THE COURAGEOUS ISRAELI journalist Amira Hass, in her 1996 book Drinking the Sea at Gaza, tells us that in Israeli slang "go to Gaza" means "go to hell."
She wrote these words long before the murderous economic blockade imposed on Gaza, and also before the 23 days of savage violence that we’ve just witnessed, making Gaza a living hell not just in the Israeli imagination, but in reality.
But in creating this nightmare for the people of Gaza, Israel didn’t act alone.
It had the support of Egypt, which kept the Rafah crossing closed. It had the support of the European Union, which joined in the shunning of the elected representatives of the Palestinian people.
And most importantly, Israel had the decisive support of the U.S. government. Many of the weapons used by the Israelis in their ferocious assault were provided by the United States: the aircraft, the helicopters, the bunker-buster missiles. But the United States provided as well crucial diplomatic backing, making sure that no resolution would emerge from the Security Council that could interfere with Israel’s agenda.
To understand the role the United States played as Israel’s enabler in Gaza, we need to look more generally at what Washington hopes to achieve in the Middle East. The key for the United States is control of oil: what the State Dept. in 1945 called "a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history." And this concern to control the region’s oil is no less true today than it was in 1945.
Over the years U.S. control of Middle East oil has faced many challenges. First, there was the competition from other major powers, especially Britain and France. So, following World War II, the United States moved to push these latter two countries out of Saudi Arabia.
In 1956, Washington opposed the UK-French-Israeli aggression against Egypt, keeping its capitalist rivals from reasserting their presence in the region. And in 2003, an important undercurrent to the war on Iraq was U.S. competition with France and Russia over Iraqi oil.
But the most important challenge to U.S. control of Middle East oil has been the people of the Middle East. In the early 1950s, a democratically-elected Iranian government nationalized the British oil company there, as it was legally entitled to do under international law. Washington and London responded by a boycott of Iranian oil, which brought Iran’s economy to the brink of collapse. Then the CIA and British intelligence organized a coup, entrenching a quarter-century dictatorship under the Shah and effectively denationalizing the oil company, with U.S. firms getting 40% of the formerly 100% British-owned company.
This was, in the view of the New York Times, an "object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid" when an oil rich Third World nation "goes berserk with fanatical nationalism."
Boots on the Ground
For U.S. policymakers, therefore, the question has always been how can they assure their control of this most valuable resource and defend it against all challengers, but particularly against those berserk fanatical nationalists, which is to say the people of the region.
One day policymakers hope that technology will allow Washington to target enemies anywhere in the world with robotic killer drones, but until that happy day arrives U.S. intimidation has required military bases in the Middle East. The problem, however, is that Middle Eastern public opinion is extremely hostile to the idea of foreign military bases, which its people see — rightly — as a serious infringement on their independence.
Until 1962 the United States had a major base in Saudi Arabia, the Dhahran Air Field. It was called "Air Field" rather than "Air Base" because of Saudi sensitivities to anything that smacked of imperialism. But by 1962 nationalist pressure made continued use of this base untenable.
Another major U.S. base was in Libya: Wheelus Air Base. But in 1964, under nationalist pressure, the United States agreed that it would leave that too, and in 1969 the Libyan ruler Qaddafi ordered them to withdraw forthwith.
U.S. forces did come back to Saudi Arabia in 1991 and stayed until 2003 — but that military presence served as a major recruiter for al-Qaeda and impetus for 9-11.
For some U.S. policy makers, Iraq seemed like an ideal place for a base, right in the heart of the world’s most strategic region. But they ran into a problem: not so much the military resistance, but the nonviolent resistance. This resistance was first mobilized by Ayatollah Sistani, which forced the Bush administration to agree to elections — which they hadn’t wanted to allow.
The elected government subsequently forced Washington to accept a status-of-forces agreement that puts a sharp time-limit on the continued presence of U.S. forces. Whether Washington will yet be able to reverse this agreement remains to be seen, but in any event, it is clear that the Middle East is a crucial region for policy makers, but one where it has been difficult to reliably base U.S. forces.
The Largest Aircraft Carrier
This is where Israel comes in. Israel is, in some respects, the largest U.S. aircraft carrier in the world¸ from which U.S.-made planes with U.S.-made weaponry can bombard U.S. enemies from Israeli bases with Israeli pilots.
It is sometimes argued that "if the United States were truly interested in the Middle East’s oil it would support the Arabs over Israel." But this is the wrong way to look at things. It’s not a question of Israel vs. "the Arabs," but Israel and the pro-American oil oligarchs against any radical and nationalist Arab regimes that might threaten U.S. control of oil.
So in 1959, when Egypt and Iraq were both ruled by nationalist regimes, a memorandum for the National Security Council stated that "if we choose to combat radical Arab nationalism and to hold Persian Gulf oil by force if necessary, a logical corollary would be to support Israel as the only strong pro-West power left in the Near East."
With the 1967 war, the U.S.-Israeli alliance began in earnest. On the eve of that war, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were locked in a proxy war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, with U.S. help, was backing the Yemeni royalists, while Egypt was backing more militant elements. Israel’s defeat of Egypt and Syria, both armed by the Soviet Union, was seen by Washington officials as a major contribution to U.S. foreign policy.
When Nixon and Kissinger took office in 1969, they too viewed Israel as a Cold War ally that (along with Iran and Saudi Arabia) could tame Soviet-backed regimes of the Middle East. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson put it this way:
"Such stability as now obtains in the Middle East is, in my view, largely the result of the strength and Western orientation of Israel on the Mediterranean and Iran on the Persian Gulf. These two countries, reliable friends of the United States, together with Saudi Arabia, have served to inhibit and contain those irresponsible and radical elements in certain Arab states — such as Syria, Libya, Lebanon and Iraq — who, were they free to do so, would pose a grave threat indeed to our principal sources of petroleum in the Persian Gulf."
In 1979, when the pro-American Shah of Iran was replaced by an anti-American theocratic regime, Israel became even more important to U.S. planners.
There are claims by some people, including some on the left, that Washington DC is "Israeli-occupied territory" — that the Israel lobby controls U.S. foreign policy, that the Israeli tail wags the U.S. dog and not the other way around. This view seems to me to misunderstand the way power works.
There is no doubt that the U.S. and Israeli governments are very close allies. What that means is that they have common interests. It means they sometimes defer to each other: allies do that. They cooperate in many areas: they share a great deal of weapons production; they share a great deal of intelligence; the United States provides military aid; throughout the Cold War Israel provided Soviet weapons, captured from Arab armies, for use by U.S. client forces.
This is a close alliance, but that’s different from saying that Israel, through the Israel Lobby, controls U.S. policy. The Lobby is powerful. But it is not decisive.
You can’t tell "who controls who" if you only look at issues where the interests of the two are the same. But when their interests diverge — as, for example, over the issue of the Israeli sale of military technology to China — it was easy to see who was boss: the United States imposed sanctions, got Israel to stop its planned arms deal with China, and got Israel to issue a public apology and remove senior defense officials.
Such divergences are rare. In general the two governments have the same interests:
• Both the United States and Israel want to defang radical Arab regimes.
• Both use democratic rhetoric but would much rather have a dictatorial regime — like that of Mubarak — than an elected regime where the wrong people get elected.
• Both ally themselves with Islamic fundamentalism when it suits their interests: after all, Saudi Arabia is today probably the most fundamentalist regime in the world, and one of Washington’s closest allies. Israel was happy to support Hamas when they viewed the main threat as the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. And the United States was happy to support Afghan mujahedin against the Soviet Union.
For both what’s important is not democracy or secularism, but subservience. During the Reagan administration the United States and Israel would not deal with the PLO. But both of them would be prepared to do so if the PLO would first capitulate. Here’s how Secretary of State George P. Shultz put it:
"In one place Arafat was saying, ‘unc, unc, unc’ and in another he was saying, ‘cle, cle, cle,’ but nowhere will he yet bring himself to say, ‘Uncle.’"
And therefore the United States would oppose him. Only in December 1988, did Shultz conclude that "Arafat finally said ‘Uncle’," and thus Washington was now prepared to deal with him.
When Hamas won the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006, it was obvious why Israel would oppose them: They were much less likely to sell out Palestinian national interests — out of both conviction and a lack of corruption. And Washington too wanted Palestinians to be led by those who had said "uncle," not advocates of "fanatical nationalism."
Why does the United States care about some localized Palestinian fanatics? For the past several years, the country that has most stood in the way of U.S. domination of the Middle East has been Iran. Going to war with Iran would be a disaster from any point of view, but that doesn’t mean that policymakers don’t want to intimidate and threaten Tehran.
That’s why the United States has been engaged in all sorts of measures short, of direct military action, to try to destabilize Iran — why even Barack Obama, an advocate of talking to all countries, says he keeps the military option on the table.
But as long as Iran has allies — Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine — any military strike on Iran would leave Israel vulnerable to retaliation, thus lessening the intimidation factor. And that’s why Washington supported Israel’s war against Hizbollah in 2006: making sure, as they did with Gaza, that no UN resolution would interfere with teaching Hizbollah a lesson.
It turned out that the attempt to teach Hizbollah a lesson was a failure, but not for want of trying on the part of Israel and the Bush administration. By defeating Iran’s allies, Israel and the United States hope to make Iran more subject to intimidation.
In Gaza, the attempt to unseat Hamas began with economic sanctions. When these failed, Israel and the United States went to plan B: supporting a military coup against Hamas in Gaza. The U.S. role in this is now well documented.
But the coup failed, and led in fact to Hamas seizing full power in Gaza. Israel, with U.S. backing, then enacted a crippling blockade. That too failed to reduce support for Hamas. Now we have this latest barbarous Israeli attack on Gaza.
Truth and Lies on Gaza
There was a recent article by Henry Siegman, a former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America. Called "Israel’s Lies," it compellingly exposed the lies Israel has used to justify this attack. But we need to add that these same lies were advanced by the U.S. government:
Israel and the United States claimed that Hamas broke the calm, the ceasefire. No, Israel broke it, on November 4, 2008.
Israel and the United States claimed that Hamas refused to renew the ceasefire when it expired in mid-December. No, Hamas was prepared to extend the ceasefire if the murderous blockade of Gaza were lifted, as was supposed to happen during the ceasefire and as ought to have happened on moral grounds in any event.
Israel and the United States claimed that Israel took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, but:
• You don’t avoid civilian casualties when you use white phosphorus, flechettes, and 155 mm. artillery shells in the most densely populated area in the world.
• You don’t avoid civilian casualties when you intentionally target civilian police, or government buildings.
You don’t avoid civilian casualties when your approach is, in the words of an Israeli commander, "We are very violent. We do not balk at any means to protect the lives of our soldiers."
• Israel and the United States say that all civilian deaths are to be blamed on Hamas for using civilian shields. Now so far we only have Israel’s word for it that Hamas used civilians in this way — and we do know that Israel kept out independent observers and that when Human Rights Watch was able to examine similar Israeli claims in the 2006 Lebanon war, they found the claims to be false. But even if such claims were confirmed, international humanitarian law is quite clear that an enemy’s mingling of military and civilian assets does not remove the attacking side’s legal obligation to ensure that no undue harm comes to civilians.
Obama: So What’s New?
On January 20, the Obama administration took office, promising change. What can we expect from him?
One good sign was that Israel called off its assault before the inauguration. This suggested that perhaps Israeli leaders weren’t sure, despite Obama’s campaign statements, that the new president would give them the absolute backing given them by Bush.
Another good sign is that we see some movement among important elites. Thus, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Saban Center of the Brookings Institute issued a joint report suggesting that the United States modify its conditions for talking to Hamas — namely that it recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept all previous agreements. These conditions were always bogus — since they were never accepted by Israel and the United States.
The report rightly recognizes that no peace can come to Palestine unless Hamas is part of the process. Now I hope that the Palestinian people will one day vote out both Hamas and Fatah: but today the elected representative of the Palestinians is not Mahmoud Abbas, whose term as president expired a month ago, or his illegally appointed prime minister, but Hamas.
Those are the good signs. Unfortunately the bad signs outweigh them.
• The Obama administration has repeated and underlined the three conditions.
• Clinton has said the current problem is Hamas firing rockets, which — aside from the fact that Hamas is not firing rockets, other groups are — still ignores the immoral collective punishment of the continuing blockade.
• And even though Obama has made a few positive references to the Arab Peace Initiative (API), he has done so in a most depressing way. The API was an offer from all the Arab states that if Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders and allowed the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, they would all extend diplomatic recognition to Israel. So Obama said he liked part of the API: not the withdrawal part, not the Palestinian state part, but that the Arab states should all recognize Israel.
So at this point it’s hard to be very optimistic about what Obama will do. But we need to keep in mind that his actions are not pre-determined. What he does is at least in part a function of what we do. If we get out information and mobilize people, maybe we can build enough pressure to put an end to Washington’s blank check for Israel. And if we can do that, there’s a chance to end the hell on Earth that Israel has created for Palestinians.
1. Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza, New York: Owl Books, 1996, 9.
2. Quoted in Noam Chomsky, Hegemony and Survival, Metropolitan Books, 2003, 150.
3. The United States is not dependent on Middle East oil today (it gets most of its supply from the Western Hemisphere and Africa) just as it was not dependent on Middle East oil in 1945 (when the United States was the world’s largest oil producer). Then, as now, the crucial issue was whether Washington could so control global oil supply that it would have leverage over other states, especially its capitalist competitors.
4. Quoted in Joe Stork, Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975, 74.
5. See, for example, Gilbert Achcar, "On the forthcoming election in Iraq," ZNet, Jan. 3, 2005; Noam Chomsky, "Obama’s Emerging Policies on Israel, Iraq and the Economic Crisis: An Interview with Press TV," Counterpunch, Jan. 28, 2009.
6. Patrick Cockburn, "America Concedes," London Review of Books, Dec. 18, 2008.
7. Chomsky, Hegemony and Survival, 164.
8. Stork, Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis, 215-16.
9. See Marc Perelman, "Israel Miffed Over Lingering China Flap," Forward, Oct. 7, 2005. As Haaretz’s military correspondent Ze’ev Schiff reported, "Israel maneuvered itself into a situation where its friends in the administration and in Congress cannot, or do not wish to, help it in this matter." ("A Shallow Strategic Dialogue," Haaretz, July 29, 2005.)
10. See George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993, 1043.
11. David Rose, "The Gaza Bombshell," Vanity Fair, April 2008.
12. Henry Siegman, "Israel’s Lies," London Review of Books, Jan. 29, 2009.
13. Rory McCarthy, "Gaza truce broken as Israeli raid kills six Hamas gunmen," Guardian, Nov. 5, 2008.
14. Jimmy Carter, "The Unnecessary War," Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2009, A15.
15. Amnesty International (AI), "Israel used white phosphorus in Gaza civilian areas," 1/19/09; AI, "Israeli army used flechettes against Gaza civilians," Jan. 27, 2009; Human Rights Watch (HRW), "Israel: Stop Shelling Crowded Gaza City," Jan. 16, 2009.
16. HRW, "Israel/Hamas: Civilians Must Not Be Targets; Disregard for Civilians Underlies Current Escalation," Dec. 30, 2008 ("Under the laws of war, police and police stations are presumptively civilian unless the police are Hamas fighters or taking a direct part in the hostilities, or police stations are being used for military purposes.")
17. Tova Dadon, "Deputy chief of staff: Worst still ahead," Ynet, Dec. 29, 2008, (quoting Brigadier General Dan Harel as saying "We are hitting not only terrorists and launchers, but also the whole Hamas government and all its wings…. We are hitting government buildings…. After this operation there will not be one Hamas building left standing in Gaza….").
18. Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, "Israel and Hamas are both paying a steep price in Gaza," Haaretz, 1/10/2009.
19. HRW, Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon, Aug. 2, 2006.
20. HRW, "Q & A on Hostilities between Israel and Hamas," Dec. 31, 2008 ("…the attacking party is not relieved from its obligation to take into account the risk to civilians simply because it considers the defending party responsible for having located legitimate military targets within or near populated areas. That is, the presence of a Hamas commander or military facility in a populated area would not justify attacking the area without regard to the threatened civilian population.").
21. Richard N. Haass and Martin Indyk, Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008, executive summaries ("the United States should be willing to drop its insistence that Hamas accept the Quartet’s criteria"). A related positive sign is that Chas W. Freeman Jr. is reported to be the intended appointee as chair of the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Freeman has been an advocate of dealing with Hamas. See, for example, this report: David Lev, "New U.S. Intel Chief: Support of Israel Not a U.S. Interest," Arutz Sheva (Israel National News), Feb. 23, 2009.
22. See questions 9 and 10 of my "Question and Answer on Gaza," ZNet, Jan. 16, 2009.
23. Reuters, "TEXT-Opinion of lawyer who drafted Palestinian law," July 8, 2007.
24. Barak Ravid, "MI Chief: Hamas upholding cease-fire, but smaller Gaza groups undeterred," Haaretz, Feb. 1, 2009.
25. See Hillary Rodham Clinton, Remarks With Reporters in the Correspondents’ Room, Jan. 27, 2009 ("of course, we’re concerned about the humanitarian suffering. We’re concerned any time innocent civilians, Palestinian or Israeli, are attacked. That’s why we support Israel’s right to self-defense. The rocket barrages, which are getting closer and closer to populated areas, cannot go unanswered."); Remarks by Secretary Clinton and Special Envoy Mitchell After Their Meeting, Feb. 3, 2009 ("our conditions with respect to Hamas have not and will not change. … Hamas knows that it must stop the rocket fire into Israel. There were rockets yesterday, there were rockets this morning. And it is very difficult to ask any nation to do anything other than defend itself in the wake of that kind of consistent attack.")
26. Remarks by the President to State Department Employees, Jan. 22, 2009 ("…the Arab Peace Initiative contains constructive elements…. Now — now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiatives promised by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.") See also Chomsky, "Obama’s Emerging Policies on Israel, Iraq and the Economic Crisis."
Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He serves on the editorial board of New Politics and works with ZNet, where is "Question and Answer on Gaza" was recently posted. He edited a collection of dialogues on the Middle East between Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power (Paradigm). 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.