Archive | Crimes against Humanity RSS feed for this section

Is Genocide a Controversial International Crime?

30 Jul

Why ‘Genocide’ is still a Controversial Crime?

 

In this strikingly original, strange, and brilliant book, Philippe Sands raises a haunting question among a tangle of other intriguing issues discussed throughout East-West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity (New York: Knopf, 2016). It is at once a plural biography (with a bit of autobiography thrown in), a jurisprudential fairy tale, and a searing account of the horrifying impact that vicious Nazi policies had on the lives of the author’s family members as well on those of his human rights heroes. The haunting question is this: was it a wise and practical decision to keep the crime of genocide from being part of the international criminal law framework used to assess the individual accountability of surviving Nazi political and military leaders, and then subsequently in dealing with past and present mass atrocities?

 

Reflecting my own interest over the years in the use and misuse of the language of genocide, I found this to be the most provocative and enduring dimension of this multiply fascinating book in which Sands exhibits his versatility as jurist, legal practitioner, investigative journalist, and amateur historian of the Holocaust as it victimized one small region in contemporary Poland that happened to be the birthplace of his grandfather as well as two of the most renowned contributors to the development of international criminal law of the past century. The book’s title is obscure until we readers discover that East-West Street runs the length of the small town in contemporary Poland where these three families originated, and resided, until the momentous events of the 1930s forced them to seek refuge by moving Westwards.

 

East-West Street can be read from many different angles, divided into no less than 158 short chapters besides a prologue that explains how such an unusual literary/intellectual journey got its accidental start with a lecture invitation to the author and an epilogue that attempts to summarize the juridical interplay between the two prime architects of core international crimes (Sir Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin) and the crimes themselves (crimes against humanity and genocide). What creates the dramatic tension in Sands’ treatment of this interplay is the contrast between a jurisprudential logic that focuses on crimes committed against individuals as contrasted with a competing logic that emphasizes crimes against groups. Also at play for Sands are the contrasting personalities and legal approaches of Lauterpacht, the cool, pragmatic, revered professorial insider, and Lemkin, the emotionally driven, obsessive outsider who dedicated his adult life to lobbying governments to support genocide as a crime, and somehow managed to get results.

 

In the background of this titanic struggle of ideas, were the personal stories of the individuals involved, which, in effect, provided the private motivations for such influential public acts. An extraordinary coincidence that Sands puts to excellent literary use arises from the simple fact that both Lauterpacht and Lemkin were connected in their early lives and studies with a small town, variously named, that changed hands eight times between 1914 and 1945, being governed at different times by Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. Its most durable name during the period covered in the book is Lemberg, although it is today known by its Polish name, Lviv. What strains credibility almost to the breaking point is that Sands’ own grandfather, Leon Bucholz, also was born in Lemberg, and it is around the lives of these three men of the law that Sands weaves a complex narrative structure that is surprisingly readable. Much of the book is devoted, with passionate attention to the minutest detail, to how their personal lives and sensibilities were shaped by their departure from the Lemberg before it fell under Nazi occupation, and by the pain associated with the wrenching reality of losing contact with their families left behind. Only belatedly, years later did they each discover the ghastly experiences of lethal victimization experienced by family members after the Nazis took over what had then been Polish sovereign territory. It was striking that only silence could accord dignity to occurrences that were evidently experienced as unspeakable, paralyzing a sensitive moral imagination.

 

Against such a background it is to be expected that the book examines closely the person and behavior of Hans Frank, one of the 21 Nazis prosecuted at Nuremberg, who served as the cruel and devoted Governor General of Poland during the war years when the country fell under German occupation, and became the most notorious killing field of the Nazi era. It is also highly relevant that the three men whose lives and careers are the focal point of the narrative, given further reality by interspersed family pictures and documents, were Jewish, although none with any pronounced religious commitment. Yet their lives and careers were multiply determined by this Jewish identity, and what this meant during a period of unprecedented mass persecution and extermination. This interest in Frank is reinforced by Sands’ extraordinary collaboration with Franks’ son, Niklas, with whom he visits the Nuremberg courtroom where 68 years earlier a death sentence had been imposed on his father. Not to be content with the involvement of Niklas, Sands’ also persuades Horst, son of Otto von Wächter, who administered for Nazi rulers an area that included Lemberg, and had earlier been a classmate of Lauterpacht in the law school of the local university, to assist in the reconstruction of the events. These intergenerational connections led Sands to write the screenplay and perform in a documentary film, My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, which had its 2015 premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and won recognition and awards.

 

Such an attempt at reliving of these historical events illustrates the contrasting adjustments to the present, with Niklas feeling that his father fully deserved the punishment he received at Nuremberg, while Horst exhibits a morbid pride, remembering his father’s prominence without any sign of shame or even regrets about his father’s role in carrying out the evil policies of the Nazi occupiers. Philippe Sands positions himself both within and without this apocalyptic past, trying to pull the pieces together in a coherent multi-dimensional account without losing contact with his own personal engagement in this overwhelming family tragedy.

 

Putting to one side the intriguing biographical and autobiographical levels of Sands’ construction of these various lives, I wish to concentrate my observations on the legal legacies associated with Lauterpacht and Lemkin,

depicted with such vividness throughout the book, reaching their climax at Nuremberg. As Sands observes, crimes against humanity (CAH) and genocide were both radical and innovative juridical ideas seeking to criminalize Nazi atrocities. CAH focused on protecting the individual against the criminality of any state including one’s own, while genocide was conceived to criminalize the mass killing of identifiably distinct ethnic or religious groups. Lauterpacht more or less invented CAH with the intention of repudiating the impunity that traditionally attached to wrongdoing by a sovereign government against individuals subject to its territorial jurisdiction and thus insulating those who acted on behalf of the state from any kind of personal accountability. CAH mounted a legal challenge directed at unconditional territorial sovereignty and the prevalence of absolute monarchy, which had long dominated the state-centric world order established in Europe by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Such impunity continued to be a feature of nationalist ideology despite the French Revolution and the emergence of democratic constitutionalism. The numerous subsequent efforts to make governments internally accountable for their acts through law and a variety of constitutional procedures, including elections, did not extend to external behavior. What made CAH such a radical step forward was this insistence on some measure of external or international accountability by means of law.

 

Lemkin, on his side, invented the crime of genocide, including even the word, almost all by himself. He was guided by the unwavering belief that criminalizing the kind of racialist policies put into practice by Nazi Germany was urgently necessary to save civilization from the recurrence of barbarism. It seems that Lemkin was initially disposed to criminalize such behavior by his shocked reaction to the mass killing in Turkey of Armenians in 1915, and the absence of any punitive international response embedded in international law. He believed fervently that the deadly political virus giving rise to such collective behavior was a distinct form of criminality that should never be conflated with a series of separate criminal acts, however severe, that were directed at individuals.

 

I would have thought that there was every reason to support both forms of criminality in reaction to the Nazi experience, and to a certain extent, so does Sands. The main technical obstacle, only superficially discussed by Sands, to the prosecution of these crimes at Nuremberg was the prohibition against retroactive applications of criminal laws. In fact, the Nuremberg Judgment devoted considerable energy to demonstrate its respect for the prohibition, endorsing CAH only if the acts in question could be connected with the onset of the war in 1939; in other words, from 1933 to 1939, the early years of the Nazi regime, the wrongdoing of those acting on behalf of the German government continued to be internationally shielded by impunity. Subsequently, the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Nuremberg Principles, ratified now by more than a half century of state practice gives CAH the status of obligatory norms under customary international law, no longer necessarily linked to aggressive war. More than this, these Principles have come to be regarded as ‘peremptory norms’ or simply jus cogens, that cannot be altered by governmental action, and can be changed only through their replacement by another peremptory norm.

 

Genocide has had a somewhat similar intellectual voyage after being sidelined at Nuremberg to Lemkin’s great disappointment. His personal crusade to achieve the inclusion of genocide among the crimes charged against the Nazis failed. Undeterred by this setback, Lemkin’s unwavering perseverance after Nuremberg was soon rewarded. The Genocide Convention came into force in 1950, and as Sands observes, almost instantly genocide became the ‘crime of crimes,’ the most stigmatizing form of criminality whose commission results in a permanent tainting of the national character of a sovereign state found to have been guilty of genocide. There have been various allegations of genocide over the decades, with Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda being among the most notorious instances.

 

Sands situates himself not quite equidistant in relation to these two jurisprudential giants. His own academic life and personal associations disposed him to side with Lauterpacht, celebrating his success in introducing CAH into the fabric of the Nuremberg experience and from there, to become a critical norm in the emergence of international criminal law, and a featured crime embedded in the Rome Statute that creates the legal framework for the International Criminal Court. Sands is unabashedly appreciative, even awed, believinging that Lauterpacht was recognized as “the outstanding legal mind of the twentieth century, and a father of the modern human rights movement.” [loc. 254] Lauterpacht, as an influential Cambridge professor later elected to the International Court of Justice became a member of the British establishment, and was professionally admired for his prodigious output as a scholar that showcased his committed, yet cautious approach to the development of international law. For Lauterpacht this development to be authentic had to arise from the practice of sovereign states. He had a keen appreciation of the limits of what was politically feasible and legally appropriate, and was respectful toward patterns of statecraft, possibly reflecting his exposure while a student to the great Austrian formalist and positivist, Hans Kelsen. In a book built around the organic links between the personal and public, it is hardly surprising that Sands turns out to have been a student at Cambridge and that Eli Lauterpacht, the jurist son of Hersch, was his teacher and a collaborating source of information about his famous father. This contributes one more instance of Sands’ interest in fathers and sons. Unfortunately, for his scheme of things, Lemkin never married and had no sons.

 

The older Lauterpacht was openly skeptical of genocide, viewing it as ‘impractical,’ even an impediment to the realistic development of international law. Sands is never fully clear as to why a crime that seemed to depict the very essence of the Nazi victimization of Jews and others, should have been put aside on grounds of practicality in the lead up to the Nuremberg proceedings. He does mention in passing American and British reluctance to put such a crime into the indictment at Nuremberg was related to the rattle of skeletons in their respective historical closets: the systematic decimation of native Americans and a variety of British colonial practices. According to Sands, “Lauterpacht never embraced the idea of genocide. To the end of his life, he was dismissive, both of the subject, and more politely, of the man who concocted it, even if he recognized the aspirational quality.” [loc.6700] Sands does refer to the problematic aspects of genocide in various places—especially a lawyer’s difficulty of finding strong enough evidence of the appropriate criminal intent to convince a court of law, considering that those engaged in genocide rarely leave a paper trail that satisfies those sitting in judgment and aware that to obtain a guilty verdict in responses to genocide is an indirect punishment of a nation and its people as well as of the individuals charged.

 

In this regard, despite the crime of genocide not being part of the formal proceedings at Nuremberg, Germany has been convicted of ‘genocide’ in the court of public opinion, and Germans whatever their relationship to the Nazi experience seem destined to live perpetually under this dark cloud. As many have observed, and I have experienced, this deep German consciousness of historic guilt explains an excessive deference to the policies of the state of Israel and the related fear that any criticism of Israeli behavior, however justified, will be perceived as anti-Semitism. In this respect, there is a real objection to the formal and informal allegations of genocide because it imposes guilt not only on individuals who acted for the state but on the nation as a whole. There is a related issue, not raised by Sands, of the degree of complicity with Nazism that it is fair to attribute to the German people as a whole, and whether this complicity should cast its shadow over future generations.

 

I have had an interest in the embittered standoff between the Armenian diaspora and Turkey over the redress of historic grievances relating to the tragic events of 2015. To resolve this standoff depends exclusively on the willingness of Turkey to issue a formal acknowledgement that the wrongs endured more than a century ago by the Armenian people constituted genocide. No lesser form of apology by Turkey even if accompanied by initiatives that keep historical memories alive via a museum, educational materials, and commemorative events will overcome this Armenian insistence, supported by many Western governments, that Turkey admit genocide. Sands appears sympathetic with the difficulty posed by this apparent fetishization of genocide, writing, “[i]t was no surprise that an editorial in a leading newspaper, on the occasion of the centenary against Armenians, suggested that the word ‘genocide’ may be unhelpful, because it ‘stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs.’” [loc. 6618]

 

Questioning the Armenian insistence on genocide has become political incorrect even though the crime was unknown in 1915 when the offending behavior took place and the modern state of Turkey did not then exist as it only came into existence in 1923. Of course, such legalistic considerations will never resolve the controversy as what is deeply at stake is the way historical memories should be inscribed on political consciousness of both victim and perpetrator societies, as well as in authoritative public accounts. It is plausible to admit that what happened a hundred years would have qualified as the crime of genocide if it took place after 1950. The case is further complicated because many Turks continue to subscribe to a historical narrative that claims that the massacres resulted from excessive uses of force in a wartime situation in which Armenians were seen to be a subversive presence siding with the Russian adversaries of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and included occasions on which Turks were also slaughtered. This counter-narrative complicates any acknowledgement by the Turkish government of genocide as it would agitate the volatile ultra-nationalist sentiments that dominate the extreme right in the country.  

 

It is understandable from Armenian perspectives that only an admission of ‘genocide’ is capable of encompassing the magnitude of the wrongs suffered by the Armenian people. There is no other word with comparable stigmatizing power. It was this stigmatizing power that led to Bill Clinton in 1994, while president of the United States, to issue his notorious order that the word ‘genocide’ should not be used by government employees with reference to the massive killing taking place in Rwanda. Clinton evidently feared that the mobilizing effect of labeling these events as genocide would exert unwanted pressure on the United States to intervene to stop the killing.

 

This is the meeting point of the genius of Lemkin, and the worldliness of Lautherpacht, with Sands sensitive to the virtues and limitations of both viewpoints although leaning toward the Lauterpacht approach. Of course, the German guilt is quite different in its essentials from the Turkish reality. A Turkish admission of genocide, should it ever be made, would not be internalized in the manner forced upon Germany by the denazification program implemented by the victors after World War II. It is relevant to realize that Armenian genocide did not emanate from an extremist racialism that was so closely connected with Hitler’s rise to power based on virulent anti-Semitism.

 

In one sense Lemkin has been too successful. In his insistence that what the Nazis were doing to Jews, and other peoples, was a crime against the group, he unwittingly succeeded in elevating genocide above crimes against humanity, and thereby weakened Lauterpacht’s interest in promoting international accountability for crimes without undermining peace among states. There are other concerns. If genocide if read backward into history, as in the Armenian case, it opens a Pandora’s Box that intensifies numerous bitter memories of the past, reopens wounds, and seems to unduly burden present generations with a legacy of criminality that was the work of those no longer alive. What is worse, the Holocaust as the context in which the crime was formalized operates as a standard of comparison, the crime of crimes that lies behind the legal conceptualization, which discourages its acknowledgement by political entities that might be ready to issue an apology but not to suggest that in their national past is an experience that deserves to be treated as comparably reprehensible to what Jews, and not only Jews, suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

 

Given a world of states, maybe Lauterpacht after all adopted the more tenable position. Perhaps the most that can be hoped for is an international criminal law framework that prosecutes, as appropriate, individuals, and leaves the chronicling of group crime to historians, novelists, and filmmakers. Even here there are problems not faced by Lauterpacht or Sands that relate to the hierarchical character of world order that makes any serious application of international criminal law more a creature of geopolitics than an expression of the rule of law or a tenet of global justice.

 

Sands while right to be proud of his own role as revered litigator of international crimes adopts a more questionable position by downplaying the relevance of geopolitics. In a notable passage about the objection to Nuremberg as ‘victors’ justice’ he writes, “[y]es, there was a strong whiff of ‘victor’s [sic] justice,’ [at Nuremberg] but there was no doubting that the case was catalytic, opening the possibility that the leaders of a country could be put on trial before an international court, something that had never happened before. [loc. 288] A whiff! [for those unfamiliar with ‘whiff’ its dictionary definition is this: “a brief passing odor in the air as in ‘a whiff of perfume’ or “a very small trace as in ‘a whiff of self-pity in her remarks’] Looking at the impunity conferred by the Nuremberg framework on the indiscriminate, terror bombing of German cities [recall Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five], not to mention the fire bombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the victors’ dimension could not be convincingly marginalized from the overall legal proceedings. It was certainly more consequential than even ‘a strong whiff’! Even the American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, who is portrayed by Sands quite reasonably as the most influential presence at Nuremberg, understood that the moral validity of the decision rendered was precarious, and needed future vindication by being integrated into an international law framework that bound all states, winners and losers, strong and weak. That this never happened deserves commentary that Sands fails to provide.

 

Instead, Sands reminds us that there has been much follow up to Nuremberg that supports his assessment of its catalytic impact. He cites his own extensive experience with both categories of criminality in cases involving Serbia, Croatia, Libya, United States, Rwanda, Argentina, Chile, Israel and Palestine, United Kingdom, Yemen, Iran, Iran, Iran, Iraq, and Syria as if the mere listing proves his point. [loc. 6607] I believe Sands’ impressive legal activism only shifts the focus. True, there has been a robust development of human rights and international criminal law, especially after the end of the Cold War, but this has obscured rather than overcome this fundamental flaw. The integrity of the rule of law as an operative global system, depends crucially on treating equals equally, and this has never happened, nor will it happen without a sea change in world politics. As African countries have been pointing out with plausibility, criminal accountability for both CAH and genocide is limited to weak states and losing sides in wars, and impunity remains for the strong and winners. We will long be waiting for the likes of George W. Bush or Tony Blair being called to account for their role in embarking on a disastrous aggressive war against Iraq in 2003.

 

True, introducing these categories of criminality into the legal vocabulary gave a valuable normative tool to civil society, first effectively utilized by the much maligned Russell Tribunal in the midst of the Vietnam War and more recently by the Iraq War Tribunal of 2005 that addressed crimes associated with the Iraq War. Yet civil society has only public opinion at its disposal, and even here, is hampered by the statist orientation of most media outlets that demean such civil society initiatives as illegitimate intrusions on the public sphere reserved exclusively for governments representing sovereign states. At best, these civil society tribunals that pass judgment on the behavior of geopolitical actors are expressions of a moral consciousness that acts as if these norms of international criminal law should be universally regulative rather than selectively applied.

 

Sands, along with Lauterpacht and Lemkin, share the liberal conviction that law is an autonomous force for the good in human affairs (unless deformed in its application as by the Nazis). Their sense of practicalities appears to be a willingness to overlook geopolitical constraints, and to take what incremental steps are made available by circumstances with the hope and expectation that over time the growth of law and legal institutions will overcome the present arbitrariness of practice. In the meantime, the liberal test of validity is a matter of procedural assurances that trials are fair and that those who are convicted are guilty of heinous acts that deserve to be punished. The related fact that some are too powerful to be accountable is a fact of life that it is best not to think too much about. Along with far more notable public intellectuals (e.g. Russell, Sartre, Chomsky, Edward Said) I dissent from this liberal optimism/opportunism, believing that the conscience of engaged citizens is an indispensable challenge to all political systems, (talking truth to power) rather than limiting constructive contributions by acting within it. At the same time, I would not judge liberal icons, such as Sands and Lauterpacht, who have made a political choice opposite to mine.

 

In the course of this essay I have ignored other significant publications by Sands, most particularly his prior relevant and important book, Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules (2005), a well-reasoned and documented critique of the approach to international law taken by the neoconservative presidency of George W. Bush, especially with respect to the Iraq War, but also in reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Although valuing this contribution to the policy debate that occurred during that period, it is fully consistent with the liberal orientation, which is often to oppose American and British foreign policy undertakings, especially if they happen to be unsuccessful and are peripheral to national or strategic interests, and depend upon unilateral aggressive uses of force not authorized by the UN Security Council. In this vein the recently released massive Chilcot Report evaluating British involvement in the Iraq War follows a parallel liberal line, condemning any decision to go to war except on the basis of adequate advance planning and the buildup of public support, but sidestepping the question of whether it was also mandatory on Britain to comply with international law and the UN Charter. Despite the 2.3 million words of the report there is no where a hint about Blair’s potential personal responsibility if international criminal law were to be properly applied.

 

As expressed at the beginning, despite these differences, I greatly admire the author, and applaud Sands’ dazzling performance. Among other qualities, Sands displays an incredible willingness to go to great lengths to get the details correct. He tracks down addresses, relatives, obscure documents and pictures to piece together a riveting narrative of these three lives, and their families, coping with one of the most extreme collective traumas of all time. As said, this book can and should be widely read from many perspectives, and the psycho-politics of the jurisprudence it imparts is the one that happens to interest me most, but it is only one of several strands in this exceptionally rich tapestry, and each one deserves similar detailed commentary.

Advertisements

A Gaza Centric History of Palestine: Past, Present, and Future

24 Sep

 

 

[Prefatory Note: The review below was initially published in the Journal of the Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World (SCITIW REVIEW). http://sctiw.org/sctiwreviewarchives/archives/74 It is one of three remarkable books dealing with Gaza that I read this past summer. The other two are Mohammed Omer’s Shell Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault (2015) (see my July 8, 2015 post, “Wartime Journalism: Mohammed Omer on Gaza”) and Max Blumenthal’s The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015). Both of these books are accounts of the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza by normatively engaged journalists. Omer giving an insider account that stresses the day by day experience of those exposed to such an onslaught that allows one to almost feel the excruciating pain, fear, and loss that Gazans felt during the attacks. Blumenthal also gives readers the benefit of his presence in Gaza and exposure to its courageous population, but he also includes valuable interpretative material. Their normative engagement is evident from their empathy with the Gaza ordeal of the Palestinians and understandable antipathy to Israel’s tactics and overall behavior. While discarding the liberal posture of neutrality, this high quality journalism under the most difficult and dangerous conditions in the sense of conveying the unfolding reality of important events in ways that deepen awareness and understanding beyond what mainstream media reports.

What makes Filiu’s book so important, beyond its extraordinary historical depth that allows readers to better grasp the tragedy that has befallen the Gazan people, is its persuasive insistence of the centrality played by Gaza throughout the experience of Palestinian resistance to Israeli dispossession and annexation, including the originality of the uprising known as the first intifada in 1987, and even more so an insistence that the Gaza holds the key to any kind of sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine. This is a striking view, given the extent to which both Israel and the world treat Ramallah and the Palestinian Authority as central, and Gaza as marginal if not altogether dispensable in the context of diplomatic negotiations and the outcome of the conflict.]

A Gaza-Centric View of the Palestine National Movement

 

Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gaza: A History, trans. John King, Oxford University Press, 2014, 440 pp., $29.95 US (hbk), ISBN 9780190201890.

The distinguished French historian, Jean-Pierre Filiu has produced a magisterial overview that recounts the ebb and flow of Gaza’s fortunes from ancient times up through the present. Although a member of the faculty of Sciences Po in Paris, Filiu is not a typical academic historian, having earlier served as a diplomat in Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia, published two novels, and even written popular songs, including one devoted to Gaza. Filiu’s pedigree training and scholarly contribution have earned him a deserved reputation as one of the world’s leading Arabists, and someone particularly expert on political trends in contemporary Islam. He has published several well-regarded books on the Middle East including The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising (2011) and From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadist Legacy (2015). The latter book poses the haunting question as to whether the political destiny of the peoples in the Middle East is to remain entrapped in the ongoing struggle between tyrannical leaders and Muslim fanatics. More than most commentators on the regional developments, Filiu perceptively realized that the democratizing hopes of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 would be short lived, and likely would be soon overwhelmed by a variety of counterrevolutionary forces intent on restoring an authoritarian status quo ante, however high the costs of doing so. The main motive of these counterrevolutionary elites was to avoid the twin fates of secular democracy and radical Islam.

Filiu’s authoritative treatment of Gaza starts with a useful background summary of its role as a trading center in the ancient world of the Middle East with a past traced back to the Hyksos people of the eighteenth century BCE. Readers are helpfully informed that Gaza, situated between Sinai and Negev Deserts and the Mediterranean Sea, became a major site of struggle for warring neighbors over the long arc of history, including Egyptian pharaohs, Persian kings, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Mamluks, Crusaders, and Ottomans. Filiu emphasizes the rivalry between Baghdad and Cairo with respect to Gaza as contributing to the frequent changes of fortune confronted by the city and region. A second chapter is informative about the generally unappreciated relationship of Gaza to hallowed figures in Islamic tradition. For instance, one principal mosque in Gaza is built to honor the memory of the great grandfather of the Prophet and another is dedicated to one of Muhammad’s close followers who accompanied him on his sacred journey from Mecca to Medina. Both of these men were prosperous traders who brought caravans of goods from Arabia for sale in

September 22, 2015

2

the markets of Gaza. After presenting this early history, Filiu devotes the remainder of Gaza to Gaza’s experience in the continuing struggle over Palestine’s future that began in a serious way with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the British Mandate established after World War I under the auspices of the League of Nations lasting until 1947 when Britain turned over responsibility for Gaza’s future to the United Nations.

The remaining fifteen chapters of Gaza narrate the tortured and tormented experience of Gaza, the scene of many dreams of liberation and peace, but also a place of frequent carnage and a continuing ordeal of massive suffering. Gaza, which covers 140 square miles, the size of several middle sized American cities, still plays a central role in the unfolding Israel/Palestine conflict. In this fundamental respect, Gaza is a detailed historical narrative of past and present, which also underscores the totally unresolved future of Palestine as a whole, leaving readers free to contemplate Gaza’s future through the sophisticated optic that Filiu provides.

Filiu has produced, in a manner that I find extraordinary, a study of Gaza’s history over this incredible sweep of time that manages to exhibit at each phase of the narrative an astonishing mastery of detail. Filiu presents us with the dizzying interplay of dominant personalities interweaved with accurate depictions of the many defining incidents that give substance to the complex history and experience of Gaza. Such a tours de force of scholarly achievement does not make for easy reading given the density of the material. As a whole, Gaza is somewhat overwhelming in its cumulative impact as a result of its long succession of unfamiliar names and recitation of one detail after another that are difficult for a normal reader to keep in mind. At the same time, beyond the weight of Filiu’s facticity is a wealth of interpretative knowledge that imparts an unprecedented understanding of the contemporary experience of Gaza and the part it has played for both Israelis and Palestinians in the unfolding conflict.

Despite this challenge posed by this seeming surfeit of names and events, a kind of pre- digital example of information overload, Filiu facilitates comprehension of the main narrative motifs by framing his central interpretative analysis through reference to illuminating conceptual themes. He proceeds chronologically assessing the unfolding Palestinian ordeal in three clusters of four chapters each: “1947-1967: The Generation of Mourning,” “1967-1987: The Generation of Dispossession,” “1987-2007: The Generation of the Intifadas.” The book concludes with a final chapter entitled “The Generation of the Impasse?” as if the currently blocked situation in the underlying conflict between Israel and Palestine that has dominated the lives of the Gazan people for several generations seems likely to continue to be their fate for the indefinite future. Filiu ever so slightly lightens this gloomy prospect by putting a question mark at the end of the chapter title, perhaps acknowledging that not even a master historian should pretend to foretell Gaza’s future with confidence or indicate with confidence hopes and fears that the impasse will be broken at some point.

With this framework Filiu brilliantly portrays the Palestinian ordeal as it has tragically played out during the 67 plus years since Israel came into existence as a sovereign state. There is no attempt by Filiu to write this contemporary history of Gaza from a detached point of view, that is, by suspending empathetic feelings and ethical judgments. The tone of the narrative and the spirit of Filiu’s personal engagement with the Palestinian tragedy is clearly conveyed on the dedication page: “To the memory of the thousands of anonymous who died in Gaza before their time though they had a life to live en famille and in peace.” In effect, without sparing Palestinians and their leaders harsh criticism for failures of competence in the course of his narrative, including their embrace of brutality and

corruption, Filiu laments Palestinian victimization and decries Israeli oppression. With such a perspective it is not surprising that Filiu is generally sympathetic with Palestinian resistance activities over the years.

In discussing partition, the plan proposed by the UN General Assembly to overcome the tensions between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Filiu makes clear that the Zionist movement was pushing the British hard to endorse such a division during the latter stages of the mandatory period. For Zionist leaders partition seemed at the time the only available path leading to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, thereby achieving the basic Zionist project in accord with the Balfour undertaking. In angry contrast, the most representative Arab voices in Palestine were early united in their fervent opposition to partition ever since it began to be seriously considered by the British government, increasingly aware of rising tensions between the resident Arab population of Palestine and the successive waves of Jewish immigration. Already in 1937 Fahmi al-Husseini, the mayor of Gaza, warned British authorities against partition and any related attempt to promote the emergence of Jewish statehood. Filiu quotes al-Husseini to illustrate this depth of opposition: “It would be better for the British government to consign the inhabitants of Palestine to death and destruction, or even to envelop them in poison gas, than to inflict upon them any such plan” (46). As we know, such Palestinian wishes were ignored not only by the British, but also by the organized international community acting under the auspices of the United Nations. In response to the mounting tension in Palestine between Jews and Arabs, Britain went ahead and proposed partition, which was consistent with their typical colonial endgame and legacy in many other parts of their collapsing empire (for instance, Ireland, India, Malaya, and Cyprus). When the UN in 1947 did finally propose partition in General Assembly Resolution 181, the British surprisingly abstained, perhaps feeling that there was nothing to be gained at that point by further antagonizing the Arab world, especially given the persistence of British interests in the region, epitomized by the retention of the Suez Canal.

The focus on the complex dialectics of victimization and resistance in Gaza is at the core of Filiu’s interpretative standpoint. This emphasis likely represents the most enduring contribution of the book to our appreciation of both the scholarship and policy relevance of the Gaza Strip to the overall story of the Israel/Palestine struggle. What Filiu does convincingly is to challenge the mainstream view that Gaza is but an ugly sideshow of the main Palestinian dramas, generally regarded by both sides to be the West Bank and Jerusalem. Of course, the centrality of Gaza’s victimization has become internationally recognized, especially after the imposition of a blockade in 2007 when Hamas took over the government in Gaza and during the last seven years when Israel launched savage attacks in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014 that eroded the carefully orchestrated public image of Israel as a benevolent political actor. What Filiu significantly adds to this image of Gazan victimization is the understanding that the broader movement of Palestinian national resistance has been centered in Gaza since the onset of the conflict with the Zionist project, and that this pattern of resistance continues in Gaza more than elsewhere in Palestine despite the severe and prolonged forms of collective punishment imposed by Israel on the Strip over the course of decades.

Even more challenging is Filiu’s controversial insistence that a sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine can only be achieved if Gaza will be accorded a decisive role in the process. Filiu underscores this belief in his drastic revision of thinking surrounding the peace process in the closing sentences of Gaza: “It is in Gaza that the foundations of a durable peace should be laid…The Gaza Strip, the womb of the fedayin and the cradle of the

3

4

intifada, lies at the heart of the nation-building of contemporary Palestine. It is vain to imagine that a territory so replete with foundational experiences can be ignored or marginalized. Peace between Israel and Palestine can assume neither meaning nor substance except in Gaza, which will be both the foundation and the keystone” (340).

Filiu’s view of a peaceful solution challenges the view of most Israelis that Gaza, without figuring in Israeli biblical claims, and containing 1.8 million Palestinians hostile to Israel’s very existence, has no place in Israel’s conception of its own final borders or of an acceptable outcome of the conflict. Israelis generally regard Gaza as nothing more than a bargaining chip in any future peace negotiations. From Israel’s perspective Gaza is the one unwanted part of occupied Palestine (in sharp contrast, with Jerusalem and the West Bank), an assessment provisionally expressed by Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, which involved the withdrawal of IDF forces and the removal of Israeli settlers in a plan conceived and implemented by the Israeli hardline leader Ariel Sharon. Gaza continues to be viewed as a threat to Israeli security if ever allowed to become consolidated with the West Bank in a future Palestinian state and is viewed as a threat to Israel’s ethnocratic and democratic claims if incorporated into a single Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine.

With respect to Gaza, Israelis seem now to prefer either retaining control over a subjugated and devastated Gaza or inducing Egypt to resume responsibility for administering Gaza. The Egyptian government has made clear its unwillingness to accept responsibility for governing Gaza, which makes the unfortunate present situation the most likely scenario for the foreseeable future. In this sense, the whole burden of Filiu’s assessment is at odds with the manner in which Washington framed the “peace process,” which, as might be expected, seems based on an acceptance of Israel’s view of the marginality of Gaza with respect to the final resolution of the conflict.

Filiu’s mode of highlighting Gaza also challenges the views of the Palestinian Authority, with its capital in Ramallah, that gives its highest priority to ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, getting rid of as many Israeli settlements as possible. The Palestinian Authority seems to care little about the fate of Gaza, especially since Gaza fell under the control of Hamas in 2007, although its formal position continues to include Gaza as an integral part of a Palestinian state.

In this respect, Filiu’s Gaza-centric interpretation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine is by far the most original and controversial part of his historical account. It rests on a carefully documented narrative of Gaza’s role as the true center of Palestinian resistance and resilience throughout more than six decades of struggle. As Filiu mentions, the most perceptive of Israeli leaders, notably David Ben-Gurion, were nervous about the developing situation in Gaza from the earliest period of Israel’s existence, especially as Gaza became the default option for many Palestinians displaced during the nakba, the occasions of massive expulsion and dispossession that caused so many Palestinians to be driven from their homes, and to seek sanctuary in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighboring Arab countries. In Filiu’s view, throughout the war that produced the establishment of Israel as a sovereign state, “…Israeli units were systematically driving the Arab population out of the combat zone even when their villages offered no resistance to the advance of the Zionists” (62). The sadness and desolation of dispossession resulted in Gaza becoming early in the conflict dominated and radicalized by refugees and their profoundly alienating experiences. In the late 1940s Palestinian refugees amounted to more than 75% of Gaza’s total population.

The large refugee camps spread throughout tiny Gaza became focal points of ferment and eventually resistance, taking the initial form of the fedayin insurgent activities from the

1950s on. It was the fedayin fighters that found ways to penetrate Israel and inflict casualties particularly on soldiers and police, and later, on Israeli settlers in Gaza. This type of armed struggle inevitably prompted Israeli reprisal raids that were from their outset deliberately disproportionate. As Filiu observes, “[i]t was in Gaza that the fedayin were moulded, and the Hebrew State would soon make Gaza pay for it dearly” (94). This prediction was fulfilled in 1956, Egypt being displaced from Gaza, and Israel occupying the Strip for four months as an aspect of the Suez War, with accompanying massacres of Palestinian civilians being carried out by the Israeli military prior to a UN protective force being inserted to monitor the border. Filiu asks this provocative question: “Is there any doubt that the history of Gaza would have taken a different turn had a Palestinian entity been established there, under UN protection, in defiance of Israel, while maintaining special ties with Egypt” (105-106)? Although Filiu seems to have meant the question to be rhetorical, I am skeptical of any supposition that Gaza might have been spared Israeli fury even if the UN had agreed to sponsor and protect Gazan self-determination and sovereignty within the less crystalized climate of opinion in 1956. The political will to confront Israel has never existed on a global level or within the United Nations except to the extent of adopting a public discourse sharply challenging Israel’s policies and practices that is reinforced by periodic censure moves that were generally softened or opposed by the West.

As dramatic as the fedayin phenomenon, the outbreak of the intifada in 1987 that witnessed an unexpected mobilization of Palestinian civil society in Gaza, later spreading to the West Bank, challenged Israel’s capacity to maintain order in occupied Palestine. As Filiu persuasively argues, it was the fedayin and intifada that finally lent credibility and inspiration to the Palestinian national struggle, somewhat overcoming the humiliating failure of the pathetic international efforts by neighboring Arab states to challenge the existence of Israel. The failure of these several regional wars, culminating in the disastrous Arab defeat in the 1967 War, which greatly expanded Israel’s territorial identity, resulted in a second and permanent occupation of Gaza, with the war having the geopolitical effect of transforming Israel in American strategic thinking from being a heavy burden on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to becoming a major strategic asset. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, “the rest is history.”

Filiu gives a fascinating portrayal of the rise of Islamism in Gaza, including a depiction of the charismatic leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by an Israeli missile in 2004. What Filiu’s discussion shows it that the early Islamic efforts in Gaza, inspired by and derivative of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, were devoted on principle to resistance activities within the law, focusing on a long range view of liberation by way of family values and education. It was only as a result of Israeli oppression in Gaza and a growing rivalry for popular allegiance with the secular coalition, the Palestine Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, that led to the formation of the militant Hamas, and with this development, to extreme violence, highlighted by suicide bombing attacks within Israel in the late 1990s, often directed at the civilian population. Israel, at first, actually encouraged the political emergence of Islam, supposing that it would weaken what was perceived to be its principal adversary, the PLO, but as time passed, and Hamas tactics shifted to suicidal violence, Israel treated Hamas as a terrorist organization, and remains unwilling to back off such a view despite Hamas’ effort to pursue a political track for reaching its national goals since it took part in Palestinian elections in 2006.

Arafat is duly presented as the leading Palestinian liberation figure and international diplomat, but also deeply criticized by Filiu for the political innocence of his deferential approach to the United States and accompanying naïve hopes that Washington would deliver

5

6

a just peace to the Palestinians after the Oslo Framework of Principles had been agreed upon in 1993. Filiu draws our attention to Arafat’s reaction to the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which brought tears to his eyes and the tormenting cry “It’s over, it’s over” (234)—meaning the prospect of a negotiated peace died with Rabin. Although Filiu does not evaluate Arafat’s reaction, it seems exaggerated, given Rabin’s acquiescence in expanding the settlement movement in the West Bank and Jerusalem and his “iron fist” policies in reaction to the first intifada.

One of the several virtues of Filiu’s historical approach is his willingness to employ evaluative language to describe Palestinian experience of victimization and Israeli tactics of oppression. He repeatedly refers to Israeli practices as imposing “collective punishment,” and as resulting in “massacres” of innocent Gazans, and of the experience endured by Gaza’s population as trauma, including “collective trauma.” At the same time, despite being highly critical of Israel’s approach, Filiu avoids any condemnations based on international humanitarian law or international criminal law. Filiu does not, unlike Ilan Pappé and other critics of Israel’s behavior in Gaza, speak of “genocide” or even “crimes against humanity.” In general, I conclude that Filiu’s sense of critical history with respect to Gaza does not accord significant relevance to international law.

In conclusion, Filiu provides a reader with a wealth of information, an historical perspective that greatly deepens our appreciation of the importance achieved by Gaza in the past, and above all, depicts the brutality of Israel’s behavior toward the people of Gaza and its failure to quell the spirit of Palestinian resistance. At the center of Filiu’s argument, beyond his assessment that the present period is best characterized as one of “impasse,” is the claim that Gaza remains the keystone for a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a view shared by neither the formal Palestinian leadership nor by any influential Israeli, American, or European leaders, past or present. However this issue is resolved, Filiu is highly successful in making a reader appreciate Gaza’s illustrious past and the crucial role that recent generations of its people have played in keeping the fires of Palestinian resistance burning even in the face of Israel’s cruel, domineering, and oppressive behavior.

A few final comments on Filiu’s historiography. First of all, I wonder whether it was necessary to provide so much factual detail in narrating the history of Gaza; it seems to me that the main interpretative lines of assessment could have been developed as authoritatively, and with a gentler reading experience. Secondly, I think that the ethical forthrightness of Filiu’s approach lent added clarity to his interpretive perspectives, and was valuable as a matter of “full disclosure” of author to reader. If hidden from view, it would have raised questions about integrity and trust. And thirdly, the inclusion of prescriptive ideas in a work of contemporary history gives greater practical relevance to the understanding of the past being set forth. Policymakers on all sides would gain much from Filiu’s deeply considered argument for the centrality of Gaza to the Palestinian national struggle and to hopes for a sustainable peace that protects the rights of both peoples on the basis of equality.