Defiance in the Rubble

Over 2,000 killed, over four times as many wounded, according to official figures; infrastructure destroyed, including—lest one forgets—schools and hospitals. All in (and for) a tiny piece of land. But if ever a personality trait described a nation, resilience would fit Palestine. Here’s Max Blumenthal’s account of one aspect of the aftermath of the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, taken from the chapter ‘Defiance in the Rubble’ in The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza.

On August 26, the night the ceasefire took effect, the streets of Gaza City filled with tens of thousands of people. Exhausted by 51 days of war, they were ready to return to life under conditions they hoped would be at least marginally better than before. But they also seemed to have accepted that life in Gaza would never be the same again.

The boisterous procession through Gaza City was not a victory parade in any traditional sense; it was a display of popular defiance, an opportunity for common Palestinians to exhibit their solidarity with Gaza’s fighters and their determination to resist at any cost. Among the crowds, a stout middle-aged woman summoned my colleague Dan Cohen to the van where she sat surrounded with children waving the green Hamas banners. ‘I’ll die and I’ll give [up] all my sons if that’s what we have to do to liberate Palestine,’ she declared vehemently. Clutching an expressionless little boy by his shoulders, she exclaimed, ‘This is my youngest son and I’m prepared to give him up, too, if that’s what it takes!’

Throughout Palestine, victory was understood not necessarily as a decisive military triumph, but as a forceful demonstration of qualities like sumud (steadfastness), fidaa (sacrifice/redemption), and ebaa (stubbornness in the face of power) during a prolonged trial. This attitude has, of course, been a feature of anti-colonial struggles throughout history, from Vietnam to Algeria to South Africa, but it was especially pronounced in Gaza, where 1.8 million ghettoized refugees were taking heavy losses against a nuclearized army equipped and financed by the superpowers of the West. I witnessed the clearest distillation of this defiance in Beit Hanoun, the decimated northern border city. There, during the mid-August ceasefire, I met a family gathered above the ruins of their home, a fourstory structure that had been transformed into a massive crater by a direct hit from an Israeli fragmentation bomb. On a flat slab of concrete that sat above the gargantuan sinkhole, graffiti read ‘3 to 0,’ portraying the Palestinian armed factions as the victors of the last three military conflicts in Gaza.

The celebratory gunfire that punctuated Gaza’s victory processions—and which caused dozens of injuries and even a few deaths—was an important component of the exhibition of defiance. Among Israel’s key demands at the start of the war had been the full demilitarization of Gaza, with Interior Minister Yuval Steinitz predicting that ‘Gaza will be exactly like Ramallah.’ By displaying their automatic rifles and letting rounds off into the sky, the young men of Gaza distinguished themselves from their counterparts in the West Bank who had been disarmed and were now policed by the security forces of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that coordinated directly with the Israeli army. A group of young male revelers reinforced the point, chanting, ‘Abbas is a traitor!’ as they cheered a Qassam fighter passing by atop a pickup truck bed.

Besides Al-Qassam, the Al-Quds Brigades of Islamic Jihad planned a victory parade of its own the following day. The local wing of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade of Fatah, the group that controlled the West Bank, also participated in the fighting alongside the Popular Resistance Committees, a faction founded by ex-Fatah fighters who had refused to demilitarize as their comrades in the West Bank had done. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a traditionally left-wing party that had faded into the margins as Hamas and Fatah competed for control of the Palestinian polity, saw a resurgence during the 51 Day War as its Abu Ali Mustafa Brigade complemented operations by the better equipped armed factions. The battlefield had provided the various parties with a momentary relief from the painful rifts that had plagued the Palestinian national movement over the years. With Hamas’s political leadership emerging from bunkers and returning from Cairo, however, politics quickly returned to the fore.

Mahmoud al-Zahar was among the first to address the crowds in Gaza City. A sixty-nine-year-old surgeon with a salt-and-pepper beard and shock of gray hair combed across his scalp, Zahar was one of Hamas’s most veteran leaders and the key link to the movement’s military wing. Having spent the war underground, he returned to a home that had been reduced to rubble for the second time since the Second Intifada. Before the celebrating crowds, Zahar set out to assuage doubts about the deal Hamas had just signed. ‘We will build a seaport and an airport. We don’t need anyone’s approval for that,’ Zahar pledged, sending gales of cheering through the crowd. He even vowed that the Al-Qassam Brigades would ‘attack the ports of anyone who attacks ours.’

But there was little indication Israel would stand aside and allow Gaza to restore its bombed-out airport in Rafah or build a seaport. And it was unclear how a lightly armed guerrilla force like Al-Qassam could deter attacks on either construction operation from a blue water navy and one of the world’s most advanced air forces.

On August 27, following the popular celebrations the night before, a crowd of more than ten thousand filled the vast concrete lot in front of Gaza City’s parliamentary building for Hamas’s official victory celebration. It was a festive scene, with food vendors clustered around the lot to serve up grilled meats and juice to the families who descended on the celebration with green Hamas banners in hand. Some parents had dressed their children in military garb, with custom-made camouflage outfits and plastic toy guns. A young government official caught me photographing a father adjusting the mock uniform of his son, who looked to be about five years old. ‘I’m against this,’ he whispered to me, side-eyeing the battle-dressed kids.

The event’s highlight was the appearance of Ismail Haniyeh, the former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority who voluntarily resigned from his position when Hamas agreed to the unity government with Fatah. One of Hamas’s more pragmatic and politically ambitious figures, Haniyeh had spent the war in a bunker, evacuating his home before the Israeli air force obliterated it with a missile strike. His reemergence before the massive crowd was a carefully staged event designed to wed the most visible local leader of Hamas with the universally revered fighters of the Qassam Brigades. As soon as Haniyeh appeared at the podium, a long procession of masked fighters proceeded through the crowd, ascending dual staircases beside the dais and assembling along the walls that rose above Haniyeh’s audience. The fighters were joined by exuberant girls in plain clothes and little boys in mock uniforms, including one clutching a model of a M-75 rocket.

The optics deflected attention from the political consequences of the deal the Palestinian delegation had just signed in Cairo. In fact, Haniyeh did not mention the deal at all in his thirty-minute address to the crowd. Instead, he focused on the role Hamas played in shoring up the capacity of Gaza’s armed factions. ‘We are proud to have embraced the resistance and even after years of being in power, we did not shy away from helping it. Even after years of governing we did not shy away from embracing the resistance forces,’ he declared.

Gasping between sentences in the sweltering afternoon heat, Haniyeh went on to thank the residents of border areas like Beit Hanoun and Shujaiya who had lost their homes and were still living in shelters. ‘The bravery of Shujaiya and Beit Hanoun and the other border towns allowed us to defeat the army of the Zionist enemy. And it was on the borders of Gaza that we crushed the myth of the invincible army,’ he announced, prompting the war’s popular battle anthem, ‘Here We Prepare,’ to pump through the PA system.

‘The sumud of Gaza will be rewarded with victory!’ Haniyeh promised. But how? How would the military achievements of Gaza’s armed factions and the titanic sacrifices of its civilian residents be converted into concrete gains, especially when a global juggernaut pressed against the gates of Gaza with all of its weight? Hamas had fewer allies in the region than ever and powerful antagonists among the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, and the Egyptian regime, not to mention the EU and the US. So far, the answer was elusive.

‘Talk is vain and victory cannot be captured in words,’ Haniyeh concluded.

Featured image: Beside a Palestinian flag, the names of the past three military conflicts; beside Israel’s flag, graffiti reads, ‘You have been defeated.’ Source: The 51 Day War.