Sunday, January 11, 2009

Israel in Gaza: Three Wrong Arguments - Howard Schweber

Howard Schweber, Huffington Post, January 10, 2009

[Excerpt] ... Here are three claims that are central to the pro-invasion narrative that is encompassed in the Senate resolution, and just a few of the objections that should be raised whenever these arguments are heard.

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.
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).
Claim 3:
Hamas is a radical organization whose stated goal is the destruction of Israel and whose leaders have made various inflammatory statements in the past indicating a complete unwillingness to recognize Israel's legitimate rights. Any "truce" agreement is merely an excuse to prepare for future conflict, and should be ignored. Hamas cannot be dealt with because its radical ideology precludes rational bargaining or recognition of mutual self-interest; consequently, Hamas must be destroyed. Any steps that work toward the destruction of Hamas are thus defensive acts by Israel, and any offers by Hamas should be disregarded on the theory that by definition they cannot be sincere.

There is an element of perfect circularity to this argument - we do not talk to Hamas because we assume that Hamas is incapable of talking, which we know to be true because we have never talked with them - but of course the real question is what to make of the characterization of Hamas in the first place.

Hamas was formed at the outset of the First Intifadah in direct response to Israeli occupation, just as Hezbollah was formed in response to Israel's invasion and subsequent occupation of Southern Lebanon. From the outset, Hamas offered itself as an alternative to Fatah as a movement that was right there on the ground (unlike Fatah, whose leadership was safely ensconced in Tunis at the time), as a movement that would provide social services (schools, health care, aid to the poor), was free of the massive corruption that marked Fatah operations . That's why the people of Gaza elected Hamas to office, to nearly everyone's shock, when offered the chance to hold reasonably free elections.

Today, Hamas is a complex movement that contains both radical ideologues and more moderate figures in positions of leadership and relies on Iran for its support, but it is also a political party that maintains its popular support by effective governance. That alone demonstrates a capacity for pragmatism, but beyond that the fact is that Hamas' leadership offered Israel a long-term truce in 2004 in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories. Hamas subsequently confirmed that they would accept any peace agreement for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, provided that it was ratified by a popular referendum. In both instances, Israel was not interested, as Israel was not interested in securing a cessation of rocket attacks in return for lifting its blockade, nor in the 2002 Saudi plan offering recognition by the 22 Arab governments of the Arab League - which endorsed the plan in 2007 -- in return for withdrawal to the same 1967 borders.
Claim 4:
Doing nothing was not an option, and you can't come up with anything better.

Actually, it's not at all difficult to come up with "something better" than the pointless and ultimately self-defeating infliction of death, destruction, and human misery on a captive population. But that is the subject for another post.

Read more online...

Howard Schweber is the Associate Professor of Political Science and Law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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