In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland in what it termed initially a “defensive war”. The invasion was in part justified by the Nazi desire to reunify what it considered historic German territory and to claim Lebensraum for a race that considered itself superior to those that surrounded it in Central and Eastern Europe. Not only the Jews, but also the Slavic races, were considered inferior, less than human, and regarded as populations that could be transferred to make room for Aryans.
It was, of course, the Jews who bore the brunt of Nazi racism. By 1940, the Nazis had begun to concentrate Poland’s Jewish population into ghettos in the main cities prior to their planned transport to the camps. In Warsaw, the largest of these ghettoes, three or four hundred thousand Jews were enclosed in less than 5% of the city, walled in by a 10-20 foot high wall, and gradually strangled by starvation and the shortage of all goods, including fuel and power. Malnutrition and disease was rampant and the exits and entrances of the ghetto were closely controlled. Resistance was subject to collective punishment: tens of Jews could be murdered in retaliation for the least act of defiance. In 1943, in the face of imminent transportation and the annihilation of the Jewish population, the remaining Jews in Warsaw organized combat brigades. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. Despite the overwhelming force of the German Army and the utter inadequacy of their own weaponry, they fought a desperate struggle in the name not only of the Jews of Poland but of Poland’s right to resist fascism and occupation. “It is a fight”, they proclaimed to the Poles beyond the ghetto walls, “for our freedom, as well as yours; for our human dignity and national honour, as well as yours….”
An inspiration to resistance movements throughout Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is remembered less as a lost cause than as the heroic struggle that it was. Though crushed by German armor and military power, in hand-to-hand and street-to-street fighting, the Jewish resistance in Warsaw stands as a symbol of the right of an oppressed people to resist occupation, collective punishment, genocide and ethnocide.
Yet imagine if the policy of appeasement had continued and Nazi Germany had made good its claim to occupy land that it considered part of the historic homeland of its people. Suppose Poland had gradually been settled, as was planned, with German families who might for the most part have desired to make peaceful and prosperous lives for themselves on the new lands they believed were rightfully theirs. Suppose Pearl Harbor had never happened, and the United States had not entered the war against the Axis powers: France and Britain would have concluded some form of peace with Hitler’s Germany, probably on the face-saving pretext of fighting a global war against Soviet communism, while the small nations of Eastern Europe would have been abandoned to their fate. Germany, instead of being seen as a nation of Nazis and war criminals, would have been understood to be the bulwark of Europe’s defense against the Soviet Union, while the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Polish resistance that supported them would have been remembered, if at all, as the “bandits” that the German generals knew them as. History, as we know, is rewritten by the victors.
Gaza too is a ghetto. One and a half million Palestinians, most of them refugees dispossessed of the lands and homes that were theirs for centuries, inhabit the most densely populated square miles of the Middle East if not the world. They are hemmed in by security walls and barbed wire fences, unable to move in or out without the permission of Israel, the occupying power. They have lived in a permanent state of siege, unable to conduct free trade with the rest of the world, virtually unable to visit the West Bank, unable even to fish in the sea off their coasts, subject to perpetual surveillance and control by land, sea and air. Their hospitals lack even the most essential medicines; power and water are controlled by the Israeli government; all goods that enter or leave this virtual prison camp do so by permission of the occupying power. The siege of Gaza has been one long collective punishment inflicted upon the population for their temerity in having elected, in free and open elections, a party, Hamas, that Israel and their allies, the United States and European Union, condemn as terrorists. Their principal crime is to deny the right to exist of a state that has dispossessed their people, occupied their lands, denied their historical existence, subjected them to ethnic cleansing, torture and collective imprisonment, destroyed their olive groves, walled them in behind a “security fence” designed to impede movement and access to farm land, schools, universities and places of work. And all these measures have been openly declared, by an Israeli minister in government, to be designed to suffocate Gaza into submission.
All this, the siege and its terrible effects on a civilian population struggling to survive in the most inhuman conditions imaginable, was ongoing before the current Israeli assault on the population of Gaza, its police force as well as old people and school children, infants and invalids. This is not an act of “defense” on the part of Israel, but a bloody continuation of a war of offense, differing only in the intensity and publicness of its brutality and in its abrupt, bloody and systematic nature. It is a war of collective punishment against a population whose resistance is less in its occasional and mostly harmless retaliatory rocket attacks than in its simple refusal to give in. It is an offensive war, like the 2006 and 1982 wars against Lebanon, a war against a people whose right to resist occupation is inscribed in international law. It is a war whose crimes—once again--include the indiscriminate, because inevitable and foreseen, slaughter of civilians, including infants and children, attacks on non-military institutions including mosques, a university and a television station, and the deliberate planning of an assault whose proclaimed ends far exceed the suppression of the purported casus belli, the rocket launching sites. It is a war designed to destroy the civil infrastructure of Hamas and to break the will of the Palestinians in Gaza to continue their resistance.
The right of the Palestinian people to resist is as indubitable as the right of the Jews of Warsaw to resist the Nazis, or of the Polish or French people to fight against their occupation by Germany. Israel is not the West’s proxy in the so-called global war against terrorism. It is a state that itself inflicts terror, and does so with a force and brutality far exceeding anything available to the most violent of terrorist organizations. It is a state whose colonial aim, to occupy and to settle land historically occupied by another people in order to provide unlimited Lebensraum for its own ethnic group, is evidenced every day in the continuing expansion of the illegal settlements on the West Bank. It is an apartheid state, whose self-declared constitution as a “Jewish State for a Jewish People” should have no more international legitimacy than South Africa’s “white state for a white people” or Northern Ireland’s “Protestant State for a Protestant people”, both of which finally fell to a combination of military and civil resistance and international opprobrium.
It is long beyond time for Israel, now the exception in every respect among nations, to be held accountable to the norms of international law. It is time for Israel to be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other state that bases its polity on sectarianism and racism, that has established one set of laws for one ethnic group and another for the rest. It is time for Israel to by judged by the international law that everywhere condemns extended occupation, condemns collective punishment, war against civilians, population transfers or ethnic cleansing, dispossession of the occupied people and the settlement of their lands. It is time for us to name Israel what it is so long as it continues to pursue the most extreme of Zionist visions: a colonial, apartheid state with neither legitimacy nor a deserved place among the community of democratic nations.
It is time for us to cease the appeasement of Israel. Even the most ardent of appeasers of Nazi Germany never supplied Germany with arms or foreign aid, with fighter planes with which to bomb civilians, never labeled the resistance to Nazism “terrorism”, never actively participated in the German stranglehold on the ghettoes where it confined its subject populations. “Constructive engagement” did not work with South Africa; numerous U.N. General Assembly resolutions that have expressed the virtually unanimous international condemnation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its wars against its neighbors have not worked. It is time for the truth about Israel to be disseminated, even against the most effective control of the western media by Israel’s lobbyists. It is time for all who care about justice and peace, for human rights, for the fate of the innocent and the oppressed, the stateless and the dispossessed, to make our voices heard. Let it not be said that in their most extreme hour of need, the Palestinian people were abandoned by the world, as the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were abandoned in 1943.
December 30, 2008