The final scenes of the award-winning Israeli film, “Waltz With Bashir,” are still photos taken in Beirut in September 1982, the morning after Christian Phalangists armed and trained by Israel murdered up to a thousand Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila, Palestinian refugees camps on the outskirts of the city. As the militiamen went about their killing, Israeli soldiers on a nearby hilltop fired flares to light their way. When an Israeli officer telephoned Defense Minister Ariel Sharon in the middle of the night to tell him that a massacre of civilians was taking place, Sharon thanked the caller and went back to sleep.
The pictures of broken bodies of old men, women, and children strewn haphazardly over the ground are graphically suggestive of the horror recently inflicted on the people of Gaza. The Israeli assault in late December and January killed more than 1,300 Gazans, including 300 children. Like the nightmare that took place in Beirut 26 years ago, the Israeli attack was on a defenseless population that had no bomb shelters, no warning sirens, and no adequate means of caring for the victims.
In each case Israel’s target was not an opposing army but a civilian society. Abdul Hamid Khdair, a security guard at the ruined shell of Gaza’s parliament building, said, “Everyone was hit by Israel this time. Education, health, life. Everything is paralyzed.”
Israel claimed the purpose of the offensive was to stop Hamas’ rocketing of Israel, but it was clear the intent was to destroy Gaza as a functioning community.
The military under Defense Minister Ehud Barak began planning the offensive in June 2008, at the start of a six-month truce with Hamas that called for Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza in return for a halt in the rocketing. Israel instead tightened the siege, and used the sporadic and mostly harmless rocket attacks as an excuse to turn Gaza into a free-fire zone. The first targets were police and fire stations, public institutions, and water and power lines.
During the next three weeks Israeli missiles leveled the parliament building, mosques, the central courthouse, the Ministry of Justice, the main U.N. food storage warehouse, and the Red Crescent Society hospital. The science lab at Islamic University’s highly regarded medical school was destroyed.
Because Gaza is so densely populated, the result was a human catastrophe. John Ging, head of U.N. relief operations in Gaza, reported that by the time the bombing eased off, 400,000 Gazans had been without running water for three weeks, 20,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, and 100,000 people were homeless. In the town of Beit Hanoun, 30,000 tons of sewage flowed in the streets every hour. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused the Israeli army of using white phosphorous, which burns human flesh to the bone and has been banned for use against civilians.
Almost as cruel as its wanton destruction was Israel’s refusal afterwards to open the borders in order to allow in building materials, machinery, tools, and other items desperately needed for Gaza’s reconstruction. Contrary to their promises, the Israelis also obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid. The New York Times reported on Jan. 27 that hundreds of trucks carrying clothing, baby food, rice, juice, sugar and flour donated from around the world “sat in the hot sun, going nowhere” at the border.
Holding up relief convoys were Israel’s decision to open the borders only 19 hours a week, and the strict and overly complicated packing requirements Israel imposed. Much of the donated food became badly spoiled. On Feb. 5 the Israeli navy intercepted a ship from Lebanon carrying relief supplies and diverted it to Israel in what the Arab League called “an act of piracy.” As days went by with no easing of the blockade, the continuing shortage of food, medicine, clothes and blankets created deepening misery. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon complained in mid-February that Israel was still allowing in only a small fraction of the humanitarian aid Gazans needed.
The Election Excuse
Israel also stalled on agreeing to a binding cease-fire, and meanwhile continued to bomb Gaza in retaliation for renewed rocket fire by Palestinian militants, most of whom were not Hamas members but members of Fatah’s Al Aqsa brigade. What prompted Israel’s delay in agreeing to a cease-fire was the election scheduled for Feb. 10. Kadima party leader Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Labor party chairman Ehud Barak were reluctant to give Likud party candidate Binyamin Netanyahu an opportunity to accuse them of ending the attack on Hamas too soon. The election campaign became a competition among Livni, Netanyahu and Barak to prove who would be toughest on Hamas.
Because of Israel’s multi-party system, there was no clear winner. Kadima won 28 seats and Likud 27, but with 61 needed for a majority there will again be a coalition government. The total vote gave 67 seats to parties on the right, including those the Israeli publication The Other Israel called “an extreme-right lunatic fringe,” which makes it likely that Netanyahu will be asked by President Shimon Peres to form a new government.
The greatest gain was made by Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party, which rose from 11 seats in the last Knesset to 15, edging out Labor, with 13, and becoming Israel’s third largest party. The ultra-religious Shas party was close behind Labor with 11 seats. Lieberman favors turning over part of the West Bank to the Palestinians, and deporting Arab citizens of Israel who are unwilling to pledge allegiance to a Jewish state. He was the runaway favorite of young Israelis. One of them told an interviewer, “You want to enlist in the army to stick it to the Arabs and we want to elect someone who’ll do that.” Even if Livni should become prime minster, Lieberman will play a key role in the next government.
When it comes to relations with the Palestinians there will be little real change in Israeli policy. Netanyahu openly opposes Palestinian statehood, but his predecessors’ rapid expansion of West Bank settlements has all but eliminated that possibility. The Kadima party’s negotiating sessions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas resulted only in Abbas’ agreement to use his U.S.-financed security police as Israel’s enforcers on the West Bank. Under Kadima’s leadership, the number of settlers increased, not one checkpoint or roadblock was lifted, and thousands of Palestinians remained locked in Israeli prisons, while settlers attacked Palestinians with impunity.
Livni could have avoided calling for new elections last fall by inviting the 10 Arab Knesset members to join her coalition, thus assuring a majority, but she declined. Two months before the election the Central Elections Committee banned two major Arab parties, Balad and United Arab List, from running, claiming they supported terrorism. Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the ban in late January, but Ahmed Tibi, an Arab Knesset member, said, “This battle is not yet complete because racism has now become the mainstream in Israel.”
Netanyahu campaigned as a strong man, pledging to destroy Hamas. Livni and Barak were scarcely more conciliatory. Livni has repeatedly ruled out any direct contact with Hamas, opposes giving up any part of Jerusalem, and along with Olmert and Barak imposed the rigid blockade that destroyed Gaza’s economy and forced a million Palestinians to become dependent on handouts from abroad.
The chief difference between Livni and Netanyahu is that the latter opposes returning the Golan Heights to Syria, and is more likely to favor military action against Iran. Netanyahu has long called for regime change in Iran. Avigdor Lieberman is also a vocal supporter of military confrontation. An aggressive Israeli stance toward Iran could create problems for U.S. President Barack Obama as he and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad make tentative moves toward negotiation and possible reconciliation.
The dominance of hard-liners in Israel’s leadership also raises problems for Obama’s new Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell. Mitchell is viewed with suspicion by right-wing Israelis because, as chairman of a fact-finding mission appointed by Bill Clinton in 2000, he determined that the second intifada was not ordered by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, but began as a spontaneous protest against the incursion by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a thousand police onto Haram al-Sharif, the site in Jerusalem sacred to Muslims. Mitchell also called on Israel to freeze settlement building in return for Palestinian efforts to end the violence.
In introducing Mitchell at the State Department on Jan. 22, Obama said, “Our hearts go out to the Palestinian civilians who are in need of food, clean water, and basic medical care,” and he cited the closing of the border crossings as deepening their misery. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will find it impossible, however, to broker a peace agreement with the Palestinians as long as they refuse to talk with Hamas unless Hamas first renounces violence and recognizes Israel.
Recognition a One-Way Street
The United States has never made those demands of Israel, despite the fact that the Jewish state from its inception has attempted to prevent Palestinian independence. After capturing Gaza and the West Bank in the 1967 war, the Israelis set out to tighten their control by erasing Palestinian identity. Denying there was such a thing as a “Palestinian,” government officials eliminated maps of Palestine from textbooks used in the occupied territories, made it a crime for Palestinians to raise the Palestinian flag or wear a T-shirt bearing its colors, and banned all political meetings in the occupied territories. Bir Zeit University was shut down for months at a time, and its president deported, for allegedly encouraging resistance to the occupation. Thousands of political activists were arrested, tortured, and jailed for long periods without trial. Jewish settlements spread over Palestinian land and water from West Bank acquifers was diverted to Israel, while Palestinians were unable to obtain permits to build a house or dig a well.
Israel has periodically used military force to silence organized Palestinian political expression. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon in order to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Palestinians regarded as their spokesman to the world. In 2002, during the second intifada, Israeli troops and tanks swarmed into the West Bank and destroyed its civilian infrastructure, including courthouses, police stations, utilities, schools, and libraries. Arafat was confined to the rubble of his bombed-out headquarters.
The attack on Gaza this past January differed from previous Israeli offensives only in the pretext Israel gave for launching it. Like the previous instances, it resulted only in Israel’s short-term victory. Israel’s assault caused vast amounts of damage, and enormous trauma to the Palestinian people. The psychic damage to Gaza’s children–half the population–can never be estimated. But instead of being destroyed, Hamas gained strength, and much of the world now sees Israel as guilty of war crimes.
After an argument over the Palestinians’ suffering at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 29, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan told Israeli President Shimon Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” and angrily walked out of the meeting (see p. 24). Erdogan was greeted by a cheering crowd when he returned home. In a later interview, Erdogan faulted Israel for preaching democracy while rejecting the outcome of the Palestinian election of 2006 that gave Hamas a majority in the legislature. Such criticism is significant because Turkey was the first Muslim nation to recognize Israel, and is an important military ally and trading partner.
Livni claimed Israel had succeeded in sending a message to Hezbollah and Iran that it would respond if attacked. But the Gaza operation is more likely to have strengthened Hezbollah and Iran by intensifying hatred of Israel in the Middle East, including the pro-West Arab states, and creating more respect for those who challenge it.
Shmuel Zakai, a retired brigadier general and former commander of the army’s Gaza Division, believes Israel’s recent assault on Gaza has made Israelis less, not more, secure. In an interview with Haaretz in December he said, “We could have eased the siege in such a way that Hamas would understand that holding their fire served their interests. But when you create a truce and the economic pressure on the Strip continues, it’s obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved truce and that their way to achieve it is resumed Qassem fire.”
Other analysts say that Hamas is split between hard-line members and moderates, and therefore the wise course would be to encourage the moderates by offering a true two-state solution, which the vast majority of Palestinians support. George Mitchell’s efforts may lead to such a policy on the part of the Obama administration, but the results of the Feb. 10 election make it more certain than ever that Israeli leaders will remain adamantly opposed to Palestinian statehood, no matter what the cost to Middle East peace or the security of the Israeli people.
The long term effects of Iraq’s elections on Feb. 1 were less easy to predict. With 14,000 members of 400 parties running for seats on provincial councils, the main winner was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, which won by large majorities in Basra and Baghdad. The vote showed that a majority of Iraqis favor a unified nation with a strong central government, rather than a collection of autonomous areas. But voter turnout was only about 50 percent, since thousands of Iraqis displaced by ethnic cleansing had not re-registered, and registration rules were more stringent than in 2005.
The main loser was the more sectarian Supreme Islamic Council, which favored greater self-rule for Shi’i, Sunni, and Kurdish areas. It remains to be seen whether the new provincial councils will function effectively and provide desperately needed services to their constituents. Meanwhile, suicide bombings and assassinations have continued, and the dispute between Arabs and Kurds over control of multi-ethnic Kirkuk remains unresolved. For Americans as well as Iraqis the crucial question is when, if ever, every last U.S. soldier and military base will be out of Iraq.