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The Palestinian Nakba: Gaza and Warsaw Ghetto Parallels

by Michael R. Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry

When the Nazis herded Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto, slammed the gates shut and treated multitudes of innocents like pariahs, that was undoubtedly a crime against humanity. When the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto had an uprising and began attacking and killing their Nazi oppressors, they were not considered criminals or terrorists, but heroes (except, of course, by the Nazis). But when some Gazans rise up against their Jewish oppressors, they are called "terrorists." Is that fair?

No, I don't think it's fair, because the situations of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Palestinians of the walled ghetto of Gaza are very similar.

Why did the Jews end up in the Warsaw Ghetto? Because the Nazis rigged the laws and courts of Germany to leave the Jews defenseless. Once German courts no longer protected Jews from seizure of their homes, land and other property, they were fair game and easy prey. Once their homes, land and property had been stolen, they were unable to provide for themselves, so the Germans sent them to walled ghettos and concentration camps. This was basically a system of ethnic cleansing and apartheid. First the land was "purified" racially, then apartheid walls kept the Jews away from the eyes of polite German society.

What happened to the Palestinians starting in 1948, the year of the Nakba ("Catastrophe") was eerily similar. First Israel ethnically cleansed Palestine of around 700,000 Palestinians. Their land was stolen and their houses and villages were destroyed, leaving them nothing to return to. This left the Palestinians homeless, destitute, and unable to provide for themselves. Many ended up in refugee camps, just as many Jews ended up in concentration camps. Many other Palestinians ended up in Gaza, which today is a walled ghetto housing 1.5 million people, the majority of them completely innocent women and children unconvicted of any crime except having been "born wrong" in the eyes of the government of Israel.

A fundamental question is whether the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto should have submitted to the iron rule of the Nazis. The answer is clearly "no" because the "laws" of the Nazis were racist and unjust. It is not a "crime" to break an illegal law. According to the American Declaration of Independence, any human being who is denied equal rights, freedom, justice and representative government has the right and duty to resist, using force as necessary to secure his/her self-evident rights.

But because the laws established by Israel for the people of Gaza are also racist and unjust, and therefore illegal, it is not a crime for the Gazans to resist using force. Here are just a few of the unjust impositions of Israel on Gaza:

• An illegal naval blockade of Gaza, senselessly denying such innocent things as children's crayons and coloring paper. Speaking about the blockade, former US president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter said, "Tragically, the international community largely ignores the cries for help, while the citizens of Gaza are being treated more like animals than human beings," during a speech given in Gaza. Carter also called Israel's actions an "atrocity" and an "abomination."

• Killing peace activists who planned to break the illegal blockade, while they were still in international waters

• On May 31, 2010, Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, pronounced Israel in egregious violation of international law: “Israel is guilty of shocking behavior by using deadly weapons against unarmed civilians on ships that were situated in the high seas where freedom of navigation exists, according to the law of the seas.” Falk called for an investigation on the grounds that “It is essential that those Israelis responsible for this lawless and murderous behavior, including political leaders who issued the orders, be held criminally accountable for their wrongful acts.” He characterized the Gaza blockade as “a massive form of collective punishment” constituting “a crime against humanity, as well as a gross violation of the prohibition on collective punishment in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

• The Elders, a group which includes six Nobel peace prize winners — former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, former US president Jimmy Carter, detained Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, former South African president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — condemned as “completely inexcusable” the deadly Israeli attack on the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza. The group urged the UN Security Council “to debate the situation with a view to mandating action to end the closure of the Gaza Strip.” The Elders also said, “This tragic incident should draw the world’s attention to the terrible suffering of Gaza’s 1.5 million people, half of whom are children under the age of 18.” Israel’s three-year blockade of Gaza was not only “one of the world’s greatest human rights violations” and “illegal” under international law, it was also “counterproductive” because it empowered extremists in the Palestinian territory, they said.

Home demolitions without due process of law

• The use of white phosphorus weapons in Operation Cast Lead against the densest civilian population on earth

• The Israeli military has used Palestinian civilians as human shields according to Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program

I believe the following excerpts from "Unjust and Illegal: The Israeli Attack on Gaza" by Stephen R. Shalom, from Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, vol. 8, no. 1, 2009 further and concisely illustrate the problems presented by Israel wildly unjust treatment of Palestinians:

• The reports of statements from Israeli soldiers documenting their horrendous war crimes have greatly discomforted those who engaged in cheerleading for the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza [The confessions of Israeli soldiers can be easily found online by doing a Google search for "Breaking the Silence"].

Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal and unjust and [thus] Israel cannot claim self-defense when Palestinians struggle by legitimate means to end the occupation [just as the Nazis could not claim "self defense" during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising].

The proper Israeli response to such Palestinian actions is not "self-defense," but full withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Even if it were the case that the 1967 war [in which Gaza came under Israel's control] was wholly defensive on Israel's part [Israel attacked Egypt preemptively], [still] this could not justify continued rule over Palestinians. A people do not lose their right to self-determination because the government of a neighboring state [Egypt] goes to war [if the US went to war with Mexico, should that be used as a pretext to steal force Canadians to submit to US rule?].

• [After the 1967 war, which it initiated] Israel immediately incorporated occupied East Jerusalem into Israel proper, announcing that Jerusalem was its united and eternal capital. It then began to establish settlements in the Occupied Territories in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit a conquering power from settling its population on occupied territory. The Israeli government legal adviser at the time, the distinguished jurist Theodor Meron, privately warned that any settlements would be illegal, but he was ignored. And the International Court of Justice has ruled -- in a portion of an opinion that had the unanimous support of all its judges, including the one from the United States -- that all the settlements in the occupied territories are illegal.

Israel did withdraw its troops and settlements from Gaza in 2005. Most international law experts deny that this has ended the occupation of that territory. As John Dugard, the UN's special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories [at the time], noted in 2006: "Statements by the Government of Israel that the withdrawal ended the occupation of Gaza are grossly inaccurate ... Gaza remained under the effective control of Israel. This control was manifested in a number of ways. Israel retained control of Gaza's air space, sea space and external borders. Although a special arrangement was made for the opening of the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, to be monitored by European Union personnel, all other crossings remained largely closed ... The actions of IDF [Israeli Defense Force] in respect of Gaza have clearly demonstrated that modern technology allows an occupying Power to effectively control a territory even without a military presence."

On November 20, 2008, Human Rights Watch wrote to Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, stating, among other things, "Even though Israel withdrew its permanent military forces and settlers in 2005, it remains an occupying power in Gaza under international law because it continues to exercise effective day-to-day control over key aspects of life in Gaza." [Israel prohibits Gaza from trading by sea or air with other nations, bars people from sailing or flying into or out of Gaza, overflies Gazan airspace with its military jets and helicopters, patrols and blockades Gaza's coastal waters, etc. Israel also controls Gaza's population registry and collects import duties on any goods it allows into Gaza.]

Operation Cast Lead was a massively disproportionate assault on a imprisoned population. Even if Israel had just cause to go to war, its conduct was morally and legally grotesque. But Israel did not have just cause to go to war: the threat posed by Palestinians rockets could have been nullified by ending the four-decade long occupation or even by simply lifting the blockade of Gaza, a blockade that was in any event a morally unacceptable form of collective punishment. Jimmy Carter was exactly right when he called this "the unnecessary war." And an unnecessary war is necessarily an unjust and illegal war.

But perhaps most importantly, Israel denies Gazans the right of self-determination, and according to the American Declaration of Independence, that gives Gazans the right and the duty to resist using all due force. Why should only Americans and Jews be allowed to say, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

What we can do? First, we can speak firmly for the right of Palestinians to enjoy the same freedoms and privileges that we enjoy ourselves. Second, we can educate help other people, especially Americans who may still believe the prevailing fictions. (For instance, you could provide links to my articles, if you think they have merit.) Third, if at any point you are persuaded to try to end the current madness, I have developed a new peace initiative which I welcome you to study. Perhaps you can be the person to help make it happen. You can read the details here: The Burch-Elberry Peace Initiative. The idea is mine; my friend the Egyptian peace activist Zainab Elberry agreed to allow me to use her name alongside mine because she thinks the idea has merit.

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