On the day the US embassy opened in Jerusalem, in May 2019, 58 Gazan protestors died from Israeli fire. This, Donald Macintyre writes in a special dispatch for The Independent, was easily the bloodiest day since the Gaza war of 2014. The seasoned journalist describes both scenes, which also played out simultaneously on split-screen televisions around the world. On one hand you had the glitz and pomp of state power. On the other, Gaza’s destitution after eleven years of smothering blockade. Stuck in a desolate status quo of unemployment, outside dependency, isolation and the threat of ever-recurring war, Gazans reminded the outside world of their existence, many protesting along the border fence with Israel, some trying to storm it.
<div class="well">Donald Macintyre, <i>Gaza-Preparing for Dawn</i>, Oneworld Publications, London, 2017</div>
The controversial US embassy move, a strong sign of support for Israel’s claim to an ‘undivided’ Jerusalem, was yet another reminder that despite rhetorical commitment to a negotiated two-state solution, Western policy towards Israel and Palestine is not primarily concerned with alleviating the problem of Palestinian statelessness, or with ensuring a modicum of human rights for Palestinians in the West Bank and especially Gaza. In the case of the embassy move, the Trump administration first of all catered to an important lobby and section of its voting base: the evangelical Christian movement.
The speakers opening and closing the embassy celebrations were Robert Jeffrees and John Hagee, both of them Texan megachurch pastors and Trump advisors. To them and their influential following, the State of Israel is the result of biblical prophecy and Jerusalem the site of Jesus’ return. Upon this return, Christians will be ‘saved’ and adherents of other religions, including, of course, Judaism, won’t. From this perspective of divine planning, ‘Israel’s occupation and oppression of Palestinians — including those who are Christian — is either ignored or perceived as required to achieve the end result.’ The knowledge American evangelicals have of the Israel-Palestine conflict is not derived from much study of it. If your mind is bent on biblical apocalypse, your eyes remain closed to the apocalyptic imagery created a mere fifty miles away from the embassy opening in Jerusalem.
It is indeed one of the many striking things about the Israel-Palestine conflict that outside perceptions of it are so often based on factors that have little to do with the ‘actual’ history of the conflict. These factors can be antisemitism, anti-Muslim racism, orientalism or Christian Zionism, a mixture of all these and others. In short, there exists an array of lenses and projections that can be used to talk about the conflict, to frame it, to exert influence over its course. As for Gaza, however, it has, after now more than twelve years of blockade, been excluded not only from any ‘peace negotiations’, but also from any real political efforts on the part of Europe and the US. As Donald Macintyre remarks in a talk with Peter Beinart, it is only violence and war which catapults Gaza into the news cycle. The crippling everyday effects of the siege are not part of the Western debate. For the time being, Gaza is ‘managed’, kept on a lifeline, with no real discernible future.
In the conclusion to his new book, Gaza – Preparing for Dawn, Macintyre writes that Western powers treat the Gaza strip like a Mediterranean North Korea. A pariah state, ruled by an illegitimate regime, kept in isolation from the outside world, with only basic humanitarian aid coming through, which is strictly necessary for survival. In the 300 pages proceeding, this disturbingly illuminating comparison, Macintyre does what few European journalists before him have achieved: to provide a thorough, knowledgeable account of Gaza’s recent political history which puts its people on the centre stage. He does this while lucidly describing those political and economic conditions which stifle, hurt or end their lives. Macintyre’s careful yet authoritative account is a description of tragedy in the political sense of the word. Neither fate nor gods determine the course of Gaza, but political decision-makers and the combined destructive effects of their decisions.
In his column for the Mail on Sunday, conservative commentator Peter Hitchens, who doesn’t share many political views with his colleague, called Macintyre’s book ‘rather noble’. The slightly quaint attribute is actually fitting, because the immense work Macintyre has put into his book, also after his years as Jerusalem correspondent for The Independent, may, sadly, not necessarily increase book sales. If anything, such nuanced and well-researched books about Israel and Palestine tend to sell less than the easily written commentaries seeking to validate this or that particular political stance, books which tell you what you think you already know anyway.
Macintyre’s book is thorough, not tendentious and based on solidly researched facts and a myriad of personal stories from Gaza. In short, the author’s motivation seems to derive from a maybe old-fashioned journalistic ethos and his genuine care, to put it too dramatically, for writing Gazans back into Western consciousness. He tells the stories which usually get buried under the loud sermons of messianic preacher men, solemnly reiterated commitments to a two-state solution, outcries over the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and the like. Why, a critical reader may now ask, would Gazans need a European journalist to tell their stories? They don’t, of course. But we, and here I mean a majority-society-European ‘we’, may do so. Macintyre’s work helps bringing Gazans back into a discourse which is interested in them only when they build rockets or get killed in war.
The book describes in much detail the defining events of Gaza’s recent past through the eyes of the journalist’s interlocutors. The account ranges from Israeli disengagement in 2005, the Hamas election victory in 2006 and the strip’s subsequent isolation, up until the wars of 2008, 2012 and 2014. Besides the ‘general public’ the book would also serve well to prepare journalists, UN-workers, tourists or diplomats going to visit and work in Israel and Palestine. Maybe somebody should send a copy to the new American embassy as well.
One effect of Macintyre’s thoroughness is his fairness in apportioning blame for Gaza’s condition. While he leaves us in no doubt that the blockade of goods and people is the main obstacle to development in Gaza, both economic and political, he doesn’t cease to point out the contributions of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Arab and Western governments. Relatedly, another particular quality about the book is how well it interweaves all of the political levels which determine life in Gaza, from the local and family level to that of Palestinian politics up towards the high grounds of international relations. While Macintyre’s prose is detached and observing, the subject of his book nevertheless makes for rather fast-paced reading. The quality of his writing and multi-level analysis come together especially well in his chapter about the kidnapping of BBC-journalist Alan Johnston by the hands of a rival Islamist-cum-criminal faction to Hamas. Making good use of Johnston’s personal account, which manages to be equally ironic and harrowing, Macintyre integrates the story of Johnston’s kidnapping into the broader dimensions of the intra-Palestinian war between Hamas and al-Fatah factions following the 2006 elections.
If true that tragedy and time are the key components of irony, Gazans should be able to tell good jokes. Macintyre relates his first ever visit to Gaza in 2003. He stands in front of the smouldering remains of an vehicle engine repair shop in Gaza city. The repair shop had been destroyed the previous night by an Israeli incursion into the strip, in response to Palestinian rocket fire during the Second Intifada. Mahmoud al-Bahtiti, the shop owner, grins sardonically: ‘So Abu Ammar said Gaza was going to be the new Singapore.’ Abu Ammar, nom de guerre of Yassir Arafat, had promised, nine years earlier as the Oslo-Process stirred hopes for a two-state solution, that Gaza would see an economic and political renaissance over the course of the peace process. Why has Gaza never turned into a second Singapore, but instead to a place which, according to the UN, will be ‘unliveable’ by next year?
A lot of space in Macintyre’s book is devoted to stories of Gazans who are creative, inventive and willing to realize their ambitions, but are prevented from doing so. Presently, at least 70 per cent of Gaza’s population depend on international aid, mostly foodstuffs, for their subsistence. With little production left, Gaza has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Throughout the book, Macintyre echoes what the American political economist and scholar Sara Roy has termed de-development: the creation of political conditions not only preventing but reversing economic development. Foremost of these conditions is the blockade, upheld by Israel and Egypt, supported by the US and the EU. There is little doubt that Macintyre would agree to Sara Roy’s assertion that:
Gazans are entrepreneurial and resourceful – and desperate to work and provide for their children once again. Instead they are forced into demeaning dependency on humanitarian aid, which is given by the very same countries that contribute to their incapacity. The policy is not only morally obscene: it is also outrageously stupid.
Why stupid? What Macintyre suggests is that easing the blockade and allowing for economic development and thus some form of normality would in turn improve chances for a political settlement. However, creating the conditions for economic development is a political decision. In short, key to Palestinian economic development would be an end to the blockade and the occupation. As may have been expected, the recent, grandiose economic plan for Palestinians developed under the aegis of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, includes nothing of the sort. This is a plan according to which political impediments to Palestinian development do not exist. The document does not even mention the word occupation — when it does, it does so as in ‘occupational training’. However, throwing money at a problem will not make it go away. The vocabulary of depoliticised neoliberal development, with which the plan is rife, doesn’t even begin to explain, let alone remedy, the conditions of economic unfreedom under which Gaza subsists.
‘It is too easy to blame Israel alone’, writes Macintyre in his conclusion. ‘If Gaza is an open prison, Israel is not the only gaoler.’ He rightly lists Egypt and Jordan, with the first closing the Gaza border to its own territory and destroying its smuggling tunnels, the second imposing strict transit restrictions on Gazans. Furthermore, Gazans ‘have also been betrayed by the chronic failure of Fatah and Hamas to resolve their differences, subordinating the interests of Gaza’s public to their own in a conflict made especially disheartening because the power they are struggling for is so heavily circumscribed by Israel. And, perhaps least discussed of all, they have been abandoned by the international community and Western governments in particular.’
Why have Western government abandoned Gaza? Or rather, as Macintyre specifies the question, why have the US and EU countries not done more to exert pressure on Israel with view towards a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders? ‘Here it is impossible’, writes Macintyre, ‘to escape the legacy of the Holocaust’. Israel is seen not simply as a powerful state occupying a weak Palestinian population, but through the historical lens of the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews. Macintyre shares the view that Europe has an ‘historic responsibility to understand Jewish fears of such a spectre ever being raised again’ and that ‘too few in the Arab world yet share that understanding.’ He also thinks that there exists a causal chain of historical responsibility. Given that Israel’s birth has been accelerated in the darkest possible way by the genocide in Europe and given that the creation of Israel also created the Palestinian refugee problem, it is in Europe’s and especially of course Germany’s responsibility to find a solution to this problem. Talking to a British and not German audience, Macintyre also draws attention to a specifically British post-imperial responsibility, as it was the Balfour Declaration which promised European Jews a state on a territory already inhabited by Palestinian Arabs. Here, of course, we enter the unstable and contested territory of political recommendations as derived from historical interpretation. For Macintyre, it is a cliché that the two parties, Israeli and Palestinian, have to come to an agreement of their own volition. He finds the opposite to be true, namely that an agreement would have to be enforced from the outside. Key to this would be a policy of separation between Israel in its 1948 territory and the territories it started to occupy after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.
It seems that these are the two most widely established positions one can hear in European or broader Western political commentary at the moment: belated and enforced liberal compromise roughly along the 1967 border lines versus growing ‘Iron Wall’ Zionism of the Jabotinsky sort. On the one side, there are those who argue that a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders still constitutes the best possible option. On the other, there are those who maintain that the conflict of two nations struggling over the same territory will always be a zero-sum game, with any concession simply meaning lost territory.
The dominant political forces in Israel, as well as the rising ‘far right’ across the West, stick to the second position, if not always for the same reasons. This is a bizarre moment: While for Jews in the US, life has become more dangerous due to Trump’s emboldening of white nationalism, as terribly evidenced by last year’s massacre at the Pittsburgh Tree-of-Life synagogue, foreign policy ties with Israel have become tighter. The biromantic, cynical love affair between Netanyahu and Trump is quite contrary to the personal hostility that characterized the relationship under the Obama presidency. But the Christian Zionism of a Texan megachurch pastor is not based on an honest respect for Judaism and the Islamophobic glue which, for the moment, binds the Western far right to a right-wing Israel is not a stable basis for mutual relations.
In closing, the subtitle to Macintyre’s book, Preparing for Dawn, should not be interpreted as an expression of hope against the odds, which at the moment point towards an impossible future for Gaza. What the title conveys is that Gazans are ready to build their lives — provided they are given half a chance to do so.