Israel’s “Auschwitz borders” revisited

Israeli settler graffiti on a wall in the Old City of Hebron. (CPT)

In 1969, Israel’s legendary diplomat Abba Eban warned that withdrawal from the territories his country occupied in June 1967 would be a return to “Auschwitz borders.” Since then some Israeli politicians have used these provocative words to attack almost anyone who defies them.

In 1992, for instance, the George H. W. Bush administration briefly suspended US loan guarantees to Israel to protest settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A symbolic sanction that cost Israel little, it was nevertheless unprecedented for the US to condition aid on Israeli behavior. Israel’s then Deputy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the move as an American effort to force Israel back within the “Auschwitz borders.” He later attacked then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for signing the 1993 Oslo Accords which, he alleged, would also take Israel “back to Auschwitz.” Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli Jew brought up on such rhetoric. Netanyahu served as prime minister from 1996-1999 and may do so again following elections next February.

Eban’s meaning was clear – by comparing Israel to the most notorious and emblematic Nazi death camp, he was in effect saying that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular are Nazis no less capable and desirous of exterminating Jews than was Hitler. In Hebron, however, it is Israeli settlers protected by the Israeli army who frequently paint threats such as “Arabs to the gas chambers” on Palestinian houses.

Comparisons of present-day Israel to Nazi-occupied Europe are common in Israel itself although they remain taboo everywhere else. The late Tommy Lapid, justice minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, caused an uproar in 2004 when he said that images of an elderly Palestinian woman in Gaza “crouching on all fours, searching for her medicines in the ruins of her house” demolished by the Israeli army reminded him of his own grandmother who perished at Auschwitz. Lapid compared the Israeli army’s writing of numbers on the arms and foreheads of Palestinian prisoners to the Nazi practice of tattooing concentration camp inmates. “As a refugee from the Holocaust I find such an act insufferable,” he said in 2002.

Lapid, who was chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, also likened the routine harassment of Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron to the anti-Semitism of pre-World War II Europe. “It was not crematoria or pogroms that made our life in the diaspora bitter before they began to kill us,” he said in 2007, “but persecution, harassment, stone-throwing, damage to livelihood, intimidation, spitting and scorn.” Lapid did not live long enough to see Hebron settlers attempt to burn down a house with a large Palestinian family trapped inside, an act witnessed on 4 December by Avi Issacharoff, reporter for the Israeli daily Haaretz, who called it “a pogrom in the worst sense of the word.”

While Lapid’s comments shocked some Israelis, they were “actually fairly mild compared to some of the Holocaust-related insults that have been hurled across the Israeli political spectrum in the last decade,” the BBC reported in 2004. An example included the frequent depiction of Rabin in the months before he was assassinated in a Nazi uniform. Uri Dromi, former head of Israel’s government press office, noted that Israelis from politicians to fans of rival football teams frequently called each other Nazis: “The ease with which the Nazi Holocaust has been used is alarming.”

In Israel, “Every threat or grievance of major or minor importance is dealt with automatically by raising the biggest argument of them all – the Shoah,” former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg has written using the Hebrew word normally reserved for the Nazi Holocaust, “and from that moment onward, every discussion is disrupted.”

Such use of the Holocaust by Israelis rarely attracts attention or opprobrium outside the country. By contrast Palestinians must always be careful about breaking the taboo of likening any of Israel’s actions with those of Nazis. Even their allies usually tell them, “don’t go there.”

Palestinians, however, do not have the luxury of simply ignoring the Holocaust’s presence in their lives, dispossession and deaths. This is because the continual insistence by Israel, and especially its supporters in the US, that nothing Israel does to Palestinians can ever be compared to any Nazi crimes also serves to implicitly legitimize Israel’s persecution and massacres of Palestinians.

Thus last March, as indiscriminate Israeli shelling and bombing killed 110 Palestinians, including dozens of children in just a few days, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai openly threatened Gaza with a “bigger shoah.” Israel’s embarrassed defense was that Vilnai did not mean to threaten actual genocide, but merely a “disaster” or “catastrophe” as if that made it all just fine.

And, during the recent American presidential campaign, candidates wanting to prove their loyalty to Israel and toughness toward Iran promised that the US would never allow a “second holocaust,” thus entrenching in American politics the phenomenon observed by Burg in Israel.

Amidst all these invocations of the Holocaust, Israel’s calculated strangulation of Gaza was barely noticed. But the constant references to the Holocaust reminded me of Eban’s powerful analogy. I confess, however, that it evoked the walls, watchtowers and barbed wire caging 1.5 million Palestinians into the Gaza Strip. Let me be clear: these “Auschwitz borders” do not literally enclose a Nazi-style death camp and Israelis are not Nazis.

Rather, these borders mark the beginning of a zone where the human beings inside have been completely dehumanized, where they can be starved and killed with impunity and even a sense of righteous justification, and most “decent” people outside who have the power to act choose instead to do nothing if they are not condoning Israel’s actions as “self-defense” by a people still haunted by Holocaust fears.

Last January, Karen Koenig AbuZayd, head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, wrote, “Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and – some would say – encouragement of the international community.”

Since Israel tightened its blockade on 4 November, after an Israeli attack killing six Palestinians broke a five-month ceasefire, Gaza crossed that threshold. For the first time ever, UNRWA ran out of food in early November. Within weeks, half the bakeries in the Gaza Strip had shut down, and those still functioning were baking bread using animal feed.

Israeli leaders claim they closed the borders in retaliation for Palestinian rockets. Collective punishment – in this case using food, medicine and fuel as weapons – is a war crime. But as UNRWA’s Gaza operations chief John Ging pointed out, the UN’s supplies “were also restricted during the period of the ceasefire to the point where we were left in a very vulnerable and precarious position and with a few days of closure we ran out of food.”

Eban has spoken other words with which Palestinians today might identify. On 6 June 1967, justifying Israel’s surprise attack on Egypt that started the third major Arab-Israeli war, he asked the UN Security Council: “Was there any precedent in world history … for a nation passively to suffer the blockade of its only southern port, involving nearly all its vital fuel, when such acts of war, legally and internationally, have always invited resistance?”

Eban was referring to Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea that did not in fact restrict Israel, with its long Mediterranean coast, from importing anything. Gazans truly are trapped. Even fishermen cannot go to sea without facing constant violence by the Israeli navy. Dozens of patients have died, unable to travel abroad for vital treatment. Malnutrition stalks a population that lives in darkness as Gaza’s only power plant is chronically short of fuel.

Gazans are resisting and not primarily through armed struggle. Last January, hundreds of thousands broke through the border wall with Egypt, briefly freeing themselves before Egypt, in collusion with Israel and the US-backed puppet Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, restored the blockade. Palestinians’ steadfast refusal to submit is their greatest act of resistance, but they cannot prevail alone.

Invoking another horror of the 20th Century, the president of the UN General Assembly, Nicaragua’s Ambassador Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, recently likened Israel’s siege of Gaza to “the apartheid of an earlier era.” This is not likely to please Israeli officials; as Nelson Mandela wrote, with the exception of the Nazi genocide, “there is no evil that has been so condemned by the entire world as apartheid.”

But it does at least offer a hopeful model for collective action and solidarity. D’Escoto Brockmann recalled the sanctions that helped end South African apartheid, adding, “Today, perhaps we in the United Nations should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society who are calling for a similar nonviolent campaign.” That campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions is already underway and scores new victories each week. It will strengthen in inverse proportion to the complicity of world governments, no matter what justifications Israel puts forward for its mounting crimes.

The Holocaust lesson that I learned at school is that we are obliged not to wait until things are as bad as Auschwitz before we speak out and act.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).