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James Zogby: Watching Gaza "The Genovese Syndrome"

Watching Gaza: "The Genovese Syndrome"

By James J. Zogby
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 06 July 2006

Today I thought of Kitty Genovese.

Some of you won't remember her, but many in my generation will recall the horror and shame they felt after hearing the story of how she was raped and stabbed to death on a New York City street in 1964. What shocked the nation was the fact that 37 witnesses heard Kitty's cries but did nothing to help. Years later, social scientists, studying this disturbing passivity, termed it the "Genovese Syndrome."

That's how I feel about what is happening in Gaza today. Israel is getting away with murder and the world is letting it happen.

I can hear my critics bellow, "But what about Gilad Shalit (the Israeli soldier captured and held since June 25th)?" "What about Hamas and Islamic Jihad?" "What about the Qassam missiles?"

My response is simple: the kidnapping of Shalit was wrong and I have repeatedly condemned the evil and stupid tactics used by those groups who target innocent Israeli civilians. Having said that, I must add two observations: there is no moral or political justification for the collective punishment which Israel has imposed on Gaza's entire population; and Gaza's humanitarian crisis began long before the June 25th capture of Shalit.

Reports issued before May of this year describe Gaza's situation in dire terms. In one of the most densely populated areas on earth, two-thirds of Gaza's population live below the poverty level. There are acute shortages of food, fuel and water. Malnutrition and disease are rampant among the young and, for the most part, only basic medical services are available.

This crisis in Gaza predates Hamas's victory in 2006. For the first twenty-five years of Israel's occupation (1967-1993) Gaza was a place of misery. As Sarah Roy brilliantly describes in her book, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of Re-development, Israel ruthlessly suppressed Gaza's people, while denying them economic growth opportunities. During this time, no infrastructure (sewers, paved roads, etc.) was built and the population was reduced to, in the words of one Israeli Minister, "hewers of wood, and bearers of water," i.e., demeaning day labor employment in Israel.

Gaza's only hope after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 was that its economy and infrastructure could be developed and opened up to the outside world. While many in the West blamed Palestinian Authority (PA) mismanagement, the facts point in a different direction. It was the persistence of the occupation from 1994-2005 that resulted in Gaza's continued stagnation. Despite "peace on paper," Israel retained an iron grip on Gaza. Settlements remained, as did the physical division of Gaza, north from south and from the rest of Palestinian lands and the outside world. Being denied access and egress meant difficulty in importing and exporting and, therefore, no economic development.

When Israel unilaterally redeployed from Gaza in 2005, the situation deteriorated even further. While Israel was able to project its removal of 7000 settlers as a "painful sacrifice for peace," by refusing to coordinate their departure with the PA or even to honor the agreement they negotiated with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (that should have guaranteed movement in and out of Gaza), Israel left behind disarray and an angry and impoverished population. By tightening their external controls on the tiny strip, Israel, in effect, created one of the world's largest prison camps. Inside Gaza, Palestinians were "free," troubled only by their own poverty and armed gangs. Like prisoners, they could have occasional visitors and receive gifts - but, for the most part, they remained cut off from the outside world.

The economy, already crippled, worsened. With Israel refusing to open Gaza's borders to goods, small Palestinian factories that had once sub-contracted with larger Israeli firms were forced to close. And this summer, tens of millions of dollars of Palestinian produce rotted at the check points because Israel refused to allow them to be exported.

With the election of Hamas in January 2006, Gaza's situation became worse still. Having been reduced to dependency on international donors for most of its operating budget, the Hamas-led PA now lost even that. Tens of thousands of civil servants (the largest group of salaried workers in the area) now receive no income. Hospitals provide only basic services, with critically-ill patients or those requiring emergency care are left untreated, unless in a moment of largesse, Israel decides to grant them admission.

Recognizing the need to resolve, at least, the crisis created by Israel's and the West's refusal to deal with the Hamas government, Palestinian leaders from across the political spectrum launched a number of initiatives in May and June. These were efforts to create a new national consensus that, it was hoped, could lead to a new non-Hamas government that might allow aid to be restored.

It was at this point that violence flared up again. Israel's repeated assassinations of militants, done with callous disregard for nearby civilians, resulted in the death of dozens of innocents (many of them children). These attacks were met by daily Qassam rocket attacks on an Israeli city just beyond Gaza's borders. And then came the deadly June 25th attack on an Israeli military post and the capture of Shalit.

Israel's response has been an overwhelming, though measured, display of force. Stunned by negative reactions to their killing of Palestinian civilians in earlier attacks, Israel has mainly focused its strikes on Palestinian installations: the power plant, bridges, ministries, a university, and various offices. But it has been the state of siege, resulting in the complete suffocation of Gaza, that has taken the biggest toll. The pre-existing humanitarian crisis in Gaza has now been magnified, with hospitals and social service agencies reporting new casualties resulting from alarming shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

Shielded from criticism by a compliant US administration and press, this siege is now in its second week. Gaza is suffering - and like Kitty Genovese's 37 witnesses, the rest of us watch in silence with varying degrees of shameful paralysis. The administration has not seen fit to publicly challenge the impact of Israel's siege on civilians, and the press has given only scant coverage to the humanitarian crisis.

Some ask, what is going on? There are no good answers and certainly no justification for this massive act of collective punishment. The response is disproportionate and cruel, even if one believes that it is merely an effort by the Olmert government to free its soldier, an excuse that even the Israeli press no longer believes. What is occurring in Gaza today is nothing short of a crime against humanity - unless, that is, you believe that the suffering of one Israeli soldier outweighs the suffering being imposed on 1.5 million innocent Palestinian men women and children.

Worse still, if Israel's intention here, as some Israeli commentators suggest, is to bring down the Hamas government, then their behavior is tantamount to an act of terrorism - that is, the use of violence against civilians without regard to their welfare in order to force a political end.

No good will come of this. This is not the first time that violence perpetrated by a reckless group has brought about a disproportionate response that has had tragic consequences.

Two truisms come to mind: Palestinian violence cannot end the occupation and Israeli violence cannot squash the Palestinian resistance to that occupation. Only sanity and justice can bring peace and security but, alas, sanity and justice like jobs, food, and medicine are increasingly rare commodities in Gaza.

Meanwhile, like poor Kitty's 37, we watch.


Dr. James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute. His column appears weekly in t r u t h o u t. For comments or information, contact or visit

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