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The Bush administration, Congress, and the press repeatedly echo the Israeli government’s position that the current warfare between Israel versus Palestinians and Lebanese is a consequence of the “kidnapping” of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit by Hamas-led militants on June 25, 2006 and the “abduction” of two more Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah on July 12, 2006. Yet every hostile action in this part of the Middle East is seen by someone as a response to a prior action by the other side. The only logical starting point for objectively examining the sequence of causes and effects is to begin with a watershed event that was clearly independent of any preceding military or political provocation. In 2006 that event was the Palestinian elections of January 25.
A careful examination of the sequence of events reveals that every significant military action by a Palestinian or Lebanese militia was clearly in response to desperate conditions imposed on Palestinians by Israel. While one may not condone many of these actions because they result in the loss of life, they must be understood in the context of the entire crisis in this part of the Middle East and the living conditions of Palestinians, many of whom have been exiled from their ancestral homes since the U.N. partition of Palestine in 1948.
Chronology of Crisis
The following chronology of major events was compiled from Associated Press, New York Times, Financial Times, The Observer, and other established news agencies.
January 20, 2005
Facing mounting criticism of his conduct of the war in Iraq and “the war on terror”, President George W. Bush at his second inaugural address tries to give a positive face to his administration by adding “promotion of democracy” as new cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. He says, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” An outcome of this policy was the encouragement given to Hamas to participate in future Palestinian elections.
Public-opinion polls in Palestine continue to suggest that Fatah will win the most seats in the elections for the Palestinian parliament. The polls indicate that Hamas could win more than one-third of the seats.
January 25, 2006
Israel seals off Gaza by closing the Erez border crossing into Gaza in anticipation of security concerns leading up to Palestinian elections. Karni crossing was closed on January 15, 2006, and three other commercial crossings have been opened only intermittently. The impoverished Gaza Strip is critically dependent on imports of food, fuel, medicines, and other essential commodities brought in through Israeli-controlled border crossings. Gaza residents were equally dependent on the border crossings to get to their jobs in Israel before that avenue of employment was cut off by Israeli authorities.
(The entire Gaza Strip is surrounded by concrete walls and high fencing. Israel controls all access into and out of Gaza, including the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Palestinian access to the sea is strictly controlled by the Israeli navy. Palestinian air traffic is banned.)
Palestinians go to the polls to elect a new parliament – the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The preliminary election results are announced. Hamas wins 76 of the 132 seats, an absolute majority. Fatah wins only 43. International observers declare the elections to be free and fair. The later final tally will be 74 seats for Hamas.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC, says that democracy should no longer be an immediate goal of U.S. foreign policy. Other think tanks, such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, follow suit later in the month by attacking the administration’s commitment to promoting elections.
Israeli officials and Western diplomats reveal that Israel and the United States are discussing ways to destabilize the newly-elected Palestinian government. The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority (PA) of money and international connections until President Mahmoud Abbas is compelled to call a new election.
The new Palestinian parliament is sworn in by President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. With many Palestinian legislators in Gaza banned by Israel from travelling to the West Bank, they have to settle for participating via a video link.
Israel cuts off approximately $50 million in monthly customs and tax revenues that it collects for the Palestinian Authority. The money is essential to pay the salaries of 160,000 Palestinian government employees, including 58,000 police and security personnel.
The U.S. government backs Israel by announcing that it too is likely to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority until the new Hamas government recognizes Israel and disarms its commandos.
Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, is sworn in as prime minister to head the next government. Branding it a “terrorist authority”, both the U.S. and Israeli governments refuse to constructively engage a new Palestinian government jointly led by a Fatah president and a Hamas-led cabinet.
U.S. officials pressure independent “moderate” politicians not to serve in a Hamas-led government. The Bush administration’s strategy is to force Hamas to govern alone, hoping to isolate it politically when its government eventually fails under the cut-off of tax revenues and western aid.
When British prison monitors were suddenly ordered to leave their posts supervising six high-profile Palestinian detainees in Jericho, Israel besieged the prison compound with tanks, taking the six detainees into their custody. One of those seized was Ahmed Sa’adat of the secular left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who had won a seat in the Palestinian election in January. It is widely believed that the sudden withdrawal of the British prison monitors was calculated to give Israeli forces a pretext to seize the detainees by force from PA custody. The coordinated British and Israeli actions sparked widespread outrage throughout Palestine.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh proposes a 24-member cabinet made of Hamas members, Fatah members and independents having been deterred from joining by U.S. pressure.
With the nearly 1.4 million Gaza residents facing severe shortages of bread, milk, and other essential commodities, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reach a tentative agreement to open one border crossing into Gaza near kibbutz Kerem Shalom to allow humanitarian aid to enter the densely-populated Palestinian enclave from Egypt.
The U.S. and EU formally cut off all direct aid to the Hamas-led government, demanding that Hamas recognize Israel, honor previous PA agreements, and disarm its commandos. They say that they will redirect some aid to humanitarian projects that bypass the PA. The U.S. decision affects $411 million previously earmarked for the PA to maintain services in the impoverished Palestinian territories, and about $100 million to be redirected to food and medicines delivered through international agencies.
The PA defaults on two months of salary payments for its 160,000 government employees.
As the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the West Bank continues to deteriorate, the U.S. and EU search for ways to resume international aid while bypassing Hamas. They consider channelling aid through the office of President Mahmoud Abbas in cooperation with the World Bank, IMF, and United Nations.
Starved of income, facing daily food shortages, and virtually imprisoned within the boundaries of Gaza, residents are becoming desperate for a resolution of the impasse. Amid rising unrest, competing Hamas and Fatah forces attempt to assert their presences by parading around with arms. In the following weeks, Hamas and Fatah militias engage in intermittent shootouts, some bloody.
Israeli ground troops enter Gaza for the first time since withdrawing eight months ago. They kill four Palestinians, including a policeman.
President Mahmoud Abbas announces a referendum scheduled for July 26th on a plan that would implicitly recognize Israel. Hamas opposes the referendum.
After negotiations between Hamas and Fatah aimed at halting weeks of bloody infighting, the Hamas-led government agrees to withdraw controversial private militias from public spaces in Gaza.
A midnight Israeli missile attack in southern Gaza kills four Palestinian members of the Popular Resistance Committees, including Jamal Abu Samhadana, who had recently been appointed to be inspector general in the Interior Ministry. Israel has blamed Samhadana for attacking a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Gaza in 2003, although his group has denied involvement.
In response to Israeli missile attacks, Palestinian militants fire small crude Qassam rockets into Israel towards Ashkelon, but no Israelis are hurt.
Israeli artillery shelling, ostensibly aimed at Qassam rocket launch sites, kills 7 civilians on a northern Gaza beach, including a Palestinian family having a picnic with their 3 small children. Israel claims it was an accident. Other Israeli rocket attacks kill another 9 Palestinians, and injure at least 30 in Gaza.
In response, the Hamas government vows to end its official 16-month ceasefire with Israel.
Hamas forces fire at least 15 Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel.
An Israeli air strike kills two Hamas commandos in Gaza. Palestinians respond with more Qassam rockets.
Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas open fire with small arms on the parliament building and cabinet offices in Ramallah before setting the buildings on fire. The action is a retaliation for an attack by Hamas commandos in Gaza.
Angry Palestinian government employees, who have not been paid for months, storm their parliament in Ramallah, demanding back pay.
A bit of temporary relief comes when the Palestinian foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, returns to Gaza carrying $20 million in cash euros after a trip seeking emergency funds from foreign governments.
Fatah and Hamas reach an agreement to integrate a 3,000-man militia formed by the Hamas-controlled interior ministry into the Fatah-dominated national police.
Palestinians fire Qassam rockets into the Israeli town of Sederot.
Hamas announces its willingness to reinstate the 16-month ceasefire if Israel will stop all attacks on Gaza and the West Bank. Israel refuses, demanding that the Palestinian rocket attacks stop first.
At least a dozen more Palestinian civilians are killed by Israeli attacks in Gaza over an 8-day period.
Palestinian commandos kill two Israeli soldiers and capture Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit after tunnelling 300 yards into Israel from Gaza. Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees, and the Army of Islam participate in the raid south of kibbutz Kerem Shalom, just north of the Egyptian border.
Shalit is the first Israeli soldier captured by Palestinians since 1994. Hamas government spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, publicly urges the captors to “protect his life and treat him well.”
Israel closes all border crossings into Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert holds the PA fully responsible.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warns of military action.
Palestinian captors demand that Israel release all 95 Palestinian women and 313 youths under age 18 held in Israeli prisons in exchange for the release of Corporal Shalit. A total of over 9,500 Palestinians (excluding those who are Israeli citizens) are known to be held in Israeli prisons.
Fatah and Hamas are compelled into unity in the face of looming full-scale war. They adopt a common political platform that includes an implicit recognition of the state of Israel by Hamas. The so-called Prisoners Document calls for the creation of a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders, alongside Israel, and asserts the right of Palestinian refugees to return to lands within Israel proper.
Israeli troops and armor move in force into southern Gaza.
The Popular Resistance Committees kill one Israeli settler near Ramallah.
Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers roll into northern Gaza. Israeli aircraft bomb three bridges at Deir al-Balah and the former settlement of Netzarim. They also destroy Gaza’s sole power station that supplies half of Gaza’s electricity. Israel begins shelling Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya in Gaza. Israeli missiles target the Islamic University in Gaza City.
Israel arrests Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, one-third of the Palestinian cabinet, including Labor Minister Mohammed Barghouti and Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razak, and 20 Palestinian legislators in Ramallah, Jenin, East Jerusalem, and other parts of the West Bank. President Mahmoud Abbas appeals to the United Nations for help in obtaining their release. In all, 87 Palestinians are detained in the West Bank.
PA government leaders join in the demand that Israel release all women and children prisoners in exchange for Corporal Shalit.
Israeli Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, suggests that the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, exiled in Syria, is a target for assassination. Other Israeli officials suggest that Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh could also be seized in Gaza, or even assassinated if Corporal Shalit is not returned.
Israeli warplanes strike the Palestinian Interior Ministry building, setting it on fire. Meanwhile, Israeli aircraft and artillery continue to shower southern Gaza.
Under mounting pressure from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and international aid agencies concerned about the looming humanitarian situation in Gaza, Israel temporarily opened the border crossings at Karni and Kerem Shalom to allow trucks carrying food, fuel, and medical supplies to enter Gaza after being sealed for a week.
After Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that he intended to make the lives of Gaza residents ever more miserable until Corporal Shalit is returned, Israeli forces intensified their attacks on Gaza. Israeli aircraft bomb Gaza City, hitting the local Fatah party office and the offices of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
With Israel escalating its rocket attacks and advancing into densely-populated areas of Gaza, 16 Palestinians are killed. One Israeli soldier also dies.
The European Union, issuing its strongest criticism yet, states; “The EU condemns the loss of lives caused by disproportionate use of force by the Israeli Defence Forces and the humanitarian crisis it has aggravated.”
Facing mounting international criticism for its invasion of Gaza, Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter indicates for the first time that Israel might be willing to free Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Corporal Shalit.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh calls for a ceasefire to halt the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Israel rejects the Palestinian offer, demanding that Palestinians first return the captured Israeli soldier and halt rocket attacks into southern Israel.
The Palestinian death toll due to Israel’s Gaza offensive surpasses 50.
Responding to the mounting carnage in Gaza, and the Israeli seizure of much of the Palestinian government leadership, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia engages in border skirmishes with Israeli troops. In the ensuing battle, Hezbollah forces kill 3 Israeli soldiers and capture two. With Israeli forces in hot pursuit into Lebanon, another 5 Israeli soldiers die. Hezbollah casualties were not immediately announced.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responds by saying, “Lebanon is responsible and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions.”
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora calls for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council, appealing for help in preventing the impending Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Israel responds with military assaults from the air, land, and sea into southern Lebanon. Its combat operations in southern Lebanon are the first since withdrawing in 2000. Israel launches a aerial bombardment of Beirut International Airport, the surrounding southern suburbs where Hezbollah operates, and the main highway connecting Beirut with Damascus.
Residents of Beirut stream out of the city desperately seeking refuge in the mountains or towards Syria. With the Israeli naval blockade and the country’s only international airport inoperable, nearly all normal means out of the country are blocked.
Hezbollah fires scores of Katyusha rockets into Israel, most falling around the beach town of Nahariya. A single larger missile hits Haifa, some 20 miles south of the Lebanese border, much farther than any previous Hezbollah rocket attacks. Hezbollah rockets also strike Raifa.
President George W. Bush unconditionally defends the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, and goes on to assert that Syria be “held to account” for fostering “terrorism”. He refuses to join international calls for a prompt ceasefire. Meanwhile, at the U.N. Security Council, the United States casts the sole vote (veto) against a resolution that would have demanded that Israel halt its military offensive in Gaza.
Israel continues pounding southern Lebanon, southern Beirut, and sets fuel tanks ablaze at the Beirut International Airport.
Hezbollah launches a missile attack on an Israeli warship off the coast of Beirut, killing four sailors.
An emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council called by Lebanon convenes to discuss the possibility of a U.N.-mandated comprehensive ceasefire and lifting of the Israeli air and sea blockades of Lebanon. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton stands alone in refusing to even urge restraint from Israel, and instead blames Syria and Iran for the current crisis. In the shadow of yesterday’s U.S. veto, the session ends without taking any action.
Israel bombs bridges and roads across Lebanon, dividing the country and stranding civilians desperately fleeing its attacks.
Fighting continues to escalate over the weekend. Israel strikes throughout Lebanon, including Sour, Nabatiyeh, Ba’albek, and as far north as the port city of Tripoli, killing scores of civilians. Seven Canadians are killed in an Israeli airstrike on the Lebanese border town of Aitaroun. In southern Beirut, Israel introduces for the first time the use of U.S.-made GBU-28 guided bunker buster bombs in an attempt to destroy Hezbollah underground bunkers within the city. Several 12 to 15-story buildings completely collapse into mountains of rubble (eerily reminiscent of Ground Zero after September 11th). Large areas of the city are levelled. South of Beirut, Israeli forces bomb the Jiyeh power plant. The cumulative death toll in Lebanon reaches 160, overwhelmingly civilian, since the fighting began four days ago.
A Hezbollah rocket attack in Haifa kills 8 people. Others hit Tiberias, Nazareth, Afula, Givat E’la, and the Sheba’a Farms settlement in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The cumulative death toll in Israel reaches 24, 12 civilian and 12 military.
Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz signals an escalation in military strategy from trying to secure the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah to the aim of permanently removing Hezbollah from southern Lebanon – essentially the area south of the Litani River.
Media commentary widely adopts the notion that Israel is exacting “collective punishment” on Lebanese and Palestinian residents, in effect holding them responsible for the respective actions of Hezbollah and Hamas. The Israeli calculation appears to be that collective punishment through widespread bombing and destruction will intimidate public opinion into opposing Hezbollah and Hamas.
Israel aircraft bomb the Palestinian Foreign Ministry offices in Gaza. Sustained Israeli bombardments continue in Lebanon.
U.S. Marines begin evacuating American citizens via amphibious landing craft from a beach north of Beirut before ferrying them to Cyprus.
Diplomatic efforts accelerate to deploy a U.N. or NATO peacekeeping force to introduce a buffer between the Israeli and Hezbollah forces along the Israel-Lebanon border.
An advanced force of 2,000 Israeli troops with tanks and armored bulldozers move across the Lebanese border under the cover of a fierce barrage of air strikes. This is in anticipation of a massive ground offensive to sweep Hezbollah forces out of the area south of the Litani River.
Fierce bombardments by both sides continue throughout the week, but there is always an immense military asymmetry between Israel and Hezbollah. The official cumulative death tolls reach 380 in Lebanon, over 100 in Palestine, versus 37 in Israel. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 600,000 people have been displaced by Israeli bombing in Lebanon.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice begins a trip to the Middle East, but without any specific proposals for a ceasefire or diffusing the crisis. Her main preoccupation appears to be limited to finding a way to curb Hezbollah and putting the Lebanese government in control of the area south of the Litani River.
Several significant points emerge from the unfolding events in Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon.
First, the capture of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit on June 25 was not an unprovoked aggression. It was immediately preceded by a series of Israeli shellings, rocket attacks, and commando raids on Gaza that killed over three dozen people, mostly civilians. Even the earlier Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel beginning on June 9th were in response to a series of Israeli assaults on the Palestinian Authority in particular and Palestinian sovereignty in general.
Second, the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah on July 12 was in support of Palestinians trapped and under almost continuous siege in Gaza. It was also a reaction to the virtual dismemberment of the Palestinian government through Israel’s widespread arrests of its elected political leaders. No people would be able to tolerate such a physical assault on their democratic political institutions and society.
Third, all meaningful proposals for ceasefires came from the Palestinian side and the Lebanese government. All Palestinian and Lebanese ceasefire proposals were summarily rejected by the Israeli government, which placed decidedly asymmetric conditions on the acceptance of any ceasefire.
Fourth, both in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israeli attacks deliberately targeted essential infrastructure – roads, bridges, airports, seaports, and power stations. These targets have little military significance to militias like those of Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet they are crucial for the civilian population, for the movement of food and medicines, and for escape routes. The systematic destruction of Lebanon’s transport infrastructure had no more immediate effect than to deny all Lebanese citizens and foreigners routes of escape from the heavy Israeli bombardments.
Fifth, both in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israel’s deliberate policy was to exact collective punishment on all residents in the hopes of putting pressure on the militias from within. The plan is more likely to have the opposite effect of galvanizing a broad range of popular support behind the militias in much the same way that the Israeli assault on the Palestinian government and Gaza brought Hamas and Fatah much closer together.
Sixth, the U.S. government’s unconditional support for Israel, and unwavering rejection of ceasefire proposals, does not even pretend to advocate a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The U.S. government’s prior role as peacemaker, however partial, in the Camp David Accords in 1978 and the Oslo Accords in 1993, has apparently been abandoned. This extreme position will only further galvanize Arab and Muslim public opinion against the U.S. government and exacerbate declining U.S. credibility in the region.
Seventh, the cut-off of Palestinian tax revenues by Israel and the severance of direct aid by the U.S. and European Union in response to the lawful installation of a democratically-elected government in Palestine belie the U.S. and Israeli commitment to democracy. They also reflect an utter disregard for the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people who had already been cut off from their jobs and only means of livelihood in Israel since the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. The potential collapse of the Palestinian Authority would bring complete anarchy to an already chaotic situation, and unleash heretofore unseen forces from inside the Palestinian resistance.
Eighth, the iron-handed control that Israel continues to exercise over the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza belies the political and economic reality of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005. Ten months after that withdrawal, Gaza residents are as much at the mercy of Israeli restrictions as ever. Even the movement of people and goods between Gaza and Egypt, which share a common land border, remains under strict Israeli military control.
Ninth, Israel’s repeated suggestions that it might assassinate Palestinian leaders, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, demonstrate complete disregard for the rule of law and Palestinian national sovereignty. Its arbitrary arrests of Palestinian cabinet ministers and legislators prove that it may act with impunity against any duly-elected Palestinian government not to its liking.
Tenth, the slanted language of war belies the objectivity of U.S. policy as well as the impartiality of news coverage. Israeli soldiers are “kidnapped” or “abducted”, but Palestinian leaders are “arrested” or “apprehended”. Palestinian militants are “terrorists”, but the massive Israeli air strike that left a vast gaping Ground-Zero-like hole in the midst of high-rise residential buildings in southern Beirut is “Israel’s right to defend itself”.
Windows of opportunity to bring about peaceful settlements
A careful examination of the sequence of events over the past six months reveals that Israel is threatened only for reasons that are traceable back to its own disproportionate actions. The traditional Hamas position of refusing to recognize Israel must be re-evaluated in the light of that organization assuming the reins of political power in a democratically-elected government. As events have now proven, on June 27 Hamas signed a document that effectively recognizes the state of Israel, accepting a two-state solution for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel. Both Israel and the U.S. lost an unprecedented opportunity to politically engage the Hamas government, a government that, unlike the Fatah government, is effectively in a position to implement a lasting peace from the Palestinian side. Former President Yasser Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, have been trapped in space and time – in Ramallah and unable to move forward to statehood and a lasting peace with Israel – because of their lack of influence over the militias, including Hamas and the Palestinian guerrilla groups based in Lebanon. Hamas, on the other hand, in a potential peace settlement with Israel is in a position to ask Palestinian militias to lay down their arms and make it happen.
It is time that the U.S. government see that unconditional support for Israel’s current reckless course will neither lead to peace nor stability in the Middle East. As the world’s sole superpower, as Israel’s primary backer, and as an aid provider to Palestine, the U.S. is in a unique political position to broker a ceasefire and diffuse the current crisis. In fact, with Hamas in power in Ramallah, it has an historical opportunity to bring about a two-state solution and a practical final peace in the region. It also has a unique historical opportunity to diffuse the broader risks of mass destruction in the Middle East by offering to broker the mutual denuclearization of Iran and Israel. Whereas Iran may find it difficult for domestic political reasons to halt its nuclear program under unilateral external pressure, it may well be willing to step down from dual-use nuclear technology if Israel does the same and gives up the operational nuclear weapons already in its arsenal. Actually, Israel will be the harder party to convince. But the entire Middle East will become a safer place without nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons programs. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ “doomsday clock” will be able to be set back a few more minutes. The choices are clear: reduce the combustibles on all sides while there is a window of opportunity, or let the wildfires burn.
SHARAT G. LIN writes on global political economy, India, and the Middle East. He lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and spent time in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Captured by a Palestinian militia in 1973, he has first-hand experience of their internal workings.