Western governments and most of the Western media have accepted a number of
Israeli claims justifying the military assault on Gaza: that Hamas
consistently violated the six-month truce that Israel observed and then
refused to extend it; that Israel therefore had no choice but to destroy
Hamas’s capacity to launch missiles into Israeli towns; that Hamas is a
terrorist organization, part of a global jihadi network; and that Israel
has acted not only in its own defense but on behalf of an international
struggle by Western democracies against this network.
I am not aware of a single major American newspaper, radio station or TV
channel whose coverage of the assault on Gaza questions this version of
events. Criticism of Israel’s actions, if any (and there has been none from
the Bush administration), has focused instead on whether the IDF’s carnage
is proportional to the threat it sought to counter, and whether it is
taking adequate measures to prevent civilian casualties.
Middle East peacemaking has been smothered in deceptive euphemisms, so let
me state bluntly that each of these claims is a lie. Israel, not Hamas,
violated the truce: Hamas undertook to stop firing rockets into Israel; in
return, Israel was to ease its throttlehold on Gaza. In fact, during the
truce, it tightened it further. This was confirmed not only by every
neutral international observer and NGO on the scene but by Brigadier
General (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, a former commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division.
In an interview in Ha’aretz on 22 December, he accused Israel’s government
of having made a ‘central error’ during the tahdiyeh, the six-month period
of relative truce, by failing ‘to take advantage of the calm to improve,
rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians of the
Strip . . . When you create a tahdiyeh, and the economic pressure on the
Strip continues,’ General Zakai said, ‘it is obvious that Hamas will try to
reach an improved tahdiyeh, and that their way to achieve this is resumed
Qassam fire . . . You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in
Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect that Hamas will just
sit around and do nothing.’
The truce, which began in June last year and was due for renewal in
December, required both parties to refrain from violent action against the
other. Hamas had to cease its rocket assaults and prevent the firing of
rockets by other groups such as Islamic Jihad (even Israel’s intelligence
agencies acknowledged this had been implemented with surprising
effectiveness), and Israel had to put a stop to its targeted assassinations
and military incursions. This understanding was seriously violated on 4
November, when the IDF entered Gaza and killed six members of Hamas. Hamas
responded by launching Qassam rockets and Grad missiles. Even so, it
offered to extend the truce, but only on condition that Israel ended its
blockade. Israel refused. It could have met its obligation to protect its
citizens by agreeing to ease the blockade, but it didn’t even try. It
cannot be said that Israel launched its assault to protect its citizens
from rockets. It did so to protect its right to continue the strangulation
of Gaza’s population.
Everyone seems to have forgotten that Hamas declared an end to suicide
bombings and rocket fire when it decided to join the Palestinian political
process, and largely stuck to it for more than a year. Bush publicly
welcomed that decision, citing it as an example of the success of his
campaign for democracy in the Middle East. (He had no other success to
point to.) When Hamas unexpectedly won the election, Israel and the US
immediately sought to delegitimize the result and embraced Mahmoud Abbas,
the head of Fatah, who until then had been dismissed by Israel’s leaders as
a ‘plucked chicken’. They armed and trained his security forces to
overthrow Hamas; and when Hamas – brutally, to be sure – pre-empted this
violent attempt to reverse the result of the first honest democratic
election in the modern Middle East, Israel and the Bush administration
imposed the blockade.
Israel seeks to counter these indisputable facts by maintaining that in
withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza in 2005, Ariel Sharon gave Hamas
the chance to set out on the path to statehood, a chance it refused to
take; instead, it transformed Gaza into a launching-pad for firing missiles
at Israel’s civilian population. The charge is a lie twice over. First, for
all its failings, Hamas brought to Gaza a level of law and order unknown in
recent years, and did so without the large sums of money that donors
showered on the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. It eliminated the violent
gangs and warlords who terrorized Gaza under Fatah’s rule. Non-observant
Muslims, Christians and other minorities have more religious freedom under
Hamas rule than they would have in Saudi Arabia, for example, or under many
other Arab regimes.
The greater lie is that Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza was intended as a
prelude to further withdrawals and a peace agreement. This is how Sharon’s
senior adviser Dov Weisglass, who was also his chief negotiator with the
Americans, described the withdrawal from Gaza, in an interview with
Ha’aretz in August 2004:
What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the
settlements [i.e. the major settlement blocks on the West Bank] would not
be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the
Palestinians turn into Finns . . . The significance [of the agreement with
the US] is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that
process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you
prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.
Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with
all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all
this with [President Bush’s] authority and permission . . . and the
ratification of both houses of Congress.
Do the Israelis and Americans think that Palestinians don’t read the Israeli
papers, or that when they saw what was happening on the West Bank they
couldn’t figure out for themselves what Sharon was up to?
Israel’s government would like the world to believe that Hamas launched its
Qassam rockets because that is what terrorists do and Hamas is a generic
terrorist group. In fact, Hamas is no more a ‘terror organization
(Israel’s preferred term) than the Zionist movement was during its struggle
for a Jewish homeland. In the late 1930s and 1940s, parties within the
Zionist movement resorted to terrorist activities for strategic reasons.
According to Benny Morris, it was the Irgun that first targeted civilians.
He writes in Righteous Victims that an upsurge of Arab terrorism in
1937 ‘triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and buses,
introducing a new dimension to the conflict’. He also documents atrocities
committed during the 1948-49 war by the IDF, admitting in a 2004 interview,
published in Ha’aretz, that material released by Israel’s Ministry of
Defense showed that ‘there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I
had previously thought . . . In the months of April-May 1948, units of the
Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were
to uproot the villagers, expel them, and destroy the villages themselves.’
In a number of Palestinian villages and towns the IDF carried out organized
executions of civilians. Asked by Ha’aretz whether he condemned the ethnic
cleansing, Morris replied that he did not:
A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of
700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was
no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the
hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was
necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our
settlements were fired on.
In other words, when Jews target and kill innocent civilians to advance
their national struggle, they are patriots. When their adversaries do so,
they are terrorists.
It is too easy to describe Hamas simply as a ‘terror organization. It is a
religious nationalist movement that resorts to terrorism, as the Zionist
movement did during its struggle for statehood, in the mistaken belief that
it is the only way to end an oppressive occupation and bring about a
Palestinian state. While Hamas’s ideology formally calls for that state to
be established on the ruins of the state of Israel, this doesn’t determine
Hamas’s actual policies today any more than the same declaration in the PLO
charter determined Fatah’s actions.
These are not the conclusions of an apologist for Hamas but the opinions of
the former head of Mossad and Sharon’s national security adviser, Ephraim
Halevy. The Hamas leadership has undergone a change ‘right under our very
noses’, Halevy wrote recently in Yedioth Ahronoth, by recognizing that ‘its
ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable
future.’ It is now ready and willing to see the establishment of a
Palestinian state within the temporary borders of 1967. Halevy noted that
while Hamas has not said how ‘temporary’ those borders would be, ‘they know
that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their co-operation,
they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: they will have to
adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological
goals.’ In an earlier article, Halevy also pointed out the absurdity of
linking Hamas to al-Qaida.
In the eyes of al-Qaida, the members of Hamas are perceived as heretics
due to their stated desire to participate, even indirectly, in processes of
any understandings or agreements with Israel. [The Hamas political bureau
chief, Khaled] Mashal’s declaration diametrically contradicts al-Qaida’s
approach, and provides Israel with an opportunity, perhaps a historic one,
to leverage it for the better.
Why then are Israel’s leaders so determined to destroy Hamas? Because they
believe that its leadership, unlike that of Fatah, cannot be intimidated
into accepting a peace accord that establishes a Palestinian ‘state’ made
up of territorially disconnected entities over which Israel would be able
to retain permanent control. Control of the West Bank has been the
unwavering objective of Israel’s military, intelligence and political
elites since the end of the Six-Day War.[*] They believe that Hamas would
not permit such a cantonisation of Palestinian territory, no matter how
long the occupation continues. They may be wrong about Abbas and his
superannuated cohorts, but they are entirely right about Hamas.
Middle East observers wonder whether Israel’s assault on Hamas will succeed
in destroying the organization or expelling it from Gaza. This is an
irrelevant question. If Israel plans to keep control over any future
Palestinian entity, it will never find a Palestinian partner, and even if
it succeeds in dismantling Hamas, the movement will in time be replaced by
a far more radical Palestinian opposition.
If Barack Obama picks a seasoned Middle East envoy who clings to the idea
that outsiders should not present their own proposals for a just and
sustainable peace agreement, much less press the parties to accept it, but
instead leave them to work out their differences, he will assure a future
Palestinian resistance far more extreme than Hamas – one likely to be
allied with al-Qaida. For the US, Europe and most of the rest of the world,
this would be the worst possible outcome. Perhaps some Israelis, including
the settler leadership, believe it would serve their purposes, since it
would provide the government with a compelling pretext to hold on to all of
Palestine. But this is a delusion that would bring about the end of Israel
as a Jewish and democratic state.
Anthony Cordesman, one of the most reliable military analysts of the Middle
East, and a friend of Israel, argued in a 9 January report for the Center
for Strategic and International Studies that the tactical advantages of
continuing the operation in Gaza were outweighed by the strategic cost –
and were probably no greater than any gains Israel may have made early in
the war in selective strikes on key Hamas facilities. ‘Has Israel somehow
blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal, or
at least one it can credibly achieve?’ he asks. ‘Will Israel end in
empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms?
Will Israel’s actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any
hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process?
To be blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes.’ Cordesman concludes
that ‘any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a
meaningful victory. If this is all that Olmert, Livni and Barak have for an
answer, then they have disgraced themselves and damaged their country and
[*] See my piece in the LRB, 16 August 2007.
Henry Siegman, director of the US Middle East Project in New York, is a
visiting research professor at SOAS, University of London. He is a former
national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue
Council of America.
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