The Latest Gaza Catastrophe: Will They Ever Learn?


[This post is an updated
version of an article published in the online English edition of Al Jazeera, 17
Nov 2012, taking account of some further developments in the new horrifying
unfolding of violence in Gaza.]

 President Obama, upon his arrival today in Bangkok at the start of a state
visit to several Asian countries, reminded the world of just how unconditional
U.S. support for Israel remains. Obama was quoted as saying, “There is no
country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from
outside of its borders. We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend
itself.” Much is missing from such a sentiment, most glaringly, the absence of
any balancing statement along the following line: “and no country would
tolerate the periodic assassination of its leaders by missiles fired by a
neighboring country, especially during a lull achieved by a mutually agreed
truce. It is time for both sides to end the violence, and establish an
immediate ceasefire.”

But instead of such statesmanship from this newly elected leader what we hear
from Ben Rhodes, his Deputy National Security Advisor, who is traveling with
the president in Asia is the following: that the rockets from Gaza are “the
precipitating factor for the conflict. We believe Israel has a right to defend
itself, and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics they use in that
regard.” Of course, these tactics up to this point have involved attacking a
densely urbanized population with advanced weaponry from air and sea, targeting
media outlets, striking residential structures, and killing and wounding many
civilians, including numerous children. Since when does ‘the right to defend
oneself’ amount to a license to kill and wound without limit, without some
clear demonstration that the means of violence are connected with the goals
being sought, without a requirement that force be exclusively directed against
military targets, without at least an expression of concern about the
proportionality of the military response? To overlooks such caveats in the
present context in which Gaza has no means whatsoever defend itself indicates
just how unconditional is the moral/legal blindfold that impairs the political
wisdom and the elemental human empathy of the American political establishment.

The statement by Rhodes signals a bright green light to the Netanyahu
government to do whatever it wishes as far as Washington is concerned, and
omits even a perfunctory mention of the relevance of international law. It
presumes American exceptionalism, now generously shared with Israel, that
doesn’t even have to bother justifying its behavior, conveying to the world an
imperial directive that what would be treated as unspeakable crimes if
committed by others are matters of discretion for the United States and its
closest governmental associates.

And what Netanyahu proposes is as chilling as it is criminal: to “significantly
expand” what he calls Israel’s “Gaza operation” and what I call “the killing
fields of Gaza.” This idea that a state defends itself by such an all out
attack on an undefended society is humanly unacceptable, as well as being a
mandate for future retaliation and festering hatred. Operation Cast Lead was
launched in December 2008 to contribute to Israeli security, but instead led
Hamasto acquire the kind of
longer range rockets that are now posing genuine threats to Israel’s major
cities. The unfolding logic of the conflict is that in a few years, Israel will
be confronted by more sophisticated rockets capable of eluding the Iron Dome
and accurately pinpointing their intended targets. This deadly logic of the war
system continues to guide strategists and military planners in Washington and
Tel Aviv, and ignores the string of political failures that marks recent
American history from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The world has changed since the
good old colonial days of gunboat diplomacy, and the history-making reality of
military superiority. Will they ever learn?

What should have been clear long ago is that Israeli security is not achieved
by guns and missiles, nor incidentally are Hamas’ goals reached by rockets. The
only clear path to security is to follow a ceasefire with some mutual
assurances of nonviolent coexistence, a lifting of the blockade of Gaza, an
acceptance by Israel (and the United States) of both Hamas and the Palestian
Authorityas political actors,
freezing all settlement construction, and a revival of negotiations on the
basis of a commitment to produce a sustainable and just peace in accordance
with Palestinian and Israeli rights under international law, above all the
Palestinian right of self-determination. Depicting such a moderate approach to
security for these two peoples highlights just how pathological present
patterns of ‘acceptable’ behavior have become.

Israel’s policies seemed almost calculated to increase future ‘insecurity’ for
its people and the region. There is a slow ongoing mobilization of the region
in support of Palestinian claims well expressed by the diplomatic
re-positioning of Egypt and Turkey. It will be become much more difficult
for the United States to insulate Israel from the consequences of its future
aggressions against the Palestinians. This is partly because it is likely that
the next time, militants hostile to Israel will be better armed, as was true
for Hezbollah after the 2006 Lebanon Warand
for Hamas since the 2008-09 Gaza attacks, and partly because the balance of
regional forces is tilting quickly against Israel.

These speculations make such obvious points that most Israeli strategists must
be assumed to have appreciated them. It makes one wonder whether it is wrong to
think of this latest surge of Israeli violence as primarily motivated by security considerations.
Perhaps other motivations have greater weight: diverting attention from
annexationist moves in the West Bank; reinforcing the Netanyahu claims to be
the gallant protector of the nation; removing any pressure on Israel to uphold
Palestinian rights; reminding Iran yet again of the militarized fury of an
antagonized Israel assured of U.S. support.]

  – – the text of the Al Jazeera article is
reproduced below – – 

The media double standards in the West on the new and tragic Israeli escalation
of violence directed at Gaza were epitomized by an absurdly partisan New York
Times front page headline: “Rockets Target Jerusalem; Israel girds for 
Gaza Invasion.” (NYT, 16 Nov 2012) Decoded
somewhat, the message is this: Hamas is the aggressor, and Israel when and if
it launches a ground attack on Gaza must expect itself to be further attacked
by rockets. This is a stunningly Orwellian re-phrasing of reality. The true situation
is, of course, quite the opposite: namely, that the defenseless population of
Gaza can be assumed now to be acutely fearful of an all out imminent Israeli
assault, while it is also true, without minimizing the reality of a threat,
that some rockets fired from Gaza fell harmlessly (although with admittedly
menacing implications) on the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There is
such a gross disproportion in the capacity of the two sides to inflict damage
and suffering due to Israeli total military dominance as to make perverse this
reversal of concerns to what might befall Israeli society if the attack on
Gaza further intensifies.

The reliance by Hamas and the various Gaza militias on indiscriminate, even if
wildly inaccurate and generally harmless, rockets is a criminal violation of
international humanitarian law, but the low number of casualties caused and the
minor damage caused, needs to be assessed in the overall context of massive
violence inflicted on the Palestinians. The widespread non-Western perception
of the new cycle of violence involving Gaza is that it looks like a repetition
of Israeli aggression against Gaza in late 2008, early 2009, that similarly
fell between the end of American presidential elections and scheduled Israeli
parliamentary elections.

There is the usual discussion over where to locate responsibility for the
initial act in this renewed upsurge violence. Is it some shots fired from Gaza
across the border and aimed at an armored Israeli jeep or was it the targeted
killing by an Israeli missile of Ahmed al-Jabani, leader of the military wing
of Hamas, a few days later? Or some other act by one side or the other? Or is
it the continuous violence against the people of Gaza arising from the blockade
that has been imposed since mid-2007? The assassination of al-Jabani came a few
days after an informal truce that had been negotiated through the good offices
of Egypt, and quite ironically agreed to by none other than al-Jabani acting on
behalf of Hamas. Killing him was clearly intended as a major provocation,
disrupting a carefully negotiated effort to avoid another tit-for-tat sequence
of violence of the sort that has periodically taken place during the last
several years. An assassination of such a high profile Palestinian political figure
as al-Jahani is not a spontaneous act. It is based on elaborate surveillance
over a long period, and is obviously planned well in advance partly with the
hope of avoiding collateral damage, and thus limiting unfavorable publicity.
Such an extra-judicial killing, although also part and parcel of the new
American ethos of drone warfare, remains an unlawful tactic of conflict,
denying adversary political leaders separated from combat any opportunity to
defend themselves against accusations, and implies a rejection of any
disposition to seek a peaceful resolution of a political conflict. It amounts
to the imposition of capital punishment without due process, a denial of
elementary rights to confront an accuser.

Putting aside the niceties of law, the Israeli leadership knew exactly what it
was doing when it broke the truce and assassinated such a prominent Hamas
leader, someone generally thought to be second only to the Gaza prime minister,
Ismail Haniya. There have been rumors, and veiled threats, for months that the
Netanyahu government plans a major assault of Gaza, and the timing of the
ongoing attacks seems to coincide with the dynamics of Israeli internal
politics, especially the traditional Israeli practice of shoring up the image
of toughness of the existing leadership in Tel Aviv as a way of inducing
Israeli citizens to feel fearful, yet protected, before casting their ballots.

Beneath the horrific violence, which exposes the utter vulnerability, of all
those living as captives in Gaza, which is one of the most crowded and
impoverished communities on the planet, is a frightful structure of human abuse
that the international community continues to turn its back upon, while
preaching elsewhere adherence to the norm of ‘responsibility to protect’
whenever it suits NATO. More than half of the 1.6 million Gazans are refugees
living in a total area of just over twice the size of the city of Washington,
D.C. The population has endured a punitive blockade since mid-2007 that makes daily
life intolerable, and Gaza has been harshly occupied ever since 1967.

Israel has tried to fool the world by setting forth its narrative of a good
faith withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which was exploited by Palestinian
militants as the time as an opportunity to launch deadly rocket attacks. The
counter-narrative, accepted by most independent observers, is that the Israeli
removal of troops and settlements was little more than a mere redeployment to
the borders of Gaza, with absolute control over what goes in and what leaves,
maintaining an open season of a license to kill at will, with no accountability
and no adverse consequences, backed without question by the U.S. Government.
From an international law point of view, Israel’s purported ‘disengagement’
from Gaza didn’t end its responsibility as an Occupying Power under the Geneva
Conventions, and thus its master plan of subjecting the entire population of
Gaza to severe forms of collective punishment amounts to a continuing crime
against humanity, as well as a flagrant violation of Article 33 of Geneva IV.
It is not surprising that so many who have observed the plight of Gaza at close
range have described it as ‘the largest open air prison in the world.’

The Netanyahu government pursues a policy that is best understood from the
perspective of settler colonialism. What distinguishes settler colonialism from other forms of
colonialism is the resolve of the colonialists not only to exploit and
dominate, but to make the land their own and superimpose their own culture on
that of indigenous population. In this respect, Israel is well served by the
Hamas / Fatah split, and seeks to induce the oppressed Palestinian to give up
their identity along with their resistance struggle even to the extent of
asking Palestinians in Israel to take an oath of loyalty to Israel as ‘a Jewish
state.’ Actually, unlike the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel has no
long-term territorial ambitions in Gaza. Israel’s short-term solution to its
so-called ‘demographic problem’ (that is, worries about the increase in the
population of Palestinians relative to Jews) could be greatly eased if Egypt
would absorb Gaza, or if Gaza would become a permanently separate entity,
provided it could be reliably demilitarized. What makes Gaza presently useful
to the Israelis is their capacity to manage the level of violence, both as a distraction
from other concerns (e.g. backing down in relation to Iran; accelerated
expansion of the settlements) and as a way of convincing their own people that
dangerous enemies remain and must be dealt with by the iron fist of Israeli

In the background, but not very far removed from the understanding of
observers, are two closely related developments. The first is the degree to
which the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements has made it unrealistic
to suppose that a viable Palestinian state will ever emerge from direct
negotiations. The second, underscored by the recent merger of Netanyahu and
Lieberman forces, is the extent to which the Israeli governing process has
indirectly itself irreversibly embraced the vision of Greater Israel
encompassing all of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank. The fact that world
leaders in the West keep repeating the mantra of peace through direct
negotiations is either an expression of the grossest incompetence or totally
bad faith. At minimum, Washington and the others calling for the resumption of
direct negotiations owe it to all of us to explain how it will be possible to
establish a Palestinian state within 1967 borders when it means the
displacement of most of the 600,000 armed settlers now defended by the Israeli
Defense Forces, and spread throughout occupied Palestine. Such an explanation
would also have to show why Israel is being allowed to quietly legalize the 100
or so ‘outposts,’ settlements spread around the West Bank that had been previously
unlawful even under Israeli law. Such moves toward legalization deserve the
urgent attention of all those who continue to proclaim their faith in a
two-state solution, but instead are ignored.

This brings us back to Gaza and Hamas. The top Hamas leaders have made it
abundantly clear over and over again that they are open to permanent peace with
Israel if there is a total withdrawal to the 1967 borders (22% of historic
Palestine) and the arrangement is supported by a referendum of all Palestinians
living under occupation. Israel, with the backing of Washington, takes the
position that Hamas as ‘a terrorist organization’ that must be permanently
excluded from the procedures of diplomacy, except of course when it is serves
Israel’s purposes to negotiate with Hamas. It did this in 2011 when it
negotiated the prisoner exchange in which several hundred Palestinians were
released from Israeli prisons in exchange for the release of the Israel soldier
captive, Gilad Shalit, or when it seems convenient to take advantage of
Egyptian mediation to establish temporary ceasefires. As the celebrated Israeli
peace activist and former Knesset member, Uri Avnery, reminds us a cease-fire
in Arab culture, hudna in Arabic, is considered to be
sanctified by Allah, has tended to be in use and faithfully observed ever since
the time of the Crusades. Avnery also reports that up to the time be was
assassinated al-Jabari was in contact with Gershon Baskin of Israel, seeking to
explore prospects for a long-term ceasefire that was reported to Israeli
leaders, who unsurprisingly showed no interest.

There is a further feature of this renewal of conflict involving attacks on
Gaza. Israel sometimes insists that since it is no longer, according to its
claims, an occupying power, it is in a state of war with a Hamas governed Gaza.
But if this were to be taken as the proper legal description of the
relationship between the two sides, then Gaza would have the rights of a
combatant, including the option to use proportionate force against Israeli
military targets. As earlier argued, such a legal description of the
relationship between Israel and Gaza is unacceptable. Gaza remains occupied and
essentially helpless, and Israel as occupier has no legal or ethical right to
engage in war against the people and government of Gaza, which incidentally was
elected in internationally monitored free elections in early 2006. On the
contrary, its overriding obligation as Occupier is to protect the civilian
population of Gaza. Even if casualty figures in the present violence are so far
low as compared with Operation Cast Lead, the intensity of air and sea strikes
against the helpless people of Gaza strikes terror in the hearts and minds of
every person living in the strip, a form of indiscriminate violence against the
spirit and mental health of an entire people that cannot be measured in blood
and flesh, but by reference to the traumatizing fear that has been generated.

We hear many claims in the West as to a supposed decline in international
warfare since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Such claims are to some extent a welcome development, but the people of the Middle East
have yet to benefit from this trend, least of all the people of Occupied Palestine,
and of these, the people of Gaza are suffering the most acutely. This spectacle
of one-sided war in which Israel decides how much violence to unleash, and Gaza
waits to be struck, firing off militarily meaningless salvos of rockets as a
gesture of resistance, represents a shameful breakdown of civilization values.
These rockets do spread fear and cause trauma among Israeli civilians even when
no targets are struck, and represent an unacceptable tactic. Yet such
unacceptability must be weighed against the unacceptable tactics of Israel that
holds all the cards in the conflict. It is truly alarming that now even the
holiest of cities, Jerusalem, is threatened with attacks, but the continuation
of oppressive conditions for the people of Gaza, inevitably leads to increasing
levels of frustration, in effect, cries of help that world has ignored at its
peril for decades. These are survival screams! To realize this is not to
exaggerate! To gain perspective, it is only necessary to read a recent UN Report
that concludes that the deterioration of services and conditions will make Gaza uninhabitable by 2020.

That is, completely aside from the merits of the grievances on the two sides,
for one side to be militarily omnipotent and the other side to be crouching
helplessly in fear. Such a grotesque reality passes under the radar screens of
world conscience because of the geopolitical shield behind which Israel is
given a free pass to do whatever it wishes. Such a circumstance is morally
unendurable, and should be politically unacceptable. It needs to be actively
opposed globally by every person, government, and institution of good

* This updated article was first published by Richard Falk on 18 Nov 2012 at