Wednesday, 28 January 2009


From Gaza to Obama: What Next for the Middle East?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Palestine Brief No. 174

By Ali Abunimah
Palestine Center Fellow


Israel's attack on the occupied Gaza Strip caused massive death and destruction. It has also profoundly changed the regional political landscape, calling for a deep reassessment of U.S. policy. It is into this perilous situation that U.S. President Barack Obama steps. Early moves, entirely consistent with statements during the campaign, indicate that the necessary reassessment will not soon be forthcoming.1 Hence, despite the appointment of the well-respected and highly-experienced former U.S. Senator George Mitchell as envoy, the region should brace itself for enduring political stalemate and escalating violence.

Scorched Earth

Beginning on 27 December 2008, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air for 22 days. UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes echoed statements from Palestinians and international witnesses when he called the devastation in the coastal territory that is home to 1.5 million Palestinians "extremely shocking."

Amnesty International found "indisputable evidence" that Israel had indiscriminately used white phosphorus--that causes horrific injuries and death--in civilian areas.2 There have been numerous allegations of other war crimes and atrocities, including summary executions of civilians, denial of medical care to the injured, the targeting of ambulances, medical personnel, UN facilities where civilians had sought shelter, as well as systematic targeting of private homes, police stations, universities, mosques, fishing boats, factories and workshops, government buildings and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).

In just three weeks, Israel killed more Palestinians in Gaza--at least 1,300--than in any previous year since it began its violent crackdown on the second intifada in 2000. Among the dead were 412 children and 110 women, according to health officials. Although large numbers of male civilians, including dozens of civilian police officers, were killed, exact numbers have not been reported. Among the 5,300 injured, 1,855 were children and 795 were women.3 Thirteen Israelis, ten of them Israeli soldiers, also died. Preliminary estimates put the number of homes completely destroyed at more than 4,000 with 17,000 damaged. Tens of thousands are displaced or without shelter.

The enormous physical and psychological cost of Israel's attack, particularly on children, has yet to be fully calculated, and its consequences will be deep and lasting on a society that had already suffered from 61 years of dispossession, 41 years of military occupation and almost two years of total blockade.

Israel Lost Much More than It Gained

Israel's pretext for the Gaza attack--accepted by the United States and other western governments--was to stop indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas from Gaza. It is indisputable, and Israel has acknowledged that Hamas did not fire any rockets at Israel from the moment a truce deal was reached on 19 June 2008 until after 4 November 2008, when rocket fire resumed. Israel had also acknowledged that Hamas moved to prevent other factions that fired about two dozen rockets over that four-month period from breaking the truce. Hamas resumed rocket fire only after Israel carried out a 4 November 2008 attack on Gaza that killed six Palestinians. Hamas allowed the already collapsed truce to formally lapse without renewal on 19 December 2008 primarily because Israel had refused to loosen the crippling blockade of Gaza or halt its armed attacks that had killed dozens of Palestinians during the truce.4

Although it wanted to prevent rocket fire, Israel's primary goals were to restore "deterrence" lost in its 2006 Lebanon debacle and to fatally weaken Hamas and rob it of political support. It achieved none of these goals; Hamas and other resistance groups still had rocket launching capability even after Israel declared a ceasefire. Hamas did not collapse as a military or political organization and retained the mass support without which a guerilla organization cannot function. Having survived an all-out assault from the Israeli war machine, Hamas emerged with significantly enhanced prestige among Palestinians and Arab public opinion, just as Hizballah did from its 2006 war with Israel.

In order to consolidate this support, Hamas will have to show that it can competently manage the aftermath, including assistance to the families' victims. Hamas leaders in Damascus and Gaza have already announced plans to distribute financial compensation and rebuild, again following precedents set by Hizballah.

Israel's Jewish citizens overwhelmingly supported the attack on Gaza and celebrated tactical "victories"--essentially their ability to inflict enormous pain and damage. With time, Israelis may begin to recognize that as in Lebanon they have suffered another strategic defeat: Israeli military power cannot cow entire populations into submission and cannot remake the politics of the region to reflect Israeli preferences. This lesson should have been learned after Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon but has yet to be absorbed by Israeli elites.

In addition to military power, Israel relies on Western support to maintain regional dominance. This pillar is starting to weaken as a consequence of Gaza; despite solid support from Western governments, Israel faced unprecedented waves of outrage from global public opinion and civil society as expressed in press commentary, enormous demonstrations and other mass actions. Israel's official hasbara (state propaganda) machinery was unable to suppress these mobilizations. One consequence is likely to be the mainstreaming of support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, modeled on the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s, to force Israel to comply with international law.5

There have been unprecedented calls from international jurists, civil society organizations, UN officials, legislators and others for Israel to be held accountable. Israel is concerned enough that its officials and military officers may face war crimes charges that it has taken active countermeasures, such as tightening official censorship of accounts of actions taken by its army in Gaza and even on publishing the names of soldiers involved and offering legal support.6

For decades, Israel nurtured a narrative persuasive in the West that its creation, maintenance and conduct were the morally righteous legacy of the Nazi Holocaust. The long-term viability of this narrative as a means to mobilize political support and suppress criticism has been badly if not irrevocably degraded by Israel's actions in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority and the Arab "Moderates" Lose Out

As part of the "War on Terror," the Bush administration divided a vast swathe of the planet from Morocco to Pakistan between so-called "moderates," on the one hand, and "extremists" on the other. A moderate is any actor that is in a patron-client relationship with the United States. In the Arab region, this group includes Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora (up to May 2008) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud Abbas. An extremist, in this scheme, is any actor that opposes or resists U.S. hegemony in the region.

The labels, "moderate" and "extremist," clearly imply value judgments and were created to obscure underlying power relations and interests. They have nothing to do with democracy or Islamism; the most "moderate" regimes from the U.S. perspective are often the most undemocratic, repressive or theocratic (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, PA). Whereas, "extremists" may have received popular mandates at contested elections (Hamas, Hizballah, Iran) or be secular (Syria). What is at stake is America's ability to shore up a regional order it dominates, but that is coming apart at the seams. If the Gaza attack was supposed to tip the balance in favor of the moderates, it backfired even more spectacularly than Israel's war against Lebanon in 2006.

Among Palestinians, it is now conventional (though certainly not universal) to view Abbas, whose official term as PA president expired on 9 January 2009, as having zero legitimacy and credibility. Large segments of Palestinian public opinion view Abbas and his government headed by Salam Fayyad as irrelevant.7 Hamas--through its own successes and survival and because there is no viable alternative--has effectively emerged as the closest thing Palestinians have to a national leadership. That is probably not a position Hamas can or wants to sustain, and there remains a pressing need for Palestinians themselves to create representative and inclusive bodies to guide the national movement.

Before Gaza, Hamas sought reconciliation while Abbas' leadership continued to impose U.S.-dictated conditions that Hamas would never meet. Now, as they feel their support draining away, some voices in Ramallah are calling for reconciliation on almost any terms. Others are opportunistically attempting to persuade Arab and international donors to channel desperately needed humanitarian aid for Gaza through Abbas in order to revive a dead political body.

In a 21 January 2009 "victory" speech broadcast live on Al Jazeera, Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal set out his movement's new terms for reconcliation: the PA would have to abandon "security cooperation" with Israel, release political prisoners and support and recognize resistance not "silly negotiations" (a mocking reference to Abbas" dismissal of Hamas' "silly rockets") as the foundation of a national program. Even as the PA becomes irrelevant, there are few signs it is capable of making such compromises that would jeopardize its last existing base of support, "the international community," and the Israeli government.

Thus, the Palestinians are entering a period, similar to the 1970s, where the only credible leadership is isolated and scorned by Israel and its Western backers who continue to try to prop up or nurture pliable clients.

Arab Regimes More Divided than Ever over Israel, U.S.

The divisions between moderates and those resisting U.S. hegemony broke into open confrontation during the Gaza crisis, with the two blocs convening rival summits. The moderates, particularly Egypt, undoubtedly lost the political and public opinion battle. Throughout the region, there were unprecedented accusations of collusion with Israel directed at Egypt, which failed to mount an effective public defense.

Moderates boycotted an informal Arab summit convened by Qatar on 16 January 2009. Reflecting an official strategy of demonizing Iran, one of Egypt's official newspapers dismissed the Doha summit as "Persian" rather than "Arab."8 Nevertheless, the PA's absence left the floor to Hamas to represent Palestinians, further enhancing the latter's status. Qatar, which hosts a major U.S. military base, and Mauritania cut off all ties with Israel. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pronounced the Arab Peace Initiative dead and suspended indirect Turkish-brokered peace talks with Israel.

Despite attempts to patch over differences at a 19 June 2008 meeting in Kuwait, Arab leaders remain deeply divided over relations with the United States and how to deal with Israel. Hamas' ability to deny Israel any strategic achievement in Gaza--like Hizballah's success in 2006--reinforced and expanded the constituency arguing that resistance is a viable option, and that without the power-balancing effects of resistance, no negotiations can achieve meaningful results. The moderates', supporting open-ended negotiations that have achieved little in 18 years, reliance on the United States and holding out the Arab Peace Initiative indefinitely have few cards left to play. As their priority is preservation of their increasingly unpopular regimes, moderates are unlikely to be able to offer any creative initiatives, although it can be expected that among their tactics will be the further demonization of Islamist-led opposition and resistance movements in an attempt to play into Western fears and prejudices.

A notable phenomenon is NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member and spurned EU candidate Turkey's emergence as a regional power apparently more sympathetic to the pro-resistance bloc. In addition to his country's brokering role on behalf of Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to represent Hamas' interests at the UN during the crisis and issued uncharacteristically harsh condemnations of Israeli behavior and violations of international law. This was in step not only with Arab public opinion, but also with that in Turkey, where hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Istanbul against the Israeli attack. Turkey is not only supplanting a regional role once played by Egypt but, along with Iran, asserting that Western powers are not the only non-Arabs who can intervene in the Arab world.

Enter the Obama Administration

In his first detailed remarks after taking office, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Middle East peace and appointed the widely-respected Northern Ireland peace broker, former Senator George Mitchell, as his new envoy.

But Obama's basic approach remained unchanged from that of his predecessor. Obama fully accepted the Israeli narrative of its attack on Gaza and reaffirmed that "we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats."9

The president reiterated that Hamas must abide by the Quartet conditions to "recognize Israel's right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements." In effect, Obama expects Hamas to accept Israel's highly controversial and anathema to most Palestinians political demand to be recognized as a "Jewish state," even while Israel is not required to accept any Palestinian rights even those grounded in international law; renounce any Palestinian right to self-defense or resistance while Palestinians are under occupation, blockade and constant Israeli attack; and abide by agreements that Israel has systematically violated without consequence. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal explicitly rejected the Quartet conditions in his 21 January 2009 speech, while reaffirming his movement's willingness to engage in a political process on fair terms.

Obama insisted that reopening Gaza's borders--a fundamental requirement of the Fourth Geneva Conventions and on which Palestinians' lives literally depends--be conditioned on "an appropriate monitoring regime, with the international and Palestinian Authority participating." Specifically, Obama stated that the United States "will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime, so that Hamas cannot rearm." Obama, like Bush, has accepted the Israeli view that Palestinian violence, rather than Israeli occupation, siege and active colonization and the far more massive Israeli-generated violence these entail, should be the sole focus of U.S. concern.

President Obama reaffirmed the boycott of Hamas and continues to recognize Mahmoud Abbas as PA president. This was confirmed by the State Department spokesman Robert Wood. Although when challenged, Wood could not provide any legal basis for how Abbas' expired term was extended.10

The new administration has therefore publicly recommitted to a set of policies that are demonstrated not to work and to exacerbate conflict, violence and political stalemate.

The only bright spot was Mitchell's appointment. His earlier foray to the region produced the 2001 Mitchell Report, which called for a full cessation of all violence by both Israelis and Palestinians, and a complete freeze on Israeli settlement construction. This less biased approach contrasts with now standard U.S. policy of opposing only Palestinian violence while endorsing much more devastating Israeli violence.

Above all, Mitchell brings with him his reputation as the broker of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which heralded the end of the bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. But that experience demonstrates why the odds are stacked firmly against a similar success in the Middle East.

In Northern Ireland, violence by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), loyalist and other paramilitaries came to be viewed as the symptom of systemic injustice that had to be redressed through an inclusive political process. Moreover, British state-sponsored violence always presented--like Israeli violence--as "self-defense" came to be seen as part of the problem rather than a solution. Previously, demonized parties, such as Sinn Fein, were brought into the process in contrast to the continued exclusion of Hamas. No party was forced a priori to accept its adversaries' political demands or renounce its own. Each was allowed to represent the interests and views of those who elected it, thus producing an agreement that could enjoy broad support.

Finally, the United States used its weight to pressure the British who were the strong side in that conflict and support Irish nationalists, the weaker side. In this sense, the Irish American lobby had a beneficial influence on U.S. policy because it helped level the power imbalance so that negotiations could succeed. The Israel lobby, by contrast, works to push the U.S. to support Israeli intransigence and pressure the vastly weaker Palestinians and will mobilize all its resources to frustrate Mitchell's mission. Indeed, before Mitchell even set foot in the region, a major Israel lobby figure signaled opposition to the new envoy, precisely because he might be "too fair."11

This leads to the discouraging conclusion that without the political support and policy framework needed to change an already tried and failed approach, Mitchell's determination and skill are unlikely to make much difference.

Ali Abunimah is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. He is an expert on Palestine, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Abunimah also co-founded The Electronic Intifada, an online publication about Palestine and the Palestine-Israeli conflict, Electronic Iraq and Electronic Lebanon.

The views expressed in this information brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.

1See Ali Abunimah, "President Obama and the Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Peace: An Analysis," Palestine Center Information Brief No. 169, 17 November 2008, [].
2Amnesty International, "Israel used white phosphorus in Gaza civilian areas," 19 January 2009, [].
3See United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, "Field update on Gaza from the Humanitarian Coordinator 22-23 January 2009," [].
4For a good analysis of events leading up to the attack, see John Mearsheimer, "Another war, another defeat," The American Conservative, 26 January 2009, [].
6Amos Harel, "IDF censor bans naming officers involved in Gaza op," Haaretz, 23 January 2009, [].
7See Mouin Rabbani, "Out of the rubble," The National, 23 January 2009, []; "Can Abbas survive after Gaza war?", 17 January 2009, []; and Patrick Cockburn, "Fatah fears Gaza conflict has put Hamas in the ascendancy," The Independent, 23 January 2009, []; Robert Fisk, "So far, Obama's missed the point on Gaza," The Independent, 22 January 2009, [].
8See: "EGYPT: Biting criticism of Doha summit," Los Angeles Times blog, 19 January 2009, [].
9Transcript: "President Obama Delivers Remarks to State Department Employees," The Washington Post, 22 January 2009, [].
10See transcript of State Department Daily Press Briefing for 23 January 2009, [].
11James Besser, "Mitchell As Envoy Could Split Center," The Jewish Week, 25 January 2009, [].

Friday, 23 January 2009


Israel’s Lies

Henry Siegman

London Review of Books

Western governments and most of the Western media have accepted a number of Israeli claims justifying the military assault on Gaza: that Hamas consistently violated the six-month truce that Israel observed and then refused to extend it; that Israel therefore had no choice but to destroy Hamas’s capacity to launch missiles into Israeli towns; that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, part of a global jihadi network; and that Israel has acted not only in its own defence but on behalf of an international struggle by Western democracies against this network.

I am not aware of a single major American newspaper, radio station or TV channel whose coverage of the assault on Gaza questions this version of events. Criticism of Israel’s actions, if any (and there has been none from the Bush administration), has focused instead on whether the IDF’s carnage is proportional to the threat it sought to counter, and whether it is taking adequate measures to prevent civilian casualties.

Middle East peacemaking has been smothered in deceptive euphemisms, so let me state bluntly that each of these claims is a lie. Israel, not Hamas, violated the truce: Hamas undertook to stop firing rockets into Israel; in return, Israel was to ease its throttlehold on Gaza. In fact, during the truce, it tightened it further. This was confirmed not only by every neutral international observer and NGO on the scene but by Brigadier General (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, a former commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division. In an interview in Ha’aretz on 22 December, he accused Israel’s government of having made a ‘central error’ during the tahdiyeh, the six-month period of relative truce, by failing ‘to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians of the Strip . . . When you create a tahdiyeh, and the economic pressure on the Strip continues,’ General Zakai said, ‘it is obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahdiyeh, and that their way to achieve this is resumed Qassam fire . . . You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.’

The truce, which began in June last year and was due for renewal in December, required both parties to refrain from violent action against the other. Hamas had to cease its rocket assaults and prevent the firing of rockets by other groups such as Islamic Jihad (even Israel’s intelligence agencies acknowledged this had been implemented with surprising effectiveness), and Israel had to put a stop to its targeted assassinations and military incursions. This understanding was seriously violated on 4 November, when the IDF entered Gaza and killed six members of Hamas. Hamas responded by launching Qassam rockets and Grad missiles. Even so, it offered to extend the truce, but only on condition that Israel ended its blockade. Israel refused. It could have met its obligation to protect its citizens by agreeing to ease the blockade, but it didn’t even try. It cannot be said that Israel launched its assault to protect its citizens from rockets. It did so to protect its right to continue the strangulation of Gaza’s population.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that Hamas declared an end to suicide bombings and rocket fire when it decided to join the Palestinian political process, and largely stuck to it for more than a year. Bush publicly welcomed that decision, citing it as an example of the success of his campaign for democracy in the Middle East. (He had no other success to point to.) When Hamas unexpectedly won the election, Israel and the US immediately sought to delegitimise the result and embraced Mahmoud Abbas, the head of Fatah, who until then had been dismissed by Israel’s leaders as a ‘plucked chicken’. They armed and trained his security forces to overthrow Hamas; and when Hamas – brutally, to be sure – pre-empted this violent attempt to reverse the result of the first honest democratic election in the modern Middle East, Israel and the Bush administration imposed the blockade.

Israel seeks to counter these indisputable facts by maintaining that in withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza in 2005, Ariel Sharon gave Hamas the chance to set out on the path to statehood, a chance it refused to take; instead, it transformed Gaza into a launching-pad for firing missiles at Israel’s civilian population. The charge is a lie twice over. First, for all its failings, Hamas brought to Gaza a level of law and order unknown in recent years, and did so without the large sums of money that donors showered on the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. It eliminated the violent gangs and warlords who terrorised Gaza under Fatah’s rule. Non-observant Muslims, Christians and other minorities have more religious freedom under Hamas rule than they would have in Saudi Arabia, for example, or under many other Arab regimes.

The greater lie is that Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza was intended as a prelude to further withdrawals and a peace agreement. This is how Sharon’s senior adviser Dov Weisglass, who was also his chief negotiator with the Americans, described the withdrawal from Gaza, in an interview with Ha’aretz in August 2004:

What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements [i.e. the major settlement blocks on the West Bank] would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns . . . The significance [of the agreement with the US] is the freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely. And all this with [President Bush’s] authority and permission . . . and the ratification of both houses of Congress.

Do the Israelis and Americans think that Palestinians don’t read the Israeli papers, or that when they saw what was happening on the West Bank they couldn’t figure out for themselves what Sharon was up to?

Israel’s government would like the world to believe that Hamas launched its Qassam rockets because that is what terrorists do and Hamas is a generic terrorist group. In fact, Hamas is no more a ‘terror organisation’ (Israel’s preferred term) than the Zionist movement was during its struggle for a Jewish homeland. In the late 1930s and 1940s, parties within the Zionist movement resorted to terrorist activities for strategic reasons. According to Benny Morris, it was the Irgun that first targeted civilians. He writes in Righteous Victims that an upsurge of Arab terrorism in 1937 ‘triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and buses, introducing a new dimension to the conflict’. He also documents atrocities committed during the 1948-49 war by the IDF, admitting in a 2004 interview, published in Ha’aretz, that material released by Israel’s Ministry of Defence showed that ‘there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought . . . In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them, and destroy the villages themselves.’ In a number of Palestinian villages and towns the IDF carried out organised executions of civilians. Asked by Ha’aretz whether he condemned the ethnic cleansing, Morris replied that he did not:

A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.

In other words, when Jews target and kill innocent civilians to advance their national struggle, they are patriots. When their adversaries do so, they are terrorists.

It is too easy to describe Hamas simply as a ‘terror organisation’. It is a religious nationalist movement that resorts to terrorism, as the Zionist movement did during its struggle for statehood, in the mistaken belief that it is the only way to end an oppressive occupation and bring about a Palestinian state. While Hamas’s ideology formally calls for that state to be established on the ruins of the state of Israel, this doesn’t determine Hamas’s actual policies today any more than the same declaration in the PLO charter determined Fatah’s actions.

These are not the conclusions of an apologist for Hamas but the opinions of the former head of Mossad and Sharon’s national security adviser, Ephraim Halevy. The Hamas leadership has undergone a change ‘right under our very noses’, Halevy wrote recently in Yedioth Ahronoth, by recognising that ‘its ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future.’ It is now ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state within the temporary borders of 1967. Halevy noted that while Hamas has not said how ‘temporary’ those borders would be, ‘they know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their co-operation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals.’ In an earlier article, Halevy also pointed out the absurdity of linking Hamas to al-Qaida.

In the eyes of al-Qaida, the members of Hamas are perceived as heretics due to their stated desire to participate, even indirectly, in processes of any understandings or agreements with Israel. [The Hamas political bureau chief, Khaled] Mashal’s declaration diametrically contradicts al-Qaida’s approach, and provides Israel with an opportunity, perhaps a historic one, to leverage it for the better.

Why then are Israel’s leaders so determined to destroy Hamas? Because they believe that its leadership, unlike that of Fatah, cannot be intimidated into accepting a peace accord that establishes a Palestinian ‘state’ made up of territorially disconnected entities over which Israel would be able to retain permanent control. Control of the West Bank has been the unwavering objective of Israel’s military, intelligence and political elites since the end of the Six-Day War.[*] They believe that Hamas would not permit such a cantonisation of Palestinian territory, no matter how long the occupation continues. They may be wrong about Abbas and his superannuated cohorts, but they are entirely right about Hamas.

Middle East observers wonder whether Israel’s assault on Hamas will succeed in destroying the organisation or expelling it from Gaza. This is an irrelevant question. If Israel plans to keep control over any future Palestinian entity, it will never find a Palestinian partner, and even if it succeeds in dismantling Hamas, the movement will in time be replaced by a far more radical Palestinian opposition.

If Barack Obama picks a seasoned Middle East envoy who clings to the idea that outsiders should not present their own proposals for a just and sustainable peace agreement, much less press the parties to accept it, but instead leave them to work out their differences, he will assure a future Palestinian resistance far more extreme than Hamas – one likely to be allied with al-Qaida. For the US, Europe and most of the rest of the world, this would be the worst possible outcome. Perhaps some Israelis, including the settler leadership, believe it would serve their purposes, since it would provide the government with a compelling pretext to hold on to all of Palestine. But this is a delusion that would bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Anthony Cordesman, one of the most reliable military analysts of the Middle East, and a friend of Israel, argued in a 9 January report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the tactical advantages of continuing the operation in Gaza were outweighed by the strategic cost – and were probably no greater than any gains Israel may have made early in the war in selective strikes on key Hamas facilities. ‘Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal, or at least one it can credibly achieve?’ he asks. ‘Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel’s actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process? To be blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes.’ Cordesman concludes that ‘any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that Olmert, Livni and Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselves and damaged their country and their friends.’

15 January


[*] See my piece in the LRB, 16 August 2007.

Henry Siegman, director of the US Middle East Project in New York, is a visiting research professor at SOAS, University of London. He is a former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America.

Monday, 19 January 2009


The Gaza offensive has succeeded in punishing the
Palestinians but
not in making Israel more secure.

By John J. Mearsheimer

Israelis and their American supporters claim that Israel learned its
lessons well from the disastrous 2006 Lebanon war and has devised a
winning strategy for the present war against Hamas. Of course, when a
ceasefire comes, Israel will declare victory. Don’t believe it.
Israel has foolishly started another war it cannot win.

The campaign in Gaza is said to have two objectives: 1) to put an end
to the rockets and mortars that Palestinians have been firing into
southern Israel since it withdrew from Gaza in August 2005; 2) to
restore Israel’s deterrent, which was said to be diminished by the
Lebanon fiasco, by Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, and by its
inability to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

But these are not the real goals of Operation Cast Lead. The actual
purpose is connected to Israel’s long-term vision of how it intends
to live with millions of Palestinians in its midst. It is part of a
broader strategic goal: the creation of a “Greater Israel.”
Specifically, Israel’s leaders remain determined to control all of
what used to be known as Mandate Palestine, which includes Gaza and
the West Bank. The Palestinians would have limited autonomy in a
handful of disconnected and economically crippled enclaves, one of
which is Gaza. Israel would control the borders around them, movement
between them, the air above and the water below them.

The key to achieving this is to inflict massive pain on the
Palestinians so that they come to accept the fact that they are a
defeated people and that Israel will be largely responsible for
controlling their future. This strategy, which was first articulated
by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s and has heavily influenced Israeli
policy since 1948, is commonly referred to as the “Iron Wall.”

What has been happening in Gaza is fully consistent with this

Let’s begin with Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005. The
conventional wisdom is that Israel was serious about making peace
with the Palestinians and that its leaders hoped the exit from Gaza
would be a major step toward creating a viable Palestinian state.
According to the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman, Israel was
giving the Palestinians an opportunity to “build a decent mini-state
there—a Dubai on the Mediterranean,” and if they did so, it would
“fundamentally reshape the Israeli debate about whether the
Palestinians can be handed most of the West Bank.”

This is pure fiction. Even before Hamas came to power, the Israelis
intended to create an open-air prison for the Palestinians in Gaza
and inflict great pain on them until they complied with Israel’s
wishes. Dov Weisglass, Ariel Sharon’s closest adviser at the time,
candidly stated that the disengagement from Gaza was aimed at halting
the peace process, not encouraging it. He described the disengagement
as “formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a
political process with the Palestinians.” Moreover, he emphasized
that the withdrawal “places the Palestinians under tremendous
pressure. It forces them into a corner where they hate to be.”

Arnon Soffer, a prominent Israeli demographer who also advised
Sharon, elaborated on what that pressure would look like. “When 2.5
million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human
catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they
are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The
pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible
war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill
and kill. All day, every day.”

In January 2006, five months after the Israelis pulled their settlers
out of Gaza, Hamas won a decisive victory over Fatah in the
Palestinian legislative elections. This meant trouble for Israel’s
strategy because Hamas was democratically elected, well organized,
not corrupt like Fatah, and unwilling to accept Israel’s existence.
Israel responded by ratcheting up economic pressure on the
Palestinians, but it did not work. In fact, the situation took
another turn for the worse in March 2007, when Fatah and Hamas came
together to form a national unity government. Hamas’s stature and
political power were growing, and Israel’s divide-and-conquer
strategy was unraveling.

To make matters worse, the national unity government began pushing
for a long-term ceasefire. The Palestinians would end all missile
attacks on Israel if the Israelis would stop arresting and
assassinating Palestinians and end their economic stranglehold,
opening the border crossings into Gaza.

Israel rejected that offer and with American backing set out to
foment a civil war between Fatah and Hamas that would wreck the
national unity government and put Fatah in charge. The plan backfired
when Hamas drove Fatah out of Gaza, leaving Hamas in charge there and
the more pliant Fatah in control of the West Bank. Israel then
tightened the screws on the blockade around Gaza, causing even
greater hardship and suffering among the Palestinians living there.

Hamas responded by continuing to fire rockets and mortars into
Israel, while emphasizing that they still sought a long-term
ceasefire, perhaps lasting ten years or more. This was not a noble
gesture on Hamas’s part: they sought a ceasefire because the balance
of power heavily favored Israel. The Israelis had no interest in a
ceasefire and merely intensified the economic pressure on Gaza. But
in the late spring of 2008, pressure from Israelis living under the
rocket attacks led the government to agree to a six-month ceasefire
starting on June 19. That agreement, which formally ended on Dec. 19,
immediately preceded the present war, which began on Dec. 27.

The official Israeli position blames Hamas for undermining the
ceasefire. This view is widely accepted in the United States, but it
is not true. Israeli leaders disliked the ceasefire from the start,
and Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the IDF to begin preparing
for the present war while the ceasefire was being negotiated in June
2008. Furthermore, Dan Gillerman, Israel’s former ambassador to the
UN, reports that Jerusalem began to prepare the propaganda campaign
to sell the present war months before the conflict began. For its
part, Hamas drastically reduced the number of missile attacks during
the first five months of the ceasefire. A total of two rockets were
fired into Israel during September and October, none by Hamas.

How did Israel behave during this same period? It continued arresting
and assassinating Palestinians on the West Bank, and it continued the
deadly blockade that was slowly strangling Gaza. Then on Nov. 4, as
Americans voted for a new president, Israel attacked a tunnel inside
Gaza and killed six Palestinians. It was the first major violation of
the ceasefire, and the Palestinians—who had been “careful to maintain
the ceasefire,” according to Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism
Information Center—responded by resuming rocket attacks. The calm
that had prevailed since June vanished as Israel ratcheted up the
blockade and its attacks into Gaza and the Palestinians hurled more
rockets at Israel. It is worth noting that not a single Israeli was
killed by Palestinian missiles between Nov. 4 and the launching of
the war on Dec. 27.

As the violence increased, Hamas made clear that it had no interest
in extending the ceasefire beyond Dec. 19, which is hardly
surprising, since it had not worked as intended. In mid-December,
however, Hamas informed Israel that it was still willing to negotiate
a long-term ceasefire if it included an end to the arrests and
assassinations as well as the lifting of the blockade. But the
Israelis, having used the ceasefire to prepare for war against Hamas,
rejected this overture. The bombing of Gaza commenced eight days
after the failed ceasefire formally ended.

If Israel wanted to stop missile attacks from Gaza, it could have
done so by arranging a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. And if Israel
were genuinely interested in creating a viable Palestinian state, it
could have worked with the national unity government to implement a
meaningful ceasefire and change Hamas’s thinking about a two-state
solution. But Israel has a different agenda: it is determined to
employ the Iron Wall strategy to get the Palestinians in Gaza to
accept their fate as hapless subjects of a Greater Israel.

This brutal policy is clearly reflected in Israel’s conduct of the
Gaza War. Israel and its supporters claim that the IDF is going to
great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, in some cases taking
risks that put Israeli soldiers in jeopardy. Hardly. One reason to
doubt these claims is that Israel refuses to allow reporters into the
war zone: it does not want the world to see what its soldiers and
bombs are doing inside Gaza. At the same time, Israel has launched a
massive propaganda campaign to put a positive spin on the horror
stories that do emerge.

The best evidence, however, that Israel is deliberately seeking to
punish the broader population in Gaza is the death and destruction
the IDF has wrought on that small piece of real estate. Israel has
killed over 1,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 4,000. Over half
of the casualties are civilians, and many are children. The IDF’s
opening salvo on Dec. 27 took place as children were leaving school,
and one of its primary targets that day was a large group of
graduating police cadets, who hardly qualified as terrorists. In what
Ehud Barak called “an all-out war against Hamas,” Israel has targeted
a university, schools, mosques, homes, apartment buildings,
government offices, and even ambulances. A senior Israeli military
official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained the logic
behind Israel’s expansive target set: “There are many aspects of
Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum, because
everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against
Israel.” In other words, everyone is a terrorist and everything is a
legitimate target.

Israelis tend to be blunt, and they occasionally say what they are
really doing. After the IDF killed 40 Palestinian civilians in a UN
school on Jan. 6, Ha’aretz reported that “senior officers admit that
the IDF has been using enormous firepower.” One officer explained,
“For us, being cautious means being aggressive. From the minute we
entered, we’ve acted like we’re at war. That creates enormous damage
on the ground … I just hope those who have fled the area of Gaza City
in which we are operating will describe the shock.”

One might accept that Israel is waging “a cruel, all-out war against
1.5 million Palestinian civilians,” as Ha’aretz put it in an
editorial, but argue that it will eventually achieve its war aims and
the rest of the world will quickly forget the horrors inflicted on
the people of Gaza.

This is wishful thinking. For starters, Israel is unlikely to stop
the rocket fire for any appreciable period of time unless it agrees
to open Gaza’s borders and stop arresting and killing Palestinians.
Israelis talk about cutting off the supply of rockets and mortars
into Gaza, but weapons will continue to come in via secret tunnels
and ships that sneak through Israel’s naval blockade. It will also be
impossible to police all of the goods sent into Gaza through
legitimate channels.

Israel could try to conquer all of Gaza and lock the place down. That
would probably stop the rocket attacks if Israel deployed a large
enough force. But then the IDF would be bogged down in a costly
occupation against a deeply hostile population. They would eventually
have to leave, and the rocket fire would resume. And if Israel fails
to stop the rocket fire and keep it stopped, as seems likely, its
deterrent will be diminished, not strengthened.

More importantly, there is little reason to think that the Israelis
can beat Hamas into submission and get the Palestinians to live
quietly in a handful of Bantustans inside Greater Israel. Israel has
been humiliating, torturing, and killing Palestinians in the Occupied
Territories since 1967 and has not come close to cowing them. Indeed,
Hamas’s reaction to Israel’s brutality seems to lend credence to
Nietzsche’s remark that what does not kill you makes you stronger.

But even if the unexpected happens and the Palestinians cave, Israel
would still lose because it will become an apartheid state. As Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert recently said, Israel will “face a South
African-style struggle” if the Palestinians do not get a viable state
of their own. “As soon as that happens,” he argued, “the state of
Israel is finished.” Yet Olmert has done nothing to stop settlement
expansion and create a viable Palestinian state, relying instead on
the Iron Wall strategy to deal with the Palestinians.

There is also little chance that people around the world who follow
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will soon forget the appalling
punishment that Israel is meting out in Gaza. The destruction is just
too obvious to miss, and too many people—especially in the Arab and
Islamic world—care about the Palestinians’ fate. Moreover, discourse
about this longstanding conflict has undergone a sea change in the
West in recent years, and many of us who were once wholly sympathetic
to Israel now see that the Israelis are the victimizers and the
Palestinians are the victims. What is happening in Gaza will
accelerate that changing picture of the conflict and long be seen as
a dark stain on Israel’s reputation.

The bottom line is that no matter what happens on the battlefield,
Israel cannot win its war in Gaza. In fact, it is pursuing a
strategy—with lots of help from its so-called friends in the
Diaspora—that is placing its long-term future at risk.

John J. Mearsheimer is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and coauthor of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

Sunday, 18 January 2009


On balance: Evaluation of the Israeli festival of slaughter and butchery in Gaza

As'ad AbuKhalil
Sat Jan 17th, 2009

[Excellent analysis, apart from the rather childish comments on Arafat - OURAIM]

From war to war (which is a title of a book by Nadav Safran),
that is the context in which we need to evaluate our century-old
conflict with Israel. You can't isolate each chapter or war or
slaughter and analyze it without the larger context of the conflict.

The press conference by the Israeli prime minister and his
defense minister was remarkable: less triumphalist than
usual, and certainly vague about goals and successes. Now
we can evaluate the goals within the context of Israel's
declared goals, and within the context of Israel's
strategic plan.

For somebody of my age, I can say this at first: that from
1948 until the 1990s, every Israeli military success more
smashing the one before: the 1973 was a different story
because it was the only Arab-Israeli war that was initiated
by the Arab side (remarkable when you think about the
propaganda of the "beleaguered Israel"), and it was bungled
by the Egyptian (Nazi) dictator, Anwar Sadat (Jimmy
Carter's favorite personality and friend), and Israel
(contrary to present-day Arab states' propaganda) wound up
winning overall at the end.

So Israel's strategic posture was predicated on
intimidating 1) the armies of the enemy; 2) the population
of the enemy. Israeli psychological warfare succeeded for
decades in convincing the enemy that Israel is way too
mighty and way too invincible to be damaged by any military
effort. Arabs reached a mood of defeatism that permeated
the political culture, and helped in securing the survival
and propaganda of the ruling regimes. Israel's tactic was
meant to discourage any political violence or even defense
from the other side.

You also need to compare to the times when Israel faced
non-state actors: we have different episodes: from
Al-Karamah battle in 1968 (a crucial watershed in
fida'iyyin recruitment), to the various chapters of Israeli
invasions of Lebanon culminating in the 1982 invasion of
Lebanon. I am quite familiar and witnessed the responses to
Israeli invasions of Lebanon. It is in that context that I
find Gaza (under siege and cut off from the world with
Egypt playing the role of the ally of Israel) to be an
utter failure for the Israeli side. I never expected much
from Hamas in terms of military effectiveness, and I think
that the Israeli-Egyptian-Saudi-Dahlan plan was based on a
low estimation of Hamas' military effectiveness.

In previous confrontations in the West Bank or in Lebanon
in the 1980s, the Israeli military would bomb from the air
for a day or two, and then advance swiftly. And that was
exactly what happened in the invasion of Lebanon in the
summer of 1982: now, the lack of stiff resistance back then
had to do with many factors, including the lousy leadership
of `Arafat (who cared about preserving his little empire
more than about resistance and who is not dead enough as
far as I am concerned, and may his grave deepen), the gap
between people of the South and the resistance, and the
financial regularization of the PLO's fighting force, and
the psychological factor that often curtailed the ability
of the fighting force, all helped the Israeli plan. True,
there was stiff resistance in some places: like Rashidiyyah
and `Ayn Al-Hilwah but it was sporadic and disorganized.
Only in West Beirut, a strong fighting force was prepared
and they were ready for a confrontation with Israel, and
that is why Israel never invaded the city: it only waited
until the evacuation of the fighters and then supervised
the butchery of the women and children in the Sabra and
Shatila camps--slaughter of women and children is a classic
specialty of the Zionist forces even before the
establishment of the state.

But Hamas performed far better than the expectations of its
enemies and even of its leadership in Syria and Lebanon.
Israel would have succeeded if it achieved what it wanted:
to achieve an unconditional surrender of Hamas. That's what
it used to get from Fatah in the West Bank: Arafat would
negotiate the terms of his surrender with third-parties and
that would be that (like in Bethlehem). Yet, Hamas defiance
and the launching of rockets continued to the last day--in
fact it continues as I write this from what I see on the
screen. Hamas leaders did not leave as Fatah leaders and
fighters would (in the era under Arafat-Dahlan-Rajjub in
the West Bank bantustan after Oslo), but continued in stiff
resistance and defiance to the very last end.

So Israel failed in 1) achieving a total surrender of

2) in propping up the Dahlan-Abu Mazen gangs who are more
discredited today than ever. Early in the campaign, Dahlan
appeared on Al-Arabiyya and on Egyptian TV and was quite
bombastic because he was expecting that the matter would be
over in the first week. When that did not happen, he
disappeared, and some say that he went back to
Montenegro--his news base.

3) Israel failed in achieving a victory that it needed: a
victory that would once and for all put to rest the
humiliating defeat of Israel in 2006. Hamas knew that its
performance was extremely influential in possibly
dramatically altering the image of the Israeli soldiers in
the eyes of all Arabs: fighters and lay people alike, and
it knew that expectations were in building on the
performance on Hizbullah in 2006;

4) Israel failed in creating a rift between the Palestinian
people and Hamas, just as it failed to create a rift
between the population of the South and Hizbullah, its
silly SMS messages notwithstanding;

5) Israel failed in putting an end to the rockets;

6) Israel failed in smashing Hamas;

7) Israel failed in creating a new psychological climate in
the Middle East: it was expected that Israel would use more
massive and indiscriminate violence than before, and that
it would try to "shock and awe" more than before because it
wanted to kill the image of its humiliation in South
Lebanon. That was not accomplished despite the high number
of casualties among the civilians.

8) Israeli prime minister today bragged about intelligence
successes: but that was inflated. It is true the killing of
two Hamas leaders (along with tens of innocent civilians
but that is how Israel "assassinates") was a success for
Israel but there are other Hamas leaders. Plus, Israel
policy of assuming that an organization would die by
killing the leader has always been one of the many dumb
Israeli miscalculations. The most recent case was in 1992
when Israeli terrorist leaders killed Abbas Musawi (and his
family) and they got...Hasan Nasrallah instead. I have no
doubt that they probably now regret killing Musawi. And
Hamas now operates on the assumption that all leaders may
die and they have most likely structured the organization
on that assumption, unlike the centrally run, say, DFLP or
Fatah under `Arafat.

9) Israel failed to build on the years-old Saudi policy of
mobilizing Arab public opinion against Iran, instead of
Israel. That clearly failed miserably. If anything, Arab
public opinion is more mobilized against Israel than any
other time in memory.

10) Israel failed to sell its slaughter as a legitimate
contribution to the "war on terrorism". Clearly, the scenes
of carnage offended public opinion around the world with
the exception of the US and the UN embassy of Micronesia.
But there are successes: if Israel was aiming to kill a
very large number of women and children, that was achieved
to a large measure. Very knowledgeable sources in Beirut
tell me that only 5% of Hamas' fighting abilities were
damaged in this war thus far, and there will be another
round no doubt. But think about Karamah battle. In Karamah:
a lot of the lore was built by Arafat's bombast and a unit
of the Jordanian army fought with the Palestinian
resistance. This time around, Arab and particularly
Palestinian public opinion will look with admiration at the
performance of Hamas during this 22 days. It is commonly
estimated that some 20,000 Palestinians volunteered in the
resistance movement after Karamah, and I expect a
region-wide campaign of recruitment to the benefit of

Israel's choice of Palestinian leadership (supported by
Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt), i.e., Dahlan gangs, are
discredited beyond repair. I mean, when I read in Saudi
newspapers description of Dahlan as an Israeli stooge, you
know how Palestinian opinion will regard him--and the
fleeing of his men in their underwear did not help either.
From 1968 to 1978, the Fatah movement transformed from a
band of fighters in Jordan to an army (badly run to be sure
by Arafat) with all sorts of heavy weapons.

There is now a point of no-return: Arabs are no more afraid
of Israeli soldiers. From that loss, Israel shall never
recover and it will expedite the inevitable process of the
elimination of Zionism from Palestine. The confrontation
with Israel is cumulative, and this culmination is now not
in the interests of Israel. Many Arabs now talk about the
defeat of Israel: I rarely heard those sentiments before

Friday, 16 January 2009




Hamas leaders did not support a strict Islamic code as
recently claimed.

Forward Thinking calls on Quillam Foundation to withdraw
its misleading and erroneous press statement issued on 24th
December 2008 claiming that Hamas had passed a bill for an
Islamic Penal Code in Gaza.

It was claimed that the bill included “punishments such as
flogging chopping of the hands, crucifixation and

Majid Nawaz, Director of Quilliam Foundation stated “Hamas
finally show their colours and their true colours of their
colleagues in their parent organisation – the Muslim

The statement was based on a report in the Al Hayat
newspaper 24/12/08

The New York Times Correspondent in Gaza who was present at
the Legislative Council meeting in which this bill was
mentioned told Forward Thinking that the reporter from Al
Hayat was not present as alleged and had filed a total
misleading account of events. The matter of introducing an
Islamic Penal Code was proposed by a member of the
Legislative Council but was rejected by the majority. We
were informed that any further discussion of the bill was
vetoed by senior Hamas members of the Legislative Council.

We believe that it is important to put this record right as
this erroneous information has been referred to in a number
of newspaper articles.

For further information please contact Oliver McTernan,
Forward Thinking Director on, 07891 914 019.


Forward Thinking
84-86 Regent St.
London W1B 5DD

tel: 020.7734.2303
fax: 020.7494.2570

Monday, 12 January 2009



By Alastair Crooke
Conflicts Forum
January 11, 2009

Many have asked in the wake of Israel’s attack on Gaza, how Hamas, if
it saw the consequences of ending the ceasefire — and Hamas did
foresee the likelihood of disproportionate Israeli military action —
nonetheless could have acquiesced to the inevitable bloodshed —
bloodshed that an Israeli army, fixated on restoring its deterrence
after its failed 2006 war with Hesballah, would visit on the citizens
of Gaza. Some may read into this decision the cynicism of a movement
that prioritises resistance; but to do so would be to misread how
Hamas analyses their situation and understands the nature of

At one level, the six month ceasefire simply had failed to satisfy
two key litmus tests: The circumstances of life of the Gazan people
continually had deteriorated, and the ceasefire was not seen to be
taking the Palestinian people any closer to a political solution. On
the contrary, Hamas saw a settlement receding further into the

In short, Israel — abetted by the US and Europe — had used the six
month ‘ceasefire’ not as a building-block towards doing serious
politics and real negotiation, but to squeeze the pips out of the
people of Gaza in the hope that a desperate people would turn on
their own representatives, leaving Hamas discredited and
marginalised. No Israeli had died during this ceasefire, but instead
of alleviating the conditions in Gaza, as agreed at the outset,
Israel incrementally aggravated them. Not surprisingly, the calm
eroded — and finally unravelled — following Israel’s military
incursion and breach of the ceasefire with its armed incursion into
Gaza on 5 November, in which six Hamas members were killed.

The Israeli objective to dismantle the movement that overwhelmingly
won the 2006 Parliamentary elections in Palestine stands naked in the
face of the explicit admission from Israeli officials that that
Israel had begun preparing the current attacks on Gaza (cited in
Haaretz 28 Dec 08)– even as the last ceasefire was being agreed.
Hamas was to be either to be eviscerated by a ‘ceasefire slow-death’;
or alternatively, be eliminated by massive military action.

European leaders bought into this strategy, hoping to pull-off a
quickie, under-the-table deal with western protégé President Abbas
that could be imposed on the Palestinians through a multi-national
‘peacekeeping’ force. This was to be achieved with the collaboration
of Egypt and Saudi Arabia governments who were becoming increasingly
fearful of the growing challenge to their own legitimacy in the
region, and who were not adverse to seeing Hamas cornered in Gaza and
‘punished’ by the Israelis.

Any psychologist however might have advised the European and US
policy-makers that putting one-and-a-half million Palestinians ‘on a
diet’, as an earlier chief-of-staff to the Israeli Prime Minister
described it, and shredding any plans or hopes that they may have had
for their futures, does not make humans more docile or more moderate.
After a while in the Gaza pressure-cooker, anger and despair boil-up:
Gaza ultimately was set to explode — one way or another.

If this was not discerned by western policy-makers, it was well
understood by Hamas. In other words, what is happening in Gaza was
all too foreseeable. A few Israelis saw this too, but their ‘grand
narrative’ of the global struggle between ‘moderates’ and
‘extremists’ overrode their instincts in respect to the local
Palestinian conflict.

The thesis that literally ‘everything’ must be done either to lever
‘moderates’ into power or prevent them from losing power —
euphemistically called ‘supporting moderation’ — lies at the heart of
the Gaza crisis.

It is a narrative that has served Israeli wider interests in
garnering legitimacy for their policies toward Iran, and in
dichotomising the region into ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. Quartet
Envoy Tony Blair’s proselytising around the world on this theme has
been a huge asset; but his, and other Quartet members’ espousal of
this doctrine, in practice has only pushed the prospect of a
political solution to the Israeli – Palestine conflict beyond reach —
by branding a mainstream Palestinian national liberation movement
such as Hamas ‘extreme’ — despite it having won national and local

Britain and the US have instead busied themselves in training a
Palestinian ‘special forces’ militia around Mahmoud Abbas, which has
been used to suppress political activity by Hamas, and to close-down
welfare and social organisations that are not aligned directly with
Abbas. A policy of political ‘cleansing’ of the West Bank, cloaked in
the rhetoric of ‘building security institutions’, predictably has
been met with an equivalent counter-reaction in Gaza. The paradoxical
consequence of this has been to create such a schism within the
Palestinian body politic that no Palestinian leader now enjoys the
legitimacy to bring a political solution before the people: The West
has sacrificed its wish for a political solution to its ideology of
‘moderation’ versus ‘extremism’.

Security officials have made clear that Israel will not permit fresh
elections in Palestine — for fear that Hamas will win; and whereas
the West probably will continue to bestow Mahmoud Abbas with the
trappings of legitimacy after his term in office expires on 9 January
2009, he will enjoy no such legitimacy amongst Palestinians. Indeed
the very effort to leverage such spurious legitimacy will discredit
him further.

This then is the backdrop against which Hamas elected to decline a
renewed ceasefire: To stand passive and cornered whilst Palestinians
in Gaza were made destitute and hopeless in an extended ceasefire and
to watch — acquiescent — as the Anglo-American political cleansing in
the West Bank proceeded, simply was not feasible. An explosion at
some point was inevitable.

The only option was to break the mould of a Gaza left ‘stewing’ in
its isolated misery, and a West Bank frozen in a pattern of Israeli
total control, but providing the all-important illusion of a
‘political process’ that western leaders could extol back home. This
represented a formula that Israel could happily sustain for years to
come, in Hamas’ view. The Israeli election campaign seemed to confirm
an electorate relapsing back into ‘security’ mode — having
interpreted the Annapolis ‘process’ to have demonstrated a hardening
of Palestinian negotiating positions: again there was an Israeli
consensus forming that there was ‘no partner for peace’.

In making such a decision, Hamas knew it could not defeat Israel’s
military strength; but the ‘war’ already is shuffling the cards of
both Palestinian and regional politics. If it extends, and if the
resistance is perceived by Palestinians and Muslims to acquit itself
well, then the structure of Palestinian leadership may fall ripe to
major re-structuring. Equally the regional anger being generated by
graphic scenes of death in Gaza possesses a potential for the
conflict to widen geographically and is coalescing Arab and Islamic
resistance against certain Arab leaderships. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah
of Hesballah has pointed to this prospect in two recent key speeches:
Were such a broadening-out of the conflict to occur, it will carry
important consequences. These are all big and significant ‘ifs’. But
Hamas’ decision should be placed against this backdrop — rather than
be painted as the callous disregard of Palestinian lives.

Alastair Crooke is a former European Union mediator with Hamas and is
currently director of Conflicts Forum, based in Beirut.

Sunday, 11 January 2009


Will Hizballah intervene in the Gaza conflict?
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb,
The Electronic Intifada,

11 January 2009

A mock Katyusha rocket-launcher pointed towards Israel sits next to a main highway in southern Lebanon. (Matthew Cassel)

While Israel fervently attempts to terrorize the Palestinians into submission in Gaza, many observers have started to wonder why Hizballah has refrained from stepping in militarily to assist its brothers-in-arms, Hamas. Such musings fail to take account of the constraints on Hizballah's room for action, as well as the circumstances under which Hizballah would ignore such constraints. The question that should be posed is not so much if Hizballah will act, but when.

As things currently stand, Hizballah is not in a position to directly help Hamas militarily by opening a new front with Israel. In the first place, Hizballah and its supporters have only recently recovered from the devastating impact of Israel's war against them in July 2006. A Hizballah offensive against northern Israel would surely be met with "disproportionate" force on Israel's part, which Israel has been threatening as much for several months now. Mass destruction and devastation aside, Hizballah would once again be faced with intense domestic pressures to disarm, and possibly, more externally manufactured, locally-executed conspiracies hatched against it that could drag it into the kind of civil warfare that the movement found itself in during May 2008.

Armed action by Hizballah would not only hurt the movement but would also harm Hamas whose status as a nationalist resistance movement, capable of defending its own people, would be greatly undermined and its raison d'etre called into question. Furthermore, since Hamas has thus far managed to withstand the Israeli onslaught on its own without suffering any significant damage to its organizational hierarchy or military infrastructure, Hizballah does not regard an intervention on its part as an exigent need.

The preconditions for Hizballah's active engagement in the conflict are two. First, if Hamas is left bleeding to death on the battlefield, either due to the decapitation of its leadership ranks or if its military infrastructure suffers a significant blow, drastically impairing its military performance and leading to its eventual collapse, Hizballah would likely step in. Second, if the organization is forced to accept a conditional ceasefire along the lines of the current French-Egyptian proposal that meets all of Israel's key demands while weakening Hamas militarily and politically, Hizballah would feel compelled to come to its rescue.

For Hizballah, the need to act under such circumstances would override all the attendant costs that come with such action -- a calculation which takes as its basis Hizballah's moral responsibility towards the Palestinians and the shared strategic fate between the two resistance movements. As expressed by Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah on 16 July 2008: "[the resistance] is one project and the resistance movement is one movement and has one course, one destiny, one goal, despite its different parties, factions, beliefs, sects and intellectual and political trends ... Resistance movements in this region, especially in Lebanon and Palestine, complement one another and are contiguous groups ..."

Hizballah's view of the conflict in Gaza

This moral and strategic imperative to act is also based on Hizballah's understanding of the current war as but one episode of an open-ended and comprehensive war waged by the US-Israeli-"moderate" Arab axis against the jabhit al-mumana'a (political and military resistance front) which includes Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas. According to this narrative, the events unfolding are simply an extension of the July War of 2006, as evinced by Israel's admission that one motive behind its current onslaught is to restore the deterrence capability and image it lost in July 2006. Further bolstering this view is the virtually identical stand moderate Arab regimes have taken on Gaza as the one taken in July 2006. In fact, the perception of the Arab role has shifted from one of "silence" and concealed "collaboration" with Israel in the July War, to open "cooperation" and "partnership" with the Zionist state in its war against Gaza. So blatant has Arab, and especially Egyptian, government support for Israel's military campaigns become, that even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (known for his sympathies to the US and Israel) chided Arab regimes on 29 December for "not doing enough" to help the Palestinians in Gaza, while Israeli officials and media continue to knowingly embarrass their moderate Arab allies by flaunting their newly out-of-the closet relationship.

Considering the extent of Arab cooperation with Israel in its latest military (mis)adventure and in view of the ferocity of the latter, the current Gaza episode is deemed a particularly dangerous moment in the regional conflict insofar as it represents not merely a war against Hamas, but against the Palestinian cause, or as Nasrallah described it on 29 December, "the fate of Palestine." Given that the Palestinian cause is embodied by Hamas and defines the political identity of its regional allies, this conflict is one in which the ideological and strategic stakes for all members of the resistance front are extremely high. Nasrallah admitted as much in his 28 December speech: "what is happening in Gaza will have repercussions not only for Gaza alone or Palestine, but for the entire umma [a term used to refer to the Arab nation in a secular nationalist context and for the world community of Muslims]. We must continue work and not be satisfied with an activity here, a demonstration there ... we must exert every effort to defend our people."

Hizballah's regional strategy in the Gaza conflict

For Hizballah, the Israeli offensive against Gaza must have been foreseeable given Israel's repeated violations of its ceasefire agreement with Hamas over the past several months and the latter's refusal to renew it at least a month before it expired. It is more than likely that Hizballah has been preparing for this eventuality alongside Hamas for some time now. In a sign of such coordination, on 15 December Nasrallah used a televised speech to mobilize popular support for an "open ended" campaign to lift the siege on Gaza that was to be launched on 19 December, several days before the Israeli assault began. It is no coincidence that the Hizballah leader chose to make this announcement one day after Hamas' political head, Khaled Meshal, formally declared the movement's ceasefire with Israel over on 14 December.

Over and above this political coordination, Hizballah must have helped Hamas ready itself for such an Israeli operation by providing weapons and training, as well as through joint military planning. Hizballah officials' strong confidence in Hamas' military performance appears to stem from an intimate knowledge of the organization's capabilities. This conclusion reveals itself in the assertion made by the head of Hizballah's parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad, who claimed on 2 January that "the enemy will be surprised by the range of rockets found in the resistance's arsenal in Gaza." This argument is further bolstered by Nasrallah's admission in March 2002 that the three Hizballah officials whom Jordan had captured as they were trying to smuggle weapons into the West Bank, did in fact belong to the movement, as well as his declaration at the time that "to supply arms to the Palestinians is a duty ... it is shameful to consider such an act as a crime."

Hamas' fighting style also seems to bear the hallmarks of the military tactics Hizballah used during the July War such as its use of underground bunkers and tunnel networks, as well as adopting similar rocket tactics, all of which suggest Hizballah's extensive training of Hamas' military forces. Nasrallah came close to admitting as much when he claimed on 31 December that "the resistance in Gaza benefitted more from these lessons [from the July War] than the Israelis." More than simply receiving military training, Hamas's military strategy appears to conform to the "new school of fighting" founded by Hizballah's assassinated military leader, Imad Mughniyeh (himself rumored to have personally trained and equipped several Palestinian groups over the years), which combines conventional and non-conventional, guerilla warfare that functions not only to liberate occupied territory, but to defend it from aggression.

Hizballah's strategy vis-a-vis Egypt

Not only did Hizballah coordinate its activity on the Gaza crisis with Hamas, but also with Iran. One such indication of this coordination was the fact that the Iranian campaign against Egypt's closure of the Rafah crossing was launched several days in advance of the one kicked off by Nasrallah, prompting Cairo to recall its diplomatic envoy from Tehran. On 12 December, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts with strong ties to Iran's Supreme Leader, Imam Khamenei, disparaged Arab regimes in language reminiscent of Khomeini's revolutionary discourse of the 1980s: "Forget about silence. They are cooperating with Israel." Referring to Egypt by name, in light of its cooperation with Israel on the Gaza siege, Khatami asked: "where has your Islam gone, where has your humanity gone?" In a similar vein, in his 28 December speech Nasrallah denied the existence of an Arab "silence," insisting that it was an Arab "partnership" with Israel. Like Khatami, Nasrallah also singled out Egypt by name, warning it that if did not open the crossing then it too would be "partners to the crime, partners to the murders and partners to the Palestinian tragedy." To that end, the Hizballah leader called on "millions" of Egyptians to brave government repression and take to the streets to express their outrage, similarly urging the Egyptian armed forces to apply pressure on the regime to open the crossing.

While many have dismissed Nasrallah's verbal barrage on the Mubarak regime as little more than a diversionary or compensatory tactic designed to divert attention from or compensate for Hizballah's inaction, such a view fails to appreciate the unprecedented nature of this attack, as well as the wider strategy underpinning it. Not since the 1980s has Hizballah adopted such an inflammatory discourse against an Arab regime, or even singled out any one for attack. Not even during the July War, when Arab complicity with Israel was at its peak, did Nasrallah call on the Arab masses to exert pressure on their governments, nor did Hizballah's relations with those regimes take a turn for the worse thereafter. At the time, Hizballah clearly did not want to burn its bridges with Arab regimes or provide them with ammunition to invoke the Shiite scarecrow and stoke Sunni-Shiite tensions. In Gaza though, Hizballah has not found any such room for diplomacy and self-restraint. In his 7 January speech, Nasrallah warned that although Hizballah did not make enemies of those who had betrayed it during the July War, "we will make those who collaborate against Gaza and its people our enemies."

Hizballah's policy shift and its coordination with Iran on this matter signal a joint Iranian-Hizballah strategy of exposing the Mubarak regime's collusion with Israel and pressuring it to lift its siege of Gaza. These goals also fulfill the grander objective of shaking the foundations of the Egyptian-Israeli alliance which, in turn, would serve to weaken Israel's regional position. A strategy of this kind is deemed necessary given Egypt's "public embrace" of Israel, as one Israeli journalist put it (Haaretz, 9 January). In contrast to the July War when Egypt and other moderate regimes confined their collaborative role to blaming Hizballah for Israel's aggression, this time round Egypt has not even bothered to feign neutrality while secretly trying to benefit from Israel's campaign against Hamas. In this war, Egypt cannot even play the role of conspiring mediator because it is in fact, a party to the conflict. Egypt's foreknowledge of Israel's operation -- some would even argue, its demand that Israel launch such an operation -- is now common knowledge, as is the false sense of security it lulled Hamas into prior to the Israeli assault.

But the most palpable indication of Egypt's shared war aims with Israel is in its siege of Gaza and its ardent refusal to lift it. Hizballah and its allies view the opening of the Rafah crossing as being key to the outcome of the conflict. As Nasrallah explained on 28 December: "today the Egyptian stand is the cornerstone of what is going on in Gaza. If the crossing is opened, and water, food, medicine, and money, and even arms reach our people in Gaza, the epic victory in Lebanon will be repeated." Hizballah's wartime experiences demonstrate this fact only too well. Syria's opening of its border crossing with Lebanon, permitting the movement of weapons, goods and refugees, was pivotal to Hizballah's military success in 2006. In the case of Rafah, the opening of the border crossing is deemed even more indispensable for the Palestinians considering that it is not merely a supply line for Hamas, but a lifeline for Gaza's population who are besieged from all sides.

While Nasrallah's strategy has failed to persuade Mubarak to open the crossing, it did serve to greatly embarrass his domestic and regional standing and reduce his regime's role to a purely defensive one, preoccupied with formulating lamentable counter-arguments to the Hizballah chief's accusations, and rallying its moderate allies to its defense. Furthermore, to cover up for its moral bankruptcy the Egyptian regime has now formulated a ceasefire initiative in the vain hope that it can somehow restore its lost regional role. For the Palestinians though (not to mention the vast majority of Egyptians and Arabs), no action on Egypt's part can compensate for the opening of the Rafah border crossing. Moreover, the initiative itself serves Israel's interests and military objectives, as well as as those of Mahmoud Abbas, in so far as it merely seeks to reinstate the Fatah-Israel agreement of 2005 which called for the supervision of the border by Fatah security men and European monitors. Although Hizballah has yet to comment on the initiative, Hamas has expressed "major reservations" about it, while Iran has rejected it outright. It can be therefore surmised that Hizballah's and Iran's forthcoming strategy will be to ensure that Hamas is not pressured to accept the Egyptian proposal, which would weaken it politically and militarily. Hizballah and its allies will strongly back Hamas' refusal to become the Islamist equivalent of Fatah.

Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah speaks to thousands of supporters on the one year anniversary of the 2006 war. (Matthew Cassel)

Hizballah's readiness to intervene militarily

While some commentators have suggested that a rift has emerged within Hizballah over the circumstances under which it should assist Hamas militarily, such assumptions seem implausible. As mentioned earlier, Israel's offensive against Gaza could not have taken Hizballah by surprise and it is therefore highly unlikely that the party's leadership was caught off guard and has suddenly found itself subject to internal pressures to take immediate action. As one of the pillars of Hizballah's ideology and strategic vision, defending Hamas and the Palestinians from Israel, is by necessity an issue which enjoys a party consensus.

Moreover, the party leadership has not publicly committed itself to a policy of restraint, nor is it likely that it has done so behind the scenes as some Lebanese officials in the rival March 14 camp have been claiming. When Lebanese parliament majority leader Saad Hariri announced earlier this month that he had received assurances from Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's National Security Council, while the latter visited Beirut that Hizballah would not respond to the Israeli assault on Gaza, Nasrallah lambasted him for granting "free assurances" to Israel. In fact, upon contacting a reliable source at the Iranian embassy in Lebanon, this author was informed that no such assurances were given to Hariri on Jalili's part.

The reason then for Hizballah's constructive ambiguity, whereby it neither confirms nor denies its intent to join the conflict, is clear: although its resistance has so far remained on the sidelines of the conflict, it is highly improbable that it would continue to do so if Hamas were on the verge of collapse. Based on the centrality of the Palestinian cause to Hizballah and its strategic role in confronting the US-Israeli project, it cannot allow Hamas to be crushed militarily on the battlefield or politically, by means of a humiliating ceasefire arrangement that would weaken the movement. It is in this context that we should read Hizballah's recent pledges to "never abandon" the Palestinian cause. In another indication of the resistance movement's readiness to militarily support Hamas, Nasrallah made an underreported request to his followers in one of his addresses on 29 December marking the Muslim holy day of Ashura: "I hope that you who gather in this place ... will always be ready to respond to any call, position and decision." While this can be construed to mean that Hizballah's followers were merely being asked to support its right to defend itself in case of an Israeli attack on Lebanon, it could be argued that Hizballah hardly needs to ask the party faithful who have more than proven their loyalty to the resistance movement to support its right to self-defense. Besides, Hizballah does not formulate positions or decisions on self-defense, which is considered not merely a non-negotiable right but a duty that is incumbent upon it.

Scenarios of intervention

Although an armed intervention on Hizbullah's part would incur the wrath of Israel, rallying popular Shiite support for such a strategy would not prove too difficult if Hizballah depicted it not so much as opening a new front but as legitimate self-defense. Israel has provided the resistance movement with more than enough provocations of which it can avail itself and thereby use to ignite a war with the Zionist state. Aside from Israel's continued occupation of the Shebaa Farms and Ghajar, which the Lebanese government has thus far been unable to liberate through diplomatic means, Israel routinely abducts Lebanese civilians from the Lebanese side of the Blue Line, most recently in December 2008.

More frequently still, Israeli planes violate Lebanese airspace on a daily basis in violation of UN Resolution 1701. In fact, Hizballah issued a statement in July 2008 decrying the incursions as "provocative, unacceptable and condemned," urging the Lebanese government and relevant UN bodies to take necessary measures to end the violations. On 31 July 2008, Lebanon's Al-Akhbar newspaper, considered close to the movement, also reported that Hizballah was planning to take "practical measures" in response to the violations. Around the same time, several reports emerged in Arab media of the planned deployment of anti-aircraft missile launchers in the Lebanese mountains for the purpose of shooting down Israeli planes. But irrespective of the veracity of such reports, Hizballah would not even have to down any jets to protest the overflights, but could settle for firing anti-aircraft guns that "accidently" fall on northern Israeli settlements as it has done in the past.

Retaliating for Israel's assassination of Mughniyeh would also enable Hizballah to spark a war with Israel. That Hizballah will respond to the assassination is almost a certainty considering his political and military significance to the movement and recalling Nasrallah's 14 February declaration to engage in an "open war" with Israel, as well as the oath he made on 22 February to avenge his death: "Oh Hajj Imad, I swear by God that your blood will not go in vain." Perhaps Hizballah has reserved its right to respond for such a time when it would serve a much wider strategic purpose than mere tit-for-tat. What better purpose than to save the Palestinian cause from possible collapse?

Whichever scenario unfolds, Hizballah would still have to explain the timing of any defensive measure it takes. The movement would be fully justified in presenting its attack as a preemptive one and could legitimately argue that it lies next in the line of fire by an emboldened Israel that had succeeded in finishing off Hamas politically or militarily. As warned by Nasrallah on 28 December and again on 7 January, the possibility of an impending Israeli attack on Lebanon remained a very real one which Hizballah was more than ready to confront. As a matter of fact, Israel's threats against Lebanon did not commence with the war on Gaza but have been a persistent feature of its official discourse for well over a year now.

Hizballah's readiness for war

Hizballah began to respond to those threats not only with counter-threats but with a new discourse emphasizing the eradication of Israel as a Zionist state by means of "destroying its army." The linkage between Israel's survival as a state and its deterrence capability was not a new one for Hizballah, but as Nasrallah explained on 22 February 2008, the notion of destroying its "remaining deterrence" once and for all was. On Hizballah's first July War anniversary on 14 August 2007, Nasrallah stunned his supporters and Israel alike when he "promised" a "big surprise" in any upcoming war with Israel "that could change the course of the war and the fate of the region," and which would enable Hizballah to score "a historic and decisive victory." Not only would Hizballah decisively eliminate Israel's remaining deterrence, but it would do so quickly: "Any new war will be swift and the victory shall be fast" Nasrallah stated on 24 August 2008.

While many have conjectured that Nasrallah's threats suggest Hizballah's acquisition of advanced weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles, an equally valid conclusion (and one that doesn't rule out the former) would be that it has developed a new method or strategy of warfare involving a much larger number of fighters than has been used in the past. As declared by Nasrallah on 14 February 2008: "In any coming war, not just one Imad Mughniyeh will be waiting for you, and not just a few thousand fighters. Imad Mughniyeh has left behind him tens of thousands of trained, equipped and ready-for-martyrdom fighters." These fighters would display "an unprecedented method of fighting" which Israel had supposedly "never seen since its establishment," Nasrallah stated on 24 August 2008.

Regardless of Hizballah's readiness for war, and its potential to destroy Israel's military deterrence, what is certain is that for the movement and many of its supporters and allies, destroying the Zionist regime in Israel is no longer confined to the ideological realm but has entered the realm of strategic interests as well. Regional security requires that the perpetual threat that Israel poses to its neighbors be neutralized once and for all. While such logic may seem like a throw back to the 1950s and 1960s, the new thinking shares more in common with the American notion of "regime change" and one-state solution proposals rather than with "throwing the Jews into the sea." If the war against Gaza has achieved anything, it is that it has succeeded in drumming this logic in the Arab and Muslim political consciousness.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a Lebanese political scientist, scholar and analyst who teaches at Lebanese American University, and author of book Hizbullah: Politics and Religion. She is currently working on a book on Iran's regional alliances with Hizballah, Hamas and Syria for IB Taurus which is due to be published in 2010.