Palestinian Ghettoes: Israel's Shame

On March 16, an Israeli bulldozer killed Rachel Corrie, 23, an American standing in its way as it was bulldozing homes in the Gaza strip. A few weeks earlier, that same bulldozer had killed a nine-month pregnant Palestinian woman, Nuha Sweidan, while destroying the house next door which collapsed on her.

These deaths are just a few more in the thousands of Palestinians killed in the West Bank and Gaza in the last few years. No one has work and even basic access to food has disappeared for large portions of the population. UNICEF reports that child nutrition rates are similar in Gaza to the Congo and Zimbabwe.

On top of these deaths are the constant daily stripping of dignity from the Palestinian population. Just recently, the Israeli government announced plans to build a 25-foot wall in Bethlehem, trapping Palestinians with checkpoints between their homes and work, forcing them to either abandon their homes or face checkpoints every day.

How to describe the horrors of killings, malnutrition, checkpoints, walls that create a catacomb of divisions as Palestinians are locked into segregated communities at gunpoint? Apartheid? Incipient ethnic cleansing? Or maybe an older word many in Israel are even more familiar with …


And I mean that in the sense of the German or Warsaw Ghettos.

Watching the Oscar-nominated movie The Pianist, you can't but shrink in horror at the repetition of Israelis now step-by-step taking Palestinian autonomy away, denying them jobs, denying them access to friends and family through walls and security -- what can you think of other than the slow destruction of humanity that the Nazis inflicted on Jews in the ghettoization period?

When the Nazi comparison is made, Israel defenders mount the barricades, since the Palestinians are not being gassed in ovens. But the horrors of Nazism started much earlier, as the Jews were stripped of their humanity and autonomy long before they lost their lives.

And now the Palestinians are losing all access to work, to visit friends and families freely, to have any sense of freedom but only life under the guns and rules of an antagonistic people who literally treat them like animals penned in ghetto cages.

Yes, every time the Nazi comparison is made, people cry out against the comparison as obscene (although the same people often seem to have little trouble to the casual comparisons of Saddam Hussein to Hitler) or that other regimes are more repressive. Which is true -- next-door Syria comes to mind.

But repression tied to racism and ethnic domination has its own horror beyond mere dictatorship, for it combines loss of freedom with psychological degradation, and destroys any sense of common humanity.

I visited Syria back in 1999 and it was clear that no one could speak their mind, yet it was also obvious that people could also live their lives in some degree of common life, however restricted. I also visited the West Bank, at probably the time of maximum freedom under the Palestinian Authority before the second intifada broke out. And even then, the continual police checkpoints you had to cross felt like jolts to the soul, however mild they were then. At the full level of restraint today -- where Jews can move freely while Palestinians are caged like animals -- such a system of ghettoization violates any sense of humanity.

No, it is not Nazi Germany circa 1943.

But it has horrific parallels with Nazi Germany circa 1938.

Those who can defend Israeli on that basis should be ashamed.

And before anyone points to the violence of Palestinian suicide bombers, the idea that somehow violent resistance by Jews against their ghettoization would have made the Nazi acts acceptable hardly rings true. Turkey justifies the Armenia genocide of 1915 on the basis of the violence of the Armenians resisting Turkish repression, as they do today with the Kurds. The United States justified its genocide against Native Americans on the basis of their violent resistance, which also targeted many innocent civilians.

And I make these comparisons to highlight what I am not saying. I would never say that Israelis are uniquely evil, only that they have backed themselves into a horrific policy, much as many other nations have, step by step, accepted the dehumanization of another people for reasons that seemed so acceptable at the time. Focusing on Hitler misses the point -- the issue is how a people -- German, American, Israeli -- can accept policies that violate every sense of decency against another people, no matter how logical or necessary it seemed at the time, whatever justification was offered by its government at the time.

The sad fact is how easy it has been in history, repeatedly, for this kind of degradation to happen and how easy many people find it to justify it at the time.

What pains me most is that when I was in Israel and the West Bank in 1999, it was so clear that both Jews and Palestinians I met wanted peace, yet they could not quite pull away from destruction, as the Israelis kept building settlement walls throughout the Oslo process, constricting the potential movement of the Palestinians even as they promised freedom. And eventually, the reality of walls overrode the promises of freedom, and the second Intifada broke out.

And yet the Israelis continue to believe that walls and ghettos for the Palestinians are the solution, not the problem driving death and resistance.

The sad fact is that walls are quite good at imprisoning and destroying the soul and humanity of Palestinians, but seem remarkably incapable of restraining the bodies of suicide bombers that are the result of that dehumanization.

I want an Israel that survives, but the present course by the Israeli government is as sure a route to suicide, both spiritually and physically, as I can imagine.

As we attack one country, Iraq, for violations of human rights and violating international law, we have to ask why Israel is not under similar condemnation by the United States government for its oppression of the Palestinians.

Nathan Newman is a labor lawyer, longtime community activist, and author of the just published book Net Loss [Penn State Press] on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see

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