US fails to acknowledge Gaza has civilians

Muslim worshippers perform Friday prayers during Great March of Return protests on 30 March. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman says there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip. 

Yasser Qudih APA images

The US State Department doesn’t know whether there are civilians in Gaza or not.

This is terrifying – a new low for a department that may soon be led by CIA director Mike Pompeo, a supporter of torture.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert was questioned by Said Arikat of the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds on 10 April: “Today, the Israeli minister of defense, [Avigdor] Lieberman, said – told The Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper, that there are no civilians in Gaza. Do you have any comment on that?”

In one of the most disturbing responses given in recent memory by a State Department spokesperson, Nauert responded by saying, “I do not. I do not.”

Asked to look into whether there are civilians in Gaza, Nauert responded, “If I have an answer, I will give it to you, certainly.”

For the record, children comprise roughly half of Gaza’s population.

The moral emptiness emanating from today’s State Department reminds me of a comment Khaled Elgindy – now a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution – made to me some two decades ago asserting his fear that it would not even be possible to get a US Congressional resolution to pass declaring that Palestinians are human beings.

That environment is reflected in Nauert’s comment, in essence saying we’ll get back to you if we deem Palestinians living in Gaza to be civilians. Unvoiced, but hovering for all to see, is the unsettling viewpoint that all of Gaza is a legitimate military target.

Nauert could have questioned if Lieberman’s words had been properly understood – whether the appropriate translation was “civilians,” “innocents” or “naive people.” But the point remains largely the same, particularly as Lieberman followed up with the claim that “Everyone’s connected to Hamas, everyone gets a salary from Hamas, and all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are Hamas military wing activists.”

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the State Department’s refusal to answer simple questions about Israeli views on Gaza puts Palestinian life, long in danger, at greater peril than ever.

Pointing toward apartheid

Lieberman’s contention that “there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip” suggests that he views the two million people there as criminals and legitimate targets.

He’s desperate, perhaps because demographic information released last month reiterates what The Electronic Intifada reported 13 years ago: The Palestinian and Jewish communities between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea are roughly equal. If there are no “innocent people” in Gaza, then apartheid and siege policies are easier to convey to allies in the US and Europe.

According to the Israeli news site Ynet, recent statistics indicate there are now 6.5 million Muslims – the term used by the publication disappears Palestinian Christians – in the area.

Few appear to care in Washington that the Palestinian and Jewish populations seem roughly even or that some news articles refer to 6.5 million Muslims and others to 6.5 million Arabs. The term “Palestinian” is often avoided – no doubt deliberately.

The Electronic Intifada reported on a similar finding over a decade ago when the US State Department inadvertently stumbled into the matter.

We stated, “Israeli demographers have long predicted that in the next several years, Palestinians would once again become a majority in all of historic Palestine, with the risk that Israel would begin to be viewed as an apartheid state where an empowered minority rules over an effectively disenfranchised majority.” Citing figures provided by the US government, it was clear that day had already arrived.

Now the issue is raging again with similar conclusions being drawn: Israel is an apartheid state – and its defense minister views those in the Gaza bantustan as akin to criminals.

Racism on the center-left

Such views do not reside exclusively on the Israeli right. Isaac Herzog of the “center-left” Zionist Union declared in 2015 that he didn’t want 61 Palestinian members in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.

“I don’t want a Palestinian prime minister in Israel,” Herzog added. “I don’t want them to change my flag and my national anthem.”

Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, has recently suggested that such a day may not be too distant.

Poking fun at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (nickname: Bibi), he said: “Tibi will be the prime minister, not Bibi. From the sea to the river, we are more.”

Yet Tibi warned: “They will not accept it.” He asserted that instead Israel will choose “one state with apartheid.”

He told Newsweek there will be “two groups of citizens: one with rights, one without.” Of course, this mirrors the present reality.

Even as Palestinians are the ones denied rights, Tibi tweeted his promise to protect the Jewish minority and advance their voting rights in a future state with equal rights for all.

Such overwhelming changes in circumstances are seemingly impossible until they occur – following years of work and heartache.

Those days of change in apartheid South Africa and the segregated South of the United States did not magically arise. They were pushed for by activists committed to freedom and equal rights.

The trajectory for Palestinian freedom is apt to be very similar – with the US government again working against change and equal rights for much of the time.

Certainly this can be expected to be the case when the State Department doesn’t even know whether or not there are civilians – some two million of them – in the Gaza Strip.


Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune,, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.