Early in July, with Israeli forces rampaging through Gaza, killing, maiming and destroying with gay abandon, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had a moment of revelation. A sightseeing trip through the rain forests of Peru was just the stimulus needed to see distant events with a new and blinding clarity. And as he reflected on the violence in West Asia from the vantage point of Peru’s tropical splendour, what occurred most strikingly was the sheer lack of purpose of it all. Violence was inherent in nature, but it was always underlined by a grand purpose of species preservation. The subtle equations of nature are preserved in the struggle between species for living space and the nourishment that the elements provide. A delicate balance between predator species and their prey is often sustained by the dynamics of evolutionary biology. But this balance requires that species behave rationally and respect their inherent instincts for self-preservation.
What was on display in Palestine however, was completely contrary to rationality. Israel had evacuated the Gaza strip, wrote Friedman, but the Palestinian Islamic resistance, Hamas, chose not to use the opportunity to build “a nest for its young there -- a decent state and society, with jobs”. Instead, it decided on the path of obduracy and violence, launching “hundreds of rockets into Israel”. The Palestinians could instantly “have a state on the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem”, said Friedman, “if they and the Arab League clearly recognised Israel, normalised relations and renounced violence”. But they were intent, regrettably, on little else than the destruction of Israel, even if it also meant self-obliteration. “Species that behave that way in the rain forest”, Friedman concluded ominously, inevitably “become extinct”.
Wish-fulfilment is often a powerful, though unconscious, motivation for writers. Friedman’s unquestioning Zionist loyalty has never been a secret and his column written in Peru seemed rather eagerly to anticipate a moment in history, that for Israel has been the only possible solution to the conflict in Palestine: the extinction of the Palestinians as a national community and their dispersal into distant corners of the Arab world as a people devoid of a specific historical identity. The Zionist construction of history first denied the existence of the Palestinians and then grudgingly came around to recognising them as an irritant, a people whose claims to the land they had lived in for centuries did not have any of the sanctity of divine investiture that the Jews enjoyed. The annals of Zionism are replete with statements by its champions – David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, right down to Ehud Olmert – advocating the “transfer” of the Palestinian people as the only viable solution to what was called the “demographic problem” of Israel. And just to ensure that the conditions were appropriate for the departure of the Palestinians – always prefixed with the proviso that it would be “voluntary” -- Zionism was prepared to make their lives under occupation a veritable hell.
Israel’s newest war on Gaza began on June 28, just over nine months after an evacuation of the territory was accomplished to much internal discord and a torrent of global praise for what were deemed the Zionist state’s peaceful intentions. The immediate provocation for the invasion was a Palestinian attack on a military picket in which two Israeli soldiers were killed and one captured. It is important to note that the target of the Palestinian attack was a military post, instrumental in enforcing the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza. Since the Palestinian national elections of February, the blockade has in its ruthlessness, managed to wed the lethal efficiency of U.S.-made weaponry to the savagery of medieval siege warfare. Effectively, the 1.5 million residents of Gaza have been deprived of the basic necessities of life since February, while being targeted with random and indiscriminate military strikes. The bombing of the Gaza beachfront on June 9, which killed seven innocent civilians and left the traumatised ten year-old, Huda Ghalia, as the sole survivor in a family of eight, may have shocked the world because of the media coverage it garnered. But Huda Ghalia’s trauma and tragedy have been played out repeatedly in the Palestinian lands since at least the last six years of the second intifada, which by the Palestinian’s avowal, will be their final uprising against colonialism.
By any applicable criterion of international law, the Israeli military outpost, engaged in illegal siege warfare against the population of Gaza, was a legitimate target. And the Israeli soldier captured on the occasion, Corporal Gilad Shalit, would be a prisoner of war, entitled to all the rights the status entailed. That indeed has been the burden of the Palestinian militants’ argument: that the release of the captured Israeli soldier is a matter to be negotiated by the Israeli government.
Israel has instead embarked upon a military rampage that has shocked the world. Gaza’s only electricity generating station was destroyed on the first day of the offensive. Roads and bridges essential to the movement of the civilian population and the sustenance of their livelihoods, soon followed, victims of high-technology ordnance manufactured in the U.S. On July 2, the London-based human rights group, Amnesty International observed after careful consideration, that the “deliberate attacks by Israeli forces against civilian property and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip violate international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes”. Israel was obliged under international law, to “take urgent measures to remedy the long-term damage it has caused and immediately restore the supply -- at its own cost -- of electricity and water to the Palestinian population in the affected areas”.
Effectively demolishing the argument that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was a demonstration of its peaceful intent, Amnesty observed: “High numbers of Palestinian bystanders, including women and children, have been killed and injured by Israeli artillery shelling and air strikes in recent weeks and months”. And with greater subtlety, the human rights group laid to rest the myth that Israeli military actions have been a legitimate response to Palestinian provocations. The situation, said Amnesty, “looks set to worsen in light of the end of the unilateral cease-fire which the armed wing of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups had been observing since last year”.
If the situation that prevailed was one of a “unilateral ceasefire by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups”, what then could Friedman and others of his ilk mean by their constant harping on the “hundreds of rockets that are fired into Israel”? The answer is not far to seek. The rockets that are fired are essentially home-made weapons – no more sophisticated than firecrackers – that have had minimal military impact. Their significance indeed, has been little more than symbolic. Even as the organised political forces in Palestine declared a ceasefire in the expectation that Israel would reciprocate, individuals outside the control of these groups have kept up their symbolic gestures of defiance. Their argument is very simple: Israel has never been in the business of reciprocity and it would be foolish to expect the Zionist establishment to reverse course now.
The Israeli response, as always, has been disproportionate and indiscriminate. According to an assessment of the situation by the U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, between November and December 2005, the Palestinians launched an estimated 283 home-made rockets into Israel. None of these caused any casualties. In supposed retaliation – though the more credible argument would be that theirs was the original provocation – the Israel Defence Force (IDF) conducted 124 air-strikes and fired 544 artillery shells into Gaza. And all these actions had seriously lethal implications. The number of Palestinians killed in Gaza since the so-called Israeli withdrawal, has been, in proportionate terms, considerably more than in the worst days of the occupation.
In December 2005, belying all claims of a withdrawal, Israel declared parts of northern Gaza a “no-go” area, where its forces would feel free to fire and kill without warning. Palestinian fishermen setting out to sea are routinely fired upon by the IDF in incidents involving loss of life. And routes of entry and exit from Gaza are under the ironhanded control of the IDF. The consequence of withdrawal in other words, has been little else than to convert Gaza from a site of brutal military occupation into the world’s largest unsupervised prison.
This was exactly how things were meant to be. Friedman and others of his stripe who argue that the Gaza withdrawal was a gesture of peace, are guilty of the worst form of disingenuousness. Indeed, the moment it was announced, the Israeli gameplan was denounced as a dilatory tactic to deny the Palestinians true sovereignty and retain indefinite control over the strategically more important West Bank. Such indeed was plainly stated by the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon’s principal political aide, Dov Weisglass. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on October 8, 2004, Weisglass effectively laid out the hidden agenda of the Gaza withdrawal. By late-2003, as he recounted matters, Israel was deep in a quagmire. The bloody confrontation with the Palestinians had dragged on three years at considerable damage to Israel’s international image. The US was still firmly committed, but time was not on Israel’s side. The economy was stagnant and domestic dissent was growing. It was just a matter of time before international opinion, already considerably alienated, crossed the crucial threshold and began to think of sanctions against Israel as a distinct possibility.
In the circumstances, the Gaza withdrawal was a tactical master-stroke, which presented a semblance of real concessions to the Palestinians, while preserving Israel’s core strategic interests in the West Bank. The peace negotiations, Weisglass chortled, had been cast away, into an indefinite limbo. Referring to an exchange of letters between Sharon and U.S. President George Bush early in 2004, Weisglass described how the US had with little demur, endorsed Israel’s essential interests in the West Bank.
Though intended as an overture towards the restive constituency of settlers that saw the Gaza withdrawal as a treasonous ceding of Israel’s divine patrimony, Weisglass’s long and candid exposition of Israel’s agenda for Palestinian statehood attracted considerable international attention. Rather than offering the Palestinians the possibility of an honourable peace, the purpose as plainly stated, was to put the “peace process into formalin”, i.e., to preserve a dead organism as a laboratory specimen to be displayed whenever it suited Israel’s interests.
With its occupation forces having pulled out, Israel has felt at liberty to wildly escalate its retribution for real and imagined acts of defiance. The only difference is that, at least until the June 28 invasion, the violence was administered by fighter aircraft and helicopters from the safety of the skies. If the Palestinians have refused to be cowed down, that is only a tribute to the undying character of their struggle, which a morally anaesthetised world would happily bury in oblivion, if it were not for the visible brutality that Israel continues to visit on innocent civilians.
If the criteria for “humanitarian intervention” employed when the western powers launched successive wars of dismemberment against Yugoslavia in the 1990s were to be applied today, Israel would long since have been placed under international guardianship and its political leaders indicted for war crimes. On June 6, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning Israel's military operations in Palestine as a clear breach of international humanitarian law. The newly established body of the U.N. resolved by a margin of 29 against 11, with five abstentions, that it would send a fact-finding mission to Gaza.
From an Indian viewpoint, what is perhaps most significant about this resolution is simply the fact that India voted in its favour. After years of shameless kowtowing before the U.S.-Israeli agenda of depriving the Palestinians of their basic political rights and identity, India has awoken now to the responsibilities it owes to people elsewhere, struggling for their freedom from colonialism. This is a major gain, but it has been vitiated by commentary in the bourgeois media – reminiscent of the BJP Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh’s infamous statement after a visit to Israel – that India’s support for Palestinian national rights is a concession to “vote bank politics” at home. This variety of political idiocy clearly needs to be combated and defeated, if the commonsense and morality of India’s foreign policy is to be retrieved from the slough that it has been plunged into, by the recent ardour for courting the U.S.-Israel neo-imperial axis.
July 11, 2006