Terror unlimited

Print edition : January 30, 2009
in Tel Aviv

President Shimon Peres, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, told the British media that Israel was the victim in this war and if rockets fell in London, you wouldnt hesitate a moment to fight back.-LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

LIKE all Israeli children, I was taught selected passages from Jewish history. In my primary school days (up to 1950), the emphasis was on ancient history with its heroic figures, a bit about the early pioneering days of Zionism between the 1880s and the First World War followed by the national struggle, that is, against the Arab population in Palestine and against the British government. There was not a great deal about the 18 centuries of exile, from the final destruction of Judea at Roman hands in A.D. 132 to modern times. We were not encouraged to think about the long chain of Jewish generations in the Diaspora, especially not in Europe, where the second millennium was packed with many horrors, such as Crusade pogroms, the Inquisition, then more pogroms, culminating in the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi genocide.

It was only some time after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 that the Holocaust became an important part of Israeli education. Suddenly all the horrors were driven into our minds the wretched ghettos, the transports, the death camps... An image which was imprinted on our consciousness was that of a crowded, helpless community surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies, starved, threatened, beaten, periodically massacred, unaided and unsupported by outside powers.

You might expect a society with this kind of history and painfully engraved imagery to be sensitive to similar situations in its vicinity, but as we have seen time and again, no such sensitivity exists vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Arab population.

After bombing the Gaza Strip for a week, flattening great parts of it, killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands, Israel sent its ground troops in after dark. Equipped with night-vision goggles, helmeted and armed from top to toe, looking very much like the American troops in Iraq, or like the Borg in Star Trek, they marched in across the middle of the Strip, effectively cutting it in two and severing Gaza City from its southern hinterland, hence also from its short border with Egypt at Rafah. The invasion was illuminated by a rain of white phosphorus, or a similar material of doubtful legality, which created a smokescreen preventing the Hamas fighters from confronting the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

International reaction ratcheted up a little, but not enough to force Israel to stop its relentless assault on this crowded little patch of Palestine, filled with Arab refugees from previous wars since 1948. The United States, as usual, prevented the United Nations Security Council from agreeing to a resolution that did not suit Israels requirements just as it did in the summer of 2006, when Israel was destroying southern Lebanon in the effort to break the Hizbollah. Then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that it was premature to call for a ceasefire meaning that Israel needed more time to do more damage.

This time, with (literally) a handful of Israeli casualties to more than 700 Palestinian ones, 217 of them children, and the Gaza Strip looking like Englands Coventry after the German bombardment, the world leadership seems to have been struck with paralysis. They mutter that Israel has the right to defend itself, but.... and move on to other matters. The most deafening silence emanated from the circle of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, the man who promised to bring change, who said Yes, we can! but who has suddenly become all discreet and respectful to the still-incumbent Bush administration and has kept calm about the continuing slaughter in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A shell fired by Israeli forces explodes over northern Gaza on January 4. The invasion of Gaza was illuminated by a rain of white phosphorus, or a similar material of doubtful legality, which created a smokescreen preventing Hamas fighters from confronting Israeli Defence Forces personnel.-BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

One question that preoccupies columnists and commentators the world over is, What is it all about? Is it really in response to those Hamas rockets fired into southern Israel, mostly bits of metal that fall harmlessly in fields, that need to drop on a persons head to kill, and at worst tear holes in a roof or wall? Is it out of fear that sooner or later, through the tunnels dug under the Strips border with Egypt, enough arms will reach the Hamas fighters to enable them to cause serious damage? Is it for fear that Hamas will eventually be able to smuggle in tanks, perhaps even fighter planes, through these tunnels (talk about a camel through the eye of a needle)? Is it to take advantage of the last days of the Bush administration to remind the Arab world what Israel is capable of (in case they have forgotten)? Is it a show to boost the standing of Ehud Barak, leader of Israels Labour Party, and of Tzipi Livni, leader of Kadima, ahead of the scheduled Israeli parliamentary elections next month? Is it to undermine the chances of an understanding with Bashar Assad, President of Syria, who has been making conciliatory noises and suggesting that peace with Israel is within reach? Is it to kill the unwelcome peace initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the entire Arab League? Is it to warn the Iranian government that Israel is a totally ruthless enemy and does not give a fig for world opinion? Or is it, as an Israeli expert on terrorism has suggested, to wipe out Hamas so as to secure complete quiet in Israels south ahead of a planned attack on Irans nuclear installations?

None of these seems to answer. The fact is that the assault on the Gaza Strip began long before the bombardment. The siege of Gaza began months ago, when the Israeli government resolved to choke the life out of the Strips population of one and a half million. Surrounded and blockaded on land, from the air and the sea, Gaza began to suffocate. Unable to obtain essentials or to export its produce, it suffered increasing hardships. Fuel, medicines, food and essential spare parts were reduced and reduced, until the lights began to go out, children went hungry, the sick died for lack of medicines...

Were putting them on a diet, chuckled an Israeli general. There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza! asserted the Israeli government, dismissing dire reports by U.N. agencies and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground. From time to time, a Hamas leader was eliminated (that is, assassinated) from the air, usually along with his family and associates. From time to time, the tunnels laboriously dug under the border with Egypt were bombed. And this was during the so-called truce that had been informally agreed with Hamas, which the organisation observed fairly closely, though it could not prevent its smaller rivals, such as the Islamic Jihad, from violating it by lobbing those useless rockets into Israel.

From start to finish, the process resembled the U.S. assault on Saddams Iraq: first it was pulverised by the U.S. Air Force, then subjected to ferocious sanctions and penalties which brought it to its knees and, according to U.N. coordinator Dennis Halliday, cost the lives of some half a million Iraqi children (A price worth paying, said U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright), and then invaded with ease.

The process was repeated on a smaller scale in Gaza the tiny, crowded enclave was isolated and starved, then bombed back to the Stone Age, then invaded. As I write, a certain amount of international outrage has been sparked by the attack on a U.N.-run school, where numerous civilians, naively imagining that the IDF would hesitate to bomb it, had taken shelter. The 40 dead all civilians and 50 wounded looked bad on television. But Israeli President Shimon Peres, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize(!), told the British media that Israel was the victim in this war and if rockets fell in London, you wouldnt hesitate a moment to fight back. It is possible that he does not know what a long campaign of bombings the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its successor, the Provisional IRA, conducted against England and how many victims it felled yet the British government did not bomb the Irish Republic, not even after the Queens uncle, Earl Mountbatten, was assassinated... The chances are that Peres does know better but thinks his audience does not know, or has forgotten.

Also, as I write, it is reported that Barack Obama has broken his deafening silence on the subject of Gaza and expressed deep concern about the rising toll of civilian life in Israel and Gaza. French President Nicholas Sarkozy waltzed over to West Asia to chat with such moderate Arab leaders as Egypts aged President Hosni Mubarak and the neutered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, all the time reiterating that Hamas must take the blame for the outbreak of the war and that any ceasefire must include an absolute end to the organisations acquisition of weapons. As if it goes without saying that the population and the democratically elected leadership of the Gaza Strip must be completely helpless.

That Hamas provoked the attack is clear: the venerable Cairo daily Al Ahram advised them: If you cannot kill the wolf, dont pull its tail! but that is to ignore all the circumstances. In many ways, the parallel is the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto against the Nazi occupiers of Poland, when the alternative was slow death.

Things are happening as I write the Israeli Cabinet is meeting to decide whether to expand Operation Cast Lead, as the Israelis have dubbed this assault on Gaza; members of the U.S. Senate are circulating a resolution commending Israel on its handling of the crisis; Hugo Chavez, Venezuelas fiery President, has expelled the Israeli Ambassador to Caracas; and the European Union is still debating the stand it should adopt. Gaza is dying in a welter of blood and the dust of blown-up buildings, in darkness and hunger. A few thousand Israelis are tearing their hair in despair at their inability to stop this massive war crime from being perpetrated in their name, while the majority of Israels Jewish population thinks its government is doing a fine job.

All of which leads me to restate what I call Lotans First Law of Human Relations. It states that when one party has power over another, it will use it. This applies to men and women, adults and children, the propertied and the indigent, developed states and underdeveloped ones, and all other unequal relationships.

Israel has tremendous military might a state-of-the-art air force, armour, artillery, long-range missiles, a navy that includes submarines as well as warships, chemical and biological weapons, and of course a nuclear arsenal that includes both strategic and tactical weapons, together with the means of delivering them halfway around the world. The Palestinian population has nothing more fearsome than rocks and home-made fire-bombs, and some pathetic Grad and Qassam rockets. Any attempt by the Palestinians to resist the power that has deprived them of their land, their livelihood, their dignity, is invariably answered with great ferocity.

The only hope now is that the incoming administration in the U.S. will be a little more balanced in its attitude to this conflict and will impose some restraint on its client, Israel. Otherwise, the tragedy of Palestine will keep on playing out, until, as Mahatma Gandhi said, Everyone is left blind.

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