Gaza Under Assault

The images of bombardment have left Israel few remaining shreds of credibility.

Noam Chomsky

A Palestinian woman cries during the funeral of her husband in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, on November 22, 2012. He was killed with his granddaughter in an Israeli air strike. (SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)

An old man in Gaza held a plac­ard that read: You take my water, burn my olive trees, destroy my house, take my job, steal my land, imprison my father, kill my moth­er, bom­bard my coun­try, starve us all, humil­i­ate us all, but I am to blame: I shot a rock­et back.”

Even decent people ask what Israel should do when attacked by a barrage of missiles. It's a fair question, and there are straightforward answers. One response would be to observe international law.

The old man’s mes­sage pro­vides the prop­er con­text for the lat­est episode in the sav­age pun­ish­ment of Gaza. The crimes trace back to 1948, when hun­dreds of thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans fled from their homes in ter­ror or were expelled to Gaza by con­quer­ing Israeli forces, who con­tin­ued to truck Pales­tini­ans over the bor­der for years after the offi­cial cease-fire.

The pun­ish­ment took new forms when Israel con­quered Gaza in 1967. From recent Israeli schol­ar­ship (pri­mar­i­ly Avi Raz’s The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jor­dan, and the Pales­tini­ans in the After­math of the June 1967 War), we learn that the gov­ern­men­t’s goal was to dri­ve the refugees into the Sinai Penin­su­la — and, if fea­si­ble, the rest of the pop­u­la­tion too.

Expul­sions from Gaza were car­ried out under the direct orders of Gen. Yeshayahu Gav­ish, com­man­der of the Israel Defense Forces South­ern Com­mand. Expul­sions from the West Bank were far more extreme, and Israel resort­ed to devi­ous means to pre­vent the return of those expelled, in direct vio­la­tion of U.N. Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil orders.

The rea­sons were made clear in inter­nal dis­cus­sions imme­di­ate­ly after the war. Gol­da Meir, lat­er prime min­is­ter, informed her Labor Par­ty col­leagues that Israel should keep the Gaza Strip while get­ting rid of its Arabs.” Defense Min­is­ter Moshe Dayan and oth­ers agreed.

Prime Min­is­ter Levi Eshkol explained that those expelled could not be allowed to return because we can­not increase the Arab pop­u­la­tion in Israel” — refer­ring to the new­ly occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, already con­sid­ered part of Israel.

In accord with this con­cep­tion, all of Israel’s maps were changed, expung­ing the Green Line (the inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized bor­ders) —though pub­li­ca­tion of the maps was delayed to per­mit Abba Eban, an Israeli ambas­sador to the UN, to attain what he called a favor­able impasse” at the Gen­er­al Assem­bly by con­ceal­ing Israel’s intentions.

The goals of expul­sion may remain alive today, and might be a fac­tor in con­tribut­ing to Egyp­t’s reluc­tance to open the bor­der to free pas­sage of peo­ple and goods barred by the U.S.-backed Israeli siege.

The cur­rent upsurge of U.S.-Israeli vio­lence dates to Jan­u­ary 2006, when Pales­tini­ans vot­ed the wrong way” in the first free elec­tion in the Arab world.
Israel and the U.S. react­ed at once with harsh pun­ish­ment of the mis­cre­ants, and prepa­ra­tion of a mil­i­tary coup to over­throw the elect­ed gov­ern­ment — the rou­tine pro­ce­dure. The pun­ish­ment was rad­i­cal­ly inten­si­fied in 2007, when the coup attempt was beat­en back and the elect­ed Hamas gov­ern­ment estab­lished full con­trol over Gaza.

Ignor­ing imme­di­ate offers from Hamas for a truce after the 2006 elec­tion, Israel launched attacks that killed 660 Pales­tini­ans in 2006, most of whom were civil­ians (a third were minors). Accord­ing to UN reports, 2,879 Pales­tini­ans were killed by Israeli fire from April 2006 through July 2012, along with sev­er­al dozen Israelis killed by fire from Gaza.

A short-lived truce in 2008 was hon­ored by Hamas until Israel broke it in Novem­ber. Ignor­ing fur­ther truce offers, Israel launched the mur­der­ous Cast Lead oper­a­tion in December.

So mat­ters have con­tin­ued, while the Unit­ed States and Israel also con­tin­ue to reject Hamas calls for a long-term truce and a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment for a two-state solu­tion in accord with the inter­na­tion­al con­sen­sus that the U.S. has blocked since 1976 when the U.S. vetoed a Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion to this effect, brought by the major Arab states.

This week, Wash­ing­ton devot­ed every effort to block­ing a Pales­tin­ian ini­tia­tive to upgrade its sta­tus at the UN but failed, in vir­tu­al inter­na­tion­al iso­la­tion as usu­al. The rea­sons were reveal­ing: Pales­tine might approach the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court about Israel’s U.S.-backed crimes.

One ele­ment of the unremit­ting tor­ture of Gaza is Israel’s buffer zone” with­in Gaza, from which Pales­tini­ans are barred entry to almost half of Gaza­’s lim­it­ed arable land.

From Jan­u­ary 2012 to the launch­ing of Israel’s lat­est killing spree on Novem­ber 14, Oper­a­tion Pil­lar of Defense, one Israeli was killed by fire from Gaza while 78 Pales­tini­ans were killed by Israeli fire.

The full sto­ry is nat­u­ral­ly more com­plex, and uglier.

The first act of Oper­a­tion Pil­lar of Defense was to mur­der Ahmed Jabari. Aluf Benn, edi­tor of the news­pa­per Haaretz, describes him as Israel’s sub­con­trac­tor” and bor­der guard” in Gaza, who enforced rel­a­tive qui­et there for more than five years.

The pre­text for the assas­si­na­tion was that dur­ing these five years Jabari had been cre­at­ing a Hamas mil­i­tary force, with mis­siles from Iran. A more cred­i­ble rea­son was pro­vid­ed by Israeli peace activist Ger­shon Baskin, who had been involved in direct nego­ti­a­tions with Jabari for years, includ­ing plans for the even­tu­al release of the cap­tured Israeli sol­dier Gilad Shalit.

Baskin reports that hours before he was assas­si­nat­ed, Jabari received the draft of a per­ma­nent truce agree­ment with Israel, which includ­ed mech­a­nisms for main­tain­ing the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the fac­tions in the Gaza Strip.”

A truce was then in place, called by Hamas on Novem­ber 12. Israel appar­ent­ly exploit­ed the truce, Reuters reports, direct­ing atten­tion to the Syr­i­an bor­der in the hope that Hamas lead­ers would relax their guard and be eas­i­er to assassinate.

Through­out these years, Gaza has been kept on a lev­el of bare sur­vival, impris­oned by land, sea and air. On the eve of the lat­est attack, the WHO report­ed that 40 per­cent of essen­tial drugs and more than half of essen­tial med­ical items were out of stock.

In Novem­ber, one of the first in a series of hideous pho­tos sent from Gaza showed a doc­tor hold­ing the charred corpse of a mur­dered child. That one had a per­son­al res­o­nance. The doc­tor is the direc­tor and head of surgery at Khan Yunis hos­pi­tal, which I had vis­it­ed a few weeks earlier.
In writ­ing about the trip, I report­ed his pas­sion­ate appeal for des­per­ate­ly need­ed med­i­cine and sur­gi­cal equip­ment. These are among the crimes of the U.S.-Israeli siege, and of Egypt­ian complicity.

The casu­al­ty rates from the Novem­ber episode were about aver­age: more than 160 Pales­tin­ian dead, includ­ing many chil­dren, and six Israelis.
Among the dead were three jour­nal­ists. The offi­cial Israeli jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was that The tar­gets are peo­ple who have rel­e­vance to ter­ror activ­i­ty.” Report­ing the exe­cu­tion” in the New York Times, the reporter David Carr observed that it has come to this: Killing mem­bers of the news media can be jus­ti­fied by a phrase as amor­phous as rel­e­vance to ter­ror activity.’ “

The mas­sive destruc­tion was all in Gaza. Israel used advanced U.S. mil­i­tary equip­ment and relied on U.S. diplo­mat­ic sup­port, includ­ing the usu­al U.S. inter­ven­tion efforts to block a Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil call for a cease-fire.

With each such exploit, Israel’s glob­al image erodes. The pho­tos and videos of ter­ror and dev­as­ta­tion, and the char­ac­ter of the con­flict, leave few remain­ing shreds of cred­i­bil­i­ty to the self-declared most moral army in the world,” at least among peo­ple whose eyes are open.

The pre­texts for the assault were also the usu­al ones. We can put aside the pre­dictable dec­la­ra­tions of the per­pe­tra­tors in Israel and Wash­ing­ton. But even decent peo­ple ask what Israel should do when attacked by a bar­rage of mis­siles. It’s a fair ques­tion, and there are straight­for­ward answers.

One response would be to observe inter­na­tion­al law, which allows the use of force with­out Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil autho­riza­tion in exact­ly one case: in self-defense after inform­ing the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil of an armed attack, until the Coun­cil acts, in accord with the U.N. Char­ter, Arti­cle 51.

Israel is well famil­iar with that Char­ter pro­vi­sion, which it invoked at the out­break of the June 1967 war. But, of course, Israel’s appeal went nowhere when it was quick­ly ascer­tained that Israel had launched the attack. Israel did not fol­low this course in Novem­ber, know­ing what would be revealed in a Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil debate.

Anoth­er nar­row response would be to agree to a truce, as appeared quite pos­si­ble before the oper­a­tion was launched on Novem­ber 14.

There are more far-reach­ing respons­es. By coin­ci­dence, one is dis­cussed in the cur­rent issue of the jour­nal Nation­al Inter­est. Asia schol­ars Raf­fael­lo Pan­tuc­ci and Alexan­dros Petersen describe Chi­na’s reac­tion after riot­ing in west­ern Xin­jiang province, in which mobs of Uighurs marched around the city beat­ing hap­less Han (Chi­nese) to death.”

Chi­nese pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao quick­ly flew to the province to take charge; senior lead­ers in the secu­ri­ty estab­lish­ment were fired; and a wide range of devel­op­ment projects were under­tak­en to address under­ly­ing caus­es of the unrest.

In Gaza, too, a civ­i­lized reac­tion is pos­si­ble. The Unit­ed States and Israel could end the mer­ci­less, unremit­ting assault, open the bor­ders and pro­vide for recon­struc­tion — and if it were imag­in­able, repa­ra­tions for decades of vio­lence and repression.

The cease-fire agree­ment stat­ed that the mea­sures to imple­ment the end of the siege and the tar­get­ing of res­i­dents in bor­der areas shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the cease-fire.”

There is no sign of steps in this direc­tion. Nor is there any indi­ca­tion of a U.S.-Israeli will­ing­ness to rescind their sep­a­ra­tion of Gaza from the West Bank in vio­la­tion of the Oslo Accords, to end the ille­gal set­tle­ment and devel­op­ment pro­grams in the West Bank that are designed to under­mine a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment, or in any oth­er way to aban­don the rejec­tion­ism of the past decades.

Some­day, and it must be soon, the world will respond to the plea issued by the dis­tin­guished Gazan human-rights lawyer Raji Sourani while the bombs were once again rain­ing down on defense­less civil­ians in Gaza: We demand jus­tice and account­abil­i­ty. We dream of a nor­mal life, in free­dom and dignity.”

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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