- The Guardian, Tuesday 30 December 2008
Israel’s decision to launch its devastating attack on Gaza on a Saturday was a “stroke of brilliance”, the country’s biggest selling paper Yediot Aharonot crowed: “the element of surprise increased the number of people who were killed”. The daily Ma’ariv agreed: “We left them in shock and awe”.
Of the ferocity of the assault on one of the most overcrowded and destitute corners of the earth, there is at least no question. In the bloodiest onslaught on blockaded Gaza since it was captured and occupied by Israel 41 years ago, at least 310 people were killed and more than a thousand reported injured in the first 48 hours alone.
As well as scores of ordinary police officers incinerated in a passing-out parade, at least 56 civilians were said by the UN to have died as Israel used American-supplied F-16s and Apache helicopters to attack a string of civilian targets it linked to Hamas, including a mosque, private homes and the Islamic university. Hamas military and political facilities were mostly deserted, while police stations in residential areas were teeming as they were pulverised.
As Israeli journalist Amos Harel wrote in Ha’aretz at the weekend, “little or no weight was apparently devoted to the question of harming innocent civilians”, as in US operations in Iraq. Among those killed in the first wave of strikes were eight teenage students waiting for a bus and four girls from the same family in Jabaliya, aged one to 12 years old.
Anyone who doubts the impact of these atrocities among Arabs and Muslims worldwide should switch on the satellite television stations that are watched avidly across the Middle East and which - unlike their western counterparts - do not habitually sanitise the barbarity meted out in the name of multiple wars on terror.
Then, having seen a child dying in her parent’s arms live on TV, consider what sort of western response there would have been to an attack on Israel, or the US or Britain for that matter, which left more than 300 dead in a couple of days.
You can be certain it would be met with the most sweeping condemnation, that the US president-elect would do a great deal more than “monitor” the situation and the British prime minister go much further than simply call for “restraint” on both sides.
But that is in fact all they did do, though the British government has since joined the call for a ceasefire. There has, of course, been no western denunciation of the Israeli slaughter - such aerial destruction is, after all, routinely called in by the US and Britain in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan.
Instead, Hamas and the Palestinians of Gaza are held responsible for what has been visited upon them. How could any government not respond with overwhelming force to the constant firing of rockets into its territory, the Israelis demand, echoed by western governments and media.
But that is to turn reality on its head. Like the West Bank, the Gaza Strip has been - and continues to be - illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. Despite the withdrawal of troops and settlements three years ago, Israel maintains complete control of the territory by sea, air and land. And since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, Israel has punished its 1.5 million people with an inhuman blockade of essential supplies, backed by the US and the European Union.
Like any occupied people, the Palestinians have the right to resist, whether they choose to exercise it or not. But there is no right of defence for an illegal occupation - there is an obligation to withdraw comprehensively. During the last seven years, 14 Israelis have been killed by mostly homemade rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, while more than 5,000 Palestinians were killed by Israel with some of the most advanced US-supplied armaments in the world. And while no rockets are fired from the West Bank, 45 Palestinians have died there at Israel’s hands this year alone. The issue is of course not just the vast disparity in weapons and power, but that one side is the occupier, the other the occupied.
Hamas is likewise blamed for last month’s breakdown of the six-month tahdi’a, or lull. But, in a weary reprise of past ceasefires, it was in fact sunk by Israel’s assassination of six Hamas fighters in Gaza on 5 November and its refusal to lift its siege of the embattled territory as expected under an Egyptian-brokered deal. The truth is that Israel and its western sponsors have set their face against an accommodation with the Palestinians’ democratic choice and have instead thrown their political weight, cash and arms behind a sustained attempt to overthrow it.
The complete failure of that approach has brought us to this week’s horrific pass. Israeli leaders believe they can bomb Hamas into submission with a “decisive blow” that will establish a “new security environment” - and boost their electoral fortunes in the process before Barack Obama comes to office.
But as with Israel’s disastrous assault on Lebanon two years ago - or its earlier siege of Yasser Arafat’s PLO in Beirut in 1982 - it is a strategy that cannot succeed. Even more than Hezbollah, Hamas’s appeal among Palestinians and beyond doesn’t derive from its puny infrastructure, or even its Islamist ideology, but its spirit of resistance to decades of injustice. So long as it remains standing in the face of this onslaught, its influence will only be strengthened. And if it is not with rockets, its retaliation is bound to take other forms, as Hamas’s leader Khalid Mish’al made clear at the weekend.
Meanwhile, the US and Israeli-backed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has been further diminished by being seen as having colluded in the Israeli assault on his own people - as has the already rock-bottom credibility of the Egyptian regime. What is now taking place in the Palestinian territories is a futile crime in which the US and its allies are deeply complicit - and unless Obama is prepared to change course, it is likely to have bitter consequences that will touch us all.