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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lost no time in exploiting Hamas’ capture of an Israeli soldier to justify Israel’s long-planned re-occupation of the Gaza Strip and mass arrest of the Hamas leadership. In his haste, he has inadvertently achieved a rare thing. He has managed to reduce the absurdity of Israel’s position to a known ratio: 9000 to 1.
Nine thousand captured Palestinians languish in Israel’s notorious “security prisons”, including 380 children and 115 women. Every day Israeli troops and Border Police kidnap, interrogate, torture and imprison Palestinians, often by the dozen. The arrest raids never stop, regardless of summits, truces, or cease-fires. It is estimated that 650,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned by Israel since the current occupation began in 1967.
Arrest and incarceration is such a common experience that it has become a virtual rite of passage for Palestinian boys; men go to prison. In the past year we’ve read several reports of pre-teen boys, some as young as 8, approaching Israeli soldiers and asking, even begging, to be arrested.
But God forbid that even one of Israel’s tender teen warriors should be captured in battle, as young Gilat Shalit was. That would be going too far. That would justify blowing up key bridges and destroying the electricity source of two-thirds of the Gaza Strip. Columns of invading tanks and scores of US-supplied jet fighters and combat helicopters would be required to hunt for the missing soldier, and attack the Palestinian Interior Ministry. From top to bottom, little Gaza would be subjected to yet another round of fierce shelling from land, air, and sea. All in a day’s hunt.
After years of bargaining with Hizbullah “terrorists” over prisoners captured during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, Israelis know that this hysteria over a single soldier is only a ruse. But that doesn’t stop them from falling for it all over again, and Olmert appears to have public support for his new version of total war on the Gaza Strip, cynically code named ‘Operation Summer Rain’. The score is 9000 to 1 and the Israelis are outraged. It should be 9000 to 0.
Accelerating Humanitarian Catastrophe
The western world seemed surprised by the scale and severity of Israel’s collective punishment. As if it could join the war on Hamas by destroying Palestine’s economy and not also encourage lawless Israel to destroy Hamas by any means necessary.
European and UN diplomats have expressed concern that the economic siege is succeeding too quickly. The fundamentals of social order and sheer survival in the occupied territories are collapsing sooner than anticipated, while the band-aid of humanitarian aid promised by the Quartet remains on the drawing board, largely due to persistent US obstruction.
In 2003, international aid agencies compared the economy of the occupied Gaza Strip to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Malnutrition was endemic, poverty rates were over 50 percent, and unemployment was chronically high.
It is far worse today. Prior to this week’s operation, Gaza faced a “humanitarian catastrophe” according to the UN and others. The international economic embargo has compounded the damage already inflicted by Israel’s repeated closures of Gaza’s borders, which have been shut more than they’ve been open this year. Most of an entire harvest has rotted while awaiting shipment. For several months Gaza has been living a hand-to-mouth existence. More than once the Strip has run out of critical staples like flour, sugar, and salt.
Now more than 800,000 people have no electricity. The Israeli attack on the central substation’s transformer was precisely devastating-repairs are expected to take several months. For most, no power means no water.
Perhaps Israel disagreed with its European allies. Perhaps it decided the Palestinians weren’t starving fast enough, so thirst, disease, and heat prostration had to be added to “the mix” of tactics to “persuade” the Palestinian people to abandon the government they elected.
The citizens of Gaza now have no access to the outside world, very little food and water, no fuel, and little or no electricity, refrigeration, and air conditioning in the middle of a brutally hot summer. The Israeli army is back in force, a third of the bankrupt Palestinian Legislative Council is in Israeli jails, and the unpaid and unsupplied health care system has essentially collapsed.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of this expanding nightmare, has assured us that he is a “man who seeks peace…I do not look forward to battle.” When this Moroccan-born labor leader and Peace Now member took the helm of Israel’s Labor Party last year, he was greeted with a blizzard of liberal hosannas hailing a political “earthquake”, the return of Israel’s peace movement, and other wonders.
As if Israel’s aspiring politicians hadn’t always climbed to the top on the backs of dead Palestinians. Now the peaceful Mr. Peretz is indictable for war crimes perpetrated in the planning and conduct of Operation Summer Rain. He is on his way.
Dangers of the Peace Process
In its latest step up the escalator of compound violence, Israel has deployed a new blunt instrument to ensure that “there is no partner for peace”. Now, if it decides it doesn’t like a Palestinian diplomat, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar for example, it can simply imprison him on terrorism charges. And if it doesn’t like the results of a free and fair Palestinian election, it can simply kidnap the elected government. This week, more than 60 Hamas party members of the Palestinian government have been arrested, including the heads of several ministries.
One challenge in following and predicting the path of Israel’s foreign policy is that one can never be sure whether the next move will be a diplomatic proposal or an assassination.
The murders of Swedish diplomat Count Bernadotte in 1948 and Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin in 2004 (and probably Yasser Arafat, as well) bookend more than five decades of chronically violent diplomatic relations, in which the assassination of difficult leaders has always been an option.
It was recently revealed that in 1953, future Prime Minister Menachem Begin directed a failed plot to assassinate West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, simply to stop a reparations agreement the Chancellor was negotiating with the Israeli government.
True to form, Israel has now delivered a letter to PA President Mahmoud Abbas in which it threatens to assassinate Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh if Gilat Shalit is not released unharmed.
So now it’s a soldier for a prime minister. Any equation can be made, as long as it is wildly disproportionate and morally untenable. The point is always the same: the life of a Palestinian is barely worth consideration in comparison to the life of a Jew. Their value belongs to a different order of magnitude. A number of Israeli rabbis question the very humanity of Palestinians. While attempting to apologize for the recent deaths of 14 Palestinian civilians by Israeli shelling, Mr. Olmert reportedly asserted that “threatened” Israeli lives are “even more important”.
How can Israel deliberately destroy the economy and critical infrastructure of a starving people, arrest their government, and threaten to assassinate their leader, while the “international community” does nothing?
The US government’s determination to join Israel in destroying the Palestinians is obvious. Perhaps the EU’s obsession with gathering Israel into its future Mediterranean empire has shriveled its moral obligation to the Palestinians down to spare change and servings of Javier Solana’s hypocrisy.
Or maybe today’s moral paralysis is the cumulative effect of doing nothing to stop Israel’s crimes for the past fifty-eight years. Perhaps moral cowardice grows with repetition, until war crimes become an ‘understandable and measured response’ and fascism is welcome at the front door. Whatever the causes, the trend seems clear: International law is dying with the Palestinians.