Haven’t we been here before?
I. The Last Waltz?
Repeating behaviors that have produced catastrophic failures and expecting a different result is insane; and when a person’s psychotic behavior puts himself and those around him in immediate physical danger, the responsibility of those who claim to be his friends is to restrain him. But even as Waltz With Bashir shows in multiplexes across the world as a grim reminder of the precedent for Israel’s brutal march of folly in Gaza, the U.S. (and the editors of the New York Times and Washington Post) insist that there is a sanity and rationality to sending one of the world’s most powerful armies into a giant refugee camp to rend the flesh and crush the bones of those who stand in its way — whether in defiance or by being unlucky enough to have been born of the wrong tribe and be huddling in the wrong place. By fighting its way to their citadel, they would have us believe, Israel can destroy Hamas and usher in a golden age of peace. Or, to borrow from the casual callousness of Condi Rice during the last such display of futile brutality, we are witnessing, again, the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” Israel failed in 2006, just as in 2002 and 1982. This time, they tell us, will be different.
And then the horror unfolds, as it always does — the hundreds of civilians accidentally massacred as they cowered in what they were told were places of safety, mocking Israel’s torrent of self congratulation over its restraint and its brilliant intelligence — and the hopelessly out-gunned enemy manages to survive, as he does every time. And by surviving, grows stronger politically. No matter how many are killed, the leaders targeted by Israel’s military are endlessly regenerated in the fertile soil of grievance and resentment born of the circumstances Israel has created. Circumstances it has created, but which it, and its most fervent backers refuse to acknowledge, much less redress.
Arafat is dead and gone. So are Sheikh Yassin, and Rantissi. And Abbas al-Musawi, and Imad Mughniyeh. Israel’s ruthless efficiency at killing the leaders of Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups is second to none, and yet, no matter who it kills, there are always thousands more, ready to declare, “I am Spartacus”. That’s because those who step up to lead these organizations are acting not out of personal ambition — leadership in Hamas is a death sentence. The endless stream of Palestinians willing to sacrifice themselves in the role, then, is a symptom of the condition of their people. And Israel’s leaders know this. Asked when running for Prime Minister a decade ago what he’d have done if he’d been born Palestinian, Ehud Barak — the man directing the current operation in Gaza — answered bluntly, “I’d have joined a terror organization.”
By the logic of his own instinct on the campaign trail in 1999, Ehud Barak should know that Operation Cast Lead in Gaza cannot succeed, except, perhaps, in reviving his own political prospects. No matter how many leaders, militants and ordinary civilians Israel kills in Gaza, Hamas — or something like it — will survive.
Waltz With Bashir — a movie that had to be made in Israel, I venture, because questioning Israeli militarism would have been deemed “anti-Semitic” in Hollywood — reminds us that, in 1982, Ariel Sharon led an invasion of Lebanon supposedly aimed at stopping attacks on northern Israel, advancing all the way to Beirut in order to crush the PLO. Sure, the PLO was driven out of Beirut and exiled to Tunisia, but the Israelis were forced within six years to begin negotiating with it because of the uprising of the youth of the West Bank and Gaza. Lebanon in 1982 was a brutal and ultimately futile campaign that delivered only the brutal images of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila around which the movie centers.
Since 1982, of course, Israel has laid siege to and bombed nearly every major Palestinian city, killing and imprisoning thousands of Palestinians, blundering into Lebanon again in 2006 and killing another thousand Lebanese, repeatedly bombed Gaza and choked off its economy for much of the past three years, and yet, nothing has changed: They have killed some 700 in Gaza now, and still the rockets come; regardless of the state of its structures, Hamas is politically stronger on the Palestinian street, while those Palestinian leaders who have cooperated with Israel and the U.S. are weaker and more discredited than ever. The Israelis — and their backers in the American political establishment — appear incapable of grasping that which is empirically obvious: Hamas and its ilk grow stronger every time Israel seeks to eliminate them by force.
II. Dangerous Illusions and a War of Choice
“But what choice did Israel have?” say those in its amen corner in the U.S. “No normal society would tolerate rocket fire on its territory. Hamas left it no option.”
Well, actually, as Jimmy Carter explains from first-hand experience, Israel had plenty of alternatives and chose to ignore them, because it remains locked into the failed U.S.-backed policy of trying to overturn the democratic verdict of the 2006 Palestinian election that made Hamas the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority. The primary Israeli-U.S.-European strategy here (tacitly backed by Arab autocrats from Mubarak to Mahmoud Abbas) has been to apply increasingly strict economic sanctions, in the hope that choking off the chances of a decent life for the 1.5 million people of Gaza would somehow force them to reverse their political choice. Collective punishment, in other words. So, even when Hamas observed a cease-fire between June and November, Israel refused to open the border crossings. When the exchange of fire began again on November 5 when Israel raided what it said was a Hamas tunnel, Hamas escalated its rocket fire but made clear that it would restore and extend the cease-fire if Israel agreed to open the border crossings. Israel’s answer, Carter explains, was if Hamas ceased firing, Israel would allow 15% of the normal traffic of goods into Gaza. And it’s any surprise that Hamas was not prepared to settle for just a 15% loosening of the economic stranglehold?
Hamas appeared to believe that creating a crisis would force Israel to agree to new terms. Whether this was a mistaken belief or not actually remains to be seen: If the truce that ends Israel’s Operation Cast Lead leaves Hamas intact and includes the lifting of the siege, it will claim vindication. Even now, Israeli leaders continue to insist, idiotically, that Hamas cannot be allowed to achieve any diplomatic gains as a result of any truce that must, of necessity, require its diplomatic cooperation. Just as in 2006, the Israelis have achieved the exact opposite political result to what they intended: They have made it abundantly obvious, even to the incoming U.S. administration, that the policy of trying to isolate Hamas is spectacularly dysfunctional, and will have to be abandoned as a matter of urgency.
Even as the realization begins to dawn that their adversary, once again, will emerge politically stronger from a military pummeling, the Israelis contemplate one last bloody foray into the heart of Gaza City, hoping that military action can weaken Hamas and force it to surrender to Israel’s terms. Some American policymakers even cling to the fantasy that they can reimpose the regime of the pliant Mahmoud Abbas on Gaza — a pathetic fantasy, to be sure, because close observers of Palestinian politics know that the only thing keeping Abbas in charge of the West Bank, right now, is the presence of the Israeli Defense Force, and it’s willingness to lock up his opponents. Conveniently, for example, Abbas doesn’t have to deal with his own legislature, which is dominated by Hamas, because Israel has locked up most of the legislators. Mahmoud Abbas has allowed himself to be turned into a Palestinian Petain, and even much of the rank and file of his own Fatah party has turned against him. Not even the Israelis believe he could control Gaza without them, and they are not inclined to stay.
If Hamas is not allowed to govern in Gaza, chances are that nobody will govern in Gaza. It will look more like Mogadishu than like the West Bank — a chaotic cauldron run by rival warlords, with Hamas — no longer responsible for governance — the most powerful political-military presence (although al-Qaeda will fancy its chances of setting up shop if the Hamas government is overthrown — Hamas is the greatest bulwark against Bin Laden’s crowd gaining a foothold in Gaza).
III. Palestinian Sovereignty
The other trope being desperately worked by Israel’s cheering section is the idea that this is simply another episode of a regional conflict between Israel and its mortal foe, Iran. Hamas, we are told, by many media outlets that ought to know better, is a “proxy of Iran”. This is simply not the case, and sober regional analysts know it: Hamas is certainly dependent on Iranian cash in Gaza, although those Western and Israeli strategic geniuses who deprived it of all other sources of funding ought not be surprised that Hamas turned for funds to those who would offer them. No doubt it will take whatever military assistance it was offered, too. But Hamas shares neither ideology nor the kind of political relationship with Iran that Hizballah does, in Lebanon. Hamas was the creation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, originally, and its political decision making is entirely independent of Iran. Syria is more politically influential over Hamas, of course, and Syria is hardly a proxy of Iran despite their alliance — if it was, why would the U.S. be working so hard on a diplomatic strategy to break that alliance? Moreover, the idea of Iran on some sort of path of confrontation with Israel is something of a phantom. Sure, Ahmadinejad loves to warn that Israel will disappear, but he, and his superior, have long made clear that Iran has no intention of attacking Israel. And you’d think that those who insist that Iran’s mullahs exist in order to destroy Israel, even at the cost of their own survival (you know, the argument that the iranians are so ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction that normal deterrence policies won’t restrain them) might want to answer this question: Why has Hizballah refrained from firing its massive arsenal of rockets at Israel as it butchers Palestinians in Gaza? Israel tells us they have the means, and there’s no doubt they have the implacable rage. Could the answer be that this Iranian proxy is being restrained by the pragmatic concern for its own survival and progress in Lebanon? And if so, what does this tell us about Iran? Then again, Iran is not especially relevant to the conflict in Gaza.
Nor was the crisis there created by the militancy of Hamas; instead, it’s the final bloody chapter in the failed Bush Administration-Israeli strategy to overthrow Hamas. The alternative to war, ignored by Israel but patently obvious, is simple: It will have to negotiate with Hamas. (And spare me the “but Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist” argument: No Palestinian leader would, if offered the chance to reverse history, allow Israel to have come into existence, for the simple reason that Israel’s emergence was the Palestinian Nakbah, the catastrophe that dispossessed them and made them refugees. Israel started talking to the PLO long before its charter was revised to allow for recognizing Israel; its leaders realized that Israel could not be militarily defeated. Many in Hamas have come to the same conclusion; Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad, argues that Hamas is moving towards acceptance of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. The Americans are simply going to have to let go of the idea that they’re going to negotiate with a Palestinian leadership that answers to them, as Mahmoud Abbas does, rather than one that answers to the Palestinian public.)
As Oxford-based Israeli historian Avi Shlaim writes:
Israel likes to portray itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet Israel has never in its entire history done anything to promote democracy on the Arab side and has done a great deal to undermine it. Israel has a long history of secret collaboration with reactionary Arab regimes to suppress Palestinian nationalism. Despite all the handicaps, the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only genuine democracy in the Arab world with the possible exception of Lebanon. In January 2006, free and fair elections for the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority brought to power a Hamas-led government. Israel, however, refused to recognise the democratically elected government, claiming that Hamas is purely and simply a terrorist organisation.
America and the EU shamelessly joined Israel in ostracising and demonising the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid. A surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed.
As so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes. Israel’s propaganda machine persistently purveyed the notion that the Palestinians are terrorists, that they reject coexistence with the Jewish state, that their nationalism is little more than antisemitism, that Hamas is just a bunch of religious fanatics and that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But the simple truth is that the Palestinian people are a normal people with normal aspirations. They are no better but they are no worse than any other national group. What they aspire to, above all, is a piece of land to call their own on which to live in freedom and dignity.
Like other radical movements, Hamas began to moderate its political programme following its rise to power. From the ideological rejectionism of its charter, it began to move towards pragmatic accommodation of a two-state solution. In March 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government that was ready to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. Israel, however, refused to negotiate with a government that included Hamas.
It continued to play the old game of divide and rule between rival Palestinian factions. In the late 1980s, Israel had supported the nascent Hamas in order to weaken Fatah, the secular nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat. Now Israel began to encourage the corrupt and pliant Fatah leaders to overthrow their religious political rivals and recapture power. Aggressive American neoconservatives participated in the sinister plot to instigate a Palestinian civil war. Their meddling was a major factor in the collapse of the national unity government and in driving Hamas to seize power in Gaza in June 2007 to pre-empt a Fatah coup.
The war unleashed by Israel on Gaza on 27 December was the culmination of a series of clashes and confrontations with the Hamas government. In a broader sense, however, it is a war between Israel and the Palestinian people, because the people had elected the party to power. The declared aim of the war is to weaken Hamas and to intensify the pressure until its leaders agree to a new ceasefire on Israel’s terms. The undeclared aim is 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.
Shlaim introduces us to the deeper flaw in the “no normal society would tolerate rocket fire” reasoning: Israel, quite simply, is not a normal society. It is a country without fixed legal borders, and the disputes over where those borders should be drawn — the basic conflict not over religion or ideology, but over land and power — is at the very epicenter of the current clash in Gaza, and of Israel’s never-ending series of wars with those around it.
One can only hope, with great fervor, that Barak Obama has heeded the wisdom of his foreign policy tutor Brent Scowcroft, whose observations about the folly of the Bush Administration backing Israel’s 2006 campaign against Hizballah apply as much to today’s offensive in Gaza: “Hezbollah is not the source of the problem,” Scowcroft wrote in the Washington Post. “It is a derivative of the cause, which is the tragic conflict over Palestine that began in 1948. The eastern shore of the Mediterranean is in turmoil from end to end, a repetition of continuing conflicts in one part or another since the abortive attempts of the United Nations to create separate Israeli and Palestinian states in 1948.”
If that were true in Lebanon, it’s even more so in Gaza. To understand everything from why Hamas refuses to recognize the State of Israel; why it fights by means both fair and terribly foul; and why it won Gaza by a landslide in the 2006 election; a good starting point is the demographic composition of the strip — 80% of today’s Gazans are refugee families, who were driven out of homes and off land they owned inside what is now Israel in 1948, and forbidden by one of the founding laws of the State of Israel from ever returning. Is it any surprise then that the basic default position of Palestinian politics has always been to refrain from “recognizing” Israel in the sense of simply abandoning their own claims to homes and land stolen from them by Israel’s very creation. Sure, Israel can say it won the war of 1948, and to the victor the spoils. But what would Ehud Barak do if it had been his father or grandfather who’d been forced off a farm in Ashkelon and now found himself in the hellhole of Gaza? You already know his answer.
And that answer will remain the same (even if Barak would never dream of admitting it any longer) as long as justice and dignity is denied to the community that gave rise to Hamas.
What Operation Cast Lead has revealed in stark and brutal terms, is that Israel’s leadership is incapable of transcending the dysfunctional patterns that lock it into a morbid cycle that precludes Middle East stability. Israel is moving steadily to the right politically — even when the center-left was in power and negotiating with the Palestinians, settlements on occupied land expanded at a steady clip; no Israeli government for the foreseeable future is going to withdraw from the West Bank to the Green Line. So, if the madness is to be stopped, Israel and the Palestinians will have to be told where their borders are, as part of an internationally enforced, fair settlement that gives the parties no choice, and provides the Turkish troops to enforce it. But hey, I’m not holding my breath…