Tony Greenstein | 25 August 2012 | Post Views:


Searching for dignity

This is an
article by Rajaie Batniji,  just published in The
Lancet, Volume
380, Issue 9840
, Pages 466 – 467, 4 August 2012. Rajaie visited
his family in Gaza last spring.  If
Gazans fire a rocket at Israel then it’s instantly BBC news.  But the death of 800 people from Israeli drones
passes without mention.

Tony Greenstein

Death by Drone
were playing with their Atari last night.”
This was my young cousin’s way of
explaining why our street in Gaza had turned into an arrangement of chairs and
tents for an outdoor funeral. He was, of course, referring to attacks by
drones, which Gazans call “zennana” in an Arabic reference to the buzzing noise
they make. While there is uncertainty about how many people have been killed by
these drones, the Palestine Center for Human Rights estimates that at least 800
people in Gaza have died because of drones since 2006. These deaths are largely
civilians, bystanders from Israeli attempts at targeted assassinations in the
Gaza Strip—a narrow 41 kilometre strip of land along the Mediterranean, where
more than 1·5 million Palestinians live.
Another death by drone
a feminine word, is also used by Gazans to refer to a whining wife or daughter,
reflecting the Gazan perception of these weapons of war as a nagging nuisance
of daily life, rather than a traumatic occurrence. To understand how Gazans
have “normalised the abnormal”, I visited Ahmed Abu-Tawahina, Director of the
Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP). He explained to me how “The
idea of trauma makes no sense in the Palestinian context where people live in
constant fear. Trauma makes sense in Geneva, where there is safety, stability,
and routine. But in Gaza, there is no normalcy.”
Ahmed suggested that an
alternative to “trauma” might be “mousiba”, meaning tragedy. Since Gazans live
in constant fear and insecurity, they are not typically shocked by violence.
violence did startle me. Leaving the serenity of my life in the USA, where I am
a resident physician at Stanford University, I arrived in Gaza in March, 2012,
on the eve of an Israeli aerial campaign targeting militants from Islamic
Jihad. I was greeted by my loving grandparents with offerings of tea and overly
sweetened juice, but also by a near absence of electricity, a scarcity of
running water, the buzz of the drones, the roar of military jets, and
explosions from nearby incoming and outgoing missiles. In Gaza, I learned how
the Israeli military’s surveillance and attacks, international foreign aid, and
the conflict between Palestinian political factions conspire to create fear,
divide communities, and—above all—threaten people’s dignity.
is a nebulous idea in theory and definition, but I found that Gaza is something
of a laboratory for observing an absence of dignity. Jonathan Mann made the
case that violations of dignity have “devastating” effects on physical, mental,
and social wellbeing and he sought to create a taxonomy of dignity violations
that included: not being seen or being incompletely seen; being subsumed into a
group identity; invasion of personal space (including physical violence); and
humiliation. Mann’s persuasive ideas seem to resonate in Gaza. The constant
surveillance from the sky, collective punishment through blockade and
isolation, the intrusion into homes and communications, and restrictions on
those trying to travel, or marry, or work make it difficult to live a dignified
life in Gaza.
Grieving Over Another Victim of Israel’s Drones
 Riding in
a United Nations car with Mahmoud Daher, head of WHO’s Gaza office, he was
careful to keep his distance from all other vehicles, for fear that they might
be targeted by Israeli missiles. Later, Karem, a young surgeon at Al-Shifa
hospital, Gaza’s trauma centre, told me how “Every day, I go to work and wonder
where and when I’ll die. You never know when a war will start again. Just
yesterday, it was calm, and now we’re in war.” During the 2009 Gaza war, Karem
worked 19 straight days without leaving the hospital. He does not exude
fragility. On his Facebook wall the day I entered Gaza, his status read,
Another tough night at Shifa hospital, then [at home] you still have the smell
of smoke from grilled human bodies & that image of shattered human flesh.”
Foreign aid,
ostensibly provided to relieve the suffering of Palestinians, has in some ways
increased social fragmentation. Since the takeover of Gaza by Hamas in 2007,
after winning the 2006 election, some political actors have used foreign aid in
an effort to create a prosperous and healthy West Bank, and a sick and
impoverished Gaza. In fact, official development assistance has, according to
the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, more than doubled
since 2006, from disbursements of US$1·2 billion in 2006 to disbursements of
$2·7 billion in 2009 and $2·5 billion in 2010. Yet very little of this aid
makes it to Gaza. As Hasan Zeyada, a psychologist with GCMHP, told me, “Aid
allows foreign powers to achieve a goal they couldn’t even achieve through
the most devastating attack on social cohesion comes from the internal
Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian power struggle has recreated many of the
most threatening aspects of the Israeli occupation: barriers to movement of
people and goods, fear, isolation, and torture. It takes several hours to move
a few hundred metres across the Egyptian border. Medical students, eager to act
on the social and political factors that affect health, report that they are
unable to do so because it is dangerous to create groups and alliances. Torture
techniques seem to be used by Palestinians from both political factions.
Torture survivors come to clinics in secret; their charts carry false names. As
one clinician observed during my visit, “It would be far more compelling to
tell an optimistic story, but I cannot do that. Torture and violence destroy
our hopes for Palestinian unity.”
and the blockade make shortages of essential medicines and medical supplies
commonplace. Yet during my visit it seemed to me that these shortages are at
least partly attributable to internal Palestinian conflict. While enjoying
fresh strawberry juice on Gaza’s coast with Mahmoud Daher, of WHO, our
conversation was not only interrupted by explosions, but also by a call from
the American Consulate in East Jerusalem, asking about the health situation
amid the escalation in conflict. Mahmoud informs them that of about 480 drugs
on the Palestinian essential drugs list, 180 drugs are out of stock and 70 to
80 are below the 3-month threshold. The cause of the essential drugs shortage
is debated in Gaza. Some blame the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah for
failing to transfer medicines from their warehouses to Gaza. Others blame the
Hamas Government for misallocating funds that need to be transferred to acquire
the medications. Irrespective of the cause, the drug shortage is no longer
simply attributable to the Israeli blockade.
they turn, Gazans face isolation and fear: the drones and warplanes of Israeli
occupation, the inequality reinforced by foreign aid, and the pervasive
conflict between Hamas and Fatah. Ahmed Abu-Tawahina, of GCMHP, seemed to put
it best when he likened Gazans to subjects in a Pavlovian experiment, being
betrayed by political parties and donors wherever they turned. “We go to each
corner of the cage and are shocked, then we stand in the middle of the cage,
totally paranoid and abandoned.
” In an earlier era, there was stronger social
solidarity. During the first Palestinian uprising of 1988—93, the divisions
between cities, villages, camps, and clans had faded. But, along the way, Gazan
society has become divided. Without reliable infrastructure for water,
electricity, or imported goods, families hoard fuel and depend on the black
market. Many people on the street now walk with their heads down—whether it is
out of fear, isolation, or a loss of dignity.
attempt to restore and protect dignity was the primary goal of many clinicians
I met in Gaza. One clinician, who works with victims of torture, keeps doing
his work, despite the risks to his life in doing so, because his patients
remind him, “You are the window through which I can breathe”. As Eyad El-Sarraj
explained, the core goal of GCMPH is to make people feel like they are
regaining their dignity. This is why their staff see themselves as community
workers and human rights advocates, not just clinicians. Khamis Elessi, a
clinician-educator at at El-Wafa Hospital and the Islamic University in Gaza,
teaches his students to touch their patients. He explains, “The sick want to
tell you about daily suffering, the misery of life without electricity, how he
feels when his kids can’t go to school.”
They need doctors who give them an
opportunity to express these struggles. He had much more to say, but we ended
our meeting so he could go to the funeral of his cousin, a 60-year-old farmer,
who had recently died after an Israeli airstrike.

How do you control territory without troops? Ask the Israelis who fly
drones over Gaza.

An Israeli drone as seen from the ground in Gaza

Photograph by Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images.

Yesterday, for the third time this year, Iran
said it had shot down a U.S. drone
in its airspace. The United States
doubted the drone had been shot down but refused to say what it had been doing near the Iran-Afghan
border. NATO said the drone might have crashed in Iran after operators “lost control” of it over Afghanistan. All three stories
sound fishy. If I were the CIA or the U.S. military, I’d be using
our drones
to spy on Iran. And if I were Iran, I’d be trying to shoot them
To understand how it feels to live under drones, look 1,000 miles to Iran’s
west, toward the Gaza strip. Two months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu told the United Nations that Israel had withdrawn “from
every square inch of Gaza in 2005. … We uprooted thousands of people from their
homes. We pulled children out of their schools and their kindergartens. We
bulldozed synagogues. We even moved loved ones from their graves.” Everything
from corpses to cornerstones came out of the ground.

But not out of the air. In the sky above Gaza, Israel never fully withdrew.
In 2008, I visited Israel under the sponsorship of the American Israel Public Affairs
. Near the Gaza border, I saw tethered airships overhead. In
today’s Washington Post, Scott Wilson explains how Israeli drones are affecting Gaza. Israel no longer
occupies Gaza. And yet, it does.

Israel’s occupations of land beyond its original borders—Southern Lebanon,
Gaza, the West Bank—have been morally
and politically costly
. But Israel’s absence from these territories has
been costly, too. No Israeli can forget that the country was caught unaware and
nearly destroyed when its neighbors launched a coordinated assault in 1973. And
as Netanyahu has pointed out, Israel’s pullouts from Gaza and Southern Lebanon
brought further missile barrages from those places, not peace. By 2008, when I
visited the often-bombarded Israel town of Sderot, Palestinian militants had
fired thousands of rockets from Gaza into Israel.

If your country had endured such assaults, you’d want to know exactly what
your neighbors were up to. You’d want a permanent
intelligence—and possibly military—presence in their territory
. That’s what
drones have achieved. As Wilson notes, Israel developed its first surveillance
drone after the 1973 war, and it escalated its aerial surveillance of Gaza
after Hamas, in 2006, sneaked into Israel and kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

As a military force, Israel’s unmanned aircraft have spared civilians more
effectively than its manned aircraft have. “Because Gaza is a very dense urban
environment, with civilians and terrorists mixed together, the only way to
differentiate is by looking,” the commander of Israeli drones over Gaza tells
Wilson. “And this is up to us to do that.” Drones can hover, observe, and
verify their targets, and their
strikes are more surgical
. According to Wilson, “Gazans use a quick
calculus to assess an attack: A destroyed building, such as the small police
post, is the result of an F-16. A strike on a sedan, or a group of men
clustered at an intersection, is the work of a drone.” An Islamic Jihad leader
tells Wilson that Israel’s drones have killed fewer people than the Palestinian
Center for Human Rights asserts, because many deaths attributed to the drones
were actually inflicted by bombers or helicopters.

For both sides, then, drones are the safest way of maintaining an Israeli
presence. But that doesn’t make them cost-free. Gazans tell Wilson that their
kids live in fear of the drones and that they abandon their cars, cancel social
plans, and stay indoors when they hear the familiar buzz. They’re afraid to be
anywhere young men gather. They’re afraid to go out in clothes that might be
mistaken, in the eyes of a drone pilot, for terrorist garb. “Israel’s military
may not be on the ground anymore,” a Palestinian human rights advocate
explains. “But they are in the air—looking, always, at every square inch of
Gaza.” Despite the absence of Israeli tanks and troops, Gazans feel—and, in a
sense, are—still occupied.

The Islamic Jihad leader says his men don’t yet have the weaponry to clear
their skies of Israeli drones. But he indicates that they’re trying to get it
and that they’re making some progress by smuggling equipment into Gaza through
tunnels. If they succeed, Gaza, like Iran, could become a dangerous place for
drones. That won’t make war in either place less likely. It will just force
those who face terrorism from Gaza, or nuclear weapons in Iran, to strike at
their enemies with less information and with clumsier, bloodier tools.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

See Israeli drone
attack kills Palestinian in Gaza Strip

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Tony Greenstein

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