Israel’s war in Gaza is an act of political insanity. It is the product of a deeply disturbed society, able neither to curb its military arrogance nor calm its profound paranoia. The consequences are likely to be painful for Israel’s long-term prospects.
By radicalising the Palestinians, and by arousing great anger in the Arab and Muslim world, this savage war rules out the possibility of Israel’s peaceful integration in the region for the foreseeable future. That may even be its cynical aim, since Israel wants dominance, not peaceful coexistence.
As the F-16s carry out their missions of death, the message to the world is that Israel will continue to live by the sword, as it has done for the past six decades, rather than risk the concessions and compromises which peace would require.
The war has, in fact, confirmed what had long been apparent, namely that Israel has no interest in a negotiated peace. Peace means retraction, it means ceding territory, whereas Israel is still bent on expansion. That is what the continued theft of West Bank land and the mushrooming settlements are all about, together with the demolition of Palestinian homes, the security wall, the settlers-only road network, the stifling of the Palestinian economy by over 600 checkpoints, and countless other cruel vexations.
Peace is, indeed, the main casualty of this war. It is as dead as the corpses in Gaza. The two-state solution has been dealt a deathblow. The tentative Israeli-Syrian talks have been firmly shut down. The Arab Peace Plan, which offered Israel peace and normal relations with all 22 Arab states if it withdrew to its 1967 borders, has been buried in a welter of blood and bomb wreckage.
One of Israel’s war aims must surely have been to pre-empt any attempt by the incoming US administration of Barack Obama to re-launch the moribund peace process. Valuable months will now be lost clearing up the mess. As for the outgoing Bush administration, the blatant lies of Condoleezza Rice, who blamed the war solely on Hamas, must serve as the damning political epitaph of the most ineffectual US Secretary of State of modern times.
Israel has never liked Palestinian moderates, for the simple reason that concessions might have to be made to them. To avoid being drawn into negotiations, it has always preferred Palestinian radicals -- and when they were not there it has done everything it could to create them. “How can you negotiate with someone who wants to kill you?” is a familiar Israeli refrain.
The war on Gaza has confirmed Israel’s visceral rejection of any expression of Palestinian nationalism. It will kill to prevent it, as sixty years of wars, assassinations and massacres testify. Consciously or not, Israeli leaders seem to fear that any recognition of Palestinian aspirations undermines the legitimacy of their own national enterprise.
It may be that the war was launched precisely because Hamas has recently shown signs of moderation. Its key spokesmen -- including Khaled Mish‘al, head of its political bureau -- have expressed their readiness to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. To Israel’s dismay, they have begun to distance themselves from the movement’s 1987 charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction.
The Qassam rockets were a great embarrassment to the Israeli government. It was unable to stop them except by agreeing to a truce. The rockets angered an Israeli population notoriously blind to any suffering but its own. But, in truth, the rockets were no more than highly irritating pin-pricks. The figures speak for themselves. Fewer than 20 Israelis have been killed by Qassam rockets since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. In the same period Israel, displaying its usual astonishing indifference to Arab life, has killed some 2,000 Palestinians. Israeli state terror has been incomparably more lethal than anything Hamas could manage. The death toll continues to mount.
Israel never liked the truce with Hamas and chose not to respect its terms. Instead of easing the blockade on Gaza -- as it was meant to do -- it tightened it, reducing the crowded, suffering Strip to abject misery. And it unilaterally broke the truce by an armed incursion on 4 November, which killed several Hamas men. In retrospect, this action must be seen as a deliberate attempt to provoke Hamas into a violent response, and thus provide Israel with a casus belli.
Stopping the rockets fired by Hamas into the Negev was indeed only one of several reasons Israel went to war, and by no means the most important one. If anything, the rockets have provided Israel with a pretext for launching a war with far wider aims.
The principal aim of Israel’s all-out war on Hamas is to reaffirm the military supremacy over all its neighbours which the Jewish state has enjoyed since its creation in 1948. The war is therefore meant as a warning to Hizbullah in Lebanon, as well as to Syria and Iran -- and indeed to anyone who might dare challenge Israel’s predominance -- that they, too, could face the sort of devastating punishment Gaza is now enduring.
Deterrence -- one-sided, Israel-only deterrence -- lies at the heart of Israel’s security doctrine. It wants total freedom to hit, and never to be hit back. It relies on brute force to protect itself, and rejects any form of mutual deterrence. It is totally opposed to a regional balance of power which might force it to moderate its actions.
In recent years, however, Israel’s deterrent capability has been somewhat dented by challenges from Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran. Hizbullah held Israel to a draw in the 2006 Lebanon war, while Hamas’ rockets compelled a reluctant Israel to agree a truce. Even more seriously from Israel’s point of view, the United States resisted Israeli pressure to make war on Iran, whose nuclear programme Israel has insisted on portraying as an ‘existential’ threat. The truth is that if the Islamic Republic were ever to reach a nuclear threshold Israel’s freedom to strike its neighbours would very probably be curtailed.
Throughout the truce with Hamas, which started some six months ago on 19 June, Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak devoted himself to planning for the war, which he and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have now unleashed. Long and careful preparations for the assault were made in the months of relative quiet. The last thing Israel could accept was that Hamas might acquire any deterrent capability of its own, however minimal.
This is what Barak meant when he said that Israel’s intention was “totally to change the rules of the game.” Resistance to Israel of any sort is not to be allowed. Hamas has to be destroyed and rooted out of Gaza altogether. It remains to be seen what the longer-term consequences of this folly might be.
Israel goes to the polls on 10 February, a few short weeks from now. The outcome of the war could determine whether Barak, the murderous architect of the Gaza war, can claw back support for his Labour Party from Tzipi Livni’s Kadima and from Binyamin Netanyahu’s hard-right Likud.
It is tempting to see the war as little more than a cynical electoral ploy by Barak and Livni, aimed at enhancing their respective prospects and keeping Netanyahu at bay. In fact, all Israel’s political leaders gave their approval to the war, whatever their party affiliation. All are drunk with military power. All cheered the mounting Palestinian casualties. None seems able to come to terms with what a real peace might entail. Perhaps none of them can truly believe that Israel’s crimes can ever be forgiven or forgotten, and that they have no option, therefore, but to go on killing.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.
Copyright ©2009 Patrick Seale
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