Saturday, January 10, 2009

Everybody knows

Check out this Howard Schweber piece that effectively demolishes some of the more pernicious 'everybody knows' about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians:

Claim 1:
Israel disengaged from Gaza and removed its settlements. In response, the people of Gaza elected a Hamas government and since then rockets have been continually launched into Israel. By the same token, when Israel left Lebanon, Hezbollah moved in. This proves that Israel had no choice but to attempt to destroy or substantially weaken Hamas on the ground in Gaza, and demonstrates the futility of trading land for peace.

The assertion that Israel has ended its occupation is extremely debatable; among others, it is debated by Human Rights Watch. Israel controls Gaza's northern and eastern border crossings, its access to the sea, and its airspace. Israel has shut down Gaza's port and destroyed its airport, ended its fishing industry, and controls the flow of electricity and oil, food and medicine, and even money into the territory. With the cooperation of Egypt, Israel continues to control who enters and exits Gaza; since the election of Hamas Israel has used that power to place Gaza under a state of siege resulting in dire humanitarian conditions in an already impoverished territory that has struggled for decades under the burden of absorbing huge numbers of refugees from Israel. Even prior to the siege, the Israeli Air Force demonstrated its continued ownership of the skies over Gaza by sending jets to produce sonic booms over Gazan cities, a gesture apparently with no purpose other than to harass the local population (also used in Southern Lebanon following Israel's "withdrawal"), a gentle reminder to people on the ground that they sleep at night only if Israel chooses to let them do so. People say that Israel "withdrew" from Gaza as though Gaza had been left autonomous and independent and free from Israeli control and interference; nothing could be further from the truth.

Moreover, to describe a "withdrawal from Gaza" is to artificially divide the Palestinian territories. The withdrawal of the settlements from inside Gaza was accompanied by massive acceleration of settlement construction in the West Bank; most observers have concluded that Sharon's motivation was precisely to free up resources for that purpose. Israel has been absolutely relentless in the expansion of those settlements, along with everything that goes with them; the checkpoints, "whites only" roads, the military incursion in 2002, and the separation wall.

From the Palestinian perspective, the statement that Israel withdrew from Gaza and was not rewarded with peace is almost incomprehensibly dishonest; Palestinians and Arabs in other countries I have spoken with assume that people making that argument are speaking with utter self-awareness of the cynicism of their argument. If you stick a knife in my chest and another one in my foot, then you pull out the one from my foot but drive the one in my chest even deeper, do not expect me not to kick you with my foot that is still bleeding from the wounds you have inflicted. Peace between Israel and Palestine may indeed come through a series of steps, but the framework of understanding cannot be one that separates Gaza from the West Bank, as though being allowed free access to Khan Younis somehow makes up for being cut off from Jerusalem.

Claim 2:
Israel has been subject to constant rocket attacks. What would you (addressed to an American) do if rockets were falling on your city? And what about Gilad Shalit, who has not even been allowed to be seen by visitors? What would you do if this had happened to America?

A fair point, to be sure; rocket attacks are an act of war, and Israel has a right to defend itself. The problem is that Israel's blockade of Gaza is also an act of war, and Palestinians have the same right of self-defense. To focus only on the rockets coming into Israel is like describing the Battle of Britain as "British planes attacking German planes"; it's not technically inaccurate, but as a description it is incomplete to the point of complete distortion. When we are asked "what would you do if rockets from Canada were landing in Minnesota" we should also ask "what would you do if a foreign power - or two foreign powers, acting in cooperation -- had cut off all access to your country and was slowly starving your population in order to compel you to get rid of your elected government?"

Ending the siege has been Hamas' main and constant demand. When the truce began on June 19th Israel permitted increased importation of food, but still only to about 20% of normal levels. The UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Robert Falk, has reported levels of hunger inside Gaza that rival those of the poorest sub-Saharan nations and has called the Israeli siege a "crime against humanity." In November, Israel launched two military attacks that effectively ended the truce and led to the resumption of rocket attacks; nonetheless in December Hamas offered to extend the truce if Israel would only lift the siege. Israel was not interested; thereafter Hamas increased the intensity of the attacks, culminating in a barrage the week of Christmas that prompted the initiation of Operation Cast Lead (although, as I have pointed out in an earlier post, that operation had been planned for months).

The point of the siege all along was to inflict misery on Gaza in order to turn them against their government, an act of collective punishment designed to turn Gazans against their government. In 2006 Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, was quoted in The Guardian explaining the plan: "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet." The technical name for a strategy of imposing fear and misery on a people until they turn against their government is "terrorism"; to repeat myself, Palestinians have the same right of self-defense as Israelis. Nor is the blockade Israel's only act of aggression in Gaza. Throughout the period since the supposed withdrawal, Israel has launched thousands of artillery and rocket attacks into Gaza, along with periodic military operations. In the four years prior to Operation Cast Lead, those attacks resulted in 1,339 deaths among Gaza's people. How would we Americans react to those figures, or their proportional equivalents?

But it is probably the appeal to the case of Gilad Shalit that rings the most hollow, and sounds most completely cynical to Palestinians. According to B'Tselem, Israel currently holds more than 8,200 Palestinian prisoners, many of them arrested and held without charge, others tried in military courts on the basis of secret evidence that the "defense" is not allowed to see in "trials" that may last five minutes. According to Defense of Children International, in 2007 alone, Israel imprisoned some 700 children, in violation of international law. And Israel frequently denies visiting privileges to its prisoners.

Ten years ago Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel's history, famously observed that if he had been born a Palestinian he would have been a terrorist. That was long before the siege of Gaza; for a Gaza resident who has lived through the past year, taking up arms against Israel and supporting violent resistance is not only entirely understandable, it appears positively reasonable. Would Americans really overthrow our own government -- even a government we might initially have opposed -- to end a siege or the threat of attack by a more powerful enemy? Is that how Americans, and Israelis, have responded in the past?

There's more and it's all worth reading.

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