Under Siege: From Leningrad to Gaza
We met on social media during Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer. We were both grappling with the brutality of the siege, one of us amid the bombs on Gaza, the other child of a Leningrad siege survivor. Frustrated with the intolerable and continuing violence we decided to write together about siege and its lasting legacy.
What we found, was that a descendant of a city that the Nazis had tried to starve and a survivor of Israel’s endless siege on Gaza have a great deal to communicate to each other and to the world.
At the outset, we agreed this was not a “normalization” project; we believe in an end to the occupation, the right of Palestinian refugees to return, and equality for all. In seeking an end to siege and its legacies, we were both inspired by the haunting words of Mahmoud Darwish:
In the state of siege
Time becomes space transfixed in its eternity
In the state of siege,
Space becomes time that has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow
In Leningrad, one million civilians were starved to death or killed in a 2.5 year German siege during World War II. Early in the siege, a fire broke out in the emergency food supply storage facilities, leaving the city essentially without food. Some resorted to eating pets and dead bodies, others scraped wallpaper off the walls to consume the potato starch glue that had some nutrients. The dead were buried in mass graves, the lucky ones smuggled out to safety.
It was tragedies like this that prompted the negotiation of the Geneva Conventions, which Israel is party to. Although international law does not prohibit siege amid armed conflict, it does categorically reject collective punishment. The siege on Gaza has been recognized as collective punishment, and declared illegal by The International Committee of the Red Cross and countless others. Since events like Leningrad prompted the negotiation of the conventions, for us, the failure to implement them in Gaza is tragic.
In taking the lessons of Leningrad, we must recognize in Gaza today that much of the day-to-day trauma for besieged Russians in 1941-4 lives on as we write. Just like then, we see today that under a siege, life is reduced to existence or survival. Economic development and trade are stifled, and residents are forced to rely on humanitarian aid. Culture stagnates as few have the resources or mental space for anything beyond the mundane.
Perhaps it is because sieges rely on mental, physical, and emotional deprivation that it remains difficult to form a clear sense of what daily life is like closed in from all sides. Although many journalists report from Gaza, they tend to focus on political issues while aid organizations typically report on only the most urgent humanitarian concerns. This difficulty in understanding the reality of daily life is part of the siege, and is part of what makes siege possible.
What is happening in Gaza is multigenerational trauma. Not only have generations now lived through successive attacks and years of siege, but the trauma will continue for years to come, like it has for the families that survived Leningrad. In the years after WWII, Leningrad survivors worked to have their tragedy recognized, its lessons taken up. In 2009, the Jewish survivors of the Leningrad siege were recognized by Germany as Holocaust survivors and received financial compensation. To say it again: siege was part of the Holocaust.
The Nazis tried to starve Leningrad instead of attacking it directly. Israel, we feel, is doing both: Killing Palestinian civilians in frequent massacres as well as slowly and collectively making life unbearable by denying the most basic needs. These years of war and aggression have affected everything – human beings, houses, infrastructure, land, trees, animals, livelihoods, hospitals, medical supplies, schools, mosques, factories, water resources and even Gaza’s only power plant. And this is not new: the Palestinians have endured a long and ongoing history of massacre, decades of systemic ethnic cleansing, 47 years of military occupation, and apartheid policies and forced displacement since 1948. Today, 80% of the Palestinians in Gaza are refugees, who fled their villages in today’s Israel for safety. Those who fled Leningrad are survivors of the Holocaust. Those who flee Gaza are still refugees.
But it is not names and comparisons we were interested in. It is the connection between the eternity of siege, its continued and barbaric use as a military strategy, and the utter failure of the international community to uphold its own conventions written with the blood of Europe.
We feel that is dehumanizing to view Gaza Palestinians as miserable: They suffer enormously but also resist for their dignity and justice. The Palestinian movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel provides a renewed sense of optimism and sense of power.
The ongoing trauma of Gaza is profound and cannot be ignored. It shares this awful eternity not only with Leningrad, but also with Jerusalem, with Hebron, with the villages destroyed in 1948, with the continued exile of millions from their homes. The fight for compensation, recognition, and historical reckoning undertaken in the wake of Leningrad must also take center stage for Palestinians today.
Ayah Bashir is a Policy Member for Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and Esther Rappaport is a Guest Author of the same organization. A longer version of this article first appeared on Al-Shabaka, and this version was originally published by openDemocracy.
I truly feel ill. The author with the support of Tikkun and Rabbi Lerner has just compared Israel to Nazi Germany. I frequently encounter here huge inaccuracies and outright lies and myths, but this is beyond reproach. I am not bothering going into harsh details of the differences, but I am just going to say that Gazans have been held hostage by an occupier….known as Hamas. yes seized control of Gaza and turned it into a rocket launching pad. Hamas dug tunnels into Israel to be used to launch terror attack deep into Israeli civilian communities. Hamas does not want peace, they want to replace Israel with an Islamic state. I am just beside myself when reading this and I am one of those who support and eventual Palestinian state beside Israel. Thank you Tikkun for showing your true face [personal attack removed]
Jack ,you seem to be buried alive in the brain washing propaganda of the Zionist Israeli indoctrination of its people in particular and the rest of world Jewery in general. Actually for your information ( not that i don’t think you already know this)its worst than the Nazis! The Nazis, did what they did in the open, for all to see and subject them to the criticism that fell a upon them. The Israelis think that they are smarter than the rest of the world ,as they can fool it by making things happen in a calculated, under the Radar ,in doses operations , yet with a worst long lasting results of the same damages as Leningrad, if not more devastating for generations to come. You have to give the Jews some approving of the credit that they give themselves about their advertising , PR capabilities , media and Hollywood creativity and dominance . But does that go all unnoticed by all others , or do you think that they can help themselves and not use it thinking that (The Goys) will not noticed, they are not as smart as we are? Wake up Jack, and give honesty a chance, and on the way some credit that others( Goyim) might also know these things,but wish not to use them in order not to be so deceitful ? Take it easy, I don’t claim all Jews and known Goys are deceitful , so save your energy for attack somewhere else, there is no need here for it, but for some honesty there is.
Again you’ve missed the mark! Let’s get some historical accuracy first of all. ISRAEL TODAY IS NOT OCCUPYING GAZA! and did not attack Gaza in order to occupy it. Israel attacked Gaza in order to try and stop Hamas throwing rockets over into Israel cities and settlements, as well as putting and end to tunneling into Israel. Also Israel used tactics such as warning Gazans about impending bombing – something I don’t think the Nazis (or any other army for that matter) would use. If Hamas stopped terrorizing Israel then there would be no need for retaliation on Israels part. What is it with you people that you only query the right of Israel to protect it’s citizens? If Mexico started shelling the southern US would you feel sorry for them and say “we feel your pain – please continue” methinks not
I am against every violence in all its forms! Saying that ,the comments above make Hamas sound like it landed on Gaza from Mars or Saturn! For your knowledge ,they did not ! Hamas is made of Palestinians who are fighting a disastrous army and siege by Western people who came from far away lands to steal their homes , occupy their land and murder their families and children. Israel illegally under International law and human rights violations has broken every rule in the book to occupy and siege this people for over 66 years and going. You both stripped yourselves of every decent logic, fairness and sense of justice and adopted hypocritical ( i am only talking about when you appoint yourselves judges for Israeli/ Palestine issues, as I don’t know who you are and how do you carry your lives in other situations)unethical tool to judge and condemn and isolate the members of the Palestinians who choose to defend and protect their homes families and future – mind you with very limited resources, as if you allow them or give them the jet fighters and the Apache killing machines, they will not resort to primitive nonsense so called rockets and they will fight you on equal grounds, but i know you are terrified and you will never permit such a thing, yet you call them “The terrorists” – as if this concept was alien and foreign to any nationalists, or humans who have done that in the past and still do, including some of your terrorists that you choose to call heroes! Your morality and ethics are definitely at question here. Till that is changed and you restore your honesty and ethics to judge equally , you and your likes including the leadership of Israel are not doing the Jewish people any favors , its the opposite of that and you are harming all of us!