Gaza: the Israel-United States connection

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 January 2009

The Gaza war moves into the middle of its second week with Israeli ground forces driving further into the territory. The increasing civilian death-toll and the deepening humanitarian crisis are fuelling diplomatic attempts to halt the conflict. In this poised situation, Israel's military and political leaders are faced with the choice of whether to shift their focus towards an early endgame or to intensify their campaign.Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 20

Among the options available to them is to move towards a full-scale reoccupation of the whole of the Gaza strip. This may even be deemed necessary - for despite a thousand Israeli airstrikes and formidable artillery bombardments, Hamas is still launching forty or more rockets each day towards southern Israel. In response, the Israeli government may have no other option than reoccupation to avoid what could otherwise be seen by domestic critics and government opponents as a failed operation (see Aluf Benn, "Israel is on its way to reoccupying all of the Gaza Strip", Ha'aretz, 6 January 2009).  

The chances of such a further extension of Israeli war aims may recede if international pressure for a ceasefire increases in light of (for example) the assessment by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC's) that a "full-blown humanitarian crisis" is unfolding, or more civilian loss of life of the kind inflicted on a school in Jabaliya refugee camp on 6 January 2009. Israel has responded to the voicing of concern over the predicament of Gaza's beleaguered people by announcing a daily three-hour halt to its bombardments to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is neededAt the same time, diplomatic efforts (including an Egyptian-French initiative) to secure a ceasefire are escalating. There are various proposals available that could offer a limited way forward, such as the International Crisis Group briefing of 5 January (see "Ending the War in Gaza", 5 January 2009).

Whether the domestic Israeli political reaction to the unfolding war, and in particular diverse views among its leadership, will lead in the direction of restraint remains to be seen (see Donald Macintyre, "So what will it take for Israel to stop fighting?", Independent, 7 January 2009). The dangers of  what one astute analyst calls "the euphoria trap" may yet be recognised (see Aluf Benn, "The euphoria point", Ha'aretz, 7 January 2009). But it must be recalled that Israel retains the strong support of what remains of the George W Bush administration, and in current circumstances United States pressure is the only external influence on Israel that is likely to affect its military calculations.

The al-Qaida factor

The Israeli problem in part stems from the ability of the Hamas paramilitaries to continue launching rockets in spite of the extraordinary intensity of the initial air attacks. In the first four minutes of the surprise attack which started the war on 27 December 2008, the Israeli air force used eighty-eight aircraft in simultaneous raids on 100 pre-planned targets (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "In Gaza, Both Sides Reveal New Gear", Defense News, 5 January 2009). 400 more targets were hit in the following six days, yet the rockets have kept coming, some reaching more than forty kilometres into southern Israel. All of this means that the war may yet continue for many days. In that event the eventual impact would go well beyond the immediate region, with even al-Qaida seeking to benefit (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "Al-Qaeda sniffs opportunity in Gaza", Asia Times, 6 January 2009).  

Until recently, most of al-Qaida's efforts were focused on trying to shape developments in southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, with important connections also being made in Yemen and Somalia. Al-Qaida may have repeatedly emphasised its fundamental opposition to Zionism, but Palestinian aspirations were never central to the movement. Even now, the most likely source of benefit for al-Qaida in the war over Gaza would be less an increasing presence within the Palestinian territories than a sharpening of opposition within Egypt to the Hosni Mubarak regime's perceived indulgence of Israel (see Roula Khalaf, "Cairo's balancing act over Gaza", Financial Times, 6 January 2009).

But the advantage al-Qaida might gain from the Gaza war of 2008-09 may go further. For an emerging and widespread public interpretation of the conflict across the middle east draws on evidence of the more than seven years of "war on terror" to place what is happening in Gaza in a wider context, in a way that can be used to reinforce the movement's worldview.

A joint enterprise

What is happening in Gaza, according to this general perspective, is that it is not an Israeli war but a joint operation by the United States and Israel. Thus, the F-16 strike aircraft and the Apache helicopter-gunships are seen less as Israeli aircraft but as American aircraft with Israeli markings. This in turn feeds into the wider perception of a generalised war against Islam being conducted by a crusader-Zionist opponent that must be resisted by all means possible. From this outlook, it is Hamas that is on the frontline of the moment and deserving of increased support.

This is a deeply embedded worldview. What makes it more potent is that it is grounded in many elements of US-Israeli cooperation that are clear and beyond controversy. As a number of columns in this series have reported, the military connections between Washington and Tel Aviv that predated the war in Iraq that began in 2003 were hugely boosted as US forces ran full-tilt into an urban insurgency in Iraq.

The Israeli military assaults on West Bank towns in 2002, for example, had been of especial value in providing lessons for the US (see "The widening possibility of war", [3 April 2002] and "Israel's strategy: the impotence of arms" [10 April 2002]). By December 2003, detailed discussions were underway between the US Army's Training and Doctrine Command (Tradoc) and the Israeli Defence Forces to enable the US army to learn from Israel's experience in controlling the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza (see "After Saddam, no respite", 19 December 2003).

By 2004, the US armed forces in Iraq were benefiting from Israeli tactics and the use of Israeli weapons and surveillance systems. Israeli forces were even reported to be training Kurdish militias within Iraq (see "Iraq's Israeli factor", 7 July 2004). All of this was music to the ears of al-Qaida propagandists who could represent the Iraq war as a straightforward crusader-Zionist campaign to take over the heart of the Arab world, including Baghdad - the original seat of the renowned Abbasid caliphate of the early centuries of Islam.

The ripples of war

This narrative has a powerful and enduring resonance in many contemporary zones of conflict and tension. It has an immediate purchase in relation to the current war in Gaza, where the nature of United States-Israeli involvement in Iraq has resulted in other forms of cooperation that are now being tested in this fresh theatre of combat.   

in 2005, as another column in this series reported, the Israeli army began to construct a complete "Arab" town, known as Baladia, in the Negev desert (see "A tale of two towns", 21 June 2006). Baladia, built in terrain very similar to Gaza - and complete with mosques, a market, densely-packed housing, narrow alleyways and even a mock refugee camp - was opened in mid-2007 as Israel's National Urban Training Centre. Many of the Israeli troops currently fighting in Gaza will have spent time there, in facilities "used to train infantry in the type of house-to-house and subterranean combat expected in Gaza, southern Lebanon and other theaters" (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Israel Upgrades Training Center Capabilities", Defense News, 1 December 2008).

But Baladia's real importance in the current context is that the whole facility was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, and paid for mainly by US military aid. Its first commander, Brigadier-General Uzi Moskovitch said: "This is something developed by us in cooperation with the US army; we intend for it to become a valuable centre of knowledge that will also benefit our American allies and other friends" (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Marines to train at new Israeli combat center", Marine Corps Times, 25 June 2007).

Few people in the United States or western Europe are aware of Baladia or its significance across the middle east. But many in the region are; and it is just one example that can be cited to represent the Gaza war as the closing chapter of the George W Bush administration's war on terror and its assault on Islam (see Shelly Paz, "IDF builds fake Muslim city to prepare for war", Jerusalem Post, 22 January 2007).  

The next chapters remain to be written. Perhaps there will be a change in style after Barack Obama's inauguration on 20 January; perhaps there will even be a change in substance. But whatever happens in the next few days and weeks, the Gaza war of 2008-09 is likely to resonate across the region for many years to come as a case-study of the actions and intentions of the "far enemy" and its local proxy.

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