This past Wednesday, Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine installed a memorial to the thirty-four Palestinians killed by Israeli rocket fire in Gaza the week before. Consisting of a wooden sign explaining the installation’s purpose, thirty-four small black flags marked with the names of the victims, and a larger Palestinian flag, the memorial commemorated those lost, and reminded Oberlin students of the human stakes of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Palestinians living in Gaza are subjected to daily violence at the hands of the Israeli state, whether that be loud and explicit– a rocket’s explosion– or the constant degradation and deprivation of living under an apartheid regime.
However, on American campuses it can be easy to forget the visceral cost of this violence due to our geographic and emotional removal from Palestine. As such, the installation asked Oberlin students to consider the people that are regularly killed by the Israeli government as part of its nearly thirteen year-long siege of the Gaza Strip. It asked us to begin interrogating our own complicity, as residents of a country that provides roughly 3 billion dollars in aid to Israel every year, in their murders.
Israel heralded these rocket attacks as “targeted strikes” against Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) militants, and yet casualty figures released by the Palestinian Ministry of Health demonstrate that the primary victims were civilians. Of the thirty-four killed, eight were children and roughly half were civilians. When the more than eighty-five injured are factored into this ratio, it’s clear that those who bore the brunt of these attacks posed no military threat to Israel, but were civilians going about their day. How then, can the Israeli Defence Force claim that these were pinpoint strikes aimed at militant leaders?
Rockets, like most ordinance, operate by criminalizing space–in this case, around Palestinians suspected of terrorism–and collectively punishing all those within it. Israel’s first strike in this salvo ostensibly targeted Baha Abu al-Ata, a PIJ leader, but, more explicitly, hit his bedroom. It killed Abu al-Ata and his wife while they slept, and injured four of their children and a neighbor. Similarly, two children, Ibrahim Ayman Abd al-Aal, 17, and Ismail Ayman Abd al-Aal, 16, were killed, along with their father and two other men confirmed to be Islamic Jihad militants, when Israeli rockets impacted their family’s woodshop. In this case, the two brothers’ only crime was inhabiting the same space as their father. In Gaza, the military myths of “surgical precision” and “just retribution” are made ridiculous not only by the tactics of the IDF, which include carpet bombings, but also by the geographic nature of the Gaza Strip. As the third most densely populated polity in the world with 42,600 people per square mile (for reference, Manhattan has 66,940 persons/sq. mile) even though Israel purportedly targets “militants” in Gaza, it inevitably kills and wounds civilians guilty only of living alongside them.
Furthermore, as has repeatedly been the case, Israel operated with mistaken intelligence in their two days of bombing and assassinated families with absolutely no connection to the PIJ. An Israeli strike on the al-Sawarka family home killed eight people, including five children, on the suspicion that the home belonged to a PIJ leader who used it to store arms. Soon after the strike, neighbors made it unequivocally clear that the family had no association with the terrorist group. IDF sources suggested that confusion had arisen due to the family’s father, Rasmi Abu-Malhous, sharing a name with a PIJ militant. Similarly, Rafat Muhammad Ayyad, 54, and his sons Islam Rafat Ayyad, 24, and Amir Rafat Ayyad, 7, were on a motorcycle heading to al-Shifa hospital to visit family members wounded earlier in the day’s attacks when an Israeli rocket hit, killing all three. No explanation has been given for their murders. Once again, one must wonder if their only crime was being Palestinian in the Gaza Strip.
In many ways, these recent murders of Palestinian civilians serve as a microcosm of Israeli policies towards the Gaza Strip. The now thirteen-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, enacted after the 2007 elections which saw Hamas gaining governmental power, functions by criminalizing an entire region for the terror activities of a few. A form of collective punishment, this blockade is a war crime under international law, and is the reason why many international observers– including even the Conservative British Prime Minister, David Cameron– call the Gaza Strip the world’s largest open air prison.
In fact, the IDF justified Baha Abu al-Ata’s assasination using the exact same rhetoric– that he was “a ticking time bomb”– that the the Israel Security Agency (better known as Shin Bet) uses to extrajudicially torture Palestinians. Although torture is illegal under international law, a 1999 Israeli High Court ruling introduced a loophole in which they legalized physical interrogation by Shin Bet in “ticking time bomb” scenarios. Between 1999 and 2017, Shin Bet faced over 1,000 allegations of torture and has been the subject of extensive international comdemnation by international humanitarian bodies, including Amnesty International, for its illegal practices.
A 2010 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions stated that “applying such a scenario to targeted killings threatens to eviscerate the human rights law prohibition against the arbitrary deprivation of life. In addition, drone killing of anyone other than the target (family members or others in the vicinity, for example) would be an arbitrary deprivation of life under human rights law and could result in State responsibility and individual criminal liability.” Both of these violations were apparent in Israel’s recent actions in the Gaza Strip.
Furthermore, as Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, has observed, Israel has, in conjunction with the bombings, suspended movement in and out of Gaza and reduced the already miniscule fishing zone alloted to fishers in Gaza, thereby only “accentuating the existing policies of domination and fragmentation which Al-Haq and its partners recently recognized as constituting the maintenance of a regime of apartheid.” This article in no way condones the actions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which fired rockets upon Israel in response and has targeted civilians in the past. Although in large part informative reporting, it does interrogate some of continual processes of dispossession and domination that might instigate armed resistance. This is a complicated issue, with distinct moral valances. Please reach out with any questions.
Since the installation went live, SFP and JVP have received death threats and promises of doxxing. It has also been covered on sites such as Breitbart, Fox, Daily Mail, and the New York Post.