January 11, 2009
It is an eye for an eyelash in Gaza
50 bodies were recovered during a three-hour ‘lull’, raising the death toll of Palestinians in Gaza to at least 763[Now more than 850], including more than 200 children, since air raids first began on December 27. More than 3,121 people have also been wounded. Eight Israeli soldiers and three civilians have died in the same period. A temporary halt in the nearly two-week Israeli offensive to allow humanitarian aid into the strip lasted from 1pm to 4pm. Explosions were heard in northern Gaza shortly after the period elapsed. Israeli bulldozers crossed into Gaza during the lull and destroyed a number of houses. Thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in the southern Gaza Strip as Israeli forces bombarded Rafah earlier on Thursday. Homes, a mosque and tunnels were hit in the area along the Egyptian border, witnesses said. The Israeli military had dropped leaflets beforehand warning it would “bomb the area due to its use by terrorists to [dig] tunnels and to stock up [on weapons]”. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) on Thursday accused the Israeli military of not helping wounded Palestinians in an incident in Gaza City that it described as “shocking”. ICRC and Palestinian Red Crescent workers said in a statement that several wounded Palestinians and four weakened children were found alongside 12 dead bodies in houses hit by shelling in Zaytun, less than 100 metres from Israeli positions. (Sources: Aljazeera.net English and Agencies. Photo: via Aljazeera.net)
Avi Shlaim | The Guardian
The only way to make sense of Israel’s senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context. Establishing the State of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state. On June 2, 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. I used to think that this judgment was too harsh but Israel’s vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the Bush administration’s complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.
I write as someone who served loyally in the Israeli Army in the mid-1960s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the State of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I utterly reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. Four decades of Israeli control did incalculable damage to the economy of the Gaza Strip. Gaza, however, is not simply a case of economic underdevelopment but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development. To use the Biblical phrase, Israel turned the people of Gaza into the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, into a source of cheap labor and a captive market for Israeli goods.
Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Jewish settlements in occupied territories are immoral, illegal and an insurmountable obstacle to peace. They are at once the instrument of exploitation and the symbol of the hated occupation.
In August 2005 a Likud government headed by Ariel Sharon staged a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza, withdrawing all 8,000 settlers and destroying the houses and farms they had left behind. To the world, Sharon presented the withdrawal from Gaza as a contribution to peace based on a two-state solution. But the real purpose behind the move was to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel by incorporating the main settlement blocs on the West Bank to the State of Israel. Withdrawal from Gaza was thus not a prelude to a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority but a prelude to further Zionist expansion on the West Bank. Israel’s settlers were withdrawn but Israeli soldiers continued to control all access to the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air. Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison.
Israel likes to portray itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet Israel has never in its entire history done anything to promote democracy on the Arab side and has done a great deal to undermine it. Israel has a long history of secret collaboration with reactionary Arab regimes to suppress Palestinian nationalism. Despite all the handicaps, the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only genuine democracy in the Arab world with the possible exception of Lebanon. In January 2006, free and fair elections for the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority brought to power a Hamas-led government. Israel, however, refused to recognize the democratically elected government, claiming that Hamas is purely and simply a terrorist organization.
America and the EU shamelessly joined Israel in ostracizing and demonizing the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid. A surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed. As so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes. Israel’s propaganda machine persistently purveyed the notion that the Palestinians are terrorists, that they reject coexistence with the Jewish state, that their nationalism is little more than anti-Semitism, that Hamas is just a bunch of religious fanatics and that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But the simple truth is that the Palestinian people are a normal people with normal aspirations. They are no better but they are no worse than any other national group. What they aspire to, above all, is a piece of land to call their own on which to live in freedom and dignity.
Like other radical movements, Hamas began to moderate its political program following its rise to power. From the ideological rejectionism of its charter, it began to move toward pragmatic accommodation of a two-state solution. In March 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government that was ready to negotiate a long-term cease-fire with Israel. Israel, however, refused to negotiate with a government that included Hamas.
It continued to play the old game of divide and rule between rival Palestinian factions. In the late 1980s, Israel had supported the nascent Hamas in order to weaken Fatah, the secular nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat. Now Israel began to encourage the corrupt and pliant Fatah leaders to overthrow their religious political rivals and recapture power. Aggressive American neoconservatives participated in the sinister plot to instigate a Palestinian civil war. Their meddling was a major factor in the collapse of the national unity government and in driving Hamas to seize power in Gaza in June 2007 to pre-empt a Fatah coup.
The war unleashed by Israel on Gaza on Dec. 27 was the culmination of a series of clashes and confrontations with the Hamas government. In a broader sense, however, it is a war between Israel and the Palestinian people, because the people had elected the party to power. The declared aim of the war is to weaken Hamas and to intensify the pressure until its leaders agree to a new cease-fire on Israel’s terms. The undeclared aim is to ensure that the Palestinians in Gaza are seen by the world simply as a humanitarian problem and thus to derail their struggle for independence and statehood.
The timing of the war was determined by political expediency. A general election is scheduled for Feb. 10 and, in the lead-up to the election, all the main contenders are looking for an opportunity to prove their toughness. The army top brass had been champing at the bit to deliver a crushing blow to Hamas in order to remove the stain left on their reputation by the failure of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in July 2006. Israel’s cynical leaders could also count on apathy and impotence of the pro-Western Arab regimes and on blind support from President George W. Bush in the twilight of his term in the White House. Bush readily obliged by putting all the blame for the crisis on Hamas, vetoing proposals at the UN Security Council for an immediate cease-fire and issuing Israel with a free pass to mount a ground invasion of Gaza.
As always, mighty Israel claims to be the victim of Palestinian aggression but the sheer asymmetry of power between the two sides leaves little room for doubt as to who is the real victim.
To be sure, Hamas is not an entirely innocent party in this conflict. Denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak — terror. Militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad kept launching Qassam rocket attacks against Israeli settlements near the border with Gaza until Egypt brokered a six-month cease-fire last June. The damage caused by these primitive rockets is minimal but the psychological impact is immense, prompting the public to demand protection from its government. Under the circumstances, Israel had the right to act in self-defense but its response to the pinpricks of rocket attacks was totally disproportionate. The figures speak for themselves. In the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire. On the other hand, in 2005-7 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.
Whatever the numbers, killing civilians is wrong. This rule applies to Israel as much as it does to Hamas, but Israel’s entire record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality toward the inhabitants of Gaza. Israel also maintained the blockade of Gaza after the cease-fire came into force which, in the view of the Hamas leaders, amounted to a violation of the agreement. During the cease-fire, Israel prevented any exports from leaving the Strip in clear violation of a 2005 accord, leading to a sharp drop in employment opportunities. At the same time, Israel restricted drastically the number of trucks carrying food, fuel, cooking-gas canisters, spare parts for water and sanitation plants, and medical supplies to Gaza. It is difficult to see how starving and freezing the civilians of Gaza could protect the people on the Israeli side of the border. But even if it did, it would still be immoral, a form of collective punishment that is strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law.
Israel carried out a series of air strikes throughout the Gaza Strip after nightfall. An Israeli air strike in the city of Gaza damaged a building that housed production and transmission facilities for a number of television stations. An Israeli military spokesperson said the building had not been targeted, though it may have sustained “collateral damage”. Israeli tanks opened fire in several locations in the Gaza Strip despite an announced three-hour “humanitarian” lull. Tanks shelled targets in Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya in the north and in the Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City. In Jabaliya, a gas station caught fire after a tank shell hit a lumber yard next door, sparking a fire that spewed thick columns of black smoke into the sky. Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier said that Israel will keep up its assault in the Gaza Strip despite a U.N. resolution calling for an immediate and durable ceasefire. Hamas rejected the decree, saying it is not in the best interest of the Palestinian people. As Israel’s military carried out dozens of deadly air raids on the Gaza Strip the death toll from ‘Operation Cast Lead’ passed the 800 mark while the 15-member Security Council gave its near unanimous approval to a resolution calling for an “immediate, durable” ceasefire leading to the “full withdrawal” of Israeli forces from Gaza. (Reference for text: Agencies. Photo: AFP)
The brutality of Israel’s soldiers is fully matched by the mendacity of its spokesmen. Eight months before launching the current war on Gaza, Israel established a National Information Directorate. The core messages of this directorate to the media are that Hamas broke the cease-fire agreements; that Israel’s objective is the defense of its population; and that Israel’s forces are taking the utmost care not to hurt innocent civilians. Israel’s spin doctors have been remarkably successful in getting this message across. But, in essence, their propaganda is a pack of lies.
A wide gap separates the reality of Israel’s actions from the rhetoric of its spokesmen. It was not Hamas but the IDF that broke the cease-fire. And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year-old blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza, now 1.5 million, to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye is savage enough. But Israel’s insane offensive against Gaza seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash. After eight days of bombing, with a death toll of more than 400 Palestinians and four Israelis, the gung-ho Cabinet ordered a land invasion of Gaza the consequences of which are incalculable.
No amount of military escalation can buy Israel immunity from rocket attacks from the military wing of Hamas. Despite all the death and destruction that Israel has inflicted on them, they kept up their resistance and they kept firing their rockets. The problem with Israel’s concept of security is that it denies even the most elementary security to the other community. This brief review of Israel’s record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practices terrorism — the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfills all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbors but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones. Politicians, like everyone else, are of course free to repeat the lies and mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so.
— Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and the author of “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World and of Lion of Jordan: King Hussein’s Life in War and Peace”.