White Phosphorus, Hasbara and International Alibis

On the fifth day of the latest Israeli assault on Gaza, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a leading US-based Israel advocacy think tank, ran a commentary by senior analyst David Makovsky which concluded as follows: "Whether the Palestinian intifada between 2000 and 2004, the Hizballah war in 2006, or the Gaza conflict in 2008, this changing nature of warfare against civilians needs to be squarely addressed."

As Israel orients itself towards continuously waging such warfare on a number of fronts in the years ahead, these comments ring true (albeit not in the sense intended by Makovsky).

While the massacre-with-impunity initiated by the Israel Air Force (IAF) in Gaza on Saturday December 27 encountered broad domestic support in Israel, a few days and a few hundred Palestinian fatalities later, Aluf Benn, diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, explained that "the magical aerial solutions that do not involve loss of soldiers are coming to an end." This impression reportedly became the consensus opinion within the Israeli military establishment by the middle of last week, and on Saturday — a second consecutive shabbat shalom —  the Israel Defense Force (IDF) launched a massive ground assault "meant to serve as a supplement to the aerial bombardment" (alongside continuous naval attacks).

"The ground invasion was preceded by large-scale artillery shelling from around 4pm," Ha’aretz reported, "intended to ‘soften’ the targets as artillery batteries deployed along the Strip in recent days began bombarding Hamas targets and open areas near the border. Hundreds of shells were fired, including cluster bombs aimed at open areas."

Closely attuned to the diplomatic requirements of warfare against civilians, Israeli spokespeople will no doubt find a way to explain not only why the Palestinian/Israeli death toll in this "conflict" maintains its staggering balance of 100/1, but also the "pinpoint" nature of Israeli naval bombardment, artillery shelling and cluster bombing of the densely populated Gaza Ghetto.

Perhaps they will also explain away their reported use of deadly white phosphorus, whose "telltale shells could be seen spreading tentacles of thick white smoke to cover the troops’ advance," according to a joint report of The Times and Agence France-Presse ("These explosions are fantastic looking, and produce a great deal of smoke that blinds the enemy so that our forces can move in," the story quotes an unnamed "Israeli security expert" as saying of napalm’s devastating heir).[1]
Indeed, one of the lessons which Israel has apparently drawn from its experience with warfare against civilians is that, with disciplined public relations and a heavy dose of hypocrisy, much of the liberal West can be brought behind it.

"The Gaza attack is the first major demonstration of Israel’s total overhaul of its ‘hasbara’ [bluntly translated, ‘propaganda’] operation following the Second Lebanon War," Anshel Pfeffer writes supportively. "While the military aspects of the operation were meticulously planned, a new forum of press advisers was also established which has been working for the past six months on a PR strategy specifically geared to dealing with the media during warfare in Gaza."[2]

Public calls for (or expressions of satisfaction with) assaults on the Palestinian people at large, for example, are being kept to a minimum. "Ministers have been ordered by the Cabinet Secretary not to give interviews without authorisation," Pfeffer continues, "so as not to repeat the PR disaster of a year ago, when deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai threatened the Palestinians with a ‘holocaust.’" Military commanders, Amir Oren adds, are also being (rhetorically) restrained: "The IAF and the Southern Command, which have been doing most of the work, have been forbidden to speak to the media."

International journalists, for their part, have encountered barriers to entering and reporting from Gaza which the Associated Press has described as "unprecedented" (and given Israel’s long history of severe restrictions on the press, that’s saying a lot).[3] Writing for Ha’aretz, Gili Izikovich elaborates: "Keeping the foreign journalists in Israel, sources say, is good for Israel’s image because the media is experiencing the war from the Israeli side." The Gaza offices of China’s Xinhua News Agency have themselves suffered bombardment, though it is unclear whether this resulted from direct targeting or merely reflected the danger facing anyone in the Gaza Strip.[4]

The targeted destruction of Gaza’s Al-Aqsa television station, for its part, has been openly endorsed within the Jerusalem Post, the article in question dismissing International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) criticism of "attacks on unarmed media installations" in light of "the inflammatory material [Al-Aqsa television] broadcasts regularly," while at the same time — apparently unaware of the obvious implications — joining in defense of Israeli journalistic war-readiness: "the media here weren’t drafted by the government, but rather volunteered in the service of the country." 

But notably, even war-eager Israeli correspondents have been excluded from covering the latest ground assault. While independent Israeli reporting faces predictable restrictions, even Israel’s loyal journalist corps has been consigned to reporting or cheering from the sidelines. As Dennis Zinn, military correspondent for Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) TV, reported Sunday, "This is a war that the Israeli press has been left out of. There are no embedded reporters and the officers have been warned not to talk to the media without explicit permission. This is a policy of the current chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who is critical of the open relationship that has existed between the military and the media up to now."[5]

Nonetheless, notwithstanding all the hasbara echoing among Israel’s many PR hacks, it remains a fact that Israeli spokespeople are on record effectively dismissing distinctions between civilian and combatant.

If, as so many spokespeople and commentators have suggested, we are to believe that Israeli planners have meticulously drawn lessons from the 2006 invasion of Lebanon in planning this assault, then it is worth recalling what those stated lessons were.

Consider the threats that have since been made by General Gadi Eisenkot, head of Israel’s Northern Command, regarding the Lebanese south: "We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction"; "From our perspective, these are military bases."[6]

Very similar comments have been made about Gaza (see this previous article for details). Moreover, given that Hamas dominated the last round of Palestinian parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza alike, and is particularly strong in Gaza (where its social services fulfill an indispensible function), Israeli operational parameters as stated by foreign minister Tzipi Livni — "We are targeting Hamas, we are not looking for civilians to kill more than that" — are clearly not reassuring.[7]

Unfortunately, the policies of the United States and the European Union have constituted what The Guardian rightly describes as "a green light for Israel to continue unavoidably indiscriminate attacks on the most densely populated territory in the world."[8] The Czech government, which on Thurday assumed the rotating EU presidency, has retreated from spokeperson Jiri Potuznik’s characterization of the Israeli ground invasion as "defensive, not offensive," but with commentators like Pfeffer musing on whether the shift in EU leadership helped to dictate the Israeli assault’s timing, the signs from the EU are deeply troubling.[9]

Having apparently called for the Israeli assault, so-called "Quartet" envoy Tony Blair is "on holiday at the moment," as British prime minister Gordon Brown puts it.[10] This is as good a time as any to blow the mythology of the "Quartet" — supposedly comprised of the US, EU, Russia, and the rubber-stamp of the UN Secretary General — out of the water. "There is no getting around the reality that the Quartet … provides a shield for what the US and the EU do," as Alvaro de Soto (former UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process) rightly observed — and while "the Quartet’s evenhandedness deficit is not a recent phenomenon," as De Soto noted more than a year and a half ago, "evenhandedness has been pummeled into submission in an unprecedented way since the beginning of 2007," and effective authorization of this offensive via Blair needs to be the final straw.

Anti-war and progressive civil society forces may not presently be in a position to stop this massacre, but let this spectacular display of brutality at least effect a broad reorientation.

The point needs to be made clearly: if Hamas members are legitimate targets for assassination, then so too are the members of the parties responsible for these ongoing massacres, including at a minimum Labor and Kadima; if this logic is rejected, as it clearly should be, then an inclusive political process is required. Any consistent criteria by which Hamas could be excluded from parliamentary politics would also necessitate exclusion of the major Israeli players from the elections scheduled for February. Any political settlement which excludes Hamas is no political settlement at all.

Israel, rejecting negotiations with any Palestinians who will not accept their orders, will take this rejection to its natural conclusion. To the degree permitted by the diplomatic context and military developments, they will seek to kill those associated with Hamas or any other resistance groupings. Facing a devastated civilian population and a lightly armed resistance, such killing is likely to be widespread, and Israeli planners hope to follow this up with "methodical arrest campaigns" (while 1 Israeli fatality may be balanced with 100 Palestinian deaths, it seems that even at 1 to 10,000, the ratio of Israeli to Palestinian prisoners held hostage is insufficient for Israeli taste).

But we can make no mistake: this is the natural extension (effectively genocidal, but an inexorable progression nonetheless) of excluding Hamas from the political process. More than half a century ago, Hannah Arendt noted the glaring contradictions of purported left Zionists in groups like Hashomer Hatzair, avowed radicals who "express themselves only by abstention when it comes to vital questions of Palestine foreign policy," and "hide under officials protests their secret relief at having the majority parties do the dirty work for them."[11] Similar comments apply to those in the West who, while happy to help force the Palestinian party with a parliamentary majority out of their own electoral process, now express misgivings about the extrajudicial killings, collective punishment and mass political imprisonment which in varying degrees have accompanied this policy from its inception.

This applies even to some quite decent people. In Canada, to take a widely replicated example, the New Democratic Party (NDP), relatively moderate in its foreign policy by North American standards, has yet to engage Hamas as a diplomatic actor despite the results of the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006. When Hamas, in part conceding its freely won electoral mandate, signed on to the creation of a national unity government in February 2007, the NDP decided to deal with the unity government solely through its non-Hamas representatives, as US and allied (including Canadian) policy sought to drive wedges among factions and further fracture the Palestinian national movement. Subject to international sabotage, the unity government resolutely collapsed with the Hamas counter-coup of June 2007 (another much-lied-about-episode, see Gary Leupp’s piece on Dissident Voice for details), intensifying the dangerous isolation of Gaza.  

The danger is now greater than ever. In the last week and a half, Israel has destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure to a point where returning to status quo policies of sanctions and isolation — which Israel would no doubt sell as a concession, if only by virtue of the temporary cessation of direct massacres — is an option incompatible with Palestinian survival (let alone dignity) in Gaza. Hamas, meanwhile, can at this point only be excluded from the Palestinian political and broader diplomatic process by the utter corruption of an international community too cruel or cowardly to maintain a trace of moral or legal integrity, and by the waves of killings, imprisonment and collective punishment which Israel will orchestrate under its cover.

Israel has gambled with this invasion. It is betting on the sort of international complicity which will allow it to disenfranchise the Palestinians of Gaza not only from the Israeli system which governs the whole of Israel/Palestine, but even from administration of the enclaves into which Palestinians have been pushed and confined. Its planners aim to abdicate responsibility for the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza while still controlling their borders and their skies, perhaps with the support of international allies, while retaining "ongoing freedom for military action" against them (indeed, Ha’aretz reported Monday that Israel is formally seeking "a Security Council agreement that will grant Israel the right to respond to Hamas violations" of a ceasefire agreement to which Hamas will not even be a signatory). Palestinians in Gaza and the political groupings with the broadest support among them will thus be disenfranchised, confined, and disarmed while at the same time subject to explicit policies of assassination and military assault.

This gamble needs to backfire. Israel cannot be allowed to shift the terms of discussion by — having added to the crime of its suffocating siege on Gaza an assault on its essential infrastructure and a massacre of hundreds of its inhabitants — now using its potential willingness to slow its massacres as leverage to secure an international rubber-stamp for harsher sanctions or more strict colonial rule (enforced with allies’ support).

Those who would diplomatically push Hamas out of Palestinian politics share responsibility with Israel when it takes this policy to its military conclusion. A ceasefire must come, and it must come soon, but if it is to amount to anything more than a pause in the killing, it cannot serve as an instrument for such criminal and failed policies.

[1] Michael Evans and Sheera Frenkel, "’Phosphorus smokescreen’ hid army," January 6 2009, The Times and AFP, as published in The Australian.
[2] Anshel Pfeffer, "Israel claims success in the PR war," January 2 2009, The Jewish Chronicle. 
[3] Diaa Hadid, "Israel bans foreign journalists from entering Gaza despite court order to let them in," January 2 2009, Associated Press Newswires.
[4] "Chinese news agency’s Gaza office said hit by Israeli bombing, ‘no casualties,’" December 29 2008, BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific.
[5] Dennis Zinn reporting, "Day one of IDF ground op in Gaza," January 4 2009, IBA News.
[6] Nicholas Kimbrell, "War of words between Israel, Lebanon escalated in 2008," December 31 2008, The Daily Star.
[7] Sharon Otterman, "Israeli Foreign Minister Says Hamas ‘Needs to Be Condemned,’" December 29 2008, The New York Times.
[8] Editorial, "Europe must take the initiative," January 4 2009, The Guardian.
[9] "Gaza statement a misunderstanding – Czech minister," January 4 2009, Reuters News.
[10] Anshel Pfeffer, "Sarkozy wants more," January 5 2008, Ha’aretz.
[11] Hannah Arendt, "Zionism Reconsidered" (October 1944), in The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age (Ron Feldman, ed.), Grove Press, Inc., 1978, p. 154. Incidentally, according to Ilan Pappé, these purported leftists proved to be among the "most avaricious" of the Zionist parties when it came to dividing the agricultural lands of Palestinians ethnically cleansed in 1948: "Hashomer Ha-Tza’ir members were not content only with lands from which the people had already been expelled, but also wanted the lands whose Palestinian owners had survived the onslaught and who were still clinging onto them." (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, OneWorld Publications Ltd., 2006, pp. 215-216.)

Leave a comment