By all accounts, the U.S. is suffering extreme economic woes. We continue to borrow trillions of dollars simply to prevent financial collapse. Our military resources are spread so thin that the establishment consensus view blames the failure of our seven-year (and counting) occupation of Afghanistan, at least in part, on the lack of necessary resources devoted to that occupation. And a significant (though not the only) reason why we are unable to extricate ourselves from the endless resource-draining and liberty-degrading involvement in Middle East conflicts is because our one-sided support for Israel ensures that we remain involved and makes ourselves the target of hatred around the world and, especially, in the Muslim world.
Despite all of that, the Bush administration, just days before it left office,entered into yet another new agreement with Israel pursuant to which the U.S. committed to use its resources to prevent guns and other weapons from entering Gaza. That agreement cites “the steadfast commitment of the United States to Israel’s security” and “and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself,” and vows that the U.S. will “address the problem of the supply of arms and related materiel and weapons transfers and shipments to Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza.”
Speaking about that new U.S./Israeli agreement on her show late last week, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (in the course of aggressively questioning an absurdly evasive Sen. Claire McCaskill on the wisdom of Obama’s plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan and noting the cadre of Bush defense officials on whom Obama is relying — video below) observed that the Obama administration has enthusiastically expressed its full support for the new Israeli agreement entered into in the last days of Bush’s presidency. Maddow said (h/t Antiwar.com):
Also, not particularly change-like, then-President Bush made a deal in his final day in office with Israel about the terms of Israel’s relationship with Gaza. I’m sorry – it wasn’t his last day in office. It was within his last few days in office — my mistake.
The U.S. under President Obama is bound by that last-minute agreement between the U.S. and Israel. And a statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs today says that President Obama supports the agreement fully.
That new agreement has already led the U.S. Navy last week to take risky and potential illegal actions in intercepting Iranian ships that were transporting arms. As The Jerusalem Post reported:
The interception of an Iranian arms ship by the US Navy in the Red Sea last week likely was conducted as a covert operation and is being played down by the US military due to the lack of a clear legal framework for such operations, an American expert on Iran told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday evening.
International media reported that an Iranian-owned merchant vessel flying a Cypriot flag was boarded early last week by US Navy personnel who discovered artillery shells on board.
The ship was initially suspected of being en route to delivering its cargo to smugglers in Sinai who would transfer the ammunition to Hamas in Gaza, but the US Navy became uncertain over the identity of the intended recipient since “Hamas is not known to use artillery,” The Associated Press cited a defense official as saying. . . .
Prof. Raymond Tanter, president of the Washington-based Iran Policy Committee, said, “It is not surprising that the US Navy is reluctant to acknowledge the operation, which may have been covert,” adding that maritime law posed challenges when it came to intercepting ships that fly the flag of a sovereign country. . . .
For the time being, the interceptions and searches are being carried out on the basis of the memorandum of understanding signed between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on January 16, which is “aimed at halting arms smuggling into Gaza as part of efforts to clinch the cease-fire,” Tanter said.
The article quoted Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, as arguing that the risk of provoking a confrontation with Iran from such interceptions is low — but not non-existent — because “Iran is not looking for an armed confrontation [with the US Navy] at this point.”
And Haaretz reports that preventing Palestinians in Gaza from re-arming itself is now — for some reason — an ongoing military operation of the United States:
A United States naval taskforce has been ordered to hunt down weapons ships sent by Iran to rearm its Islamist ally Hamas in Gaza, The Sunday Times reported.
Quoting U.S. diplomatic sources, the British daily said that Combined Task Force 151, which is countering pirates in the Gulf of Aden, has been instructed to track Iranian arms shipments.
There were several aspects of the Israeli attack on Gaza that made it even more horrifying than the standard atrocities of war: (1) the civilian population was trapped — imprisoned — in a tiny densely-populated strip and were unable to escape the brutal attacks; and (2) it was a completely one-sided war, because one side (Israel) is armed to teeth with the world’s most sophisticated and deadly weapons, while the other side (the Palestinians) is virtually defenseless, possessing only the most primitive and (against a force like the IDF) impotent weapons.
What possible justification is there for the U.S. (as opposed to Israel) to use its military and the money of its taxpayers to ensure that the Palestinians remain defenseless? In exactly the way that the U.S. felt free to invade Iraq (with its decayed, sanctions-destroyed “military”) but not North Korea or Iran (with its much more formidable forces), it’s precisely because the conflict is so one-sided that Israel feels no real pressure to cease the activities that, in part, feed this conflict (beginning with still-expanding West Bank settlements and the truly inhumane blockade of Gaza).
Obviously, where one side has its foot on the throat of the other, the side with the far more dominant position has less incentive to resolve the dispute than the side being choked. And it’s perfectly natural — not just for Israel but in general — for a party to want to maintain dominance over its adversaries and to want to prevent its enemies from obtaining weapons that can be used against it. It’s entirely rational for Israel to desire a continuation of that particular state of affairs – i.e., for only Israel, but not the enemies with whom it has intractable territorial and religious conflicts, to have a real military force.
But what does any of that have to do with the U.S. Navy and the American taxpayer? What possible justification is there for using American resources — the American military — to patrol the Red Sea in order to ensure that Gazans remain defenseless? That question is particularly pronounced given that the U.S. is already shoveling, and will continue to shovel, billions and billions of dollars to Israel in military and other aid. Why, on top of all of that, are increasingly scarce American resources, rather than Israeli resources, being used to bar Palestinians from obtaining weapons? And why — as it is more vital than ever that we extricate ourselves from Middle Eastern conflicts — are we making ourselves still more of a partisan and combatant in this most entrenched and religiously-driven territorial dispute over the West Bank and Gaza Strip?
Israel is hardly the only country which the U.S. expends vast resources — including military resources — to defend and protect, and all of those commitments ought to be seriously re-examined. But none of those other commitments entail anywhere near the costs — on every level — of our seemingly limitless willingness, eagerness, to involve ourselves so directly and self-destructively in every last conflict that Israel has. Given what we are constantly being told is the grave economic peril the U.S. faces, shouldn’t we be moving in exactly the opposite direction than the imperial expansion which we continue to pursue?
* * * * *
The day after George H.W. Bush invaded Panama in one of the most absurd (though quite lethal) military operations of the last several decades (“Operation Just Cause”), The New York Times published an article by R.W. Apple on its front page celebrating Bush for having “shown his steel,” proving he was “a man capable of bold action” who “carried a big stick.” The article proclaimed:
For George Bush, the United States invasion of Panama early this morning constituted a Presidential initiation rite as well as an attempt to achieve specific goals. . . . For better or for worse, most American leaders since World War II have felt a need to demonstrate their willingness to shed blood to protect or advance what they construe as the national interest. . . . – all of them acted in the belief that the American political culture required them to show the world promptly that they carried big sticks.
With only a week in office, Barack Obama has already fulfilled this Presidential initiation rite, as his body count — of civilians — already easily exceeds the number of days he’s been President. Last week, two Drone missile attacks struck Pakistani villages, killing numerous civilians (including children) and maybe — though maybe not — a couple of “Al Qaeda operatives.” And as Obama prepares to escalate the war in Afghanistan, a U.S. attack on Saturday killed 16 Afghan civilians (according to the Afghan government), and it was reported that more than 4,000 Afghan civilians were killed in the last year alone. And read this harrowing account of what happened in an Afghan village several weeks ago during a U.S. raid and the effect this is all having on the attitudes of Afghan civilians towards the U.S. occupation (as is typically the case, the U.S. military denies the claims of the villagers).
Despite all of that, Joe Biden yesterday told us all to expect a rise in casualties. Questions of justifiability to the side for the moment, there is almost no discussion of what possible good will be achieved by escalating the seven-year war in Afghanistan (though the New York Times did run a thorough story on some of these questions over the weekend). As part of the above-referenced MSNBC segment, Rachel Maddow highlighted all of the right questions, pointed to a number of vital parallels between our occupation of that country and the Soviet Union’s self-destructive attempt to control it, and tried — with total futility — to induce key Obama ally Sen. Claire McCaskill to address any of these questions in a meaningful way:
The tears are finally drying – the tears of the Bush years, and the tears of awe at the sight of a black President of the United States. So what now? The cliché of the day is that Barack Obama will inevitably disappoint the hopes of a watching world, but the truth is more subtle than that. If we want to see how Obama will change the world – for good or bad – we need to trace the deep structural factors that underlie US foreign policy, and tease out what he will do about them. A useful case study of these pressures is about to flicker onto our news pages for a moment – from the top of the world.
Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, and its lofty slums 4000 meters above sea level seem a world away from the high theatre of the inauguration. But if we look at this country closely, we can explain one of the great paradoxes of the United States – that it has incubated a triumphant civil rights movement at home, yet thwarted civil rights movements abroad. Bolivia shows us in stark detail the contradictions facing a black President of the American empire.
The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has a story strikingly similar to Obama’s. In 2006 he became the first indigenous President of his country – and a symbol of the potential of democracy. When the Spanish arrived in Bolivia in the sixteenth century, they enslaved the indigenous majority and worked millions to death. As recently as the 1950s, an indigenous person wasn’t even allowed to walk through the centre of La Paz, where the presidential palace and city cathedral stand. They were (and are) routinely compared to monkeys and apes.
Morales was born to a poor potato-farmer in the mountains, and grew up scavenging for discarded orange peel or banana skins to eat. Of his seven siblings, four starved to death as babies. Throughout his adult life, it was taken for granted that the country would be ruled by the white mestizo minority; the “Indians” were too “child-like” to manage a country.
Given that the US is constitutionally a democracy and its Presidents say they are committed to spreading democracy across the world, you would expect them to welcome the democratic rise of Morales. But wait. Bolivia has massive reserves of natural gas – a geo-strategic asset, and one that rakes in billions for US corporations. Here is where the complications set in.
Before Morales, the white mestizo elite was happy to allow US companies to simply take the gas and leave the Bolivian people with short change: just 18 percent of the royalties. Indeed, they handed almost the entire country to US interests, while skimming a small percentage for themselves. In 1999, an American company, Bechtel, was handed the water supply – and water rates for the poor majority doubled.
Morales ran for election against this agenda. He said that Bolivia’s resources should be used for the benefit of millions of bitterly poor Bolivians, not a tiny number of super-rich Americans. He kept his promise. Now Bolivia keeps 82 percent of the vast gas royalties – and he has used the money to increase health spending by 300 percent, and to build the country’s first pension system. He is one of the most popular leaders in the democratic world. In slums across South America, I have seen this pink tide rising through the barrios and favelas, where millions of people are seeing doctors and schools for the first time in their lives.
I suspect that a majority of the American people – who are good and decent – would be pleased and support this process if they were told about it honestly. But how did the US government (and much of the media) react? George Bush fulminated that “democracy is being eroded in Bolivia”, and a recent US ambassador to the country compared Morales to Osama Bin Laden. Why? To them, you are a democrat if you give your resources to US corporations, and you are a dictator if you give them to your own people. The will of the Bolivian people is irrelevant.
There is another layer of disagreement between Morales and US power. Bolivians have a widespread millennia-long tradition chewing coca leaves, or brewing them in tea: it’s a good way of keeping your energy up when you are doing grinding work at such a high altitude. But in the 1980s, the Reagan administration announced that this was contrary to the demands of the “war on drugs”. They trained and paid for elite white military units to forcibly “eliminate coca.” They rampaged across the Bolivian countryside destroying the crops of desperately poor people. Evo Morales – a coca farmer himself – saw them burn a peasant farmer alive, an experience he says “changed me forever.” He wants to legalize coca for private use – and he is supported by 80 percent of Bolivians.
For these reasons, the US has been moving to trash Morales. Latin America still lives in the shadow of its own 9/11: on September 11th 1973, Henry Kissinger and the CIA backed the coup that led to the violent death of the freely elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, to stop his programme of democratic socialism from proceeding
Over the past few years, the techniques have become a little less crude. By an odd quirk of fate, almost all of Bolivia’s gas supplies are in the east of the country – where the richest, whitest part of the population lives. So the US government has been funding and fueling the hard-right separatist movements that want these regions to break away. Then the mestizos would happily hand the gas to US companies like in the good ol’ days – and Morales would be left without resources. The interference became so severe that last September Morales had to expel the US Ambassador for “conspiring against democracy.” This weekend, Morales is holding a major referendum on a new constitution for the country which will entrench the rights of the indigenous people.
Enter Obama – and his paradoxes. He is obviously a person of good will and good sense, but he is operating in a system subject to many undemocratic pressures. Bolivia illustrates the tension. The rise of Morales reminds us of the America the world loves – its yes-we-can openness and civil rights movements. Yet the presence of gas and coca reminds us of the America the world hates – the desire to establish “full spectrum dominance” over the world’s resources and send troops barging into their countries, whatever the pesky natives think.
Which America will Obama embody? The answer is both – at first. Morales has welcomed him as “a brother”, and Obama has made it clear he wants a dialogue, rather than the abuse of the Bush years. Yet who is Obama’s Bolivia advisor? A lawyer called Greg Craig, who represents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada – the hard-right former President of Bolivia who imposed some of the most extreme privatizations of the 1980s, and is now wanted on charges of genocide in Bolivia for the massacres of indigenous protesters. Craig’s legal team says Morales is (yes) leading “an offensive against democracy.”
The structural pressures within the US political system that drove hostility to a democratic civil rights leader like Morales up to now have not dissolved in the cold Washington air. The US is still dependent on foreign fossil fuels to keep its lights on, the drug war bureaucracy will continue its senseless crusade, and US corporations still buy Senators from both parties. Obama will still be swayed by those factors.
But while this is a reason to be frustrated, it isn’t a reason to be cynical. Why? Because while he will be swayed by those factors, he will also subtly erode them over time. Obama has made energy independence – a massive transition away from foreign oil and gas, and towards the wind, sun and waves – the centre of his governing programme. If the US is no longer addicted to Bolivian gas, then its governments will be much less inclined to topple anybody else who wants to control it. (If they’re off oil, they’ll be much less invested in the Saudi tyranny and petro-wars in the Middle East too.)
Obama also says he wants to peel back the distorting effect of corporate money on the US political system. He is already less slathered in corporate cash than any President since the 1920s. The further he pushes it back, the more breathing-space democratic movements like Morales’ get to control their own resources. He also seems to be a less fanatical drug warrior than his predecessors, offering praise in the past for those who believe the US should concentrate on treating addicts at home rather than trying to burn and fumigate their supply from every forest or mountain on earth.
But we will see. If you want to know if Obama is really altering the tectonic forces that drive American power, keep an eye on the rooftop of the world.
Stephen Zunes, Alternet.org
Editor’s note: In the U.S., the claim that the actions of Hamas forcedIsrael to launch a massive assault on the impoverished population of Gaza is almost universally accepted. But, as scholar Stephen Zunes explains below, the picture of Hamas as an organization of wide-eyed radicalism without electoral legitimacy or the support of a significant portion of the Palestinian population is simplistic. In this important piece, Zunes examines the ways in which Israeli and American policy-makers encouraged the rise of the conservative religious group Hamas in an effort to marginalize secular and leftist elements within the Occupied Territories.
The United States bears much of the blame for the ongoing bloodshed in the Gaza Strip and nearby parts of Israel. Indeed, were it not for misguided Israeli and American policies, Hamas would not be in control of the territory in the first place.
Israel initially encouraged the rise of the Palestinian Islamist movement as a counter to the Palestine Liberation Organization, the secular coalition composed of Fatah and various leftist and other nationalist movements. Beginning in the early 1980s, with generous funding from the U.S.-backed family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia, the antecedents of Hamas began to emerge through the establishment of schools, health care clinics, social service organizations and other entities that stressed an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, which up to that point had not been very common among the Palestinian population. The hope was that if people spent more time praying in mosques, they would be less prone to enlist in left-wing nationalist movements challenging the Israeli occupation.
While supporters of the secular PLO were denied their own media or right to hold political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities allowed radical Islamic groups to hold rallies, publish uncensored newspapers and even have their own radio station. For example, in the occupied Palestinian city of Gaza in 1981, Israeli soldiers — who had shown no hesitation in brutally suppressing peaceful pro-PLO demonstrations — stood by when a group of Islamic extremists attacked and burned a PLO-affiliated health clinic in Gaza for offering family-planning services for women.
Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), was founded in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who had been freed from prison when Israel conquered the Gaza Strip 20 years earlier. Israel’s priorities in suppressing Palestinian dissent during this period were revealing: In 1988, Israel forcibly exiled Palestinian activist Mubarak Awad, a Christian pacifist who advocated the use of Gandhian-style resistance to the Israeli occupation and Israeli-Palestinian peace, while allowing Yassin to circulate anti-Jewish hate literature and publicly call for the destruction of Israel by force of arms.
American policy was not much different: Up until 1993, U.S. officials in the consular office in Jerusalem met periodically with Hamas leaders, while they were barred from meeting with anyone from the PLO, including leading moderates within the coalition. This policy continued despite the fact that the PLO had renounced terrorism and unilaterally recognized Israel as far back as 1988.
One of the early major boosts for Hamas came when the Israeli government expelled more than 400 Palestinian Muslims in late 1992. While most of the exiles were associated with Hamas-affiliated social service agencies, very few had been accused of any violent crimes. Since such expulsions are a direct contravention to international law, the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the action and called for their immediate return. The incoming Clinton administration, however, blocked the United Nations from enforcing its resolution and falsely claimed that an Israeli offer to eventually allow some of exiles back constituted a fulfillment of the U.N. mandate. The result of the Israeli and American actions was that the exiles became heroes and martyrs, and the credibility of Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinians grew enormously — and so did its political strength.=
Still, at the time of the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993, polls showed that Hamas had the support of only 15 percent of the Palestinian community. Support for Hamas grew, however, as promises of a viable Palestinian state faded as Israel continued to expand its colonization drive on the West Bank without apparent U.S. objections, doubling the amount of settlers over the next dozen years. The rule of Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat and his cronies proved to be corrupt and inept, while Hamas leaders were seen to be more honest and in keeping with the needs of ordinary Palestinians. In early 2001, Israel cut off all substantive negotiations with the Palestinians, and a devastating U.S.-backed Israeli offensive the following year destroyed much of the Palestinian Authority’s infrastructure, making prospects for peace and statehood even more remote. Israeli closures and blockades sank the Palestinian economy into a serious depression, and Hamas-run social services became all the more important for ordinary Palestinians.
Seeing how Fatah’s 1993 decision to end the armed struggle and rely on a U.S.-led peace process had resulted in increased suffering, Hamas’ popularity grew well beyond its hard-line fundamentalist base and its use of terrorism against Israel — despite being immoral, illegal and counterproductive — seemed to express the sense of anger and impotence of wide segments of the Palestinian population. Meanwhile — in a policy defended by the Bush administration and Democratic leaders in Congress — Israel’s use of death squads resulted in the deaths of Yassin and scores of other Hamas leaders, turning them into martyrs in the eyes of many Palestinians and increasing Hamas’ support still further.
Hamas Comes to Power
With the Bush administration insisting that the Palestinians stage free and fair elections after the death of Arafat in 2004, Fatah leaders hoped that coaxing Hamas into the electoral process would help weaken its more radical elements. Despite U.S. objections, the Palestinian parliamentary elections went ahead in January 2006 with Hamas’ participation. They were monitored closely by international observers and were universally recognized as free and fair. With reformist and leftist parties divided into a half-dozen competing slates, Hamas was seen by many Palestinians disgusted with the status quo as the only viable alternative to the corrupt Fatah incumbents, and with Israel refusing to engage in substantive peace negotiations with Abbas’ Fatah-led government, they figured there was little to lose in electing Hamas. In addition, factionalism within the ruling party led a number of districts to have competing Fatah candidates. As a result, even though Hamas only received 44 percent of the vote, it captured a majority of parliament and the right to select the prime minister and form a new government.
Ironically, the position of prime minister did not exist under the original constitution of the Palestinian Authority, but was added in March 2003 at the insistence of the United States, which desired a counterweight to President Arafat. As a result, while the elections allowed Abbas to remain as president, he was forced to share power with Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister.
Despite claiming support for free elections, the United States tried from the outset to undermine the Hamas government. It was largely due to U.S. pressure that Abbas refused Hamas’ initial invitation to form a national unity government that would include Fatah and from which some of the more hard-line Hamas leaders would have presumably been marginalized. The Bush administration pressured the Canadians, Europeans and others in the international community to impose stiff sanctions on the Palestine Authority, although a limited amount of aid continued to flow to government offices controlled by Abbas.
Once one of the more-prosperous regions in the Arab world, decades of Israeli occupation had resulted in the destruction of much of the indigenous Palestinian economy, making the Palestinian Authority dependent on foreign aid to provide basic functions for its people. The impact of these sanctions, therefore, was devastating. The Iranian regime rushed in to partially fulfill the void, providing millions of dollars to run basic services and giving the Islamic republic — which until then had not been allied with Hamas and had not been a major player in Palestinian politics — unprecedented leverage.
Meanwhile, record unemployment led angry and hungry young men to become easy recruits for Hamas militants. One leading Fatah official noted how, “For many people, this was the only way to make money.” Some Palestinian police, unpaid by their bankrupt government, clandestinely joined the Hamas militia as a second job, creating a dual loyalty.
The demands imposed at the insistence of the Bush administration and Congress on the Palestinian Authority in order to lift the sanctions appeared to have been designed to be rejected and were widely interpreted as a pretext for punishing the Palestinian population for voting the wrong way. For example, the United States demanded that the Hamas-led government unilaterally recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist, even though Israel has never recognized the right of the Palestinians to have a viable state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or anywhere else. Other demands included an end of attacks on civilians in Israel while not demanding that Israel likewise end its attacks on civilian areas in the Gaza Strip. They also demanded that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority accept all previously negotiated agreements, even as Israel continued to violate key components of the Wye River Agreement and other negotiated deals with the Palestinians.
While Hamas honored a unilateral cease-fire regarding suicide bombings in Israel, border clashes and rocket attacks into Israel continued. Israel, meanwhile, with the support of the Bush administration, engaged in devastating air strikes against crowded urban neighborhoods, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties. Congress also went on record defending the Israeli assaults — which were widely condemned in the international community as excessive and in violation of international humanitarian law — as legitimate acts of self-defense.
A Siege, Not a Withdrawal
The myth perpetuated by both the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties was that Israel’s 2005 dismantling of its illegal settlements in the Gaza Strip and the withdrawal of military units that supported them constituted effective freedom for the Palestinians of the territory. American political leaders from President George W. Bush to House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have repeatedly praised Israel for its belated compliance with a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for its withdrawal of these illegal settlements (despite Israel’s ongoing violations of these same resolutions by maintaining and expanding illegal settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights).
In reality, however, the Gaza Strip has remained effectively under siege. Even prior to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the Israeli government not only severely restricted — as is its right — entry from the Gaza Strip into Israel, but also controlled passage through the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, as well. Israel also refused to allow the Palestinians to open their airport or seaport. This not only led to periodic shortages of basic necessities imported through Egypt, but resulted in the widespread wasting of perishable exports — such as fruits, vegetables and cut flowers — vital to the territory’s economy. Furthermore, Gaza residents were cut off from family members and compatriots in the West Bank and elsewhere in what many have referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison.
In retaliation, Hamas and allied militias began launching rocket attacks into civilian areas of Israel. Israel responded by bombing, shelling and periodic incursions in civilian areas in the Gaza Strip, which, by the time of the 2006 cease-fire, had killed over 200 civilians, including scores of children. Bush administration officials, echoed by congressional leaders of both parties, justifiably condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas-allied units into civilian areas of Israel (which at that time had resulted in scores of injuries but only one death), but defended Israel’s far more devastating attacks against civilian targets in the Gaza Strip. This created a reaction that strengthened Hamas’ support in the territory even more.
The Gaza Strip’s population consists primarily of refugees from Israel’s ethnic cleansing of most of Palestine almost 60 years ago and their descendents, most of whom have had no gainful employment since Israel sealed the border from most day laborers in the late 1980s. Crowded into only 140 square miles and subjected to extreme violence and poverty, it is not surprising that many would become susceptible to extremist politics, such as those of the Islamist Hamas movement. Nor is it surprising that under such conditions, people with guns would turn on each other.
Undermining the Unity Government
When factional fighting between armed Fatah and Hamas groups broke out in early 2007, Saudi officials negotiated a power-sharing agreement between the two leading Palestinian political movements. U.S. officials, however, unsuccessfully encouraged Abbas to renounce the agreement and dismiss the entire government. Indeed, ever since the election of a Hamas parliamentary majority, the Bush administration began pressuring Fatah to stage a coup and abolish parliament.
The national unity government put key ministries in the hands of Fatah members and independent technocrats and removed some of the more hard-line Hamas leaders and, while falling well short of Western demands, Hamas did indicate an unprecedented willingness to engage with Israel, accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and negotiate a long-term cease-fire with Israel. For the first time, this could have allowed Israel and the United States the opportunity to bring into peace talks a national unity government representing virtually all the factions and parties active in Palestinian politics on the basis of the Arab League peace initiative for a two-state solution and U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. However, both the Israeli and American governments refused.
Instead, the Bush administration decided to escalate the conflict by ordering Israel to ship large quantities or weapons to armed Fatah groups to enable them to fight Hamas and stage a coup. Israeli military leaders initially resisted the idea, fearing that much of these arms would end up in the hands of Hamas, but — as Israeli journalist Uri Avnery put it – “our government obeyed American orders, as usual.” That Fatah was being supplied with weapons from Israel while Hamas was fighting the Israelis led many Palestinians — even those who don’t share Hamas’ extremist ideology — to see Fatah as collaborators and Hamas as liberation fighters. This was a major factor leading Hamas to launch what it saw as a preventive war or a countercoup by overrunning the offices of the Fatah militias in June 2007 and, just as the Israelis feared, many of these newly supplied weapons have indeed ended up in the hands of Hamas militants. Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip ever since.
The United States also threw its support to Mohammed Dahlan, the notorious Fatah security chief in Gaza, who — despite being labeled by American officials as “moderate” and “pragmatic” — oversaw the detention, torture and execution of Hamas activists and others, leading to widespread popular outrage against Fatah and its supporters.
Alvaro de Soto, former U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, stated in his confidential final report leaked to the press a few weeks before the Hamas takeover that “the Americans clearly encouraged a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas” and “worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry.” De Soto also recalled how in the midst of Egyptian efforts to arrange a cease-fire following a flare-up in factional fighting earlier this year, a U.S. official told him that “I like this violence … it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”
Weakening Palestinian Moderates
For moderate forces to overcome extremist forces, the moderates must be able to provide their population with what they most need: in this case, the end of Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip and its occupation and colonizing of the remaining Palestinian territories. However, Israeli policies — backed by the Bush administration and Congress — seem calculated to make this impossible. The noted Israeli policy analyst Gershon Baskin observed, in an article in theJerusalem Post just prior to Hamas’ electoral victory, how “Israel ‘s unilateralism and determination not to negotiate and engage President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority has strengthened the claims of Hamas and weakened Abbas and his authority, which was already severely crippled by … Israeli actions that demolished the infrastructures of Palestinian Authority governing bodies and institutions.”
Bush and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress have also thrown their support to the Israeli government’s unilateral disengagement policy that, while withdrawing Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, has expanded them in the occupied West Bank as part of an effort to illegally annex large swaths of Palestinian territory. In addition, neither Congress nor the Bush administration has pushed the Israelis to engage in serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which have been suspended for over six years, despite calls by Abbas and the international community that they resume. Given that Fatah’s emphasis on negotiations has failed to stop Israel’s occupation and colonization of large parts of the West Bank, it’s not surprising that Hamas’ claim that the U.S.-managed peace process is working against Palestinian interests has resonance, even among Palestinians who recognize that terrorism by Hamas’ armed wing is both morally reprehensible and has hurt the nationalist cause.
Following Hamas’ armed takeover of Gaza, the highly respected Israeli journalist Roni Shaked, writing in the June 15 issue of Yediot Ahronoth, noted that “The U.S. and Israel had a decisive contribution to this failure.” Despite claims by Israel and the United States that they wanted to strengthen Abbas, “in practice, zero was done for this to happen. The meetings with him turned into an Israeli political tool, and Olmert’s kisses and backslapping turned Abbas into a collaborator and a source of jokes on the Palestinian street.”
De Soto’s report to the U.N. Secretary-General, in which he referred to Hamas’ stance toward Israel as “abominable,” also noted that “Israeli policies seemed perversely designed to encourage the continued action by Palestinian militants.” Regarding the U.S.-instigated international sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, the former Peruvian diplomat also observed that “the steps taken by the international community with the presumed purpose of bringing about a Palestinian entity that will live in peace with its neighbor Israel have had precisely the opposite effect.”
Some Israeli commentators saw this strategy as deliberate. Avnery noted, “Our government has worked for year to destroy Fatah, in order to avoid the need to negotiate an agreement that would inevitably lead to the withdrawal form the occupied territories and the settlements there.” Similarly, M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Center observed, “the fact is that Israeli (and American) right-wingers are rooting for the Palestinian extremists” since “supplanting … Fatah with Islamic fundamentalists would prevent a situation under which Israel would be forced to negotiate with moderates.” The problem, Avnery wrote at that time, is that “now, when it seems that this aim has been achieved, they have no idea what to do about the Hamas victory.”
Since then, the Israeli strategy has been to increase the blockade on the Gaza Strip, regardless of the disastrous humanitarian consequences, and more recently to launch devastating attacks that have killed hundreds of people, as many as one-quarter of whom have been civilians. The Bush administration and leaders of both parties in Congress have defended Israeli policies on the grounds that the extremist Hamas governs the territory.
Yet no one seems willing to acknowledge the role the United States had in making it possible for Hamas to come to power in Gaza in the first place.
Note from Allison: The following post is from Glenn Greenwald. Keep in mind that the United States currently sends about $3 billion dollars annually to Israel for military aid. The United States has also pledged about $9 billion in loan guarantees to Israel to help reverse their “economic slump.” So think of this less as an Israeli-Arab conflict, and more an American-Israeli-Arab conflict. In the Middle East, an attack by Israel is largely seen as an attack by America, since the United States government funds most of Israel’s military.
George Washington’s warnings and U.S. policy towards Israel
A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll of 18 countries finds that in 14 of them people mostly say their government should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just three countries favor taking the Palestinian side (Egypt, Iran, and Turkey) and one is divided (India). No country favors taking Israel’s side, including the United States, where 71 percent favor taking neither side.
Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle rallied to Israel’s cause Monday as it pressed forward with large-scale air attacks against Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip. . . .
“I strongly support Israel’s right to defend its citizens against rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza, which have killed and injured Israeli citizens, and to restore security to its residents,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev. . . .
His view was echoed by leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Israel has a right, indeed a duty, to defend itself in response to the hundreds of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza over the past week,” Howard L. Berman , D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House committee, also expressed support for the Israeli offensive. . . .
The White House on Monday also took Israel’s side in the fighting, demanding that Hamas halt its rocket fire into Israel and agree to a last ceasefire.
There sure is a lot of agreeing going on — one might describe it as “absolute.” The degree of mandated orthodoxy on the Israel question among America’s political elites is so great that if one took the statements on Gaza from George Bush, Pelosi, Hoyer, Berman, Ros-Lehtinen, and randomly chosen Bill Kristol-acolytes and redacted their names, it would be impossible to know which statements came from whom. They’re all identical: what Israel does is absolutely right. The U.S. must fully and unconditionally support Israel. Israel does not merit an iota of criticism for what it is doing. It bears none of the blame for this conflict. No questioning even of the wisdom of its decisions — let alone the justifiability — is uttered. No deviation from that script takes place.
By itself, the degree of full-fledged, absolute agreement — down to the syllable — among America’s political leaders is striking, even when one acknowledges the constant convergence between the leadership of both parties. But it becomes even more striking in light of the bizarre fact that the consensus view — that America must unquestioningly stand on Israel’s side and support it, not just in this conflict but in all of Israel’s various wars — is a view which 7 out of 10 Americans reject. Conversely, the view which 70% of Americans embrace — that the U.S. should be neutral and even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally — is one that no mainstream politician would dare express.
In a democracy, one could expect that politicians would be afraid to express a view that 70% of the citizens oppose. Yet here we have the exact opposite situation: no mainstream politician would dare express the view that 70% of Americans support; instead, the universal piety is the one that only a small minority accept. Isn’t that fairly compelling evidence of the complete disconnect between our political elites and the people they purportedly represent?
There is, of course, other evidence for that proposition: the fact that overwhelming majorities of Americans have long wanted to withdraw from Iraq was completely dismissed and ignored by our bipartisan political class, which continued to fund the war indefinitely and with no conditions. But at least there, Democratic leaders paid lip service to the idea that they agreed with that position and some Democrats went beyond rhetoric and actually tried to stop or at least limit the war. But in the case of Israel, not even that symbolic nod to American public opinion occurs among the political leadership.
The other striking aspect of this lockstep American consensus is that the Gaza situation is very complex, and a wide range of opinions fall within the realm of what is reasonable. Even many who believe that Israel’s attack is morally and legally justifiable as a response to Hamas rockets and who generally side with Israel – such as J Street – nonetheless oppose this attack on strictly pragmatic grounds: that it won’t achieve anything positive, that it will exacerbate the problem, that it makes less likely a diplomatic resolution, that there is no military solution to the rocket attacks. Others condemn Hamas rocket attacks but also condemn the devastating Israeli blockade and expanding settlements. Others still who may be supportive of Israel’s right to attack at least express horror over the level of Palestinian suffering and urge greater restraint.
Anyone minimally objective and well-intentioned finds Hamas rocket attacks on random Israeli civilians to be highly objectionable and wrong, but even among those who do, one finds a wide range of views regarding the Israeli offensive. But not among America’s political leadership. There, one finds total, lockstep uniformity almost more unyielding than what one finds among Israeli leaders themselves — as though Israel’s wars are, by definition, America’s wars; its enemies are our enemies; its disputes and conflicts and interests are, inherently, ours; and America’s only duty when Israel fights is to support it uncritically.
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All of that underscores one vital point I want to emphasize with regard to the commentary I’ve written on Israel and Gaza the last couple of days. Yesterday, George Mason Law Professor David Bernstein wrote another thoroughly childish response to something I wrote, and it merits very little attention [he continues to insist that I let him pay for me to vacation in Sderot so that I will see the light on the justifiability of Israel's assault on Gaza, which is exactly the same type of "argument" as if I offered to sponsor an online fundraiser to pay for him and his family tomorrow to travel to and vacation in Gaza City so he can blog from there about how restrained and justified and necessary the Israeli strikes and blockade are, which -- one would have thought (wrongly) -- anyone above the age of 12 would recognize as a juvenile and emotionally manipulative means of argumentation].
Bernstein’s mentality is echoed by The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, who defends Israel’s actions by approvingly quoting Barack Obama’s statement that “If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” But that mindset justifies any and all actions by any group with a legitimate grievance, as in: “if my family and I were forced to live under a 4-decade foreign occupation and had our land blockaded and were not allowed to exit and my children couldn’t access basic nutrition or medical treatment, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Palestinians to do the same thing.” That happens also to be the same mentality that was used to justify the 9/11 attacks (“if my family and I were forced to live in a region in which a foreign superpower dominated our politics and propped up brutal dictators for its own ends, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Muslims to do the same thing”).
But — just like those who insist that American Torture is different because American leaders use it for noble ends – this is nothing more elevated than an adolescent refusal to view the world through any prism other than complete self-centeredness, where one’s own side merits infinite empathy and the “other side” merits none. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — like most intractable, bloody, hate-driven, decades-long wars — there is endless blame to go around to countless parties. Commentary which fails to recognize that, or, worse, which insists it’s not true, is almost certainly the by-product of this blind self-regard.
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The real point here is that none of these intractable disputes between Israel and its various neighbors should be a focal point of American policy at all. Yet the above-documented orthodoxy has ensured that it is. And — at least in the U.S. – that is the real issue, the reason why the Israeli attack merits so much discussion in the U.S. even among those who would just as soon refrain from having any involvement. In his reply yesterday, Bernstein wrote:
I find it rather amusing that Greenwald refers to me as an “Israel-obsessive.” I blog a fair amount about Israel, not least because I’m there twice a year and my wife is Israeli. Greenwald, meanwhile, blogs far more about Israel, without similar ties. What does that make him?
Bernstein obviously has absolutely no idea what “ties” to Israel I do or don’t have; he simply fabricated that claim. But (other than for those interested in Bernstein’s honesty — and I’m not one of them), that point is entirely irrelevant. The reason Americans need to be interested in what Israel does is obvious, and it has nothing to do with one’s “ties” to that country.
As I wrote on Saturday regarding Israel’s varied wars, walls and blockades: ”since we fund a huge bulk of it and supply the weapons used for much of it and use our veto power at the U.N. to enable all of it, we are connected to it — intimately — and bear responsibility for all of Israel’s various wars, including the current overwhelming assault on Gaza, as much as Israelis themselves.” With our bipartisan policy of blind and absolute support for Israel — not just rhetorical but military and material as well — our political leadership has inextricably (and foolishly) tied American interests to Israel’s interests.
Matt Yglesias made a similar point yesterday:
Jonathan Zasloff offers the futility argument with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
All those who insist that the United States should “solve” the problem should explain how. And if they can’t do that, then maybe they should take some quiet time.
I think that would be an appealing solution to a lot of people who have no real desire to try to sit in delicate judgment weighing the moral balance between a Hamas movement that seems indifferent to human life, and an Israeli government that’s lashing out brutally as part of a domestic political drama. But as long as Israel is by far the largest recipient of US foreign assistance funds and by an even larger margin the largest per capita recipient of US foreign assistance funds, then I don’t see how “quiet time” is a realistic option.
Americans shouldn’t be in the position of endlessly debating Israel’s security situation and its endless religious and territorial conflicts with its neighbors. That should be for Israeli citizens to do, not for Americans. But that distinction — between the U.S. and Israel — barely exists because our political leaders have all but eliminated it, and have thus imposed on U.S. citizens responsibility for the acts of Israel.
In doing so, they have systematically ignored the unbelievably prescient warnings issued by George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address, and have thereby provoked exactly the dangers he decried:
Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? . . . . .
In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essentialthan that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.
It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. . . .
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.
It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
Uncritical support for someone’s destructive behavior isn’t “friendship”; it is, as Washington said, slavishness, and it does no good either for the party lending the blind support nor the party receiving it. It’s hard to overstate the good that would be achieved if the U.S. simply adhered to those basic and self-evidently compelling principles of George Washington, who actually knew a thing or two about the perils of war.
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If someone asked me to recommend just one must-read article on the Israeli-Gaza conflict, I would select this column from yesterday in The Guardian by Israeli-American journalist Nir Rosen. I disagree with several of his points, particularly some of the specific ones about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his generalized explanation about how the concept of “terrorism” is distorted and exploited by stronger countries can’t be emphasized enough.
UPDATE: To underscore the point: during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, the Bush administration purposely expedited shipments of bombs to Israel to enable Israel to drop those bombs on Lebanon. We fed Israel the bombs they used on the Lebanese. A similar American action seems to have occurred with regard to the bombs that the Israelis are now dropping on Gaza.