By Avi Shlaim ∙ The American Conservative ∙ January 26, 2009 (Issue)
The only way to make sense of Israel’s senseless war in Gaza is through historical context. Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state. On June 2, 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders.” I used to think that this judgment was too harsh, but Israel’s assault on Gaza and the Bush administration’s complicity have reopened the question.
I served loyally in the Israeli army in the 1960s and have never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the 1967 War had little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic, and military control over the Palestinian territories.
With a population of refugees crammed into a tiny strip of land with no infrastructure or natural resources, Gaza’s prospects were never bright. Yet this is not an instance of economic underdevelopment but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development. To use the Biblical phrase, Israel turned the people of Gaza into hewers of wood and the drawers of water—a source of cheap labor and a captive market for Israeli goods. Local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination and establish the economic underpinnings essential for independence.
In 2005, Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 compared with 1.4 million local residents. Yet the settlers controlled 25 percent of the territory, 40 percent of the arable land, and the lion’s share of scarce water resources. Cheek by jowl with these foreign intruders, the majority of the local population lived in unimaginable misery. Eighty percent still subsist on less than $2 per day. Living conditions remain an affront to civilized values, a powerful precipitant to resistance, and a breeding ground for extremism.
In August 2005, a Likud government headed by Ariel Sharon staged a unilateral Israeli pullout, withdrawing settlers and destroying the houses they left behind. Sharon presented the withdrawal as a contribution to peace based on a two-state solution. But the year after, another 12,000 Israelis settled on the West Bank, further reducing the scope for an independent Palestinian state. Land-grabbing and peace-making are simply incompatible.
The real purpose behind the move was to redraw the borders of Greater Israel by incorporating the main settlement blocs on the West Bank to the state of Israel. Withdrawal from Gaza was thus not a prelude to peace but to further Zionist expansion on the West Bank. It was a unilateral move undertaken in what was seen as the Israeli national interest.
Israel’s settlers were withdrawn, but Israeli soldiers continued to control all access to the Gaza Strip. The Israeli air force enjoyed unrestricted freedom to drop bombs, make sonic booms by flying low and breaking the sound barrier, and terrorize the hapless inhabitants.
Israel portrays itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet Israel has never done anything to promote democracy on the Arab side and has done a great deal to undermine it. Israel has a long history of secret collaboration with reactionary Arab regimes to suppress Palestinian nationalism. Despite all the handicaps, the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only democracy in the Arab world with the possible exception of Lebanon. In January 2006, free and fair elections brought to power a Hamas-led government. Israel, however, refused to recognize the democratically elected government, claiming that Hamas is purely a terrorist organization.
America and the EU joined Israel in demonizing the Hamas government and trying to bring it down. A surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied.
Israel’s propaganda machine purveys the notion that the Palestinians are terrorists, that they reject coexistence with the Jewish state, that their nationalism is little more than antiSemitism, that Hamas is just a bunch of religious fanatics. But the truth is that the Palestinians are a normal people with normal aspirations. They want a piece of land on which to live in freedom and dignity.
Like other radical movements, Hamas began to moderate following its rise to power. From the ideological rejectionism of its charter, it moved toward pragmatic accommodation of a two-state solution. In March 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a unity government that was ready to negotiate a long-term ceasefire. But Israel refused to negotiate with a government that included Hamas.
It continued to play the old game of divide-and-rule between rival Palestinian factions. In the late 1980s, Israel supported nascent Hamas in order to weaken Fatah, the secular nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat. Now Israel began to encourage the corrupt and pliant Fatah leaders to overthrow their religious political rivals and recapture power. American neoconservatives participated in the plot to instigate a Palestinian civil war. Their meddling was a major factor in the collapse of the national unity government and in driving Hamas to seize power in Gaza in June 2007 to preempt a Fatah coup.
The war on Gaza is the culmination of confrontations with the Hamas government. In a broader sense, however, it is a war between Israel and the Palestinian people who elected it to power. The declared aim of the war is to weaken Hamas until it agrees to a ceasefire on Israel’s terms. The undeclared aim is to ensure that the Palestinians are seen by the world as a humanitarian problem, derailing their struggle for statehood.
As always, mighty Israel claims to be the victim of Palestinian aggression, but the asymmetry of power leaves little room for doubt as to who the real victim is. To be sure, Hamas is not an entirely innocent party. Denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak—terror. The damage caused by these primitive Qassam rockets is minimal, but the psychological impact is immense, prompting the public to demand protection from its government. Israel has the right to act in self-defense, but its response has been disproportionate. In the three years since the withdrawal from Gaza, 11 Israelis have been killed by rocket fire. In 2005 to 2007 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.
Whatever the numbers, killing civilians is wrong. This applies to Israel as much as it does to Hamas—and Israel’s record is one of unremitting brutality toward the inhabitants of Gaza. Israel maintained the blockade after the ceasefire came into force, which in the view of Hamas leaders amounted to a violation of the agreement. During the ceasefire, Israel prevented any exports from leaving the strip. Officially, 49.1 percent of the population is unemployed. At the same time, Israel restricted the number of trucks carrying food, fuel, cooking-gas canisters, spare parts for water and sanitation plants, and medical supplies to Gaza. It is difficult to see how starving and freezing civilians could protect Israel. But even if it did, it would still be immoral, a form of collective punishment forbidden by international law.
The brutality of Israel’s soldiers is matched by the mendacity of its spokesmen. Eight months before launching the war on Gaza, Israel established a National Information Directorate. Its core messages are that Hamas broke the ceasefire agreements; that Israel’s objective is the defense of its population; and that Israel’s forces are taking the utmost care not to hurt civilians. But it was not Hamas but the IDF that broke the ceasefire, with a raid into Gaza on Nov. 4 that killed six Hamas men. Israel’s objective is not just the defense of its population but the eventual overthrow of the Hamas government by turning the people against their rulers. And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
No amount of military escalation can buy Israel immunity from rocket attacks from the military wing of Hamas. Despite all the death and destruction that Israel has inflicted on them, they kept up their resistance. This is a movement that glorifies victimhood and martyrdom. The only way for Israel to achieve security is not through shooting but through talks with Hamas, which has repeatedly declared its readiness to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with the Jewish state within its pre-1967 borders. Israel has rejected this offer for the same reason it spurned the Arab League peace plan of 2002: it involves concessions and compromises.
Israel’s record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders.” A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses WMD, and practices terrorism—the use of violence against civilians for political purposes.
Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbors but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones. Politicians are of course free to repeat lies and mistakes. But it is not mandatory to do so.
— — —Avi Shlaim is author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World and Lion of Jordan: King Hussein’s Life in War and Peace. This essay is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in The Guardian.