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 organisation, part of a global jihadi network; and
that Israel has acted not only in its own defence 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, notHamas, violated the truce: Hamas undertook to stop firing rockets intoIsrael; in return, Israel was to ease its throttlehold on Gaza. In fact,during the truce, it tightened it further. This was confirmed not only byevery neutral international observer and NGO on the scene but byBrigadier General (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, a former commander of theIDF’s Gaza Division. In an interview in Ha’aretz on 22 December, heaccused Israel’s government of having made a ‘central error’ during thetahdiyeh, the six-month period of relative truce, by failing ‘to takeadvantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, theeconomic plight of the Palestinians of the Strip . . . When you create atahdiyeh, and the economic pressure on the Strip continues,’ GeneralZakai said, ‘it is obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improvedtahdiyeh, and that their way to achieve this is resumed Qassam fire . . .You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in theeconomic distress they’re in, and expect that Hamas will just sit aroundand do nothing.’
The truce, which began in June last year and was due for renewal inDecember, required both parties to refrain from violent action againstthe other. Hamas had to cease its rocket assaults and prevent the firingof rockets by other groups such as Islamic Jihad (even Israel’sintelligence agencies acknowledged this had been implemented withsurprising effectiveness), and Israel had to put a stop to its targetedassassinations and military incursions. This understanding was seriouslyviolated on 4 November, when the IDF entered Gaza and killed sixmembers of Hamas. Hamas responded by launching Qassam rockets andGrad missiles. Even so, it offered to extend the truce, but only oncondition that Israel ended its blockade. Israel refused. It could have metits obligation to protect its citizens by agreeing to ease the blockade, butit didn’t even try. It cannot be said that Israel launched its assault toprotect its citizens from rockets. It did so to protect its right to continuethe strangulation of Gaza’s population.
Everyone seems to have forgotten that Hamas declared an end to suicidebombings and rocket fire when it decided to join the Palestinian politicalprocess, and largely stuck to it for more than a year. Bush publiclywelcomed that decision, citing it as an example of the success of hiscampaign for democracy in the Middle East. (He had no other success topoint to.) When Hamas unexpectedly won the election, Israel and the USimmediately sought to delegitimise the result and embraced MahmoudAbbas, the head of Fatah, who until then had been dismissed by Israel’sleaders as a ‘plucked chicken’. They armed and trained his security forcesto overthrow Hamas; and when Hamas – brutally, to be sure –pre-empted this violent attempt to reverse the result of the first honestdemocratic election in the modern Middle East, Israel and the Bushadministration imposed the blockade.
Israel seeks to counter these indisputable facts by maintaining that inwithdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza in 2005, Ariel Sharon gaveHamas the chance to set out on the path to statehood, a chance it refusedto take; instead, it transformed Gaza into a launching-pad for firingmissiles 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 orderunknown in recent years, and did so without the large sums of moneythat donors showered on the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Iteliminated the violent gangs and warlords who terrorised Gaza underFatah’s rule. Non-observant Muslims, Christians and other minoritieshave more religious freedom under Hamas rule than they would have inSaudi Arabia, for example, or under many other Arab regimes.The greater lie is that Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza was intended as aprelude to further withdrawals and a peace agreement. This is howSharon’s senior adviser Dov Weisglass, who was also his chief negotiatorwith the Americans, described the withdrawal from Gaza, in an interviewwith Ha’aretz in August 2004:
What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of thesettlements [i.e. the major settlement blocks on the West Bank] wouldnot be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until thePalestinians turn into Finns . . . The significance [of the agreementwith the US] is the freezing of the political process. And when youfreeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinianstate and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders andJerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called thePalestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from ouragenda indefinitely. And all this with [President Bush’s] authority andpermission . . . and the ratification of both houses of Congress.Do the Israelis and Americans think that Palestinians don’t read theIsraeli papers, or that when they saw what was happening on the WestBank they couldn’t figure out for themselves what Sharon was up to?Israel’s government would like the world to believe that Hamas launchedits Qassam rockets because that is what terrorists do and Hamas is ageneric terrorist group. In fact, Hamas is no more a ‘terror organisation’(Israel’s preferred term) than the Zionist movement was during itsstruggle for a Jewish homeland. In the late 1930s and 1940s, partieswithin the Zionist movement resorted to terrorist activities for strategicreasons. According to Benny Morris, it was the Irgun that first targetedcivilians. He writes in Righteous Victims that an upsurge of Arabterrorism in 1937 ‘triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arabcrowds and buses, introducing a new dimension to the conflict’. He alsodocuments atrocities committed during the 1948-49 war by the IDF,admitting in a 2004 interview, published in Ha’aretz, that materialreleased by Israel’s Ministry of Defence showed that ‘there were far moreIsraeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought . . . In the monthsof April-May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational ordersthat stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them,and destroy the villages themselves.’ In a number of Palestinian villagesand towns the IDF carried out organised executions of civilians. Askedby Ha’aretz whether he condemned the ethnic cleansing, Morris repliedthat he did not:A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprootingof 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them.There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary tocleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse themain roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which ourconvoys and our settlements were fired on.In other words, when Jews target and kill innocent civilians to advancetheir national struggle, they are patriots. When their adversaries do so,they are terrorists.It is too easy to describe Hamas simply as a ‘terror organisation’. It is areligious nationalist movement that resorts to terrorism, as the Zionistmovement did during its struggle for statehood, in the mistaken beliefthat it is the only way to end an oppressive occupation and bring about aPalestinian state. While Hamas’s ideology formally calls for that state tobe established on the ruins of the state of Israel, this doesn’t determineHamas’s actual policies today any more than the same declaration in thePLO charter determined Fatah’s actions.
These are not the conclusions of an apologist for Hamas but the opinionsof the former head of Mossad and Sharon’s national security adviser,Ephraim Halevy. The Hamas leadership has undergone a change ‘rightunder our very noses’, Halevy wrote recently in Yedioth Ahronoth, byrecognising that ‘its ideological goal is not attainable and will not be inthe foreseeable future.’ It is now ready and willing to see theestablishment of a Palestinian state within the temporary borders of1967. Halevy noted that while Hamas has not said how ‘temporary’ thoseborders would be, ‘they know that the moment a Palestinian state isestablished with their co-operation, they will be obligated to change therules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them farfrom their original ideological goals.’ In an earlier article, Halevy alsopointed out the absurdity of linking Hamas to al-Qaida.In the eyes of al-Qaida, the members of Hamas are perceived asheretics due to their stated desire to participate, even indirectly, inprocesses of any understandings or agreements with Israel. [TheHamas political bureau chief, Khaled] Mashal’s declarationdiametrically contradicts al-Qaida’s approach, and provides Israelwith an opportunity, perhaps a historic one, to leverage it for thebetter.
Why then are Israel’s leaders so determined to destroy Hamas? Becausethey believe that its leadership, unlike that of Fatah, cannot beintimidated into accepting a peace accord that establishes a Palestinian‘state’ made up of territorially disconnected entities over which Israelwould be able to retain permanent control. Control of the West Bank hasbeen the unwavering objective of Israel’s military, intelligence andpolitical elites since the end of the Six-Day War.[*] They believe thatHamas would not permit such a cantonisation of Palestinian territory, nomatter how long the occupation continues. They may be wrong aboutAbbas and his superannuated cohorts, but they are entirely right aboutHamas.
Middle East observers wonder whether Israel’s assault on Hamas willsucceed in destroying the organisation or expelling it from Gaza. This isan irrelevant question. If Israel plans to keep control over any futurePalestinian entity, it will never find a Palestinian partner, and even if itsucceeds in dismantling Hamas, the movement will in time be replacedby a far more radical Palestinian opposition.If Barack Obama picks a seasoned Middle East envoy who clings to theidea that outsiders should not present their own proposals for a just andsustainable peace agreement, much less press the parties to accept it, butinstead leave them to work out their differences, he will assure a futurePalestinian resistance far more extreme than Hamas – one likely to beallied with al-Qaida. For the US, Europe and most of the rest of theworld, 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 holdon to all of Palestine. But this is a delusion that would bring about theend of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Anthony Cordesman, one of the most reliable military analysts of theMiddle East, and a friend of Israel, argued in a 9 January report for theCenter for Strategic and International Studies that the tacticaladvantages of continuing the operation in Gaza were outweighed by thestrategic cost – and were probably no greater than any gains Israel mayhave made early in the war in selective strikes on key Hamas facilities.‘Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without aclear strategic goal, or at least one it can credibly achieve?’ he asks. ‘WillIsrael end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated intactical terms? Will Israel’s actions seriously damage the US position inthe region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes andvoices 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 claimthat tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that Olmert,Livni and Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselvesand damaged their country and their friends.’
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