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Q/A on Palestine
Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24
Q: Didn’t Hamas start this fighting by provoking Israel?
A: According to this interpretation of events: 1. Palestinians killed Israeli teens -> 2. Israel responded -> 3. Hamas began rocket fire -> 4. Israel attacked Gaza.
A longer cycle. The first problem with this sequence is that if you go a little further back, you find further provocations and attacks by Israel, further responses by Palestinians, and so on, going back decades. For example, on May 15, 2014, Israeli soldiers murdered two Palestinian teens in Beitunia, for no apparent reason (see: http://electronicintifada.net/tags/beitunia-killings). Even if you see the conflict as a ‘cycle of violence’, the primary responsibility lies with the more powerful party, since it is the more powerful party that will determine the course of both war and peace in any ‘cycle’. Israel is by far the more powerful party. The question of ‘who started it’ is really a question about who is responsible. Israel can stop this massacre at any moment.
Ilan Pappe wrote recently that “The only chance for a successful struggle against Zionism in Palestine is the one based on a human and civil rights agenda that does not differentiate between one violation and the other and yet identifies clearly the victim and the victimizers.”
Revenge does not apply to innocents. But the second problem is more important. It is immoral to see the killings of the Israeli teens as a ‘response’ to, or ‘revenge’ for, the killings of the Palestinian teens in May. It is also immoral to see the torture and burning alive of a Palestinian teenager by Israeli settlers as a ‘response’ to the killings of the teens. The only acceptable moral response to crimes like murder is to bring the individuals responsible to justice. Justice, according to the law, does not allow revenge against other people.
An offshore prize? There may be yet another reason for these constant assaults on Gaza: offshore gas deposits that Israel wants to access, but without having to deal with a Palestinian government that could negotiate some benefit for it. Nafeez Ahmad wrote about this in the Guardian on July 9/14 (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/jul/09/israel-war-gaza-palestine-natural-gas-energy-crisis). He quotes Israeli defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, who in 2007, as Israeli army chief of staff, said:
“A gas transaction with the Palestinian Authority [PA] will, by definition, involve Hamas. Hamas will either benefit from the royalties or it will sabotage the project and launch attacks against Fatah, the gas installations, Israel – or all three… It is clear that without an overall military operation to uproot Hamas control of Gaza, no drilling work can take place without the consent of the radical Islamic movement.”
Substitute the word “Palestinians” for “the radical Islamic movement”, and you have a more honest statement of what these attacks may be about: “drilling without consent”.
The unity government. The real target of Israel’s current attack is more likely the unity government agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which was recognized even by the US. Ilan Pappe (http://electronicintifada.net/content/israels-incremental-genocide-gaza-ghetto/13562) wrote:
“The present genocidal wave has, like all the previous ones, also a more immediate background. It has been born out of an attempt to foil the Palestinian decision to form a unity government that even the United States could not object to.
“The collapse of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s desperate “peace” initiative legitimized the Palestinian appeal to international organizations to stop the occupation. At the same time, Palestinians gained wide international blessing for the cautious attempt represented by the unity government to strategize once again a coordinated policy among the various Palestinian groups and agendas.”
Q: Wait, what is the unity government?
A: Beginning last July (2013), there was another “peace process” that was initiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, involving Netanyahu on the Israeli side and Mahmoud Abbas, from Fatah, whose electoral mandate expired in 2009 (a point I’ll return to). The deadline set for an agreement was April 2014. Over the course of this “peace process”, Israel continued to build settlements in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory Israel is militarily occupying.
When the April 2014 deadline arrived, Abbas had no agreement from Israel to show, only new settlements and new preconditions for talks. At that point, Abbas agreed to join Hamas in a unity government and prepare for new elections, which would be the first since 2005/6, when Abbas won the presidential election (2005) and Hamas won the legislative elections (2006).
Even though Israel had offered Abbas nothing, when the unity government proposal arose, Netanyahu said that Abbas could have peace with Israel or with Hamas, but not both – but he had already shown that Israel had no interest in peace, regardless of what Abbas did.
It is worth noting just how favorable the unity government agreement was, to both Abbas and, potentially, to Israel, as Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in the July 17/14 NYT: Hamas transferred formal authority to Ramallah, giving up official control of Gaza. But “Israel immediately sought to undermine the reconciliation agreement by preventing Hamas leaders and residents from obtaining the two most essential benefits of the deal: the payment of salaries to 43,000 civil servants who worked for the Hamas government and continue to administer Gaza under the new one, and the easing of the suffocating border closures imposed by Israel and Egypt that bar most Gazans’ passage to the outside world.” Qatar offered to pay the salaries. The UN offered to deliver the salaries. But the US allowed Israel to block both efforts.
Q: But why did Hamas reject the ceasefire offers?
A: A frequently used negotiating tactic is to make demands that the other side cannot meet. Israel’s ceasefire terms are to temporarily cease the shelling, bombing, and killing until the next time they decide to resume it, while Gaza’s borders remain closed, its water, electricity, and its people’s freedom of movement remain completely under Israeli control. Hamas’s conditions have been published in English on the Electronic Intifada and elsewhere (http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/palestinian-factions-reportedly-set-10-conditions-10-year-truce-israel). Sometimes they are presented as 10 conditions, sometimes as 5 conditions, but they boil down to one: the siege of Gaza must end. The siege has driven the Palestinian economy into tunnels – tunnels that Israel is now invading Gaza to destroy. The siege is killing the society, and each round of Israeli attack further destroys the infrastructure that enables people to survive, infrastructure that cannot be rebuilt – because of the siege. Returning to Nathan Thrall in the NYT: “For many Gazans, and not just Hamas supporters, it’s worth risking more bombardment and now the ground incursion, for a chance to change that unacceptable status quo. A cease-fire that fails to resolve the salary crisis and open Gaza’s border with Egypt will not last. It is unsustainable for Gaza to remain cut off from the world and administered by employees working without pay.”
Q: Civilian deaths have been kept to a minimum by Israeli doctrine, haven’t they?
A: Israel’s doctrine is to inflict punishment on the population in order to get them to turn on their leaders. In Rania Khalek’s words (http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/rania-khalek/israel-deliberately-targeting-civilians-gaza)
“The Dahiya doctrine (which refers to the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut that Israel purposely decimated in its 2006 assault on Lebanon) is Israel’s preferred method of warfare. Under this doctrine, the Israeli army deploys overwhelmingly disproportionate force against civilian infrastructure to restore Israel’s deterrence and turn the local population against its enemy, i.e. Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
“In the lead up to Operation Cast Lead, senior Israeli army General Gadi Eisenkot disclosed Israel’s plans to expand the Dahiya doctrine, telling an Israeli newspaper, “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases.” He added, “This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.”
“Two months later Israel pulverized the Gaza Strip, killing some 1,400 people, including almost 400 children, some of whom were deliberately murdered while raising white flags.”
Q: Even if 80% of deaths have been civilians, 20% have been militants, right?
A: Israel defines militants in an expansive way. Civilian police are defined as militants. Rania Khalek again:
“Using precision guided missiles, the Israeli army claims it is only bombing people and infrastructure “affiliated with Hamas terrorism” — and the international community is buying it.
“What is not being discussed, however, is who and what constitutes a Hamas affiliate.
“Hamas is more than just a militant organization, it is the political party that was democratically elected in 2006 to govern the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Hamas’s control means that almost everyone and everything in Gaza can be considered a Hamas affiliate. This unchallenged loose definition has enabled Israel’s war architects to widen the definition of legitimate targets to include civilians and civilian infrastructure, including mosques, schools, hospitals, banks, electricity lines and residential homes, all of which have been targeted.
“Aside from a weak condemnation issued by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, the international community has largely accepted Israel’s methodology, completely abandoning defenseless Palestinian civilians as they’re being maimed and slaughtered by one of the world’s most powerful armies.”
Q: Such civilian deaths as have occurred have occurred because militants hide among civilians, right?
A: There is nowhere for anyone to hide in Gaza. Gaza is one of the most densely populated 360 sq km strips of land on earth. Israel defines everyone in Gaza as a militant. Israel and Egypt have ensured that no one can leave Gaza. Israel is now shelling and bombing Gaza. Civilians have no place to hide from Israeli bombs and shells. There is nowhere civilians can go to prevent Israel from defining them as militants, and there is nowhere anyone can go in Gaza to be safe from bombs – Israel bombs houses, apartments, UNRWA compounds, hospitals – the story of ‘militants hiding among civilians’ is simply an Israeli excuse for bombing and killing civilians freely.
Q: Surely you cannot expect Israel to stand by while the rockets continue to terrorize them?
A: As a moral and legal question, occupying powers do not have a right to defend themselves, except by leaving. As a practical question, is Israel behaving in a way that will stop rocket attacks? Brian Dominick has answered this question, in response to a blog post by Juan Cole (http://radicalreboot.tumblr.com/post/91670379821/israels-real-motives-in-operation-gazaunderattack):
“…there are obvious ways to thwart rocket attacks that put Palestinian noncombatants at no or far less risk, all of which Israel ignores in favor of a widespread campaign of death dealing. These alternatives have the downside, from the Israeli hardline viewpoint, of failing to terrorize and traumatize Palestinians. These ways include but are likely not limited to:
“Opening Gaza borders to (inspected) trade so the commercial viability of the Gaza tunnel system is undermined and factions must make their own tunnels just for smuggling weapons. This reduction would likely be dramatic, and it would also bring Israel into compliance with international law that bans the collective punishment of civilians. It would also mean an end to Israel’s murdering of commercial smugglers.
“Help the Hamas government suppress rocket fire from factions not beholden to or remotely respectful of ceasefires between Hamas and Israel—the ones doing most of the rocket attacks between periodic uber-crises. (I don’t personally love the idea of Israel choosing factions, but this would be an indication of Israel actually wanting rocket attacks to end.)
“Israel could actually pursue peace and a solution to the overall crisis that actually respects Palestinian demands. That is, stop giving their enemies reasons to actively fight them, and watch support for the remaining fighters all but evaporate. I can’t guarantee this would work, but it has never been tried.
“Stop targeting Hamas’s civilian, non-operational leadership for assassination, which draws profound resentment from the Palestinian people and consistently, as Juan Cole notes, strengthens Hamas’s hand in both Gaza and the West Bank.
“The… way we know rocket suppression is nowhere on Israeli hawks’ agenda is that each such operation in the past six or more years has resulted in a tremendous spike in the number of rockets fired, often resulting in more rockets than would be launched during relative calm for months at a time. This is a predictable result of air strikes and incursions, which won’t after all restrict the rocket fire nearly as effectively as ceasefires historically have.”
Q: The civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the conflicts in Sudan and Congo and Nigeria have claimed many more lives than this conflict. Isn’t it hypocrisy for people in the world be so upset over a few hundred dead Palestinians in the face of these much larger death tolls?
A: This question is a major logical failure. If a murder of a complete innocent cannot be a moral response to another murder, as above, then a big mass murder in an unrelated conflict cannot excuse a smaller mass murder here. The deaths caused by the Syrian regime in the Syrian civil war, or by the rebels there, or by ISIS in Iraq, or the Iraqi government, cannot be used as an excuse for Israel’s killings in Palestine. In Ilan Pappe’s words (http://electronicintifada.net/content/israels-incremental-genocide-gaza-ghetto/13562):
“I will concede that all over the Middle East there are now horrific cases where dehumanization has reaped unimaginable horrors as it does in Gaza today. But there is one crucial difference between these cases and the Israeli brutality: the former are condemned as barbarous and inhuman worldwide, while those committed by Israel are still publicly licensed and approved by the president of the United States, the leaders of the EU and Israel’s other friends in the world…
“Those who commit atrocities in the Arab world against oppressed minorities and helpless communities, as well as the Israelis who commit these crimes against the Palestinian people, should all be judged by the same moral and ethical standards. They are all war criminals, though in the case of Palestine they have been at work longer than anyone else.
“It does not really matter what the religious identity is of the people who commit the atrocities or in the name of which religion they purport to speak. Whether they call themselves jihadists, Judaists or Zionists, they should be treated in the same way.
“A world that would stop employing double standards in its dealings with Israel is a world that could be far more effective in its response to war crimes elsewhere in the world.”
Q: Palestine was never a country. The Arabs attacked Israel in 1967…
A: The problem with this question is that it misunderstands the parties to the conflict. The questioner has slipped from “Israel and the Palestinians” to “Israel and the Arabs”. “The Arabs” are not a party to this conflict – Arab-speaking countries of the Gulf, North Africa, and the rest of the Middle East are not under Israel’s occupation, nor are they refugees from Israel’s founding in 1948. The Palestinians are. The Palestinians are the victims of the current Israeli operations, not “the Arabs”.
The most succinct summary of how the situation has developed, and the relative power of the parties to this conflict, can be viewed in the Disappearing Palestine map:
Juan Cole, who recently posted about the map, describes some of the background and the accuracy of the map here: http://www.juancole.com/2010/03/map-story-of-palestinian-nationhood.html
For other questions about the background of Israel/Palestine, please see Stephen Shalom’s Q/A on the background of the Israel/Palestine conflict. http://www.peacenowar.net/Palestine/News/Q&A.htm
Q: Who is winning?
A: Writing in the NYT on July 18/14, Jodi Rudoren, like many others, makes much of the difference between this Israeli attack on besieged Gaza and previous attacks, like 2009 and 2012. In 2009, Rudoren writes, “Israel quickly bisected the tiny coastal enclave and blockaded Gaza City, where they engaged in gun battles with Hamas fighters. On Friday, the troops operated mainly in farmland within about a mile of Gaza’s northern, southern and eastern edges, and quickly announced they had uncovered more than 20 tunnel exit points. Setting the bar relatively low helps hold back public expectations, provide the military with achievable goals, and build international legitimacy.” In this analysis, Hamas is isolated and weaker because in previous rounds, Hamas could count on more support from Syria’s government (right now in the middle of a civil war) and a friendly government in Egypt (which was never that friendly, but which has now, under Sisi, returned to the traditional pattern of working for Israel and isolating the Palestinians since the 2013 coup). Israel, and consequently, the Western media, are focused on “the tunnels” – into which much of Palestinian life has been driven because of the siege – as the enemy. Israel claims that Hamas’s fighters are a threat because of these tunnels.
While these differences do exist, the main elements are exactly the same. Israel is unlikely to send soldiers into tunnels to fight in close quarters with Palestinians. There are too many risks for that, and very little cost to Israel to continuing its high-tech, indiscriminate killing from a distance. This has been referred to by an analyst (Roni Bart) as “a kind of rolling-fire induced smokescreen”, a “new policy” as of 2009 which “caused a large number of casualties among the civilian Palestinian population”, because “most of the fighting took place in built up and populated areas”. (Roni Bart, “Warfare-Morality-Public Relations: Proposals for Improvement”, Strategic Assessment, June 2009 Vol. 12, No. 1)
Israel’s ability to keep this up depends on several factors. One is the regional factor, which is now providing few restraints (civil war in Iraq and Syria, a pro-Israel regime in Egypt). Another factor is how difficult it is for Western leaders to sell the war to Western civil society. In this attack, a gap may have opened up between the Israeli public and the Western public at large, as the picnics, outrageous comments, trophy photos and the like that are being shared in social media and collected in Western media show – see for example (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/15/world/middleeast/israelis-watch-bombs-drop-on-gaza-from-front-row-seats.html). At some point, the atrocities will reach a level that will trigger Western leaders to get Israel to stop.
Q: Is there anything to do?
A: Israel is a part of the West. Its economy and politics are fully integrated with the West. It simply cannot do this without support from the US, Canada, and Europe. If you go to demonstrations against Israel’s attacks, whether this one or the next ones, join the BDS Movement (bdsmovement.net), write letters to politicians or to media outlets, you will be up against an organized an organized, extensive, pro-Israel effort. You will have to do your homework and realize there are people preparing professional talking points about every historical fact and argument you come across. It may be years before anything improves, and things may get still worse. But Israel depends on international support, including from the public, more than most – that is why they devote so much energy and effort to politicians and the media in the West. This is a conflict where activists can make a difference.
Justin Podur is a writer and activist based in Toronto.