by Dan Jakopovich
To understand the real context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is necessary to cut through the forest of propaganda, distortion and censorship of the mass media, and through misconceptions, ignorance and indifference of the public. The latest carnage clearly illustrates this. On the one side, hypocritical pro-Israeli positions dominate in the Western countries (particularly in the USA), whereas on the other side the discourse is dominated by the fundamentalist Islamist thought pattern, joined in by some inconsistent leftists, according to which the “enemy of my enemy is – automatically – my friend”. What are the mental pointers for us escapees and renegades from such a brutalising discourse, for those among us who want to establish a humanist basis for facing the challenge of peace in the Middle East?
THE BACKGROUND OF THE LATEST MASSACRE
This path must primarily be based on the firm condemnation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and on the condemnation of the Israeli state terrorism against the Palestinian population. This also includes the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to fight for its freedom. The colonialist and latently imperialist nature of the state of Israel was evident from its very creation, the physical relocation of the Palestinians and the occupation of the historical Palestine in 1948 (although the violence between the Muslims and the Jews had begun much earlier). At that time, in some villages and towns there were even organised executions of the Palestinians. In the words of Israeli historian Benny Morris, “(a) Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population.”1
Following this initial wave of violence, Israel, armed by the Western imperialist powers, soon ventured on to occupy further territories by force, to wage war and destroy Palestinian settlements. Today, in addition to millions of the Palestinians in exile, there are more than a million and a half of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, on the territory that is smaller than Andorra, i.e. on 20% of the original territory of Palestine. Although this is rarely mentioned in the media, the “Autonomous Palestinian Territories”, surrounded by the state of Israel, are under strict Israeli blockade that prevents free trade and movement of Palestinians and even the import of basic supplies such as food or medical equipment and medicines. On top of that, Israel has systematically destroyed the existing Palestinian infrastructure. Even before the latest war, about two thirds of the Palestinian population did not regularly have electricity and many had no running water. Hospitals are desperately lacking basic medical supplies. The population is suffering food shortage, and malnutrition among the children is spreading. Without any real rights and protection from oppression, the living conditions of the population of the Gaza Strip, who are actually living in a series of refugee camps, have been described by many as the “biggest open-air prison”.
SOURCES OF THE ESCALATION AND PALESTINIAN EXTREMISM
Like in the rest of the Arab world, the growth of Palestinian extremism is directly related to the imperialist strategy of “divide and rule”, and with the suppression of the secular, left-wing alternative. The Israeli support for Hamas (Palestinian wing of the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood) against the then dominant secular PLO fit in the broader strategy of the U.S. that, mostly through Saudi Arabia, financed and in other ways supported Islamists in their fight against secular nationalist or socialist organisations and parties. Particularly when the pronouncedly right-wing Likud party came to power in Israel, the struggles against the Left was raised to a new level, and Israel even financed the Islamists, who initially fiercely clashed with more radical left-wing forces such as the National Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Understanding the importance of ideological struggle in preserving its hegemony, Israel expelled Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad, a Christian pacifist advocating non-violent resistance against Israeli occupation, while at the same time allowing the founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, to distribute anti-Semitic literature and call for armed annihilation of the state of Israel. Similarly, until the end of 1993, U.S. officials were meeting Hamas leaders and declined any communication with the PLO, although the PLO, in contrast to Hamas, renounced terrorism. “While supporters of the secular PLO were denied their own media or the right to hold political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities allowed radical Islamic groups to hold rallies, publish uncensored newspapers and even have their own radio station. Also, for example, in the occupied Palestinian city of Gaza in 1981 Israeli soldiers – who had shown no hesitation in brutally suppressing peaceful pro-PLO demonstrations – stood by when a group of Islamic extremists attacked and burned a PLO-affiliated clinic in Gaza for offering family-planning services to women.” 2
However, the most important reason for which Hamas has been gaining in popularity is the disappointment of the Palestinian population with the PLO that – on account of its own inner contradictions, such as widespread corruption, and because of the unrelenting Israel and his powerful allies – was completely unsuccessful in the fight for the liberation of Palestine. As the PLO grew increasingly impotent, stooping lower to all kinds of corruption and becoming more and more ready to negotiate with Israel, Hamas filled in the void with its pugnacious stance and claims, greater resolve to end the corruption and eliminate local warlords. It was equally important that with economic sanctions and blockade Israel intensified the economic insecurity that contributed to Hamas’ Islamic welfare societies. Hamas social activities, as well as its promise to eliminate corruption and establish effective social services, were more attractive to the population than PLO’s fake “leftist” leaders (bearing in mind, of course, that the mainstream Islamist ideology is “above class“, that Islamic left-wing currents are marginal, and that Hamas certainly does not represent them). In addition to welfare societies, Hamas brought the struggle for popularity and recruitment of militants to the increasingly numerous mosques. Moreover, Hamas’ more resolute (though wrong) strategy of resistance was more attractive to a substantial portion of the population than the fatigue and loss of orientation of the PLO. Its growing moderation did not result in any significant progress in the negotiations with intransigent Israel. Arafat died a defeated man, isolated under house arrest, whereas the Israeli blockade led the country into a severe economic depression in spite of the Oslo Accords of 1993. This Agreement was to establish peace between the two states and lead to a relatively independent Palestinian mini state, but – among other things – it served to legalise the territorial situation after the Israeli conquest in the Six Day War of 1967.3 Not even this minimum agreement (that also ignored the right of a large refugee population to return) was honoured. PLO’s attempted “fair play” did not bring about any improvement of the situation. Particularly after Israeli death squads liquidated many Hamas leaders, including Yassin, and the Israeli state declined to negotiate with the (corrupt) Government of Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas was increasingly beginning to appear as the vanguard of Palestine liberation. These were the main reasons why Hamas increased its popularity and won the 2006 parliamentary elections.
Faced with the change in Palestinian leadership, Israel and the U.S. only reversed their proven strategy of tension and division of Palestinian forces, and they began to secretly support Fatah with money and arms to enable its coup in Gaza. In his leaked secret report, the former UN coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Alvaro de Soto, noted that “the Americans clearly encouraged a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas” and “worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry”.4 In addition, Israel suspended the transfer of funds from Palestinian taxes, depriving the Palestinian state treasury of $50 million every month. This intensified the humanitarian crisis. In such a situation, Fatah and the rest of the PLO were beginning to look like mere pawns of imperialist powers in the eyes of a significant part of the population. In the bloody showdown with Fatah (that the mainstream media often presented as a Hamas coup) Hamas won through brutal methods. Among other things, Hamas militants shot at the mostly Fatah mass of some 200,000 people during Arafat’s funeral, and Hamas summarily executed its rivals from Fatah, as well as civilians and alleged “collaborators” with Israel.5 Also, “(a)t certain times, Hamas members have intervened to stop what the organization defines as “immoral” behaviour, such as partying, drinking alcohol, not wearing the hijab, mixed swimming and so forth. One such incident occurred in 2005 in Gaza, when a Palestinian woman was killed and her fiancé beaten up after they were found in his car at a beach.”6 As I already mentioned, Hamas is a Palestine branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative international organisation whose Kuwaiti branch opposes women’s voting rights, and the former international leader of the Brotherhood, Mustafa Mashur, advocated a special tax on non-Muslims in Egypt as recently as 1997. Their current leaders, such as Mohammed Mahdi Akef, even defended Ahmadinejad’s questioning/denial of the Holocaust.
However, in spite of Hamas’ international ties, their Islamist ideology and reproduction of anti-secular, patriarchal and anti-democratic social patterns, the organisation functions in a relatively secular society. It is being forced to largely pursue a compromise type of policy. Even the rather conservative Times of London pointed out that Gaza is “a secular society where people listen to pop music, watch TV and many women walk the streets unveiled”.7 Some authors have identified Hamas evolution towards greater openness to new solutions to the crisis and a decrease in the importance of religion.8 However, the most notorious aspect of Hamas activities are terrorist methods in its fight against Israel. The political intentionality of the tactics of suicide bombers, and the role of the Hamas political leadership in it, are well documented.9
The Israeli and U.S. positions were destructive in this regard as well. Hamas was exposed to severe pressure, yet it was Abbas who, under the U.S. pressure, turned down a Hamas proposal to set up a coalition government that would include Fatah. Faced with stringent international sanctions (organised by the Bush administration and soon joined by the EU) Hamas was pushed in the hands of Iran that readily jumped in with millions of dollars of economic assistance, thus establishing previously non-existent influence on Palestinian politics. Simultaneously, the blockade and the economic breakdown helped Hamas to recruit unemployed and frustrated young men.10 Violence and poverty make fertile ground for extremism.
One of the biggest falsehoods of the Western mainstream media was the claim that Hamas first violated the truce. Israel was the one that – from the start – declined to honour its obligations under that truce. In addition to the already established checkpoints, the construction of the wall and the settlement on the West Bank (etc.), Palestinian territory was placed under blockade for eighteen months, prohibiting the import of food, water, electricity, fuel, medicines and other vital supplies. About 400 people lost their lives digging underground tunnels to Egypt to bring in those supplies. In addition, Israel constantly interfered in Palestinian internal affairs, heating up the conflict between Hamas and Fatah and constantly attempting to destabilize Hamas’ lawfully elected government (among other things, there are still 45 Hamas MPs in Israeli prisons). In such a humiliating, frustrating situation, rage and desperation led to the growing identification of Palestinians with the extreme wing of the resistance movement.
The media mostly remained silent on the fact that during the last interruption of hostilities it was Hamas that actually offered the extension of the truce several times, even to 10 years, and in the words of one UN official in charge of monitoring the human rights situation in occupied Palestine, “claimed a receptivity to a political solution based on acceptance of Israel’s 1967 borders”.11 More intensive and continuous Hamas rocket attacks on border areas began as a direct reaction not only to the economic blockade, to the repression against the Palestinian political system and political movements, but also as a response to the Israeli attack of 4 November last year when several Palestinians were killed.
Although Hamas’ Qassam rockets are low-grade, they contributed to a sharp increase in PTSP among the population (adults and children) of the border town of Sderot on which rockets were mostly launched.12 Rocket attacks killed several people, including two Israeli girls. This is an outrageous crime and utterly condemnable. However, it was morbidly used by Israel as an excuse to kill Palestinian soldiers and civilians, including Palestinian children.
The lie about the “right of Israel to security and defence” is constantly repeated by Western imperialist politicians and mainstream media in the U.S. and Europe. It is by all means necessary to consistently condemn Palestinian terrorism, but also this kind of phrasemongering. “(T)here is no right of an occupation regime to defend its occupation“.13 The same false rationalisation was used in the severe Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, when Israeli actions were jointly defended by Angela Merkel and George Bush who was visiting Germany at the time. The United States acted behind the scenes again to support Israeli violence, and in cooperation with the United Kingdom blocked the Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Israeli attack and called for a ceasefire, which yet again confirms the irrelevance of international law and the indifference and helplessness of the UN and the “international community” under the paw of the world’s oligarchs. In the presidential campaign both Obama and McCain competed to show who is the bigger friend of the state of Israel. In addition, just like European Stalinists used to defend “their” Soviet Union “for better or worse”, thus there are presently many lobbyists and Zionist organisations throughout the world who more or less specialise in the defence and promotion of the state of Israel, “for better or worse”.14 Olmert openly described “Jewish organisations” as “our power base in America”.15 Thus, for example, in the latest Israeli offensive some U.S. pro-Israeli organisations bought media space to justify the massacre committed by the Israeli army in Palestine (and a similar thing was done during the last Israeli attack on Lebanon). In comparison, not even the appeal for humanitarian aid to the population of Gaza was allowed on the BBC, although a similar appeal to aid the population of Kosovo was broadcast during the bombing of Serbia.
Even before Hamas came to power, Israeli forces blocked the passages between Egypt and the Palestinian territory. Egypt openly collaborated with Israel in the blockade of Gaza and even prevented Palestinian refugees to find refuge from Israeli attacks in Egypt. Under the martial law Mubarak’s regime even conducted arrests of (both left-wing and Islamist) critics of Egypt’s policy towards Gaza. This close ally of the U.S. admits that it holds 1,800 people in prisons without any charges, whereas human rights groups claim that the figure is 10,000 prisoners.16 Regrettably, at the moment, the main opposition to the autocratic Mubarak’s regime are the Islamists.
The geopolitical importance of Israel, and its multiple strategic links to the United States, are reflected in the U.S. political, economic, and military and other support to Israel. Since the end of the Second World War Israel has been the main beneficiary of U.S. economic and military aid17, and the Washington based economist Thomas Stauffer even arrived at the controversial figure of $1.6 trillion of U.S. aid to Israel since 1973 (this included the attempt to also factor in “hidden costs” such as interest and higher fuel prices).18 Since 1949, Israel has received $53 billion in military assistance,19 and the U.S. Congress approved the increase from $2.4 billion in 2008 to as much as $2.55 billion in military assistance to Israel in 2009.20 Simultaneously, several million Americans are facing the foreclosure of their homes, the number of unemployed exceeds 11 million, and the Urban Institute estimates that about 137,000 U.S. citizens died between 2000-2006 because they did not have any health insurance!21 In 2007, the U.S. signed a military assistance agreement with Israel worth $30 billion over a 10-year period.22
The fierce Israeli offensive with F16 airplanes and Apache helicopters against a quasi-statelet without any military capability to defend itself is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 1,330 inhabitants of Gaza were killed in these attacks, at least one half of them were civilians23, whereas the Israeli army claims that 1,200 people died in the Gaza Strip. 24 About 5,300 people were wounded, and thousands are still without home.25 As of January 6, about 800,000 Palestinians had no running water either.26 During the conflict, about 100,000 Palestinians abandoned their homes, but they were not allowed to flee Gaza. UN coordinator for the Palestinian territory Maxwell Gaylard said that “There is no safe space in the Gaza Strip — no safe haven, no bomb shelters, and the borders are closed — making this one of the rare conflicts where civilians have no place to flee”.27 This time, violence was brought to a new high with the Israeli use of white phosphorus (supplied by the U.S.), and Palestinian hospitals had no knowledge of how to treat such wounds.
One of the tragic aspects of the situation in the Middle East is the psychology of Israeli masses that many have been describing as a “condition of permanent siege mentality”. The Israeli culture of fear and control serves as a justification for ethnic cleansing, decade-long occupation, expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank (simultaneous with the much better publicised withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip), the construction of the apartheid wall to turn the West Bank into a big ghetto, and of the barbaric siege of Gaza and the West Bank. It is a morbid, hypocritical betrayal of the victims of the Holocaust, a crime that should eternally reinforce our universal condemnation of dehumanisation. “The legitimating of violence against a demonized internal enemy brings us close to the heart of fascism.”28
This latest war was interpreted by many analysts as part of the recent Israeli election campaign, in which Israeli politicians were traditionally showing off their militarist and nationalist credentials. After the war, the position of more moderate and rational forces in Israel and Palestine is more difficult, which suits the militarist elements on both sides. According to M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Center, “the fact is that Israeli (and American) right-wingers are rooting for the Palestinian extremists” because “supplanting (…) Fatah with Islamic fundamentalists would prevent a situation under which Israel would be forced to negotiate with moderates.” 29 Consequently, Israel will have an easier job of presenting its militarist imperialism as a “war on terror” and not an occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. The Israeli political scene is one of the most extreme right-wing political scenes in industrialised world, so that, for example, all the major Israeli parties supported the recent carnage. It is, therefore, no wonder that Israeli left-wing peace movement of Gush Shalom, or the Israeli organisation Peace Now, are being constantly ridiculed and stigmatised. Western governments and mainstream media are not trying to establish contacts with those organisations. Even the protests of the Israelis against the war were given a silent treatment, as well as the fact that during the protest in Ramallah two people were killed. Unfortunately, Israel is not likely to become more civilised under the leadership of the notorious militarist and new/old Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu either.
It is necessary to level very severe criticism on Hamas as well. Continuing rocket attacks on border territories at a time when Israeli leadership was looking for an excuse for missile attacks against Palestinian targets and for land invasion was a mindless, mentally defective choice of action. Hamas thus confirmed that they care little both for the Israeli citizens (of which there was never any doubt, anyway) and for their own population. They are willing to sacrifice their own citizens in exchange for “holy” territory.
It would be wrong (and actually impossible) to exclude Hamas from the negotiations, as purported by many analysts of the conflict, including the former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who also described the situation as apartheid against the Palestinians.30 As regards left-wing anti-imperialists who are insufficiently critical of Hamas, it is important to stress the difference between maintaining tactical and strategic relations with Hamas because of their current strength, and supporting Hamas, which is quite another thing. It is not possible to draw a clear line between means and ends, and it is naive to ignore the fact that the Palestinian people will be able to free themselves from their conservative and reactionary elites and movements more easily if they begin to develop new progressive roads during the very struggle for liberation. There is nothing “abstractly humanist” (whatever such phrases may mean) in the resistance to the continuation of inter-ethnic slaughter, in the resistance to policies that intensify the poverty of masses and lead to the dehumanisation of life, social relations and institutions. These policies cannot positively influence the minds of Israeli masses, nor the world public. Instead, they are helping to legitimise Israeli and Western imperialist aggression against the Palestinians. There is nothing “abstract” in rejecting Palestinian mistakes that make it easier to criminalise Palestinian organisations and resistance. Left-wing humanism is above all a practical, concrete approach to the struggle against brutishness in human society, consciousness and conscience.
Hamas methods are not only criminal but also very wrong. Decades of armed struggle against Israel have not brought the Palestinians closer to the goal: a state of their own, but have contributed to immense suffering, violence and brutalisation of life on both sides, as well as to the rise of militarism and extremism on both sides and the very disconcerting destabilisation of the entire region and broader international situation – through constant paroxysms of hatred. Islamic fundamentalism and imperialist presence in the Middle East both feed on the Palestinian issue. In contrast to this blind alley, a type of politics that is not based on empirically founded but rigidly ideological, reactionary positions, it is necessary to promote an alternative, democratic type of politics that maximizes the possibility of international support and solidarity and strengthens healthier political tendencies in Palestine and Israel. To date, unarmed resistance has already prevailed over state repression under tyrannical conditions in various instances throughout the world. We can only speculate to what extent such an approach would be successful if it were more seriously attempted in the Middle East and if the resources used for armed resistance were redirected to different forms of unarmed resistance.31 It is quite certain, however, that in case the present policy towards Israel is continued, the liberation of Palestine will be turning into an ever more distant dream.
It is the duty of the left to be on the side of the weak and oppressed. However, it is our duty to also stand for a realistic and consistent humanist perspective. Self-censorship would do them and the broader struggle for international change a disservice. Terrorism cannot be eliminated with terrorist methods, and there will hardly be any progress for as long as this fact is not accepted by both sides. The authentic, democratic Left needs to advocate a more realistic, progressive strategy and cooperate with all those forces in the Palestinian society, as well as in the Israeli society and in the rest of the world, that are able to help in the realisation of this alternative path.
1 Interview in Haaretz, in Henry Siegman, Israel’s Lies, London Review of Books, Vol. 31, No.2, 29 January 2009.
2 Stephen Zunes, America’s Hidden Role in Hamas’s Rise to Power, AlterNet, January 5, 2009.
3 Noam Chomsky, A Painful Peace, Z Magazine, January, 1996.
4 Alvaro de Soto, in Stephen Zunes, ibid.
5 Human Rights Watch, Gaza: Armed Palestinian Groups Commit Grave Crimes, June 12, 2007, published
6 Deepa Kumar, Behind the Myths about Hamas, Socialist Worker, January 21, 2009.
7 William Sieghart, We Must Adjust Our Distorted Image of Hamas, The Times, December 31, 2008.
8 See e.g. Khaled Hroub, A ‘New Hamas’ Through Its New Documents, Journal of Palestine Studies, 34 (4), Summer, 2006.
9 Human Rights Watch, Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians, October, 2002, published online www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/2002/_isrl-pa/ISRAELPA_1002- 05.htm#_P735_169095 .
10 Stephen Zunes, op.cit.
11 Richard Falk, Understanding the Gaza Catastrophe, Huffington Post, January 4, 2009.
12 Mijal Greenberg, Sderot traumatic stress center sees steep rise in new patients , Haaretz, 21.5. 2007.
13 Kim Petersen, The Inalienable Right to Resist Occupation, Dissident Voice, December 29, 2008.
14 See e.g. John Maersheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby, London Review of Books, 23 March, 2006.; Michael Massing, The Storm over the Israel Lobby, New York Review of Books, 8 June, 2006.
15 Financial Times, 30 November, 2007.
16 Michael Slackman, In Young Foreigner’s Arrest, Egypt Shows Muscle Over Gaza Issue, International Herald Tribune, February 11, 2009.
17 Congressional Research Service, U.S. Foreign Aid To Israel, January 2, 2008.
18 David R. Francis, Economist Tallies Swelling Cost of Israel to US, Christian Science Monitor, December 9, 2002.
19 Dave Schechter, Aid to Israel, And The Bang For Those Bucks, CNN.com, January 31, 2009.
20 Dave Schechter, ibid.
21 Stan Dorn, Uninsured and Dying Because of It: Updating the Institute of Medicine Analysis on the Impact of Uninsurance on Mortality, Urban Institute, 2008.
22 Steven Erlanger, Israel to Get $30 Billion in Military Aid From U.S., New York Times, August 17, 2007.
23 Gaza Fighting Casualties Added Up, Perth Now, January 22, 2009.
24 Yaakov Katz, World Duped By Hamas Death Count, The Jerusalem Post, February 15, 2009.
25 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Field Update On Gaza From The Humanitarian Coordinator, 26 January, 2009.
26 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Field Update From The Humanitarian Coordinator, 6 January, 2009.
27 Maxwell Gaylard, in Patrick Moser, Civilians Unable to Escape the Brunt of Gaza Offensive, Middle East Times, January 7, 2009.
28 Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, Vintage Books, New York, 2005, p.84.
29 M.J. Rosenberg, in Zunes, ibid.
30 Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2006.
31 See e.g. Mary Elizabeth King, A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance, Nation Books, New York, 2007..; Mubarak Awad, Non-violent Resistance: A Strategy for the Occupied Territories, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 13, No. 4, Summer, 1984., pp. 22-36.