It was early afternoon, a bright, crisp Friday in mid-January on the hilltop that lies between Route 34 and the Gaza border, maybe half a mile from Sderot. At the base of the hill lounged journalists and TV crews in foldout chairs, taking advantage of a midday lull in the bombardment. Pop music sounded from one of their dish-mounted vans. No one seemed to take much notice of the locals who came and went overhead — couples, amateur videographers, a man in a wheelchair, taking up positions under an overhanging copse of pine trees.
The Middle East has always been a difficult challenge for Western human rights organizations, particularly those seeking influence or funding in the United States. The pressure to go soft on US allies is in some respects reminiscent of Washington’s special pleading for Latin American terror regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. In the case of Israel such organizations also face a powerful and influential domestic constituency, which often extends to senior echelons of such organizations, for whom forthright condemnation of Israel is anathema.
Three weeks after the war on Gaza, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire but refused to terminate its so-called defensive operations. In response, Hamas declared a ceasefire for one week, until the withdrawal of Israeli troops has been completed. For many in the West, the ceasefire might seem like an occasion to celebrate, for the cessation of military hostilities on both sides will perhaps renew the peace process. But there are reasons to be critical of this ceasefire, since it continues the situation in which Israel acts unilaterally. What we are actually witnessing is a new phase of the catastrophe in Gaza. While the characteristics of this phase are not yet known, Israel’s violence has become ever more evident.
Shortly after 11:30 am on December 27, 2008, at the height of the midday bustle on the first day of the Gazan week and with multitudes of schoolchildren returning home from the morning shift, close to 90 Israeli warplanes launched over 100 tons of explosives at some 100 targets throughout the 139 square miles of the Gaza Strip. Within minutes, the near simultaneous air raids killed more than 225 and wounded at least 700, more than 200 of them critically. These initial attacks alone produced dozens more dead than any other day in the West Bank and Gaza combined since Israel’s occupation of those lands commenced in June 1967.
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.
In the first attempt by a foreign country to break the blockade of Gaza, a Libyan freighter carrying 3,000 tons of essential humanitarian aid set sail for the impoverished coastal strip. On the shore Gazans assembled to welcome its arrival, a much needed gesture of hope and relief for Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, caged in on all sides in one of the most densely populated areas on earth, allowed only the most basic food stuffs and regularly bombarded with ordinance from the skies. As it approached Gaza’s coastal waters on December 1, the ship was intercepted by the Israeli navy and forced to turn back.
In mid-January, when Israel further tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip, it hurriedly assured the world that a “humanitarian crisis” would not be allowed to occur. Case in point: Days after the intensified siege prompted Hamas to breach the Gaza-Egypt border and Palestinians to pour into Egypt in search of supplies, Israel announced plans to send in thousands of animal vaccines to prevent possible outbreaks of avian flu and other epidemics due to livestock and birds entering Gaza from Egypt.  Medicines for human beings, on the other hand, are among the supplies that are barely trickling in to Gaza now that the border has been resealed.
In 1967 Israel’s government was headed by Levi Eshkol, a politician said to be easygoing, weak and indecisive, who four years earlier had replaced the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, as prime minister. The Israeli public, tired of Ben-Gurion’s authoritarianism and constant exhortations to greater and greater sacrifice, had greeted Eshkol’s appointment with a sigh of relief. Israel’s chief Arab adversary at the time, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, sought to take advantage of the Eshkol government’s reputed lassitude in order to annul Israel’s achievements in the 1956 Suez campaign: the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula and the opening of the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
Two weeks into the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, the United States stands with only two other countries—Israel and Britain—in opposing an immediate ceasefire. Even Iraqi Prime Minister Jawad al-Maliki, in Washington for reassurances that the Bush administration will “stay the course” in its Mesopotamian misadventure, demanded that the bombing be halted forthwith.
There is an oft-told Palestinian allegory about a family who complained their house was small and cramped. In response, the father brought the farm animals inside — the goat, the sheep and the chickens all crowded into the house.
Then, one by one, he moved the animals back outside. By the time the last chicken left, the family felt such relief they never complained of the lack of elbow room again.
No doubt, the recent release of Palestinian tax receipts by Israel, some of which will be used to pay Palestinian civil servants who received only partial wages for the last 16 months, felt like the last chicken leaving.
In the summer of 2006, two border incidents were invoked by Israel, with strong US diplomatic support and material assistance, to justify a prolonged military offensive in Gaza and a crushing “shock and awe” assault on Lebanon. The main international response, effectively orchestrated by Washington, was built around the bland assertion that Israel has the “right to defend itself.”
Since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent Middle East tour concluded without concrete results, and unity talks between Fatah and Hamas remain at a standstill, the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian political compromise appears bleaker than ever. But Palestinian lives and livelihoods should no longer be held hostage to the reigning diplomatic stagnation.
President Bush and many other supporters of the current Israeli assault on Lebanon and its reoccupation of the Gaza Strip justify these military actions on the grounds that Hamas and Hezbollah do not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Negotiating with “terrorists” is impossible, they claim, because Hamas and Hezbollah exist only to destroy Israel.
The captivity of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit is over two weeks old, with no sign of a breakthrough, and a second front with Hizbullah now threatens to divert world attention from the conflagration in Gaza.
Following Israel’s grievously disproportionate military rejoinder to Shalit’s capture, over 70 Palestinians, including several civilians, and one Israeli soldier lie dead. A Gazan power plant insured by American taxpayers lies in ruins. Even Time magazine wants to know: “Where is the U.S.?”
Five-year-old Layan cupped her hands over her ears and screwed her eyes shut when she tried to describe the effect of a sonic boom. She said the sound scares her, even though her father, Muntasir Bahja, 32, a translator, has told her “a small lie to calm her”—that the boom is nothing more than a big balloon released by a plane and then popped.
The two successive strokes and the cerebral hemorrhage that struck down Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came just a few weeks after the somber ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The causes of the two occurrences were very different, and so was the actual physical outcome, for Rabin died within minutes of sustaining his wounds, while doctors still hold out glimmers of hope for Sharon’s survival, albeit with grave handicaps.
In March 2005, Hamas, the largest Islamist party in Palestine, joined its main secular rival Fatah and 11 other Palestinian organizations in endorsing a document that seemed to embody the greatest harmony achieved within the Palestinian national movement in almost two decades. By the terms of the Cairo Declaration, Hamas agreed to “maintain an atmosphere of calm”—halt attacks on Israel—for the rest of the year, participate in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for July and commence discussions about joining the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Israel’s national colors are blue and white. In the summer of 2005, however, an Israeli driver adorning his vehicle with ribbons in those hues runs the risk of a broken antenna or a vandal’s scratches in the paint job. Conversely, the motorist would be far safer joining what appears to be the general trend by accepting the strips of bright orange proffered at every main intersection by eager youngsters in orange T-shirts. Indeed, so dominant is the orange that one may be forgiven for suspecting a mass takeover by Protestant militants from Ulster.