Gaza, The World’s Largest Outdoor Prison

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Kristine Currie

Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
By Sara Roy
Pluto Press (distributed by University of Michigan Press),
2006, 408 pages, $29.95 paper.

SARA ROY COULDN’T have predicted the deterioration of Gaza since the 2005 unilateral pullout of Israeli occupation forces and settlers any more effectively than in her book Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. For those seeking a thorough understanding of the failure for peace to spontaneously erupt upon the exit of the settlers from Gaza, Failing Peace is a valuable resource.

During the time my family lived, worked and went to school in Gaza (2000-2003) we witnessed the “de-development” that Roy documents in this selective anthology of 20 years of her research publications on the political economy of Gaza. Failing Peace has given me a clarity of understanding that I lacked and will strengthen my future advocacy work.

While most of Roy’s book is a work of scholarly research, she begins with two personal essays reflecting on her experiences in Gaza. Here she introduces a dynamic mechanism of extreme societal change as reflected in her own experiences prior to and after arriving in Gaza.

Roy’s personal experiences and her research in Gaza illustrate that changes in perceptions of normalcy have transformative impact upon society. When an individual and a family are confronted with challenges that threaten their survival, their definition of “normal” is shifted: Apply enough pressure, and the shift becomes a permanent society-wide change that spans the spectrum from growth to demise.

Roy provides a political economic framework for understanding the conflict from the individual to the family to institutions of religion and government. As the child of Holocaust survivors who lost over 100 family members, Roy reflects on what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taught her about the Nazi genocide. In her view, core tenets of Judaism that value dissent and its role in righting the wrongs of the world are under attack and being invalidated.

In post-Holocaust Israel, celebration is joined with oppression; those once fearful and powerless are now fearful and powerful; “renewal and injustice are silently joined, and in their joining Jews also are denied a normal life, something they have not yet found in Israel.” The consequences for Palestinians are catastrophic loss of land, home — and increasing — cultural identity.

Seeing Gaza Up Close

For Roy’s family, post-Holocaust normalcy meant practicing Judaism that bears witness against injustice to ensure “never again.” For her it was a natural progression to end up in Gaza, conducting research. By revealing her personal reflections prior to the book’s scholarly remaining chapters, Roy shows the reader that what we bring to the study of conflict in general, and to this one in particular, can either enlighten or obfuscate the issues at stake.

In the case of my family, what we witnessed in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank has resulted in a profound and permanent detour in my family’s life; our concept of normal has shifted too, and we live now with the responsibility to share what we’ve learned and shift the reality of those we touch. The hope I have is that reading this review will lead readers to Failing Peace.

In early 2000, my then four-year old daughter and I moved to Gaza to join my husband, a Canadian groundwater engineer who had been working on a project to remediate the damaged coastal aquifer (a project that would be challenging under the best of circumstances).

Before we left the United States, like most American consumers of mass media news, I had no idea of the reality of life for Palestinians under occupation, despite my husband’s attempts to enlighten me. When he described the oppression and occupation, I thought he was exaggerating: surely, something that wretched and criminal would be covered in the press!

My own bias was decidedly more favorably inclined towards Israel. Even though I was sympathetic towards Palestinians, I assumed they were victims mostly of their own bad choices in leadership (not to mention the choice of suicide bombings as resistance). Stopping just short of blaming the victim, I believed Palestinians were suffering the consequences of their choices, not Israel’s intentional destruction.

Complicating my world view was my past history (by then dormant) of having been a born-again Christian during my adolescence. My teenage angst was directed to Israel’s struggle amidst the hostility of Arab enemies. The day the Yom Kippur war (1973) hit, I resolved with my girlfriends to someday move to Israel, live on a kibbutz and make that dessert bloom. For us, the second coming of Jesus hinged on the continued survival of Israel. John Hagee [the virulent Christian Zionist pastor—ed.] would have been so proud. This was my context when I moved to Gaza in 2000.

I’ve lived in underdeveloped countries before I lived in Gaza and I’ve studied the historical process by which the third world economies were essentially looted by European colonialism and American imperial expansion. I thought I would not be surprised by the poverty my husband had described. I was wrong. In Gaza something unique was happening; clearly it was more than a military occupation.

Roy’s book provides the analytical explanation: “de-development.” It is a term she has coined to explain the process of “deliberate, systematic and progressive dismemberment of an indigenous economy by a dominant one, where economic — and by extension, societal — potential is not only distorted but denied.”

The term is well worth adoption into the lexicon of advocates of just peace between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In Failing Peace, Roy details how de-development prevents and dismantles a previously healthy society’s ability to self-correct and transform in the face of challenges. In essence, a de-developed society is rendered powerless in the face of the dominant society.

For Palestinian society in Gaza, decades of de-development at the hands of Israel have set the stage for the accelerated unraveling of Gazan society under the intensive siege it has endured since 2005. Just as anthropologists and sociologists use ethnography, de-development is the political scientist’s framework for understanding ethnic cleansing.

Wave of Destruction

In the spring of 2002, shortly after its invasion of Jenin, Israel invaded northern Gaza and destroyed acre upon acre of olive, orange and date orchards. Tanks and armored Caterpillars ripped the agricultural fields to rubble. The bulldozers toppled, crushed and then dumped the pump housings of the area’s agricultural water wells.

After the Israeli military withdrew, my husband accompanied Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) staff and inspected the damage. In some instances, diesel-powered pumps were dumped into the wells themselves, spilling diesel fuel and contaminating the water quality. Chunks of concrete blocked and ripped apart the interior well casing. Approximately 130 wells were attacked and rendered useless.

Two months later, the U.S. government announced emergency funding assistance for the Palestinian Water Authority to repair, rebuild and replace some, not all of the wells. My husband worked with the PWA determining which of the wells would be included since the funding would only provide for 15-20 wells. In the end, they were able to repair and reconstruct 17 wells. The remaining wells were sealed, in hopes that someday there would be funding to rebuild at least those that had not been contaminated.

By this time, at the behest of the U.S. Embassy, we were living in Ashkelon, about seven miles north of Gaza. Despite the State Department warnings to American tourists that travel in Israel was risky due to Palestinian terror threats, we were required to live in Israel. Embassy personnel had determined that our family was safer in Ashkelon, a short Qassam rocket’s flight distance from Gaza, than we’d be in Gaza where frequent nighttime Israeli air strikes resulted in numerous civilian casualties.

Since it was summer, my daughter and I were not travelling into Gaza daily for her school and my volunteer work there. With the additional work load of reconstructing the damaged wells, my husband was working longer hours and under significant more stress. One day one of his Palestinian co-workers, an engineer, called me to check on us and thank my daughter and me for enduring the long hours as my husband worked hard to rebuild the wells.

It was a moment that to this day continues to humble me. My family was living in the land from which issued the tanks, bulldozers and bombs. I was a citizen of the nation providing all the military aid that made the attacks possible. He lived in Beit Lahiya, the community whose farms had been flattened.

It took several months of hard work, but the wells were finished and my husband eased back on his work load and we saw him more. A few months later, Israel invaded and flattened those wells too. This time, as the United States rattled its sabers at Saddam Hussein, there was no money for the reconstruction. Another chunk of Gazan infrastructure and agriculture was destroyed and families left without independent means to survive.

Another day, another well, another orchard, workshop, home.  Bit by bit, family by family, Gazan society is dismantled.

Dense Information

Failing Peace is not a primer on the political economy of the occupation. In contrast with other books like President Carter’s Palestine Peace not Apartheid, this is not an easy read. Despite the fact that I’ve been immersed in the issues as an activist for several years, and despite the fact that I’ve lived in Gaza and Israel, and travelled extensively while there, this was challenging.

While reading I struggled at times to place the articles within an event timeline and eventually drew my own. And this is the only book about the conflict that I’ve ever read with no maps of the region. An appendix with maps and a chronology of events would greatly improve the book’s utility for most readers.

Even with such an appendix, this book would not be for the casual reader nor the faint of heart. Sara Roy has a doctorate in international development from Harvard University and is a senior research scholar at its Center for Middle Eastern Studies. In addition to numerous books and lectures, she has published over 100 articles, out of which she chose 12 as the book’s core.

The articles in Failing Peace are dense with information and analysis; assumed historical knowledge; original research and interviews; and, at the end of the book, 35 pages of footnotes. Originally, the articles were written in two chunks of time: the early to mid 1990s (post-Intifada I and pre-Oslo) and early 2000s (post-Intifada II and pre-2005 unilateral withdrawal).

Due to the book’s structure, identical facts are cited in multiple chapters, and since each chapter is a stand alone article, there is no reference to previous citations. An inherent weakness of anthologies, this can be disorienting and induce the sense of déjà vu in the reader.

Among the many books and articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I’ve read over the years, Failing Peace stands out as one of the most depressing and the pithiest. Warning to the sensitive and delicate of heart out there:  if you read this book in just a day or two you will find it oppressive, depressing and mind-numbing. It is best read in short spurts over a longer period of time than truly necessary given its length.

Ironically, it is the dispassionate, academically rigorous tone and quiet voice of the book that makes it most difficult to read. With no declarative outrage from the pages calling out for attention, the reader’s own internal voice will surely scream.

Yet a challenging book is not necessarily to be avoided. Failing Peace should be required reading for the serious activist. While we derive much benefit from internet links to each other, data and reports, academically rigorous and thorough analysis as Roy provides in Failing Peace is invaluable. With the information and analysis she presents, the activist reader will be better prepared to effectively participate in public and private advocacy — speaking, reading and writing about the issues.

Failing Peace paints the demise of Palestinian society at the hands of the State of Israel and its leaders who have utterly failed to reconcile post-Holocaust transformation from powerlessness to power-filled society still imbued with fear of the other. I agree with Roy’s assessment that the solution lies in the reestablishment of respect for human dignity and normalcy.

In the absence of human dignity, surely someday the balance of violence will shift. Children are growing up knowing nothing but the culture of war and the militarization of problems and conflicts. Most crucially, they are learning to fear and dehumanize “the other.” If Israel isn’t in front of change and making it happen in concert with Palestinians, I fear for the future of all who inhabit Israel. The backlash will be devastating.

ATC 134, May-June 2008