The Death of Many Birthdays

By L. Janelle Dance*

 On my birthday, December 27, 2008, I awoke and was literally sick to my stomach. My symptoms suggested either stomach flu or food poisoning.  I now interpret my illness in terms of what was happening in Gaza.  On December 27, 2008, my birthday became a death day.  Since that day, over 1300 Palestinians (half of which were civilians including hundreds of children) and more than 10 Israelis (ten soldiers and three civilians) died in warfare.

The sheer number of deaths of Palestinians troubles me the most; still, I find the human losses on both sides tragic. When one person is killed in warfare, that moment is pregnant with horrific potential that hundreds, thousands, or millions more will follow. In justifying this war, Israeli leaders only told part of a complicated historical story, the part that started with Hamas shooting Qassam rockets into Israeli territory. The Qassams are simple steel rockets when compared to the Hellfire missiles and other U.S. made armaments with which the Israeli Defense Forces retaliated. Even the Israeli Defense Ministry described the Qassams as "more a psychological than physical threat."  I find the justice system of the Old Testament far too harsh, but what happened to the proportional justice of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" or the Talmudic emphasis upon the use of minimum necessary force in self-defense?

Some date the complicated story of Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the 1880s, when the first Zionist Congress designated Palestine as the site for a Jewish homeland. Others start with the post World War I period, during which Great Britain sponsored the Zionist colonization of Palestine. Others still, begin with the post World War II horrors of the Nazi Holocaust against Jews. And others yet, refer to the aftermath of the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Most recently, the story starts in June of 2007 when Israeli leaders, with the support of the U.S. and the U.N., strengthened the blockade of the Gaza Strip; or, in early November of 2008, when the Israeli Defense Forces broke the mutually agreed upon cease fire by means of a raid within the Gaza Strip that killed six members of Hamas.  The story is even vastly more complicated than these significant events, but it definitely did not start with Hamas shooting rockets.

Like persons of Jewish descent, I am a descendent of a displaced people, namely the enslaved West Africans who were whipped, chained, shackled, and forcibly relocated to the Americas as slaves.  I empathize with the desire to correct or minimize a historical wrong and to return to a homeland.  The founding and colonization of Liberia by African Americans in the 1820s was one attempt to correct the historical tragedy of American slavery. Viewing Africa as the "Promised Land," African Americans, sponsored by the American Colonization Society, "settled" a region of West Africa now known as Liberia. African Americans did this despite the fact that the region was already inhabited and settled by several West African ethnic groups that had been there for centuries.

I sympathize with the need of African Americans to flee the inhumanity of slavery in the U.S., but it is eminently clear to me that the Americo-Liberians—as these African Americans came to be called—colonized and seized the lands of pre-existing West African populations in the process of minimizing the horrors of American slavery.  It is clear to me that the West Africans of that region were made to suffer for the sins of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.


I sympathize with the need of Jewish Holocaust survivors in particular, and Jews in general to have a homeland to heal from the inhumanity of Nazi Germany, the horrifying legacy of European pogroms and massacres, and other horrible forms of anti-Jewish racist projects. But it is eminently clear to me that Palestinians were made to suffer for the sins of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. In that way, Palestinians have been indirectly made victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

So, the action of Hamas leaders shooting rockets into Israeli territory did not occur in a vacuum.  It occurred in a complicated historical context.  As far back as 1948, the Israeli army forcibly relocated Palestinians from Palestinian townships to the Gaza Strip. During the last four decades, Israeli leaders and Defense Forces have suffered Palestinians to live in the apartheid situations that Gaza and the West Bank have become. Similar to the situation of African Americans under American Apartheid, under Israeli Apartheid Palestinians experience discrimination and dehumanization.  At best, Palestinians are treated as a source of cheap labor, at worse they are used as target practice by the Israeli army. It is from a situation of Apartheid that Hamas has fired rockets into Israel.

Let me be clear, I am not questioning the right of Liberia and Israel to exist. To borrow French philosopher René Descartes’ phrasing, "They colonized therefore they exist." I am highlighting that Liberia and Israel came to exist through occupation and colonization followed by conquest. These are not the first nations to come into existence by colonization (ask American Indians about lands and lives lost through colonization!). Furthermore, most of the Palestinians that I know in the U.S. and in Sweden, accept the legitimacy of Israel in-line with the pre-1967 borders. This is an extremely generous gesture by Palestinians as it leaves them with less than 24 percent of historic Palestine.

I am questioning the right of displaced peoples to establish homelands by dehumanizing and forcibly displacing the inhabitants of the territories we claim. I am questioning the right to call the inhabitants "savages" or "militants" or "terrorists" when they resist colonization. I am questioning the right of displaced peoples to rewrite history to erase the fact that our leaders often have behaved like the very oppressors from which we have fled. I am also questioning the role of the U.S. in this conflict.  The U.S. openly protests and condemns the atrocities in Darfur, while Palestinians were bombed like fish in a pond with no possibility of escape. The lives of Palestinians are as sacred as those of all other human beings? The silence from U.S. leaders during the recent Israeli attack upon Gaza was deafening and murderous. (President Obama please break the silence, hear the anguish of Palestinian civilians, and stop the Israeli leadership and Defense Forces from engaging in the atrocities of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians !!!)

Israeli leaders did not need to wage the war of December 27, 2008 against Palestinians to punish Hamas. Instead of bombing Gaza, Israelis leaders could have fought for a Truth and Reconciliation process and/or a recommitment to a two-state solution. They could have done so, as recently as 2005 when Ariel Sharon facilitated the removal of Israeli settlements from Gaza. But this unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by an increase in Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

By reducing this complicated historical story to the firing of rockets by Hamas, Israeli leaders indicate that they are not interested in truth and reconciliation, but that they are committed to propaganda, more colonial expansion, and more dehumanization, death, and destruction. Israeli leaders reveal horrific disrespect for Palestinian lives as they repeatedly justify their absurdly disproportionate militaristic response. To the equivalent of big steel rocks catapulted by Hamas into Israeli territory, the Israeli response has included at least sixty F-16 fighter jets, F-18 hornet aircrafts, sophisticatedly destructive Hellfire missiles, and ground troops using powerful tanks and bulldozers (weaponry and machinery made in the U.S.A.).

 I will no longer celebrate December 27th, my birthday, until there is a viable one or two-state solution that does not rob Palestinians of their civil rights and their right to exist! Until then, I will mourn the deaths of innocent civilians (Palestinians and Israelis) who will never celebrate another birthday of their own.

* L. Janelle Dance
Associate Professor of Sociology
, Nebraska