Israel in Gaza: Three Wrong Arguments

Two days ago, a resolution of support for Israel jointly sponsored by Sen.Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was adopted in the Senate by unanimous consent. The resolution includes an uncritical recitation of some classic elements of the basic AIPAC-fueled neo-Zionist pro-Israel narrative that has dominated American national political discourse since the 1980s. The "Whereas" section includes:

"Hamas was founded with the stated goal of destroying the State of Israel . . . Hamas has refused to comply with the requirements of the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) . . . in June 2006, Hamas crossed into Israel, attacked Israeli forces and kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit, whom they continue to hold today . . . Hamas has launched thousands of rockets and mortars since Israel dismantled settlements and withdrew from Gaza in 2005 . . ."

The Reid/McConnell resolution is a perfect articulation of one voice in the American debate over Israel's actions in Gaza. The unanimous support the resolution received demonstrates just how difficult it is to break into the scripted narratives that dominate at the level of elite political discourse; it is amazing that in a country that polls show to be deeply divided over Israel's actions, two days after 10,000 Israelis protested against their own government's actions in Tel Aviv, and after everything that has happened in the last eight years, nonetheless there is not a single voice in the U.S. Senate being raised to question the official story being peddled the Bush administration and its neoconservative allies. It's enough to make one think that Walt and Mearsheimer might have been on to something (if only they hadn't said it so badly.) Meanwhile, Obama has remained mute, while the Bush administration has taken its usual line of supporting anything the Israeli government chooses to do, including the exercise of America's veto power in the UN Security Council - one last finger in the world's eye before leaving office.

The unanimity in the branches of the U.S. government may be a source of encouragement to the Olmert government in these last ten days before a new administration. Today (Saturaday, Jan. 10) IAF planes dropped leaflets warning Gazans of a "new phase in the war on terror" and warning that Israel will "escalate" its ground operations; among other things, this is a clear indication that Israel does not particularly feel the much-ballyhooed international "pressure" for a cease-fire. But the unanimity in the U.S. government is not borne out in public discussions, where the debates are furious and loud. Those debates are also frequently pointless. Pointless because one thing that anyone following those debates will have noticed is that most of the time the various sides do not bother to refute one another's claims. Quite often the explanation is simple: the other sides' arguments are so obviously, patently wrongheaded that they must not be meant sincerely, and therefore do not warrant any response. That observation probably makes the following exercise futile, but here I go anyway. Here are three claims that are central to the pro-invasion narrative that is encompassed in the Senate resolution, and just a few of the objections that should be raised whenever these arguments are heard.

Claim 1:
Israel disengaged from Gaza and removed its settlements. In response, the people of Gaza elected a Hamas government and since then rockets have been continually launched into Israel. By the same token, when Israel left Lebanon, Hezbollah moved in. This proves that Israel had no choice but to attempt to destroy or substantially weaken Hamas on the ground in Gaza, and demonstrates the futility of trading land for peace.

The assertion that Israel has ended its occupation is extremely debatable; among others, it is debated by Human Rights Watch. Israel controls Gaza's northern and eastern border crossings, its access to the sea, and its airspace. Israel has shut down Gaza's port and destroyed its airport, ended its fishing industry, and controls the flow of electricity and oil, food and medicine, and even money into the territory. With the cooperation of Egypt, Israel continues to control who enters and exits Gaza; since the election of Hamas Israel has used that power to place Gaza under a state of siege resulting in dire humanitarian conditions in an already impoverished territory that has struggled for decades under the burden of absorbing huge numbers of refugees from Israel. Even prior to the siege, the Israeli Air Force demonstrated its continued ownership of the skies over Gaza by sending jets to produce sonic booms over Gazan cities, a gesture apparently with no purpose other than to harass the local population (also used in Southern Lebanon following Israel's "withdrawal"), a gentle reminder to people on the ground that they sleep at night only if Israel chooses to let them do so. People say that Israel "withdrew" from Gaza as though Gaza had been left autonomous and independent and free from Israeli control and interference; nothing could be further from the truth.

Moreover, to describe a "withdrawal from Gaza" is to artificially divide the Palestinian territories. The withdrawal of the settlements from inside Gaza was accompanied by massive acceleration of settlement construction in the West Bank; most observers have concluded that Sharon's motivation was precisely to free up resources for that purpose. Israel has been absolutely relentless in the expansion of those settlements, along with everything that goes with them; the checkpoints, "whites only" roads, the military incursion in 2002, and the separation wall.

From the Palestinian perspective, the statement that Israel withdrew from Gaza and was not rewarded with peace is almost incomprehensibly dishonest; Palestinians and Arabs in other countries I have spoken with assume that people making that argument are speaking with utter self-awareness of the cynicism of their argument. If you stick a knife in my chest and another one in my foot, then you pull out the one from my foot but drive the one in my chest even deeper, do not expect me not to kick you with my foot that is still bleeding from the wounds you have inflicted. Peace between Israel and Palestine may indeed come through a series of steps, but the framework of understanding cannot be one that separates Gaza from the West Bank, as though being allowed free access to Khan Younis somehow makes up for being cut off from Jerusalem.

Claim 2:
Israel has been subject to constant rocket attacks. What would you (addressed to an American) do if rockets were falling on your city? And what about Gilad Shalit, who has not even been allowed to be seen by visitors? What would you do if this had happened to America?

A fair point, to be sure; rocket attacks are an act of war, and Israel has a right to defend itself. The problem is that Israel's blockade of Gaza is also an act of war, and Palestinians have the same right of self-defense. To focus only on the rockets coming into Israel is like describing the Battle of Britain as "British planes attacking German planes"; it's not technically inaccurate, but as a description it is incomplete to the point of complete distortion. When we are asked "what would you do if rockets from Canada were landing in Minnesota" we should also ask "what would you do if a foreign power - or two foreign powers, acting in cooperation -- had cut off all access to your country and was slowly starving your population in order to compel you to get rid of your elected government?"

Ending the siege has been Hamas' main and constant demand. When the truce began on June 19th Israel permitted increased importation of food, but still only to about 20% of normal levels. The UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Robert Falk, has reported levels of hunger inside Gaza that rival those of the poorest sub-Saharan nations and has called the Israeli siege a "crime against humanity." In November, Israel launched two military attacks that effectively ended the truce and led to the resumption of rocket attacks; nonetheless in December Hamas offered to extend the truce if Israel would only lift the siege. Israel was not interested; thereafter Hamas increased the intensity of the attacks, culminating in a barrage the week of Christmas that prompted the initiation of Operation Cast Lead (although, as I have pointed out in an earlier post, that operation had been planned for months).

The point of the siege all along was to inflict misery on Gaza in order to turn them against their government, an act of collective punishment designed to turn Gazans against their government. In 2006 Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, was quoted in The Guardian explaining the plan: "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet." The technical name for a strategy of imposing fear and misery on a people until they turn against their government is "terrorism"; to repeat myself, Palestinians have the same right of self-defense as Israelis. Nor is the blockade Israel's only act of aggression in Gaza. Throughout the period since the supposed withdrawal, Israel has launched thousands of artillery and rocket attacks into Gaza, along with periodic military operations. In the four years prior to Operation Cast Lead, those attacks resulted in 1,339 deaths among Gaza's people. How would we Americans react to those figures, or their proportional equivalents?

But it is probably the appeal to the case of Gilad Shalit that rings the most hollow, and sounds most completely cynical to Palestinians. According to B'Tselem, Israel currently holds more than 8,200 Palestinian prisoners, many of them arrested and held without charge, others tried in military courts on the basis of secret evidence that the "defense" is not allowed to see in "trials" that may last five minutes. According to Defense of Children International, in 2007 alone, Israel imprisoned some 700 children, in violation of international law. And Israel frequently denies visiting privileges to its prisoners.

Ten years ago Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel's history, famously observed that if he had been born a Palestinian he would have been a terrorist. That was long before the siege of Gaza; for a Gaza resident who has lived through the past year, taking up arms against Israel and supporting violent resistance is not only entirely understandable, it appears positively reasonable. Would Americans really overthrow our own government -- even a government we might initially have opposed -- to end a siege or the threat of attack by a more powerful enemy? Is that how Americans, and Israelis, have responded in the past?

Claim 3:
Hamas is a radical organization whose stated goal is the destruction of Israel and whose leaders have made various inflammatory statements in the past indicating a complete unwillingness to recognize Israel's legitimate rights. Any "truce" agreement is merely an excuse to prepare for future conflict, and should be ignored. Hamas cannot be dealt with because its radical ideology precludes rational bargaining or recognition of mutual self-interest; consequently, Hamas must be destroyed. Any steps that work toward the destruction of Hamas are thus defensive acts by Israel, and any offers by Hamas should be disregarded on the theory that by definition they cannot be sincere.

There is an element of perfect circularity to this argument - we do not talk to Hamas because we assume that Hamas is incapable of talking, which we know to be true because we have never talked with them - but of course the real question is what to make of the characterization of Hamas in the first place.

Hamas was formed at the outset of the First Intifadah in direct response to Israeli occupation, just as Hezbollah was formed in response to Israel's invasion and subsequent occupation of Southern Lebanon. From the outset, Hamas offered itself as an alternative to Fatah as a movement that was right there on the ground (unlike Fatah, whose leadership was safely ensconced in Tunis at the time), as a movement that would provide social services (schools, health care, aid to the poor), was free of the massive corruption that marked Fatah operations . That's why the people of Gaza elected Hamas to office, to nearly everyone's shock, when offered the chance to hold reasonably free elections.

Today, Hamas is a complex movement that contains both radical ideologues and more moderate figures in positions of leadership and relies on Iran for its support, but it is also a political party that maintains its popular support by effective governance. That alone demonstrates a capacity for pragmatism, but beyond that the fact is that Hamas' leadership offered Israel a long-term truce in 2004 in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories. Hamas subsequently confirmed that they would accept any peace agreement for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, provided that it was ratified by a popular referendum. In both instances, Israel was not interested, as Israel was not interested in securing a cessation of rocket attacks in return for lifting its blockade, nor in the 2002 Saudi plan offering recognition by the 22 Arab governments of the Arab League - which endorsed the plan in 2007 -- in return for withdrawal to the same 1967 borders.

Israel, in other words, has no interest in a return to the 1967 borders: both at Annapolis and elsewhere, Israel has made it clear that it intends to keep large chunks of the West Bank that contain the settlement blocs around Ariel, the line of settlements stretching out to Maale Adumim and beyond, and especially the ring of settlements that cut Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank. In other words, the invasion of Gaza is one more illustration of the fact that Israel prefers to preserve its expansionist ambitions rather than seek peace at both the tactical and the strategic levels. No truce that might curtail or end the rocket fire if it requires lifting the siege that Israel believes will eventually bring the Palestinians in Gaza to their knees begging to be allowed to accept a leadership of Israel's choosing. And no peace deals of the kind that were once reached with Egypt and Jordan if the price is giving up Greater and exclusive ownership of Jerusalem.

But the intransigence of Israel's three no's - no negotiation with Hamas, no recognition of Hamas, no peace with Hamas -- is never part of the conversation. Hamas is criticized in the Reid/McConnell resolution for its failure to accept the Quartet Roadmap terms for negotiations in 2003. That criticism is somewhere between ironic and hypocritical given that Israel has never defined the borders within which it is supposed to be recognized, has never offered to forego its own violence, and especially given that the Sharon government declared its own list of 14 points of reservation the Quartet proposal's terms at the time they were first announced.

Ultimately, though, "radicalism" of Hamas -- whether in itself or as compared to the equivalent "radicalism" of Israel's positions -- is beside point. The real point is that the correct question is not whether Hamas' leadership hates Israel and seeks its destruction. The real question is whether Hamas' leadership would be able to secure popular Palestinian support for such a program, just as the real question in the broader War on Terror was never why Al Qaeda hates America, it was always why Al Qaeda's hatred of America sold as well as it did in so many places. The Israeli siege of Gaza has ensured that violence will remain the only plausible apparent option, a conviction that can only be made stronger by the more than 700 dead, thousands wounded and the effective destruction of the civilian infrastructure. Israel's actions strengthen the most radical elements within Hamas by making their claims plausible: that Israel will never permit a free and independent Palestinian state, will never permit Palestinians to live in peace, cannot be trusted to keep any promise or to deviate from the most extreme positions articulated by its past and present leaders . . . in other words, precisely the brush that supporters use to tar Hamas.

And Hamas is not the end of the devolutionary line. Israel supported Hamas to weaken the control of the secular Fatah; today as Israel seeks to weaken Hamas a group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad is emerging. Israel's unwillingness to deal with Hamas is based partly on its ties to Iran; Israel's actions are making it increasingly impossible for moderate Arab states and the Palestinian Authority to join in denouncing Hamas -- as was the case in the first days of the air operation -- with the result that Iran's position vis a vis the Arab League is strengthened, at least temporarily. The satisfaction in being proven correct is grim comfort in the case of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Claim 4:
Doing nothing was not an option, and you can't come up with anything better.

Actually, it's not at all difficult to come up with "something better" than the pointless and ultimately self-defeating infliction of death, destruction, and human misery on a captive population. But that is the subject for another post.

We are in the final, bloody days of the most disastrous U.S. administration of the modern era. The failures of this administration began right at the beginning when President Bush announced a U.S. policy of disengagement from the Israel-Palestine conflict. There is a new president coming in, with a new administration and a new Congress. Reports suggest that elements in the Obama administration are open to talking with Hamas. The Bush administration's policy of disengagement followed by enablement has been no favor to Israel or the Palestinians; let us hope, for all our sakes, that the new administration can initiate a new, more thoughtful discussion.