LRB contributors react to events in Gaza

Contributors to the London Review of Books — the best publication out there — react to events in Gaza.

Tariq Ali

A few weeks before the assault on Gaza, the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army published alevelheaded document on ‘Hamas and Israel’, which argued that ‘Israel’s stance towards the democratically-elected Palestinian government headed by Hamas in 2006, and towards Palestinian national coherence – legal, territorial, political and economic – has been a major obstacle to substantive peacemaking.’ Whatever their reservations about the organisation, the authors of the paper detected signs that Hamas was considering a shift of position even before the blockade:

It is frequently stated that Israel or the United States cannot ‘meet’ with Hamas (although meeting is not illegal; materially aiding terrorism is, if proven) because the latter will not ‘recognise Israel’. In contrast, the PLO has ‘recognised’ Israel’s right to exist and agreed in principle to bargain for significantly less land than the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it is not clear that Israel has ever agreed to accept a Palestinian state. The recognition of Israel did not bring an end to violence, as wings of various factions of the PLO did fight Israelis, especially at the height of the Second (al- Aqsa) Intifada. Recognition of Israel by Hamas, in the way that it is described in the Western media, cannot serve as a formula for peace. Hamas moderates have, however, signaled that it implicitly recognises Israel, and that even a tahdiya (calming, minor truce) or a hudna, a longer-term truce, obviously implies recognition. Khalid Mish’al states: ‘We are realists,’ and there is ‘an entity called Israel,’ but ‘realism does not mean that you have to recognise the legitimacy of the occupation.’

The war on Gaza has killed the two-state solution by making it clear to Palestinians that the only acceptable Palestine would have fewer rights than the Bantustans created by apartheid South Africa. The only acceptable alternative is a single state for Jews and Palestinians with equal rights for all. Certainly it seems utopian at the moment with the two Palestinian parties in Israel – Balad and the United Arab List – both barred from contesting the February elections. Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu, has breathed a sigh of satisfaction: ‘Now that it has been decided that the Balad terrorist organisation will not be able to run, the first battle is over.’ But even victory has its drawbacks. After the Six-Day War in 1967, Isaac Deutscher warned his one-time friend Ben Gurion: ‘The Germans have summed up their own experience in the bitter phrase “Mann kann sich totseigen!” — you can triumph yourself to death. This is what the Israelis have been doing. They have bitten off much more than they can swallow.’

Five hundred courageous Israelis have sent a letter to Western embassies calling for sanctions and other measures to be applied against their country, echoing the 2005 call by numerous Palestinian organisations for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on the South African model. This will not happen overnight but it is the only non-violent way to help the struggle for freedom and equality in Israel-Palestine.

Tariq Ali’s latest book is The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power.

David Bromwich

Like the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, the rockets from Gaza were a choice of tactics of a spectacular vengefulness. The spectacle was greater than the damage: no Israeli had been killed by a rocket before the Israel Defence Forces launched their assault. Yet the idea of rockets falling induces terror, whereas the idea of an army invading a neighbouring territory has an official sound. The numbers of the dead – as of 13 January, more than 900 Palestinians and fewer than 20 Israelis – tell a different story. Many people remain unmoved by the tremendous disproportion because they cannot get the image of rockets out of their heads.

In the United States, since this one-sided war began on 27 December, facts are not suppressed but fiction pervades the commentary. We are offered an analogy: what would Americans do if rockets were fired from Canada or Cuba? The question has been repeated with docility by congressional leaders of both parties; but the rockets are assumed to come suddenly without cause. The choking of the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air, the rejection by the US of the Palestinian Unity Government, the coup launched by Fatah and bankrolled by the US, which ended in the one-party seizure of power by Hamas – all of this happened before the rockets fell from the sky. It is as if it belonged to a prehistoric time.

American politicians exhibit an identification with Israel that is now in excess of the measurable effects of the Israel lobby. The blindness of the identification has led the US to respond with keen sensitivity to Israeli requests for assistance and moral support, and to underrate the suffering caused by the Gaza blockade and by the settlements and checkpoints and the wall on the West Bank. Yet grant the potency of the lobby and the identification – even so, the arrogance with which Israel dictates policy is hard to comprehend on the usual index of motives. Ehud Olmert boasted to a crowd in Ashkelon on 12 January that with one phone call to Bush, he forced Condoleezza Rice to abstain from voting for the UN ceasefire resolution she herself had prepared. The depth, the efficacy, and the immediacy of the influence are treated by Olmert as an open secret.

To judge by the nomination of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and of Dennis Ross as Middle East envoy, Obama wants to be seen as someone who intends no major change of course. In a televised interview on 11 January, he said he would deal with Israel and Palestine in the manner of the Clinton and Bush administrations. The unhappy message of his recent utterances has been reconciliation without truth; and reconciliation, above all, for Americans. This preference for bringing-together over bringing-to-light is a trait of Obama’s political character we are only now coming to see the extent of. It is an element – until lately an unperceived element – of a certain native moderation of temper that is likely to mark his presidency. Yet his silence on Gaza has been startling, even immoderate. The ascent of Barack Obama was connected in the world as well as in the US with peculiar and passionate hopes, and his chances of emerging as a leader of the world are diminished with every passing day of silence.

David Bromwich teaches English at Yale.

Alastair Crooke

‘We have to ask the West a question: when the Israelis bombed the house of Sheikh Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader, killing him, his wives, his nine children, and killing 19 others who happened to live in adjoining houses – because they saw him as a target – was this terrorism? If the West’s answer is that this was not terrorism, it was self-defence – then we must think to adopt this definition too.’

This was said to me by a leading Islamist in Beirut a few days ago. He was making a point, but behind his rhetorical question plainly lies the deeper issue of what the Gaza violence will signify for mainstream Islamists in the future.

Take Egypt. Mubarak has made no secret of his wish to see Israel teach Hamas a ‘lesson’. Hamas are sure that his officials urged Israel to proceed, assuring Amos Yadlin, Israel’s Head of Military Intelligence, at a meeting in Cairo that Hamas would collapse within three days of the Israeli onslaught.

Islamists in Egypt and other pro-Western ‘moderate’ alliance states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan have noted Israel’s wanton disregard for the deaths of civilians in its desire to crush Hamas. They have seen the barely concealed pleasure of the regimes that run those states. The message is clear: the struggle for the future of this region is going to be uncompromising and bloody.

For all Islamists, the events in Gaza will be definitive: they will tell the story of a heroic stand in the name of justice against overwhelming odds. This archetype was already in place on the day of Ashura – which fell this year on 7 January — when Shi’ites everywhere commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, killed by an overwhelming military force at Kerbala. The speeches given by Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary general, were avidly followed; the ceremony of Ashura drove home the message of martyrdom and sacrifice.

Islamists are likely to conclude from Gaza that Arab regimes backed by the US and some European states will go to any lengths in their struggle against Islamism. Many Sunni Muslims will turn to the salafi-jihadists, al-Qaida included, who warned Hamas and others about the kind of punishment being visited on them now. Mainstream movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbullah will find it hard to resist the radical trend. The middle ground is eroding fast.

At one level Gaza will be seen as a repeat of Algeria. At another, it will speak to wider struggles in the Arab world, where elites favoured by the West soldier on with no real legitimacy, while the weight of support for change builds up. The overhang may persist for a while yet, but a small event could trip the avalanche.

Alastair Crooke is co-director of Conflicts Forum and has been an EU mediator with Hamas and other Islamist movements. Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution will come out next month.

Conor Gearty

It is just possible the killings in Gaza may mark the end of Israel’s disastrous plunge into militant Zionism. The key is Obama: will he collapse under pressure like most of his predecessors, or is there more to him? Let us assume he knows how senseless it is for the US to collude in a crime of the kind going on in Gaza. There are ways of marking this without unleashing the pro-Israeli forces against him at too early a stage.

Clearly the new administration desires to re-engage with the global community and revive its commitment to international law: the ‘war on terror’ will be reconfigured and Guantanamo closed. A rededication of the US to law should also involve a more consensual approach to the UN – Security Council business in particular – including (for example) support for UN investigative missions to regions where egregious violations of human rights and breaches of the UN charter have occurred. It should entail the US signing up to the International Criminal Court – and urging its closest allies to do likewise. Framed in this way, a US engagement in the international human rights agenda would quickly lead to a crucial re-empowerment of the rapporteurs, special representatives, committees of experts and so on who have languished on the margins for so long.

This reformist energy would then need to be backed by mechanisms along the lines of the MacBride principles or the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act linking US financial and military aid to the newly emerging international legal order. The worst offenders against the new dispensation would run the risk of economic and intellectual boycotts. Since its application would be general, Obama could do all this without any mention of Israel, leaving the consequences to be worked through by various bureaucracies, while the phone calls and special pleas are politely fended off with an easy ‘it is out of my hands’. Were pressure from the lobbies to reach dangerous levels, the president might choose to take the issue to the American people, to discuss openly whether Israel should have an exemption from the system of values to which every other genuine ally and the US itself will by then have signed up. That is not likely to be a debate which the Israeli leadership will want.

Conor Gearty, Rausing Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights and professor of human rights law at the LSE, has written a number of books on terrorism and human rights.

R.W. Johnson

The current crisis has probably not changed anything fundamental. As even the more pessimistic Israeli analysts have been noting for some time, the pressure of the crisis has turned many, perhaps most Palestinians into irreconcilable foes of Israel. To that extent the two-state solution, however much the great and good may wish it, gradually becomes less and less of a real solution. The present crisis was probably unavoidable given (a) Iran’s position, (b) the coming Israeli election and (c) the failure of Israel to achieve full-scale victory over Hizbullah last year. That last factor has weighed on all minds, showing Iran how much leverage it had, threatening to turn all Arab-occupied land into rocket-launching grounds and increasing Israeli determination to show that this is a prohibitively expensive option for anyone who opts to host such an exercise. The stalemate seems complete.

I doubt whether Obama will make much difference. His chief of staff is an ex-Israeli soldier and his administration will be heavily in hock to the Israel lobby from day one. Israel may be unhappy that he will talk to Hamas but this unhappiness is quite unnecessary. He is not going to soft-talk them into accepting Israel’s existence and laying down their rockets, so what will such talks really change?

The real key remains US-Iran relations. This was a period in which many expected an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The fact that it has not happened is promising and suggests that the CIA is right to say Iran is not close to having nuclear weapons. As it is the US has hugely strengthened Iran by handing Iraq over to Shi’ites and an Obama administration might try to capitalise on that by making a US-Iranian deal the cornerstone of Middle East politics, thus reducing Syrian, Saudi and Egyptian leverage. Iran would obviously be greatly tempted by such a deal. But if Obama and Ahmadinejad really could reach a deal it would probably be very bad news for both Hizbullah and Hamas, who might get cut off from Iranian aid. If that happens, I can’t see much joy for Palestinian militancy. But if it doesn’t and the US under Obama is left to face an unchanged position, he is bound to end up taking Israel’s side as much as Bush did. Which also doesn’t bode well for militant Palestinians. So whatever happens I’d expect the Palestinians to emerge worse off from this conflict and Israel stronger, though probably less popular.

R.W. Johnson lives in Cape Town.

Yitzhak Laor

We’ve been here before. It’s a ritual. Every two or three years, our military mounts another bloody expedition. The enemy is always smaller, weaker; our military is always larger, technologically more sophisticated, prepared for full-scale war against a full-scale army. But Iran is too scary, and even the relatively small Hizbullah gave us a hard time. That leaves the Palestinians.

Israel is engaged in a long war of annihilation against Palestinian society. The objective is to destroy the Palestinian nation and drive it back into pre-modern groupings based on the tribe, the clan and the enclave. This is the last phase of the Zionist colonial mission, culminating in inaccessible townships, camps, villages, districts, all of them to be walled or fenced off, and patrolled by a powerful army which, in the absence of a proper military objective, is really an over-equipped police force, with F16s, Apaches, tanks, artillery, commando units and hi-tech surveillance at its disposal.

The extent of the cruelty, the lack of shame and the refusal of self-restraint are striking, both in anthropological terms and historically. The worldwide Jewish support for this vandal offensive makes one wonder if this isn’t the moment Zionism is taking over the Jewish people.

But the real issue is that since 1991, and even more since the Oslo agreements in 1993, Israel has played on the idea that it really is trading land for peace, while the truth is very different. Israel has not given up the territories, but cantonised and blockaded them. The new strategy is to confine the Palestinians: they do not belong in our space, they are to remain out of sight, packed into their townships and camps, or swelling our prisons. This project now has the support of most of the Israeli press and academics.

We are the masters. We work and travel. They can make their living by policing their own people. We drive on the highways. They must live across the hills. The hills are ours. So are the fences. We control the roads, and the checkpoints and the borders. We control their electricity, their water, their milk, their oil, their wheat and their gasoline. If they protest peacefully we fire tear gas at them. If they throw stones, we fire bullets. If they launch a rocket, we destroy a house and its inhabitants. If they launch a missile, we destroy families, neighbourhoods, streets, towns.

Israel doesn’t want a Palestinian state alongside it. It is willing to prove this with hundreds of dead and thousands of disabled, in a single ‘operation’. The message is always the same: leave or remain in subjugation, under our military dictatorship. We are a democracy. We have decided democratically that you will live like dogs.

On 27 December just before the bombs started falling on Gaza, the Zionist parties, from Meretz to Yisrael Betenu, were unanimously in favour of the attack. As usual – it’s the ritual again – differences emerged only over the dispatch of blankets and medication to Gaza. Our most fervent pro-war columnist, Ari Shavit, has suggested that Israel should go on with the assault and build a hospital for the victims. The enemy is wounded, bleeding, dying, desperate for help. Nobody is coming unless Obama moves – yes, we are all waiting for Godot. Maybe this time he shows up.

Yitzhak Laor lives in Tel Aviv. He is the editor of Mita’am.

Gabriel Piterberg

Israel’s onslaught on Gaza may well do permanent damage to one of the most effective tools in its propaganda kit: the image of the morally handsome, ‘shooting and crying’ Israeli soldier.

Three weeks after the 1967 War, Avraham Shapira and Amos Oz, then a rising young author, were summoned to Labour Party headquarters. They were asked to make the demobilised soldiers from the kibbutzim break the wall of silence and discuss their war experience. Soldiers’ Talk (Siah Lohamim), the collection of interviews they edited, was a national and international success. The book, which forged the image of the handsome, dilemma-ridden, existentially soul-searching Israeli soldier, was a hymn to that frightening oxymoron, ‘purity of arms’ and the ideal of an exalted Jewish morality.

It was also a kind of ‘central casting’ from which Oz drew many of his fictional protagonists. Rabin (when he was ambassador to Washington) and Elie Wiesel read extracts in the US ‘in order to present the Israeli soldier’s profile’; and Golda Meir called it ‘a sacred book’: ‘we are fortunate to have been blessed with such sons.’ The latest version of Soldiers’ Talk, in terms of register and success, is Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.

Given the might of Israel’s warriors and the vulnerability of their targets, now that the country no longer engages in wars against other state armies, the image is hard to keep alive. At the same time it no longer matters in the way it once did: for political and military elites in Israel, and the War on Terror constituency in the US, the killing of Arabs and Muslims no longer requires any weeping or soul-searching. It’s just what freedom-loving people do. The war adulation of the recent pro-Israel demonstrations in Los Angeles is chastening but you couldn’t call it hypocritical.

Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, the attack on Gaza will be seen as the action of a colonial power that is running out of ideas; not unlike France in the final stage of the Algerian war.

Gabriel Piterberg teaches history at UCLA. The Returns of Zionism was published last year.

Michael Wood

A New York Times reporter describes the ‘lethal tricks’ of Hamas in Gaza. I don’t doubt the existence of the tricks, but the implication is that the far more lethal directness of the Israeli attack is not only justified but morally superior to the enemy’s underhand modes of action. This is an adaptation of an old paradigm, in which Israel gets to play the role of the rational modern state. The straightforward, civilised West meets the endlessly devious, backward Orient, and takes care of things in its up-to-date efficient way. What’s wrong with that? They are always ‘they’; their deaths don’t count as ours do.

When does an invasion become a massacre? How many Palestinians have to die just because they are Palestinians before we recognise another old paradigm? Herzl thought the native population of what was to become Israel would have to be ‘spirited’ across the border; now the very deaths of that population are being spirited off into arguments about the right to self-defence. If self-defence includes the bombing of ambulances and feeling no qualms about a death toll that is a third children, then we have entered a moral territory from which there may be no return. Unless of course we have merely returned to the imperial 19th century, a world of brutal and unapologetic conquest, where force was the only argument that mattered and our only choice was whether to be hypocritical about it or not.

Michael Wood teaches at Princeton. His most recent book is Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

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