City of Brass

City of Brass


Democracy, Jewishness, and Greater Israel: pick two

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

The idea of the state of Israel is one I support wholeheartedly. A nation for the Jewish people, a homeland where they can engage in the same right of self-determination and chart their own destiny. However, this right and this dream cannot be attained at the expense of the same dream and rights of other peoples; in fact doing so is fundamentally antithetical to the ethos of the Jewish people themselves. Throughout their long (and persecuted) history, the principle of Justice is the defining trait, by which the Jewish people might legitimately be called a light unto nations. What terrible irony, then, that Israel acts to undermine that legacy and heritage!

ijv.jpgIsrael is, by any reasonable definition of the words, an apartheid state, engaged in an illegal military occupation, employing collective punishment against a civilian population. Note that these terms are used without any hesitation by Israelis of all political stripes themselves; it is only in the peculiar US media and political milieu that such terms elicit such a defensive, denialist reaction. But this too is no surprise; the US political establishment sees Jews as a political asset to be cynically used for their own purposes, whereas the Israeli political establishment lays claim to the Jewish intellectual heritage of truth and self-critique). That heritage is celebrated by A Time to Speak Out, a new compilation of essays by leading Jewish intellectuals that serves as a sobering analysis of the cognitive dissonance of modern Israeli society and also a truly inspiring demonstration of the commitment to Truth and Justice that remains at the core of Jewish identity.

All of this is my prelude to the assertion that Israel’s actions in Gaza are profoundly non-Jewish, not only because it violates the very spirit of the Jewish character, but also in a more literal sense because it undermines the ostensible goals of the state of Israel itself – partly because the founding vision of Israel contains a fundamental contradiction. The idea of Israel in the abstract is a noble one, but in terms of providing a safe haven for Jews, is hardly unique to Israel – arguably, the United States itself is a superior home for the Jewish people to thrive and prosper, with free expression of their culture and faith. For similar reasons, I have also argued that America is the greatest Islamic country on earth; at its most basic, freedom is the key attribute, and nowhere else in the world are Jews (or muslims) more free to be Jews (or muslims) than in the United States.

Israel, however, was founded not on ideals of simply being a haven for Jews, but also with the Zionist goal of being an exclusively Jewish entity. This is a concept that is simply not compatible with modern liberal ideals. In a nutshell, Zionism in its modern form (to which all major Israeli poitical parties subscribe implicitly) requires three qualities: 1. Democracy, 2. Jewishness, and 3. Greater Israel. All three of these are under tension with each other, however, and the Gaza conflict has brought these tensions to the forefront. In subsequent posts, I intend to explore the intersection of these three concepts. The simple truth, however, is that Israel cannot survive as a meaningful political entity if it attempts to pursue all three. For survival, Israel must pick any two, or lose them all.

Note – I have blogged extensively about these issues in the past. I intend to reformulate my arguments more cohesively now and will draw upon those older posts as well, so if you are looking for some preparatory reading material, check them out. Also, I highly recommend Paul Rosenberg at Open Left and this essential New York Times editorial by Rashid Khalidi for some basic background fact-checking on the Gaza conflict.



  • http://phelps.donotremove.net Phelps

    When the Zionist movement started, it used a method that would encompass all three — Zionists were simply purchasing Israel, a piece at a time. Unfortunately, its neighbors upset that cart when they elected to invade and attempt to destroy Israel, over and over and over. The Palestinians are now in a bind, because their collapse into depravity means no one is willing to take the burden they have become (especially Egypt and Jordan, where they rightly belong) and they refuse to do anything but attack Israel.
    I think that if Israel could come to a financial deal that would end the issue and send the refugees back to their respective states, they would take it rather quickly. Unfortunately, the Palestinian people have been too brainwashed for too long to take that sort of deal. They would have to be deprogrammed first, and that can’t start until the brainwashers are convinced — meaning Hamas. Right now, Israel is speaking the only language Hamas understands.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/cityofbrass/2009/01/democracy-jewishness-and-great.html Ahmad Jamal

    Democracy, Jewishness, Israel and Enlightenment: pick four
    The story is never-ending because, I am afraid you and with many of my Muslim friends do not want it to end. You want us (I am from the ummah, too) to continue to play the victimhood card with all of its attendant baggage. Sorry. That is not my choice. I reject some of this stupidity that we are all brothers and stand for each other. Let’s go burn some flags for imagined insults that we were told to demonstrate for.
    I choose to lead a peaceful Muslim existence. My wife wears Americanized clothing but we eat halel. We pray to Allah, the source of all things beautiful. My religion is a peaceful religion. My prophet, Mohammed, blessed be he, has delivered messages that are often misconstrued and taken out of context for evil political purposes by Muslim leaders. It makes no sense to assert that Allah is commanding anyone to kill anyone else, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, whatever. All are his children… and if you do not embrace that, you are not a true Muslim. You are a distorted person to whom heaven and its blessings will forever be closed to you.
    I am sorry to say that your information in your blog is seriously in error, your ideas outdated and I suspect your education is somewhat lacking. You appear to be a gentle ideologue who knows little but says much… like a person with foul breath.
    My parents came to this country from the Maghreb. I was born here in the early 1970s and grew up in the Midwest. We are both professional physicians with lovely children. We love American and have achieved gifts beyond our wildest imaginations from living here. We attend our local mosque and think of ourselves as “Muslim Americans.”
    Because of my work as a physician, I get to meet many people of different religions, cultures and national origins. Many of my friends are enlightened people of good will — both Jews and Christians. I am welcomed into their homes and they to my home. We learn from each other and see our children play with each other as can only happen in a place as terrific as America. I see my friends’ love for their families as no different than my love for my family. I do not and will not ascribe the terrible things that some Muslims say about America and Americans. They are wrong I live here and they do not… and I know what America is all about. It is not Satan. Saying that is plain ignorant.
    Now having stated this background, I want to tell you that you are totally incorrect in your blog posting. You set up a false situation from the start that this is either A or B or maybe even C. You state falsely that it cannot be all three. Question: What if there is D or E and F, too? Are the only alternatives the ones YOU have chosen to identify? There are no other possibilities? Do you think your readers are fools? Your statements are silliness.
    Now to the ridiculous. I have been to Israel for several medical conferences. I love that dynamic country. There are 5.0 million Jews, 1.0 million Muslims and the rest a conglomeration of other religions and ethnicities. Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Christian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalians, B’hai, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. All can live in peace and worship as they please in Israel. I‘ve been there and seen it with my own eyes. I challenge you to find one other area in the region with this level of openness whereby other faiths are honored and respected. Egypt? Saudi Arabia? Syria? Iran? Saudi Arabia? The Saudis will not even let a Christian or Jew into their country and worship as they please… but they want to build mosques that teach the Wahhabi version of Salafist Islam everywhere in the Western world. Seems sort of one sided to me. Just like your specious arguments.
    My understanding is that Muslims thrown out of Darfur have walked across the dessert and then crossed Sinai to get to the Israeli border… and have been taken in (to live freely as Muslims). My understanding is that Muslims threatened with death in the former Yugoslavia were airlifted to Israel to live in peace with their Jewish and Christian and Muslim neighbors. What other country in the world takes in people of color? You call Israel an apartheid nation? You must be crazed. Nothing, nothing can be further from the truth. Some of Hamas’ rockets into B’eer Shiva killed fellow Muslims (Israeli Arabs). That is really intelligent. Israel is the color wheel in the world having almost as many different cultures and New York City.
    In your first paragraph, you assert that Israel’s creation was at the expense of another people. (And who might that be?) There was never a “Palestinian” people. Who are you kidding? Do you think that you are talking with the uninformed?
    Think that I am incorrect? Then find me some archeological evidence of a country of “Palestine?” Can you point out a distinct language that is “Palestinian”, a recognized currency, record of leaders in ancient times (or even modern times prior to 1964?), writing of historical events, dress codes, sets of laws and customs, names (differing from the cultures that they are really descended from), a calendar, holidays and rituals, etc.
    The fact is that “Palestine” was never a country; it was a region marked out by the Romans in antiquity. The locals who now assert that they are Palestinians are former Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians who followed the Zionists (now that is a really dirty word) to gain employment as the Jews cleared the land and drained the swamps. The Muslim residents (and the others) who lived in these region were controlled for five millennia by the Ottoman Turks. Soon after the British defeated the Turks in WWI, these Muslims looked to Greater Syria as their national identification. Check the British records from their Foreign Office and you will see that I am 100% correct. Just because Yasir Arafat declared a people doesn’t make them a people. There are nuts in psychiatric wards claiming to be Napoleon and Elvis. Do you believe them?
    Let us get something straight: saying that the Palestinians have been around for thousands of years and were descended from the Canaanites does not make it so. Their dreams and aspirations are complete fantasies foisted on them by other Arabs whose real objective is denial of a state for the Jews. The fact is that they would rather see Israel’s demise than the Palestinian’s success.
    While the Israelis worked to build a country out of nothing — where is the oil and other natural resources that have blessed our cousins near the Gulf? — the Palestinian’s national expertise is in complaining and wailing like sick old powerless woman.
    It sickens me to read the stupid comments made by other Muslims who try to justify that Israel is a rogue nation. The area in which Israel resides contains 5 million largely hardworking Jews and 350 million Arabs (70 times more). The area in which Israel resides is controlled 99.5% by Muslims and 0.5% by Jews. What right does any peace-loving Muslim to object to this formula? And, if the so-called Palestinian leadership relay wanted a country and to live in peace, they could have had a country many years ago and many times. The fact is that in the Middle East, we have the land, the natural resources, the sea coasts, the massive populations, and the worst, most backward systems of governance and education in the world (excluding most of Africa). That is why we remain backward and powerless — not due to some Zionist conspiracy or Israel’s support by America. We give billions in aid to Israel and get high technology in return (or medical advance, etc.) We give billions in aid to the UN agency (UNRWA) that administers much of “Palestine” and this is stolen or squandered. Who has the Swiss bank accounts? Who has a long history of depriving their own people, Israel or Palestine?
    Israel unconditionally left Gaza to the Palestinians several years ago. That is not “military occupation.” In addition, Fatah control the West Bank. The so called “occupation is to thwart terrorist bombers. Anyone sensible can understand that. The claim of “military occupation” is untrue and you know it. Israeli just wants to be left alone… and Iran and its supporters just cannot seem to let go of their death fantasy.
    I admire Israel’s spunkiness… and humanity. They drop leaflets and telephone homes in Gaza to alert the civilians to evacuate their homes (which sit on top of weapons smuggling tunnels and depots). Did the British do this when they bombed Dresden or Cologne? Did the Americans do this in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.. or Hanoi or Tikrit (in Iraq)? Get your facts straight and stop with this silly propaganda.
    It is clear to readers that you unfortunately have the virus of hatred that prevents so many Muslims from seeing the real truth. I for one HAVE seen the truth and you and so many others just have it totally wrong.
    Ahmad Jamal

  • Ahmad Jamal

    Democracy, Jewishness, Israel and Enlightenment: pick four
    The story is never-ending because, I am afraid you and with many of my Muslim friends do not want it to end. You want us (I am from the ummah, too) to continue to play the victimhood card with all of its attendant baggage. Sorry. That is not my choice. I reject some of this stupidity that we are all brothers and stand for each other. Let’s go burn some flags for imagined insults that we were told to demonstrate for.
    I choose to lead a peaceful Muslim existence. My wife wears Americanized clothing but we eat halel. We pray to Allah, the source of all things beautiful. My religion is a peaceful religion. My prophet, Mohammed, blessed be he, has delivered messages that are often misconstrued and taken out of context for evil political purposes by Muslim leaders. It makes no sense to assert that Allah is commanding anyone to kill anyone else, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, whatever. All are his children… and if you do not embrace that, you are not a true Muslim. You are a distorted person to whom heaven and its blessings will forever be closed to you.
    I am sorry to say that your information in your blog is seriously in error, your ideas outdated and I suspect your education is somewhat lacking. You appear to be a gentle ideologue who knows little but says much… like a person with foul breath.
    My parents came to this country from the Maghreb. I was born here in the early 1970s and grew up in the Midwest. We are both professional physicians with lovely children. We love American and have achieved gifts beyond our wildest imaginations from living here. We attend our local mosque and think of ourselves as “Muslim Americans.”
    Because of my work as a physician, I get to meet many people of different religions, cultures and national origins. Many of my friends are enlightened people of good will — both Jews and Christians. I am welcomed into their homes and they to my home. We learn from each other and see our children play with each other as can only happen in a place as terrific as America. I see my friends’ love for their families as no different than my love for my family. I do not and will not ascribe the terrible things that some Muslims say about America and Americans. They are wrong I live here and they do not… and I know what America is all about. It is not Satan. Saying that is plain ignorant.
    Now having stated this background, I want to tell you that you are totally incorrect in your blog posting. You set up a false situation from the start that this is either A or B or maybe even C. You state falsely that it cannot be all three. Question: What if there is D or E and F, too? Are the only alternatives the ones YOU have chosen to identify? There are no other possibilities? Do you think your readers are fools? Your statements are silliness.
    Now to the ridiculous. I have been to Israel for several medical conferences. I love that dynamic country. There are 5.0 million Jews, 1.0 million Muslims and the rest a conglomeration of other religions and ethnicities. Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Christian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalians, B’hai, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. All can live in peace and worship as they please in Israel. I‘ve been there and seen it with my own eyes. I challenge you to find one other area in the region with this level of openness whereby other faiths are honored and respected. Egypt? Saudi Arabia? Syria? Iran? Saudi Arabia? The Saudis will not even let a Christian or Jew into their country and worship as they please… but they want to build mosques that teach the Wahhabi version of Salafist Islam everywhere in the Western world. Seems sort of one sided to me. Just like your specious arguments.
    My understanding is that Muslims thrown out of Darfur have walked across the dessert and then crossed Sinai to get to the Israeli border… and have been taken in (to live freely as Muslims). My understanding is that Muslims threatened with death in the former Yugoslavia were airlifted to Israel to live in peace with their Jewish and Christian and Muslim neighbors. What other country in the world takes in people of color? You call Israel an apartheid nation? You must be crazed. Nothing, nothing can be further from the truth. Some of Hamas’ rockets into B’eer Shiva killed fellow Muslims (Israeli Arabs). That is really intelligent. Israel is the color wheel in the world having almost as many different cultures and New York City.
    In your first paragraph, you assert that Israel’s creation was at the expense of another people. (And who might that be?) There was never a “Palestinian” people. Who are you kidding? Do you think that you are talking with the uninformed?
    Think that I am incorrect? Then find me some archeological evidence of a country of “Palestine?” Can you point out a distinct language that is “Palestinian”, a recognized currency, record of leaders in ancient times (or even modern times prior to 1964?), writing of historical events, dress codes, sets of laws and customs, names (differing from the cultures that they are really descended from), a calendar, holidays and rituals, etc.
    The fact is that “Palestine” was never a country; it was a region marked out by the Romans in antiquity. The locals who now assert that they are Palestinians are former Egyptians, Syrians and Jordanians who followed the Zionists (now that is a really dirty word) to gain employment as the Jews cleared the land and drained the swamps. The Muslim residents (and the others) who lived in these region were controlled for five millennia by the Ottoman Turks. Soon after the British defeated the Turks in WWI, these Muslims looked to Greater Syria as their national identification. Check the British records from their Foreign Office and you will see that I am 100% correct. Just because Yasir Arafat declared a people doesn’t make them a people. There are nuts in psychiatric wards claiming to be Napoleon and Elvis. Do you believe them?
    Let us get something straight: saying that the Palestinians have been around for thousands of years and were descended from the Canaanites does not make it so. Their dreams and aspirations are complete fantasies foisted on them by other Arabs whose real objective is denial of a state for the Jews. The fact is that they would rather see Israel’s demise than the Palestinian’s success.
    While the Israelis worked to build a country out of nothing — where is the oil and other natural resources that have blessed our cousins near the Gulf? — the Palestinian’s national expertise is in complaining and wailing like sick old powerless woman.
    It sickens me to read the stupid comments made by other Muslims who try to justify that Israel is a rogue nation. The area in which Israel resides contains 5 million largely hardworking Jews and 350 million Arabs (70 times more). The area in which Israel resides is controlled 99.5% by Muslims and 0.5% by Jews. What right does any peace-loving Muslim to object to this formula? And, if the so-called Palestinian leadership relay wanted a country and to live in peace, they could have had a country many years ago and many times. The fact is that in the Middle East, we have the land, the natural resources, the sea coasts, the massive populations, and the worst, most backward systems of governance and education in the world (excluding most of Africa). That is why we remain backward and powerless — not due to some Zionist conspiracy or Israel’s support by America. We give billions in aid to Israel and get high technology in return (or medical advance, etc.) We give billions in aid to the UN agency (UNRWA) that administers much of “Palestine” and this is stolen or squandered. Who has the Swiss bank accounts? Who has a long history of depriving their own people, Israel or Palestine?
    Israel unconditionally left Gaza to the Palestinians several years ago. That is not “military occupation.” In addition, Fatah control the West Bank. The so called “occupation is to thwart terrorist bombers. Anyone sensible can understand that. The claim of “military occupation” is untrue and you know it. Israeli just wants to be left alone… and Iran and its supporters just cannot seem to let go of their death fantasy.
    I admire Israel’s spunkiness… and humanity. They drop leaflets and telephone homes in Gaza to alert the civilians to evacuate their homes (which sit on top of weapons smuggling tunnels and depots). Did the British do this when they bombed Dresden or Cologne? Did the Americans do this in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.. or Hanoi or Tikrit (in Iraq)? Get your facts straight and stop with this silly propaganda.
    It is clear to readers that you unfortunately have the virus of hatred that prevents so many Muslims from seeing the real truth. I for one HAVE seen the truth and you and so many others just have it totally wrong.

  • tg

    You know Ahmed, I think you may have had a decent rebuttal till I read this
    “In your first paragraph, you assert that Israel’s creation was at the expense of another people. (And who might that be?) There was never a “Palestinian” people. Who are you kidding? Do you think that you are talking with the uninformed?”
    There’s only two possibilities for someone writing the above. They are either ignorant or are attempting to spread disinformation.
    Hundreds of thousands of palestinians were living in what is now Israel before 1948 and were forcibly driven out by zionists. They can now be found in the west bank, gaza, and many refugee camps in Lebanon.
    These people exist and will continue to be a testament to the immoral foundation of zionism.

  • Your Name

    This is a terrible situation for everyone concerned, so terrible that it is hard to believe that talking about it can ever make things better. Both sides are locked in a death spiral.
    Aziz, I agree that Israel is doing awful things that sully the tradition of Judaism, in order to survive. It breaks my heart and the heart of many other Jews around the world. And yet, I suspect that I would reluctantly be drawn into behaving the same way because I believe that militant Islam has spawned a generation of monsters in our time. People around the world are being pulled into extreme positions to respond (for example, the US which I never previously believed would resort to torture has become so maddened by its terrorist tormenters that it is doing just that).
    When the Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis (under conditions far worse than the current Israeli persecution of the Palestinians) the Jews fought back against the SS but they never stooped to targeting civilians, blowing up women and children, spreading terror. Yet, militant muslims proudly embrace such measures and worse. If a cartoonist in another country makes a cartoon you don’t like, sentence him to death. If a novelist in another country writes a book you consider disrespectful, sentence him to death. If a film maker in another country makes a film you disagree with, stab him to death on the street. Don’t tell me this is the work of a few individuals; when fanatics flew planes into the World Trade Center killing thousands, the Palestinians were filmed dancing in the streets and handing out candy in celebration. Unfathomable. I don’t think you will ever find Israelis laughing and celebrating when they kill innocent Palestinians (which they most certainly have). It leaves a sour, bitter taste.
    The first step toward genocide is viewing fellow human beings as sub-human. I understand that, and I try every day to resist the temptation. But it would help if people stopped behaving in sub-human ways.

  • http://www.hartman.org.il/SHInews_View_Eng.asp?Article_Id=269 Alan Abbey

    Fighting a just war against Hamas justly
    This penetrating essay by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel, thoroughly and carefully explains the morality behind Israel’s decision to go to war against Hamas, the moral issues raised in the field of combat, and how the Israeli Army and people are in fact strengthened by exploring these issues even in the heat of battle.
    Read this small part of the essay to get a sense of the powerful argument Donniel is making:
    “…our strength as a country and the fortitude of our army and soldiers are grounded in a significant way on our moral fiber and our soldiers’ recognition that they are part of a just cause and a just army. When we and they speak of fighting for our home, the home we speak of is not simply a physical one, but a spiritual and moral one, in which certain ideas and values reign strong and free….
    “Embarking on such an operation was morally justifiable – if not obligatory – a long time ago…”

  • Your Name

    It’s unfortunate how arrogant and condescending some people can be through their comments. Accordingly, I didn’t find that comment worthy of reading since the person that wrote it is clearly incapable of insightful discussion. Instead, I’ve opted to post an article that considers a view outside of mainstream media propaganda. I hope those that are willing to learn will find it of value.
    How Israel brought Gaza to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe
    Oxford professor of international relations Avi Shlaim served in the Israeli army and has never questioned the state’s legitimacy. But its merciless assault on Gaza has led him to devastating conclusions
    Avi Shlaim
    Wednesday January 7 2009
    The Guardian
    The only way to make sense of Israel’s senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context. Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state. On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. I used to think that this judgment was too harsh but Israel’s vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the Bush administration’s complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.
    I write as someone who served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I utterly reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.
    Four decades of Israeli control did incalculable damage to the economy of the Gaza Strip. With a large population of 1948 refugees crammed into a tiny strip of land, with no infrastructure or natural resources, Gaza’s prospects were never bright. Gaza, however, is not simply a case of economic under-development but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development. To use the Biblical phrase, Israel turned the people of Gaza into the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, into a source of cheap labour and a captive market for Israeli goods. The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence.
    Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Jewish settlements in occupied territories are immoral, illegal and an insurmountable obstacle to peace. They are at once the instrument of exploitation and the symbol of the hated occupation. In Gaza, the Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 in 2005 compared with 1.4 million local residents. Yet the settlers controlled 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land and the lion’s share of the scarce water resources. Cheek by jowl with these foreign intruders, the majority of the local population lived in abject poverty and unimaginable misery. Eighty per cent of them still subsist on less than $2 a day. The living conditions in the strip remain an affront to civilised values, a powerful precipitant to resistance and a fertile breeding ground for political extremism.
    In August 2005 a Likud government headed by Ariel Sharon staged a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza, withdrawing all 8,000 settlers and destroying the houses and farms they had left behind. Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, conducted an effective campaign to drive the Israelis out of Gaza. The withdrawal was a humiliation for the Israeli Defence Forces. To the world, Sharon presented the withdrawal from Gaza as a contribution to peace based on a two-state solution. But in the year after, another 12,000 Israelis settled on the West Bank, further reducing the scope for an independent Palestinian state. Land-grabbing and peace-making are simply incompatible. Israel had a choice and it chose land over peace.
    The real purpose behind the move was to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel by incorporating the main settlement blocs on the West Bank to the state of Israel. Withdrawal from Gaza was thus not a prelude to a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority but a prelude to further Zionist expansion on the West Bank. It was a unilateral Israeli move undertaken in what was seen, mistakenly in my view, as an Israeli national interest. Anchored in a fundamental rejection of the Palestinian national identity, the withdrawal from Gaza was part of a long-term effort to deny the Palestinian people any independent political existence on their land.
    Israel’s settlers were withdrawn but Israeli soldiers continued to control all access to the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air. Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison. From this point on, the Israeli air force enjoyed unrestricted freedom to drop bombs, to make sonic booms by flying low and breaking the sound barrier, and to terrorise the hapless inhabitants of this prison.
    Israel likes to portray itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet Israel has never in its entire history done anything to promote democracy on the Arab side and has done a great deal to undermine it. Israel has a long history of secret collaboration with reactionary Arab regimes to suppress Palestinian nationalism. Despite all the handicaps, the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only genuine democracy in the Arab world with the possible exception of Lebanon. In January 2006, free and fair elections for the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority brought to power a Hamas-led government. Israel, however, refused to recognise the democratically elected government, claiming that Hamas is purely and simply a terrorist organisation.
    America and the EU shamelessly joined Israel in ostracising and demonising the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid. A surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed.
    As so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes. Israel’s propaganda machine persistently purveyed the notion that the Palestinians are terrorists, that they reject coexistence with the Jewish state, that their nationalism is little more than antisemitism, that Hamas is just a bunch of religious fanatics and that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But the simple truth is that the Palestinian people are a normal people with normal aspirations. They are no better but they are no worse than any other national group. What they aspire to, above all, is a piece of land to call their own on which to live in freedom and dignity.
    Like other radical movements, Hamas began to moderate its political programme following its rise to power. From the ideological rejectionism of its charter, it began to move towards pragmatic accommodation of a two-state solution. In March 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government that was ready to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. Israel, however, refused to negotiate with a government that included Hamas.
    It continued to play the old game of divide and rule between rival Palestinian factions. In the late 1980s, Israel had supported the nascent Hamas in order to weaken Fatah, the secular nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat. Now Israel began to encourage the corrupt and pliant Fatah leaders to overthrow their religious political rivals and recapture power. Aggressive American neoconservatives participated in the sinister plot to instigate a Palestinian civil war. Their meddling was a major factor in the collapse of the national unity government and in driving Hamas to seize power in Gaza in June 2007 to pre-empt a Fatah coup.
    The war unleashed by Israel on Gaza on 27 December was the culmination of a series of clashes and confrontations with the Hamas government. In a broader sense, however, it is a war between Israel and the Palestinian people, because the people had elected the party to power. The declared aim of the war is to weaken Hamas and to intensify the pressure until its leaders agree to a new ceasefire on Israel’s terms. The undeclared aim is to ensure that the Palestinians in Gaza are seen by the world simply as a humanitarian problem and thus to derail their struggle for independence and statehood.
    The timing of the war was determined by political expediency. A general election is scheduled for 10 February and, in the lead-up to the election, all the main contenders are looking for an opportunity to prove their toughness. The army top brass had been champing at the bit to deliver a crushing blow to Hamas in order to remove the stain left on their reputation by the failure of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in July 2006. Israel’s cynical leaders could also count on apathy and impotence of the pro-western Arab regimes and on blind support from President Bush in the twilight of his term in the White House. Bush readily obliged by putting all the blame for the crisis on Hamas, vetoing proposals at the UN Security Council for an immediate ceasefire and issuing Israel with a free pass to mount a ground invasion of Gaza.
    As always, mighty Israel claims to be the victim of Palestinian aggression but the sheer asymmetry of power between the two sides leaves little room for doubt as to who is the real victim. This is indeed a conflict between David and Goliath but the Biblical image has been inverted – a small and defenceless Palestinian David faces a heavily armed, merciless and overbearing Israeli Goliath. The resort to brute military force is accompanied, as always, by the shrill rhetoric of victimhood and a farrago of self-pity overlaid with self-righteousness. In Hebrew this is known as the syndrome of bokhim ve-yorim, “crying and shooting”.
    To be sure, Hamas is not an entirely innocent party in this conflict. Denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak – terror. Militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad kept launching Qassam rocket attacks against Israeli settlements near the border with Gaza until Egypt brokered a six-month ceasefire last June. The damage caused by these primitive rockets is minimal but the psychological impact is immense, prompting the public to demand protection from its government. Under the circumstances, Israel had the right to act in self-defence but its response to the pinpricks of rocket attacks was totally disproportionate. The figures speak for themselves. In the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire. On the other hand, in 2005-7 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.
    Whatever the numbers, killing civilians is wrong. This rule applies to Israel as much as it does to Hamas, but Israel’s entire record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality towards the inhabitants of Gaza. Israel also maintained the blockade of Gaza after the ceasefire came into force which, in the view of the Hamas leaders, amounted to a violation of the agreement. During the ceasefire, Israel prevented any exports from leaving the strip in clear violation of a 2005 accord, leading to a sharp drop in employment opportunities. Officially, 49.1% of the population is unemployed. At the same time, Israel restricted drastically the number of trucks carrying food, fuel, cooking-gas canisters, spare parts for water and sanitation plants, and medical supplies to Gaza. It is difficult to see how starving and freezing the civilians of Gaza could protect the people on the Israeli side of the border. But even if it did, it would still be immoral, a form of collective punishment that is strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law.
    The brutality of Israel’s soldiers is fully matched by the mendacity of its spokesmen. Eight months before launching the current war on Gaza, Israel established a National Information Directorate. The core messages of this directorate to the media are that Hamas broke the ceasefire agreements; that Israel’s objective is the defence of its population; and that Israel’s forces are taking the utmost care not to hurt innocent civilians. Israel’s spin doctors have been remarkably successful in getting this message across. But, in essence, their propaganda is a pack of lies.
    A wide gap separates the reality of Israel’s actions from the rhetoric of its spokesmen. It was not Hamas but the IDF that broke the ceasefire. It di d so by a raid into Gaza on 4 November that killed six Hamas men. Israel’s objective is not just the defence of its population but the eventual overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza by turning the people against their rulers. And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year-old blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza, now 1.5 million, to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
    The Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye is savage enough. But Israel’s insane offensive against Gaza seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash. After eight days of bombing, with a death toll of more than 400 Palestinians and four Israelis, the gung-ho cabinet ordered a land invasion of Gaza the consequences of which are incalculable.
    No amount of military escalation can buy Israel immunity from rocket attacks from the military wing of Hamas. Despite all the death and destruction that Israel has inflicted on them, they kept up their resistance and they kept firing their rockets. This is a movement that glorifies victimhood and martyrdom. There is simply no military solution to the conflict between the two communities. The problem with Israel’s concept of security is that it denies even the most elementary security to the other community. The only way for Israel to achieve security is not through shooting but through talks with Hamas, which has repeatedly declared its readiness to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with the Jewish state within its pre-1967 borders for 20, 30, or even 50 years. Israel has rejected this offer for the same reason it spurned the Arab League peace plan of 2002, which is still on the table: it involves concessions and compromises.
    This brief review of Israel’s record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism – the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones. Politicians, like everyone else, are of course free to repeat the lies and mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so.
    ? Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World and of Lion of Jordan: King Hussein’s Life in War and Peace.
    Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

  • iorek

    Aziz, here you have created a perfect microcosm of the impasse. One commenter says, “read my article, it will explain everything and convince you.” The second person responds, your article is “not worthy of reading since the person that wrote it is clearly incapable of insightful discussion.” Instead, you should read MY article (an article which is anything but insightful, since it excuses terrorism as “the weapon of the weak” when there are plenty of weak people who don’t resort to evil– and talks about one side in foolish hyperbole: “Israel’s entire record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality towards the inhabitants of Gaza.” How could anyone find such closed minded rhetoric helpful?)
    So OK, Aziz– you now have your own mini-impasse. How do you help us out of this?

  • Your Name

    Avi Shlaim’s shameless whitewash of the whole picture is cloaked in legitimacty by claiming that he is an IDF veteran, and by his present academic position.
    It is an opinion piece, dressed in the clothes of a factual, informative article. One example – he complains about Western governments demonizing Hamas, when it is Hamas who demonizes world Jewry. Another is his complete denial of any Jewish rights to lands in Judea and Samaria – the heart of the Holy Land. It doesn’t seem to matter to Mr.Shlaim that Jews bought their homes and properties there with their own money. No, it’s Jewish and therefore illegal. He glosses over facts of the Six Day War, like Israel being threatened by destruction from no less than the most powerful and numerous Armnies of the Arab world. If that wasn’t a defensive war on the part of Israel, then Israel has fought no defensive wars whatsoever.

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