January 23, 2009

Gaza: A Lesson From History

Writing about web page http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmhansrd/cm090115/debtext/90115-0013.htm

On January 15, Sir Gerald Kaufman, MP, told the House of Commons:

My parents came to Britain as refugees from Poland. Most of their families were subsequently murdered by the Nazis in the holocaust. My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed.

My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. The current Israeli Government ruthlessly and cynically exploit the continuing guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians. The implication is that Jewish lives are precious, but the lives of Palestinians do not count.

On Sky News a few days ago, the spokeswoman for the Israeli army, Major Leibovich, was asked about the Israeli killing of, at that time, 800 Palestinians—the total is now 1,000. She replied instantly that "500 of them were militants.”

That was the reply of a Nazi. I suppose that the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants.

Let's think about this.

The recent Israeli incursion into Gaza lasted 23 days (December 27, 2008, to January 11, 2009). Ten Israeli soldiers were reported killed in action.

The population of the Gaza Strip is currently in excess of 1.4 million. Estimates of the Palestinian death toll during the Israeli assault range from 1,330 (Hamas) to 500-600 (an anonymous Palestinian hospital doctor, reported by the Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi). We can't verify either figure. For the sake of argument we'll take the higher figure; it suggests a death rate of around 1 per thousand of the population "at risk," about half of them unarmed civilians. (The lower figure would suggest less than 0.5 deaths per thousand with few unarmed civilian deaths among them.)

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 lasted 120 days (January 18 to May 16, 1943). Sixteen German soldiers were reported killed in action.

The initial population of the Warsaw Ghetto is not known. Between 1939 and 1942, the German occupation concentrated between 300 and 400 thousand Jews in Warsaw. In addition to an unknown number of deaths from hunger and disease, between 250 and 300 thousand were deported to Treblinka and murdered over the summer of 1942. Jewish deaths during the uprising itself amounted to 13,000; after the insurgents' surrender, the 43,000 survivors were deported for extermination. The final death rate amongst the population "at risk" approached 100 percent.

On these figures, the fate of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 does not look like a close parallel for that of the Gaza Strip today.

That's enough about outcomes. What about intentions?

In Warsaw 55 years ago, the intentions of the two sides were clear. The Germans intended to exterminate the Jews regardless of age, sex, or combatant status; the ghetto uprising simply forced them to accelerate the process. The intention of the insurgents, who had a good idea of what had happened to those deported to Treblinka in 1942, was to resist otherwise certain death.

In Gaza this year, the intentions of each side are open to more than one interpretation. The Israelis said they intended to avoid civilian casualties as far as possible, but "as far as possible" is a difficult phrase. Certainly, civilians were killed, certainly in dozens, possibly in hundreds. Setting moral feeling aside, most of us (including me) have no practical idea of what words like "possible" or "necessary" mean in that context. But we can turn the question round. If the Israelis had intended to cause civilian casualties, was it within their military-technical capacity to do so on the scale of the Warsaw Ghetto? Without doubt, yes. If an army fighting in a crowded city with the military technology of the 1940s could kill tens of thousands of civilians in a few weeks, then surely it can be done again today; but that is not what happened, as we see.

As for the intentions of the Hamas militants, they were defending ... hmm. Not sure. The right to fire rockets freely across the border into Jewish settlements, I think.

To make sure you understand me, let me add: Crime deserves trial and punishment. If Israeli troops behaved badly in Gaza, what happened in Warsaw more than half a century ago does not justify it. (And exactly the same applies to those who organize indiscriminate suicide or rocket attacks against civilians.) Things that were done to us in the past do not remove anyone's moral responsibility for what we do in the present or plan for the future.

In fact, in solving conflict, history is generally not much use. It is part of the problem more often than of the solution. As Ed Glaeser has written, the memory of past crimes, real or imagined, fuels the fear of crimes yet to be committed, and so hatred, and encourages people to feel justified in committing more crimes themselves! Usually, nothing positive can be achieved unless all sides can learn to forget a whole lot of the past. 

But history that is manipulated, or distorted, or misremembered, is worse than anything, because it adds the petrol of hatred to the fire of conflict. So, for as long as we have to have it, let's try to get the history right.


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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