By Artchil B. Fernandez
There is an eerie parallel with what is happening in Gaza today and what occurred in Samar 122 years ago. The historical similarity is so apparent that putting both events side by side is one way to understand the current flare-up of conflict in Palestine.
On 28 September 1901, 74 soldiers of Company C, 9th United States (US) Infantry Regiment were having an early morning breakfast. Samar was their latest posting, the last American soldiers to leave China in the latter years of the Boxer Rebellion. Suddenly, church bells pealed furiously, a signal for Filipino freedom fighters in the vicinity to attack the unsuspecting Americans.
The surprise attack completely caught off-guard the US soldiers. They have been in Balangiga for six weeks with no single encounter with guerillas. Complacency and failure of intelligence may have made the Americans lower their guard. The result was a rout. Thirty-six soldiers were killed in action, eight later died from their wounds and four were missing. It was the biggest loss of the US military since the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
US press called the incident “Balangiga Massacre.” Cries for blood and vengeance dominated American public discourse. In retaliation, the US launched the infamous “March across Samar” led by the notorious Gen. Jacob Smith. Turning the interior of Samar into a howling wilderness was Smith’s order to avenging American soldiers. “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me” (Jones, 2013).
Asked to clarify the age limit, Gen. Smith charged all Filipino males 10 years and above be killed. What followed was an orgy of violence in awful retribution. “Suspected guerillas and their supporters were shot on sight in their fields and homes, their villages burned, food supplies destroyed and livestock slaughtered” (Jones, 2013). American historians placed civilian casualties to 2,500 while Filipino historians estimated between 5,000 to 50,000 Filipinos lost their lives in the “March across Samar.”
Presence of Company C of the 9th US Infantry Regiment in Samar was not a leisure tour. They were part of the 126,000 troops the US government sent to occupy and annex the Philippines. The US bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million notwithstanding Filipinos have already established the first republic in Asia at that time. This was ignored by the US in pursuit of its imperial and colonial design.
The attack of Filipino guerillas on US soldiers in Balangiga was part of the Philippine-American War that raged from 1899 to 1902. The US was an occupying power bent on colonizing the Philippines against the will of Filipinos. From the Filipino perspective, it was a war in defense of their freedom. The US on the other hand is determined to join the imperialist club with a colony of its own.
What happened in Balangiga is analogous with the October 7, 2023 incident where Hamas launched surprise attacks on Israel from Gaza. The right-wing Israeli government was caught with its pants down, shattering the myth of Israel’s much-vaunted military and intelligence invincibility. Around 1,400 Israelis, most them civilians perished in the attacks and 200 were also taken as hostages.
The Hamas attacks must be viewed within the context of the overall struggle of Palestinians to defend their land and create a state of their own. For more than 50 years, Israel occupied and annexed their lands in addition to the system of apartheid imposed on them. Gaza had been under Israeli land, air, and sea blockade for 17 years. Caging millions accompanied by cruel and inhuman treatment has consequences.
Israel’s right-wing government response to Hamas attacks is ruthless. Daily, it rained bombs on Gaza and cut off electricity, water, food, medicines and other essential necessities to the 2.2 million people living there. To date, 8,485 Palestinians were killed and more than 21,000 were injured by savage bombings, more than half of them children.
Vowing “mighty vengeance,” the right-wing Israeli government is waging collective punishment on Palestinians for the act of one group. Hamas action is being used by right-wingers in Israel in control of government to justify and pursue their policy of extermination, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid against the Palestinians.
Collective punishment is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law. Article 33 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 explicitly states that “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”
Israeli right-wing government does not distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian population as a whole in its hunger for revenge. How many Palestinian women and children need to die to satisfy Israel’s thirst for blood? Will slaughtering 2.2 million be enough to quell the ferocity of Netanyahu and the right-wingers or killing the entire Palestinian population (13 million) is the only way to placate their bloodlust?
Israel is turning Gaza, presently the biggest open-air prison in the world, into the largest global cemetery in the same way the US turned Samar into a howling wilderness. However, such barbarity comes with a price. Gen. Smith and his officers were court-martialed when their brutalities in Samar were exposed. This is a stern warning to the right-wing Israeli government.
The world will not allow the Netanyahu government to butcher tens of thousands of Palestinians indiscriminately. Eventually, Netanyahu and his gang will have their Nuremberg moment, charged with crimes against humanity like Goring and cahoots. With its holocaust against the Palestinians, the right-wing government of Israel is on its way to join Nazi Germany in the Hall of Infamy.