Watching the escalation in Israel/Palestine and the preparations for a possible all-out assault on the Gaza Strip, one hears many insightful and original commentary. Alas, when it’s original it’s usually inaccurate, and when it’s right it’s hardly new. Netanyahu, like his predecessors, is using the assassination of Hamas’s leader Ahmad Jabari and subsequent escalation to undermine the Palestinian leadership’s (Hamas and Fatah’s) political standing and improve his own political chances, by underlining Israel’s national security over economic security as the core issue preoccupying the nation, ahead of the elections. To make the point, here’s a piece I published six years ago titled, “Mideast: End the cycle of retaliation“, with minor changes of dates, names etc. As they continue to repeat themselves tirelessly and recycle the same claims, I shall repeat my analysis.
When the dust finally settles, Israel’s offensive against the besieged Palestinian territories will have caused more destruction and death and left the Israeli government with the same strategic deadlock. Instead of lashing out against their neighbours, Israelis must end the vicious cycle of provocations and retaliations through meaningful negotiations.
The Israeli government of Prime Minister (Ehud Olmert) Binyamin Netanyahu bases its campaign against Palestinian civilian infrastructure on three fallacies: That Israel does not initiate but retaliates to protect its citizens, in this case a kidnapped soldier; that its response is measured and not meant to harm the broader population; and that it does not negotiate with those it deems terrorists.
For one, Israel’s offensive did not just start this week. The two-month-old Israeli government is responsible for the killing of 85 tens of Palestinians, including many children, in attacks aimed at carrying out illegal extrajudicial assassinations. The Hamas government maintained a one-sided cease-fire for 15 months, but continued Israeli attacks made Palestinian retaliation only a question of time.
Since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, repeated Israeli bombardments and targeted assassinations against Palestinians have aggravated the violence and resulted in harm to more, not fewer, Israelis. In fact, most major Palestinian suicide bombings since 2001 have come in retaliation to Israeli assassinations, many of which occurred when the Palestinians were mulling over or abiding by self-imposed restraint.
To give only three examples: On July 31, 2001, Israel’s assassination of the two leading Hamas militants in Nablus ended a nearly two-month Hamas cease-fire, leading to the terrible August 9 Hamas suicide bombing in a Jerusalem pizzeria. On July 23, 2002, an Israeli air attack on a crowded apartment block in Gaza City killed a senior Hamas leader, Salah Shehada, and 15 civilians, 11 of them children, hours before a widely reported unilateral cease-fire declaration. A suicide bombing followed on August 4. On June 10, 2003, Israel’s attempted assassination of the senior Hamas political leader in Gaza, Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, which wounded him and killed four Palestinian civilians, led to the bus bombing in Jerusalem on June 11 that killed 16 Israelis.
Although Israel’s provocations don’t justify suicide bombings, they demonstrate why the source of terrorism lies first and foremost in its military aggression and occupation. In this context, affected Palestinian civilians see themselves not as “collateral damage” but as victims of state terrorism.
As for the nature of Israel’s “retaliation”, one could hardly refer to Israel’s destruction of the civic infrastructure of 1.3 million Palestinians as “measured”. The Israeli Army began this week’s its past Gaza offensives by bombing bridges, roads, electric and water supplies.
By its very nature the Israeli offensive is meant to punish, overwhelm and deter with disproportionate force regardless of the suffering of the general public. Cutting off basic services of a people is not only unjustified, it is collective punishment, which is illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
The asymmetry between Israeli and Palestinian firepower mustn’t be translated into asymmetry between the value of Israeli and Palestinian life. Alas, the world was alarmed when the Palestinians have captured one Israeli soldier, but Israel holds 9,000 thousands of Palestinian prisoners.
Regarding Israel’s purported refusal to bargain with “terrorists”, its dealings with Hezbollah paint a different picture. Among others, its bombardment of Beirut’s electric generators and its all out offensive in 1996 leading to the Qana massacre, failed to deter the Lebanese resistance and eventually forced Israel to negotiate through a third party with those it deemed Islamist terrorists, and released hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners from its jails in exchange for the remains of dead Israeli soldiers. The same was repeated over the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Given that 39 45 years of attempts by Israel to tame or intimidate the Palestinians have instead led to their radicalisation, isn’t it time for Israel to change course? In such a minuscule territory, Israelis will never be secure if the Palestinians are utterly insecure.
The ongoing saga has once again demonstrated the absurdity of unilateralism as a viable and secure solution. Then Prime Minister Olmert used the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier to undermine the historical agreement Hamas has just reached with President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party over a unity government, de facto recognition of Israel and negotiations with Israel.
Whether you like it or not, Hamas, like Hezbollah, is mostly a byproduct of an oppressive occupation, and not the other way round. That’s why refraining from excessive use of force and concentrating all efforts on a negotiated end to the occupation is paramount for security and moderation. Otherwise, Israel will only succeed in increasing Hamas’s popularity and pushing it back to clandestinity and war.
Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and the author of The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.
Follow him on Twitter: @marwanbishara