Gaza Strip & the West Bank are now part of the horrific history of concentration camps

Aid workers give food to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in February 2024
Aid workers give food to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in February 2024 Photo: Shutterstock

Concentration Camp: “a camp in which people are imprisoned or confined, commonly in large groups, without trial…. Usually, those people belong to groups the government does not like.”

Throughout the collective history of concentration camps, we can identify some general conditions, including brutal working conditions, insufficient supplies of food, clean water, sanitation, rampant disease, inadequate medical services and medications, lack of freedom of movement outside the limits imposed by occupying forces, rescinded human and civil rights, and in many instances, military incursions, armaments, bombardments, and death.

When the topic of concentration camps arises, most people think of the series of armed encampments constructed and maintained under the Nazi regime in Germany and throughout its conquered territories during the 1930s until the end of World War II in 1945.

Some were designated as forced hard labor encampments, while others the Nazis constructed as massive death factories for the murder of those the regime considered undesirable. The first of these was Camp Dachau set up in March 1933, soon following Hitler’s ascension to power.  

Here, the Nazi authorities and military personnel searched for, arrested, and imprisoned individuals and groups the regime regarded as enemies of the state and as antithetical to the goals of Nazism such as communists, socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and those it defined as racially impure: non-Aryan, subhuman, including Jews, male homosexuals, Roma and Sinti, people with disabilities, and others.  

While these are arguably the most widely known, the history of concentration camps is much more extensive than we might think. Governments set up encampments in differing forms and configurations and called them different names, for example, “reeducation camps,” “internment camps,” “ghettos,” “prison campus,” “work camps,” “death camps,” “relocation camps,” “gulags,” and many others.

To paraphrase The Bard, “A concentration camp by any other name is still as horrific.”

A selected summary of concentration camps: A horrific history

The expansion of the United States republic and its movement west was, in part, justified by overriding philosophical underpinnings since the American Revolution. Called “Manifest Destiny,” it was based on the belief that God intended the United States to extend its holdings and its power across the wide continent of North America over indigenous peoples and colonial powers, from the East coast to the West. The doctrine of “manifest destiny” embraced a belief in American Anglo-Saxon superiority.

When he inhabited the White House, Andrew Jackson (who served as president from 1829 to 1837) argued that white settlers (a pleasant term for “land thieves”) had a “right” to confiscate “Indian” land. Though he proposed a combination of treaties and an exchange or trade of land, he maintained that white people had a right to claim any Indian lands that were not under cultivation. Jackson recognized as the only legitimate claims for Indian lands those on which they grew crops or made other “improvements.”

The Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830, authorized President Jackson to confiscate Native American land east of the Mississippi River, “relocate” its former inhabitants, and exchange their former land with territory west of the river. The infamous “Trail of Tears” during Jackson’s presidency attests to the forced evacuation and redeployment of entire indigenous nations. During the forced march, many died of cholera, exposure to the elements, contaminated food, and other environmental hazards.

The Naturalization Act of 1790, excluded Native American Indians from citizenship, considering them, paradoxically, as “domestic foreigners.” They were not accorded rights of citizenship until 1924, when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, though Asians continued to be denied naturalized citizenship status.

In 1838, the U.S. army searched out and arrested members of Cherokee tribes in the southeast and drove them into prison camps before “relocating” them to Oklahoma. Many indigenous peoples died in these so-called “emigration depots” due to the swift spread of diseases in poor sanitary conditions.

The plantation system and enslavement of Africans could as well be termed a form of concentration camps, from kidnapping from their native lands, transport across vast distances, dumping onto unknown territories, enslavement among harsh working conditions, meager housing, food, and medical services, suspension of all human and civil rights, rape by whites in power, separation from children and other family members, as well as torture and murder.

The Spanish army in Cuba during The Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) coined the term reconcentrados (reconcentration camps) for camps created to incarcerate prisoners of war. The Spanish reestablished these camps during the Philippine-American War (1899–1902).

The British used similar camps in the Second Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa. British officials detained Boer women and children and other Africans in internment tents in extreme conditions with little food leading to high death rates. Of the 115,000 people held in the camps between 1901-1902, approximately 28,000 died, which included 22,000 children.

During Apartheid in South Africa, the dominant white power structure treated Black and mixed-race South Africans as resident prisoners within concentration campus by restricting their movement, ownership of private property, economic development, and considering them as less than second-class citizens.

Also in Africa, Germany constructed concentration camps during the Herero and Nama War (1904–1908) in German Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia). In 1904, the German Army forced the indigenous population into arid desert lands resulting in starvation and dehydration. The Germans imprisoned the surviving Herero and Nama in concentration camps where most of them died.

The Turkish government used the Ra’s al-‘Ayn camps (also Ras ul-Ain camps) beginning in 1915 as desert death camps near Ra’s al-‘Ayn city, where the Turks deported and murdered many Armenians during what came to be known as the Armenian genocide.

To oppress its own citizens, the Soviet Union employed its so-called “gulags” between 1918 to 1991. The gulags comprised a complex of approximately 30,000 labor and internment camps. An estimated 14 million people were sent to gulags where approximately 1.7 million inmates died.

During the dissolution of what was then Yugoslavia, 1992-1996, the Bosnian Serb Army systematically assaulted Bosnian Muslim towns and villages, massacring civilians and taking many prisoners.

We do not know for certain the exact number of concentration camps developed in Bosnia to retain Muslims, though history has recorded that Omarska was the largest (holding about 3,500 prisoners), and approximately 7,000 passed through Trnopolje camp. Omarska included the mines complex located near the town of Prijedor. Many starved and perished.  

Following the Cambodian Civil War, (1970-1975) the Khmer Rouge communist ruling regime established approximately 190 “interrogation centers” during its notorious Reine in what came to be known as “the killing fields” ending in the deaths of an estimated 1,300,000 people between 1975-1979.

Following the United States’ entry into World War II at the end of 1942, reflecting the tenuous status of Japanese-Americans, some born in the United States, military officials uprooted and transported approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans to internment (concentration) camps within several interior states far from the shores.

In Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), the landmark United States Supreme Court decision ruled 6-3 that Executive Order 9066 was constitutional “as a matter of military urgency,” ordering Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II regardless of citizenship status. Not until Ronald Reagan’s administration did the U.S. officially apologize to Japanese-Americans and paid reparations amounting to $20,000 to each survivor as part of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.

The British Empire set up detention camps to crush the anti-colonial Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s.

The Chilean government attempted to exterminate socialism from the country. Under the regime of its dictator, Augusto Pinochet, during the 1970s and ’80s, the government established a network of concentration camps for the purpose of imprisoning and torturing approximately 80,000 dissidents and suspected socialists. In addition, Chile’s government created the Pisagua internment camp of northern Chile to restrain male homosexuals under the military dictatorship of General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo in 1927-1931.

Beginning in 196, the Cuban government under Fidel Castro surveilled and arrested suspected homosexuals and sent them to so-called Military Units to Aid Production, which were forced labor camps for the “crime” of “improper conduct” including men with “effeminate mannerisms,” which Castro referred to as “extravagant behavior.”

An estimated 30,000 prisoners passed through the camps, which were intended to correct their antisocial behaviors and to serve the Cuban revolution as “a project of national masculinization” for male homosexuals.

During the so-called Dirty War in Argentina during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, the military developed over 300 areas in the country to serve as secret detention centers to arrest, torture, and kill  suspected communists. Guards forced prisoners to sign over their property to them.

Between 2003-2005, in Darfur, Africa, approximately 2 million civilians were forced from their homes by the Sudanese government. An estimated 200,000 died from brutal attacks, starvation, and disease.

Fighting once again broke out in 2023, placing millions more at risk.

Beginning in 2014, the Chinese government initiated the arbitrary detention of between 1 and 1.8 million members of the Muslim Uyghur minority in concentration camps under the regime of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping.

The Chinese government has outlawed Uyghur religious practices and forced political indoctrination, mandatory sterilization, forced contraception, and involuntary abortion inside and outside of these camps.

The Gaza Strip and West Bank: modern-day concentration camps

As a queer person, but primarily as a Jew, it hurts me to feel compelled and justified in listing the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River not as virtual concentration camps, but, instead, as actual ones because these areas meet most of the conditions for concentration campus listed above.

As Jews — with our long and tortured history of forced conversion, expulsion from our lands, and eventual murder — we should by now understand the concept of oppression by committing to a moral mandate of never treating people as we were so cruelly and brutally treated. To use an analogy: We must not be the abused child who grows into a child abuser.

The establishment of concentration camps constructed to constrain the Palestinian people has been a complex process. As the examples of the various forms of camps by several governments through time, each version is somewhat distinct but in so many ways and forms, are very much similar.

There is an unlimited amount of blame to go around. The process in the establishment of the modern state of Israel by the western powers with the United Nation was tilted against the best interests and needs of the Palestinian people.

Israeli governments, past and present, created tight quarters for the millions of Palestinians. The Israeli government has severely restricted essential goods and services (like humanitarian aid) from entering the Strip, has blockaded coastal ports, and has bombed and destroyed residential areas, killing thousands of innocents during hostile times.

So called “Jewish settlers” have robbed Palestinians of their homes and their lands on the West Bank and have murdered so many.

The Hamas “governing” body has been intransigent by refusing to recognize the state of Israel, and it has continued to lob missiles into Israeli territories killing and injuring many over the years. It has also refused to negotiate in good faith with Israeli officials to attain a sustained peace settlement. On October 7, 2023, Hamas initiated a massive incursion into southern Israel, killing over 1200 people, raping women, and kidnapping over 200 people used as hostages.

It has manipulated its own civilians as human shields from Israeli bullets and bombs. It has squandered incoming aid for its own uses by building underground tunnel shelters for its fighters and diverting funds intended for humanitarian relief for the purchasing of armaments rather than food, shelter, and medicine.

Most other Arab nations have subsequently abandoned the plight of the Palestinian people over the many years of struggle.

The United States and other western nations have, for the most part, provided Israel with unconditional support with their shipments of armaments and other wartime and peacetime goods and funds. These governments have placed insufficient pressure on Israeli governments to proceed with restraint and with negotiating plans for the eventual freedom for the Palestinian people in either a one-state democratic and free country or in a two-state solution.

When the peoples of three monotheistic religious groups claim these highly contested territories as their own God-given inheritance, it seems the only thing holy that can possibly come from the so-called “Holy Lands” is that throughout millennia, warring factions have created holy hell there. And the cycle continues as does the killing on every side evoking the name of their “God.”

For in the insightful words of the great Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but It often rhymes.”

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