It is a bloody hot summer in Gaza. And the events surrounding the killings of nearly 60 Palestinians and wounding of more than a thousand by the Israeli army on the day Israel and the Trump administration celebrated the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem are as shocking as they are of profound importance in Middle Eastern history. The one-sided nature of the encounter is illustrated by the fact that there were no casualties on the Israeli side.
Scenes of Palestinian men and women of all ages, barely armed with stones and burning tyres in a futile attempt to form a protective shield, were reminiscent of the massacres in Sharpeville and Soweto townships in apartheid South Africa in 1960 and 1976 respectively and the Jallianwala Bagh in India under British colonial rule in 1919.
These are three of the most infamous acts written in blood in history. But the truth is that when these massacres were committed, reaction was one of suppressed rage and resignation.
During the Cold War, the West viewed South Africa’s apartheid regime as a convenient bulwark against the expansion of Soviet influence. The African National Congress and its leaders were “terrorists”. In Sharpeville, the South African Police fired on a black crowd demonstrating against “pass laws” designed to control movement of people of other races. In the massacre which took place outside a police station, 69 black people were killed and nearly 300 injured.
The African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress were accused of inciting violence and were outlawed. Both organizations went on to shift from passive resistance and formed a military wing to start a low-level armed struggle against the apartheid government. Today, 21 March is commemorated as Human Rights Day in democratic South Africa.
The Soweto uprising, led by black schoolchildren, began on 16 June 1976 after the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. An estimated 20,000 students took part in demonstrations. Official figures spoke of 176 killed, but estimates of up to 700 deaths have been made. Stories of the Soweto killings are forever written in history. The Soweto massacre is commemorated on 16 June every year as Youth Day in South Africa.
The ANC remained outlawed as a terrorist organization, but its leading role in the anti-apartheid struggle was established after the Soweto uprising. Far from losing support, the ANC gained popularity among young South Africans, even though Western governments continued to shun the movement.
Immediately after the First World War nearly a century ago, a massacre ordered by Colonel Reginald Dyer, an army officer in British-ruled India, took the lives of hundreds of Indians in the city of Amritsar. It was 13 April 1919 and several thousand had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh near the Sikh Golden Temple.
The crowd began to demonstrate against the arrest and deportation of two Indian nationalist leaders. The protest, in defiance of Colonel Dyer’s order, enraged him. He ordered his troops to fire on unarmed protestors. The shooting continued until the troops had almost run out of ammunition. Official figures spoke of 379 dead and about 1,100 injured. Estimates by the Indian National Congress were of approximately 1,000 killed and 1,500 wounded. Colonel Dyer himself admitted that a total of 1,650 rounds were fired.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre is seen by historians as the beginning of an unrelenting nationalist movement. Finally, the British withdrew from India in 1947.
The carnage in Gaza resembles massacres of historic proportions like those in Sharpeville, Soweto and Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh. They took place because provocative and wilful decisions taken by powerful rulers triggered rage which brought people out. And then those very same rulers used brute force to suppress the protests.
In Gaza, the worst of the carnage was on the day the American embassy was moved to Jerusalem, the city which Palestinians regard as their capital. President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the embassy was the spark that ignited the fire.
That decision was incendiary, but only part of the crisis. Let us make no mistake about it. Gaza is a huge refugee camp of two million Palestinians living in appalling conditions within a short distance of the villages, now in Israel, from where their ancestors were expelled seventy years ago. Gaza is a cage under land, air and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt collaborating with each other since 2007. The blockade itself is an act of war.
The effects of this blockade are truly awful. Population density in Gaza is more than 13,000 per square mile. Ninety-five percent of water there is undrinkable. Electricity is available only for about four hours a day. Just under half of Gazans are unemployed. The same proportion of children suffer from anaemia and say they have no will to live. The population has no freedom of movement.
The crushing blockade and frequent Israeli attacks mean that the two million Palestinians are victims of war by an overwhelming power. And as victims they have a right of self-defence.
Not surprisingly, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights has decided to launch a war crimes inquiry into the Gaza carnage. Israel, certain of unqualified support from President Trump, insists that it will not cooperate with the inquiry. There are some who assert that Israel as a sovereign state has absolute right to use whatever force it regards as “necessary.”
The United States has already vetoed a critical resolution in the UN Security Council, where the American ambassador, Nikki Haley, made the astonishing assertion that Israel had acted with “restraint”.
As the carnage was taking place in Gaza, the new American embassy in Jerusalem was being inaugurated. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a “glorious day.” Thanking President Trump, Netanyahu said, “By recognizing history, you have made history.” And representing the United States President at the ceremony in Jerusalem, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pronounced that “those provoking violence are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
As it goes with all massacres, their justifications become more and more depraved as self-interest and hatred of others come to dominate mindset.
(Erratum: Line 1, paragraph 8, had “Second World War”. It has been corrected to read “First World War”.)