Date: Fri Jan 09 2009 - 23:46:23 EST
Brink of catastrophe by Avi Shlaim
Avi Shlaim 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 2 June 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. The aim was to
establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military
control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of
the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.
Four decades of Israeli control did incalculable damage to the economy of
the Gaza Strip. With a large population of 1948 refugees crammed into a
tiny strip of land, with no infrastructure or natural resources, Gaza's
prospects were never bright. Gaza, however, is not simply a case of
economic under-development 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 labour and a captive market for Israeli goods. The development of
local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the
Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the
economic underpinnings essential for real political independence.
the iron wallGaza 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 Gaza,
the Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 in 2005 compared with 1.4 million
local residents. Yet the settlers controlled 25% of the territory, 40% of
the arable land and the lion's share of the scarce water resources. Cheek
by jowl with these foreign intruders, the majority of the local population
lived in abject poverty and unimaginable misery. Eighty per cent of them
still subsist on less than $2 a day. The living conditions in the strip
remain an affront to civilised values, a powerful precipitant to resistance
and a fertile breeding ground for political extremism.
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. Hamas, the Islamic
resistance movement, conducted an effective campaign to drive the Israelis
out of Gaza. The withdrawal was a humiliation for the Israeli Defence
Forces. To the world, Sharon presented the withdrawal from Gaza as a
contribution to peace based on a two-state solution. But in the year after,
another 12,000 Israelis settled on the West Bank, further reducing the
scope for an independent Palestinian state. Land-grabbing and peace-making
are simply incompatible. Israel had a choice and it chose land over peace.
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. It was a unilateral Israeli move undertaken in
what was seen, mistakenly in my view, as an Israeli national interest.
Anchored in a fundamental rejection of the Palestinian national identity,
the withdrawal from Gaza was part of a long-term effort to deny the
Palestinian people any independent political existence on their land.
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. From this point on, the Israeli air
force enjoyed unrestricted freedom to drop bombs, to make sonic booms by
flying low and breaking the sound barrier, and to terrorise the hapless
inhabitants of this prison.
Avi ShlaimIsrael 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 recognise the democratically elected government,
claiming that Hamas is purely and simply a terrorist organisation.
America and the EU shamelessly joined Israel in ostracising and demonising
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 antisemitism, 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
programme following its rise to power. From the ideological rejectionism of
its charter, it began to move towards 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 ceasefire with Israel.
Israel, however, refused to negotiate with a government that included
aviIt 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 27 December 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 ceasefire 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
The timing of the war was determined by political expediency. A general
election is scheduled for 10 February 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 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 ceasefire 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. This is indeed a conflict between
David and Goliath but the Biblical image has been inverted - a small and
defenceless Palestinian David faces a heavily armed, merciless and
overbearing Israeli Goliath. The resort to brute military force is
accompanied, as always, by the shrill rhetoric of victimhood and a farrago
of self-pity overlaid with self-righteousness. In Hebrew this is known as
the syndrome of bokhim ve-yorim, "crying and shooting".
war for palestine djTo 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 ceasefire 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-defence 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 towards the inhabitants of Gaza. Israel
also maintained the blockade of Gaza after the ceasefire came into force
which, in the view of the Hamas leaders, amounted to a violation of the
agreement. During the ceasefire, Israel prevented any exports from leaving
the strip in clear violation of a 2005 accord, leading to a sharp drop in
employment opportunities. Officially, 49.1% of the population is
unemployed. 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.
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 ceasefire agreements;
that Israel's objective is the defence 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 ceasefire. It
did so by a raid into Gaza on 4 November that killed six Hamas men.
Israel's objective is not just the defence of its population but the
eventual overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza by turning the people
against their rulers. 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
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.
war and peace in the middle east djNo 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. This is a
movement that glorifies victimhood and martyrdom. There is simply no
military solution to the conflict between the two communities. The problem
with Israel's concept of security is that it denies even the most
elementary security to the other community. The only way for Israel to
achieve security is not through shooting but through talks with Hamas,
which has repeatedly declared its readiness to negotiate a long-term
ceasefire with the Jewish state within its pre-1967 borders for 20, 30, or
even 50 years. Israel has rejected this offer for the same reason it
spurned the Arab League peace plan of 2002, which is still on the table: it
involves concessions and compromises.
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 practises
terrorism - the use of violence against civilians for political purposes.
Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear
it. Israel's real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian
neighbours 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.
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