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Sliding into the abyss: the Gaza Ghetto

Gaza wallIn my childhood I suffered fear, hunger and humiliation when I passed from the Warsaw Ghetto through labor camps to Buchenwald. I hear too many familiar sounds today... I hear about 'closed areas' and I remember ghettos and camps. I hear 'two-legged beasts' and I remember Untermenschen. I hear about tightening the siege, clearing the area, pounding the city into submission, and I remember suffering, destruction, death, blood and murder... Too many things in Israel remind me of too many things from my childhood (Shlomo Shmelzman in Ha'aretz, 11 August 1982).

In March a coalition of humanitarian and human rights organizations reported that the situation of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip was "worse now than it has ever been since the start of Israeli military occupation in 1967 " (

Under siege

Since June 2007 the strip has been under near-total siege - fenced and walled in on land, the five border crossings mostly closed, the shoreline patrolled by the Israeli navy. Together with the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, the siege has progressively paralyzed public utilities and economic activity. Without fuel to generate electricity, wells no longer pump water for drinking or irrigation and sewage is no longer treated. Bakeries have run out of flour. Gunboats sink any fishing boats that are still able to put to sea. The Israeli army conducts repeated cross-border raids with tanks, bulldozers and helicopters, demolishing houses, razing crops, shooting and abducting civilians (Dr. Elias Akleh, ) 'Gaza's Imminent Explosion' at

The untreated sewage is dumped into the sea. The smell and the mosquitoes and other insects it attracts make life very unpleasant for people living near the shore. Another threat to health arises from the use of cooking oil as a substitute fuel in vehicles: its combustion releases carcinogenic hydrocarbons into the air.

Lack of food or lack of money?

As unemployment approaches 50 percent and food prices rise rapidly, the proportion of families dependent on food aid has reached 80 percent. On April 24, UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) announced that due to lack of fuel food aid is no longer being distributed. The problem, as Erik Johnson explains, "is not yet a lack of food, but of money to buy it" ("A Visit to Gaza" at

True, with no fertilizer or seeds being imported, there is no new planting, so the outlook for the future is grim. But there is fresh produce of the kind that is usually exported but cannot be exported now because of the siege. The trouble is that local residents do not have enough money to buy it all. So much of it - if the money system is allowed to function in its normally perverse manner - will go to waste in the midst of growing starvation.

Ghettoes: Europe, South Africa

Palestine Observers have called the Gaza Strip "the world's largest open-air prison" (360 square kilometres), a cage, a concentration camp, now even a death camp. But a more accurate term for it, as well as for certain areas administered by the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, is a ghetto. As in the Jewish ghettoes of Nazi-occupied or late medieval Europe (the first was established in Venice in 1516), the inhabitants of the Palestinian ghettoes are confined to closed areas but not directly governed by the dominant power. They have their own semi-autonomous though dependent institutions. This usage requires only expanding the concept to cover rural and mixed rural-urban as well as urban ghettoes. Another parallel that many draw is with the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa.

While officially Israel indignantly rejects the comparison with apartheid, former Italian premier Massimo D'Alema revealed that Israeli PM Sharon had stated at a private meeting that he took the Bantustans as his model ( There is no conflict between the two parallels, as the Bantustan too may be regarded as a form of ghetto. Besides its basic political function of confining and controlling a stigmatized group, a ghetto may perform economic functions. It may provide capitalists with a captive and therefore cheap labour force. This used to be an important function of the Palestinian ghettoes. But as 'closure' has tightened they have lost this function. Palestinians have been replaced in menial jobs by workers from Romania, Thailand, the Philippines, and West Africa. The number of unemployed among Israelis has also increased (to about 200,000). So Palestinian ghetto workers are increasingly superfluous to the labour needs of Israel's capitalist economy. This gives even more cause for concern about their fate.

Torment by sonic boom

One of the worst miseries inflicted on the hapless residents of the Gaza Ghetto is sonic booming. The Israeli Air Force flies U.S. F-16 fighter planes low and fast over the ghetto, generally every hour or two from midnight to dawn, deliberately creating sonic booms. The noise and the shockwaves prevent people sleeping, shake them up inside, make their pulses race, ears ring and noses bleed, cause miscarriages, crack walls, and smash windows. Children, especially, are terrified and traumatized: they suffer panic and anxiety attacks, have trouble breathing, wet their beds, lose appetite and concentration. Many are thrown off their beds, sometimes resulting in broken limbs. The sonic booming began in October 2005, after the Jewish settlements were evacuated from Gaza. Since then it has been periodically suspended but always renewed. An anonymous IDF source described its purpose as "trying to send a message, to break civilian support for armed groups." And yet the first wave of booming was followed by the victory of Hamas in the Palestine Legislative Council elections of January 2006. (The US had ordered free elections, but neglected to give clear instructions on who to vote for. In view of the harsh punishment for voting incorrectly, that was most unfair.)

Stupid monkeys or malevolent humans?

A key test of intelligence in monkeys is whether the monkey goes on using a means that has repeatedly failed to achieve its purpose. By this criterion, Israeli generals and politicians appear to be very stupid, even for monkeys. But perhaps they are not so stupid. Perhaps their true purpose is something else. In the opinion of Professor Ur Shlonsky, that purpose is to "terrorise" the Palestinians and make "daily life ... unbearable" for them in order to "encourage emigration and weaken resistance to future expulsions" ('Zionist Ideology, the Non-Jews and the State of Israel,' University of Geneva, 10 February 2002). Some do emigrate, but for the great majority that is not a viable option. As for expulsion, how will the Palestinians of Gaza be expelled? Will they be pushed into the Sinai desert? Will Egypt be compelled to accept them? It seems more likely that in the absence of strong countervailing pressure they will simply be abandoned to perish where they are, of disease, starvation and thirst - a direct consequence of Israeli, American and European policy.

The Socialist Standard, No. 1247, January 2007 

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