The anniversary of Israel’s assault against Gaza last year has been a somber one, so far. I started out following the war from my home in Charlottesville, Virginia, and later on followed it from Damascus, Syria while I was there in mid-January.
In the hotel we were staying in in Damascus, the large t.v. screen in the breakfast room was tuned permanently to Al-Jazeera, and broad images of the ongoing death and destruction played over our heads during every breakfast. Back in the U.S., of course, the coverage by the national media was considerably more muted and less prominent.
(I wonder if the Israeli government deliberately chose to launch the war at a time when the US public and political system were very busy preparing for the arrival of our new president? Certainly, it had chosen November 4, 2008, to undertake its first very large-scale violation of the June 2008 ceasefire, knowing full well that most Americans were busy with other matters on that historic voting day.)
Previous to last January, my last visit to Gaza had been in early March 2006, shortly after the historic election that had been held there in January of that year. That was the election that Hamas participated in– and won. And already, when I was in Israel and Gaza in those weeks, it was evident that Israel and the US were determined to do what they could to steal that democratic victory from Hamas.
During last year’s assault, the IDF bombed the Palestinian parliament building in downtown Gaza, repeatedly, I suppose as a gesture of continuing hatred for anything resembling Palestinian democracy. (Their claim– in bombing the parliament, as in bombing police stations and all other institutions related to the Hamas-led government– was that anything related to Hamas is ipso facto “terrorist”, which makes it a valid target… But the Hamas-related “Change and Reform Party”, which was the name of the party that actually ran in the elections, had received the agreement of both the US and Israel to participate in the election– a decision that Hamas had made in connection with a ceasefire that it and Fateh observed during the preceding six months. So why, after Hamas won the election, did Israel and the US suddenly decide that that was a quite unacceptable outcome? What kind of a democratic theory is that??)
In 2006, I interviewed the Hamas prime minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh, right there in the parliament building. I also interviewed the foreign minister-designate Dr. Mahmoud Zahhar. Both of them stressed that their main aim was to “put the Palestinian house in order” after the deep corruption that had marked Fateh’s ten years of domination of the Palestinian parliament.
But Haniyeh, Zahhar, and their colleagues never got the chance to enact their domestuc-reform plans. Israel almost immediately tightened the blockade it was already maintaining around Gaza. (Remember, this was still some months before Israeli Staff Sgt. Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants– who came, by the way, from a group other than Hamas.)
More ominously, after the Hamas victory, the Israeli authorities issued death threats against any political “independents” who might be tempted to join a Hamas-led government. And, as we later learned from David Rose and others, Condi Rice and the Israelis almost immediately started training up a Contras-like force under Fateh’s Mohamed Dahlan, which was primed to launch a coup attempt against the Hamas government.
The coup was launched in June 2007. The Hamas government repelled it, but it caused significant loss of life.
The Dahlan coup failure followed the Lebanon-war failure as a huge embarrassment for the Israel-Washington military axis that was so very strong in the G. W. Bush era. So perhaps it was only to be expected that the Israeli militarists would want to avenge those failures by launching yet another war. (And indeed, throughout 2008, there were many signs, and even public announcements, that that was what they wanted to do.)
In a very real sense, the assault the IDF launched on Gaza on December 27, 2008, was a war foretold.
The results should have been foretellable, too.
One of the big declared aims of the Israeli military was to “restore the credibility of Israel’s battered military deterrent.” That was particularly important regarding the performance of Israel’s ground forces, which during the 2006 assault on Lebanon had been shown to be in extremely poor operational shape. So to show that the ground forces were in better shape now, in late 2008 Israel’s planners had to be able to muster and also, to some extent, to use those forces. But they were also extremely wary of using the ground forces in any way that would put them at risk… understanding well, after their earlier 22 years of running a tough occupation in Lebanon, that Israeli society had become very casualty-averse.
Hence, though much of the destruction in Gaza was caused by the IDF’s use of stand-off weapons– from air, sea, and ground– there came a point when both the desire to test the ground forces in combat and the the desire to force a military humiliation onto Gaza’s Hamas leaders combined to persuade the military planners decide to send the ground forces in.
But again: They really did not want those soldiers to suffer casualties. Hence, given the extremely high density of the civilian population in Gaza– just about none of whom, it turned out, gave any support to to the Israeli invaders– the military planners made and executed decisions that placed considerably more value on the security of their own soldiers than on the protection of civilian lives and wellbeing.
That was one of the cardinal war crimes they committed.
The high level of civilian casualties– and the apparently wanton way in which so many of them were inflicted– also did a lot to turn public opinion around the whole world against the Israelis in a quite unprecedented way.
My main point of comparison in this was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982. That had been my first year living in the U.S. Night after night I watched “news” coverage of Israel’s battering of Beirut, produced by the U.S. media, that was openly supportive of the Israeli campaign. I saw just about all sectors of US society– but especially, many members of the political “left”– lining up to support the Israeli campaign.
I saw arch-leftist Jane Fonda posing atop an Israeli tank as it targeted the Palestinian and Lebanese-leftist forces who were then encircled in West Beirut.
Last winter’s assault on Gaza provoked a notably different reaction– even here in the U.S. Sure, there were the usual crowd of “Stand with Israel” people talking on some of the talk shows. But there were also many writers and columnists openly questioning Israel’s actions. And the questions have continued and even multiplied since then. No amount of Israeli hasbara (also known in the US as “public diplomacy”) seems to have succeeded in turning that situation around.
Oh sure, AIPAC still has a near-lockhold on the US Congress– except for heroic, principled members like Brian Baird or Keith Ellison. And sure, the Obama administration jumped to attention and said “Aye-aye, sir” when Netanyahu asked it to help quash the Goldstone Report. (The administration has also, more significantly, stepped a long way back from its earlier focus on getting to the big-picture peace diplomacy as soon as possible.)
But sill, things are changing in many parts of this country of ours.
I felt it, a little, when I took part in that Gaza Freedom vigil in downtown DC last Wednesday evening. But I’ve felt it, too, when reading all the bulletins from the Gaza Freedom March, many of whose participants and lead organizers have come from the U.S. (Including, of course, Hedy Epstein, Alice Walker, Medea Benjamin, and others.)
A big part of what’s changed here since 1982 has been the information environment.
Back in 1982, if you wanted to get news and information out quickly– and who doesn’t?– there was only the “major media”, that is, the country’s big newspapers, the three national t.v. networks, and the radio-syndication services. Those media outlets had all, by then, been subjected to several years of focused, pro-Israeli discourse suppression campaigns, so it was pretty hard to get decent attention for points of view critical of the Israeli government’s policies or actions.
Today, the pro-Israeli discourse suppression campaigns still continue. They’ve even, apparently, been stepped up, with funds from Israeli government sources and from strongly pro-Israeli groups here in the US being poured into numerous hasbara projects. But they can’t control the discourse so easily any more. The internet has really changed things.
Now, if I have a report from Gaza or an interview with a Hamas leader, or a description of the Bil’in marches to write about, I can– and do– publish it myself, without having to spend weeks trying to find a brave editor who’ll publish it. (Though I’ve also found a few good, brave editors who’ve been prepared to publish my material along the way.)
Now, too, we have many respected platforms for news, opinion, and discussion about Palestinian-Israeli issues that we can look to, to get a broad range of different perspectives and views. We have Mondoweiss, Richard Silverstein, Electronic Intifada, Stephen Walt’s blog, the InGaza blog, Gaza Gateway, and so many other sources we can go to.
One aspect of this internet that I love is to see how effortlessly it leaps national borders. I certainly appreciate all the terrible difficulties the friends in the Gaza Freedom March have had transcending Egypt’s national border with Gaza. But 100 of them did get in, and were able to take part in the march the Gazans had organized up the Strip on December 31, from Gaza City to the Erez crossing… and at the same time justice activists within Israel were marching down to Erez, in a– probably always only symbolic– effort to link up with them.
Watching some of the videoclips of those actions, even sitting here inside the U.S., you can get a very vivid idea of the essential unity of all these efforts– and of the Viva Palestine effort, which got completely stuck in Jordan…
National boundaries, and their policing, can still make life very difficult indeed for people from non-powerful social groups. But still, if you have access to the internet you can start to see yourself as part of a real, international movement for justice, wherever you are.
… So let’s get back, quickly, to the question of the Gaza war.
But I found this evaluation, by Haaretz’s Bradley Burston, particularly significant. Burston is, I’m pretty certain, a Jewish Israeli. But he doesn’t have any particular track record as a leftist, peace activist. And that, I think, makes this piece of his particularly significant.
It takes the form of a decade-end appraisal. It’s titled, “Israel’s 10 worst errors of the decade”, and you have to scroll down a bit to figure out what his ten worst errors are…
But when you do, you discover that all of them, numbers 1 through 10, are listed “The siege of Gaza”, with in each case a different reason being given why this was one of the worst errors of the decade.
Here are two of them:
3. The Siege of Gaza – In the eyes of the world community, the overwhelming collective punishment – and the relative silence of Israelis in response – has gutted Israeli claims to the moral high ground. It has undercut sympathy for Israelis living within Qassam range. It has kept open the moral wounds of the Gaza War, cramping rebuilding efforts, enshrining universal unemployment, and ensuring agonizing homelessness as the coastal winter gathers full force. Israeli officials have quietly take steps of astounding insensitivity, arbitrarily barring such goods as school supplies.
5. The Siege of Gaza – The siege works to the detriment of U.S. support for Israel…
Okay, I know the siege of Gaza is not exactly the same thing as last winter’s war on Gaza. Really, the “war” can best be understood as one battle in a much lengthier Israeli campaign against Gaza’s 1.5 million people, the aim of which has always been to contain, diminish, punish, humiliate, disempower, and possibly also to physically expel them.
That campaign started long before the elections of January 2006. But it gathered force after those elections, and continues unabated to this day.
Yes, the military episode of last winter dented Israel’s support in world forums and world politics. And I honestly believe it’s possible that, because of what happened last winter, Israel will be unable to mount any similar kind of a punitive military operation against any other target any time in the near future… That, too, is a non-trivial result of the war.
But the siege of Gaza continues. And so, too, does Israel’s military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
And that is the underlying problem that has to be ENDED.
It’s been more than 18 years now since the Madrid Peace Conference. It’s been over two years since Pres. G.W. Bush pledged he’d secure a final-status peace agreement before he left office… Nearly 12 months since Pres. Obama came into office, promising that he would place a high priority on this peace diplomacy.
Enough already! This occupation, quite simply, has to end. And the Palestinians of Gaza, the West Bank, and the very extensive Palestinian diaspora need to have their natural and political rights and their human dignity restored.
Maybe that is the main lesson we need to take home as we consider the effects and fallout of last winter’s war.