
When I read on, I once more by chance came across a passage in Peled's book that chilled me, because it seemed to have been written only yesterday.
After returning to the U.S. in 2008, where he lives with his family now, the Israeli Peled was invited to give a talk at the University of San Diego and writes:
"During my remarks I mentioned that the latest assault on Gaza was not isolated but rather part of a continuous Israeli campaign against Gaza, a campaign that by that point had been going on for more than six decades. Every few years, the Israeli army found a reason to conduct a brutal attack on Gaza and leave behind as many casualties as possible, beginning as early as 1953 with the infamous Unit 101, led by Ariel Sharon. What happened shortly after our failed attempt to cross the border was a continuation of an ongoing war, a war that aims to complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestine."
And as if that remark from 2008 did not already seem immensely current seeing what is happening before our eyes this very minute once again in Gaza, Peled added one more sentence of frightening actuality, when he wrote 2008:
"I heard stories of people who drove to the Gaza border to sit on lawn chairs and view the bombing."
A déjà vu of the chilling kind.
The world has just witnessed how Israelis dragged plastic chairs and even sofas up on hills, settle down with drinks and popcorn to cheer every air strike that hits Gaza, making for a spectacular display of colour in an otherwise frighteningly dark night and resembling fireworks rather than the lethalness that kills a child in the very minute the crowd cheers on the hill.
Reading Peled from 2008 is like opening an article of the atrocities of 2014. It happens all over again with all the brutality and unbelievable vile repetitiveness that the world has so often now witnessed again and again. And while we show our outrage over the atrocities happening today we totally overlook the pattern we have been a witness to in so many attacks on Gaza that all left hundreds of civilians, including innocent children, dead, with nothing different now than ever before. And think nothing of a world that has found its own repetitive pattern of shrugging it off as something that can apparently not be changed, only ignored.
International powers meddle
Everyone who thinks, the Israel-Palestinian problem is a local one that just won't stop because of the viciousness of the involved parties, is little informed however about how the U.S. is pumping millions into efforts, to make sure only those who to them are politically acceptable run the place.
When Hamas was democratically elected in 2006, President George W. Bush was not willing to take this lying down. It is one thing if elections within America provide results you have to live with, but outside America the nation dedicated to freedom and peace will hear nothing of it, one must gather from revelations and secret documents that surfaced in 2008. Democracy and democratically elections are supported if they produce the results America is comfortable with. If not – see Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and many more – direct involvement to get rid of the government the people of the country voted into office start almost immediately.
When Hamas won the elections in Gaza and the West Bank, Condoleezza Rice, the then Secretary of State of America, secretly flew into Ramallah with a respectable bundle of dollars in her bag to make sure, this was a short term victory. Promising $1.27 billion in aid Rice demanded from Abbas to oust the Hamas government within two weeks by staging a coup. Abbas was hesitant if the constitution allowed him as president to depose the elected government. But Rice brushed that aside. She was not going to let the Palestinian constitution get in her way. She pressed on. Her counterpart remained uneasy. It was Ramadan. Abbas said it could not be done before Eid, the end of the holy time. He then asked her to join him for iftar, a light meal with which Muslims break their fast when the sun sets. As Rice later got into her armoured SUV she fumed: "That damned iftar has cost us another two weeks of Hamas government!"
Rice should err. It took much longer to get rid of the government the Palestinian people had – to the complete surprise of the U.S. – voted into office. America pumped millions into a military training of thousands of Fatah soldiers and even got Israel to allow the smuggling of thousands and thousands of weapons into Gaza, so that Fatah would be armed and trained and could stage the coup against Hamas (arms that – another déjà vu – later fell into the hands of Hamas and trouble Israel to this day).
As vileness and stupidity often go together, word of this monstrous plan got out. And when Hamas learned that Abbas with the help of both America and Israel was planning to stage a coup – Hamas struck first and fierce battles began, at the end of which Hamas triumphed in Gaza and won full control of the Strip.
America's game had not payed off. And to this day the consequences are felt in the region and both Israel and America keep trying everything in the book to reverse the political facts in the Gaza Strip, now held – not little thanks to the ignorance and arrogance of the U.S. – by Hamas alone.
The current war against Gaza, that Israel, innocently blinking eyes, says it was "dragged into", is a direct reaction to the Government of Unity that Fatah and Hamas finally agreed upon and established in June. The idea that the Palestinians would unite in harmony and become, lo and behold, a strong democratically elected power in the region, send shock waves through Tel Aviv and Washington. With the killing of three innocent Israeli teenagers, Netanyahu got just the pretence he needed to go into the West Bank, kill eight Palestinians, raid thousands of Palestinian homes, leaving most in shatters, and arrest – without charges – more than 500 Palestinians. It was this that triggered off what Netanyahu had hoped for: futile, ineffective rockets fired by a furious Hamas that would give him the possibility to bomb back with high-tech lethal weapons, citing the "right of Israel to defend itself" and stage yet another war on Gaza to avoid having to accept that Palestinians – Fatah and Hamas – agreed on a unity both Israel and America were not willing to allow. As Peled wrote back in 2008: "Every few years, the Israeli army found a reason to conduct a brutal attack on Gaza." The fear, Palestinians, united in one government, would become strong, was the reason found this time.
To think all of the atrocities, the killings of innocent women and children we are once more witnessing on a daily, haunting basis in Gaza, is Israel's work alone, is based only on what Miko Peled describes as the wish to "ethnically cleanse the landscape of Palestinians", would be ignoring the broader picture and interests at stake. It is a fight of international proportions, where next to Israel's very own interests to gain control over all the territory of the Palestinians, America has a very personal geopolitical security interest to defend Israel and a desire to fulfil the unabated wishes of a strong pro-Israel constituency. It is this which makes it so impossible to bring the conflict to an end. The parties involved locally – Hamas and Fatah – had already agreed and established "one government representing the Palestinian people", as is now sternly demanded as an ultimate and only acceptable goal by Israel, the U.S. and its allies. However, as the events after the democratic elections 2006 and the current warfare show, not any "one government" will do. It has to be one that serves the interests of those who meddle in the region and are not short of cash to finance what they want to get.
On Sunday, 20 July, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, that the Gaza war so far has cost the Israelis $585 million. But Israel has no reason for concern. Only two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate approved $621 million to finance Israel's defence system in the sky, the Iron Dome. There is still money left in the till after that, so the war can go on. And it will.
Grab your chair and your popcorn if you have the stomach to handle it. Thanks to international politics denying the Palestinians their basic rights and an indifferent world not wanting to get involved it's déjà vu all over again.
(A slightly shorter version of this text appeared in the Daily News Egypt, Cairo, on 24 July 2014)