Sowing the Seeds – Gaza 2009

'Not surprisingly,' writes Rowan Lubbock, 'the anger and rage that is slowly sprouting form this latest sowing of violence is already visible. As with all episodes in the great chess-game of Middle East power politics, it is the weak that suffer the consequences.'

Features - Posted on Monday, February 23, 2009 7:32 - 4 Comments

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Rowan Lubbock

“Not surprisingly, the anger and rage that is slowly sprouting form this latest sowing of violence is already visible.”

The children walking in the streets, bitter with tears will be the fedayin in nineteen years, in the next round. Today we lose our victory.
Amos Kenan, 1967[1. Israel, Palestinians and the Intifada (1990), p.19.>]

A woman in Gaza

Israel’s latest military assault on Gaza that has killed, at the time of writing, over 1000 Palestinians has re-awoken the world to what could reasonably be called a fate worse than death. The strangulation of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, enforced since Hamas’s election victory in 2006, has clearly shown the Palestinians that their choices are worthless, unless they coincide with Israel’s political and strategic goals. The latest bloodshed is (according to the official Israeli line) a direct response to the homemade rockets launched into southern Israel by militant groups. During the proceeding carnage, the Israeli leadership have also let slip on more than a few occasions their intense interest in ousting the Hamas government altogether in an effort to rebalance the political allegiances of the Occupied Territories more to their favour. But while Israel claims to be protecting its citizens, it is far more likely that ‘Operation Cast Lead’ is merely sowing the seeds for the next round of violence – a narrative that is all to familiar in this tortured strip of land.

The latest horrors unleashed in the Gaza strip are, according to conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, to be blamed on Hamas, “which started this conflict with unrelenting rocket and mortar attacks on unarmed Israelis”. Given the available evidence to the contrary, it is surprising how often this chain of events in peddled in the mainstream media. The realities of the situation were soon after uncomfortably ingested by the guardians of truth, most notably this example from CNN [2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KntmpoRXFX4] , and has since been cited on an infrequent basis. One Israeli commentator to have recalled the source of the conflict before most others noted that, “the lull between Israel and Hamas, which lasted about five months, was violated in the wake of Israeli military activity within the Gaza Strip [on 4 November] that prompted Qassam barrages”[3. Orly Noy, “Will hunger stop rockets?”, Yediot Ahronoth, December 1 2008.

See also this piece by Augustus Richard Norton and Sara Roy, “End Game in the Gaza War?”, in which the authors note that: “the Israel-Hamas truce was working—a fact fully acknowledged in a recent intelligence report released by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). According to that report, ‘Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire.’ Furthermore, ‘the lull was sporadically violated by rocket and mortar shell fire carried out by rogue terrorist organizations in some instances in defiance of Hamas’.”]

Those who follow developments in the Middle East will no doubt be wondering what made Hamas’s retaliatory rocket fire so provocative this time round. The fall out from the 2006 Lebanon War has undeniably played a crucial role in this regard.

Hezbollah’s ‘victory’ in Lebanon (insofar as the group has survived to fight another day) over Israel’s overwhelming military superiority became at once a reminder of Robert McNamara’s retrospective reasoning as to the resilience of indigenous guerrilla movements [4. As McNamara notes in his autobiography of the Vietnam War, In Retrospect, US policymakers “underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people… to fight and die for their beliefs and values”. Cited in, Robert McMahon, The Limits of Empire (1999), p.131.], and a stark example of how politically valuable the idea of armed resistance could be in this fragile country. As Charles Harb observes, “Lebanese dignitaries from across the political and religious spectrum, Muslims and Christians alike, were lined up to welcome the freed prisoners, in a display of unity not seen since the earlier prisoner exchange of 2004. While many had previously lamented the cost of war and resistance, they now seemed eager to share in the glory of welcoming the last Lebanese prisoners of war”. [5. Charles Harb, “The secret of Hizbullah’s success”, the Guardian, July 18 2008 ]

While Israel has stuck loyally to its 2006 alibi (responding to the abduction of two Israeli soldiers), we soon discovered during the deliberations of the Winograd Commission that such an operation had been planned months before the two IDF soldiers were abducted [6. For a summary of the report, see, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/30/world/middleeast/31winograd-web.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print]. Israel’s military brass considered the war’s outcome as a slap in the face, as their “deterrent” capacity to terrorise the region had been seemingly destroyed. As New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, notes: “[Israel’s] only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians – the families and employers of the militants – to restrain Hezbollah in the future” [7. Thomas L. Friedman, “Israel’s Goals in Gaza”, New York Times, January 14 2009 ]. “There is”, therefore, according to former head of Israel’s National Security Council, Giora Eiland, “one lesson here for Israel…”: [the next] war, should it break out, would bring about Lebanon’s destruction… This is the almost [sic] only way to create deterrence vis-à-vis an organization that attaches such great importance to its domestic Lebanese legitimacy”. [8. Giora Eiland, “Lebanon isn’t a spectator”, Yediot Ahronoth, May 16 2008]

Thus, as the cheerleaders of state-sponsored terrorism convey the strategic rationale driving the policy of the Middle East’s only democracy, the overall picture in Gaza comes into sharper focus. True to form, we now know that Operation Cast Lead was similarly planned months in advance of Israel’s November 4 attack, utilizing techniques of disinformation to gain the upper hand with Hamas that “served to significantly increase the number of its casualties in the strike” [9. Barak Ravid, “Disinformation, secrecy and lies: How the Gaza offensive came about”, Haaretz, December 31 2008 ]. Thus, the latest round of violence in Gaza is directly descended from the lessons learned from the 2006 Lebanon war. As Deputy Chief of staff Brigadier General Dan Harel explained a few days after the start of the bombing campaign: “After this operation there will not be a single Hamas building left standing in Gaza, and we plan to change the rules of the game” [10. Matt Brown, “Israel vows to destroy Hamas brick by brick”, December 30 2008]. But Israel has not changed the rules of the game – it has merely entrenched the age-old orientalist adage: Arabs only understand the language of force. “…[T]his is the most aggressive line that we have ever taken towards fighting the Palestinians”, said one IDF liutenant, “As you say in English, the gloves were off”. [11. Sheera Frenkel, “Gaza: Israeli troops reveal ruthless tactics against Hamas”, The Times, January 14 2009]

It is clear why Israel chooses to speak in such a language. As long as the PLO presented itself as merely a security threat, so the logic went, Israel could confidently rely on its one trump card: a terrifyingly effective military machine. One of the great crises of Israel’s occupation came during one of Palestine’s only peaceful mass-resistance movements (Intifada) aimed directly at the Zionist regime in the territories, beginning in December 1987. But if the PLO and the people they represented were to turn away from violence, then the entire military equation would be altered. As the prominent Israeli intellectual, Shlomo Avineri, noted at the time, “[a]n army can beat an army, but an army cannot beat a people” [12. Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall (2001), p.454]. As the Intifada proceeded, the US State Department noted that by January 1989 a total of 11 Israelis and 366 Palestinians had been killed during the Intifada [13. Mike Berry and Greg Philo, Israel and Palestine: Competing Histories (2006), 85-6.]. Yet Israel’s iron fisted approach to popular (and non-violent) resistance was proving fruitless.

It was at this point that the classic occupier’s game of divide and rule would prove so useful. Never before faced with a truly popular political movement, Israel’s only option was to divide the movement itself. But, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns so momentously wrote, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. Or, to put a more contemporary twist on this turn of phrase, as Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak recently told Yediot Ahronot, “One of the lessons learned in the Middle East is to never try to anticipate the other side’s moves. I hate to remind you that 20 years ago we supported the induction of Hamas” [14. Sima Kadmon and Alex Fishman, “Barak: Nothing can destroy Israel”, Yediot Ahronoth, May 7 2008].

The rationale behind supporting an Islamist group in the Occupied Territories since the early 80’s, as described by then US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer in 2001, was that “Israel perceived it to be better to have people turning toward religion rather than toward a nationalistic cause”, such that the PLO and the Intifada represented [15. Dean Andromidas, “Israeli Roots of Hamas Are Being Exposed”, Executive Intelligence Review, January 18 2002]. But these “nationalistic” groups were not quite as easy to mollify as they once were. The problem, as clearly spelled out in a 1988 report form the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was that “the pragmatic element – the traditional, middle class elites in the West Bank who accommodated themselves to the Israeli occupation – [had] been undermined” by the Intifada [16. Kathleen Christison, Perceptions of Palestine (1999), p.248.].

It was therefore hoped that Hamas could similarly undermine the PLO’s base of support by becoming a counter-weight to the forces of secular nationalism. But Hamas’s very legitimacy rested on its decision either to continue its acquiescence (albeit a reactionary one) to the status quo, or to support the Intifada. Not surprisingly, it eventually chose the latter. After its requests for political inclusion were shunned by the PLO (believing the group, justifiably, to be a pawn of Israeli-US rejectionism), Hamas now started to see its political future in standing opposed to Israel’s vacuous “peace process”.

As the PLO inched ever closer to the US-Israeli sponsored plan for Palestinian “autonomy”, which was more of a euphemism for “self-occupation”, Hamas began to conduct a series of worker strikes in the Gaza strip, eventually leading to fatal clashes between itself and Fatah. By December 1992, Hamas had irreversibly turned to violent resistance, partly driven by its insistence on freeing all of historic Palestine, but mostly due to its drive to regain some political ground from the PLO by presenting itself to a weary and frustrated Palestinian population as the only credible resistance movement in the territories. The flame of the Intifada had now been extinguished.[17. For a fuller account, see Graham Usher, Dispatches from Palestine (1999), ch. 2.]

Since announcing the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles in 1993 the situation facing ordinary Palestinians has steadily deteriorated. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, the source of Israel’s continued oppression derives from the fact that the Palestinians could only “get to the final status negotiations to the extent that it safeguard[ed] Israel’s security concerns during the interim [“autonomy”] period” [18. Usher, p.36]. The Israeli foil was therefore complete; the people were divided, and Israel’s occupation continued.

While this period has been amply covered elsewhere [19. See, for example, Edward Said, Peace and Its Discontents (1995); George Giacaman and Dag Jørund Lønning (eds.), After Oslo (1998); “Five Years After the Oslo Agreement: Human Rights Sacrificed for Security” Amnesty International (1998); Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall (2001), pp.502-96. For a good, concise account of the ‘Oslo’ years, see also Naseer H. Aruri, Dishonest Broker: The U.S. Role in Israel and Palestine (2003), pp. 74-126 and 167-89.], the legacy of the “peace process” came under sharp scrutiny soon after Hamas’s surprise victory in 2006. According to the New York Times, US officials assigned “most of the blame on Mr. Abbas for not offering a positive alternative to Hamas”, despite the glaring fact that Abbas has consistently failed to elicit “American help in persuading Israel to curb settlement growth, release prisoners and lift the checkpoints and roadblocks choking off livelihoods in the West Bank” [20. Steven R. Weisman, “Rice Admits U.S. Underestimated Hamas Strength”, New York Times, January 30 2006. On the issue of settlements, Haaretz’s Danny Rubenstein has noted that during the Oslo period, “as before, the great momentum of settlement continued. The population of settlers grew from 100,000 to over 200,000 during the 1990s.” (Haaretz, 25 September 2006).]

Now that the Palestinians have broken with what they perceive as Fatah’s collaboration with Israel, they have been feeling the full force of Israel’s disapproval. Having placed all their bets on Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA), US and Israeli officials were shocked to learn of the widespread disillusionment among the Palestinian electorate. Immediately, plans were drawn up to oust Hamas in a US-Israeli sponsored coup, and to be carried out by the PA forces in Gaza. After achieving a legitimate political victory through the ballot box, however, one could only expect Hamas to harbour a few sour grapes over this attempted putsch. As one of Dick Cheney’s ex-neocon underlings, David Wurmser, said closer to the time, “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen”.[21. David Rose, “The Gaza bombshell”, Vanity Fair, April 2008].

The current bloodletting is, therefore, merely the expression of Israel’s frustration with Hamas’s intransigence in refusing to accommodate itself with the continued (albeit “remote”) occupation of Gaza [22. See, Linh Truong, “Gaza Disengagement: Palestinian concerns ignored”, August 24 2004]. While there has been a great deal of talk concerning the new “security environment” at the border, or the supposed success in destroying the Hamas “infrastructure” (meaning the party itself), more sober-headed prognoses have recently started to emerge. As one New York Times editorial notes:

Israeli officials acknowledge that the 20-day offensive has not permanently crippled Hamas’s military wing or ended its ability to launch rocket attacks. It is unlikely that Israel can achieve those aims militarily any time soon. The cost in human life and anti-Israeli fury would be enormous. Already more than 1,000 Palestinians have died in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where an always miserable life has become unbearable.[23. Editorial, “A Way out of Gaza?”, New York Times, January 16 2009]

Not surprisingly, the anger and rage that is slowly sprouting form this latest sowing of violence is already visible. As one Gazan resident told the Washington Post soon after the IDF’s disengagement, “My house used to be here… The only reason people don’t blow themselves up against the Israeli army… is that they can’t find explosives” [24. Theodore May, “Slow Steps Toward Normalcy”, The Washington Post, January 20 2009.] Despite the lunacy in creating such a state of affairs, Israeli leaders can expect to accrue additional strategic benefits from the complete destruction of Gaza. The political revival of Labor’s Ehud Barak has certainly played a major part, not to mention the prospect of sowing divisions throughout the wider Middle East that ultimately helps Israel to isolate the region’s undesirables, namely Iran. [25. See Ethan Bronner, “Gaza War Role Is Political Lift for Ex-Premier”, New York Times, January 8 2009 and Steven Lee Myers, “The New Meaning of an Old Battle”, New York Times, January 3 2009]

But as with all episodes in the great chess-game of Middle East power politics, it is the weak that suffer the consequences. Now that the Palestinian people have been effectively abandoned by the great powers for exercising their “freedom to choose”, they are being systematically punished for having the courage to live on under the most extreme military occupation for the last 40 years. After the dust has settled, we must not forget their cries for recognition, their calls for independence, or their right to resist those who would seek to dismantle the very fabric of their future homeland.

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Ceasefire Magazine - Sowing the Seeds - Gaza 2009
Feb 23, 2009 9:03

[…] Ceasefire Magazine – Sowing the Seeds – Gaza 2009 […]

Gaza - Articles, early Feb 24, 2009 « Thoughts by Dee - Open your mind, uncover your eyes, use your heart.
Feb 24, 2009 11:12

[…] Sowing the Seeds – Gaza 2009, from Ceasefire, by Rowan Lubbock, February 23, 2009 7:32 […]

James
Feb 25, 2009 10:29

A really excellent overview of the situation; thanks to Rowan Lubbock for this informative pieve.

However, there is to me one error of analysis. You state: “Israeli officials acknowledge that the 20-day offensive has not permanently crippled Hamas’s military wing or ended its ability to launch rocket attacks. It is unlikely that Israel can achieve those aims militarily any time soon.”

This implies that Israel’s aims were genuinely to cripple Hamas’s military wing.

But it rather appears that the aim of the onslaught was to cripple the governance of Gaza per se. As Ben White notes in the New Statesman: “you don’t weaken a socio-religious political movement with F-16s and drones (although apparently in the best colonial tradition, you may ‘teach them a lesson’, according to Shimon Peres)” and it looks like Israel was simply and “deliberately targeting infrastructure necessary for the governance of Gaza,” even according to UN representatives. (http://www.newstatesman.com/middle-east/2009/01/israel-targets-gaza-hamas)

And Noam Chomsky notes that Israel’s “mass slaughter of defenseless civilians trapped in a tiny cage with nowhere to flee”, which was “meticulously planned”, was understood by Israel’s military commanders to be “crushing the civilian society” — and would it not make sense, therefore, to consider this the intention?
(http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20090119.htm)

You are correct in stating that Hamas aroused the ire of Israel by refusing to buckle to its every whim, but if one looks at the pattern of events — the blockade, the starvation, the military onslaught — it rather looks like the problem (as evident in Israel’s entire history) is the Palestinians, because they exist.

Rowan Lubbock
Mar 4, 2009 13:31

Thanks for the feedback, James.

Just to clarify – it wasn’t me who wrote about Israel’s intention to cripple Hamas’ military capacity, it was the New York Times (footnotes for the article are forthcoming).

But your observation is basically correct. Most case studies of international relations rarely display a singular driving factor (though some factors may carry more strategic weight than others). This is also true with Israel’s assault on Gaza. A number of convergent factors reveal why this massacre took place when it did, and in the manner it did.

Firstly, the timing seems somewhat random – have rockets not been falling on Israel for the last 8 years? Then why now and why so severely?

The ascendance of Barak Obama most likely pushed the Israeli military to take what it probably perceived as its last ‘green light’ to pound those who disobey.

It was also hoped that a barbaric display of machismo might help Livni and Barak in the recent elections. Unfortunately for them, this did not happen.

Did the Israeli leadership really think they could knock out Hamas’ capacity for rocket attacks? Probably not. The Israeli Foreign Affairs website carried a description of events during last summer’s ceasefire. Among its findings was the fact that Hamas, while observing the truce, proved relatively incapable of stopping other autonomous militant groups from disregarding the ceasefire. If Israeli leaders knew this, then they surely knew that even by removing Hamas in its totality they would not be able to halt all rocket attacks. So yes, this pre-text is fairly transparent; thus Israel’s “acknowledgement” on day-20 that such an objective is unachievable.

But ultimately, it is not Palestinians per se that Israel has a problem with. If it were, the West Bank would be looking like Gaza right now. The problem is that, at least before the assault, the majority of Palestinians (at least in Gaza) had turned away from Fatah and towards what seemed like the only credible challenge to Israel’s never-ending occupation. The lesson Israel was trying to teach the Palestinians (from the blockade to the recent assault) was that making the wrong electoral choice would bring with it a heavy penalty. As Chomsky rightly points out, by “crushing the civilian society”, Israel hoped that the Palestinians might come to see the error of their ways. Like most Israeli policy, the exact opposite has occurred. (On this last point, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/world/middleeast/15fatah.html?partner=rss&emc=rss)

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