If we apply Karl Marx’s dictum that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”, then the Gaza Strip is one of the longest-running tragicomic productions in the world today.
It is not hard to find tragedy in Gaza. The tiny coastal enclave, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, has been almost hermetically sealed off from the outside world since the early 1990s. Gaza is predominantly inhabited by refugees and their descendants who in 1947-48 fled or were expelled from what today is known as the state of Israel.
Tragedy is nearly 2000 lives in a population of 1.8 million extinguished in less than a month, including hundreds of children. This loss of life will certainly increase as the wounded succumb and the rubble is cleared away. Many thousands have been injured and traumatised. Almost no-one in Gaza has come out of this unscathed in some way, shape or form.
Tragedy, yes, is 64 young Israeli soldiers being sent to their deaths in the streets of Gaza without any clear purpose. Tragedy is what has befallen the families of the three Israeli civilians killed by Palestinian rockets.
No end to ‘mowing the lawn’
Farce is the fact that these attacks on Gaza happen so frequently, and are so pre-meditated, that the expression “mowing the lawn” has entered the Israeli lexicon. According to US professor Norman Finkelstein, “mowing the lawn” means:
You go in, and you kill a thousand people, destroy everything in sight … So every few years they have to go into Gaza and mow the lawn.
Mowing the lawn, of course, needs to be done regularly to prevent the grass – that is to say, the Palestinians of Gaza – flourishing.
Farce is a population who have become so accustomed to this spectacle that people set up an open-air theatre overlooking Gaza. Cheers accompany each missile as it strikes home.
Farce is the fact that these conflicts in Gaza repeat themselves so similarly that Robert Fisk can make this point by using clippings from the conflicts in 2006 and 2008-09 to describe the situation in 2014.
Farce is a country that preaches human rights and peace, and yet whose arms industry boasts that its products are tested under “combat conditions”.
Farce is a country whose prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, claims that its army “is a moral army without peer”, and yet this army routinely engages in collective punishment, in violation of international law, and whose historical record shows an exceptional imbalance between civilian and combatant deaths.
Hamas, as well, is undoubtedly in breach of international law when it indiscriminately fires rockets at Israeli population centres, but the damage relative to what the Israeli army inflicts is simply incomparable.
Farce is a country that claims to be under existential threat from its neighbours, yet has occupied every one of them (the West Bank was once formally part of Jordan). Israel has aggressively expanded its territory at every opportunity since its foundation in 1948. Half-a-million Israeli settlers continue to build colonies on Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in defiance of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Article 7 of the Rome Statute.
Farce is a country that blockades a population in what Conservative UK prime minister David Cameron once called “a giant open prison” and later “a prison camp” and then disingenuously claims that it is not at fault when the inmates revolt.
Farce is country that reputedly possesses the fourth-largest army in the world, with a nuclear arsenal no less, and the almost unconditional backing of the United States, and yet claims an existential threat from a piece of paper written 26 years ago – the notorious Hamas Charter.
Never mind that almost no-one up high up in Hamas has mentioned the charter since the early 1990s. Never mind that Hamas is publicly on the record saying that it will accept a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders – that is, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242 and almost all proposals for a two-state solution.
Never mind, after the 2013 sealing of Gaza’s lifeline tunnels to Egypt by “elected” president Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, that Hamas is firing what the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists essentially categorised as glorified fireworks.
Palestinians know they cannot defeat Israel militarily. Israel knows this. Despite its bellicose rhetoric, even Hamas knows this.
Several senior Hamas affiliates and politicians admitted this to me during interviews for my PhD in Palestine throughout 2009-10. When I sceptically questioned a senior parliamentary deputy and former member of the planning committee for the intifada about the efficacy of armed resistance, for instance, he conceded:
Military resistance will not put an end to the occupation this is true. But the resistance shows that there is a problem that all of the world will have to resolve.
Farce is a movement-cum-government that fires off bottle rockets at an infinitely more powerful enemy knowing full well what kind of destruction will be wrought in revenge on the population that Hamas is supposedly sworn to protect.
Nevertheless, the typically lop-sided death count of this latest conflict again illustrates just how minute a military threat Palestinians are to Israel. Perhaps, indeed, there is an existential threat, but to whom exactly?
And for what exactly? What was the point? A return to the status quo with a probable partial opening of Gaza’s borders which, if precedent is anything to go by, Israel will never fully implement and then progressively renege on?
Where does the bloodshed lead?
And what might be the consequences of all this bloodshed? Hamas will predictably claim victory by invoking a maxim of asymmetrical warfare, which stipulates that the mere survival of the weaker party equates to victory. If Hamas were unpopular at home or international pariahs beforehand, they are local and regional heroes now.
After being fixated on the dismemberment of Syria and Iraq for the last few years, also, the world’s gaze is back on Gaza and scrutinising Israeli actions. Consequently, Israel’s reputation as a member of the “civilised” Western world has perhaps been irrevocably damaged among large swaths of the Western public.
The denouement of this conflict will almost certainly lead to an increase in anti-Semitism worldwide, a trend that was already on the rise in Europe before the conflict even began.
Finally, it is eminently possible that the final casualty of this conflict will be the remnants of what’s left of the Palestinian peace camp. Disillusioned, in despair and, to invert the Israeli cliché, with “no partner for peace” in the Netanyahu government, it is difficult to see what it has to offer at this stage.
When the lawn is periodically “mown” in Gaza, people around the world bewilderingly ask: “What is it that those Islamists, Hamas, want? What do Palestinians want?”
What does Hamas want? Hamas is clear about it wants and has been for years: Hamas wants the borders to be opened so a semblance of normalcy can return to life in Gaza.
What do Palestinians want? It’s simple: Palestinians want to be able to live their lives in dignity and to shape their own destiny.
The real question to be answered is: “What does Israel want?” Because, aside from Palestinians’ complete surrender, it’s exceptionally hard to gauge.
The irony, of course, is that when you mow the lawn, it actually grows back thicker than before.