Wednesday, January 28, 2009
By NORMAN FINKELSTEIN Early speculation on the motive behind Israel’s slaughter in Gaza that began on 27 December 2008 and continued till 18 January 2009 centered on the upcoming elections in Israel. The jockeying for votes was no doubt a factor in this Sparta-like society consumed by “revenge and the thirst for blood,” where killing Arabs is a sure crowd-pleaser. (Polls during the war showed that 80-90 percent of Israeli Jews supported it.) But as Israeli journalist Gideon Levy pointed out on Democracy Now!, “Israel went through a very similar war…two-and-a-half years ago [in Lebanon], when there were no elections.” When crucial state interests are at stake, Israeli ruling elites seldom launch major operations for narrowly electoral gains. It is true that Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s decision to bomb the Iraqi OSIRAK reactor in 1981 was an electoral ploy, but the strategic stakes in the strike on Iraq were puny; contrary to widespread belief, Saddam Hussein had not embarked on a nuclear weapons program prior to the bombing. The fundamental motives behind the latest Israeli attack on Gaza lie elsewhere: (1) in the need to restore Israel’s “deterrence capacity,” and (2) in the threat posed by a new Palestinian “peace offensive.” Israel’s “larger concern” in the current offensive, New York Times Middle East correspondent Ethan Bronner reported, quoting Israeli sources, was to “re-establish Israeli deterrence,” because “its enemies are less afraid of it than they once were, or should be.” Preserving its deterrence capacity has always loomed large in Israeli strategic doctrine. Indeed, it was the main impetus behind Israel’s first-strike against Egypt in June 1967 that resulted in Israel’s occupation of Gaza (and the West Bank). To justify the onslaught on Gaza, Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote that “[m]any Israelis feel that the walls…are closing in…much as they felt in early June 1967.” Ordinary Israelis no doubt felt threatened in June 1967, but—as Morris surely knows—the Israeli leadership experienced no such trepidation. After Israel threatened and laid plans to attack Syria, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared the Straits of Tiran closed to Israeli shipping, but Israel made almost no use of the Straits (apart from the passage of oil, of which Israel then had ample stocks) and, anyhow, Nasser did not in practice enforce the blockade, vessels passing freely through the Straits within days of his announcement. In addition, multiple U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that the Egyptians did not intend to attack Israel and that, in the improbable case that they did, alone or in concert with other Arab countries, Israel would—in President Lyndon Johnson’s words—“whip the hell out of them.” The head of the Mossad told senior American officials on 1 June 1967 that “there were no differences between the U.S. and the Israelis on the military intelligence picture or its interpretation.” The predicament for Israel was rather the growing perception in the Arab world, spurred by Nasser’s radical nationalism and climaxing in his defiant gestures in May 1967, that it would no longer have to follow Israeli orders. Thus, Divisional Commander Ariel Sharon admonished those in the Israeli cabinet hesitant to launch a first-strike that Israel was losing its “deterrence capability…our main weapon—the fear of us.” Israel unleashed the June 1967 war “to restore the credibility of Israeli deterrence” (Israeli strategic analyst Zeev Maoz). The expulsion of the Israeli occupying army by Hezbollah in May 2000 posed a major new challenge to Israel’s deterrence capacity. The fact that Israel suffered a humiliating defeat, one celebrated throughout the Arab world, made another war well-nigh inevitable. Israel almost immediately began planning for the next round, and in summer 2006 found a pretext when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers (several others were killed in the firefight) and demanded in exchange the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Although Israel unleashed the fury of its air force and geared up for a ground invasion, it suffered yet another ignominious defeat. A respected American military analyst despite being partial to Israel nonetheless concluded, “the IAF, the arm of the Israel military that had once destroyed whole air forces in a few days, not only proved unable to stop Hezbollah rocket strikes but even to do enough damage to prevent Hezbollah’s rapid recovery”; that “once ground forces did cross into Lebanon…, they failed to overtake Hezbollah strongholds, even those close to the border”; that “in terms of Israel’s objectives, the kidnapped Israeli soldiers were neither rescued nor released; Hezbollah’s rocket fire was never suppressed, not even its long-range fire…; and Israeli ground forces were badly shaken and bogged down by a well-equipped and capable foe”; and that “more troops and a massive ground invasion would indeed have produced a different outcome, but the notion that somehow that effort would have resulted in a more decisive victory over Hezbollah…has no basis in historical example or logic.” The juxtaposition of several figures further highlights the magnitude of the setback: Israel deployed 30,000 troops as against 2,000 regular Hezbollah fighters and 4,000 irregular Hezbollah and non-Hezbollah fighters; Israel delivered and fired 162,000 weapons whereas Hezbollah fired 5,000 weapons (4,000 rockets and projectiles at Israel and 1,000 antitank missiles inside Lebanon). Moreover, “the vast majority of the fighters who defended villages such as Ayta ash Shab, Bint Jbeil, and Maroun al-Ras were not, in fact, regular Hezbollah fighters and in some cases were not even members of Hezbollah,” and “many of Hezbollah’s best and most skilled fighters never saw action, lying in wait along the Litani River with the expectation that the IDF assault would be much deeper and arrive much faster than it did.” Yet another indication of Israel’s reversal of fortune was that, unlike any of its previous armed conflicts, in the final stages of the 2006 war it fought not in defiance of a U.N. ceasefire resolution but in the hope of a U.N. resolution to rescue it. After the 2006 Lebanon war Israel was itching to take on Hezbollah again, but did not yet have a military option against it. In mid-2008 Israel desperately sought to conscript the U.S. for an attack on Iran, which would also decapitate Hezbollah, and thereby humble the main challengers to its regional hegemony. Israel and its quasi-official emissaries such as Benny Morris threatened that if the U.S. did not go along “then non-conventional weaponry will have to be used,” and “many innocent Iranians will die.” To Israel’s chagrin and humiliation, the attack never materialized and Iran has gone its merry way, while the credibility of Israel’s capacity to terrorize slipped another notch. It was high time to find a defenseless target to annihilate. Enter Gaza, Israel’s favorite shooting gallery. Even there the feebly armed Islamic movement Hamas had defiantly resisted Israeli diktat, in June 2008 even compelling Israel to agree to a ceasefire. During the 2006 Lebanon war Israel flattened the southern suburb of Beirut known as the Dahiya, where Hezbollah commanded much popular support. In the war’s aftermath Israeli military officers began referring to the “Dahiya strategy”: “We shall pulverize the 160 Shiite villages [in Lebanon] that have turned into Shiite army bases,” the IDF Northern Command Chief explained, “and we shall not show mercy when it comes to hitting the national infrastructure of a state that, in practice, is controlled by Hezbollah.” In the event of hostilities, a reserve Colonel at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies chimed in, Israel needs “to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate….Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.” The new strategy was to be used against all of Israel’s regional adversaries who had waxed defiant—“the Palestinians in Gaza are all Khaled Mashaal, the Lebanese are all Nasrallah, and the Iranians are all Ahmadinejad”—but Gaza was the prime target for this blitzkrieg-cum-bloodbath strategy. “Too bad it did not take hold immediately after the ‘disengagement’ from Gaza and the first rocket barrages,” a respected Israeli columnist lamented. “Had we immediately adopted the Dahiya strategy, we would have likely spared ourselves much trouble.” After a Palestinian rocket attack, Israel’s Interior Minister urged in late September 2008, “the IDF should…decide on a neighborhood in Gaza and level it.” And, insofar as the Dahiya strategy could not be inflicted just yet on Lebanon and Iran, it was predictably pre-tested in Gaza. The operative plan for the Gaza bloodbath can be gleaned from authoritative statements after the war got underway: “What we have to do is act systematically with the aim of punishing all the organizations that are firing the rockets and mortars, as well as the civilians who are enabling them to fire and hide” (reserve Major-General); “After this operation there will not be one Hamas building left standing in Gaza” (Deputy IDF Chief of Staff); “Anything affiliated with Hamas is a legitimate target” (IDF Spokesperson’s Office). Whereas Israel killed a mere 55 Lebanese during the first two days of the 2006 war, the Israeli media exulted at Israel’s “shock and awe” (Maariv) as it killed more than 300 Palestinians in the first two days of the attack on Gaza. Several days into the slaughter an informed Israeli strategic analyst observed, “The IDF, which planned to attack buildings and sites populated by hundreds of people, did not warn them in advance to leave, but intended to kill a great many of them, and succeeded.” Morris could barely contain his pride at “Israel’s highly efficient air assault on Hamas.” The Israeli columnist B. Michael was less impressed by the dispatch of helicopter gunships and jet planes “over a giant prison and firing at its people” —for example, “70…traffic cops at their graduation ceremony, young men in desperate search of a livelihood who thought they’d found it in the police and instead found death from the skies.” As Israel targeted schools, mosques, hospitals, ambulances, and U.N. sanctuaries, as it slaughtered and incinerated Gaza’s defenseless civilian population (one-third of the 1,200 reported casualties were children), Israeli commentators gloated that “Gaza is to Lebanon as the second sitting for an exam is to the first—a second chance to get it right,” and that this time around Israel had “hurled [Gaza] back,” not 20 years as it promised to do in Lebanon, but “into the 1940s. Electricity is available only for a few hours a day”; that “Israel regained its deterrence capabilities” because “the war in Gaza has compensated for the shortcomings of the  Second Lebanon War”; and that “There is no doubt that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is upset these days….There will no longer be anyone in the Arab world who can claim that Israel is weak.” New York Times foreign affairs expert Thomas Friedman joined in the chorus of hallelujahs. Israel in fact won the 2006 Lebanon war, according to Friedman, because it had inflicted “substantial property damage and collateral casualties on Lebanon at large,” thereby administering an “education” to Hezbollah: fearing the Lebanese people’s wrath, Hezbollah would “think three times next time” before defying Israel. He expressed hope that Israel was likewise “trying to ‘educate’ Hamas by inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population.” To justify the targeting of Lebanese civilians and civilian infrastructure Friedman asserted that Israel had no other option because “Hezbollah created a very ‘flat’ military network…deeply embedded in the local towns and villages,” and that because “Hezbollah nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians…to restrain Hezbollah in the future.” Leaving aside Friedman’s hollow coinages—what does “flat” mean?—and leaving aside that he alleged that the killing of civilians was unavoidable but also recommends targeting civilians as a “deterrence” strategy: is it even true that Hezbollah was “embedded in,” “nested among,” and “intertwined” with the Lebanese civilian population? Here’s what Human Rights Watch concluded after an exhaustive investigation: “we found strong evidence that Hezbollah stored most of its rockets in bunkers and weapon storage facilities located in uninhabited fields and valleys, that in the vast majority of cases Hezbollah fighters left populated civilian areas as soon as the fighting started, and that Hezbollah fired the vast majority of its rockets from pre-prepared positions outside villages.” And again, “in all but a few of the cases of civilian deaths we investigated, Hezbollah fighters had not mixed with the civilian population or taken other actions to contribute to the targeting of a particular home or vehicle by Israeli forces.” Indeed, “Israel’s own firing patterns in Lebanon support the conclusion that Hezbollah fired large numbers of its rockets from tobacco fields, banana, olive and citrus groves, and more remote, unpopulated valleys.” A U.S. Army War College study based largely on interviews with Israeli participants in the Lebanon war similarly found that “the key battlefields in the land campaign south of the Litani River were mostly devoid of civilians, and IDF participants consistently report little or no meaningful intermingling of Hezbollah fighters and noncombatants. Nor is there any systematic reporting of Hezbollah using civilians in the combat zone as shields.” On a related note, the authors report that “the great majority of Hezbollah’s fighters wore uniforms. In fact, their equipment and clothing were remarkably similar to many state militaries’—desert or green fatigues, helmets, web vests, body armor, dog tags, and rank insignia.” Friedman further asserted that, “rather than confronting Israel’s Army head-on,” Hezbollah fired rockets at Israel’s civilian population to provoke Israeli retaliatory strikes, inevitably killing Lebanese civilians and “inflaming the Arab-Muslim street.” Yet, numerous studies have shown, and Israeli officials themselves conceded that, during its guerrilla war against the Israeli occupying army, Hezbollah only targeted Israeli civilians after Israel targeted Lebanese civilians. In conformity with past practice Hezbollah started firing rockets toward Israeli civilian concentrations during the 2006 war only after Israel inflicted heavy casualties on Lebanese civilians, while Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah avowed that it would target Israeli civilians “as long as the enemy undertakes its aggression without limits or red lines.” If Israel targeted the Lebanese civilian population and infrastructure during the 2006 war, it was not because it had no choice, and not because Hezbollah had provoked it, but because terrorizing the civilian population was a relatively cost-free method of “education,” much to be preferred over fighting a real foe and suffering heavy casualties, although Hezbollah’s unexpectedly fierce resistance prevented Israel from achieving a victory on the battlefield. In the case of Gaza it was able both to “educate” the population and achieve a military victory because—in the words of Gideon Levy—the “fighting in Gaza” was “war deluxe.” Compared with previous wars, it is child’s play—pilots bombing unimpeded as if on practice runs, tank and artillery soldiers shelling houses and civilians from their armored vehicles, combat engineering troops destroying entire streets in their ominous protected vehicles without facing serious opposition. A large, broad army is fighting against a helpless population and a weak, ragged organization that has fled the conflict zones and is barely putting up a fight. The justification put forth by Friedman in the pages of the Times for targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure amounted to apologetics for state terrorism. It might be recalled that although Hitler had stripped Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher of all his political power by 1940, and his newspaper Der St?rmer had a circulation of only some 15,000 during the war, the International Tribunal at Nuremberg nonetheless sentenced him to death for his murderous incitement. Beyond restoring its deterrence capacity, Israel’s main goal in the Gaza slaughter was to fend off the latest threat posed by Palestinian moderation. For the past three decades the international community has consistently supported a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict that calls for two states based on a full Israeli withdrawal to its June 1967 border, and a “just resolution” of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation. The vote on the annual U.N. General Assembly resolution, “Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine,” supporting these terms for resolving the conflict in 2008 was 164 in favor, 7 against (Israel, United States, Australia, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau), and 3 abstentions. At the regional level the Arab League in March 2002 unanimously put forth a peace initiative on this basis, which it has subsequently reaffirmed. In recent times Hamas has repeatedly signaled its own acceptance of such a settlement. For example, in March 2008 Khalid Mishal, head of Hamas’s Political Bureau, stated in an interview: There is an opportunity to deal with this conflict in a manner different than Israel and, behind it, the U.S. is dealing with it today. There is an opportunity to achieve a Palestinian national consensus on a political program based on the 1967 borders, and this is an exceptional circumstance, in which most Palestinian forces, including Hamas, accept a state on the 1967 borders….There is also an Arab consensus on this demand, and this is a historic situation. But no one is taking advantage of this opportunity. No one is moving to cooperate with this opportunity. Even this minimum that has been accepted by the Palestinians and the Arabs has been rejected by Israel and by the U.S. Israel is fully cognizant that the Hamas Charter is not an insurmountable obstacle to a two-state settlement on the June 1967 border. “[T]he Hamas leadership has recognized that its ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future,” a former Mossad head recently observed. “[T]hey are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967….They know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their cooperation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: They will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals.” In addition, Hamas was “careful to maintain the ceasefire” it entered into with Israel in June 2008, according to an official Israeli publication, despite Israel’s reneging on the crucial component of the truce that it ease the economic siege of Gaza. “The lull was sporadically violated by rocket and mortar shell fire, carried out by rogue terrorist organizations,” the source continues. “At the same time, the [Hamas] movement tried to enforce the terms of the arrangement on the other terrorist organizations and to prevent them from violating it.” Moreover, Hamas was “interested in renewing the relative calm with Israel” (Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin). The Islamic movement could thus be trusted to stand by its word, making it a credible negotiating partner, while its apparent ability to extract concessions from Israel, unlike the hapless Palestinian Authority doing Israel’s bidding but getting no returns, enhanced Hamas’s stature among Palestinians. For Israel these developments constituted a veritable disaster. It could no longer justify shunning Hamas, and it would be only a matter of time before international pressure in particular from the Europeans would be exerted on it to negotiate. The prospect of an incoming U.S. administration negotiating with Iran and Hamas, and moving closer to the international consensus for settling the Israel-Palestine conflict, which some U.S. policymakers now advocate, would have further highlighted Israel’s intransigence. In an alternative scenario, speculated on by Nasrallah, the incoming American administration plans to convene an international peace conference of “Americans, Israelis, Europeans and so-called Arab moderates” to impose a settlement. The one obstacle is “Palestinian resistance and the Hamas government in Gaza,” and “getting rid of this stumbling block is…the true goal of the war.” In either case, Israel needed to provoke Hamas into breaking the truce, and then radicalize or destroy it, thereby eliminating it as a legitimate negotiating partner. It is not the first time Israel confronted such a diabolical threat—an Arab League peace initiative, Palestinian support for a two-state settlement and a Palestinian ceasefire—and not the first time it embarked on provocation and war to overcome it. In the mid-1970s the PLO mainstream began supporting a two-state settlement on the June 1967 border. In addition, the PLO, headquartered in Lebanon, was strictly adhering to a truce with Israel that had been negotiated in July 1981. In August 1981 Saudi Arabia unveiled, and the Arab League subsequently approved, a peace plan based on the two-state settlement. Israel reacted in September 1981 by stepping up preparations to destroy the PLO. In his analysis of the buildup to the 1982 Lebanon war, Israeli strategic analyst Avner Yaniv reported that Yasser Arafat was contemplating a historic compromise with the “Zionist state,” whereas “all Israeli cabinets since 1967” as well as “leading mainstream doves” opposed a Palestinian state. Fearing diplomatic pressures, Israel maneuvered to sabotage the two-state settlement. It conducted punitive military raids “deliberately out of proportion” against “Palestinian and Lebanese civilians” in order to weaken “PLO moderates,” strengthen the hand of Arafat’s “radical rivals,” and guarantee the PLO’s “inflexibility.” However, Israel eventually had to choose between a pair of stark options: “a political move leading to a historic compromise with the PLO, or preemptive military action against it.” To fend off Arafat’s “peace offensive”—Yaniv’s telling phrase—Israel embarked on military action in June 1982. The Israeli invasion “had been preceded by more than a year of effective ceasefire with the PLO,” but after murderous Israeli provocations, the last of which left as many as 200 civilians dead (including 60 occupants of a Palestinian children’s hospital), the PLO finally retaliated, causing a single Israeli casualty. Although Israel used the PLO’s resumption of attacks as the pretext for its invasion, Yaniv concluded that the “raison d’être of the entire operation” was “destroying the PLO as a political force capable of claiming a Palestinian state on the West Bank.” It deserves passing notice that in his new history of the “peace process,” Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, provides this capsule summary of the sequence of events just narrated: “In 1982, Arafat’s terrorist activities eventually provoked the Israeli government of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon into a full-scale invasion of Lebanon.” Fast forward to 2008. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stated in early December 2008 that although Israel wanted to create a temporary period of calm with Hamas, an extended truce “harms the Israeli strategic goal, empowers Hamas, and gives the impression that Israel recognizes the movement.” Translation: a protracted ceasefire that enhanced Hamas’s credibility would have undermined Israel’s strategic goal of retaining control of the West Bank. As far back as March 2007 Israel had decided on attacking Hamas, and only negotiated the June truce because “the Israeli army needed time to prepare.” Once all the pieces were in place, Israel only lacked a pretext. On 4 November, while the American media were riveted on election day, Israel broke the ceasefire by killing seven Palestinian militants, on the flimsy excuse that Hamas was digging a tunnel to abduct Israeli soldiers, and knowing full well that its operation would provoke Hamas into hitting back. “Last week’s ‘ticking tunnel,’ dug ostensibly to facilitate the abduction of Israeli soldiers,” Haaretz reported in mid-November was not a clear and present danger: Its existence was always known and its use could have been prevented on the Israeli side, or at least the soldiers stationed beside it removed from harm’s way. It is impossible to claim that those who decided to blow up the tunnel were simply being thoughtless. The military establishment was aware of the immediate implications of the measure, as well as of the fact that the policy of “controlled entry” into a narrow area of the Strip leads to the same place: an end to the lull. That is policy—not a tactical decision by a commander on the ground. After Hamas predictably resumed its rocket attacks “[i]n retaliation” (Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center), Israel could embark on yet another murderous invasion in order to foil yet another Palestinian peace offensive. Norman Finkelstein is author of five books, including Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Beyond Chutzpah and The Holocaust Industry, which have been translated into more than 40 foreign editions. He is the son of Holocaust survivors. This article is an edited extract of the views of Finkelstein given at DemocracyNow.org. His website is www.NormanFinkelstein.com Notes.
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