In the last week of August, after several false starts, a ceasefire finally halted the summertime slaughter in Gaza. Israel’s bombs stopped falling, Palestinians stopped dying and the world media stopped its round-the-clock coverage. And, just like that, Gaza was again yesterday’s news.
It was partly the grisly spectacle of beheadings, and the Obama administration’s push for war on the so-called Islamic State, that yanked the spotlight off the devastated coastal strip. But there is always circumstance; to be forgotten is Gaza’s repeated fate. In each of the periodic Israeli assaults after the 2005 withdrawal of soldiers and settlers, each of the exercises in “mowing the lawn,” as Israeli bombardiers call it, the extreme, situational violence has riveted the “international community.” But the great powers have never cared to redress the structural violence that makes a reprise all too likely or to acknowledge the fact that Israel, in effect, still occupies Gaza.
In 2014, the world was arguably more seized than ever with the Gazan question, with even hardened US artillerymen agog at the sheer volume of firepower thrown by Israel at a captive civilian population. An internal Pentagon report found that on July 21, date of the obliteration of the Shuja‘iyya neighborhood of Gaza City, 11 Israeli artillery battalions fired some 7,000 shells from 258 guns into an area less than a mile wide. “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible,” one high-ranking US officer told journalist Mark Perry, who unearthed the Pentagon estimate. “It’s not mowing the lawn. It’s removing the topsoil.”
Surely, many observers thought, crimes this heinous would compel an alteration of the status quo. Public opinion was horrified at images of children blown to bits on the beach and in schools used as UN shelters. Even the corporate American media was running graphic depictions of the grossly unequal death tolls taken by Israel’s high-tech weaponry and the makeshift projectiles of Hamas. There was talk that the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah would bring a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court. And if nothing else, many thought, it would be impossible for Hamas to accept a ceasefire that did not lift the siege imposed on Gaza when the Islamist movement won legislative elections in 2006.
But Hamas did swallow the same old deal — a cessation of hostilities that promised talks about the blockade, but only talks. Those negotiations are proceeding, but with markedly less urgency than in the summer and, more to the point, with other elements of the status quo firmly in place if not more deeply entrenched.
The Israeli government, a coalition of the right and the far right, is determined to supply the Israeli Jewish public with more convincing evidence of military victory than the swathes of rubble in Gaza. The antipathy of the Ramallah PA for its Islamist rivals is undimmed. The “international community” is again gathering donations to rebuild Gaza, but with no hint that Israel is accountable for the destruction. In the United States, opinion did indeed shift toward criticism of Israeli excesses, but not toward reconsideration of the premises of the US-sponsored “peace process” or Washington’s role therein. The Obama administration shows no sign of challenging Israel’s prerogatives to maintain the siege, to launch still more punitive military ventures or to colonize the West Bank.
There are changes in the balance of forces from previous rounds of bombardment in Gaza, but they militate in directions detrimental to the cause of Palestinian rights. The willingness of Egypt, in particular, to countenance the killing is very worrisome, as is the virulence of the anti-Arab racism in Israel.
Thus far, the ceasefire has succeeded in ending the immediate emergency, though the human cost, to the maimed and the traumatized and the bereaved, is lasting. The underlying crisis, however, is the siege, the split in the Palestinian body politic and the utter impunity enjoyed by Israel with the connivance of the United States. The Palestinians of Gaza are off camera, for the time being, but still in the crosshairs.
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News from the Middle East is notoriously obsessed with goings-on in big cities, where politicians, diplomats, tycoons, television stars and the reporters who write about them tend to spend most of their time. Even the bottom-up analysis that we prefer in Middle East Report is heavily focused on city dwellers, whether industrial workers, the struggling middle classes or the urban poor. But present and future crises in the region are often more acute in the countryside than in the cities and in provincial towns than in the capital. Decades of state neglect of the provinces have left these places impoverished, underdeveloped and underserved.
Meanwhile, and contrary to much romantic imagery, the pace of change in rural areas is often as fast and as disruptive to lives and livelihoods as any urban trend. Climate change is perhaps the salient example today. At the same time that desertification ruins herders and subsistence farmers across the Sahel into the Horn of Africa, rising sea levels threaten to swamp arable land in the Nile Delta. Neoliberal economic policy, too, has hit rural areas hard, through privatization of state-owned land and encouragement of investors who guzzle the available water to slake the thirst for profit. Inequality in the countryside drives out tenant farmers and swells the ranks of landless laborers, many of whom migrate to towns in search of sustenance. Indeed, as map projections of the Delta illustrate most dramatically, the city sprawl related to rural in-migration is erasing the distinction between urban and rural even as it buries under brick and concrete still more soil that could be tilled to feed the hungry population.
Not surprisingly, all of this social dislocation has caused political unrest. Mohamed Bouazizi, the street peddler whose self-immolation ignited the Tunisian uprising in late 2010, and was emulated elsewhere in the Arab world, was from a dispossessed farming family. The 18-day occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square that toppled Husni Mubarak had counterparts in hundreds of smaller Egyptian towns and villages. Agricultural decline and rural unrest are important parts of the story behind the revolts in Syria and Yemen, as well.
In this issue, in the words of Habib Ayeb and Ray Bush, we “take belated stock” of how it all looks from the provinces. It is a topic to which we will return.