FIRST THE NUMBERS:
"1285 Palestinians killed, mostly civilians, including 167 civil police officers. 4336 Palestinians wounded, mostly civilians. Two political leaders of Hamas assassinated, Nizar Rayan and Said Siam, in bombs that flattened their home and also killed many of their family members and neighbors. Tens of thousands of people forced to abandon their homes: 2400 houses completely destroyed, and 17,000 semi-destroyed or damaged. Tens of mosques, public civilian facilities, police stations, and media, health, and educational institutions either completely or partially destroyed. 121 industrial and commercial workshops destroyed and at least 200 others damaged."
Israel’s army, the fourth most powerful in the world, surrounded and attacked by air, land, and sea a defenseless population that it has intensively besieged since 2007, occupied for the last 42 years, and expelled and dispossessed for the last 60 years. For 22 days of relentless round-the-clock bombing, 1.5 million Gazans were terrorized: nobody and nowhere was safe in Gaza (as the UN’s John Ging stated during the assault).
Causing mass terror and insecurity and massive infrastructural damage, Israel’s assault was systematic, premeditated and pre-planned, making no distinctions between military and civilian targets ("cautiousness is aggressiveness," as the IDF command recommended). Not only indiscriminate: but also completely disproportionate as a response to Hamas’ home-made Qassam rockets.
Months before the expiration of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, which Israel violated and refused to renew, the IDF began its preparations. Palestinians needed to be punished for supporting and democratically electing Hamas, for resisting the Israeli occupation, and for believing that their national rights are within the realm of possibility.
Israel also needed to re-establish its military "deterrence," shaken by the 2006 war on Lebanon, as well as remind Palestinians that the occupied Palestinian territories are not South Lebanon and Hamas is not Hizbullah. As I argued during the war, Palestine was yet again to be delayed and obstructed by Israel.
What lessons should we draw from this? What does it tell us about the question of Palestine 60 years after the Nakba?
The first crucial conclusion that should be drawn and internalized is the following one: Israel doesn’t want peace.
Since 2000, Israel has not only killed over 6000 Palestinians (shooting over one million bullets into unarmed demonstrators in the first 3 weeks of the 2nd Intifada alone, "a bullet for every Palestinian child" as an Israeli officer put it), but it has also reoccupied West Bank cities and destroyed Palestinian Authority (PA) infrastructure in a massive invasion resembling the current assault on Gaza.
Thousands of small-scale military incursions and operations ensued. In 2006, Israel also attacked Lebanon, killed over 1200 Lebanese, and drove away half a million civilians from the south during a massive bombing campaign that lasted 33 days.
The Worship of Force
Israel’s pattern of aggression is historical: force is always prioritized over peace. No state that wants peace expels the majority of Palestinians from their lands, destroys over 530 of their towns and villages, and prevents their return in 1948; or joins with Western colonial powers and attacks Egypt for nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956; or occupies more Palestinian and Arab lands, crushes the Arab world’s most popular political leadership, and humiliates a whole nation in 1967. The founding Zionist Theodore Herzl’s imagined "outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism" was realized and sustained by force.
The specifics are even more sinister. Indeed, every time Israel has a chance to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict by peaceful means it goes to war. Two examples will suffice. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the crushing of the PLO was undertaken as a response to what one Israeli strategist called the PLO’s "peace offensive" in 1981-82. The invasion of the West Bank in 2002 was conducted days after the announcement of the Arab initiative in Beirut, which offered Israel not only the international consensus of peaceful settlement over Palestine (i.e. a two-state solution based on the 1967 border with East Jerusalem as capital of the Palestinian state), but also full normalization of relations with 22 Arab countries.
Opting for war rather than peace describes Gaza 2009 as well. Since at least 2005, Hamas has launched another Palestinian "peace offensive" and publicly accepted the international consensus over the 1967 border. Israel panicked and yet again responded with force and war. Why? The cause is perfectly clear: Israel’s colonial-territorial imperatives.
Making peace means ending the occupation, giving up control of Gaza and the West Bank, dismantling the illegal Wall, settlements and Israelis-only roads, and withdrawing to the ’67 border. It’s a cost that Israel doesn’t want to pay. So it wants a "peace" that would allow it to continue holding onto most of what it has already: a "peace" that ratifies its territorial expansion.
Israel’s conception of peace, in fact, looks like Oslo: closure. Beginning a bit earlier in 1991, as a response to the first Intifada after force alone failed to quell the uprising, Israel first cut Gaza off from the West Bank and from Israel and denied Palestinians freedom of movement and the ability to work in Israel. This turned Palestinians from exploited South Africans (working as cheap laborers in Israel) to dispensable Native Americans. Palestinians now suffered not only from political exclusion but economic exclusion as well (suicide bombings and Qassams begin as the siege and strangulation intensify).
With Oslo, settlements and settlers double in number; checkpoints and roadblocks are introduced on a permanent basis (now numbering 630) and internal closure is added to the already existing external one, preventing free movement within the West Bank as well between the West Bank and surrounding environs; and a 703km Wall is built, mostly in the occupied Palestinian territories, incorporating most of the settlements as it partially or completely surrounds 400,000 Palestinians who are threatened with transfer as a result.
The Oslo period also brought about the Disengagement from Gaza of 2005, in which 18,000 Jewish settlers were removed from Gaza only in order to fortify and expand the settlement project in the West Bank and to give Israel a free hand to attack and besiege Gaza at will. Rather than brutally policing its occupied subjects, then, as in the first Intifada, Oslo and Bush’s "war on terrorism" allowed Israel to present its conflict with the Palestinians as an armed conflict against terrorism. Declaring Gaza a "hostile entity" after the Hamas takeover in 2007 only consolidated this shift. War has become Israel’s way of dealing with its colonial frontier and dispensable population.
Israel has exploited its strategic disengagement from the Palestinian population during Oslo to intensify the conflict. About Gaza specifically it tells its citizens "Look, we withdrew from Gaza and they still shoot at us. We have to teach them another lesson." There is, as a result, a popular war mood in Israel, which has become a serious political impediment for peace. During the assault on Gaza, Ma’ariv daily newspaper published the results of an opinion poll showing that an overwhelming majority of Israelis (96%) support the war (2 January 2009).
To the question "A few days ago the IDF began to fight Hamas with the goal of ending the rocket fire at Israel. To what degree do you support or oppose this operation?" the results were: Very much support: 78.9%; fairly support: 14.2%; fairly opposed: 2.2%; very opposed: 1.7%.
A majority of occupied Palestinians, in contrast, wanted to extend the ceasefire even before it expired, and now overwhelmingly support (88.2%) a renewal of the truce (Poll No. 167 by Dr. Nabil Kukali, 4 February 2009). The peace that Palestinians aspire to seems further away than ever, with little hope of realisation at the moment.
The second conclusion about the Gaza war is about the United States. There will be no peace in Israel-Palestine until this country reverses its rejection of Palestinian rights and accepts the international consensus over resolving the conflict: full Israeli withdrawal to the ’67 border and ending the occupation, with compensation and/or return for Palestinian refugees.
U.S. state protection and support for Israel (as part of the two states’ common struggle against radicals and nationalists in the area) is the only major factor which prevents Israel from being treated like a pariah state for its ongoing violations of UN resolutions and international laws.
Beseeching or begging America to pressure Israel never works. The only effective way forward is developing an anti-imperialist strategy which seeks to weaken both Israeli colonialism and American imperialism in the region, forcing the United States and Israel to pay the costs of their rejectionism.
The Arab Regimes’ Role
The third conclusion I want to draw is about the Arab world. Arab "moderate" U.S.-backed regimes in the region (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan) stand like blocks in the way of Palestinian justice and self-determination. The Gaza massacre clearly showed that these regimes are very interested in weakening Hamas and in forcing on it the shackles of American dependency (as they had earlier forced them on a willing Fatah).
Egypt’s role in the crisis was clear for all to see. With national security concerns of its own and worries about its own its own fundamentalist opposition, Egypt had strong interests in weakening Hamas and undermining its initially successful foray into democratic politics. So it not only deceived Hamas into believing that an Israeli strike was not imminent in order to maximise the damage and shock the movement would suffer as a result, but also kept the Rafah border crossing closed and prevented Arab medical aid workers and doctors from reaching the sick and dying for far too long.
This is the reason why demonstrations in the Arab world took place not only in front of the Israel and American embassies and consulates but in front of Egyptian ones as well. Millions came out to protest in the Arab world, calling for the assault and siege to end and for the Rafah crossing to be opened, for assistance and humanitarian relief as well as for solidarity and volunteers.
Imagine for a moment if Egypt was a democracy and popular will was state policy. Would Palestinians be allowed to suffer in isolation like this? This is a question that Gaza 2009 throws open again.
Palestinians need Arab help and support. They are too weak and lack sufficient capacity and leverage to free themselves and achieve their national rights on their own. Arab democracy is essential for a just resolution of the Palestinian question. Arabs and Palestinians again need to see the Palestinian tragedy as an Arab issue requiring organized (not just spontaneous) Arab mass support and intervention.
The loss and alienation of Palestine from the Arab world can only have an Arab answer if it is to be reversed. The Palestinian struggle should again be linked to Arab democratic rights and anti-imperialist demands. Arab regimes have no political legitimacy: they are authoritarian, oppressive, and negate people’s fundamental human and political rights. Overturning them and instituting democracy is the best progressive way forward, and the best way of undermining American imperialism and its allies in the region.
The fourth conclusion is about the Palestinians. Where is the Palestinian Mandela, some ask in the West, as if the Palestinians lack peaceful intentions towards Israelis or seek to perpetuate the conflict. My retort to this has always been that Arafat was your Mandela in 1988 when the PLO officially accepted the international consensus over Palestine (and did more: accepting the U.S. conditions for dialogue).
What did the United States do in response? Washington opened low-level diplomatic discussions with the PLO.
It’s clear that Zionism is a different project than South African settler-colonialism, and that America’s strategic interests in the region are such that Israel is protected much more from international pressure than South Africa ever was. The problem is not the absence of a Palestinian Mandela, but Israel’s colonial project itself and the obstructions and impediments it puts in front of peace with the Palestinians.
Cutting a deal with U.S. imperialism gave Palestinians no state, no sovereignty, and no independence. It also forced the PA elite to go against the popular wishes of the majority of Palestinians and to abort or crush popular political mobilisation.
When Hamas decided to confront the PA politically on its own turf and agreed to participate in the elections of 2006 and won, only boycott, sanctions and more closure and siege ensued. The West has continued to support the side that lost the elections and to negate Palestinian democratic choice. This has resulted in deep internal political contradictions and polarisations among the Palestinians, which only worsened after Hamas’ violent preventive takeover of Gaza in 2007 ["preventive" because of the imminent CIA-backed Fatah coup in Gaza -- ed.].
Today, the PA holds hundreds of Hamas political prisoners in the West Bank and continues to coordinate security issues with Israel (i.e. cooperating in suppressing resistance in the West Bank). During the Gaza invasion, it even suppressed demos against Israel and policed the streets in some areas in conjunction with the IDF.
Fatah elite capitulation and "partnership" with the Israeli occupier doesn’t absolve Hamas’ own behavior in Gaza since 2007, from the monopolization of executive and judicial power to the use of force in internal Palestinian affairs and the violent suppression of civil liberties, strongly condemned recently by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But it does show that the West and its Arab regional allies have produced and fuelled the current Palestinian crisis by systematically crushing Palestinian democracy and self-determination.
The only way out is to allow democracy to rein freely, opening up possibilities for autonomous mass anti-occupation organizations which express the will of the majority. The Prisoners’ Document of Spring 2006, modified and ratified by both Hamas and Fatah in June 2006, remains the best and most popular basis for Palestinian struggle: a unified anti-occupation strategy that upholds all Palestinian rights and combines democracy with effective Palestinian resistance, regional mobilization, and global solidarity.
My fifth and final point is about solidarity in the West. What should the demands of progressives and radicals be? After Gaza, imposing restrictive measures and sanctions against Israel should be the main political demand, until Israel complies with international laws and resolutions and ends its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This is the recommendation of Palestinian human rights organizations like Al-Haq.
As the International Court of Justice ruling against the illegal Wall stated on 9 July 2004, international action is required to ensure Palestinians’ right of self-determination: "Further action is required to bring to an end the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall and the associated regime" (clauses 159 & 160).
Sanctions against the occupying Israeli state are thus an urgent and primary task in the West. This also means that the solidarity movement should not get bogged down or distracted with discussions about the one-state or two-state solutions (ultimately a matter for Palestinian democracy).
Nor should our movement be required to lend ideological legitimation to Hamas or to other Palestinian nationalists. One supports the Palestinians, not because of the nature of their leadership, but because one supports the principle of self-determination for an oppressed people. It’s a basic democratic right and a pre-requisite for a life of dignity, freedom, and justice. It’s also a moral imperative.
2. For Israel’s legal preparations long before the assault, see Yotam Feldman and Uri Blau, "Consent and Advise," Haaretz, 29 January 2009. One Israeli law professor’s comments on Israel’s use of international law in order to justify its behavior is very revealing: "The dean of the Faculty of Law in the College of Management, Prof. Orna Ben-Naftali, is convinced that international law, her field, is bankrupt, and the results of the IDF operation in Gaza only reinforce this opinion. ‘Today, this discipline is utilized only to justify the use of force,’ she says. ‘It has ceased to exist, because there is a clear inconsistency between the rules and the reality to which they are applied. Distinctions between types of conflicts or between civilians and combatants no longer exist in the field, and one can put forward weighty and serious reasons that will justify almost any action. The implication is to validate the use of almost unlimited force in a manner that is totally at odds with the basic goal of humanitarian law. Instead of legal advice and international humanitarian law minimizing suffering, they legitimize the use of force."’
3. For two excellent Palestinian legal opinions about the war see: Al-Haq, "Al-Haq Brief: Legal Aspects of Israel’s Attacks on the Gaza Strip during ‘Operation Cast Lead,"’ 7 January 2009 and Fatmeh El-’Ajou, "Position Paper — Israeli Military Attacks on the Civilian Police Force and Government Buildings and Institutions of Hamas in Gaza," Adalah’s Newsletter, 57 (February 2009).
4. "Destroying Gaza, Delaying Palestine," Znet, 4 January 2009.
5. For details, see Gilbert Achcar and Michael Warschawski, The 33-Day War (London: Saqi, 2007).
6. For "the imperatives of rejectionism" in Israel in that period, see Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians (Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 1999), 198-209.
7. I won’t say much more on this as Stephen Shalom’s talk, published here as well, is dedicated to exploring the American role.
8. A day before the Israeli operation, al-Quds newspaper reported that Egypt gave Israel a green light to topple Hamas in Gaza. See Roee Nahmias, "Report: Egypt Sanctions Gaza Military Op," Ynet, 24 December 2008.
9. Maan News Agency, "PFLP Condemns Hamas Violence Against Gazans [during war], calls for Strength and Unity," 30 January 2009. The PFLP’s Arabic press release spoke of "repressive and intimidating practices" by Hamas. For period before the war, see, for example, reports by International Crisis Group. On Gaza: Ruling Palestine I: Gaza Under Hamas, Middle East Report no. 73 (13 March 2008) and Round Two in Gaza, Middle East Briefing no. 24 (11 September 2008). On the West Bank: Ruling Palestine II: The West Bank Model?, Middle East Report no. 79 (17 July 2008).
Bashir Abu-Manneh is Assistant Professor of English at Barnard College, a regular contributor to ZNet, and is currently writing a book on Palestinian nationalism and the novel. This is a slightly revised and footnoted version of a talk given at New York University on February 6, 2009 as part of a program sponsored by the Radical Film and Lecture Series.