Warnings are given before the artillery strikes. Residents are advised to leave their homes before people and homes are blown to bits. But where can they go?
The Gaza Strip is a densely populated area of land, roughly 30 miles long and no more than 5 miles in width at any point, lying between Israel to the north and east, Egypt to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Blockaded by land and sea by Israel and Egypt, there is nowhere that the occupants of the Gaza Strip can go – except somewhere else in the Gaza Strip! As recent days have shown, even UN schools and reception centres are no longer safe from the Israeli bombardment.
The death toll in the Gaza Strip is rising. The artillery fire does not differentiate between children, women and men – those who are civilians and those engaged in combat. The ruling group in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, vows to fight on until their political aim of a Palestinian state on the West Bank becomes a possibility, if not a reality. For its part, Israel cannot ignore Hamas’ stated aim of eradicating Israel or the threat posed by the network of underground tunnels developed by Hamas in its war on the ground. Like all nations under threat, Israel feels the need to defend itself.
Meanwhile, in defiance of successive UN resolutions as well as internal opposition (but supported in their silence by the USA and the UK), Israel proceeds apace with its objective of building Jewish settlements on land designated as Palestinian – itself a major source of discontent and conflict in the region.
As a teenager I set myself the task of reading all of the novels written by the Jewish author Leon Uris. For me, the most inspiring of these novels was Mila 18. The title referred to a district within the Polish city of Warsaw during WWII. The district was a Jewish ghetto. As one article on the novel commented: “It was a time of crisis, a time of tragedy – and a time of transcendent courage and determination. Leon Uris’s blazing novel is set in the midst of the ghetto uprising that defied Nazi tyranny, as the Jews of Warsaw boldly met Wehrmacht tanks with homemade weapons and bare fists. Here, painted on a canvas as broad as its subject matter, is the compelling story of one of the most heroic struggles of modern times.”
My thoughts have gone back to this novel as I have followed the unfolding events in the Gaza Strip. It is certainly a time of crisis and tragedy in Palestine. However, no longer are the tyranny-defying residents in the ghetto restricted to those of the Jewish religious tradition; no longer are the Nazis the repressive force; and the means of destruction are much more sophisticated than homemade weapons and bare fists. The question of exactly which people are undertaking the heroic struggle, where courage and determination are on display, is very much open to interpretation.
Warsaw and its Jewish ghetto were eventually liberated. There seems no immediate escape for the residents of the Gaza ghetto. The story of Mila 18 serves as an inspiration for those who value freedom and justice in the face of oppression. However, as the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland recently said: “Gaza children will grow up with hearts hardened. In trying to crush today’s enemy, Israel has reared the enemy of tomorrow.”
Mila 18 was not the only novel that Leon Uris wrote about the background and circumstances of the Jewish people. Perhaps his most well-known and widely read book is Exodus, a novel about the establishment of the State of Israel and Israeli independence. Apparently conceived as a way of enabling Americans to become more sympathetic to the State of Israel (therein lies a clue to the novel’s content and character, as well as the nature of its characters), the novel is concerned with the extent to which Jewish individuals and groups were prepared to go in order to bring into existence the modern State of Israel. Some of their methods would be branded as “terrorist” in today’s terminology and commentary.
Characters in the story behave in the present according to their reactions to the past and their visions of the future. The past is the repository of Hebrew history and tradition; the future promises the building of a fortress of resistance to all attempts to eradicate that history and tradition. Alienation repeatedly appears: victims of the Nazis manifest levels of alienation ranging from silent agony to madness. But there is also the vision to establish a nation free of trauma, a nation that looks forward and is not constantly glancing over its shoulder.
Therein lays a clue to the understanding of present day Israel; her national obsessions and contradictions, her strengths and weaknesses, the tolerance that brings harmony and peace but which is set over against the intolerance that breeds division and violence.
The subject of freedom is a central concern in Exodus; characters seek, with varying degrees of intensity, forms of liberation, and to some extent the novel links personal and political liberation. History itself becomes a theme of the work as Uris includes and provides a context for such events as the United Nations vote on whether or not to partition Palestine. Of course, much of the content in the novel is now past history or belongs to the realm of (absorbing) fiction, but the schizoid nature of Israel’s national persona remains and the oppression felt by the infant State of Israel now seems, in the days of the nation’s maturing, to be visited on her neighbours.
The residents of Israel will not soon forget the Warsaw ghetto experience, nor the nature and circumstances of the establishment of the Israeli state. However, it is to be hoped that, in time, Israel will come to realise that the ghettoization of her neighbours and the denial of their hopes and dreams is inimical to her own security and progress. It does not take the reading of two superb novels to come to that realisation, but it helps.