This summer, the murder of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent killing of a Palestinian boy, once again broke the tenuous peace between Israel and Palestine. Hamas fired rockets into Israel, some reaching as far as Tel Aviv; Israel responded with rockets of their own. Soon Operation Protective Edge, a ground and rocket invasion targeting Hamas launch and storage sites as well as tunnels transversing the border, was underway. At stake was Israel’s security—not just as a Jewish state in an Arab region, but as a bastion of democracy in a land ruled by autocrats.
Or so the Israeli narrative goes. Dismantling and problematizing this arc and the media’s support of it was a major focus of “Why Gaza Matters,” a teach-in held on September 10 at Brown University. Formatted as a series of four 10-minute lectures followed by a question and answer session, the teach-in concentrated on contextualizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Palestinian perspective. While the lectures maintained a mostly academic tone, the Q&A exemplified divides in the Brown community. Questioners challenged the makeup of the panel and instigated, as the Brown Daily Herald described, “an abrupt change in tone” from that of the lectures. The speakers, consisting of history professor Omar Bartov, IR director Nina Tannenwald, political science professor Melani Cammett, and postdoctoral fellow Sa’ed Atshan, attended to different dimensions of the conflict, ranging from historical relations to the human price of the conflict to the humanitarian ramifications of Israel’s oppressive regime.
Below you will find a summary of the lectures and Q&A; the entire event is available for viewing on the Middle East Studies webpage.
Professor Bartov described the history of Israel and Gaza as a series of missed opportunities. He discussed the history of conflicts from 1947, when Palestinian leadership rejected the partition plan set forth by the UN, to this summer’s Operation Protective Edge. Bartov began the night’s theme of criticizing the actions taken by current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. He situated Netanyahu in a long history of incompetence, stating that, “No leader has been produced with the courage and the sense to make the personal sacrifices” that a lasting peace requires. Bartov stated that in oppressing the Palestinian population, skewing and threatening the media, and privileging territory over peace, Netanyahu’s “democratic” Israel parallels Putin’s Russia and allows little room for public dissension within Israel itself.
Dr. Atshan was the only speaker to deviate markedly from an academic tone, focusing on the skewed distribution of power and his own personal connection to the conflict. Describing Gaza as an “open-aired prison,” Atshan went beyond Bartov’s historical analysis, emphasizing the imbalance of casualties between Israel and Palestine, especially in terms of civilian losses. Showing an image of a Gazan city framed by rocket smoke from Israel’s most recent barrage, he described the Strip as “hell on Earth” and Israel’s strategy as a “scorched Earth policy.” Due to the Israeli blockade, he said, “in 2020 the gaza strip will no longer be inhabitable.” He detailed ways in which the US mainstream media frames Israeli atrocities as mere reactions to Palestinian crimes, often ignoring the actual chronology of events and Otherizing Palestinians in passive-voiced headlines. The images he showed of friends’ families that had been wiped out by Israeli rocket attacks emphasized the disconnect between media’s dehumanization and reality. He made real the lived experiences of occupation where basic humanity is denied to the oppressed. Atshan moved the conversation from a detached academic tone to one that was personal and incredibly vital.
Professor Cammett brought a political dimension to the discussion, giving a detailed explanation of Hamas’s relationship to other powers in the region. The 2010 Arab Spring destabilized Hamas’ international support even as increased Israeli oppression raised public opinion within Palestine. This is partly due to the unequal effect of the Israeli blockade on resources. In 2007, with Egypt’s support, Israel instituted a blockade on Gaza, minimizing border crossings, imposing sanctions on imports and exports, and limiting access to natural resources. Although “more than 80 percent of the population is now dependent on international assistance for survival” (x), those who support Hamas tend to be better off than those who oppose the party. This suggests that political support comes with possibly life-saving favors. Meanwhile, global anti-Semitism is rising. Although trends are different in the United States, “those that are [concerned] are passionately concerned.” Cammett addressed the differences of opinion across age ranges, saying that, “Younger cohorts are more critical of Israel and tend to report that they find Israel’s actions in the current conflict unjustified,” raising an ambiguous murmur in the audience. Cammett held that despite the “echo chamber” factor of social media, in which like-minded people tend to isolate themselves, there is a possibility of Internet conversations affecting the mainstream media. “Young people are the future, and this may signal a shift,” she continued; “it is not clear.”
Dr. Tannenwald addressed, at length, the human rights ramifications of the conflict. Human rights issues, she said, are, “both a cause of the conflict and a result of the fighting.” She took the middle ground in assigning blame, maintaining that while both Israel and Gaza have the right to self-defense and resistance to occupation, that right is not unlimited. She said that Israel does not dispute that their campaign has killed over 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and displaced 30 percent of the population. The question that international law poses is whether the devastation was a military necessity. The UN launched a criminal investigation in 2002 into this question, opposed only by the US, but Israel has thus far refused to participate; this, Tannenwald believes, is the greatest admission of the country’s culpability. She advised Israel to participate in the investigations, and even though each side argues that the crimes of the other justify their use of force, “both parties are responsible for their own actions.”
Question and Answer
The question and answer section covered many topics, including the efficacy of international courts and strategies for turning discussion into praxis. One recurring topic was the issue of identity, both self-determined and forcefully imposed. One student from the West Bank called the panel out for mislabeling Palestinians as “Israeli-Arabs.” Another questioned how issues of privilege and marginalization operate when the occupying Israeli force could be considered oppressed in other contexts.
Questions about identity took a contentious turn during the second question, which concerned the makeup of the panel: “I don’t see Israel’s voice on this panel,” the questioner said, making the point that the panel’s anti-occupation view represented that of only 4 percent of Israelis. “Is this supposed to be an objective conversation,” they asked, “or is this the position of the Middle East Studies department?” Dr. Atshan spoke directly to these issues of representation, challenging the questioner for ascribing identities to the panelists without their consent. The tone of the rest of the night was set, however, as one of antagonism. Assistant professor of religious studies Nancy Khalek later expressed disappointment at audience members who walked out in response to views they did not agree with.
To those questioning the lack of Israeli representation on the panel, I will say this: I attended this teach-in because I believe it is my responsibility. As a Jewish American at Brown, I inhabit a position of extreme privilege. I was able to leave this teach-in, eat dinner, and return to my dorm with the knowledge that I would wake safely in the morning. And as Dr. Tannenwald pointed out, thanks to the US-sponsored Iron Dome defense system and the blockade’s chokehold on military resources, the worst my relatives in Israel realistically have to fear from Hamas rockets is inconvenience.
As Professor Bartov said, like any organization calling for the wholesale destruction of the Jewish race, Hamas is a threat; but this “conflict,” that a Palestinian student emphatically renamed “the occupation,” is not about the threat of Hamas perpetrating a new genocide against the Jews. The power differentials are too great for that. It is about a Palestinian people being dehumanized, diminished, and driven from their homes. It is about cities being gassed, families destroyed. It is about an American media that refuses to correct for power imbalances which further stigmatization and conservative extremism, and Otherizes an already occupied and threatened people. Hamas is a threat; but they are not the ones suffering the consequences.
Israeli representation on the panel, although a gesture towards academic impartiality, would only have reinforced the imbalance of power Israel holds over Palestine in international discussions. Nearly every panel in the world of popular opinion has been dominated by Israeli voices and Israeli rhetoric; it was both stimulating and necessary to bring Palestinian voices, academic or not, to the fore.