The Siege of Gaza: A Palestinian Liberation Theology Perspective


Just this morning it was reported that the Israeli State bombed another U.N. designated refugee shelter in Gaza killing children sleeping beside their parents. The attack raised to 1300 the number of Palestinians killed by Israel since the siege of Gaza began. Most of those killed are civilians – at least 20% children. Meanwhile 53 Israelis have lost their lives – all but a handful were soldiers laying siege to Gazan homes and cities protected by their inhabitants.

The ongoing slaughter of Palestinians by the Israeli State makes crystal clear the identity of the real terrorists in Israel-Palestine. They are the State of Israel on the one hand and its unconditional supporter, the U.S. government on the other. Both in fact are terrorist states.

I’ll go even further and argue here that in the present phase of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, the Jews have little or no right to claim they are acting in self-defense. They are clearly the aggressors guilty of extreme war crimes.

This time I base that argument on helpful analytic distinctions concerning “violence” commonly made be liberation theologians in general and by Palestinian liberation theologians in particular. I interviewed the latter back in 2006 at the Sabeel Ecumenical Center for Liberation Theology in Jerusalem.

Like liberation theologians everywhere, those at the Sabeel Center attempt to analyze their context (and the Judeo-Christian tradition) from the viewpoint of those without public power or voice. Of course, in Palestine that viewpoint belongs to the Palestinians not the Jews.

According to Sabeel analysts, there are really four types of violence at work in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Three of them are employed by Israel’s leadership against the Palestinians. None of the three is justified. In fact, according to liberation theologians, only one level of violence can ever be excused – in very limited circumstances. And that violence happens to be the very type our media uniformly designates as “terroristic” – ironically, the crime of Palestinians defending themselves against criminal Jewish aggression.

Let me explain by reviewing each level of violence identified in liberation theology, connecting each to the conflict under discussion here:

1.Institutionalized Violence:This refers to the destructive social, political and economic “structures” that shape human activity. For instance, the maintenance of a global economic system that causes 35,000 children to die each day from absolutely preventable hunger is a form of institutionalized violence. It kills children, the sick and elderly as predictably as if victims were shot in the head – 35,000 times every day.

In Palestine, the wall snaking through the region is a violent structure. So is the Israeli Army (IDF). Meanwhile Palestinians have no army. So laws preventing Palestinians from arming themselves also represent violent structures depriving them of their right to self-defense. Even legal arrangements which have prevented Palestinian authorities from paying 40,000 workers (because of alleged connections with Hamas) represent structural violence. In Palestine the primary victims of structural violence by far are Palestinians, not Jews.

Structural violence kills Palestinian children every day.

2.The Violence of Self-Defense:Institutionalized violence inevitably gives rise to a response. In the case of Palestine, blowback first took the form of non-violent protests. In 1947 general strikes and demonstrations by Palestinians were so effective that they led the United Nations to suspend its “Partition Plan,” which had awarded 55% of Palestine to Jews, even though they represented only 30% of the area’s population. But when Jewish settlers responded with heavy-handed military measures, violent resistance on the part of Palestinians became more frequent. It eventually culminated in the Six Day War in 1967 and in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Later, Palestinian children threw rocks at soldiers illegally occupying their neighborhoods during the First and Second Intifadas in 1982 and 2000. Then in 2009 Palestinian insurgents began firing rudimentary homemade rockets into Israeli neighborhoods. (I will address suicide bombers below.)

Because the first (institutionalized) level of violence goes unidentified as such, this second level of violence typically appears unprovoked. It is therefore identified as “terrorism” pure and simple – an act of evil people who for some reason (e.g. self-interest, racism or sadism) enjoy killing the innocent. This is how Palestinian rocket attacks are portrayed in the U.S. mainstream media to justify Israel’s third level response.

In reality, Palestinians are defending themselves from structural violence and from the third level of violence – its reactionary form.

3.Reactionary Violence: Reactionary violence is the response of the defenders of violent structures to self-defensive, second level violence. This third level violence is routinely overwhelming and shocking in its disproportionality. It is what we are currently witnessing in Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian casualties dwarf Israeli deaths (currently 1300 to 53). The victims of third level response are overwhelmingly civilian – 20% of them children. Third level violence destroys houses, schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly, playgrounds and refugee shelters.

Regardless of such disproportionality and direct attacks on civilians, the media portray this third level of violence as justified and therefore not really “violence” in the negative sense. Such portrayal leads many to think that the resisters have merely gotten or are getting what they have asked for and deserve. After all, the police and military are merely upholding the law.

4.Terrorist Violence:This category is complicated – again by bias (on the part of governments, police, media and academia) favoring violent structures and their defense. Though more aptly applied to what has here been termed “reactionary violence,” the term “terrorism” is usually (and erroneously) applied indiscriminately to category two (above), the violence of self-defense. In the official or popular mind, it almost never finds application to categories one or three.

Such error is rendered nearly inevitable by official definitions of “terrorism” For instance, the F.B.I. defines terroristic violence as “The unlawful (emphasis added) use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

This definition is noteworthy for its emphasis on law (or legal structures). Terrorism, it says, is “unlawful” use of force and violence. That is, following this definition, the possibility of unjust legal structures is rendered completely invisible and ruled out of consideration.

Yet is it is clear that the enforcement of law itself (by the British in colonial America, the Nazis in the 1930s, the Afrikaners in South Africa, by State governments in the Jim Crow South, or by the State of Israel in Palestine) can intimidate or coerce entire “civilian populations or segments thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

In other words, state terrorism is not only possible, but has arguably been far more destructive than non-state terrorism. Chomsky and Herman recognized this in their classic The Real Terror Network. There they call state terrorism (such as that directed towards Palestinians by the State of Israel) “wholesale terrorism,” and responses to it (even like suicide bombers) as “retail” terror.

[That raises the question of Palestinian suicide bombers, who first appeared in 1995. For most, this is correctly identified as a quintessential act of terrorism. However distinctions made here suggest the following question: In terms of terrorism, what is the difference between suicide bombers and the Israeli response we are now witnessing in Gaza?

To begin with, the suicide bombing was not “original” violence but a response to first-level (structural) and third level (reactionary) violence. Moreover the response of the Israeli State on average takes ten to twenty times the number of Palestinian civilian lives as the original attack – just as indiscriminately as any suicide bombing.

Such figures describe state “terrorism” writ large. They illustrate Chomsky and Herman’s distinction between wholesale and retail terrorism.]

With all of this in mind, the distinctions offered by liberation theologians in Latin America and in Palestine lead the following conclusions:

• Since it is defending the structural violence of illegal occupation (in violation, for instance, of UN Resolution 242), Israel has no justifiable claim to self-defense.
• Its present offensive in Gaza does not even qualify as (unjustifiable) “reactionary violence.”
• Rather, it represents an act of wholesale terrorism in its indiscriminate attacks on civilians, homes, schools, playgrounds, power plants, and refugee centers.
• Meanwhile Palestinians have the right to self-defense. As Chris Hedges has recently pointed out, this is supported by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and by Article III of the Geneva Convention regarding the Protection of Civilians during Time of War.
• Nevertheless suicide bombing is an act of terrorism and cannot be morally justified.
• But Zionist response is no different in moral terms and far more destructive as an act of wholesale terrorism.
• In comparison to Israel’s structural, reactionary, and terroristic violence, Hamas’ rocket fire into Israel turns out to be more symbolic than destructive. Its nearly victimless effect is to keep the Jewish population aware of the ongoing injustice of illegal occupation, of the illegal separation wall, and the seven year siege of Gaza, the largest prison camp on the face of the earth.

My conclusion to all of this is the following: It is time for media coverage to abandon their pro-Israel coverage which is itself part of the structural violence destroying Palestinian lives. Even more, it is time for peace activists everywhere to find their voices on behalf of the voiceless.

Regardless of threats to our organizations and careers, we must all speak out clearly on behalf of Palestinians and condemn ethnic cleansing by the State of Israel.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “The Siege of Gaza: A Palestinian Liberation Theology Perspective”

  1. A powerful article Mike.
    Anything I could add would only take from its clarity and strength.
    I will take the liberty however of sending it to all I know who care,


    1. Thanks, Jim. Because of the crisis in Gaza, Rabbi Lerner wasn’t able to make it to Mexico. But Rabbi Erella Chadmi spoke in his place. She had just returned from Israel. She identified Netanyahu as the initiator of this war, called the State of Israel (and its U.S. enabler) “terrorist states,” and generally supported what I wrote in that blog. The whole situation is appalling. In the face of empire, no one has the right of self-defense.


  2. Mike RS, during my Berea Israel/Palestine issues class, a Catholic priest from Ibillin was one of the teachers invited to speak (and he may in fact read your blog. Please feel free to share the following communication with him if you like).

    This gentleman spoke to many gatherings organized by the college administration to hear him. In the I/P classroom he informed the students (including me) that part of the problem is that “Jews think they are better than everyone else”. I didn’t groan out loud; I just coughed loudly. I was ashamed of every adult in the room, including myself, because I didn’t stand up and protest. On the other hand, I had already spent decades of underpaid hard work where advancement was obstructed by lack of educational credentials. This man was a favorite of many college authorities, and I wanted and needed my diploma. So I restrained myself, but I was disappointed beyond words.

    Let’s clarify a matter of principle: in my work with people of various backgrounds, people who live with various handicaps, “people first” language is emphasized as a guiding principle. I agree with this. People are individuals, not their body configurations, not their limitations, not their ethnic group, not their socioeconomic classification. Recognize an individual’s needs, speak (and think) respectfully to a person’s strengths.

    In that classroom I listened to influential adults teaching an ethnic prejudice. I was appalled. So “Jews think they are better than everyone else”? How about “Priests and Ph.Ds think they are better than everyone else?” The speaker was both of those social categories — priest and Ph.D., fluent in many languages. He is accustomed to commanding authority and advantage based on that. And if the words had been coming from an Israeli or a Jew, if an Israeli or a Jew had stood up and slammed Palestinians in front of a group who didn’t know much about either Jews OR Palestinians, he would rightfully have objected. This wasn’t peacemaking; it was teaching ethnic prejudices.


  3. Later, in a large convocation, the priest brought up a horrendous terrorist attack which occurred in Shfaram, in which one of his students was murdered. He described the terrorist as “That Jew! That Miserable Jew!” emphasizing the “Jew”. My mind flashed back to many other terror attacks I’ve heard of, where the terrorist was of a different ethnicity (including the time when a pregnant Irish woman was set up with a bomb… that bomb would have murdered me, also, by the way). Were I to have stood in front of a group of rural students to describe the crime as the work of “That Palestinian, that miserable Palestinian!” it would not have been peacemaking. It would have been incitement.

    Which brings me to another topic not covered in the US News: The case of Shelly Dadon, a young woman murdered back in June. The police accuse a man from Ibillin, a taxi driver who was last to see her alive, and who claims he didn’t do it. I don’t know, I’m not the judge, jury or God — but the family and commenters say that the manner in which Shelly Dadon was killed, points to ethnic terrorism.

    There is raw, real hatred, and all have justifications to nurse their hatred. I want it to end, but what I want is not the issue — what do the majority of people want? (Israelis will hear you as wanting more dead Jews). And if a majority decides that they want war, war is what will everyone will get — hideous, bloody war. There is no “side” that is totally innocent, no side that is totally guilty, and my small two cents, I’m neither a priest nor a Ph.d., nor a citizen of either community, though I care deeply — anyone who inflames this conflict farther will answer to God on the other side, if there we will have no passport, no body, no ethnicity, nothing but the truth of what we did/did not do to mitigate misery in this life… and we will all share in every bit of it, without exception. What a hell — and it is not just the responsibility of “ONE” group, that Miserable “Other”.


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