“The occupation has remained unchallenged by an international order that seems willing to legitimise it as long as there is no accepted agreement to end it.” Sara Roy’s succinct observation, made towards the end of her book, “Unsilencing Gaza: Reflections on Resistance” (Pluto Press, 2021), sums up the impunity which shields Israel as it persists in keeping Gaza unsustainable.
Bringing together a collection of essays spanning decades but for the most part, penned between 2009 and 2016 during the Obama administration era, Roy’s take on Gaza brings the enclave to the centre of attention. What does international and US complicity with Israel conceal, and how is Gaza’s marginalisation central to the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle?
Israel’s policies in Gaza, notably its illegal blockade, have inscribed coerced dependency on international aid for the Palestinians living in the enclave. The collective punishment has brought about devastating economic decline, but as Roy explains, Israel has been careful to control the enclave’s decline to fit within the parameters of the international humanitarian agenda. Which is not a difficult task for Israel, considering that the UN has already normalised colonial violence and its ramifications.
Abnormality has become the norm in Gaza. Roy writes that collective punishment in Gaza seeks “to prevent any kind of normal environment from emerging, institutionalising in both practical and psychological terms a form of abnormality that resists change the longer it is allowed to exist and take root.”
The humanitarian narrative, Roy shows, is particularly important in terms of sustaining Israel’s narrative. Since Hamas’s electoral triumph in 2007, Israel’s isolation of Gaza created an unprecedented situation in terms of humanitarian aid for Palestinians. With Gaza’s economy collapsing, the humanitarian problem takes precedence for the international community. Israel in turn benefits from the depiction of Palestinians as “beggars who have no political identity and therefore can have no political claims.”
But what happens in Gaza is also a reflection of the situation across the occupied Palestinian territories. And while the international community is purportedly intent on not allowing a humanitarian catastrophe to unfold, it still continues to prioritise economic ties with Israel, despite the fact that the occupied West Bank is prone to suffering a similar fate to that experienced in Gaza. It is only that Israeli and international rhetoric have strategically chosen to separate between Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, that the similarities in terms of policy and deprivation do not come into play.
Roy writes, “Palestinians are approaching a degree of damage and loss that will take billions of dollars and generations of Palestinians to reverse.” That is, if the political will to allow reversal existed. As Palestinian politics remain dominated by Israeli interests – a case in point was the refusal to deal with Hamas as legitimate political representatives – any efforts at political unity and reconciliation, for example, will remain thwarted. Such divisive politics also come into play for Israel’s benefit, as it seeks to separate Gaza from the West Bank politically.
The Oslo Accords normalises this travesty through its promotion of “economic peace under occupation.” While the occupied West Bank is singled out for the illusion of prosperity and state-building, albeit still necessitating international funding, Gaza remains tethered to the humanitarian paradigm. In both areas, Israel has dealt a blow to Palestinian anti-colonial struggle by applying economic pressure. Meanwhile, the Oslo Accords discredited Palestinian rights by subjecting the people to what Roy terms “permanent occupation”.
Roy’s writings connect the Palestinians’ current predicament to the 1948 Nakba, which she describes as “the history of the present”. She writes, “If the occupation has changed over time, it is the sheer nature of its expansion and force, not in its mitigation, contraction or inversion.” Giving a concise description of Israel’s colonial violence, including the denial of territorial contiguity which contributes to Gaza’s isolation, Roy takes into account the fact that the current loss is part of a historical process, and more recent predicaments are reinforcing the degeneration of earlier decades.
Operation Protective Edge, which Roy describes as having no precedent in terms of destruction, reinforced the earlier humanitarian agenda which the international community has tethered Palestinians to. “The US and EU are taking us back to 1948 when Palestinians were totally dependent on aid,” a Palestinian is quoted as stating.
As the international community focuses more on aid, even as funding shows signs of decline particularly after the Trump administration’s attempts to obliterate the Palestinian refugees’ narratives and existence by defunding the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the realities of Gaza are obscured. Humanitarian aid as a collective effort to hide the political situation is also concealing the abnormalities Palestinians are living in Gaza, which should be traced back to Israel’s colonial violence.
Roy brings Gaza back to visibility. Away from the paradigm of humanitarian aid, which serves the international community and Israel far better than it does Palestinians as recipients, the author portrays a society that meets its challenges through social mobilisation and unified resistance. Despite Gaza being associated with armed resistance, Roy notes that there is increased adherence to non-violence resistance. While Israel is intent on criminalising Palestinian space to render Palestinian memory “incoherent or vacant,” the people who are taking up resistance are imbued with a consciousness that is shaped by several factors, including the complexities of Palestinian politics which operate within the colonial context decided by Israel. However, as Roy writes, “Palestinians are capable of writing and narrating their own history and Israel is not exempt from the burdens that history imposes.”
One important point which Roy builds up throughout the book is how “Gaza became the model for the fragmentation of the West Bank.” The West Bank may have a veneer of progress, yet it is built upon the same paradigm and it is also likely that similar shifts to Gaza in terms of mobilisation will arise.” As one Palestinian speaking to the author stated, “The international community has to shift away from ‘there is no Plan B’ when no one – not even them – thinks Plan A is practically doable.”