Thwarting Palestinian Moderation

After putting the exclamation point on its murderous rampage by shelling yet another hospital and bombing yet another UN school where people were sheltering, killing a mother and her young son, Israel announced on Saturday night a unilateral "ceasefire" in Gaza, having secured promises of American and British (via) help to stop the arms smuggling into Gaza (that is, to keep Palestinians completely defenceless in the face of Israeli violence). Hamas countered with its own unilateral truce, declaring a week-long ceasefire to be extended should Israel fully withdraw in that time (as it has already begun to do). Senior Hamas official Mussa Abu Marzuq stated on Syrian television:

"The Israeli enemy has failed in its bid to impose conditions … We in the Palestinian resistance movements announce a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and demand that enemy forces withdraw in a week and open all the border crossings to permit the entry of humanitarian aid and basic goods."

Israel’s "ceasefire" was a unilateral one in order to avoid having to sign any agreement with Hamas, thereby inadvertantly, in Israel’s view, ‘legitimising’ it. As Tzipi Livni explained during the offensive, "[t]here is no intention here of creating a diplomatic agreement with Hamas. We need diplomatic agreements against Hamas". Needless to say a negotiated ceasefire would have been far more stable and durable, and thus far more successful in ending the Qassams, but then if stopping the Qassams had been a priority for Israel it would have stuck to the original ceasefire in the first place.

Importantly, Israel has said nothing about ending the illegal closure, which even before the truce ended on November 4 had reduced more than 80% of Gaza’s population to dependence on international food aid for mere survival (a figure that is, the UN warns, "increasing"), caused official unemployment to rise to an unprecedented 50% and precipitated a "devastating" rise in chronic malnutrition,  such that 18% of Gazan children suffer from stunted growth. Some families in Gaza were faced having to scour rubbish dumps for food or eat grass and animal feed to survive. Already in March human rights organisations were warning of an "unprecedented … humanitarian implosion", "dwarf[ing] earlier calamities", while by November a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, visiting Gaza,  described how a "whole civilisation has been destroyed".

Unless Israel ends the siege any "ceasefire" will be as hollow and short-lived as its predecessor. Israel is unlikely to open the border crossings to anything like the extent required to enable reconstruction and economic development, in accordance with its long-held, openly stated vision for Gaza: "no development, no prosperity, only humanitarian dependency" [.pdf]. Indeed, as Sara Roy has written, one of the principal objectives of the invasion was "to ensure that the Palestinians there are seen merely as a humanitarian problem, beggars who have no political identity and therefore can have no political claims". Prof. Avi Shlaim similarly observes that the "undeclared aim" of ‘Operation Cast Lead’ was to "ensure that the Palestinians in Gaza are seen by the world simply as a humanitarian problem and thus to derail their struggle for independence and statehood".

More broadly, the invasion was part of what Yitzhak Laor describes as "a long war of annihilation against Palestinian society". "The objective," he continues,

"is to destroy the Palestinian nation and drive it back into pre-modern groupings based on the tribe, the clan and the enclave. This is the last phase of the Zionist colonial mission, culminating in inaccessible townships, camps, villages, districts, all of them to be walled or fenced off, and patrolled by a powerful army which, in the absence of a proper military objective, is really an over-equipped police force, with F16s, Apaches, tanks, artillery, commando units and hi-tech surveillance at its disposal."

Israel’s plans for the Gaza and the West Bank have long been clear: to annexe the valuable parts of the territories, leaving to the Palestinians a few isolated, unviable cantons to call a "state" with Israel retaining overall control of the West Bank. This is what Barak offered to Arafat at Camp David and what Israel has subsequently implemented on the ground by force, constructing in the West Bank

"an entrenched multi-layered system of obstacles and restrictions, fragmenting the West Bank territory and affecting the freedom of movement of the entire Palestinian population and its economy. This system is transforming the geographical reality of the West Bank and Jerusalem towards a more permanent territorial fragmentation".

The 2005 ‘disengagement’ from Gaza was part of this explicit policy of expansionism in the West Bank and rejection of a two-state settlement. The Plan itself states that

"in any future permanent status arrangement, there will be no Israeli towns and villages in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand it is clear that in the West Bank, there are areas which will be part of the State of Israel, including major population centres, cities, towns and villages, security areas and other places of special interest to Israel." (Sara Roy, Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, p. 316)

It thus came as no surprise that the number of new settlers in the West Bank in 2005 exceeded the number of settlers evacuated from Gaza by almost a factor of two (ibid., p. 327), or that settlements have continued to expand ever since (including a massive ‘surge’ in construction in the year following the launch of the ‘Annapolis process’ in November 2007). As senior advisor to Ariel Sharon Dov Weisglass explained in October 2004, the ‘disengagement’ from Gaza was "a device" intended to supply "the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians":

"I found a device, in cooperation with the management of the world, to ensure that there will be no stopwatch here. That there will be no timetable to implement the settlers’ nightmare. I have postponed that nightmare indefinitely. Because what I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns. That is the significance of what we did. The significance is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress. What more could have been anticipated? What more could have been given to the settlers?"

When Hamas was elected in 2006 in the middle of a unilateral self-imposed ceasefire with Israel, proposing national unity and a long-term truce with Israel on the basis of a two-state settlement, it posed a significant threat to the "Zionist colonial mission" Laor describes. An Israel genuinely seeking a two-state settlement might have been expected to greet the increasingly clear accomodationist signals from Hamas – for example: the 16-month unilateral ceasefire it adhered to in the face of severe provocations from Israel; its assent in June 2006 to the Prisoners’ Document which called for a Palestinian state on the ‘67 borders and which would have restricted resistance to the occupied territories; its pledge to abide by any settlement reached between Abbas and Israel if passed by popular referendum; the June 2006 letter from Ismail Haniyeh to President Bush offering "a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and … a truce for many years"; repeated statements by Hamas leaders to the effect that Hamas "accept[s] a state on the June 4 line" and is prepared to recognise Israel’s right "to live as a neighbour" on that basis; etc. – with relief and an eagerness to explore possibilities for productive diplomatic engagement.

As it transpired, the US and Israel responded to every sign of Hamas moderation with flat rejection and an escalation of violence. Israel, the US and the EU imposed upon the Palestinians, who were already suffering "the worst economic depression in modern history", "possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions … in modern times" – "the first time", the then-UN special rapporteur John Dugard observed, "an occupied people have been so treated." This policy of "protracted collective punishment" – which encompassed in addition to the sanctions the theft of Palestinian Authority tax revenues, a substantial increase in border closures, the kidnapping of a third of the Palestinian Cabinet and a substantial portion of the legislature, the deliberate destruction of vital civilian infrastructure and a 40% increase in the number of checkpoints and roadblocks in 2006 alone – was accompanied by sustained military assault, which killed over 650 Palestiniansefforts were made to build up a Fatah militia to oppose Hamas and ultimately overthrow it – efforts that were finally thwarted in June 2007 when Hamas forcibly took control of Gaza in "a pre-emptive coup". The US and the EU, while publicly lamenting internal Palestinian violence and disunity, in fact "contributed mightily" to it, for example by deliberately sabotaging the last ditch attempt to form a National Unity government in early 2007. Post-June 2007 the international sanctions on Gaza were tightened still further in what Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur, in a report for the Army War College, describes as "a somewhat desperate attempt to cause Palestinians to overthrow Hamas", while "steadfastly …  [rejecting] diplomacy and truce offers by HAMAS" for months in favour of a massive escalation of violence [.pdf] before finally agreeing to a temporary ceasefire in June. in 2006. In parallel,

The reason for this reaction is clear: Israel, as noted above, explicitly rejects a two-state settlement. As such the prospect of a credible, disciplined, popular Palestinian movement like Hamas demanding a full Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line in exchange for peace represents not an opportunity to be pursued but a threat to be averted. The ‘no partner for peace’ myth has historically served as the US’s and Israel’s chief justification for their diplomatic rejectionism, and in recent years Hamas has played the role of the uncompromisingly irredentist bogeyman in US/Israeli propaganda. As Dr. Zuhur writes, Western media reporting of Hamas tends to "villainize" the group, reducing it to "its early, now defunct, 1988 charter".  The demonisation of Hamas as an intransigent, fanatical, blood-thirsty "death-cult" – an "essentialist" depiction that, Israeli scholars Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela argue, ignores Hamas’s consistent pragmatism and refusal to be "a prisoner of its own dogmas" (Mishal and Sela, The Palestinian Hamas, pp. xxvii, viii) – has been used to legitimise continuing Israeli expansionism and deflect from Israel responsibility for the continuation of the conflict. As a result,  Hamas’s growing moderation inspired in US and Israeli planners not optimism but fear. While the US and Israel regularly praise Palestinian and Arab ‘moderates’, they are adopting a specialist meaning of the term in which ‘moderation’  equates to, as Henry Siegman notes, "acquiescence in Israel’s dismemberment of Palestinian territory". By contrast, while Hamas has signalled its potential acceptance of a two-state settlement, it will likely never make do with the bantustan-settlement Israel is prepared to offer.

The use of force by Israel to end unwanted ceasefires and avert the threat of Palestinian moderation has a long history. The most obvious example is the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which killed some 20,000 people, overwhelmingly civilians.  Launched on an even flimsier pretext than was the invasion of Gaza, the war’s objective was the "annihilation of the PLO", which Israel did "not want as a partner for talks or as an interlocutor for any solution in the West Bank". (Yoel Marcus, cit. Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & The Palestinians, p. 199) Like the present-day Hamas, the PLO had scrupulously observed a ceasefire with Israel in the face of repeated Israeli violations, and, like Hamas, was becoming increasingly explicit about its acceptance of a two-state settlement. This political moderation terrified Israel into launching the invasion. As leading Israeli scholar Yehoshua Porath observed at the time, the decision to invade "flowed from the very fact that the cease-fire had been observed". Arafat’s ability to enforce adherence to the truce for so long was "a veritable catastrophe in the eyes of the Israeli government" since it indicated that the PLO "might agree in the future to a more far-reaching arrangement", leaving Israel unable to justify its rejectionism on the grounds that the PLO were merely "a wild gang of murderers". It was thus the threat of PLO moderation that the invasion was "primarily designed to prevent":

"The government’s hope is that the stricken PLO … will return to its earlier terrorism: it will carry out bombings throughout the world, hijack airplanes and murder many Israelis. In this way, the PLO will lose … political legitimacy … [and thereby undercut] the danger that elements will develop among the Palestinians that might become a legitimate negotiating partner for future political accomodations." (cit. ibid., pp. 200-201)

As Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein explained, the PLO "as an orderly political body is more terrifying to the government of Israel than the powerful terrorist PLO" because it undermines Israeli rejectionism. The only solution was to force it to revert to "murderous terror". (cit. ibid., p. 201) The "terrible danger" posed by the PLO to Israel was, as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir stated, "[n]ot so much a military one as a political one". Specifically, Israel feared the prospect of having to negotiate with any genuine Palestinian nationalist movement because, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin explained, any such negotiations would "provide a basis for the possibility of creating a third state between Israel and Jordan", a possibility that, as Rabin emphasised, Israel refuses to countenance. (Chomsky, Fateful Triangle, p. 70)

In short the invasion of Lebanon was, as Israeli strategic analyst Avner Yaniv describes, intended to crush the PLO’s "peace offensive" and "to halt [the PLO’s] rise to political respectability" by  undermining "the position of the moderates within [the PLO] ranks".

Replace ‘the PLO’ with ‘Hamas’ and you’ve got a pretty accurate explanation of invasion and siege of Gaza. A key goal for Israel is the destruction of Hamas as a credible political force. As Livni recently explained:

"Hamas wants to gain legitimacy from the international community. Hamas wants to show that there is a place which is called the Gaza Strip, that this kind of an organization – an extremist Islamic organization that acts by terrorism and which is a designated terrorist organization – can rule. And to make it seem a legitimate regime. So they want the crossings to be opened, not only for the sake of the population, but because this symbolically is how they can show that the Gaza Strip has become a kind of a small state, which is controlled by them…

"[It is] important to keep Hamas from becoming a legitimate organization".

This explains the findings of a recent study that "it is overwhelmingly Israel, not Palestine, that kills first following a lull. Indeed, it is virtually always Israel that kills first after a lull lasting more than a week." In Livni’s words, an extended calm or truce "harms the Israel strategic goal, empowers Hamas, and gives the impression that Israel recognizes the movement".

To the extent that the assault in Gaza was directed against Hamas, then, it was directed specifically against the moderates in Hamas whose position has been consistently undermined by the US and Israel since the movement was elected in 2006 (and, one might add, well before). Many commentators rightly point out that the likely effect of the invasion will be to strengthen Hamas politically and further radicalise it and the constituency it represents. What these commentators tend to miss is that the undermining  of Hamas as a ‘moderate’ political force was precisely the point. It is unlikely that ‘Cast Lead’ will have succeeded in crushing Hamas as a military organisation. If the experience of Hizbullah after the 2006 Lebanon war is anything to go by, it will not take long for Hamas to rearm – indeed, Israel’s Shin Bet is already warning that Hamas will ‘soon rebuild the tunnels’ and ‘resume smuggling arms into Gaza within a few months’. Whether it proves to be a political victory remains an open question. Either way, with the underlying issues of occupation and military domination left unaddressed, the current ceasefire is a decidedly temporary one.

For a more detailed look at the immediate background to the invasion, focusing particularly on the American and British role, see my post here.

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