The Myth of Israeli Retaliation

With the Palestinian death toll from Israel’s latest air and naval assault on Gaza passed 350 and steadily climbing (an estimated 1500 more have been wounded), diplomats, advocates and journalists the world over appear prepared to continue facilitating the massacre.

Noting that "success or failure of the media effort can affect the window which the IDF has to fulfill its operational objectives," the Jerusalem Post on Tuesday quoted former Israeli ambassador Dan Gillerman expressing his satisfaction on the diplomatic front. "We haven’t seen dramatic condemnations [from world leaders], only the expected and generic calls for calm and ceasefire." (Though UN General Assembly president Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann has been a laudable exception to this rule.) While the Post attributed "this welcome window" to "a new culture of coordination among the agencies responsible for managing Israel’s media message in times of crisis," it is far too charitable to downplay the culpability of Western political classes by taking their feigned ignorance at face value.

Meanwhile, within the Israeli political system, the prospect of an escalating slaughter of Palestinians is meeting scattered opposition, mostly on logistical and diplomatic grounds. Still, the logic of the Israeli elections cycle is pushing in the direction of greater violence, and war planners are reportedly incorporating into their calculations strong calls from the Hebrew press for Israeli forces to abandon "restraint" and broaden operations. Indeed, one needn’t look further than the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz to encounter crass appreciation of the violence. Yoel Marcus writes unapologetically that "I will not conceal my enjoyment of the flames and smoke rising from Gaza that have poured from our television screens. The time has finally come for their bellies to quiver and for them to understand that there is a price from their bloody provocations against Israel."

"Their bloody provocations against Israel." Because once again, Israel has been provoked, and is within its rights to retaliate.

If it were not for its endless, mindless repetition, this nonsense wouldn’t deserve a moment’s attention. But the farce of "Palestinian provocation/Israeli retaliation" presently frames not only mainstream news coverage, but also the official diplomatic statements emanating from the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Australia and Canada. Such historical amnesia cannot possibly be genuine.

Under these circumstances, it is worth recalling some very basic information about Gaza and the timeline of the conflict surrounding it.

Consider the description provided by the late Canadian Lt.-Gen. E.L.M. Burns, chief of staff of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization from 1954-1956, who in this capacity was responsible for monitoring Israel’s oft-violated armistice arrangements with adjacent countries. Burns, hardly a political activist or anti-colonial figure, was a professional soldier appointed by a Canadian diplomat quite friendly towards Israel, Lester B. Pearson. Published in 1962, his account of his service includes the following description of Gaza:

"The Strip is about forty kilometres long, and averages eight and a quarter kilometres in width; thus it contains about 330 square kilometres [360 is currently the accepted figure]. There are about 310,000 Arab residents in the Strip, 210,000 of them refugees from the southern parts of Palestine now occupied by Israel. Thus there are about 1500 persons to the square kilometre of arable soil — about 3900 to the square mile  …

"One does not see people starving or dying of disease in the streets; nevertheless the Gaza Strip resembles a vast concentration camp, shut off by the sea, the border between Palestine and the Sinai near Rafah, which the Egyptians will not permit them to cross, and the Armistice Demarcation Line which they cross in peril of being shot by Israelis or imprisoned by the Egyptians. They can look east and see wide fields, once Arab land, cultivated extensively by a few Israelis, with a chain of kibbutzim guarding the heights or the areas beyond. It is not surprising that they look with hatred on those who have dispossessed them."[1]

Five years after this was published, in 1967, Israel invaded Gaza and subjected it to direct military rule. Decades later, Hamas emerged, and decades later still, fired some rockets at such cities as Ashkelon — an Israeli city which just incidentally had supplanted the Palestinian community of Majdal, the last of whose inhabitants were ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces in 1950, its former residents mostly driven into Gaza. And now, "retaliating" against suggestions that Hamas might use its limited military leverage to open crossings from the Gaza Strip and achieve a broadened ceasefire including the West Bank, Israel is hammering at Gaza from the skies and the sea with advanced military equipment, while Israeli ground forces assemble amidst threats of a broadened assault.

For all their disigenuous diplomatic rhetoric, Israeli planners know full well that the future they are offering Palestinians in Gaza — one of peaceful, acquiescent starvation — is simply not viable. Indeed, the point was made recently at the Weinberg Founders Conference (organized by the AIPAC-affiliated Washington Institute for Near East Policy) by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, former head of the Strategic Planning Branch and the Operations Branch of the IDF. Eiland observed that "Gaza is an extremely small piece of land, 300 square kilometres, in which today there are 1.5 million people who live there. In the year 2020 there will be 2.5 million people. Does anyone really believe that those 2.5 million people who will live in Gaza in 12 years will live happily only because there is a peace agreement?" Even taken alongside his proposed solution (enlarge Gaza into Egypt, establish a regional security framework which would operate independent of and over Palestinians, etc.), Eiland’s comments point to the extremely dangerous future facing Palestinians in Gaza.

In the short term, it remains unclear for how long Israel will subject this densely populated prison to air strikes and naval bombardment, whether a massive ground invasion will materialize (or perhaps the "localized cleansing operations" advocated by the Marcus article cited above), and just how suffocating a ceasefire arrangement Israel will receive international license to pursue. But the idea that a shift from slaughter back to mere economic suffocation would be a reasonable Israeli concession needs to be forcefully wiped away, or the prospects for the coming period will be horrifically bleak.

In the meantime, as the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel (the remnant from the ethnic cleansing of 1948) commit the heresy of asserting the humanity of Israel’s Palestinian victims, the politics of Israeli racism are turning inward in accord with longstanding trends. In her speech to the Knesset on Monday, Israeli foreign minister and Kadima candidate for prime minister Tzipi Livni declared that the Gaza massacres were "a test of the leadership of the Arab public in Israel. You are leading the Arab population here on a thin rope. The thin line between what is allowed and what is forbidden must not be crossed — between legitimate and illegitimate, between right and wrong. Each of you must choose a side, and the choice is between Arab and Jew."[2] Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu promised that if elected, he would know how to deal with "Hamas’ supporters from within — with an iron fist," referring to demonstrations in predominantly Arab communities against the ongoing assault.  Avigdor Lieberman, head of the far-right Israel Beiteinu and an avid advocate of racism against Palestinian citizens, called for Arab parliamentarians in Israel (who are voicing principled criticism of the Gaza slaughter) to be "exiled," alleging they form part of a "fifth column" responsible for "acts of treason at a time of war".

At this point, shifting blame to Hamas or other Palestinians for these Israeli atrocities is not just a mistake, it is an alibi. And the fact that it’s a common one shouldn’t make it any more tolerable.


[1] E.L.M. Burns, Between Arab and Israeli. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1962. (pp. 69-70)
[2] "Israeli foreign minister addresses Knesset, justifies Gaza operation," December 30 2008, BBC Monitoring Middle East.

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