As Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu vows to strike occupied Palestine with vengeance, as the Israeli air force targets civilian infrastructure, as retaliatory strikes damage the supposed peace process beyond reconciliation, the “abject poverty” of the Gaza Strip appears to be our main concern.
Yesterday, I wrote a short piece urging specifically the international community to take notice of themissiles regularly falling on Gaza and to intervene in the same moral manner it did in Libya. Today, I direct this message to everyone.
It takes nothing more than a cursory glance at my Twitter newsfeed to recognize the tweets and retweets referencing the sub-par living conditions in Gaza. Statistics indicate that 80% of Gazans live under the established poverty line. One-liners name the sun as the only source of usable energy since virtually all of the territory’s electricity plants are either under-resourced, damaged, or destroyed. Other tweets point out the sewage on the street, the tangible despair in refugee camps, the lack of hospital equipment, the empty store shelves, the ‘they-eat-no-meat’ phenomenon.
So what’s the point? These remarks are either intended to denigrate the dignity of an oppressed people who’ve withstood everything the world threw at them for more than six decades, or they’re meant to play on public emotion so as to influence the public into pitying the Palestinian people. Whichever one it is, both strategies do absolutely nothing to efficiently and resolutely overcome the occupation.
A wise friend once told me that we make a competition out of suffering. Both sides of the spectrum implicitly want to have higher death tolls. It’s morbid and I’m confident that we have the decency to openly reject wanton murder and destruction but it’s no hidden fact that a belligerent can oftentimes gain pity points at the expense of a few extra casualties. However, this dynamic typically exists between two equal sides on a level playing field. Obviously, this isn’t the case between Palestine and Israel but this has yet to stop anyone from playing the Pain Olympics, as my friend termed it.
It’s understandable though. The 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza lead to 1400 dead, over 350 of them children and infants. Israel holds almost 6000 Palestinian detainees (most of them without any idea of what they’re being held for and almost all of them without the possibility of a fair trial) while only 1 Israeli, a soldier at that, is held in Palestinian captivity. And yes, 80% of the Gaza Strip’s population lives under the poverty line. These statistics are all lopsided and they’re definitely worth noting, but not to beg the world for pity and not to advocate for “equalizers”. These facts are supposed to reveal the oppressive and brutal nature of the occupation. They’re supposed to shed light on the reality of the occupation without belittling the strength of the Palestinian people. They’re supposed to demand change.
Change. This last point is key. Change can come in two ways. If Palestine’s poverty is the main concern, then the Israeli government might find it strategic to buff the economies of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, increase employment rates, fund the rebuilding of civilian infrastructure, and let in humanitarian packages containing necessary food and clothing items. Problem solved; no more poverty. But what about the occupation? There will still be no freedom of movement. The barrier wall will remain standing. Operation Cast Lead Part II remains a possibility. De facto apartheid won’t suddenly disappear. The occupation will continue to oppress and terrorize the Palestinian people. This is just one form of change.
Change can also come in the complete denunciation of the occupation. The international community will finally raise its voice and call on the Israeli regime to loosen its deathgrip. The occupation will come to an end and, ideally speaking, so will poverty, bloodshed, and the nightly bombing raids. This should be the main goal of the statistics: to demand change against the occupation, not within it. We don’t need to participate in the Pain Olympics anymore.
Plus, the Gazans themselves don’t want any pity. Fifteen months ago, colleagues of mine joined the Viva Palestina 3 convoy that made it into Gaza City for 24 hours. During that short span of time, the convoy collectively recognized just how strong-willed the people really are. As busloads of international activists made their way into the city, Palestinians lined the streets, offering them water, food, and shelter.
Similarly, after the earthquake in Haiti, communities got together to collect funds and humanitarian aid for the victims. The same campaign is currently underway for Japan.
So where’s the poverty? Sure, statistically it exists but the people of Palestine are too resilient to even notice. It isn’t their main focus so why should it be ours?
We need to be more strategic in the way we approach the situation. Let us not insult the people we support and defend by framing them to appear poor, hungry, primal, and scared. They are rich with strength, determination, hope, intelligence, creativity, and endurance. The statistics are true but “abject poverty” lies second to the most critical objective, which is to end the occupation once and for all.