Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality

Avi Shlaim
7 January 2009

The only way to make sense of Israel's senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context. The establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials were aware at the time of the grave injustice perpetrated by one-sided American support for the Israelis. On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to 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 is too harsh; but Israel's vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the George W Bush administration's complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.

Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at St Antony's College, Oxford. Among his books are The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (WW Norton, 1999) and (as co-editor) The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). His most recent book is Lion of Jordan: the Life of King Hussein in War and Peace (Penguin, 2007)

Also by Avi Shlaim in openDemocracy:

"Israel, free speech, and the Oxford Union" (13 November 2007)

"Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008I 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 war of June 1967 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. The result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.

The legacy

Almost four decades of Israeli control did enormous damage to the economy of the Gaza strip. With a large population of the refugees from 1948 and their descendants crammed into a tiny sliver of land, with no infrastructure or natural resources, Gaza's prospects were never bright. Gaza, however, is not simply a case of economic underdevelopment but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development. Israel turned the people of Gaza 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.

Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Civilian 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 pre-2005 Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 compared with 1,400,000 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. The majority of the local population lived in close proximity to these foreign intruders in abject poverty and unimaginable misery. 80% of them subsist on less than $2 a day. The living conditions in the strip are an affront to civilised values, a powerful precipitant to resistance, and a fertile ground for political extremism.

In August 2005, an Israeli government of the rightwing Likud headed by Ariel Sharon staged a unilateral pullout from Gaza, withdrawing all 8,000 settlers and destroying the houses and farms they left behind. Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, exacted a price that even Israel's rightwing leaders were no longer prepared to pay. The withdrawal was a victory for Hamas and a humiliation for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). To the world, Sharon presented the withdrawal from Gaza as a contribution to peace based on a two-state solution. But in the following year, another 12,000 Israelis settled on the West Bank, further reducing the scope for an independent Palestinian state. Land-grabbing and peacemaking 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. The 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. The withdrawal from Gaza was anchored in a fundamental rejection of the Palestinian national identity, and part of a long-term effort to deny the Palestinian people any independent political existence on their land. 

Among openDemocracy's many articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" - in three parts (September 2003)

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation" (18 November 2004)

Mient Jan Faber, "Talking to terrorists in Gaza" (14 February 2005)

Eric Silver, "Israel's political map is redrawn" (25 November 2005)

Jim Lederman,  "Ariel Sharon and Israel's unique democracy" (12 January 2006)

Eóin Murray, "After Hamas: a time for politics" (30 January 2006)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Did Hizbollah miscalculate? The view from Israel" (14 July 2006)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (20 April 2007)

Eric Silver, "A united, worried Israel" (21 July 2007)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel's post-heroic disaster" (30 April 2007)

Yossi Alpher, "Israel: you can't reverse time" (7 June 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

John Strawson, Rosemary Bechler, "Palestine: the pursuit of justice" (28 January 2008)

Yossi Alpher, "Gaza's agency, Israel's choice" (29 January 2008)

Eyad Sarraj, "'Gaza is quite a dynamic place now':an interview" (29 January 2008)

Geoffrey Bindman, "Gaza: unlock this prison" (7 March 2008)

Jeroen Gunning, "Hamas: talk to them" (18 April 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

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. 

The contradiction

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 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 European Union 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 - where a significant part of the international community imposed 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.

Hamas, like other radical movements, 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 to a two-state solution. In March 2007, Hamas and Fatah (the secular-nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat until his death in November 2004) formed a national-unity government which was ready to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. Israel, however, refused to negotiate with a government which included Hamas. 

Instead, 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. Now Israel began to encourage the corrupt and pliant Fatah leaders to overthrow their religious political rivals and recapture power. Aggressive American neo-conservatives, led by Elliot Abrams, 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 deception

The war unleashed by Israel on Gaza on 27 December 2008 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 agreed 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 statehood.

The timing of the war was determined by political expediency. A general election in Israel is scheduled for 10 February 2009; as it approaches, all the main contenders are looking for an opportunity to prove their toughness. The army's commanders had been eager to deliver a crushing blow to Hamas in order to remove the stain left on their reputation by the failure of the war against Hizbollah in Lebanon in July-August 2006. Israel's cynical leaders could also count on the 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 United Nations 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"). 

True, Hamas is not an entirely innocent party in this conflict. The movement, denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, 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 in June 2008. The damage caused by these primitive rockets is minimal but the psychological impact is immense, prompting the Israeli public to demand protection from its government. Under the circumstances, Israel had the right to act in self-defence but its response to the pin-pricks of rocket attacks was totally disproportionate. The figures speak for themselves: in the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005, eleven Israelis were killed by rocket-fire; whereas in 2005-07 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians (including 222 children) in Gaza. 

Whatever the numbers, killing civilians is wrong - period. 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. Even by official estimates, almost half of the working-age population in Gaza 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 which is strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law. 

The brutality of Israel's soldiers is fully matched by the mendacity of its spokespersons. In April 2008, 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.

The problem

A wide gap separates the reality of Israel's actions from its rhetoric. It was not Hamas but the IDF that broke the ceasefire. It did so by a raid into Gaza on 4 November 2008 - the night of the presidential election in the United States - which 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. Moreover, far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty both of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year old blockade that has brought the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza 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 over 400 Palestinian and four Israelis, the gung-ho cabinet ordered a land invasion of Gaza that is ongoing and whose consequences 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. 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 that would last twenty, thirty or even fifty 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 practices 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 free to repeat the lies and mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so. 

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