Blitzkrieg in Gaza

by
Lawrence Davidson

On June 27, 2006 Israel sent troops, tanks and aircraft into the Gaza Strip.  This invasion has been described to the world as a “rescue operation” to free one soldier who had been taken prisoner by Palestinian resistance forces. Almost certainly Corporal Gilad Shalit’s capture on June 25th  served as a pretext for an operation that was planned out weeks earlier. Only eight months earlier, in what was suppose to be a seminal event,  Israel had withdrawn its settlers from the northern coastal strip of Gaza. While that evacuation ended 38 years of illegal colonization of the area, it did not alter the constant state of siege that Israel has maintained against the Palestinians since 1967. This siege has been accompanied by hundreds of incursions that have all but destroyed the economy and culture of Palestine and maintained the tension that facilitated this most recent invasion. The operative term here is ‘most recent’ for there is nothing original about Israel’s present actions in the Gaza Strip. 
 

I. Repetitive Motions  

WHEN IT COMES TO ISRAELI MILITARY BEHAVIOR, invasions and incursions are de rigueur. Read through the endless reports of human rights organizations, United Nations investigatory committees, Israel’s own peace groups, and even the relevant country reports of the U.S. State Department and you come to realize that incursion and invasion, the destruction of property, the killing, wounding, and capturing of civilians and resistance fighters alike, and the kidnapping or assassination of Palestinian political leaders is the strategic sum of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians of the occupied territories.

One can see this in nearly 40 years of statistics. There have been over 300 Israeli incursions into Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon since 1967. Just in the last six years the Israelis have killed close to 4000 Palestinians while wounding close to 30,000. They have partially or fully destroyed over 71,000 buildings. As of January 2006, they hold 9,184 prisoners. At present, approximately 40% of the total male population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been detained at some point in their lives by Israeli forces.  

Given the repetitive nature of Israeli incursions and invasions, what credence should be given to the statements that pour forth to rationalize this latest aggression?  For instance, are we to take seriously Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s assertion that the entire effort is to “carry out extreme action ...to bring the abducted soldier back to his family”? Or is there any hope that, as a soldier of the “elite” Givati Brigade asserted, “the Palestinian fighters will “know next time that they can’t just go and kidnap our soldiers and get away with it.” After all, the 19 year old Shalit is not the first Israeli soldier to be taken prisoner. And, although many Israelis may have visions of the Entebbe rescue in their heads, none of the previous Israeli soldiers taken captive have been recovered alive.  Indeed, the blitzkrieg into Gaza , also seeking to “reestablish a higher level of deterrence” there according to Meir Sheetrit, Israeli Minister without Portfolio,  is more likely to endanger Corporal Shalit than gain his release. Even Shalit’s father recognized this fact and called Sheetrit’s rationale “delusional.” Or, are we to believe General Yoav Gallant when he tells us that a goal of Operation Summer Rains, as the Israelis call this invasion, is to bring about a final cessation of the firing of Qassam rockets into southern Israel? So far this has not been achieved and “senior military officials” in Israel have quietly admitted that “they may diminish Palestinian rocket fire, but it will not halt altogether.” Finally, there are a number of statements coming from Israel to the effect that the Palestinians have to be taught a lesson. What lesson is that? That their resistance will cost them dearly. That if Saddam Hussein can be overthrown so can the Hamas government. Yet, given the fact that Israel has been delivering such “lessons” almost daily for over thirty years, what makes the Israelis think that this “summer’s rains” will get them the abject surrender they want?     

II.  Behind the Rhetoric

THE REPETITIVE NATURE OF ISRAELI AGGRESSION calls into question the naive rationales offered so far.  None of the hundreds of past Israeli actions have “taught the Palestinians a lesson.” At least not to the extent of ending resistance. Thus we must dig deeper to try to understand why Israel has used recurrent incursions and invasions as primary tactics, and therefore why they are really in Gaza now. Behind their rhetoric there are two interconnected goals motivating Israeli behavior, one is strategic and the other is psychological.

            A. The Strategic Goal

Israel’s strategic goal for its past and present incursions and invasions is the destruction of the Palestinian will to resist the on-going colonization of all of Eretz Israel. Quite simply, Israel does not want a compromise peace based on borders at the 1967 Green Line, and will use “extreme action” to preempt any movement in that direction. If they wanted such a peace they could have had it, along with recognition, any time since 1993, when the PLO formally recognized Israel, and again since 2002, when the Arab League made a similar offer  based on a two state solution.  But they did not, and do not, want such a peace. They want the land, particularly the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This, of course, eliminates the possibility of a viable and independent Palestinian state and that is why the Palestinians have consistently resisted. The aim of that resistance is not to “throw the Jews into the Sea” but rather to at once move the Israelis back to the 1967 line and thereby prevent the Zionists from throwing the Palestinians into the desert. 

Due to Israel’s overwhelming military superiority its leadership (be it of the left or the right) has never taken seriously the need for compromise with the Palestinians. And, one has to assume, that same leadership has seen Israeli casualties suffered from guerrilla actions as acceptable. They may even consider such casualties as helpful for they allow Israel to constantly label the Palestinians terrorists. They also offer the necessary excuses to mount the repeated incursions and invasions that destroy Palestinian infrastructure, eliminate its leadership and demoralize the population.

Uri Avnery, leader of Gush Shalom,  has put this succinctly in reference to the present Gaza invasion. “The clear aim [of the operation] is to break the Palestinian population by liquidation of its leadership, destruction of its infrastructure and cutting off of food supplies, medicines, electricity, water and sanitary services–not to mention employment. The message to the Palestinians:  if you want to put an end to your suffering, remove the government you have elected.” And, we might add, replace it with one more likely to surrender to Israel. Just so, electricity has now been cut off for 700,000 people in Gaza, most major roads and bridges have been blocked or destroyed, nights have been rendered sleepless by constant sonic booms, large numbers of Hamas government officials have been arrested, and the Palestinian Prime Minister threatened with assassination. 

Will this destroy the Hamas government? It might. But just as important, the invasion stopped the process of reconciliation that was proceeding between Fatah and Hamas. For while, as Haaretz reported, the Israeli government plotted a “regime change” in Palestine, the Hamas government was slowly moving in a direction that would have accorded Israel de facto recognition and therefore paved a way for renewed peace negotiations. However, this was just what Israel does not want. Indeed, anything that might bring them under international pressure to compromise with the Palestinians must to be immediately squashed.  Thus, the negotiations between Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniya for a meeting of the minds based on the political document for peace and reconciliation produced by Palestinian prisoners, only made the invasion of Gaza all the more imperative. 

It is important to keep in mind that the Israelis have been using this stratagem of preempting compromise for years and so, it turns out, that strategy of incursion aims at the destruction of the infrastructure of peace well as the infrastructure of Palestinian society itself.  Yet, the strategy has never brought about a cessation of Palestinian resistance. If anything, it has only made that resistance more brutal. Thus, while guerilla attacks may be useful to Israel’s leadership on a tactical level, they do present Israeli population with high levels of psychological stress. Ultimate victory would have to include the elimination of this anxiety.

            B. The Psychological Goal  

Again, it is Uri Avnery who gives us the necessary background for coming to grips with the psychological goal sought through a long-term Israeli strategy of destruction. He tells us that for Israelis security has become a fetish. That they have been at war for more than five generations and thus are literally born to fight. “Their whole mental outlook has been shaped by war from earliest childhood. Every day of their lives, violence has dominated the daily news.” He acknowledges that the Palestinians have shared the same fate. Each foe has created “a narrative of their own” to explain and excuse their behavior. When it comes to the Jewish Israelis, they learn from childhood onward “that history is nothing but an endless story of persecution, inquisition and pogroms, leading to the terrible Shoah.” This narrative is reinforced throughout their adult life. It creates a perimeter beyond which thought usually does not go. The result is that Israeli Jews see themselves as  “eternal victims” and this makes them anxious, angry and stubborn. Often they are too stubborn to admit that their insecurity persists even as Israel becomes ever more powerful. 

Rucharma Marton, President and Founder of Physicians for Human Rights, Israel, explains this contradiction. On the one hand, “there is the conviction that the use of force will guarantee Israel’s national survival.” In addition, it will “ensure Israelis’ individual safety.” However, “at the same time there is a growing awareness that the greater the military force applied by Israel, the greater the danger.” The result is an “emotional confusion” caused by the notion that fortress Israel doesn’t quite do what it is suppose to.

To this narrative of victimhood, allegedly countered by strength, can be added the equally strong teaching that God gave the Jews the land of Israel where they could construct a safe haven. Avnery emphasizes that Israeli children are taught that “no one else has a right to it. This includes the Palestinian Arabs who have lived there for at least 13 centuries.” There arises a deep psychological dilemma at the point one starts to suspect that the conquest of all the “promised land” and the achievement of security are incompatible goals. Because many Israelis seem to be unable to give up either objective, there is a continuous drive to find a way to have one’s cake and eat it to–to have all the land and the necessary security to live happily upon it. Unfortunately, the only way they can think of moving toward this goal is to become ever more aggressive and destructive until the source of the contradiction, the source of the continuing insecurity, is finally eliminated once and for all.  

It is to be noted that this dilemma is not unique to Israel.  The Americans suffered it as they conquered the “God given”  western expanses,  and the Afrikaners went through it as they expanded into the “God given” interior of South Africa.  Both squared the circle of security and conquest by the near genocidal elimination of the resisting, indigenous populations. 
 

III.  The Palestinian Predicament

THE SOURCE OF THE CONTRADICTION FOR ISRAEL IS, of course, the Palestinians and their persistent insurgency. What are we to say about their role in all of this? Have their resistance tactics failed? Have their leaders proved inept? Is their behavior also self-destructively repetitive as suicide bombers are dispatched in revenge for Israeli barbarism?

            A.  Resistance and Fragmentation

If there is a truism that can be applied to humanity’s violent history it is that, in the majority of cases, oppressed people resist. Sometimes the resistance is violent and sometimes it is non-violent. It depends on the context of the situation, and that context is established by the oppressor. In the case of the Palestinians, resistance has, over time, taken many forms and reflected many tactics. There have been a multitude of Palestinian peace initiatives which have, as noted, included the recognition of Israel. There has been years of experimenting with passive and non-violent protest much of which involved internationals and small numbers of Israeli peace activists. Hamas even imposed upon itself a 16 month unilateral cease fire. These efforts have gotten very little foreign press which means that most people in the West know only about the violent resistance of the Palestinians. This too has come in many forms and levels but,  thanks to a biased media, the variety is ignored in favor of an assumed Palestinian obsession with the tactic of  suicide bombing.

Within the ranks of the Palestinian leadership there has always been a debate over tactics. Initially,  that debate went on between Fatah, led by Yasir Arafat, and other groups within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The disagreement was over the usefulness of such tactics as airline highjackings and attacks on Israeli targets outside of Israel proper. Arafat argued that if the PLO gave up such tactics the countries of the West, which he felt had the power to pressure Israel into compromise with the Palestinians, would more easily see the justice of the Palestinian cause and therefore become their allies in the pursuit of a just settlement. Yasir Arafat won this early debate, these particular violent tactics stopped, and the PLO moved toward the recognition of Israel, the Oslo Accords, and the goal of a two state solution. Serious opposition to Fatah came to reside with the religiously based resistance movements, particularly Hamas,  which had always held themselves aloof from the PLO.

Over time it became clear that giving up highjacking and attacks on Israelis outside of Israel achieved no real change either in the rate of Israeli colonization or in the level of practical support coming from Western nations. The two Intifadas, which were at least partially non-violent affairs, then followed. Non-violent resistance goes on to this day, particularly against the construction of the Wall. It too has made no difference in Israeli behavior or that of the Western governments. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that there are those who have grown frustrated with the strategies of diplomacy and non-violence. Some of them have resorted to suicide bombing and other tactics of a terrorist nature. There are many, both Palestinians and Westerners, who have long been harshly critical of such behavior. Their critique goes like this: terrorist tactics are barbaric and achieve no positive political end. All they do is provide the pretext for Israel, the vastly more powerful party, to perpetrate its own barbarism.  Thus, the victims of Palestinian terror are overwhelmingly the Palestinian people themselves.  Therefore, those organizations which pursue such tactics give little thought to Palestinian national interests. Their own survival, and the dogmatic symbolism that accompanies it, has become their only end. Leadership on the streets of Palestine has devolved to a class that behaves in a criminal fashion.

To the extent that aspects of this critique reflect reality, it marks the success for Israel’s strategy of repetitive bouts of destruction. Seeking to avoid peace, the Israelis have purposely thwarted the efforts of all moderate Palestinians. That is part of the reason why Hamas won the last democratic election. The constant harassment, arrest and assassination of Palestinian leaders of any ability have created such stress that all Palestinian political organizations have tended to lose cohesion. Party discipline has been eroded. Some leaders may still hope to pursue diplomatic solutions but they have lost control of those who have no faith in such efforts. The result is a radically decentralized environment in which effective government disappears. As Palestinian lawmaker Nabil Abu Roh-Dana has recently testified, there are splits within Hamas and this makes it hard, at times, to “tell just who is in charge.” Indeed, Hamas is the last to suffer this fragmentation. Fatah and the secular groups went through it a long time ago and have yet to repair the damage. 

Thus, it is true that Israel’s success in fragmenting the Palestinian movements, and preventing a united and disciplined approach to strategy and tactics has open the way for more violent, less disciplined elements to come to the fore. It is to noted, however, that this situation is also not unique to the Palestinians. The same process of disintegration in the face of overwhelming force can be seen in many 20th century revolutionary and resistance struggles. Nonetheless, some of them survived and went on to win their struggles. 
 

IV. A Sad Prognosis

Trying to offer a prognosis for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,  it is hard to see anything on the horizon that can stop the Israelis. As the present invasion of Gaza makes clear, Israel does not  have to fear retribution from the international community. An obscene silence is all one finds in Washington and most European capitals. Nothing being done in Gaza will negatively impact the colonization process on the West Bank. Israel’s end is still to destroy Palestine as a nation, force the Palestinians into Bantustan style enclaves,  and condemn them to be hewers of wood and carriers of water. The Zionists want the Palestinians to play the Arab helots to the Israeli Spartans. 

The Palestinians will, for their part, continue to resist. However, that resistance will, at least for the foreseeable future, become less and less coordinated and disciplined. It will increasingly constitute the scattered  acts of desperate men and women who, having been robbed of all hope for justice,  have come to measure success in terms of revenge. Yet, perhaps they will survive this time of disintegration for they and their struggle will certainly not fade away. Even from the prisons and torture chambers of the Zionist state wisdom makes itself heard and hope survives. 

 

Lawrence Davidson is a frequent contributor to Logos and is Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West Chester, PA. He is author of two recent books: Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003) and America's Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001). He also has written over twenty published articles on US perceptions of and policies toward the Middle East.