Modern images of conflict invariably include pictures and footage of displacement in some form or another. The massive numbers of Syrians streaming across borders into neighbouring countries in a bid to escape the violence—the number now tops 2.5 million, according to the United Nations—have become a vivid symbol of the brutality in that conflict. Similar images emerge from war-torn regions around the world.
The current conflict in Gaza is striking in the absence of any such exodus. Within the territory, which is roughly 360 square kilometres or one-eighth of the size of Metro Vancouver, there has been massive dislocation—the United Nations estimates that over 200,000 are displaced as of July 29. However, only that fraction with foreign passports has the opportunity to actually leave the territory, and even they often encounter substantial hardship when attempting to do so.
The land borders of the Gaza Strip, controlled by Israel and Egypt respectively, have been sealed shut. The northwestern border of the territory abuts the Mediterranean Sea, controlled by heavily-armed Israeli gunships. There is, simply and starkly put, nowhere to go.
Consequently, while many have been forced out of their homes due to the violence, the vast majority of these can only circulate within the small territory, the entirety of which has become a war zone. They cannot leave. If they are to avoid the deadly assault, it must occur within these very limited confines.
In a cruel twist of history, most Gazans are already classified as refugees in what amount to permanent camps. That semblance of permanence, however makeshift, has now been shattered and the displacement renewed.
The images of refugees from other conflicts fleeing their homes, their land, sometimes their loved ones—certainly their dreams—are indisputably heart-wrenching. That their destinations are improvised, overcrowded, dangerous, and disease-ridden camps, often in unwelcoming or even hostile new lands, speaks volumes to the desperation and fear that drove them to escape in the first place.
But at least in those conflicts escape is possible, however difficult that must be.
In Gaza, no such avenue exists.
Almost two weeks ago, towards the outset of the most recent war in Gaza, Jonathan Whittall, the head of humanitarian analysis for the well-known aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), openly questioned the ethics of providing medical care to a population which is repeatedly subjected to aggression and oppression, implicitly comparing MSF's activities in the Gaza Strip to patching up torture victims between interrogation sessions.
Whittall went on to say that "an entire population is trapped in what is essentially an open-air prison...[and] the prison guards are the ones who have the capacity to launch large-scale and highly destructive attacks on the open-air prison.”
That was said in the early days of the conflict, prior to the most horrific levels of violence now being rained down on the territory. Since then, the situation has worsened on several orders of magnitude.
On a very basic and human level, arguments over territory, and worse yet, accountability and blame, become almost vacuous. Of course, the details matter, and immensely so.
But right now, on a humanitarian level, the catastrophe has reached an almost childlike simplicity. People can't even run away. And worse, the inhabitable territory is being shrunk, slowly squeezed by a virtual hyper-military now with an overwhelming ground presence, making this already tiny tract of land—home to 1.8 million people (minus 1,200 casualties at the time of writing)—even smaller.
The old western analogy of shooting fish in a barrel could hardly be more apt.
The situation has now gotten so out of hand, so beyond the pale, that one is left wondering, hideously, how far things will go. We were given a hint earlier this week, when Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, warned that all should be "prepared for a protracted campaign".
Few sensible people would deny any nation, Israel included, the right to self-defense. Framing the current operation in the context of self-defense, however, requires a level of intellectual, and indeed moral, gymnastics of a most distorted and perverse form.