Just as with the last three major Israeli incursions into Gaza, Israel’s stated motive – to stop incoming projectiles – conceals a long-term ambition: to seize more land with fewer Palestinians on it.
Incendiary balloons, or as Israel calls them, “terror balloons,” have been part of the Gazan resistance toolkit since 2018, and a frequent sight in the skies in the last few weeks.
Palestinians fashion these “weapons of grass destruction” from everyday materials, tie them to gasoline-soaked rags or perhaps a homemade explosive, then ignite and release them when the wind is blowing to the east. Sometimes the contraptions land on Israeli farmland or forests and cause fires. Occasionally a balloon lands in a populated area.
Gaza’s resistance groups have also fired a handful of rockets in recent days. Yet these balloons and rockets have brought massive attacks by Israeli warplanes and tanks every night for the last two weeks and Israel’s propaganda industry is now setting up “terror balloons” as a rationale for another major incursion into Gaza.
But just like the last three major conflicts between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas leadership, Israel’s stated motive – to stop the projectiles – conceals its long-term ambition: more land with fewer Palestinians.
The Palestinians behind the balloons have a goal too. In the words of Ahmed Abu Artema, a writer who lives in Gaza and organizer of the Great March of Return,
These youths, crushed by the Israeli occupation and deprived of their fundamental rights, still feel the urge to scream at their jailers. They want to make noise so that they do not die in silence.”
Gaza has suffered under a punishing blockade since 2013 – a form of collective punishment, forbidden under international law. Peaceful protesters and resistance groups have been pressuring Israel to lift, or at least loosen the blockade, but with little success.
Israel has a long list of “prohibited” items that changes slightly from time to time, but not by much. It has included food items like flour, yeast, rice, salt, and sugar; sanitary items like soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, and diapers; school supplies like textbooks, writing paper, and pens; and other staples, including blankets, light bulbs, clothing, seeds, and fishing rods.
Hamas, the elected government of Gaza, is demanding that Israel relax the restrictions on imports, reinstate the twenty-nautical-mile fishing zone required by the Oslo Accords (Israel currently forbids any fishing off of Gaza’s coast), opening of the commercial crossing to let certain necessary, but banned goods in; and opening the pedestrian crossing to allow Gazan laborers to enter Israel.
Ultimately, Gazans are demanding the lifting of the entire blockade.
The Israeli response
Israel sees the balloons as another form of Palestinian terrorism and has responded with its usual harsh rhetoric and disproportionate military action.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frames the situation as an Iran problem – fueling his ongoing push to war with that country. “95% of these threats [to Israel] come from Iran,” he said, “I want to make clear to all of Iran’s proxies, including Gaza – there will be a heavy price to the balloon terror.”
In addition to nightly bombings, Israel has closed the single commercial border crossing where food and fuel enter the Gaza Strip; the enclave’s only power plant has consequently shut down, leaving the enclave’s two million residents with less than four hours of electricity a day. Israel has also halted all fishing in the Mediterranean Sea.
And Israeli leaders indicate a willingness to go to war if necessary, vowing violence “in multiples” of the last incursion – which, in 2014, killed 2,200 Palestinians and 83 Israelis.
Israel’s recent threats and attacks predate the use of so-called “terror balloons,” by Palestinian activists, suggesting the most recent bout of violence is not about rockets and balloons, but about land, preferably without people.
Gaza: total destruction
Israel may not have its sights set on annexing Gaza, but as Palestinian American attorney and activist Noura Erakat explained in a 2016 editorial for The Nation,
Israel does not have a Hamas problem; it does not have a Gaza problem; it has a Palestine problem.”
The airstrikes of the last two weeks are a familiar sight to Gazans. Israel has initiated three major wars on the Strip in the last twelve years, killing a total of about 4,000 Palestinians; less than 100 Israelis were killed during the same period.
During the 2014 conflict, the Obama administration authorized Israel to replenish its weapon supply from a stockpile the U.S. keeps in Israel – this in addition to the $3.8 billion in yearly military aid that the U.S. gives to the country.
The Electronic Intifada reported that, at a bare minimum, Israel used 39,000 tank shells, 34,000 artillery shells, and 4.8 million bullets against a virtually unarmed Gazan population of 1.8 million, packed into an area the size of Detroit.
By the end of the fifty-day war, almost half a million Gazans had been displaced, 20,000 homes and 250 schools destroyed or severely damaged, as well as infrastructure decimated.
That scale of destruction is what Netanyahu is now threatening to repeat.
Gaza: daily hardships
In between wars, Gazans face constant adversity at the hands of Israel. Children die alone when parents are not allowed to accompany them for cancer treatments; thousands live with permanent disabilities and amputations after being hit with sniper fire; hundreds of more families deal with death, and one million are on the edge of starvation and illness.
Over one-third of the agricultural land in Gaza has been appropriated by Israel as a “buffer zone.” Israel regularly sprays the area with herbicides to keep it clear – and the wind frequently carries the chemicals well beyond, poisoning Palestinian crops and bodies – and fundamental human rights.
Gaza is tiny and crowded – but much of the Palestinian West Bank is fertile, and Palestinian East Jerusalem real estate is priceless. Dispossession in these areas has taken many insidious, if slightly less aggressive, forms.
Historic land theft
The first and largest land theft occurred in 1948 when 78 percent of historic Palestine became the State of Israel. Israel’s military had an aggressive policy of depopulating Palestinian villages, evacuating and bulldozing over 500 of them, and rebuilding many as Jewish neighborhoods for the new state.
Neighborhoods in larger cities were also cleared of their Palestinian residents so that Jews could be moved in. 750,000 Palestinians became refugees and Israel coveted the property of those who remained. In the ensuing years, the new Israeli government crafted (illegal) “Land Laws” to gain control over much of it.
Most cunning perhaps was the Absentees Property Law, which permitted Israel to bar Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes, and then take over their property because it was vacant.
West Bank: land theft by settlement
In 1967, Israel occupied all of the Palestinian lands it had not won in 1948. One of its first orders of business was to begin constructing Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The illegal practice has continued unabated ever since, and Israel plans to annex the land it has appropriated over the years, adding another layer of illegality.
Settlement-building often begins when Israel earmarks a piece of land – often a large swath of farming or grazing land – as needed for “security purposes.” Palestinian inhabitants are evicted and an Israeli military outpost is established. Later, the area is repurposed as a civilian settlement (documents prove that at least in some cases, this was the plan all along).
Additional land is then appropriated for Jewish-only roads to the settlements (for example, Shufa) and checkpoints.
Elsewhere (as in Yatta or these twelve villages), land is poached by the Israeli military for “live-fire training.” In June, the Israeli military took over a large area of Palestinian farmland for this purpose and burned down 2,000 acres of crops.
Settlements now cover almost 10 percent of the land of the West Bank, about 125,000 acres. In between and around the settlements themselves, another 400,000 acres are classified as belonging to Israeli regional councils. All total, the Israeli settlement enterprise has confiscated approximately about 42 percent of the Palestinian West Bank and destroyed one million olive trees.
Extremist Israeli settlers are also well known for their share of this travesty, burning or chopping down entire olive groves – often in full view of and complicity with Israeli Defence Force soldiers. Just last weekend, several Palestinian communities were attacked by settlers, their olive trees destroyed and a mobile home erected on their land.
West Bank: land theft by Separation Wall
In 2000, again under the guise of “security,” Israel began another chapter of massive expropriation.
Palestinians, frustrated by the failure of the Oslo Accords to deliver on five years of promises for self-determination made in 1995 among other provocations, began an uprising that included suicide attacks.
Rather than addressing the issues, Israel began building a wall around the West Bank and East Jerusalem, purportedly to end the attacks. Suicide attacks indeed decreased, but not due to the wall. Thousands of Palestinians still enter Israel every month without permission because the wall is still not finished and has a number of gaps.
The route of the wall, which reaches deep inside Palestinian territory, has enabled a land grab of 191,000 acres – 13.5 percent of the West Bank, and some of its most fertile land.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the wall illegal and demanded its removal, but Israel has continued to build.
Thousands of Palestinian farmers have been separated from their farmland by the wall. For these, Israel has created a system designed to ultimately wrest their land too. Israeli bureaucracy regularly blocks them from tending their crops through an agricultural permit system choked with red tape. Family members, vehicles, and animals must all receive permission to accompany the landowner. Israel allows each farmer a certain number of entries based on the size of his plot and the type of crop – for example, forty trips per year for onions, fifty for figs. The number of workers allowed is based on the plot size and crop as well, an impediment to employment for desperate Palestinian laborers.
As a further complication, out of eighty-four gates in the wall, only a handful are open every day.
In a recent twist, Israel began forcing families to divide their land among the heirs when the father dies (a procedure that has a fee attached to it), instead of allowing them to care for the land collectively. But another law declares that plots under 400 square yards are too small to farm, and their owners may not get permits. Eventually, when Israel deems a piece of land “abandoned,” it is reverted to the state.
Scholars and human rights activists have compared Israel’s permit regime to South Africa’s pass laws – only “even more complex and ruthlessly enforced than the pass system of the apartheid regime.”
West Bank: “sacrifice zones” for sewage
In May, Israel announced plans for new waste management sites, at least one of which is slated for the West Bank to service the large Jewish-only settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. The waste plant would be located just a few hundred yards from several Palestinian herding communities.
Israel’s Environment Protection Minister has been busy this summer studying ways to begin incorporating the EU Commission’s new Circular Economy Action Plan, an effort that may highlight the little-known story of environmental injustice in the West Bank. It is a story of land and people at risk with no recourse under an occupying power.
Israeli regulations intentionally make it more cost effective to operate waste treatment facilities in the West Bank than inside Israel. Consequently, waste (including hazardous waste) from Israel and its settlements, is brought to about fifteen West Bank locations, called “sacrifice zones” because they are “irrevocably impaired by environmental damage or neglect.” One researcher summed up the situation thusly: “Israel has turned the West Bank into a garbage dump.”
Several waste treatment facilities operated inside the settlements but were closed due to complaints about the stench.
Israel’s actions contravene multiple international laws and are responsible for yet another land loss for Palestinians. Ast the Israeli human right group B’Tselem declared in a 2017 report:
The international principles on hazardous waste management are based on values of environmental justice, public consultation and transparency. An expression of basic human decency, they strive to codify the simple notion that military, political, or economic power disparities should not be abused by the powerful in order to dump their pollution and waste in their disempowered neighbors’ backyards.
Israel’s dispossession machine is devious. Like the Separation Wall, it twists and winds, gobbling up whatever it wants and leaving a trail of adversity.
Palestinians can barely keep up with the financial and emotional burdens that the occupation heaps on them, as well as the dangers involved in the simple act of trying to make ends meet.
This intricately designed system of injustice – arguably worse than that of apartheid South Africa and condemned by nearly every other country in the world – is funded by American tax dollars.
Feature photo | A volunteer attempts to extinguish a fire started by a so-called “terror balloon” launched from the Gaza Strip, on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza, Aug. 24, 2020. Ariel Schalit | AP
Kathryn Shihadah writes for MintPress News and If Americans Knew. She speaks regularly about the injustice and demonization Palestinians face at the hands of Israel with complicity from the United States, especially to Christian audiences. Kathryn has lived in the Middle East for ten years and has traveled extensively. She blogs at PalestineHome.org.