A stopped clock, the saying goes, is right twice a day. The “senior Bush administration official” who chatted with the Washington Post on December 28 was right that Israel is “not trying to take over the Gaza Strip” with the massive assault launched the previous day, and correct that the Israelis are bombing now “because they want it to be over before the next administration comes in.” That’s twice, and so one must take this official’s remaining reasoning — that President-elect Barack Obama may not smile upon Israel’s gross abuses of military power as the Bush administration has done — with a grain of salt.
To be sure, it is hard to imagine that the incoming Obama administration could be as blithely indulgent of Israeli belligerence as its predecessor has been. In 2004, President George W. Bush broke not only with international law, but also with decades of US policy, when he promised Israel that it could keep its major West Bank settlement blocs and forget about Palestinian refugees. Bill Clinton did much the same in 2001, with his last-ditch plan for reviving the Oslo process, but settlements and refugees were still matters for negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians, not between Israel and the United States. In 2006, as Israel laid waste to swathes of Lebanon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hardly tried to hide that her refusal to broker an end to hostilities came in deference to Israel’s requirement for more time to achieve objectives it ultimately failed to meet. Henry Kissinger did much the same in 1973, green-lighting additional Israeli advances into Egypt after passage of UN Security Council Resolution 338 imposed a ceasefire, but he did it behind his own boss’s back. Obama will almost certainly be more cognizant of the value of being held in global esteem, and thus more inclined to restrain Israeli militarism, than Bush.
But Obama and his team should feel the imperative to speak out now, as Israel illegally shells a captive civilian population, if only in light of the conventional wisdom that Operation Cast Lead complicates their advertised plans for an early push to restart an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Instead, the administration-in-waiting has kept quiet, stirring only to send future White House adviser David Axelrod on CBS’s Face the Nation to say that the president-elect understands Israel’s “urge to respond” to the Qassams, Katyushas and mortars being lobbed from Gaza. Far from a mere slip of “one president at a time” decorum, this de facto endorsement of the bombardment echoes the Clinton administration line backing Israel’s “right to self-defense” as live ammunition flew at rock-throwing Palestinians in the fall of 2000. It also underlines the magnitude of the changes Obama must make in US policy toward Israel-Palestine, if he hopes to intervene other than to bless and uphold the achievements of Israeli settler-colonialism.
As for the official narrative of the “all-out war” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak swears to wage against “Hamas and its kind” in Gaza: Even CNN reporters in Sderot acknowledge that there is no equivalence between the unguided projectiles of Hamas, illegitimate and ill-considered as they are, and the might and technological sophistication of the Israeli air force and army. Not a single rocketeer will be dissuaded by the bombing of the Islamic University of Gaza or the headquarters of al-Aqsa television. Israel plainly chose the moment of attack not only to spring a tactical surprise, but also to maximize the death and destruction. Upwards of 385 Palestinians lie dead — at least 64 of them, by “conservative” UN estimates, wearing no uniform not required by a school — and more than 1,750 others are injured.
And as for the Israeli-US tale, parroted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghayt, that Hamas brought this mayhem upon Gaza by declining to extend the truce that expired on December 19: According to the December 28 edition of Ha’aretz, Barak ordered the Defense Ministry to begin plotting this offensive before the truce agreement was concluded six months ago, in anticipation of a pretext, and in preparation for a smoother, less costly campaign than the 2006 stalemate in Lebanon. The next day, the defense minister told the Knesset the same thing. The renewal of Hamas rocket fire in November, prompted by an Israeli incursion to close off a “ticking tunnel” originating underneath a Gazan home, was the pretext. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, 18 people in Israel have been killed by rockets and mortars from Gaza since 2004, four of them since Operation Cast Lead got underway. The costs of the campaign to the Palestinians have already been far steeper — and they will grow steeper still in Israel’s attempt to keep its own costs to a minimum.
The most compelling explanation for the scope of the assault on Gaza is that militarist interpretations of the failed war in Lebanon have prevailed inside the Israeli establishment. As one general told the New York Times, the problem then was not that the Israelis hit Lebanon too hard and too indiscriminately, but rather that “we were not decisive enough.” Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University completed the thought: “This operation is an attempt to reestablish the perception that if you provoke or attack you are going to pay a disproportionate price.” Leave aside that the linchpin of Israel’s strategy is therefore the very lack of proportionality that Israeli spokespeople so bristle at being accused of by proponents of the laws of war. If this explanation for Israel’s actions is accurate, then Gaza will suffer considerably more punishment before Israel is satisfied that its “deterrence capability” is adequately acknowledged. The danger of escalation, moreover, is acute.
The appearance of such a frank analysis in America’s newspaper of record, to be mulled over by the more intelligent anchors on CNN, is perhaps a sign of slippage in Israel’s exercise of dominion over both Gaza and the way that events there are portrayed. Since the fall of 2000, and far more intensely since Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Israel has entrapped Palestinians within Gaza, preventing them from telling their story abroad, and blocked the access of outsiders to the coastal strip. Recipients of foreign scholarships are forced to stay home, as are human rights activists invited to speak by Israelis or others in the world outside. Palestinian reporters living in Gaza cannot travel either, and might not want to, given the beating administered by Israeli security personnel to their colleague Muhammad ‘Umar, who managed in June to escape to London to collect the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. Members of the non-Palestinian media, meanwhile, have periodically been barred, as they are now, from entering Gaza or the “closed military zone” in its vicinity, leading the Foreign Press Association in Israel to register regular protests at this “serious violation of press freedom.” Other outside fact finders, like Bishop Desmond Tutu, are likewise excluded, and only two weeks before Operation Cast Lead, the new UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, was detained at the Tel Aviv airport and summarily expelled from the country on spurious charges of “legitimizing Hamas terrorism.” The systematic veiling of Gaza from outside scrutiny allows Israel to turn Gaza into a black box to which only it holds the key. Israeli spokespeople enjoy a near monopoly on the story that gets told, whether about the tactics of Hamas rule or the tunnels that Gazans use to infiltrate food and (non-military as well as military) supplies.
So it is not surprising, if still vexing, that most American coverage of Cast Lead, and certainly the reaction in Congress, hews closely to Israel’s position that the expansive nature of the operation is justified as self-defense. “We are trying to hit the whole spectrum,” an unnamed Israeli officer told the Washington Post, “because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel.” Lost in the laying of blame upon Hamas is the stark fact that Gaza remains Israeli-occupied, both in the eyes of the UN and in the practical sense that Israel has near complete control over exit and egress of persons and goods. There is political purpose behind the bombing of the Islamist party’s “civilian infrastructure” and the closure of border crossings to needed shipments of food, fuel, medicine and cash — closures, again, that long preceded Cast Lead. It is the same motive underlying the December 30 ramming of an activist boat carrying emergency supplies (and a CNN reporter — oops) and the repulsion of a Libyan relief vessel on December 1. The purpose is to render Hamas totally unprepared to deal with humanitarian crisis in the hope of undercutting support for the party as it fails to deliver basic services. Absent from the American media, as well, is the long history of the siege, the primary reason by far that Hamas refused to renew the ceasefire. This stance, to a large extent, came about in answer to popular demand.
Hamas, without a doubt, has contributed to Gaza’s isolation, not least with the brutality of its armed takeover of the territory in the summer of 2007 and its vindictive maltreatment of Fatah affiliates and others since then. But enmity for the Islamist party cannot pardon the Arab complicity, most notably that of Abbas and the Egyptian regime, in the “all-out war” on Gaza and the years of siege that have gone before. Abbas, like Syria, has “suspended” talks with Israel until the offensive winds down, but the fact is that those talks are premised upon removing Hamas from the Palestinian national equation. Like Israel, he now hopes that bombardment will quell the Islamists’ will to political power, instead of working with Hamas to remove the blockade upon the livelihoods of the Gazans he still claims to represent. Certainly, as well, the chaos in Gaza takes the spotlight off the impending crisis over the status of his presidential term after January 9, 2009 and his resolve to stay in office for another year. Meanwhile, the Arab world is again treated to the spectacle of Egyptian border guards forcibly sealing Palestinians back into Gaza after they had broken out. The regime of President Husni Mubarak, seized with antipathy of its own for the Muslim Brothers of whom Hamas is nominally a part, is just as determined as Israel and the Bush administration that the Islamists next door be prevented from governing—the well-being of Gazans be damned. It is striking that some of the more raucous demonstrations in Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere since the bombing began occurred at Egyptian embassies and consulates. Six pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested outside the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, of all places.
Why exactly did Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, until recently the presumptive prime minister-designate, pay a visit to Cairo shortly before the fighter jets roared over Gaza? Was it simply to warn her Egyptian interlocutors that “all-out war” was coming? Or might there be an Israeli endgame discernible in the siege that keeps the Gaza pressure cooker constantly boiling over? In theory, the endgame could aim at dumping the humanitarian catastrophe on Egypt’s doorstep. With Abbas signed up to sever Gaza from the West Bank, Israel and its allies are free to make conditions intolerable in Gaza in a bid to weaken Hamas and eventually impel Egypt to take security responsibility for Gaza as the precondition for lifting the siege. Egypt was abuzz with precisely this theory this past January, when Gaza’s agony last dominated the news cycle. On the one hand, the regime calculates that the doomsday scenario blunts domestic opposition to its enforcement of the embargo. But that does not mean the scenario has no champions among Israel’s strategic thinkers.
The Israeli project of deepening the political and geographical division between Gaza and the West Bank is quite compatible with a longer-term objective of greater Egyptian (or even Jordanian) involvement in the Occupied Territories. Egypt cannot relish the prospect, and so its diplomacy is geared toward encouraging a more coherent Palestinian polity that can keep Gaza and its Islamists on the other side of the border. But Israeli and Egyptian interests converge upon the immediate challenge: how to cut Hamas down to size.
Operation Cast Lead is intended as a hammer blow, but one with the comparatively modest ambition (for now) to “shape a different and new security situation” in the Gaza Strip. In the estimation of the aforementioned senior Bush administration official, “the Israeli goal now is to damage Hamas enough so that Hamas will accept a real truce.” Of course, there was a real truce, for the most part, from mid-June through mid-December. Yet the quiet on Israel’s southern front did not result in a significant loosening of the blockade, and Hamas returned to its old logic that it must inflict pain upon Israel to accomplish its political goals. Now Barak’s declaration that Cast Lead has been in the foundry since before the ceasefire began will be taken by the Islamist party as confirmation that its thinking was on target.
Along with Barak’s speech in the Knesset, the calls emanating from Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus, and Hizballah in Lebanon, for a “third intifada” including resumed suicide operations in Israel ought to compel the UN Security Council to pass a binding ceasefire resolution. Instead, what little international pressure the combatants have faced to desist has come from individual European states, Britain and France, the European Commission and the so-called Quartet invested by the Security Council with the Israeli-Palestinian file. For its part, the Security Council has issued an ineffectual press statement calling for an “immediate halt to all violence.” That Russia suggested this course of action reveals the extent of US hegemony over the thinkable in Turtle Bay — Moscow knows that Washington would stymie any attempt to lend the plaintive ceasefire pleas the teeth of international law. The Bush administration, surprising no one at this point, is poised to shield Israel once again as the Jewish state carries out its military campaign to its conclusion. The questions are when Israel will adjudge its “deterrence capability” sufficiently burnished and, as with the Gaza offensive of 2006, whether external factors will intrude.
In the meantime, the Israeli attack prepares the political battlefield in anticipation of an Obama administration-led peace process. Assuming that Obama’s effort follows the phased approach of Clinton, and continues to freeze out Hamas, Israel is protected from the concessions of a comprehensive settlement. As long as Gaza remains separated from the West Bank, and the Hamas-Fatah divide festers, no peace process can gain traction. This is true regardless of which party wins the upcoming Israeli elections, for Israel will be able to claim that the Palestinians have no single political address, and Hamas will have every motivation to sabotage any attempt to strike a deal with Mahmoud Abbas alone. The siege of Gaza would then stretch on indefinitely, with Hamas duly weakened.
Another path is possible, of course. Obama could quietly drop US rejection of the 2006 Palestinian election results, and work to help the Palestinians form a national unity government. As the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is advocating, he could call the siege of Gaza by its rightful name — collective punishment — and demand that it cease. He could throw the weight of Washington behind Security Council action toward that end, and toward a genuine halt to settlement and separation wall construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He could enforce the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, and terminate US supply to Israel of F-16s and Apache helicopters, paid for with US military aid dollars, because they have been used to harm civilians in the attack on Gaza. The measure of Barack Obama will be how far, if at all, he travels toward such a dramatic transformation of US policy on the question of Palestine.
Is it true that “change is coming” when Obama enters the White House? We hope so. Yet the conventional pro-Israel tilt of his campaign indicates otherwise, as does the composition of his foreign policy crew. Obama appears poised to content himself with more energetic US engagement in the sort of flawed negotiations of the Clinton years, the sort that put ending the occupation last, as if the developments of the Bush years had not rendered that approach utterly untenable.
Please, Mr. President-elect, surprise us.