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Like No Other Place on Earth

Israel’s Gaza Calculus

by GREGORY HARMS

 The recent violence between Gaza and Israel can be considered in three frames of reference. The first is the immediate context of Israel’s targeted killing of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari. This action was taken during back-channel negotiations of a truce between Hamas and Israel, which involved Jabari. The action was also in contravention of international law and constitutes murder, regardless of Jabari’s history. Even at the level of common sense, the question could be asked: How would Israel and the West respond were Hamas to assassinate a figure in Israel based on the individual’s involvement in killing innocent Palestinians?

The second perspective is the post-disengagement context. In summer 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew, or “disengaged,” from the Gaza Strip. However, despite removing all settlers, settlements, and military presence from the territory, Israel still maintains total control of Gaza’s exterior: the coastline, land border, airspace, as well as most of the electricity. In other words, Tel Aviv simply reconfigured its occupation of the coastal territory. According to the Hague Convention of 1907 (Annex, Art. 42), “Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army.” There is more than one way to hold people hostage; you needn’t be in the room with them.

The third perspective is to take the long view. Since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has sustained an occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Over these 45 years, Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has continued apace. There are now 124 settlements in the West Bank and an additional 100 “unofficial” outposts, all housing just over 300,000 settlers; there are another 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem. Moreover, a lattice of roads connects these settlements, hemming in the fragmented and scattered areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which combined make up less than 40 percent of the total land area of the West Bank.

The objectives of this decades-long process are apparent: In the event of a Palestinian state, it won’t be much of one. Dov Weisglass, adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, stated the mindset perfectly: “The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” And then with equal honesty: “Effectively, this whole package that is called a Palestinian state … has been removed from our agenda indefinitely.” Put another way, leave Gaza to Gaza, expropriate as much of the West Bank as possible, expand the settler population in East Jerusalem, and when a Palestinian state is declared or negotiated, it will be a “state” in quotes.

Israel’s calculus in assassinating Jabari and commencing Operation Pillar of Defense is unknown, but likely includes consideration of the upcoming January elections in Israel; it would not be the first time that violence was tactically initiated by the prime minister’s office for this reason. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also mindful of the Palestinian Authority’s approaching bid for observer status at the United Nations later this month. Also a possible factor is Hamas’s increased regional prestige, on account of its improved relationship with Egypt and its increasingly close ties with Qatar and Turkey. Iran, too, could very well be a thought; in the event of an Israeli attack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities, Israel would naturally wish to have Hamas’s weapons caches depleted and launch-sites damaged.

Irrespective of Netanyahu’s motives and calculations, the Israeli military pounding Gaza with airstrikes is nothing new. Following disengagement, the cross-border violence has only worsened. And ever since Hamas won the parliamentary elections in 2006 and the following year overthrew Fatah in Gaza (in what was likely a preemptive coup), the people of Gaza have been continuously punished. Since 2007 Gaza has existed behind what is called the “blockade,” with Israel basically sealing off the territory and turning it into what amounts to a 140-square-mile penal colony.

Israel’s stated rationale is that Hamas will not recognize the Jewish state and seeks its destruction, and therefore the Islamist organization is the focus of its policies toward Gaza. Yet, the pretext does not match the results of said policies. The actions Tel Aviv has taken over the last number of years – the blockade, airstrikes, and targeted killings – have only strengthened Hamas and encouraged further rocket fire from the territory. The inhabitants of Gaza bear the brunt. In addition, those living in southern Israel are also victimized by Israel’s torment of Gaza, a corollary that is clearly acceptable to planners in Tel Aviv.

In a document acquired by the Israeli human rights group Gisha, the Israeli government referred to the blockade as “economic warfare.” It is clear who that is going to affect, and the facts have been in for some time. The unemployment level in Gaza is usually in the 40-50 percent range, and the psychological and physical effects on the children of Gaza have been documented extensively and in detail by a number of reputable human rights organizations. In any case, Israel benefits according to the logic of power: Either the people of Gaza grow weary of Hamas and depose them, or they don’t and Israel can continue using the territory as a political lever (and, it should also be mentioned, as a means of field-testing new equipment).

The American media coverage of Israel and Palestine in general is narrow and “balanced.” Palatable, discreet reporting on US clients is standard and can be expected; the subject is at a level where the liberal-conservative polarity tends to fall by the wayside. When one looks at the current reportage in the major newspapers and journals, there exists a tacit recognition that Israel is in control – which it is. In many of the articles, the journalists question Why now? (After writing the previous sentence, I noticed that CNN actually has a link on its homepage asking “Why now?”) In other words, they question Israel’s timing and look to the different contexts for insight into what Israel might be thinking. The conclusion is plain to see: it is a recognition that Israel has a button labeled “Gaza,” and when Tel Aviv feels there is a need to do so, pushes it to elicit the desired response.

The rest of the language in the press, as mentioned, attempts to ensure proper objectivity. As a result, there is an emphasis on the rockets being fired out of Gaza by Hamas and other militant groups. This is certainly part of the story and should be covered in detail. Furthermore, the rockets being launched into southern Israel – and now beyond – are a bad idea all around: they are legally criminal, strategically senseless, and morally unjustifiable. The occupied have a right to resist and fight back, but deliberately targeting civilians is inexcusable. There are of course many negative things to say on the subject. However, the rockets are also unsurprising. Is it any wonder that among 1.7 million imprisoned people, a few have decided to throw things over the wall?

Gaza is like no place on earth, existing in a state of engineered suspended animation. Its situation is the product of Israeli design and maintenance, and backed by durable US and European support. Before we examine current events or what the occupied are doing or not doing, any serious discussion would begin with them being occupied.

GREGORY HARMS is the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (2nd ed., Pluto Press, 2008), and  Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: US Foreign Policy, Israel, and World History (Pluto Press, 2010) and It’s Not About Religion (Perceval Press).