The Israeli-U.S. Gaza War and Its Aftermath

In July 2004, Israeli jurists on the High Court of Justice (HCJ) deliberated on Israel’s infamous separation wall in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague had just determined, by a vote of 13 to 2, that the 30-foot-high wall was part of Israel’s policy of building settlements on stolen or confiscated Palestinian land and had condemned it as an illegal land grab, which other states should not recognize. The UN General Assembly almost immediately called on Israel to comply with the ICJ advisory opinion and end its illegal wall building, which was really aimed at defending settlements, not Israel itself. But Israel refused. Its High Court jurists in the case of the villagers of Beit Sourik essentially supported the policy of their government rather than the ruling of the ICJ. The Israeli judges determined that the occupier had to aim for a proper “balancing of interests” or “rights,” so that both sides could be made secure. In their view, balancing denoted “proportionality”—proportionality in self-defense and in every other right—since a militarily occupied zone is precisely, as legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi termed it, “a zone of proportionality” in which all the powers of sovereignty accrue to the occupying authority. This eminently “reasonable” balancing-of-rights approach to the law of occupation strengthened the powerful Israeli occupier while undermining the right to freedom and self-determination of the powerless Palestinians. Thus, Israeli military commanders could continue violating the rights, taking the land, and destroying the property of local Palestinians in the interests of Israeli occupiers in illegal settlements. Jump ahead four years to late December 2008. In the course of that year the IDF had killed over 413 Gazan Palestinians, including many civilians, whereas in the same period a Gaza-launched missile killed one Israeli. At that point Israel spurned the possibility of a renewal of its six-month-long ceasefire with Hamas (Gaza’s democratically elected government), turned the coastal enclave into a war zone, and prevented the defenseless Palestinians from fleeing. But it allowed 200 “non-Palestinian wives” to leave. On this occasion, Israel’s 41,000 lawyers, with few exceptions, remained silent about racist discrimination and the use of force in the “zone of proportionality.” Despite the HCJ judges’ liberal rhetoric about balancing rights, once the IDF launched its assault on Palestinian civilians, the policies and acts of their own government took precedence over applying international law. Only journalists, academics, and peace activists on the tiny Israeli left dared discuss the slaughter with regard to specific articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel violated. As the de facto occupying power in conquered Gaza, Israel failed to protect the safety of the indigenous population. Rather than attempt to properly “balance” considerations of security and the rights and interests of the local population, the IDF deliberately targeted the local population. For reasons unrelated to either military necessity or self-defense, it wantonly destroyed the property of private individuals, their governing authority, and their political and social organizations. But even to say that Israel violated many Geneva articles is to grossly understate its war crimes. Historical Background and Questions Ever since Israel conquered the remaining Palestinian territories in June 1967, labeled the West Bank the Jewish provinces of Judaea and Samaria, and illegally annexed Palestinian East Jerusalem and Syria’s Golan Heights, it has stood in violation not only of the 1949 Geneva Convention, but many other foundational norms of international law. Furthermore, Israel has refused to sign the 1977 Protocols to the Conventions and has repeatedly carried out many acts that the Protocols prohibit, including “targeted assassination” of political and military leaders, hostage taking, reprisal bombings, and the collective punishment of civilians under occupation. Indeed, for over four decades this colonial settler state has turned “Judea and Samaria” into a code word for a policy of colonization that dehumanizes all Palestinians, steals their land and water resources, and imprisons and tortures them at will. Over time, this racist behavior, so typical of European and American colonial settler-regimes in many parts of the world, has edged ever closer to genocide without seeming to cross into it. In 1948-49 the newly born Israeli state inflicted a massive catastrophe on several hundred thousand Arabs of Palestine whom Israeli soldiers abruptly expelled from their land and property without compensation or a right to return. Nearly two decades later, Israel expanded its territory at the expense of numerically far superior, but militarily weaker Arab neighbors who surrounded it. During the Six-Day War of June 1967, Israel breached its 1949-67 borders and took over from Egypt the tiny Gaza Strip and from Jordan the much larger Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem. Thereafter, driven by the dominant racist strain of Zionist political ideology, Israeli leaders disenfranchised and subjected the Palestinians to a regime of extremely harsh political repression, personal humiliation, and relentless economic exploitation—all supported by U.S. tax dollars and shamelessly defended by most of the organized American Jewish community. Palestinians living in crowded refugee camps and scattered throughout the Middle East responded in myriad ways, formed organizations of nationalist resistance, and tried to alert the world to their oppression. Some highjacked airliners and committed criminal acts of terrorism. Most simply endured. Twice they rose up in sustained but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to end Israeli rule. The Gaza rampage earlier this year continued the pattern of uncritical U.S. (and to a lesser extent European) support for Israel’s illegal use of force. It also spurred public debate on the same issues that the U.S. Congress was unwilling to address during Israel’s 2006 “summer war” on Lebanon. Why, for example, is Israel not held accountable under international law for its countless war crimes? Why does Israel suffer no consequences for being the only state in the Middle East region outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and known to possess nuclear weapons, while Iran and Syria are harangued and threatened over their entirely legal civilian nuclear programs under the Non-Proliferation Treaty? Why do U.S. policymakers align with Israel in asserting a non-existent threat to U.S. interests from a future nuclear-armed Iran, yet continue to resist calls by governments around the world for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East? Is it the “Israel lobby” and its rhetoric equating the enemies of Israel with anti-Semitism that prevents Congress from debating these issues? Examining Israel’s recent behavior and the nature of the Israel-U.S. relationship may help shed light on these questions. Timing the Rampage, Discerning the Goals On December 27, 2008, Israel attacked the densely populated, 14-square-mile Gaza Strip (population 1.5 million) from which it had unilaterally withdrawn three years earlier while retaining full control over Gaza’s land borders, sea coast, air space, and economy, thus continuing its occupation de facto. The attackers sought to terrorize the Strip’s imprisoned civilians, destroy their morale, and weaken the popular Hamas civil government and its small, poorly armed military wing. Although Palestinian retaliatory, home-made rocket and mortar fire into southern Israel—often indiscriminate and thus illegal—provided IDF officers with their justification, Israeli plans for Gaza’s devastation had been prepared two years earlier.              In the second week of their assault, around mid-January 2009, the cabinet decided to unilaterally wind down hostilities without a truce agreement. The Livni-Rice “memorandum of understandings,” signed January 16, allowed Israel to bypass Hamas in ending the fighting while obtaining from the U.S. more military aid on top of the $30 billion granted in 2007, plus more intelligence assistance. It committed the U.S. to deeper involvement in Israel’s ongoing war against the Palestinians, while attempting to guide Egypt on how to mediate a ceasefire that would end cross-border smuggling of arms into Gaza. Egypt quickly denounced this high-handed agreement while President Obama overlooked its imperial overtones and just as quickly endorsed it. The Obama administration also persisted in demonizing both Hamas and Hezbollah by calling them “terrorist organizations”—a clear indication that he sees them as Bush did, within an ideological framework of a “war on terrorism.” In fact, neither organization fits the terrorist label though both employ terror as a tactic—as does, on an incomparably greater scale, Israel and the U.S. Hamas leads the Palestinian national liberation movement in the Strip and, to a limited extent, in the West Bank, where its members and supporters are often arrested by Fatah police, working in tandem with Israel troops and intelligence agents. When Hamas came to power in January 2006 in free and fair elections for the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority, the world’s most powerful governments immediately ostracized it. Yet Hamas, which Israel initially supported in order to undermine its secular rival Fatah, remained the dominant political force within the Palestinian people’s largely secular, youthful national liberation movement. As Israel tightened its economic blockade and increased its killing of Palestinians, Hamas’s small military wing continued to retaliate, as did smaller Palestinian groups that Hamas does not control, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Before it resorted to force, Israel’s leaders did not respond to Hamas’s control of Gaza by trying to exhaust all political means, as required by Article 51 of the UN Charter. Instead, they chose to wage a campaign of armed aggression with the aim of devastating the urban-dwelling Palestinian refugees who support Hamas. Their intention was to prove to Palestinians living in all parts of divided, occupied Palestine that armed resistance is futile. In the process, the war cabinet hoped to restore the IDF’s reputation for using massive, disproportionate force to shock and terrorize all enemies, Iran in particular. Many foreign observers and apologists for Israel’s actions called this goal the strengthening of IDF deterrence, which had been undermined by the 32-day Lebanon war fought in summer 2006. In that war Hezbollah guerillas were widely perceived as having defeated the IDF. As it turned out, the Gaza War strengthened the Palestinian will to survive and continue the struggle, but had no discernible effect on Palestinian perceptions of IDF deterrent power. The Punishments The Gaza assault began with a massive surprise air attack in broad daylight on December 27, 2008 on Hamas’s civilian police cadets. According to figures released by a Hamas spokesperson, in the first few days of the Israeli surprise attack 112 fighters from its small military wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, lost their lives, as did 180 Hamas police. A smaller number of fighters from other Palestinians organizations also died in the campaign’s opening phase. Unverifiable estimates of Hamas’s overall fatalities published in the New York Times and other Western sources vary greatly—from 280 to 700. These figures suggest that Israel’s massive firepower weakened the fighting strength of Hamas only in the first few days, after which the guerrillas, aiming at survival, simply melted away. That was impossible for the non-combatant, uninvolved population, especially those living in areas thought to be harboring Hamas leaders and fighters. They had no place to hide. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, in the three weeks between December 27, 2008 and January 18 the IDF killed not 1,300 as first reported but “1,434 people, including 960 civilians, 239 police officers, and 235 fighters.” Of this number 288 were children and 121 women; a further 1,606 children and 828 women suffered injuries. Israeli soldiers trapped Palestinian civilians in their homes and apartments and murdered them when they attempted to leave bearing white flags. Israeli army tanks and snipers deliberately targeted women and children, hospital workers, ambulance drivers, doctors, medics, mobile clinics, clearly marked hospitals, the UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, and the UN university. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) publicly complained that the IDF repeatedly denied its rescue crews access to bombed out areas such as in Zaytoun, south of Gaza City, where they later “found at least 15 bodies and several children—emaciated but alive—in a row of shattered houses…and accused the Israeli military of preventing ambulances from reaching the site for four days.” Senior IAF officers readily admitted to journalists that their strategy “is to use tremendous firepower on the ground to protect Israeli soldiers during fighting in civilian areas…. ‘For us, being cautious means being aggressive,’ said one officer. ‘From the minute we entered, we’ve acted like we’re at war…. When we suspect that a Palestinian fighter is hiding in a house, we shoot it with a missile and then with two tank shells, and then a bulldozer hits the wall. It causes damage but it prevents the loss of life among soldiers’.” With that end in mind, Israeli soldiers in densely-populated Jabaliya City took over homes, used them as military bases, and often forced non-combatant Palestinians to act as “human shields” or hostages, protecting them as they entered other houses in search of Hamas fighters. The tactic of endangering civilians by putting them in harm’s way is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

Boston protest—photo by Ellen Shub

The resulting physical destruction was enormous and impossible to justify in any way, let alone on grounds of “self-defense”: over 4,000 homes completely destroyed, another 21,000 badly damaged, an estimated 5,000 to 100,000 people rendered homeless, forced to live in tents provided by the UN or under concrete blocks. The Palestinian parliament, main ministries, central prison, and nearly all the police stations were systematically destroyed. Water treatment and sewage systems were damaged or destroyed. Reduced to rubble were 21 medical facilities, about 1,500 factories, many workshops, a dairy, a health products store, and a university building. Seven Gazan schools were totally destroyed and 135 “substantially damaged.” Israeli soldiers even intentionally “trashed” children’s schoolrooms and destroyed their educational materials. And, as the IDF does regularly in the West Bank, they used tanks and bulldozers to destroy agricultural land and olive orchards. The IDF also destroyed 41 mosques, which they claimed were being used to store weapons, 35 UNRWA and governmental schools, and most of the Palestinian factories still in operation. With Israel sustaining 10 military and 3 civilian deaths, even the most casual observers of the conflict found the 100 to 1 “kill ratio” shockingly lopsided. What strategic danger to the “Jewish state” warranted the IDF to commit war crimes and inflict a loss of life and a degree of physical destruction in the most densely populated parts of Gaza that rivaled in scale what they had inflicted on Lebanon, with U.S. support, on four different earlier occasions: the invasion of 1982, “Operation Grapes of Wrath” in 1993, the massacre of Lebanese civilians at the UN compound in Qana in 1996, and the war of 2006? Or was it a matter of Israel choosing to ignore international law and institutions, knowing the U.S. would protect it? The U.S.-Israel Relationship One finds in the history of European and American settler regimes not only countless instances of vindictive targeting to suppress the resistance of an indigenous population, but also examples of strong imperialist powers who, in return for useful services, underwrite the aggressive wars of their less powerful regional clients. In such cases, the hegemon imagines it is furthering its own national interests and the relationship with the client endures as long as it performs well.           In the planning, preparation, and execution of the Gaza War, the U.S. enabled and reinforced Israel’s actions to the delight of American manufacturers of weapons and information technology. The U.S. government furnished the illegal white phosphorus munitions, which Israel’s air force dropped and its artillery and tanks fired into Gaza’s densely populated urban areas, refugee camps, and near a UN compound. The white phosphorus burned the flesh of Palestinians beyond the fourth degree, turned their bodies toxic, and made breathing difficult. It remained within structures where it would reignite if disturbed. Israel’s use of this weapon, whose effects cannot be controlled, was another clear violation of international law, including the prohibitions contained in “Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.” White phosphorus, employed by the U.S. and NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan, was used by Israelis to burn down numerous structures, including apartment buildings, government offices, the UN school in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, the main compound of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City, and warehouses holding humanitarian food aid. It has been alleged, though never proved, that cancer-causing experimental “dense inert metal explosives” or tungsten bombs were supplied by the U.S. and fired at the Gazan civilian population by the IDF, thus adding to the chaos of the one-sided killing. However, Israeli tanks commonly “fired flechettes, 4cm long metal darts in civilian neighborhoods” and fleschette-filled shells, which “explode in the air and scatter in a conical pattern over an area about 300m wide and 100m long,” and this particular munition contributed significantly to the high civilian casualties. Its use was an illegal form of indiscriminate attack on civilians. So, too, in the view of most nations of the world was Israel’s use of cluster munitions. The main U.S. weapons that Israeli forces used in their attack were F-16 fighters, M-60 tanks, and heavy artillery. The Bush White House, which gave Israel a green light for its operations, also provided intelligence cooperation and full diplomatic support, even to the extent of attempting to block a cease-fire resolution in the 15-member UN Security Council. By stopping most humanitarian aid from reaching Gaza, the U.S. was fully complicit in Israel’s imposition of illegal collective punishment against the Palestinians. Nor does American complicity stop with diplomatic support and military aid. While Israeli forces were attacking Gazans and wantonly destroying their property, the big American commercial media joined with the organized right-wing Israeli lobby—AIPAC, ADL, and assorted Jewish pundits and Christian Zionists—to dutifully transmit Israeli propaganda and keep many Americans in line with official U.S.-Israel policy. Israel’s war against the Palestinians depended heavily on the strategic partnership that the U.S. had forged with the Zionist state as part of its global strategy for dominating the oil-rich Middle East through client regimes. In 1948, around the time of Israel’s birth, the State Department recognized the usefulness of having a white European Jewish state in the Arab heartland while the Pentagon valued Israeli military skills. Both appreciated that Israel could be a dependable base for the realization of American goals, but also an encumbrance in their pursuit. In different periods, Israel has indeed functioned as a military asset, an intelligence outpost, a platform from which to conduct destabilizing operations against out-of-favor regimes, and a base through which to route armaments to endangered U.S.-installed dictators, as in the secret Iran-Contra affair. The foundation for the U.S.-Israel geo-strategic partnership was laid in the 1940s, but the relationship took its present shape only as favorable conditions developed during the 1960s and early 1970s. Israel’s staging of the Eichmann show trial in Jerusalem in 1961 “re-energized” both the legitimation of the Jewish state and American Jewish identity, while tying both to the idea of “absolutely unique Jewish suffering and the absolute ‘evil’ of anti-Semitism.” Thereafter, the stark failure of U.S. pacification efforts in Vietnam, in contrast to Israel’s resounding military victory over the Arab states in 1967, created an environment supportive of a stronger tie. The main service Israel performed that year for the U.S. and its other Middle East client, Saudi Arabia, was to have smashed the forces of secular Arab nationalism, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Egypt under Nasser was also “a pillar of the non-aligned movement” against imperialism and racism, which the U.S., ever since the Bandung Conference of 1955, had been bent on destroying. It was in return for this double achievement that the U.S. government gave “tacit support for de facto Israeli annexation” of Arab lands, and in so doing “entangled a political settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict with the U.S.-Israeli ‘special relationship.'” In September 1970, when Palestinian nationalists threatened the Jordanian monarchy of King Hussein, another U.S. ally, Israel prevented Syria from aiding Palestinian fighters who were being killed by Jordan’s army with the aid of Saudi Arabian forces and air units from Pakistan. It was another Israeli policing service well appreciated by President Nixon, who had threatened to intervene on Hussein’s behalf. Then in 1979, when U.S. policymakers lost control of Iran, the U.S. deepened its reliance on Israel’s policing and intelligence services. During and long after the cold war, however, there was nothing “special” about the actual role that Israel played for the U.S. It remained a typical client state providing help for U.S.-supported dictatorships and oligarchic rulers around the world. Among the “secondary services” (Noam Chomsky’s term) that Israel furnishes are help for the U.S. executive branch when it wants to circumvent Congressional restrictions on aid to dictatorships that practice torture; selling made-in-Israel weapons and information technology to the Gulf states and even to the U.S.; and attempting to sabotage Iran’s nuclear project. Under Clinton and Bush II Israel even helped the U.S. and UK-led NATO expand eastward towards Russia’s borders. It is mainly American domestic politics and the highly visible role the organized American Jewish community plays that make Israel seem different. Certainly Israel’s actions against the Palestinians can inflame Arab opinion and cause serious problems for the dictatorships that Washington relies on for its control of Middle East oil resources. There is also rising criticism over Israel’s ability to subvert official U.S. policy by lobbying Congress and the White House and “mobilizing American Jewish leaders who…call on their constituents for lobbying and publicity purposes.” It is doubtful, though, that the Israel lobby determines U.S. Middle East policy. Moreover, many “pro-Israel” elites in the media are outright enemies of popular democracy who use the charge of anti-Semitism as their pretext to silence serious critics of U.S. imperial policy. From the UN Cease-fire Resolution to the Electoral Victory of Israel’s Far Right When the UN Security Council, on January 7, 2009, passed a cease-fire resolution that failed to specify a time for hostilities to end, the U.S. abstained from voting on it at Israel’s request. After its passage, the Olmert cabinet continued to press the offensive until, finally, on January 18, Olmert issued a unilateral declaration of ceasefire. Hamas quickly followed with its own truce declaration. The Gaza War wound down without ending. Thereafter Israel did all in its power to prevent the reconstruction of Gaza and the realization of an independent Palestinian state. In the West Bank, Israel continued its aggressive blockade; in Palestinian East Jerusalem, it increased its building of settlements, demolition of homes, and eviction of residents; and in southern Israel it placed the Bedouin Palestinians under increased repression. Concurrently, Israel went on losing what legal scholar Richard Falk termed “the legitimacy war.” High UN officials, including Ban Ki-moon, expressed their concern about Israel’s violations of the laws of war. Israeli peace activists and human rights organizations collected evidence of IDF war crimes and crimes against humanity. To encourage the filing of lawsuits abroad, the activists listed and circulated the names of Israeli battalion commanders and soldiers who had committed war crimes in Gaza. As this issue unfolded during late January 2009, Spain’s highest judicial body, the National Court, announced it would launch an investigation into earlier cases of war crimes allegedly committed by senior Israeli army officers in July 2002, when an Israeli fighter jet dropped a 2,000 pound bomb on the home of a Hamas fighter in Gaza city, wiping out his entire family and wounding 77 other civilians. The Arab League sent a fact-finding mission of judges and legal experts to Gaza through the Rafah crossing to gather evidence of Israeli war crimes. And prominent legal scholars from Europe and the U.S. petitioned the UN for a full investigation. Against this background of increasing pressure for an international inquiry into alleged Israeli war crimes, Olmert reassured IDF commanders and soldiers that they would not be subjected to any international criminal tribunal “and that the State of Israel will assist them in this issue and protect them as they protected us…during the military operation in Gaza.” Through February and March 2009, Egyptian officials continued to mediate negotiations leading to a cease-fire agreement that would re-open Gaza and negotiations aimed at reconciling Hamas and Fatah. While these activities proceeded, the results of Israel’s February election became known. A new coalition government soon emerged, led by the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu with Ehud Barack as defense minister and Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beitenu Party—advocate of loyalty oaths for Arab Israelis and an ethnically pure “Jewish state”—as foreign minister. Meanwhile, the Israeli siege of Gaza continued, the Egyptian-mediated talks stalled, and all issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict remained unresolved. President Obama followed Bush’s failed policy of refusing to recognize Hamas on the specious grounds that Hamas does not “renounce violence,” recognize Israel’s right to exist as a “Jewish state,” and honor past agreements. Of course, Israel seldom honors commitments made with the Palestinians. Nor does it accept in good faith a two-state solution. Nor would any government abstain from retaliation in self-defense, let alone a colonized people who have a legal right to use violence within limits against their belligerent occupiers. Above all, why should Palestinian refugees and their descendants recognize in advance of negotiations the very state that leaves un-redressed all the injustices it has been inflicting on them? Conclusions First, despite Israel’s attempt to bar foreign reporters from witnessing the IDF’s war crimes, a vast global audience saw on television screens and websites vivid pictures of Israel’s slaughter of defenseless Palestinians. The result has been an erosion of sympathy and support for Israel in Europe and even the U.S. as reflected in the “boycott, divestment, sanctions” movement. A second result is that Israel was able to intimidate Iran and Syria, the backers of Islamist Hamas and Hezbollah, from militarily aiding the Palestinians. Iran, locked in U.S.-Israeli-imposed isolation, offered the Palestinians only verbal and monetary support, not badly needed arms and ammunition as alleged by the U.S.-Israel. When Teheran tried to send Red Crescent humanitarian goods by ship, Egypt denied the ship access to Gaza. Similarly, the Shi’a regime of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq was prevented from helping. In Lebanon, Hezbollah dared not open a second front in support of the Gazans. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli troops and Fatah police worked together to arrest Hamas supporters and prevent Palestinians from materially aiding their relatives in the Strip. Thus the IDF’s principal achievement in the Gaza War was to isolate the Palestinians and handcuff their potential allies. Third, the conditions that led Israel to escalate its aggression continued. The Palestinians, of necessity, persisted in smuggling food and weapons through tunnels along Gaza’s seven-mile-long southern border with Egypt. The Al Qassam brigades, which extol armed struggle, curbed their rocket fire from Gaza while other armed groups did not. Yes, the homemade missiles were militarily useless. But they served to communicate an important message: recognize our humanity, lift your illegal siege, and change your practices towards us—for your security will forever be conditioned by our right to live in dignity in our own nation-state. As Khalil Shikaki’s opinion poll of early December 2008 indicated, most Palestinians before the Gaza War accepted a “mutual recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people and Palestine as the state for the Palestinian people.” Even after the Gazan campaign, in late January 2009, a reputable Palestinian poll showed that Palestinians still supported the idea of a two-state solution, as Helena Cobban reported. This is the public that the Hamas nationalist resistance movement represents and on whose behalf it will eventually negotiate. And just as Hezbollah gained strength from Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006, so also did Hamas emerge politically stronger in Gaza, the West Bank, and throughout the Middle East. An opinion poll in early February by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre showed Hamas had made major gains in popularity at Fatah’s expense in the West Bank, though not in Gaza, and that Palestinians regarded Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas as a more trustworthy leader than Mahmoud Abbas, whom many consider a corrupt Israeli-U.S. puppet. The full “blowback” consequences of Israel’s actions have yet to manifest themselves strategically across the region. Regimes that had previously favored Israel, however, such as Jordan and Turkey, with which Israel has a strategic relationship, felt the strain of maintaining official ties. Qatar’s ruler accused Israel of committing war crimes. Saudi Arabia’s dictatorship, always fearing its own people, made known its disapproval. The Egyptian dictatorship actively sided with Israel against both Hamas and Hezbollah, but under intense popular pressure it resumed a difficult mediating role. Iran, meanwhile, announced preparations to try in absentia a large number of senior Israelis whom it accused of committing war crimes. Outside the Middle East, two Latin American states, Venezuela and Bolivia, severed diplomatic relations with Israel. In Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and Greece, people marched on Israeli embassies and demanded action from their governments to stop the slaughter. In Durban, South Africa, and Western Australia, longshore workers refused to unload goods from Israel. In the U.S., small numbers of Jews unable to endure Israel’s heinous war crimes dissented publicly and in many places, including university campuses, while activists called for boycotts of Israeli goods and divestment from institutions that support the occupation. The humanitarian aid that would really matter for the Palestinians would be American grass-roots pressure on Congress and the president to end all weapons exports to Israel.   Writing at an early stage of the recent Gaza assault, Noam Chomsky observed that, “Israel could have security, normalization of relations, and integration into the region. But it very clearly prefers illegal expansion, conflict, and repeated exercises of violence, actions that are not only criminal, murderous, and destructive, but are also eroding its own long-term security.” He then added, “those who call themselves ‘supporters of Israel’ are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration and probably ultimate destruction.” Finally, there are two conceptual lessons that can be drawn from the Gazan rampage as well as from the U.S. and NATO wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first concerns the Hobbesian nature of the modern state. Critical thinkers in the European legal tradition have argued that the way in which the meaning of the state has been constructed ever since the 16th and 17th centuries has encouraged and sanctioned war. The Hobbesian behavior of modern governments both before, but especially after 9/11, well illustrate their point. The characteristics of a normal Hobbesian state are a willingness to live in a posture of war readiness, to wage preemptive war, to disregard the laws of war, to intervene unilaterally and militarily, especially in the affairs of peoples living in the former colonized and semi-colonized world, and to justify such interventions in terms of racist, “Orientalist,” or civilization myths. Led by the U.S., the “realists” have taken the world back to the period before World War I by initiating and waging, in the former colonized regions of the world, “preventive war” and permanent-war-for-peace. They have justified their actions by exploiting fear and making national security the ultimate determinant of their behavior. Second, the Gazan war teaches the limitations of human rights standards in this Hobbesian world. The human rights principle that Israeli judges introduced into the Israel-Palestinian conflict reeked of hypocrisy. It did nothing to curb Israel’s illegal use of force against an alleged threat from missiles fired by Palestinians. Yet many liberals and conservatives still look to human rights and “humanitarian interventions” as humankind’s last best hope. It seems more sensible to argue the opposite: our best hope in the 21st century lies in formal adherence to international humanitarian law, the Nuremberg principles, the Geneva Conventions and their Protocols—all clearly grounded, as Anthony Carty argued, in morality as distinct from law—a project which does not fit into the plans of Western policy makers.


Herbert P. Bix is the author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan and has written extensively on modern and contemporary Japanese history. He has taught at many universities and is currently a professor of history and sociology at Binghamton. This essay benefited from the helpful comments of Steve Shalom, Mark Selden, and Noam Chomsky.