The horrifying truths about Israel’s occupation


Judy Spelman’s letter of June 21, countering the empathy expressed toward the people of Gaza by community leaders affiliated with Gan HaLev congregation, demands response. Though crucial missing pieces detract from the congregants’ goodwill, they are far outdone by serious misinformation in Spelman’s criticism. Particularly problematic is her implication that offenses committed by Israel’s neighboring governments—many of which it and the United States support, ironically—somehow rule out criticism of Israel’s wrongdoing. 

The amelioration of humanitarian horror is the very least we must demand, given massive U.S. military funding and political support for Israel. As a start, our administration must reverse its recent drastic cuts to UNRWA, the agency tasked with providing health care, education, food, water and minimal employment for millions of Palestinian refugees, especially in Gaza. We must also pay attention to what’s actually happening there. The Gan HaLev writers portray a moral equivalence between unarmed protesters demanding an end to the hermetic blockade of an open-air prison (2 million people in an area slightly larger than the Point Reyes National Seashore, most of them refugees forced from their homes by the establishment of Israel) versus snipers under absolutely no threat.  

It is uncontested that the snipers have shot thousands of Gazan protesters since March 30, killing more than 130, picking off journalists some days, medics others, and many children. This follows periodic outbursts of massive destruction over the past decade. In July and August of 2014 alone, Israeli bombs, missiles artillery and tanks killed more than 2,200 people, about 70 percent of whom were civilians, including more than 500 children. Hospitals and schools were targeted, along with whole neighborhoods and essential infrastructure. The United States is complicit in these war crimes. We should demand it comply with both domestic and international law barring arms transfers to forces that consistently violate human rights. 

What the Gan HaLev writers call a “border” is a fortified fence between Israel and an adjacent, Israeli-declared no-go zone—including 30 percent of Gaza’s arable land—across the 1949 truce line. The whole district is still under Israeli “effective control,” the very definition of occupation, in which the occupying power must assume responsibility for civilians’ well-being. Under the ever-tighter blockade now in its 12th year, Gazans survive with four hours of electricity a day, virtually no potable water due to the bombing of sewage treatment and power plants, and large urban swaths in ruins. With negligible access to work or markets, they are utterly dependent on outside aid.

The assertion that protesting Gazan families constitute a threat to one of the world’s foremost military powers is absurd. That Hamas was elected in 2006 to represent Palestinians under occupation cannot excuse shooting civilians at will.

The Gan HaLev writers admirably call for “continue[d] good faith efforts to find a permanent peace in the region that provides a prosperous future for both Israelis and Palestinians.” But there has been no peace process for a long time. Israel’s regime is dedicated to incorporating as much land with as few non-Jews as possible. Illegal settlements and their infrastructure—walls, separate roads, closed areas— constitute nearly two-thirds of the West Bank. Around 6,000 political prisoners sit behind bars, some 500 of them “administrative detainees” with no charges filed, let alone convictions. A similar number are children, typically forced from their beds at night and denied the presence of parents or lawyers during interrogation. Most report physical abuse.

As for Gaza, senior Israeli officials have floated a proposal to force its people to resettle in Egypt, or have Egypt take responsibility for the area. Either approach would help solidify the unacceptable separation of Gazans from the rest of the Palestinian people and whatever political options they may obtain.

Spelman’s effort to pin all blame on “Palestinian leaders” is beyond outrageous—invoking the tired, canard that Palestinians want to “drive the Jews [in]to the sea.” She paints an embarrassingly false picture of equality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, more than doubling the latter’s representation in parliament and denying the pervasive discrimination, racism, violence and continued displacement they face—along with consistent protest against this reality.

Even inside pre-1967 Israel, any pretense of equality shrinks by the day. Legislation near passage would mandate pre-eminence of the “Jewish” aspect of the state’s official identity that until now at least pretended to include “democratic” as well. Another pending law would criminalize journalists or others who photograph or video misdeeds by soldiers. Currently, Palestinians who mark their 1948 loss can be punished and members of some organizations that oppose Israeli policies are barred from visiting the country. All these would be considered unconstitutional here and harshly criticized anywhere else. Why do Israel’s staunch defenders single it out and give it a pass? 

Americans subject to an overdose of mythology about many aspects of Israel and Palestine can find plenty of factual material if they wish to learn, and then, hopefully, act. A great starting point is my organization’s website, For solid daily reports and a range of viewpoints, see the respected independent Israeli newspaper and the Israeli news site, both in English. Two Israeli organizations that track anti-democratic legislation are at and


David L. Mandel is a longtime writer, editor and human rights attorney currently active with Jewish Voice for Peace, the National Lawyers Guild and the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party, where he is an elected member of the central committee. He lived in Israel from 1974 to 1985, and now splits his time between Inverness and Sacramento.