Israel’s attack on the people of Gaza is a basic question of right and wrong. Too many people in today’s world don’t get that, and their eyes need to be opened. But even many of those on the right side who oppose what Israel is doing don’t have a full understanding of why this is happening and what can and should be done about it.
A basic question of right and wrong
Incoming U.S. President Barack Obama gave the clearest possible expression of the U.S./Israeli position while he was on the campaign trail, and according to his aides recently, he hasn’t changed his mind.
“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
But what if thugs broke into your house, killed your father and raped your mother, and then forced the survivors to live in a vacant lot while the thieves built themselves a condo where your house used to be? And what if two decades later, having grown in number and needing more room, those thieves decided to take over much of the vacant lot too?
There is no lack of documentation about how Jewish settlers took over Palestine and waged ethnic cleansing against the inhabitants. Starting even before the establishment of Israel, almost a million people – half of Palestine’s population at that time – were expelled from behind the borders of the future Jewish state. Another 300,000 Palestinians were pushed out in the following decade. Jewish settlers from Europe and elsewhere, less than 10 percent of the land’s population at that time, seized more than half of Palestine. Then in 1967, again backed by the US-led imperialists, Israel occupied all the remaining Palestinian territories on the West Bank and Gaza, a narrow strip between the desert and the sea. New Jewish settlements backed by the army took over the most desirable areas in the West Bank. So far the Palestinians have been pushed back to about 22 percent of the original land, and even there the Israelis have taken much of the water, along with armed control of nearly every aspect of public life. Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza in 2005, but kept control of its borders, seacoast and airspace. One in five Palestinians are imprisoned there, in a place that is two percent of what was once Palestine.
The people bearing the brunt of Israel’s assault on Gaza have been through this before. Like many of their neighbours, the family of the five little sisters killed by an Israeli bombardment before the ground assault was from what is now the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, today filled with settlers brought from abroad whom Israeli authorities are claiming to defend by attacking Gaza.
The way Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni presented Israel’s case for this war reverses right and wrong. She said the goal is “to give peace and quiet to the citizens of southern Israel.” Why should the people living in the very places from where Gaza’s residents were pushed out sleep well at night? And if they find themselves in any danger, who created that situation in the first place? Whose house are they living in?
(For more background, see The Ethic Cleansing of Palestine in AWTWNS 12 May 2008, as well as the book by Ilan Pappe it is based on, and the Israeli historian’s “Calling a Spade a Spade: The 1948 Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” www.badil.org/al-majdal/spring 2006.)
Israel’s most basic target in Gaza is the people
Tiny Gaza (10 x 45 kilometres) holds 1.5 million people, the world’s highest population density. Half are children. Israeli spokespeople brag about how humane they are because they make phone calls and drop leaflets warning residents to evacuate. Where are they supposed to go? Fired on by Israeli boats all along the coastline and by tanks, artillery and aircraft on the north and east, and faced with the army of the U.S.-dependent Egyptian regime on the south, they are trapped. While all the residents of Ashkelon and other Israeli cities take cover in sturdy, well-equipped shelters, Gaza’s people have none. Many of them don’t even have proper houses. As Palestinians point out, Israeli “warnings” are not a human gesture – they’re a typical Israeli mixture of hypocrisy and torture.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Livni and other authorities repeatedly claim that there’s no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Only someone who is utterly inhuman could say that. In the first days of the assault, they bragged that they were letting about 40-50 truckloads of food and supplies a day into Gaza – less than ten percent of what people need to eat, and this on top of an 18-month blockade. There’s little food or cooking fuel. There’s no clean water because Israel won’t allow in enough chemicals. Open sewage pours into the streets because there’s no power for pumps and treatment. The darkness in Gaza City at night attests to an almost complete lack of electricity. (See “If Gaza falls”, by Sara Roy, in the London Review of Books, 1 January 2009)
These are the increasingly severe conditions people have faced in Gaza for a year and a half – during what was supposed to be a truce between Israel and Hamas. Israel says the target is Hamas, and it’s true that the Zionists have done their best to bend or break that Islamic fundamentalist organisation since Hamas won Gaza’s first elections. This policy started not long after the Israeli army withdrew, before Hamas seized power from the so-called Palestinian Authority when the previously-elected PA President Mahmoud Abbas refused to recognize the Hamas victory. So it is a lie when Israeli authorities now claim that the Hamas “coup” is the source of the problem.
In the first few days of the land invasion, Gaza hospitals report that the vast majority of casualties were civilians. With little drugs, equipment, blood or electricity, all the beds occupied long ago and even the corridors filled with the wounded, the situation in Gaza hospitals is hell. A Norwegian emergency physician who has served in other wars called it the worst situation he has ever seen. (International Herald Tribune, 5 January) Meanwhile, Israel is not allowing more than a symbolic handful of people to be evacuated to hospitals elsewhere. It’s even deliberately targeting ambulances and medical teams with the excuse that they could be carrying rockets.
These are policies clearly meant to exact a high price from Gaza’s civilian population. The Nazis also relied on collective punishment, rounding up and executing civilians in revenge for acts of resistance by others, not necessarily out of fury but in cold-blooded calculation that this would stop support for the resistance. This is a war crime – but don’t hold your breath waiting for the Israeli leadership to be hauled before an international tribunal in The Hague.
Is Hamas to blame for this? A woman from a refugee camp in northern Gaza explained it like this on Al Jazeera television: “They (Israel) have always been attacking us, long before Hamas even existed.
This kind of thing was inevitable from the moment Israel was born
Israel was born in a confluence of three bad things: a stand of “my people first” (problematic in any people), an ideology of magically constructing a nation from immigrants scattered across the globe by adding land to religion, and the support of Western imperialist powers, first Great Britain and for the last four decades the US, as Israel became America’s strategic outpost in the Middle East. Without that and the three billion dollars a year that come with it, Zionism might have remained a crackpot idea.
Israel always has and always will see threats to its existence as a Jewish state because its existence is threatened as a result of the very things done to found it and maintain it. We can learn from Benny Morris, a prominent Israeli historian who like fellow academic Ilan Pappe once exposed the massacres that lay at the heart of Israel’s founding but unlike Pappe later decided Israel’s existence is worth such crimes. His evolution demonstrates the impossibility of reconciling Zionism with any attempt to embrace all of humanity. A recent major essay by Morris listed the four “immediate threats” to Israel: Iran (a reactionary regime whose strongest claim to credibility is its opposition to Israel), Hezbollah in Lebanon (the target of Israel’s last full-scale invasion, in 2006, and all the more powerful in the wake of that war), Hamas, and the 1.3 remaining Palestinians with (second-class) Israeli citizenship, whom he labels a “radicalized” “fifth column”. The problem, Morris says, is that with their higher birth rate, they will soon outnumber Israel’s Jewish citizens, and so they must be “transferred” – forcibly kicked out. Worse, “Palestinians (Israeli Arabs coupled with those who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) will form the majority of the population of Palestine (the land lying between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean).” (International Herald Tribune, 31 December 2008)
It wasn’t enough to dispossess the Palestinians once. As long as they live, they are a threat to Israel. Last February, Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai warned that Gaza was facing a “shoah”, the Hebrew word for Holocaust, a religiously tinged term for the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews. (Guardian, 29 February 2008) He chose this word not as a criticism of his country, but to threaten all of the people in Gaza.
Morris and others claim that their concern is that “too many” Palestinians would make a “democratic Jewish state” impossible. But while Israel’s governments are elected, unlike other Western countries its political system does not even pretend to be based on the formal equality of all citizens. Zionism, by definition, means Jewish armed rule over all Palestinians and a denial of their most basic rights.
A decade and a half of negotiations between Israel and Palestinians have achieved nothing but what has come to pass today. Is there any reason to believe that any possible “two state solution” would result in a Palestinian existence very different from what we’ve seen in Gaza – and the West Bank, too, for that matter? The problem can’t be resolved as long as the Jewish state exists.
The Zionists and Islamic fundamentalists are asymmetrical enemy brothers
When Israel drove out most of the Palestinians in 1948 and then occupied Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, Hamas didn’t exist and Islamic fundamentalism had limited influence. Although very different factors came together to bring about the rise of religious fundamentalism East and West, and specifically in the Middle East, and without advocating the foolish view that history is driven by conspiracies, still there is ample evidence that Israel initially welcomed and encouraged the rise of Hamas.
“Israel aided Hamas directly – the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization),” explains Anthony Cordesman, a leading Western reactionary military expert. This “was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative,” said a former CIA official. (”Hamas history tied to Israel”, UPI, 18 June 2002) Israel assassinated PLO leaders, forcing the PLO leadership to move its base to Beirut, Lebanon, and eventually chased them to Tunisia, leaving the field free for Hamas. The CIA helped out in this effort, in line with its broader approach of aiding and arming Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and in this case to undermine the PLO. (For a detailed account, see Robert Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Game, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2005, especially pp. 207-213)
The US and Israel did everything they could to weaken and humiliate the PLO, even as its leadership began to take the path of seeking coexistence with Israel. Now that the PLO has become completely corrupt and a tool in American and Israeli hands, they still constantly humiliate it. This is another factor in the growth of Hamas’ influence.
Hamas has had a complicated relationship with Israel because its identity is not based on nationalism (although it serves as a receptacle for national sentiments) but on religion. Its highest goal is not the liberation of the Palestinian people, but the establishment of an Islamic state. Its leader in Gaza, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, recently repeated what he has long stated: if Israel stops its attacks and opens the border crossings, “It will be possible to talk on all issues without exception.” Khaled Meshal, the top Hamas leader, in exile, said that in return for a two-state solution based on Israel’s 1967 borders, Hamas would accept a truce that could last “for infinity”. (Haaretz, 2 January 2008) Hamas portrays its rocket firing not as an attempt to defeat Israel – which they clearly cannot do – but as an effort to force Israel to accept such a compromise. “If Hamas’ ‘resistance and pragmatism’ formula fails,” warns a commentator in a Tel Aviv newspaper, “much darker forces are already growing in the shadow of Gaza’s ruins, ready to take its place.” (Haaretz, 2 January 2008)
Israel has come to hate Hamas for reasons bigger than Hamas itself. One is the future Zionism holds for the Palestinian people, and Israel’s need to demonstrate its ruthlessness and power. Another is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, including especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, as an obstacle to U.S. interests in the Middle East and a danger to Israel. Reality shouldn’t be turned on its head: Israel has and will continue to oppress the Palestinians and worse, not because of Islamic fundamentalism (or any genuine resistance) but because of its own necessity and logic. Yet while Israel and Hamas are enemies, each is the best enemy the other could wish for.
We have some problems to face up to
The goal of an Islamic state is not just another word for Palestinian liberation, although there is no reason to doubt that Islamic fundamentalists long to see Israel destroyed sooner or later. If Hamas could achieve its stated aims and replace Israel with “Jews, Muslims and Christians living under the sovereignty of an Islamic state” (Interview with Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar, Jerusalem Post, 2 April 2006), that would bring be no liberation. It would simply imprison Palestinians in the present imperialist-dominated world order and oppressive relations in a different but no less hateful form. In fact, it sounds like an Islamic Israel, a disgusting goal even if it is impossible given what the U.S. needs.
Further, the leadership, programme and ideology of Hamas is a negative factor that stands in the way of developing a political programme and strategy that seeks the complete liberation of the Palestinian people from the global web of economic and social relations in which they are imprisoned, which requires the destruction of the Zionist state. As can be seen very sharply right now, in the light of Israeli flares, bombs and tank fire, the Hamas leadership and ideology hinders the Palestinian struggle from bringing into play the positive factors that really do exist. The very conditions that make Israel and its American backer so determined to enforce the “peace and quiet” of the graveyard is another indication of the potential strengths Palestinians are leaving untapped today.
The liberation of Palestine is so difficult to imagine under today’s world circumstances because of the centrality of the Palestine/Israel contradiction to American imperialist interests and right now to the U.S.’s overall global rampage meant to seize control of and transform the greater Middle East as a central platform for world hegemony. But this same situation is also a potential source of enormous strength for the Palestinian cause. The region’s people look to Palestine not only because they cannot stand injustice but also because they sense the relationship between Palestine and their own intolerable existence under regimes that dare not oppose Israel because of their own dependence on the U.S. and because of backward social systems that cannot stand up to today’s imperialist world order. Without conceding anything to the Israeli war machine’s attempts to paint its crimes as self-defence, the Zionists are really a tiny handful in the region and hated by much of the world’s people.
This applies on a global level as well – the imperialist system is very powerful, but Palestine is one potential weak point and it is located at the vortex of world contradictions today.
“People are dying and no one is coming to help us”
These words spoken by a young girl from Gaza are heartbreaking because they are so close to true. Of course, it’s not that “no one” has done anything. There have been big demonstrations on every continent. But it is true that no imperialist power – countries with the power to do something – gives a damn about the slaughter of Palestinians, that the region’s regimes will never lift a finger to help them and that the revolutionary movements of the world’s people just aren’t that strong right now.
In previous decades, the liberation of Palestine was a leading banner in struggles against the imperialist system throughout the world. Similarly, setbacks in the Palestine struggle have come along with a global ebb in the revolutionary tide. Those struggles can’t just be wished back to life. Today’s world is different. There are new phenomena to analyse and obstacles to overcome. The revolutionary nationalist trend of earlier decades ran its course and reached the limits of what could be achieved with its understanding in a changing world situation, and became non-revolutionary, like the PLO that runs the Palestinian Authority today. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism arose partly as a desperate reaction to that betrayal, and yet it, too, represents a blind alley.
To use the example of the invasion of Iraq, we saw how predominance of various forms of Islamic fundamentalism and other reactionary trends among that country’s anti-occupation forces helped feed the wrong and harmful idea that the only choice was between imperialist occupation and Islamic rule. This strangled the Iraqi people’s resistance and discouraged the truly global protest movement that achieved such heights on the eve of the invasion.
We must not allow the U.S./Israeli lie to predominate, that those who hate Israel and support Palestine must swallow Islam fundamentalism. In the Middle East and other historically Moslem countries, popular expressions of support for Palestine been caught in the chokehold of religious forces with their own unliberating agenda, often trapped in an ambiguous relationship with U.S.-dependent regimes – such as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Indonesia – or otherwise seeking to tie a just outrage to narrow, reactionary ends, as in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
To the degree that Israel’s criminal invasion of Gaza is cast as a struggle between warring religions, that, too is a negative factor in Palestine’s ability to enjoy all that it could should in terms of support from the world’s peoples, including many Jews, even some in Israel. That framework has become very sturdy, through lack of opposition to it and because it seems to present the only “realistic” alternatives right now, even though today’s events should have shown the dead end both religious-based alternatives represent. It leaves many people’s just anger with no adequate expression.
Some people are open to a scientific understanding of the Palestinian cause and the relationship between achieving that cause and advancing the struggle to end the unjust and unnecessary world imperialist system that stifles all humanity. If they work to break themselves and others out of that that Zionism-versus-Islamic-fundamentalism framework instead of tailing behind it, they can play a crucial role in both opening new eyes to Israel’s crimes and the reasons behind it and unleashing the far broader support for Palestine than we have seen so far – support it objectively deserves, needs and could have today. In Palestine itself, only by breaking out of that framework of Zionism versus Islam and taking up a scientific understanding will it be possible to escape from the physical, political and ideological captivity in which the people are suffering so unbearably