Tuesday, July 18, 2006
JEWISH VOICE FOR PEACE: AN ANALYSIS OF AN ENDLESS TRAGEDY
The following analysis comes from Jewish Voice For Peace.
JVP In-Depth: Israel's Attacks on Gaza and Lebanon
From Gaza to Lebanon, the conflict over Israel has once again flared up into major violence, with civilians being the overwhelming majority of the victims. And, true to form, the blame game is in full swing. Cries of “they started it” can be heard loudly from all sides, and the voices talking about reasonable ways to end “it” are once again muted.
It looks very much like we are at the beginning of a long period of renewed and intensified conflict in the Middle East. It is important to understand how these events came about, and to at least try to understand the motivations of the players involved. Jewish Voice for Peace brings you this extensive in-depth analysis. There's a lot of information here, so you can use the Table of Contents below to get to the subjects you want to learn more about.
The latest chapter in this seemingly endless tragedy begins last year with the Israeli “withdrawal” from the Gaza Strip. That plan, which was more accurately called redeployment than withdrawal, was born of the new-found love affair between Israel and the idea of unilateral withdrawal. Because it was carried out unilaterally, it served to undermine the existing Palestinian government, and Gaza, while left without settlements or Israeli soldiers inside it, was also left in chaos. Worse, Israel maintained full control of the borders and border crossings as well as the air and sea spaces. By closing off all routes in and out of the Strip, Israel prevented any recovery of the devastated Gazan economy. With regular shellings (which caused numerous civilian deaths and extensive damage) and fly-overs causing sonic booms, Israel also kept the population terrorized. Very little of this was reported in the media.
In January, Hamas’ election upped the ante. Now, Israel and the United States had their public justification to refuse to talk with the Palestinians, even though there had been no talking even with the previous regime for years. Hamas, for their part, had to struggle with their own ideology and rhetoric. They had to find a way to be responsible leaders and represent the Palestinian people but, even though Palestinian polls all reflected a desire for Hamas to negotiate with Israel, Hamas’ own charter precluded recognizing Israel. With Israel increasing its belligerency, Hamas, like its predecessor, had neither the political motivation nor the political space to do anything to stop the regular launching of Qassam missiles at the Israeli town of Sderot. Although the overwhelming majority of these missiles landed harmlessly in the Negev desert, they did serve to unnerve the Israeli populace and cause them to demand that their government act to stop them, increasing the Israeli government’s impetus to escalate the boiling conflict with the Palestinians.
Palestinians infiltrate IDF outpost inside Israel
On June 25, a group of Palestinian guerrillas from Hamas’ armed wing, the Popular Resistance Committees and a new group called the Islamic Army entered an Israeli army outpost on the Israeli side of the border, killing two soldiers and taking one prisoner.
From initial responses, it was clear that this operation was executed without the knowledge or consent of the Hamas political leadership, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. It was orchestrated, at least in part, by Khaled Meshal, the most prominent leader of Hamas’ armed wing, who resides in Damascus. Meshal was being increasingly marginalized as the elected Hamas leadership became more prominent. The attack on the IDF not only restored and even increased Meshal’s prestige, but also overshadowed and undermined the agreement, announced almost simultaneously, between Fatah and Hamas on the “prisoners’ agreement”, a blueprint for national Palestinian unity that included an agreement to limit military activity to the Occupied Territories.
But whatever one might believe about the legitimacy or wisdom of the Palestinians’ attack, the Israeli response was illegitimate. Israeli leaders themselves conceded that the attacks, initially almost exclusively against civilian targets and infrastructure, had no chance of freeing their soldier or of stopping the firing of Qassam rockets, whose range had been improved and could now reach the town of Ashkelon, which is a bit further inside Israel than Sderot.
Israel’s assault began with bombing Gaza’s main electrical plant, leaving the majority of the Strip without electricity or running water, and crippling the ability of medical facilities to treat their patients. Israel devastated roads inside Gaza and, while the majority of the initial casualties were combatants, as the bombardment went on, the ratio of civilian casualties to combatant ones rose quickly.
Israel detained without charge dozens of Palestinian legislators, many not even affiliated with Hamas, despite the fact that Israel was well aware that the Hamas political leadership was not involved in the attack.
As of this writing (July 15) the assault on Gaza continues full force, with civilian casualties mounting. Israel has also escalated operations in the West Bank, though not nearly to the same degree as Gaza. The escalation with Lebanon means that attention is drawn away from the ongoing bombardment of Gaza, and that threatens to allow Israel to continue or even escalate their assault with impunity.
Hizbullah enters the fray
On July 12, Hizbullah crossed the southern Lebanese border into Israel, and attacked an IDF post. They killed three soldiers and took two. It is crucial to point out that the conditions between Israel and the Palestinians, on the one hand, and Israel and Lebanon on the other are not the same, even though the similarity of the two actions against IDF outposts draws comparisons.
The Palestinians are a people under occupation and they have the right to resist that occupation, even with force. One may argue over the advisability of their action, but it was permitted under international law. This is not the case with Hizbullah. Their act was a clear violation of international law, as was their subsequent attack on civilian targets within Israel.
The Hizbullah attack also precipitated a major escalation in the already dangerous situation in the Middle East. It gave Israel the excuse it needed to launch a major attack on Lebanon. It has to be unequivocally stated that, having said that Hizbullah violated international law, Israel’s immediate targeting of civilians and use of disproportionate and overwhelming force is a much greater crime.
Israel bombards Lebanon
Israel declared that the Hizbullah action constituted an act of war. As in Gaza, Israel immediately targeted the Lebanese civilian infrastructure, bombing the major Lebanese airport as well as many roads and bridges. Unlike Gaza, the death toll in Lebanon quickly rose and was almost entirely civilian. Hizbullah responded with missile attacks on Israeli cities, killing several civilians. Israel then put the Lebanese shoreline under siege and has continued its bombardment of the country.
And that is where we are today. Israel is continuing its completely illegal collective punishment in Gaza, now with the eyes of the world almost completely diverted to Lebanon. Hamas’ repeated calls for negotiations have been completely ignored. The Lebanese government, a very weak leadership body, has called for an immediate cease-fire between Hizbullah and Israel, but is not capable of stopping Hizbullah’s actions. Their calls for mediation and international intervention have been taken more seriously but, as usual, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire.
The US is not the only foreign player in these events. It’s time to look at what might be the goals and thinking of Israel, Hamas and Hizbullah as well as the US, Syria and Iran, all countries that are also involved, albeit in less visible ways.
One thing that must be understood is just how weak Israel’s political leadership is right now. It is the military, to an extent even greater than usual, which is making the decisions regarding Gaza and Lebanon. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz are following, not leading. And they appear more than content to do so. Their own lack of military experience, itself unprecedented among Israel’s major leaders historically, leads to a lack of confidence, both on their parts and on the part of the Israeli public, in their ability to act. It certainly precludes any possibility of reason entering into the thought process.
When the Palestinians successfully launched their June attack, the military was humiliated. They lashed out, determined to punish the Palestinian people for their own embarrassment. The operation in Gaza seemed to have little more rationale than that, other than to simply continue a program of trying, futilely, to beat the Palestinians into submission.
In Lebanon, the situation is different. Humiliation is not outside of this equation either. Not just the humiliation of the Hizbullah attack this week, but also the open wound from the withdrawal from Lebanon six years ago, a move the military never supported, and which the current military leadership, especially Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, sees as an embarrassment. The Hizbullah attack provided the excuse Halutz has wanted for some time to attempt to wipe out Hizbullah.
Some have suggested that this is an attempt at regime change in Lebanon. That’s only true to a certain extent. The Lebanese Prime Minister is backed by the US. It is not a full change in government that Israel wants, but the removal of Hizbullah from that government. This would also have the effect of further diminishing Syria’s role in Lebanon (which is still considerable, even though it was diminished by the forced withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon) as well as Iran’s influence. Both countries are closely tied to Hizbullah.
In the days since the Palestinian attack on the IDF outpost, the military and political wings of Hamas have very much come together on their plans and actions. There has been real unity in Hamas and the message has been very clear: if Israel refuses to talk, Hamas will pursue other options, but Hamas has been equally clear about its willingness to negotiate with Israel.
Israel’s great assault on both the Palestinian infrastructure and Palestinian Authority buildings and officials have forced Hamas and the entire PA to simply hunker down and try to survive this assault. The fact that less and less attention is being paid to Gaza and the West Bank with each passing day will make that even more difficult. Still, while many parties are eager to see Hamas fall (including, but far from limited to, the US—many Arab states are eager for this as well), Israel is the only one that needs to be concerned about the repercussions of such an event. Though the bombardment of Gaza continues, including most recently the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, it has remained largely directionless. For now, the Hamas government is not in immediate danger of collapse. That could change very quickly, though.
Hizbullah and Lebanon
While Israel, as well as a great many others on all sides of this debate, is not drawing a distinction between Hizbullah and Lebanon more broadly, the two are far from the same and their interests are far from identical.
Many Lebanese are very supportive of what Hizbullah has done, but many are not. What is much closer to a consensus position is that Israel has no right to kill civilians and devastate Lebanon as a result. Even those opposed to what Hizbullah did are currently, and appropriately, directing their anger at Israel.
The Lebanese Prime Minister is trying hard to secure a cease-fire, but divisions within the country and the huge obstacles the United States has put up to any international involvement have made that exceedingly difficult. In essence the government has been largely impotent in all of this, and, while they have not brought the national military into this conflict, continuing Israeli aggression may well force them to do so.
Over the coming weeks, we may learn with much more certainty what exactly motivated Hizbullah to act now as it has. But we can explore a few different possibilities.
One that has been suggested is that the Hizbullah action was motivated purely by a wish to help the besieged Palestinians in Gaza. There’s no doubt this was a factor on several levels—including many in Hizbullah who wanted to help the Palestinians, and the fact that Hizbullah is now the one Arab group that has come to the Palestinians’ side in all of this, increasing their popularity. But there have been many such opportunities in the past six years, and Hizbullah has never acted like this before, implying that there is much more to it.
Hizbullah’s own position in Lebanon has been a bit more tenuous since the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for the disbanding of all militias in Lebanon. Though Hizbullah was not named in the resolution, everyone understood that they were its prime target. With the departure of the Syrian forces that supported Hizbullah and the election of a government that was much more pro-Western than the previous, Hizbullah may well have felt even more threatened. Hizbullah still enjoys tremendous support because it is perceived (in many ways, correctly) as having driven Israel out of southern Lebanon after 18 years of Israeli occupation of that area, that was six years ago. They may have felt a need to boost their prestige and support back up.
It is certain that Hizbullah would not have done this without at least the approval of Iran. Some believe, in fact, that Hizbullah did this at Iran’s behest. Hizbullah is not simply an arm of Iran, of course, but it would also be incorrect to believe that Hizbullah would take such a bold step, with so many regional implications, without at least Iran’s permission. The extent of Iran’s involvement may become clearer in the coming weeks, but in any case, it is important to examine why they might have wanted this escalation.
Iran’s role in all of this is not extremely clear, but we can be certain that they are somehow involved. On one level, the escalating tensions between Iran and Israel certainly made it much more desirable for Israel to try to cut off Iran’s agents in Lebanon, Hizbullah.
Aside from Israel, Iran is the most economically and politically stable and most powerful military in the Middle East region. Iran most certainly has ambitions of much greater regional influence, and certainly sees opposition to Israel as the best way for them to increase that influence.
With Iran under increasing US pressure for its nuclear program and knowing that the US and Israel would like nothing more than regime change in the Islamic Republic, Iran has every reason to want to act against the US and its ally, Israel. But none of those parties are eager for open warfare between Iran and Israel, let alone the US. Having Hizbullah fight Israel instead is a way to assert Iran’s influence by demonstrating that there were forces capable of opposing US-Israeli aims in the region. It is this consideration that led Saudi Arabia to bitterly condemn Hizbullah’s attack on Israel.
It is a particularly opportune moment for Iran to make such a move because of the US’ continuing stagnation in the mire of Iraq and Israel’s absorption with battling Hamas. These conditions lessen the already moderate risk of the fighting spreading to include Iran.
The same cannot be said for Syria. Israel has been increasing its antagonistic stance toward Syria for some time. In part, this is in support of US anti-terror rhetoric, and in part it is due to Bashar al-Asad’s uncertain strategy regarding Israel. This stands in contrast to his father, Hafez al-Asad, who was a stronger leader and whose agenda was much clearer. Still, Israel has also objected to American notions of de-stabilizing the Syrian regime, believing that deposing Asad would lead to a regime that was much more threatening to Israeli interests.
Since Syria’s departure from Lebanon, and despite their continuing influence in Lebanon, they have had much less influence over Hizbullah. This likely explains why Syria has made some efforts to defuse the situation. They have been engaging with both Hamas and Hizbullah to secure the release of Israeli soldiers, although these efforts have not exactly been maximal.
Israel is already beginning to threaten Syria with attack. As of now, there is no evidence that they are sending any material support to Hizbullah, but if Hizbullah is routed from Lebanon as the Israelis hope, Syria is where they will flee.
Syria is largely caught in the middle now. They are outside the world of Arab states friendly to the US. They are the only Arab country that has offered anything like significant support to Palestinian militant groups, although even that support is often vastly overstated. Yet they have also tried to mend their relations with the West, although certainly not with Israel, a reconciliation that will remain impossible as long as Israel holds the Golan Heights. They’re trying very hard to stay out of the current violence. Whether they can do so or not will probably be up to Israel.
No party could have been done as much to change this entire scenario as the US. The escalation in Gaza is directly attributable to the Bush Administration’s decision to abandon the entire Israel-Palestine issue with the lone exception being efforts to undermine the legitimately elected Hamas government. Nothing dramatic would have been necessary, just keeping some slight restraint on Israeli actions and maintaining the material support on which the Palestinian people are dependent. Instead, the US acted to increase the tensions until they blew up.
That the US is fully supportive of Israel’s targeting of civilians is not a surprise. Still, the veto at the UN earlier this week of a remarkably balanced resolution that would have called not only for Israeli withdrawal from both Lebanon and Gaza, but also the return of Israel’s soldiers and the cessation of rocket fire at Israel meant that there would be no international constraints on Israel whatsoever.
The Bush Administration’s lack of any informed or clear thinking on the Middle East is bearing its poisonous fruit. Policy, such as it is, is even turned against itself. Israel’s attacks are harming the long-term stability of the Lebanese government, a government the US supports. The US’ main concern in the region is Iran, and, while Israel certainly uses Iran for rhetorical and propaganda purposes, and is definitely concerned about Iran’s nuclear potential, Israel is far more concerned about the actions of Hamas and Hizbullah. Whether this obvious fracture in US policy will have any impact on the situation remains to be seen.
As always, it is the US that has the most power to change things.
Mission Statement of Jewish Voice for Peace
Jewish Voice for Peace is a diverse and democratic community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights. We support the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians for security and self-determination.
A U.S. foreign policy based on promoting peace, democracy, human rights, and respect
for international law
An end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem
A resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem consistent with international law and equity
An end to all violence against civilians
Peace among the peoples of the Middle East
We are among the many American Jews who say to the U.S. and Israeli governments: "Not in our names!"
JVP supports peace activists in Palestine and Israel, and works in broad coalition with other Jewish, Arab-American, faith-based, peace and social justice organizations.
FOR A CHANGE IN U.S. POLICY
Jewish Voice for Peace calls for a U.S. foreign policy that promotes democracy and human rights. The United States must stop supporting repressive policies in Israel and elsewhere. U.S. military aid to countries in the Middle East must be based on rigorous enforcement of the Arms Export Control and Foreign Assistance Acts, which mandate that military aid may be used for only defensive purposes within the recipient country's borders, and that aid may not be delivered to countries that abuse human rights.
Under these guidelines, U.S. military aid to Israel must be suspended until the occupation ends, since the occupation itself is in violation of these guidelines. Military aid allows Israel to avoid making serious efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as conflicts with its other neighbors. It enables the occupation, contributes to the devastation of Palestinian society and fosters the increasing militarization of Israeli society.
JVP also calls for suspension of military aid to other human rights abusers and occupiers in the Middle East. This aid helps prop up autocratic and repressive regimes, promotes violations of human rights and international law, obstructs democratic movements, prolongs the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and fosters militarism and violence at home and abroad.
FOR PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI PEACE
Israelis and Palestinians have the right to security, sovereignty, and self-determination within political entities of their own choosing.
Israel must end its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, completely withdraw from these Occupied Territories and relinquish all its settlements, military outposts and by-pass roads.
Jerusalem has to be shared in a manner that reflects its spiritual, economic, and political importance to both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as to all Jews, Muslims and Christians.
The plight of Palestinian refugees needs to be resolved equitably and in a manner that promotes peace and is consistent with international law. Within the framework of an equitable agreement, the refugees should have a role in determining their future, whether pursuing return, resettlement, or financial compensation. Israel should recognize its share of responsibility for the ongoing refugee crisis and for its resolution.
The parties must equitably distribute water and other natural resources.
Diplomatic negotiations between the two parties must be held unconditionally. Countries other than the U.S. should be involved in peace negotiations. An international peacekeeping force should be established to protect all civilians.
FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
All people of the Middle East deserve the right to democratic participation and equality within their societies, regardless of religion, ethnicity, culture, national origin, language, race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or other status.
Israel must cease its use of military force against Palestinian civilians, including attacks involving American-supplied F-16s and Apache helicopters. Moreover, Israel must stop land seizures; destruction of homes, infrastructure, orchards and farms; arbitrary arrests and imprisonment; torture; assassinations; expulsions; curfews; travel restrictions; abuse at checkpoints; raids; collective punishment; and other violations of human rights.
Palestinians must stop suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians.
The international community must support Palestinian efforts to promote democracy and human rights, while understanding that this aim cannot be fully achieved under occupation.
Racism and bigotry cannot be tolerated, whether in the U.S. or abroad, whether against Arabs or against Jews. U.S. or abroad, whether against Arabs or against Jews.