Book Extract: Israel’s Assault on Gaza – A Case of Self-Defence?
Below is an extract from Norman Finkelstein’s new book on Israel’s 2009 assault on Gaza, ‘This Time We Went Too Far’. The book is available exclusively from OR Books at www.orbooks.com”.
What do you feel is the most acceptable solution to the Palestine problem?
The abandonment wholly by the Jews of terrorism and other forms of violence. (1 June 1947)
On 29 November 1947 the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution dividing British-mandated Palestine into a Jewish state incorporating 56 percent of Palestine and an Arab state incorporating 44 percent of it. In the ensuing war the newly born State of Israel expanded its borders to incorporate nearly 80 percent of Palestine. The only areas of Palestine not conquered comprised the West Bank, which the Kingdom of Jordan subsequently annexed, and the Gaza Strip, which came under Egypt’s administrative control. Approximately 250,000 Palestinians driven out of their homes during the 1948 war and its aftermath fled to Gaza and overwhelmed the indigenous population of some 80,000.
Today 80 percent of Gaza’s inhabitants consist of refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, and more than half of the population is under 18 years of age. Its current 1.5 million inhabitants are squeezed into a sliver of land 25 miles long and five miles wide, making Gaza one of the most densely populated places in the world. The panhandle of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza is bordered by Israel on the north and east, Egypt on the south, and the Mediterranean Sea on the west. In the course of its four-decade-long occupation beginning in June 1967, and prior to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s redeployment of Israeli troops from inside Gaza to its perimeter in 2005, Israel had imposed on Gaza a uniquely exploitive regime of “de-development” that, in the words of Harvard political economist Sara Roy, deprived “the native population of its most important economic resources—land, water, and labor—as well as the internal capacity and potential for developing those resources.”
The road to modern Gaza’s desperate plight is paved with many previous atrocities, most long forgotten or never known outside Palestine. After the cessation of battlefield hostilities in 1949, Egypt kept a tight rein on the activity of Fedayeen (Palestinian guerrillas) in Gaza until February 1955, when Israel launched a bloody cross-border raid into Gaza killing 40 Egyptians. Israeli leaders had plotted to lure Egypt into war in order to topple President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the Gaza raid proved the perfect provocation as armed border clashes escalated. In October 1956 Israel (in collusion with Great Britain and France) invaded the Egyptian Sinai and occupied Gaza, which it had long coveted. The prominent Israeli historian Benny Morris described what happened next:
Many Fedayeen and an estimated 4,000 Egyptian and Palestinian regulars were trapped in the Strip, identified, and rounded up by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], GSS [General Security Service], and police. Dozens of these Fedayeen appear to have been summarily executed, without trial. Some were probably killed during two massacres by the IDF troops soon after the occupation of the Strip. On 3 November, the day Khan Yunis was conquered, IDF troops shot dead hundreds of Palestinian refugees and local inhabitants in the town. One U.N. report speaks of “some 135 local residents” and “140 refugees” killed as IDF troops moved through the town and its refugee camp “searching for people in possession of arms.”
In Rafah, which fell to the IDF on 1–2 November, Israeli troops killed between forty-eight and one hundred refugees and several local residents, and wounded another sixty-one during a massive screening operation on 12 November, in which they sought to identify former Egyptian and Palestinian soldiers and Fedayeen hiding among the local population. …
Another sixty-six Palestinians, probably Fedayeen, were executed in a number of other incidents during screening operations in the Gaza Strip between 2 and 20 November. …
The United Nations estimated that, all told, Israeli troops killed between 447 and 550 Arab civilians in the first three weeks of the occupation of the Strip.
In March 1957 Israel was forced to withdraw from Gaza after U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower applied heavy diplomatic pressure and threatened economic sanctions.
Current conditions in Gaza result directly from the events of 1967. In the course of the June 1967 war Israel reoccupied the Gaza Strip (along with the West Bank) and has remained the occupying power ever since. Morris reported that “the overwhelming majority of West Bank and Gaza Arabs from the first hated the occupation”; that “Israel intended to stay. . . and its rule would not be overthrown or ended through civil disobedience and civil resistance, which were easily crushed. The only real option was armed struggle”; that “like all occupations, Israel’s was founded on brute force, repression and fear, collaboration and treachery, beatings and torture chambers, and daily intimidation, humiliation, and manipulation”; and that the occupation “was always a brutal and mortifying experience for the occupied.”
From the start, Palestinians have fought back against the Israeli occupation. Gazans have put up particularly stiff unarmed and armed resistance, while Israeli repression has proven equally unremitting. In 1969 Ariel Sharon became chief of the IDF southern command and not long after embarked on a campaign to crush the resistance in Gaza. A leading American academic specialist on Gaza recalled how Sharon
placed refugee camps under twenty-four-hour curfews, during which troops conducted house-to-house searches and mustered all the men in the central square for questioning. Many men were forced to stand waist-deep in the Mediterranean Sea for hours during the searches. In addition, some twelve thousand members of families of suspected guerrillas were deported to detention camps … in Sinai. Within a few weeks, the Israeli press began to criticize the soldiers and border police for beating people, shooting into crowds, smashing belongings in houses, and imposing extreme restrictions during curfews. … In July 1971, Sharon added the tactic of “thinning out” the refugee camps. The military uprooted more than thirteen thousand residents by the end of August. The army bulldozed wide roads through the camps and through some citrus groves, thus making it easier for mechanized units to operate and for the infantry to control the camps. … The army crackdown broke the back of the resistance.
In December 1987 a traffic accident on the Gaza-Israel border that left four Palestinians dead erupted into a mass rebellion or intifada against Israeli rule throughout the occupied territories. Morris recalled, “It was not an armed rebellion but a massive, persistent campaign of civil resistance, with strikes and commercial shutdowns, accompanied by violent (though unarmed) demonstrations against the occupying forces. The stone and, occasionally, the Molotov cocktail and knife were its symbols and weapons, not guns and bombs.” However it could not be said that Israel reacted in kind. Morris continued: “Almost everything was tried: shooting to kill, shooting to injure, beatings, mass arrests, torture, trials, administrative detention, and economic sanctions”; “A large proportion of the Palestinian dead were not shot in life-threatening situations, and a great many of these were children”; “Only a small minority of [the IDF] malefactors were brought to book by the army’s legal machinery—and were almost always let off with ludicrously light sentences.”
By the early 1990s Israel had successfully repressed the intifada. It subsequently entered into an agreement secretly negotiated in Oslo, Norway, with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and ratified in September 1993 on the White House lawn. Through the Oslo Accord Israel hoped to streamline the occupation by removing its troops from direct contact with Palestinians and replacing them with Palestinian subcontractors. “One of the meanings of Oslo,” former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote, “was that the PLO was … Israel’s collaborator in the task of stifling the [first] intifada and cutting short what was clearly an authentically democratic struggle for Palestinian independence.” In particular Israel endeavored to reassign Palestinians the sordid work of occupation. “The idea of Oslo,” former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky observed, “was to find a strong dictator to … keep the Palestinians under control.” “The Palestinians will be better at establishing internal security than we were,” Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin informed skeptics in his ranks, “because they will allow no appeals to the Supreme Court and will prevent [groups like] the Association for Civil Rights in Israel from criticizing the conditions there … They will rule by their own methods, freeing, and this is most important, the Israeli soldiers from having to do what they will do.”
In July 2000 PLO head Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak joined U.S. President Bill Clinton at Camp David to negotiate a settlement of the conflict. The summit collapsed amid acrimonious accusations and counteraccusations. “If I were a Palestinian,” Ben-Ami, one of Israel’s chief negotiators at Camp David, later commented, “I would have rejected Camp David as well,” while a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies concluded that the “substantial concessions” Israel demanded of Palestinians at Camp David “were not acceptable and could not be acceptable.” Subsequent negotiations also failed to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough. In December 2000 Clinton presented his “parameters” for resolving the conflict, which both sides accepted with reservations. In January 2001 talks resumed in Taba, Egypt. Although both parties affirmed that “significant progress had been made” and they had “never been closer to agreement,” Prime Minister Barak unilaterally “called a halt” to these negotiations, and as a result “the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had ground to an indefinite halt.”
In September 2000, amid these diplomatic parleys, Palestinians in the occupied territories once again launched an open rebellion. Like the 1987 rebellion this second intifada at its inception was overwhelmingly nonviolent. However, in Ben- Ami’s words, “Israel’s disproportionate response to what had started as a popular uprising with young, unarmed men confronting Israeli soldiers armed with lethal weapons fuelled the [second] intifada beyond control and turned it into an all-out war.” It is now largely forgotten that the first Hamas suicide bombing of the second intifada did not occur until five months into Israel’s relentless bloodletting. (Israeli forces fired one million rounds of ammunition in just the first few days, while the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed during the first weeks was 20:1.) In the course of the spiraling violence triggered by its “disproportionate response,” Israel struck Gaza with particular vengeance. In a cruel reworking of Ecclesiastes, each turn of season presaged yet another Israeli attack on Gaza that left scores dead and much destroyed: “Operation Rainbow” (2004), “Operation Days of Penitence” (2004), “Operation Summer Rains” (2006), “Operation Autumn Clouds” (2006), “Operation Hot Winter” (2008).
Despite the Israeli assaults, Gaza continued to roil. Already at the time of the Oslo Accord this intractability caused Israel to sour on the Strip. “If only it would just sink into the sea,” Rabin despaired. In April 2004 Prime Minister Sharon announced that Israel would “disengage” from Gaza, and by September 2005 both Israeli troops and Jewish settlers had been pulled out. In an interview Sharon advisor Dov Weisglass laid out the rationale behind the disengagement: it would relieve international, especially American, pressure on Israel, thereby “freezing … the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.” Roy observed that “with the disengagement from Gaza, the Sharon government was clearly seeking to preclude any return to political negotiations … while preserving and deepening its hold on Palestine.” Israel subsequently declared that it was no longer the occupying power in Gaza. However, human rights organizations and international institutions rejected this contention because in myriad ways Israel still preserved near-total dominance of the Strip. “Whether the Israeli army is inside Gaza or redeployed around its periphery,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded, “it remains in control.”
The received wisdom is that the Oslo Accord was a failure because it did not result in a lasting peace. But such a verdict misconstrues the objective of the accord. If Israel’s goal was, as Ben-Ami pointed out, to groom a class of Palestinian collaborators, then Oslo was largely a success for Israelis. A look at the Oslo II Accord, signed in September 1995 and spelling out in detail the mutual rights and duties of the contracting parties to the 1993 agreement, suggests what loomed largest in the minds of the Palestinian negotiators: whereas four full pages are devoted to “Passage of [Palestinian] VIPs” (the section is subdivided into “Category 1 VIPs,” “Category 2 VIPs,” “Category 3 VIPs,” and “Secondary VIPs”), less than one page—the very last—is devoted to “Release of Palestinian Prisoners and Detainees,” who numbered in the many thousands.
The Oslo Accord allotted a five-year interim period allegedly for “confidence building” between the former foes. This was curious, given that when and where Israel genuinely sought peace the process moved swiftly. Thus, for decades Egypt was Israel’s prime nemesis in the Arab world, and it was Egypt that launched a surprise attack in 1973, killing thousands of Israeli soldiers. Nevertheless, only a half year elapsed between the September 1978 Camp David summit convened by U.S. President Jimmy Carter that produced the Egyptian Israeli “Framework for Peace” and the March 1979 “Treaty of Peace” formally ending hostilities. Only three more years passed before Israel’s final evacuation from the Egyptian Sinai in April 1982. There was no need for a half decade of confidence building in Egypt’s case.
In reality the purpose of the protracted interim period built into Oslo was not confidence building to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement but collaboration building to facilitate a burden-free Israeli occupation. It was rightly supposed that, after growing accustomed to the emoluments of power and privilege, the handful of Palestinian beneficiaries would be averse to parting with them and, however reluctantly, would do the bidding of the power that meted out the largesse. The interim period also enabled Israel to test the reliability of these Palestinian subcontractors as crises periodically erupted. The one holdout in the senior ranks of the Palestinian leadership was Arafat who, for all his opportunism, seems to have carried in him a residue of his nationalist past and would not settle for presiding over a Bantustan. Once he passed from the scenein November 2004, however, all the pieces were in place for the “Palestinian Authority” to reach a modus vivendi with Israel. Except that it was too late.
In January 2006, sickened by years of official corruption, the Palestinians elected the Islamic movement Hamas into office. Israel immediately tightened its blockade on Gaza and the U.S. joined in. It was demanded of the newly elected government that it renounce violence and recognize Israel together with prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements. These preconditions for international engagement were unilateral: Israel wasn’t also required to renounce violence; Israel wasn’t required to withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967 and to allow for Palestinians to exercise their right to self-determination; and whereas Hamas was required to recognize prior agreements such as the Oslo Accord, which perpetuated the occupation and enabled Israel to vastly increase its illegal settlements, Israel was free to eviscerate prior agreements such as the 2003 “Road Map.”
In June 2007 Hamas foiled a coup attempt orchestrated by the United States in league with Israel and elements of the prior Palestinian regime and consolidated its control of Gaza.23 Israel and the United States reacted promptly to Hamas’s rejection of U.S. President George W. Bush’s “democracy promotion” initiative by further tightening the screws on Gaza. In June 2008 Hamas and Israel entered into a ceasefire brokered by Egypt, but in November of that year Israel violated the ceasefire by carrying out a bloody border raid on Gaza akin to its February 1955 border raid. The objective once again was to provoke retaliation and thereby provide the pretext for an attack.
That border raid was only the preamble to a more sustained assault. On 27 December 2008 Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead.” The first week consisted of air attacks, which were followed on 3 January 2009 by an air and ground assault. Piloting the most advanced combat aircraft in the world, the Israeli air corps flew nearly 3,000 sorties over Gaza and dropped 1,000 tons of explosives, while the Israeli army deployment comprised several brigades equipped with sophisticated intelligence-gathering systems and weaponry such as robotic and TV-aided remote controlled guns. During the attack Palestinian armed groups fired some 570 mostly rudimentary rockets and 200 mortars into Israel. On 18 January a ceasefire went into effect, but the economic strangulation of Gaza continued. In the meantime international public opinion reacted with horror at Israel’s assault on a defenseless civilian population. In September 2009 a United Nations Human Rights Council Fact Finding Mission chaired by the respected jurist Richard Goldstone released a voluminous report documenting Israel’s commission of massive war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. The report also accused Hamas of committing similar crimes, but on a scale that paled by comparison. It was clear that, in the words of Israeli columnist Gideon Levy, “this time we went too far.”
Israel officially justified Operation Cast Lead on the grounds of self-defense against Hamas rocket attacks. Such a rationale did not however withstand even superficial scrutiny. If Israel had wanted to avert the Hamas rocket attacks, it would not have triggered them by breaking the June 2008 ceasefire with Hamas. Israel also could have opted for renewing—and then honoring—the ceasefire. Indeed, as a former Israeli intelligence officer told the International Crisis Group, “The ceasefire options on the table after the war were in place there before it.” More broadly, Israel could have reached a diplomatic settlement with the Palestinian leadership that resolved the conflict and terminated armed hostilities. Insofar as the declared objective of Operation Cast Lead was to destroy the “infrastructure of terrorism,” Israel’s alibi of self-defense appeared even less credible after the invasion: overwhelmingly it targeted not Hamas strongholds but “decidedly ‘non-terrorist,’ non-Hamas” sites. I will return to many of these points presently. It is useful however to first put Israel’s claim of self-defense in the wider context of its human rights record in the Occupied Palestinian Territories just prior to the invasion.
The 2008 annual report of B’Tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) indicated that between 1 January and 26 December 2008 Israeli security forces killed 455 Palestinians, of whom at least 175 did not take part in hostilities, while Palestinians killed 31 Israelis of whom 21 were civilians. Thus, on the eve of Israel’s so-called war of self-defense, the ratio of total Palestinians to Israelis killed was almost 15:1 and the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli noncombatants killed was a minimum of 8:1. In Gaza alone Israel killed at least 158 noncombatants in 2008 until 26 December, while seven Israeli civilians were killed due to Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza, which means the ratio was more than 22:1. (Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza killed 21 Israelis between when they began in 2001 and January 2009. In the three-year period after its 2005 redeployment to Gaza’s perimeter, the Israeli army killed about 1,250 Gazans, including 222 children, while Palestinian rocket fire killed 11 Israelis.)
Israel loudly protested because Hamas held one Israeli soldier who had been captured in June 2006, yet Israel held more than 8,000 Palestinian “political prisoners,” including 60 women and 390 children, of whom 548 were held in administrative detention without charges or trial, 42 of them for more than two years. In addition, Israel exacerbated its “sweeping restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents of the West Bank”; expanded illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which together now contain nearly a half million illegal Jewish settlers; confiscated more West Bank land causing “serious harm to Palestinians . . . who are no longer able to work their land and gain a livelihood from it”; “prevent[ed] any possibility of development and construction” in Palestinian communities; distributed water in a discriminatory manner (although the Palestinian population in the West Bank is nine times the illegal Jewish settler population, its total water allocation is much smaller); and continued construction of a wall that will annex almost 12 percent of the West Bank despite the July 2004 International Court of Justice advisory opinion declaring the wall illegal.
As already noted, in January 2006 Hamas won Palestinian elections that were widely recognized as “completely honest and fair” (Jimmy Carter). Israel and the U.S. reacted by imposing an economic blockade on Gaza. In June 2007 Hamas foiled a putsch orchestrated by the U.S., Israel, and elements of the Palestinian Authority. “When Hamas preempts it,” a senior Israeli intelligence figure later scoffed, “everyone cries foul, claiming it’s a military putsch by Hamas—but who did the putsch?” Although he reviled Hamas as “cruel, disgusting and filled with hatred for Israel,” an editor at Israel’s largest circulation newspaper Yediot Ahronot nonetheless observed that it “did not ‘seize control’ of Gaza. It took the action needed to enforce its authority, disarming and destroying a militia that refused to bow to its authority.” After the abortive putsch Israel intensified its blockade, which “amounts to collective punishment, a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”
In mid-December 2008 the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published a study entitled “The Impact of the Blockade on the Gaza Strip: A human dignity crisis.” It reported that Israel’s “18-monthlong blockade has created a profound human dignity crisis, leading to a widespread erosion of livelihoods and a significant deterioration in infrastructure and essential services.” As a direct consequence of the blockade, many Gaza residents were left without electricity for up to 16 hours each day and received water only once a week for a few hours (80 percent of the water did not meet the World Health Organization standards for drinking); nearly 50 percent of the population was left unemployed, and more than 50 percent of the population was “food insecure”; 20 percent of “essential drugs” were “at zero level” and more than 20 percent of patients suffering from cancer, heart disease, and other severe conditions were unable to get permits for medical care abroad. Many Palestinians, the study concluded, “reported a growing sense of being trapped, physically, intellectually and emotionally.” To judge by the human rights record, and leaving aside that it was Israel that broke the June 2008 ceasefire, it would appear that the Palestinians had a much stronger case than Israel for resorting to armed force in self-defense at the end of December 2008.
For footnotes, see the full text.
Copyright Norman G. Finkelstein
First published by OR Books, New York, 2010
Posted on March 7, 2010, in Anti-Police, Anti-War & Anti-Imperialism, Imperialism & Colonialism and tagged The Middle East. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Book Extract: Israel’s Assault on Gaza – A Case of Self-Defence?.