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Reviewed by Lyndall Herman, PhD candidate, School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies; research associate, SISMEC, University of Arizona
Nation Books, 2015. 272 pages. $25.00, hardcover.
Max Blumenthal's The 51-Day War provides a gripping narrative of the 2014 Israeli summer offensive in the Gaza Strip. In particular, Blumenthal highlights the voice of everyday Gazans and their experiences during the war, making this book a unique contribution to the already saturated field of commentary on the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the basis of his press credentials, Blumenthal was granted access to the Gaza Strip at a time when other outside observers (primarily representatives of international organizations, but also researchers) by and large were not. This access allowed Blumenthal to present the stories of the devastation that had so disproportionately affected the civilian population of Gaza. These firsthand accounts of war are interspersed with Blumenthal's experiences of "becoming the news," as the conflict reignites around him and his team during their time in Gaza. The volume's concise chapters focus on different incidents throughout the war, primarily atrocities against the civilian population, giving the book an accessible format.
The strength of this book is in the stories that relay the suffering and the commensurate displays of strength and tenacity that Blumenthal encounters during his interactions with the population of Gaza. The narrative is at times frenetic, as the author moves throughout the Strip to cover the campaign's various military offensives. This is offset through the firsthand accounts of life in the aftermath of destruction. Having heard many similar stories during my own two years working in Gaza, in particular following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, I was appreciative of the sensitivity with which these raw narratives are presented. From the wrenching organized interviews with representatives of families who lost more than 10 members to the presentation of spur-of-the-moment heated discussions between colleagues over coffee and cigarettes, The 51-Day War explores the more relatable aspects of common inconveniences (power and water outages, for example), taken to extremes: electricity for two or three hours a day, if you're lucky, and brackish water that contains raw sewage. And then there are the completely unfathomable aspects of life in Gaza: hospitals and schools destroyed by missiles and tank fire. Blumenthal's recounting of the use of tank-shell casings for ashtrays as an every day occurrence, the repurposing of war materiel, grabs the reader.
The strongest testimony comes in the final chapter. Here, Blumenthal discusses his interactions with a professor of literature from the Islamic University in Gaza City, Refaat Alareer, during a tour of the western United States earlier in 2014. Alareer tells Blumenthal that his first face-to-face interactions with Jews occurred during this visit to America, despite having lived in the Gaza Strip his whole life. It is these interactions that encourage Alareer to return to Gaza and assign literature by Jewish-Israeli authors and other works to "educate Gaza youth out of the narrow prejudices spawned in the seedbed of siege and occupation." Despite substantial personal losses during the 2014 war, including the death of his brother and brother-in-law and the destruction of large parts of the university where he worked, Alareer maintained this approach, inviting one of Blumenthal's colleagues to visit his classroom in late 2014. This small glimpse of an instructor trying to challenge a system that encourages hatred towards the other closes out the book on a note of hope. For all of the despair and suffering that is presented throughout, there are the recollections of the inestimable hospitality of Gaza — the offering of tea even when sitting in the ruins of your own home — the hope of reconstruction and the desire for a better future.
Blumenthal sees this particular round of conflict as stemming directly from the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in the West Bank during June 2014. This particular incident was seized upon by the current Israeli administration as a means to initiate another round of fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This chain of causality, however, does not adequately address certain developments in the territories and neighboring states at the time, in particular, the evolving relationship between Israel and the new Egyptian regime headed by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. There is only brief mention of General Sisi's regime, no more then two or three sentences in a half-dozen places in the book. This is probably Blumenthal's most significant lapse. A more thorough discussion of the reasons behind the compelling role that the Egyptian regime played in facilitating the conflict in Gaza would have strengthened the book. Reflections provided by the individuals interviewed on the role of Egypt in exacerbating the conflict would also be a unique contribution.
There is also a disproportionate focus on the official Israeli discourse before and during the conflict. From the introductory chapter, leading Israeli academic, policy and military voices are presented to explain the offensive. No official Palestinian voices are presented until page 137, when Mahmoud Abbas is quoted from the Cairo peace talks castigating Hamas for continuing to fire rockets at Israel. Ismail Haniyeh is not heard from until 40 pages later, during a discussion of the celebratory parades at the end of the war. The exception to this gap is the presentation and discussion of the Twitter feed and pronouncements from the Al Qassam Brigades. More statements of Palestinian officials would have been an important addition, given the polarized Palestinian politics during the war. Similarly, there is almost no discussion of Israeli opinions or experiences during the war. There is one brief encounter with the leftist peace movement that is a commentary on the troubling rise of the nationalist religious right in Israel and their increasingly violent tendencies. There are no conversations with Israelis living in the kibbutzim neighboring Gaza, nor Israeli perspectives on the war. While mass marches for peace did not take place during this war, it is troubling that fewer than 10 pages are devoted to discussing the diversity of opinions pertaining to this war.
Despite these shortcomings, Blumenthal's raw and captivating account of the 2014 war is a unique contribution to the literature. As the book provides minimal background information and no general overview of the situation in Gaza prior to the war, it is most appropriate for a readership already well-versed on the conflict. Readers without much background in the political dynamics of the Gaza Strip post-2007 might struggle with the geographic and political particularities, but will still benefit from the personal narratives presented.