One year after Gaza War, causes of the conflict remain unaddressed

BY NIMER SULTANY

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One year after the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, the territory is still strangled by a comprehensive, tightening siege. And the consequences of last winter’s war, which ran from December 27th to January 18th, have been few. Despite the horrific outcomes and images of civilian death and destruction caused by Israel, war criminals are still at large, and numerous reports by well-known human rights organizations and independent international bodies have done little to effect accountability and freedom.

Egypt has started to build a seven-mile-long underground steel wall with the assistance of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Israel has further defied international norms by dismissing the UN’s Goldstone Report on abuses of humanitarian law during the conflict offhand. It refuses to conduct an independent inquiry into the Report’s findings. Israel has also been trying to prevent foreign judicial inquiries into such crimes.  

The defenders of Israel’s strategy continue to employ the same mundane arguments they have used in the past. These arguments divert the discussion from substance to procedure by claiming bias and selectivity on the part of international bodies, or by using ad hominem attacks. This time, however, the attacks won’t work as they have in the past.

The internationally-revered jurist and self-proclaimed Zionist Judge Richard Goldstone headed the United Nations fact finding mission on the Gaza onslaught, which produced the Report that bears his name. He insisted that the mandate of his committee be expanded to include crimes committed by both Israelis and Palestinians. The Report is not only explicit in its criticisms of both Israel and Hamas, it even assumes that Israel acted in self-defense. Considering this, it is difficult to believe that the Israeli government’s allegations of bias and its reasons for refusing to engage with the Report are sincere.

But critics of the Goldstone Report trivialize the gravity of the war crimes it documents by claiming that civilian deaths and destruction of infrastructure were not a matter of policy, but of the misconduct of a minority of soldiers. This explanation is dubious for several reasons. First, while one soldier who stole a credit card from a Palestinian home was prosecuted, no soldiers were punished for killing Palestinians. The Israeli military has failed to publicly hold these so-called “rogue soldiers” accountable. Second, the large numbers of casualties, the enormous and wanton destruction of property and the targeting of civilian infrastructure by the Israeli army in the 2006 war on Lebanon and the onslaught on Gaza indicate that these attacks are deliberate. As the Report mentions, many statements by Israeli officials support this conclusion. The Israelis have even codenamed their strategy: the Dahiya Doctrine.

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Yet legitimate complaints that Israeli aggression against Gaza has been disproportionate or is counter-productive are not effective rebuttals to the Israeli government’s self-justifications. In fact, these lines of argument presuppose that Israel was, at least in part, justified in its “defensive security operation”. When focused on these objections, the dispute revolves around the numbers of Palestinian civilians Israel would have been “justified” in killing.

Israel was not justified in its aggression for more profound reasons than these arguments reveal, regardless of the horrendous outcome of the onslaught. (Around 1400 Palestinians killed were and 5320 wounded and thousands of houses destroyed or damaged.) Israel is not a peace-seeking state acting in self-defense and Hamas is not an irrational fundamentalist or terrorist movement that wants to annihilate Israel. As I will argue below, both perceptions are, at base, crucially misleading.

Israel has proven throughout its history that it has an expansionist plan to control as much Arab land as possible. Israel never acknowledged its status as an occupier and thus refused to apply the Geneva Conventions, claiming that the Palestinian territories are contested areas. It even refers to Palestinian territories by their Biblical names: Judea and Samaria. Israeli settlements (121, plus those in East Jerusalem) and their “natural growth” (479,000 settlers) aim at creating facts on the ground that enable Israel to control as much land as possible. Credible estimates suggest Israel has invested $100 billion in developing Jewish-only infrastructure inside the West Bank. A state that intends a temporary occupation would hardly make such investments.

As historian Avi Shlaim demonstrated in his book The Iron Wall, Israeli governments have worked under a strategy according to which time is on the Zionists’ side: the natives will be overwhelmed by the power of the settlers, ultimately internalizing their subjugation and capitulating to the new reality of power. This means there is no need for peace agreements, and  explains Israel’s rejection of numerous peace deals through its history. Israel’s refusal to engage with the Arab peace proposal emerging from the Beirut summit in 2002 was only one of the most recent examples of this policy.

The history of Palestine, then, is the story of the escalation of Israeli power. The International Court of Justice recognized this in its July 2004 ruling on the construction of Israel’s “separation wall”. The ICJ considered the wall part of an Israeli policy to alter the demographic composition of the Occupied Territories, a policy tantamount to a de facto annexation. The ICJ emphasized the detrimental effects of these policies on the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Israeli policies make the prospects for the realization of this right unrealistic.

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Even the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the so-called disengagement plan, sought to entrench the colonization of the West Bank. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, described the withdrawal from Gaza, in an interview with Haaretz in August 2004, as “the freezing of the political process”:  “And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state… has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with [President Bush’s] authority and permission… and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

Thus, describing Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza as a prelude to further withdrawals and a peace agreement is patently false.

Note that the withdrawal from Gaza did not mean that Israel relinquished control of every aspect of life in the territory. A report by the Israeli organization Gisha listed the administrative aspects which Israel continues to control there: not only its territorial waters, airspace, border crossings, fuel, and electricity, but also Palestinians’ population registry (which determine who is a “resident” of Gaza), and even taxes and the transfer of tax revenues. Through these policies, notes Sara Roy, Israel continues to exploit and “de-develop” the Gazan economy as it has done for decades.

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Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni have repeatedly said in recent years that they believe in the right of the Jewish people to all the “Land of Israel”, but they understand the need for “compromise.” Ironically, Hamas’s statements practically mirror these: it believes in the right of the Palestinian people to all the land of Palestine, but is willing to offer long-term cease-fire agreements. The fact that Hamas is willing to offer cease-fire agreements undermines the argument that it is committed to the destruction of Israel. But Hamas’s proposals have been dismissed by successive Israeli governments from Yitzhak Rabin on.

The fact that Hamas refuses to “recognize Israel” is also unsurprising. For one, a focus on Hamas’s charter, which states this policy, is a reductionist view, concentrating on an anachronistic document, which ignores the evolution of Hamas’s think
ing and politics since drafting the charter. Khaled Hroub, the author of a book on Hamas, has refuted such simplistic claims by discussing more recent documents produced by Hamas.

More importantly, what Israel is demanding is recognition of its ideological character as a Jewish state. In other words, Hamas is not asked to recognize Israel as a de facto entity; Israel already has de facto recognition by virtue of its tanks, warplanes and bulldozers. Rather, Hamas is asked to recognize the current, ethnically-exclusivist ideological character of Israel and the legitimacy of the Zionist project that displaced the Palestinians. Hamas is asked to renounce the history of the Palestinian people as a precondition for negotiations. 

From a Palestinian perspective, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means both rejecting the Palestinian right to return and perpetuating the subordination of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Rejecting the right to return before the negotiations even start aborts such negotiations or renders them meaningless. Thus, the fact that Hamas rejected Oslo and refuses to recognize the exclusive Jewishness of Israel has little to do with religious fundamentalism.

In any event, it’s ironic that the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are corrupt dictators, but they are seen as “moderates”. Hamas, on the other hand, has not been shown to be corrupt, was elected democratically and has never attacked any targets outside Palestine and Israel. Nonetheless, it is considered “extremist.”  The criterion for “extremism” is not disregard for human rights, otherwise the states of Egypt and Saudi Arabia deserve the same label. Rather, the criterion is the rejection of Israeli dictates.

At the same time, Israel and the United States have also fragmented Palestinian politics by actively encouraging so-called “moderates” and isolating so-called “extremists,” aborting attempts to form a unity government. As Vanity Fair reported in April 2008, Hamas was reacting to a staged coup d’état when it took control of Gaza. The “moderates” in Ramallah refused Hamas’ call for a unity government under pressure from the previous Bush administration and Israel.

In fact, ever since Hamas came to power in January 2006, through democratic elections, Israel had boycotted its government, withheld Palestinian tax money, imprisoned and assassinated dozens of Hamas’ parliament and cabinet members, imposed a tight blockade that resulted in a humanitarian crisis, and made the lives of 1.5 million Palestinians (52% of whom are children) living in what is effectively an open-air jail, making them totally dependent on Israeli political demagogues and security technocrats. Finally, Israel violated the June 2008 cease fire by attacking a tunnel under Gaza’s border in November 2008, killing Hamas members in a prelude to its large-scale onslaught on Gaza that was long in the making.

Both the 2006 Lebanon war and the Gaza onslaught should be understood in this context. Israel wanted to make any opposition and resistance to its hegemony costly in terms of civilian life and thereby to strengthen the so-called “moderate” camp. According to this logic, only when the Arabs and Palestinians recognize the impossibility of defeating Israel will they accept the fait accompli designed by Israel. Thus, Israel did not attack Gaza to end Hamas’ rocket attacks. This could have been achieved by observing the cease-fire agreement and lifting the siege that is strangling Gaza. Rather, it aimed at crushing any resistance to its domination.

Those who are busy justifying Israeli actions as if Israel were a well-meaning occupier want us to focus on Palestinian violence instead of the siege; on the symptoms (resistance) rather than the root cause of the conflict (the occupation), and on one Israeli soldier captured by Palestinians rather than the thousands of Palestinian prisoners. By doing so, they legitimate the oppressive actions of the longest military occupation since World War II, an occupation that even decides, as Haaretz reported in November 2009, when and whether Palestinians can eat pumpkin, chocolate or pasta.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his letter from Birmingham: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is… the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for someone else’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’.”

Similarly, Palestinians should not be asked to wait for their freedom. Instead, all those who hold equality, freedom and justice dearly should support their struggle and help them obtain it.

Nimer Sultany is an S.J.D. candidate and a Palestinian citizen of Israel.

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