Gaza: The endless cycle of trauma

Middle East analyst Sandy Tolan explains how history is repeating itself.


    Some Palestinians still hold keys to the homes they left during the 'nakba' [GALLO/GETTY]

    The Israeli bombs and rockets streaking through the skies of Gaza trace not only a path of death and terror for Palestinians in 2009, they also outline the smoke trails of traumas past, from the Nakba, or 'catastrophe,' in 1948 to the 1967 war; from the Lebanon invasions, to the 2002 assault on Jenin. All are echoes of today's calamity of US-made missiles and mortars raining down on Gazans.

    Watching history repeat itself is, of course, most horrifying for the people through whose roofs the missiles are falling, whose children are dying. For the outsider, peering in from a safe perch, it is merely surreal.

    We look on as Israel replays the tape-loop of its brutal and tragic follies. Israel has shown again and again that, rather than vanquishing its enemies, it makes new ones while strengthening old ones.

    Many commentators have invoked 2006 and Israel's invasion of Lebanon, when, in trying to destroy Hezbollah, it made it stronger. But this is only a relatively recent example.

    'My enemy's enemy'

    Consider early 1988, near the beginning of the First Intifada, when Israel, trying to weaken Yasser Arafat, the late PLO leader, invoked the ill-fated strategy known as "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."


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    In trying to marginalise the exiled Arafat and his Tunis cadre, Israel helped seed the growth of a fledgling Hamas in Gaza. 

    Or recall March 1968, when Israeli infantry, tanks, paratroopers, and armoured brigades - 15,000 soldiers in all - moved east across the Jordan River to attack the village of Karama. Though, technically, the Israelis won a military victory, they encountered far stiffer resistance than expected, losing 28 soldiers.

    At the centre of the heroic Palestinian battle of Karama was the man who would emerge strongest from the fight: Yasser Arafat. The biggest loser was the pro-Western "moderate," King Hussein of Jordan, who in the wake of the battle was forced to declare, no doubt to the alarm of Israel, "we are all fedayeen now."

    Or, we can revisit the pre-dawn of November 13, 1966, when Israeli planes, tanks and troops attacked the West Bank village of Samu, blowing up dozens of houses and killing 21 Jordanian soldiers.

    The attack deepened anger on the 'Arab Street' against Israel and its Western benefactors, and badly weakened King Hussein, who imposed martial law. "The monarchy itself is in jeopardy," American officials in Amman cabled Washington.

    Largely as a result of the attack, the Jordanian king was forced into a pan-Arab alliance with his arch-rival, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president. The 11th-hour pact helped seal the fate of the 1967 war, and the 41-year occupation whose echoes can be heard in the exploding shells of Gaza.

    US response

    Yet it is worth considering the American response to Israel's Samu raid for the lessons it contains for US policymakers today. For although the US sided with Israel, many American officials were working hard behind the scenes to prevent war, and US officials, unlike those of the outgoing and incoming American administrations today, were furious at Israel. 

    The "3000-man raid with tanks and planes was all out of proportion to the provocation," wrote Walt Rostow, the national security adviser, in a memo to Lyndon Johnson, the then-US president. 

    "They've undercut Hussein… It makes even the moderate Arabs feel fatalistically that there is nothing they can do to get along with the Israelis no matter how hard they try."

    When Levi Eshkol, the Israeli prime minister, wrote to Johnson for American support "in this difficult hour for us," the president ignored him, instead writing a note of sympathy to King Hussein, expressing his "sense of sorrow and concern … words of sympathy are small comfort when lives have been needlessly destroyed".

    Then, in words scarcely imaginable for a US president today, Johnson added: "My disapproval of this action has been made known to the government of Israel in the strongest terms."

    In the end, of course, the US, distracted by Vietnam and in a Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, backed Israel in the Six Day War, giving it a tacit green light for the surprise attack on Egypt in June 1967. (When Meir Amit, the then-head of the Israeli intelligency agency Mossad, visited Robert McNamara in the Pentagon, he told the inquiring defence secretary that the war would take "seven days".) 

    Lessons for Obama

    Yet US officials, before acquiescing to Israel in the final days before war, actually fought to prevent it, and it is there, in that lost moment, that the lessons lie for Barack Obama, the incoming US president.

    Similar to (but far worse than) the Samu raid of 1966, Israel now wages a war whose destruction is "all out of proportion to the provocation."

    Like the days leading up to the Six Day War, hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets, with mass protests in Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Doha, Paris, Athens, Istanbul, Sydney and other international capitals.

    US President-elect Barack Obama's election campaign promised change [AFP]
    These genuine expressions of fury, combined with wide-ranging condemnations from international leaders, and increasing outrage from a vocal minority of Israelis, do not bode well for the US or Israeli governments. 

    Unlike 42 years ago, however, no US president, incoming or outgoing, is willing to criticise Israel.

    Obama's tepid comment - "the loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel is a source of deep concern" - does not qualify.

    Worse, his statement in Sderot last July - "If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that" - has been used as another green light by Israeli military politicians whose prime ministerial ambitions are a key factor underlying the assault on Gaza.

    Hillary Clinton's declaration, during her senate confirmation hearings on Tuesday, January 13, 2008, that "the president-elect and I understand and are deeply sympathetic to Israel's desire to defend itself under the current conditions," hardly points to a visionary change in US policy. 

    Yet if Obama wishes to preserve the truest hopes inherent in his election - that his presidency would stand for real change; that his internationalist view of the world would translate into wisdom and compassion for people other than the most powerful - he must be willing to transform US dealings in a region where the phrase "honest broker" has become a parlour joke. 

    For the US to restore its credibility, Obama must send clear signals that Israeli impunity cannot continue. He needs to speak hard truths to an old friend, pointing out the Jewish state's history of making its enemies stronger.

    Strengthening Hamas

    And this, beyond the needless deaths, may be the ultimate result of the current war on Gaza.  Israel, despite its stated goal of stopping Hamas' rocket attacks, has simply not done so. Despite the latest wave of assassination by bombing, Israel's attempts to destroy Hamas seem to be going the route of Lebanon, 2006.

    Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, has said Israel has increased resistance
    "What is the strategic purpose behind the present fighting?" asks the normally staid Anthony Cordesman in a commentary for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

    "Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve? … It is also far from clear that the tactical gains are worth the political and strategic cost to Israel. At least to date, the reporting from within Gaza indicates that each new Israeli air strike or advance on the ground has increased popular support for Hamas and anger against Israel in Gaza. The same is true in the West Bank and the Islamic world."

    Or, as Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader, declared to Israel last weekend, "you have created resistance in every household".

    Thus the horrible chapter called "Gaza 2009" fits snugly into Israel's book of outsized assaults on Palestinian civilians. It seems it will ever be so, until a US president steps forward with the guts and vision to change the game. 

    Sandy Tolan is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, and author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.

    The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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