SEPTEMBER 22, 2015
WHEN MAX BLUMENTHAL ARRIVED in Gaza in the summer of 2014, he did so in the midst of a brutal Israeli war — the third such assault since 2008. The war lasted 51 days during which daily bombardment of homes, shelters, and mosques left nowhere safe to turn. Ground troops shot and beat men, women, and even children — an apparent war of revenge over the killings of 3 Israeli teens. In the end, more than 2,200 Palestinians were dead. The vast majority of the dead were civilians, including over 500 children. More than a quarter of a million Palestinians were displaced and at least 10,000 homes were destroyed.
Behind those grim statistics are the stories of terror, grief, and resistance, conveyed in Blumenthal’s urgent prose in his new book, The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. Through first person interviews and extensive historical research, Blumenthal brings the horror and blood of the 2014 Israeli war to life.
The 51 Day War marks a different kind of journalism for Blumenthal. His publishing journey began with a bold study of the obscenities of the US’s ultra-conservative movements in his debut bestseller, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. Then, he turned his razor-sharp analysis to Israel with his second book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, which The Nation‘s Eric Alterman dismissed as “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook.” Undeterred by the taboo of criticizing Israel, Blumenthal pursued a further exploration of Israeli war crimes in this latest and third book.
In attempting to understand Israel’s sadism in this war, Blumenthal aptly recalls the strategist Arnon Soffer’s long-term vision for Gaza: that it could become a territory from which Israel could completely withdraw and then be free to bombard. Soffer advised the notorious Ariel Sharon that in such a scenario, “if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” This abhorrent ideal appears to be playing out on a semi-regular basis through the on-going blockade of Gaza and Israel’s earlier wars, and was in full force during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.
In fact Soffer’s vision haunts a significant portion of Blumenthal’s depiction of the war. In the pages of The 51 Day War, we meet the surviving members of the Shamaly family, who relayed the loss of five of their loved ones, including 25-year-old Salem Shamaly, shot by an Israeli sniper for seemingly no reason. “His mother Amina sobbed openly.” His 14-year-old brother Waseem, “covered his face with his hands and shook with sorrow.”
We also meet Suleiman Israibi, whose 22-year-old son was shot by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers while trying to help a friend. Israibi explained to Blumenthal the futility of life in Gaza: “When I build a house, the Israelis bomb it. When I try to make a living, they destroy my business. When I try to raise a child, they kill him.”
The horrors of Israel’s carnage in Gaza jump out of the pages of Blumenthal’s chronicle. In the town of Khuza’a, he is shown a bathroom inside which Israeli soldiers had executed several men using knives that were ordinarily used to slaughter chickens: “Crimson blood and the blackened crust of charred flesh stained the white shower tile; the floor was drenched in pools of congealed blood and small piles of human hair.”
But what sets this reportage apart is the author’s added focus on Palestinian resistance. News media routinely relegate any violent defiance of Israel as “terrorist,” essentially dismissing the legitimacy of self-defense by a besieged people. In a chapter devoted to The Battle of Shujaiya, Blumenthal relates how the well-prepared and armed soldiers from the Al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’s military wing) tackled Israeli soldiers as they raided the town. Groups of IDF fighters were ambushed and more than a dozen killed. While “[t]he Al-Qassam Brigades had not vanquished the vaunted Israeli Army […] they delivered a bloody nose to its most elite units.”
In response, Israel rained down such an overwhelming amount of firepower on Shujaiya that it shocked even US military officials. The entire town was rendered uninhabitable and treated as though it housed only combatants who could therefore be obliterated as legitimate targets. Blumenthal’s casting of the Al-Qassam Brigades as an army of resistance against a brutal aggressor is an essential transgression from the standard narrative of the Middle East conflict.
As in Goliath, Blumenthal also does not shy away from recounting the day-to-day expressions of Israeli hatred against Palestinians originating from bellicose right wing politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu and Ayelet Shaked, as well as ordinary IDF soldiers who spray-painted the walls of Palestinian homes with the Star of David.
The story of The 51 Day War does not end with the August 26th ceasefire that marked the official end of the operation. While Gaza’s embattled population defiantly celebrated their survival of the savage assault, the lack of rebuilding after the war ended brought a new set of hellish consequences. Blumenthal’s focus on the extended suffering in Gaza was recently vindicated by a United Nations report released a year after Operation Protective Edge that declared Gaza would be “uninhabitable” within 5 years as it deteriorated from the aftermath of war and the on-going blockade.
Of the numerous photos Blumenthal printed alongside his story of the war, the most haunting image for me came near the end, taken by his colleague Dan Cohen. An infant named Wadie Abu Khesi, swaddled in winter clothing and held up by his father. stares at the light on the camera aimed at him, for all he has known during his short life is the light from fires. The photo is followed by the devastating sentence, “About a month after Cohen’s visit, 5-month old Wadie froze to death, making him the fifth child to die of exposure in the punishing winter.”
Israel relies on the silence of its friends, and it is hardly surprising that Blumenthal’s book has not been reviewed by most other publications. Although the snipers have stopped shooting, Gaza continues to suffer and die a little each day. It is imperative that the story of what unfolded during the summer of 2014 (and beyond) is documented, and there is no better, more sensitive or more skillful historian of this ugly chapter in the long-running conflict than Blumenthal.