Sunday, November 18. 2012
In 1947, when the UN attempted to partition Palestine, it allocated the Gaza Strip and adjacent land extending up the Mediterranean coast more than half way to Tel Aviv to the Arab part, simply because none of the people living in that section were Jewish. In 1948, the Zionist leadership in Palestine declared independence and founded the state of Israel, but even though they had lobbied heavily for passage of the UN partition plan, they did not accept its borders. Among their expansion campaigns, they pushed down the coast, compressing the Gaza Strip to half of its original size, and more than doubling its population with refugees.
When the 1949 armistice agreement was signed, the compressed Gaza was ceded to Egypt, but unlike Jordan (which claimed the West Bank and East Jerusalem) Egypt made no effort to annex Gaza. It was kept as a trust, preserving its makeshift refugee camps as a continuing marker of the injustice of Israel's refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their native country. Israel invaded Egypt in 1967, seizing Gaza and Sinai up to the Suez Canal. In 1979, Egypt signed a treaty with Israel which Sinai to Egypt, making it whole again, but Israel kept Gaza, placing it under military occupation. In 1993, under the Oslo Accords, Israel subcontracted its occupation to Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority while keeping Gaza sealed off from the rest of the world. In 2005, Ariel Sharon dismantled the few settlements that Israelis had established in Gaza, reducing its on-ground presence to zero, while still controlling the air space, the sea, and borders, with the entire land border surrounded by high security fences. The net effect was to turn Gaza into a 365 square mile open air prison, holding 1.7 million people.
Conditions in Gaza have been dire since 1948, but they deteriorated markedly after 2007. In 2006, the Palestinian Authority held parliamentary elections, which were won by Hamas. Israel, supported strongly by the US, attempted to overturn the elections, most dramatically by staging a coup to seize power in Gaza. That coup failed, resulting in Hamas seizing control in Gaza. Israel responded by tightening its economic stranglehold. Gazans sought relief by digging tunnels to smuggle goods in from Egypt -- under Mubarak, Egypt was tightly complicit with Israel in isolating Gaza (a relationship that is changing as Egypt becomes more democratic). Outsiders have attempted to deliver supplies by boat into Gaza -- Israel continues to prevent them, sometimes violently.
The Palestinian in Gaza are not part of a monolithic mindset, any more than Israelis or Americans are, but they all start out with the shared experience of Israeli containment. (Occupation may no longer be the right word as it implies boots on the ground and on your neck, but Israel controls the flow of goods and people, and always threatens death from the sky, a situation that often amounts to a siege.) Faced with Israeli oppression, some people will inevitably try to fight back, some will resist non-violently, some will capitulate, some will attempt to profit, some will be confused, and many will vacillate between these strategies, especially since none have been proven to work. (Israel, as a government, has its own options and policies, but mostly they act from strength which they underscore by frequent violence -- a lesson that no Palestinian is unaware of.)
Israel's current "Operation Pillar of Defense" started on Nov. 14 with an Israeli airstrike that assassinated Ahmed Jaabari, reportedly the head of the military wing of Hamas, also killing his son and others. The stated reason for the operation was to clamp down on rockets fired by Gazan "militants" into southern Israel, so the assassination was followed up by Israel bombing hundreds of sites in Gaza. The response, of course, was that those "militants" shot off more rockets in three days than they had in the past six months. (Here is a list; I haven't found a corresponding list of Israeli bombings and shellings of Gaza, but a timeline should show that they match up, with Israeli attacks most often provoking the rocket barrages.)
I don't in any way approve of shooting rockets from Gaza into Israel, but it is easy to understand the attraction. For starters, there is Israel's blockade meant to damage, demean, control, and sometimes just punish 1.7 million people, and the most visible symbol of that blockade is the wall that makes Israel impenetrable from Gaza. The main thing a rocket can do is what no Gazan can do: leap over the wall. The tiny, primitive Qassam rockets can't do much more than that: they have no guidance system, they rarely hit anyone or anything, and they don't do much damage when they do, but Israel likes to play the victim and the rocket attacks make for good publicity, so they play them up, harp on the fear they stoke, constantly reminding anyone who'll listen about the Palestinian commitment to killing Jews. (Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, recently described the rockets as "more than a crude attempt to kill and terrorize civilians -- they were expressions of a genocidal intent.") Of course, good publicity for Israel is bad for the Palestinians, but those who shoot off the rockets at least can take some satisfaction in how much they are getting under their enemies' thin skins. For your basic Gazan "militant," shooting off a rocket is a way to get noticed, to stand up to the oppressor, and make them recognize you.
Gaza has been under Israel's control since 1967, but this week's level of hostilities is unusual -- much greater than a similar clash in March, probably more deadly than any time since January 2009, when Israel's Operation Cast Lead actually invaded Gaza, killing 1,417 Palestinians (IDF figures: 1,166; Israel lost 13, 10 of those soldiers, 4 of those due to "friendly fire"; the operation actually started Dec. 27, 2008, and ended Jan. 18, 2009). It seems far from coincidental that both operations started soon after US presidential elections and shortly before Israeli elections. In 2008 it seemed likely that Israel wanted to get her kicks in before Obama took office in case he was inclined to caution -- the net effect was that Bush let Israel go on long enough to embarrass themselves with their brutality while Obama was held speechless, the first of many humiliations America's dearest ally inflicted on him. This time the US election probably didn't matter. (What may matter is that the "militants" were able to fire some new, larger Iranian rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, previously well out of range -- not much of a threat, but it does play into Netanyahu's desire for starting a war between the US and Iran.)
Israel's prime ministers changed between the two operations, but the Defense Minister remained the same: Ehud Barak, the former PM who was elected in 1998 to finish up the Oslo Accords and who wound up destroying the last (at least the latest) good chance we had of resolving the conflict. When Barak was defeated in 2001, George Bush's view was that, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things," and Ariel Sharon indulged him, plunging the conflict into the murk of endless reprisals and posturing, where it remains today. In 1967 it seemed quite simple to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict: Israel would give up its newly conquered territories in exchange for peace treaties, a solution that was codified in two UN resolutions, backed by the US and even (with some weasel wording) Israel. Eventually all of the Arab nations, including the Palestinians, came around to that view, but by then Israel and the US (Sharon and Bush) had moved on, thinking they could solve all their problems with a resolute show of force.
That commitment to force is why Israel is fighting its third Gaza War since 2006 (not counting hundreds of skirmishes in a neverending war of attrition). One popular definition of insanity is the belief that repeating a strategy will somehow produce a different result. By that criteria, Netanyahu and Barak clearly are insane -- their sole out is to realize that they are in fact getting the result they want: that by periodically shaking the hornet's nest they get to keep the conflict's definition tied to relative strength, and away from basic human rights.
There is a simple solution here, one so simple it's amazing that no one talks about it. Due to Israel's settlement activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem, it's become very difficult for Israel and the Palestinians to sort out a fair and equitable division of lands there, and indeed they may never be able to clean up the mess that Israel's illegal settlement program has made. But relative interests in Gaza are totally clear: Israel has no settlements within Gaza, and no desire to ever extent Israeli citizenship to Gaza's residents. Therefore, why not hand Gaza over to the UN to organize elections and secure its status as an independent nation?
I don't want to have to rehash all of Israel's security issues about an independent Gaza (or Palestinian) state: they are easily dismissed on many grounds. And other than security, what is there? Water, I suppose. A very trivial bit of economic advantage Israel enjoys. And it would involve "agreeing to disagree" on unresolved issues, like the "right of return" and the relationship between Gaza and Palestinian enclaves in the Occupied Territories, but independence would eliminate more than 90% of the reason Gazans have to be "militant" -- some may still bear grudges over not being able to return to their ancestors' homes and land, but that is fading, and will fade faster without the constant reminder of Israel's military dominance.
I've been trying to think of "out of the box" solutions to the broader conflict here. Some basic ideas: do what you can when you can, and don't let it prejudice the future; try to convert issues into things that can be solved with money, and apply lots of money to them; forget about who was at fault in the past; kick the stuff you can't agree on far down the road; but keep your eye on the one fundamental goal, which is that in the end everyone should wind up with full and equal rights in a secure state. Gaza, which Israel has no real interest in, is the simplest case: break it loose, open it up, rebuild, legitimize its government, and expect it to live in peace, minding its own business. The other problems are messier, and will take time and fresh thinking. But Gaza is easy.
Conversely, Israel's habitual practice of attempting to beat the Gazans into submission only leads to more war, more ill feeling, more injustice. Israel's militarist elite have deluded themselves into believing that disproportionate force works (see this useful "fact sheet" on their Dahiya Doctrine, which only goes back to 1987, but bear in mind that Ariel Sharon first became a popular public figure in Israel by leading the 1951 Qibya attack, a classic case of overkill excused as retribution). Israelis view their carpet bombing of the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut as the key victory in their 2006 war against Hezbollah -- the explanation as to why Hezbollah hasn't attacked Israel in the years since. The 2006 war was at the time regarded as a huge fiasco: Hezbollah's rockets (far more numerous and powerful than anything Gaza possesses) were ineffective, but Hezbollah was very successful at repelling Israeli efforts to invade southern Lebanon, and Hezbollah was more effective than the government at providing relief for those neighborhoods leveled by Israel's air barrage, so the consensus opinion at the time was that Hezbollah came out of the war stronger. The more likely reason why the Israel-Lebanon border has remained quiet is that Israel hasn't provoked another war there.
It is true that Hezbollah hasn't provoked Israel into another war either. But the reason isn't fear of Israel so much as the fact that Lebanon is an independent country, with a democratic political system that Hezbollah participates in but doesn't dominate, and a functioning economy connected to the rest of the world. Hezbollah doesn't have to fire rockets to remind the world that Israel has locked them up in a cage, because Israel hasn't. (That Israel has cast a pallor of terror over the nation is another story, but lately in remission. It may still inspire some "militants," but they are kept in check by an organization that has a stake in the system, and in keeping the peace.)
Gaza could be peaceful too, but only if Israel leaves it alone (or works with it constructively). What Israel should be worried about is that it's going to happen anyway. Egyptian complicity in sealing off and strangling Gaza is no longer automatic: that border has started to open up, and will become more so -- among other things, that makes it easier to smuggle more deadly weapons in (something Iran has little motivation not to indulge). Foreign investment money has started to trickle into Gaza. Before long, the Strip will be a de facto independent state, recognized by many countries, perhaps even by the UN. By then this Operation will look like a last, futile attempt to stem the path to freedom. And unless they stop real soon, this will be another chapter in Israel's senseless brutality toward its neighbors and, indeed, toward its own people. The problem with violence is not just what it does to its victims, but the monsters it makes of its perpetrators.
 Quoted by Paul Woodward. He also quotes Phan Nguyen calculating how many rockets it would take, given their general ineffectiveness, to kill off the Jewish population of Israel: nearly 4.5 billion rockets. Woodward's statistic is that Gaza rockets have killed an average of 2 Israelis per year over the last 12 years. The latest figure I have for the current operation is that 3 Israelis have been killed by more than 740 rockets and mortar shells. During the same time, 46 Palestinians were killed (including 22 "militants").
By the way, the Phan Nguyen piece, Dissecting IDF Propaganda: The Numbers Behind the Rocket Attacks, goes way beyond the calculations cited above, providing a list of Israelis killed by rockets and mortar fire from Gaza, looking into the timing of the launches, and picking over IDF propaganda on the attacks.
 Quoted in Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine.
I used Saturday's Wikipedia figures on Operation Pillar of Defense. Finishing this up on Sunday, so the current tragic numbers keep climbing.
On Nov. 16, Paul Woodward noted that:
Stephen Walt quotes larger figures from B'tselem: "Israel has killed 319 Palestinians since Cast Lead in 2009, while Palestinians have killed 20 Israelis."
For whatever it's worth, the "stone age" experiment has already been tried, in Afghanistan, and guess what? You can destroy every shred of civilization, wipe out the economy, put people into the dark, keep them ignorant and unaware, and the only things they'll still be able to do are shoot rockets and improvise bombs.
However, the other thing about the "stone age" is that at that level of technology and social organization it is impossible to keep 1.7 million people alive in 365 square miles: reducing Gaza to a "stone age" place would either directly or indirectly amount to genocide. Is that what Israelis really want? Rabbi Yaakov Yosef would rather get it done with faster. Follow the links there for more, including Eli Yishal, Israel's Interior Minister -- inside the government, presumably someone in the know -- saying, "The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages."
A few more links consulted:
Quote from the Levy article, cited above:
Quote from the Walt article, cited above:
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