Israel’s War on Gaza arouses Rage throughout the Middle East and beyond

Do people consider that when military reactions outstrip in their severity the events that caused them, grave processes are set in motion which widen the gulf and thrust our neighbors into the extremist camp?

— Moshe Sharrett, Prime Minister of Israel, 1953-1955

The Israelis in Gaza, like the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, are foolishly breeding the next generation of jihadists.

Chris Hedges, in Foreign Policy, December 2008.

The massive bombing of Gaza City that began Dec. 27 was the brutal climax of Israel’s 18-month siege of Gaza, one of the poorest and most densely populated areas of the world. By the end of eight days, round-the-clock raids had killed over 480 Palestinians, and wounded more than 2,750. Among the victims were more than 80 women and children, according to U.N. officials, including five small girls in one family. The magnitude of the attack was a clear violation of international laws prohibiting the targeting of civilians and the use of disproportionate military force. The United States, as provider of the F-16 warplanes and Apache helicopters used in the attacks, was complicit in these crimes.

The one hundred tons of munitions dropped on the first day were aimed at Gaza’s police and security services, Hamas headquarters, government buildings, and the tunnels Gazans used to smuggle in food and fuel from Egypt (see “The Economics of Tunnels” by Mohammed Omer, Jan./Feb. 2009 Washington Report, p. 19). In the days following, the targets extended to the homes of Hamas leaders, mosques, television and radio stations, the campus of Islamic University, and even ambulances. Gaza has no shelters, so families were trapped in their homes, without heat or light, or access to food. As bodies of the dead and wounded streamed into hospitals emptied of supplies by Israel’s blockade, the International Red Cross pleaded with Israel to allow medical equipment and such basics as gauze and anaesthetics to enter Gaza.

The Israeli operation was the result of months of careful planning by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his colleagues. The plans even included scheduling the initial attack on a Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, so that Hamas could be taken by surprise. The Israelis also made sure to carry out the assault before the ardently pro-Israel Bush administration left office, so as to avoid criticism from Washington.

As the bombing continued day after day, and Hamas continued to fire rockets at Israel, there were urgent calls by U.S., European, and Arab leaders for an immediate cease-fire. There was no mention of direct talks with Hamas, but Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said in a public statement: “What our people want is clear: an immediate stop to all kinds of aggression, the end of the siege, the opening of all border crossings, and international guarantees that the occupation will not renew this terrorist war.”

On the night of Jan. 3, a week after the bombing began, thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks, F-16s and helicopter gunships poured into Gaza with a display of military savagery that Barak called an “an act of self-defense.” Barred from entering Egypt and with their backs to the sea, Gazans were locked inside their small strip of land as bombs and shells set off flaming explosions throughout Gaza City and its surroundings. Photos showed stretches of Rafah reduced to rubble. Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets saying, “Hamas is getting a taste of the power of the Israeli military…and we have other methods that are still harsher.”

As the invasion continued, Israeli targets broadened to include multi-story apartment houses crowded with families, ambulances and U.N. relief trucks, and at least two schools. One air strike hit a U.N. school that was being used as a shelter, and killed at least 40 people and wounded many more. John Ging, chief of operations for UNRWA, said the buildings were clearly marked and that no mortars were fired from it as Israel claimed. According to The Times of London, advancing Israeli troops were using weapons containing white phosphorous, which causes terrible burns to human flesh. As the week ended, the death toll of Palestinians exceeded 780, including 218 children. At least 3,000 Palestinians were wounded. Rocket fire had killed three Israeli civilians during the offensive. Of the 10 Israeli soldiers killed, most were victims of friendly fire.

The invasion brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of cities across Europe. A large banner held by marchers in the Netherlands read: “Anne Frank is turning in her grave. Oh, Israel!” The French government condemned Israel’s action and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate stop to the fighting, but the U.S. repeatedly blocked efforts by the U.N. Security Council to adopt a binding cease-fire resolution, saying there could be no cease-fire until Hamas stopped smuggling arms into Gaza. On Jan. 8, when the Council finally agreed on a resolution calling for an immediate and durable cease-fire, the U.S. abstained (see p. 12).

Nevertheless, diplomatic activity continued. Israeli and Egyptian officials met in Cairo on Jan. 8, but the talks remained deadlocked as Israel insisted that the border between Egypt and Gaza be sealed, which Hamas firmly opposes. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak urged that the crossing be opened but monitored by the Palestinian Authority and the European Union, with Israeli video surveillance. By the second week of the Israeli offensive, Hamas had not surrendered and there was still no cease-fire.

Arab regimes considered friendly to the U.S. and Israel found themselves in trouble. Israel’s devastation of Gaza prompted angry protest demonstrations in Cairo, Damascus, and other places across the world. On the West Bank, security forces subsidized by the U.S. used tear gas and clubs to disperse crowds of demonstrators. Many of the Arab protesters charged Egypt with collaborating with Israel by sealing its border with Gaza, and accused the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of siding with the U.S. and Israel in the war on Hamas.

According to intelligence officials, the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have greatly added to the number of Islamist militants, whose original grievances included dissatisfaction with corrupt Arab leaders, the lack of economic opportunity, and resentment at Western political and military intervention. The deepest and most unifying grievance, however, has been Israel’s 60-year occupation of Palestine and the brutality of its treatment of the Palestinian people.

Egregious Brutality

Israel’s 18-month blockade of Gaza is one of the most egregious examples of that brutality. Although Israel has for months barred journalists from entering Gaza, the suffering caused by the siege was no secret in the region. Haaretz correspondent Amira Haas managed to enter Gaza aboard a relief ship in mid-December and described a place of silence and near despair. With most businesses shut down, there were no jobs outside the public service. Broken pipes were pouring sewage into the sea (see Omer’s “Gaza’s Blackening Beaches,” December 2008 Washington Report, p. 14). Another Israeli journalist, Michael Warschawski, writing in Jewish Peace News, accused Israel of conducting “a rampant genocide against the people of Gaza.”

Richard Falk, special rapporteur on Palestine for the U.N. Human Rights Council, was expelled from Israel within hours after he arrived on Dec. 15 because of what the Israelis claimed was his hostile position toward Israel. Falk is the Albert G. Millbank Professor of International Law at Princeton and Visiting Distinguished Professor of Global and International Studies at U.C. Santa Barbara. In an interview with Chris Hedges published in Foreign Policy, Falk compared the situation in Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto, where during World War II the Nazis herded thousands of Jews into a walled compound and deliberately starved them.

Falk, who is Jewish, reported that even before Israel’s offensive began Gaza was a hellish prison in which the population was without power 12 hours a day, and drugs and medicine were scarce. Malnutrition was affecting 75 percent of all Gazans and nearly half of Gaza’s children had iron deficiency and anemia. Thousands of children also suffered from deafness because of sonic booms caused by Israeli warplanes.

Hedges, who covered Gaza while serving as Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, described the situation as an “unfolding humanitarian catastrophe” and warned of the consequences: “The violence unleashed on Palestinian children will someday be the violence unleashed on Israeli children,” he wrote. “This is the tragedy of Gaza. This is the tragedy of Israel.”

Compounding this tragedy is the fact that Israel could have ended the conflict long ago by agreeing to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith. The Arab nations have unanimously offered normal relations with Israel and guarantees of security in return for Israel’s return to its 1967 borders. Palestinian leaders, including Hamas, also endorsed the offer. The Israelis rejected it and, along with the United States, refused to talk with Hamas.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accuses the Israelis of wanting only a “partial peace.” Abbas wrote in the Wall Street Journal last September, “We are walled into shrinking pockets of land, reminiscent of the Bantustans of South Africa.” The December issue of Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, published by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, notes that the steady increase of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has resulted in even tighter restrictions on the Palestinians. Despite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s pledge to Bush at the Annapolis Peace Conference that he would build no more settlements, a study by the International Monetary Fund found that they had actually increased. With more checkpoints in place, the Palestinian economy has contracted even further.

There has also been a steady increase in settler violence against Palestinians. The U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), reported 290 settler attacks in the first 10 months of 2008, more than in the previous two years. At least half the victims were children, women, and people over 70. Farmers who try to harvest their crops, and Palestinians in cities surrounded by settlements, are the most frequent targets.

After Israeli soldiers evacuated a group of right-wing Israelis from a house in Hebron they had seized illegally, nearby settlers rampaged through Palestinian areas vandalizing property, burning homes, and attacking Palestinians and Israeli police. Prime Minister Olmert called the settler rampage a “pogrom,” the word used to describe anti-Semitic violence in 19th and early 20th century Europe.

Israel may eventually find itself without a Palestinian negotiating partner. The massive Israeli assault on Gaza had two clear goals: eliminating Hamas once and for all, and restoring Israel’s image as a superior military power. That image was tarnished by the army’s failure to wipe out Hezbollah in the 2006 war in Lebanon. Israel undoubtedly has sufficient firepower to level Gaza, one of the poorest and most defenseless places in the world. But doing so will not only kill chances of peace for years to come, it could have even longer lasting consequences.

Israel’s efforts to weaken the PLO gave rise to Hezbollah and later to Hamas, and both are today stronger than ever. The Israelis could have strengthened Abbas as a moderate alternative to Hamas by making life easier for the Palestinians under his presidency of the Palestinian Authority. Instead they made him appear helpless by expanding settlements, and refusing to lift the roadblocks or release substantial numbers of prisoners.

If Israel succeeds in crippling Hamas by murdering enough of its members, they are likely to be replaced by even more radical and less conciliatory forces. In any case, if the current war continues, Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians is certain to increase. In Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal called for a new intifada, and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who until now has favored a longterm truce with Israel, vowed to fight Israel “even if we hang on the gallows or they make our blood flow in the streets.”

Even as it called for a cease-fire, the Bush administration blamed Hamas entirely for the violence. Barack Obama did not comment, but had previously said he would not meet with Hamas until it agreed to recognize Israel–a condition they are less likely than ever to accept. Hopes that the new administration will adopt a tougher approach to Israel rest largely with Hillary Clinton, Obama’s choice for secretary of state. Surprisingly, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahhar expressed optimism at her nomination, pointing to her experience and saying, “For sure it will reflect on her policies.”

This may not be entirely wishful thinking. As senator from New York, Clinton was one of Israel’s most vocal supporters, but she will be obliged to consider international opinion in her new position, and voices from abroad are already being heard. At a meeting to discuss Europe’s economic relations with Israel last fall, the European Union’s vice president, Luisa Morgantini, said, “It’s time for the Israeli government to stop considering itself above the law and start respecting it, beginning by freezing all settlement-building activities and ending its siege on the Gaza Strip.”

If Clinton and Obama can ignore pressures from powerful pro-Israel ideologues and base their policies on the realities in the Middle East, they will be obliged to recognize that ending the Israeli occupation and its injustices is crucial to restoring peace in the region. Israeli leaders have insisted until now that the peace process cannot be rushed, but time is not on Israel’s side. Israel’s escalation of the conflict has hardened hostility toward Israel and America in a large part of the world. It is too soon to predict its ultimate consequences, but they will surely not include an end to terrorism, or enhanced security for the Israelis.

Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner and former U.N. negotiator, said in mid-December, “We cannot go on year after year pretending to do something to help the situation in the Middle East. We must also get results.”