What Israel is doing

Thomas R Asher
3 July 2006

Israel has, once again, invaded that sorry wedge of seaside land, Gaza. There and in the Palestinian West Bank, it has arrested (kidnapped?) half of the recently elected Hamas government's ministers. Nominally, this mass destruction is to obtain the release of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, being held hostage (kidnapped?) by militant Palestinians. In fact, Israel's motives are deeper, and its incursion planned long before his capture.

Thomas R Asher is a lawyer and president of The American Council, a non-profit policy research organisation based in Amherst, Massachusetts and Washington, DC.

Also by Thomas R Asher in openDemocracy:

"Mourning in America" (8 September 2005)

Meanwhile, I, a non-observant but embedded Jewish lifer, sit comfortably in America raging at the subterfuge and harshness of "my people". Not, I must tell my Zionist friends, that I admire or find Hamas tolerable, or the Palestinian people free from blame, only that I expect more and better of Jews and of overlords – that is, of a rich and powerful nation in its dealings with poor and weak ones; especially when affluent Israel (per capita GDP $24,600) has systematically debilitated and encroached upon poor Palestinians (West Bank $1,100; Gaza $600).

In the American (and much of the western) press, the "back story", the sources and ramifications of these events, is either ignored or buried far from, or deep within, the lead coverage. The New York Times, four days after the invasion demolished Gaza's infrastructure, intensified the hunger of its people, and destroyed Palestinian government offices, headlined "Israel Steps up Gaza Raids to Free Soldier." In contrast, Ha'aretz, the liberal Israeli paper was candid in both its news (e.g. "Hamas Arrests Planned Weeks Ago", 29 June 2006) and editorials ("The government is losing its mind", 30 June). The salient facts and arguments we Americans (and many other westerners) rarely read or hear include:

  • hostages and prisoners: Israel holds in its prisons (and routinely tortures) some 9,000 Palestinians, many of whom have not been charged with a crime. These include over 300 children younger than Gilad Shalit. Over twice that number are women. Most were arrested (kidnapped?) not in Israel but in the nominally independent occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank where they live. The Palestinians are now demanding the release of many of these prisoners – as when, in February 2005, Israel released 500 Palestinians.
  • Israeli military build-up: Shalit, whose name is widely publicised in the western media, unlike thousands of anonymous Palestinian captives, was no innocent bystander. Rather, he accompanied a massing of Israeli artillery and troops along Israel's border with Gaza, which began in December 2005 and escalated some two weeks before Palestinians crossed the border and killed two of his colleagues and captured him.
  • Israel's motives: ever since the Palestinians elected a Hamas-dominated government in January 2006, Israel has taken extraordinary, legally dubious, measures to squeeze it to death and force a regime change. Israeli tactics included holding back individual work-permits and blocking government funds even for nutrition and medical care, thereby further harming innocent Palestinian people, including those in nominally free Gaza, from which Israel "withdrew" the last of its troops and settlers in August 2005.

"Weeks ago", according to sources in the Israeli media, well before Shalit was captured, Israel's cabinet decided to invade Gaza and arrest the ministers as a coup de grace to the Hamas government, and perhaps to the Palestinians' ability to self-govern whatever lands Israel - in its seemingly unlimited discretion - chooses to leave unoccupied.

These facts exist within a ragged and raging context: the Israeli border with Gaza has been a war-zone for years, with explosive materials crossing more heavily in both directions after the Palestinian elections. As usual, innocent Palestinian deaths, casualties and property destruction from Israeli fire, both errant and intentional, far exceed Palestinian damage to Israel and Israelis. In such a fraught situation, it seems academic to brand one side or the other the "aggressor."

However, Israel, as it has been for decades, is by far the more powerful party and its massing of troops, tanks and artillery on the Gaza border would be viewed by any nation as a major act of aggression – that is, if Gaza were part of a sovereign Palestinian nation, which it isn't, primarily because Israel denies its sovereignty. However, that's a deeper back story than we need here to sort out the immediate players and provocations.

So, young Gilad Shalit – who, though an armed warrior, seems personally blameless – belonged to an Israeli force brought to the Gaza border as part of a (re)conquest and regime-change plan hatched well before he was captured. Without this background, the skewed story in the American press of Israel's invasion being to "rescue" an "innocent" young Israeli soldier "kidnapped" by "terrorist" Palestinian "extremists" is on a par with "Greeks launch a thousand ships to rescue Helen from Troy."

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